Health 520

Nancy L. Conyers

“This is what I’ll miss the most when we have to leave China,” Lisa said to Sheila as they climbed the long cold concrete stairway of Health 520, the massage parlor they’d been going to in Shanghai for over a year now. Midway up, they saw green stocking-ed legs in black high heels and the hems of green skirts. It was Pei Pei and Angel who always waited for them at the top of the stairs. Every Sunday the women made this trek to 520 to prepare for the coming week. In the US, they could never afford the luxury of weekly massages. In China it was so easy to get stressed, and massages were so cheap, they felt they couldn’t afford not to make this weekly pilgrimage.

“Welcome, welcome!” the voices from the green skirts yelled out in unison when they saw the tops of the women’s heads. Pei Pei put her arm through Lisa’s, Angel through Sheila’s and they giggled and talked and patted the women’s forearms as they escorted them back to their assigned room.

They walked down the unheated, dimly lit hallway, past room after room and when they finally got to their assigned room Pei Pei tried to shove Lisa in, and she and Angel erupted into a fit of giggles. They’d prepared the room for the women—it was early December, so they’d turned the heat on inside and put blankets out on the reclining massage chairs. Sheila and Lisa lay down in the chairs, face up, and Pei Pei and Angel covered them with the blankets.

“Wait a small moment,” Angel said, and she and Pei Pei ran out to get the boys who would massage the women’s feet. The boys, #1 and #3 came in a few minutes later with thick wooden buckets of hot water for Lisa and Sheila to soak their tired feet in.

Shortly afterward Pei Pei and Angel came back with plastic tubs of hot towels.

One by one they took the towels out of the tubs, unfolded and then twirled them around on their index fingers, like bakers spinning pizza dough. The first towel went around the back of the women’s necks, and then the girls got them up into sitting positions with both hands, first pulling from the left side, then from the right. Pei Pei and Angel were both tiny, no more than 40 kilos each. “How can they be so strong,” Sheila murmured each time.

The tension in their necks and spines slowly started to release, vertebrae by vertebrae. The next towel was wrapped around their faces, mummy style, then slowly, rhythmically Pei Pei and Angel worked the pressure points at the base of their necks and the week’s aches and pains and stresses begin melting away. For a solid hour and a half, every upper body part—head, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, face, chest and back, receives focused, knowing attention from a hot towel and their small, strong, skillful hands.

As Angel and Pei Pei worked their magic on the upper half of the women’s bodies, #1 and #3 simultaneously massaged the women’s feet with their broad hands and chunky fingers. First, the left foot, then the right, starting with soothing, rhythmic semi-circles in the center of the soles, working their way out and around the bottoms, to the ankles, and the insteps, then slowly, thoroughly, each individual toe.

“Ohmigod,” at one point, Lisa mumbled, “What are we going to do when your assignment is up and we have to go back to the States?”

These were not quiet massages—no soothing nature sounds in the background, no endless loops of Enya on the CD player, aromatherapy candles, or expensive mood lighting at 520.   These massages took place in spare, bare bones surroundings, each tiny room simply furnished with two massage chairs, a television, and minimal lighting, not to create ambience but to save money on electricity. They were cacophonous affairs, filled with talking, loud chattering and laughter. It took a while to get used to the noise and the talking, took a long time to be able to communicate and understand, but Sheila and Lisa learned to relax into the sounds, and make it a part of the ritual.

These youngsters were from the countryside, far, far away from their hometowns, just as Lisa and Sheila were far away from their hometowns. They all understood each other in ways their countrymen, and especially their own families, could not. Lisa and Sheila called them their kids and the kids called them gan ma, dry mother, a huge compliment. These kids were also Lisa and Sheila’s friends now as well as their Chinese teachers, augmenting the formal Mandarin lessons they took at language school with practical everyday conversation. Lisa and Sheila know the kids wait for them, and look forward to them coming every week but they also know that they themselves look forward to it even more. They’ve come to rely on the openheartedness of these kids, on the irrevocable bond that becomes stronger and stronger with each session, on the deeper understanding they gain of Shanghai and of China each time they are together. They all learn from each other while they enjoy the sacred space they create each Sunday, a kind of going to church in a country where religion is not allowed.

The music is loud in the hallway, and Lisa can hear it through the closed door, a Chinese Muzak version of “Love Will Keep Us Together,” minus the Captain and Tenille.

“Sheila, listen, your favorite song!”

“What song?” she says.

Lisa is closer to the door and Sheila can’t hear it, so Lisa starts singing, “Love, love will keep us together, think of me babe whenever,” and Angel and Pei Pei and #1 and #3 start giggling.

“Lisa,” says Angel, “Hen hao ting!” Sounds good! “Please keep singing.” Lisa continues with Sheila’s help.

“Look in my heart and let love keep us together, forever.” When the song is finished the kids want more.

It is December, and every holiday is a festival in China. Angel wants to hear Christmas Festival songs, so Lisa and Sheila start singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas, We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The kids are excited because they know the tune, and as Sheila and Lisa sing, every once in a while one of them hums part of a line out loud.

When they’re finished, Angel tells them, “Please don’t stop, sing more, it sounds much better in English!”

The first song that comes to mind is “The First Noel” and Lisa begins, “The first noel, the angels did say…” then Sheila joins in, “was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.” By the time they get to, “Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, Born is the King of Israel,” they are all involved: Lisa and Sheila singing, Pei Pei, Angel and #1 and #3 melodiously humming. They sing and hum together in tandem as the kids continue to work wonders and knead in unison on the women’s sore and tired muscles and feet. Their bodies are soaring at high mass and the molecular structure of the room has changed. When the song is finished, the kids stop their kneading and Lisa and Sheila lay still in the chairs. They all stay together in the room in complete silence and stillness, hung in a reverential space, wishing it could last forever.


Nancy L. Conyers has an MFA from Antioch University and has been published in Lunch Ticket, The Manifest-Station, Role Reboot, Hupdaditty, The Citron Review, Alluvium, and Unconditional: A Guide to Loving and Supporting Your LGBTQ Child. Health 520 is adapted from her novel in progress A Walk in the Mist.