Gail had sounded different on the phone. She booked eleven massages and asked about a discount, saying that some of her family might be discouraged by my “price-point”.
I explained that my price was already less than usual for the area. I considered her New York number, the expensive villa she was renting, and thought to myself, ‘If you are using the word “price point,” then you can surely afford my price point.’ She responded sweetly though, and I didn’t expect to be dealing with a pain-in-the-ass New Yorker.
But I did expect to be dealing with a white lady.
That was my shameful, automatic assumption, based on accrued experience with tourism, with this villa, and with my job. Maybe based on her name, her voice, and even the word “price-point.” I’d already conjured an image of her in my head.
So when a smiling black man answered the door, I greeted him and looked further into the room for the woman I had imagined. Mid-fifties, average build, tough but sweet demeanor, probably grey hair, probably paler skin (she hadn’t sounded like a New York Italian.) I still assumed that the man at the door was a black man married into a family of white people.
Gail rushed over, arms open, smiling wide. Mid-fifties, average build, tough but sweet demeanor, black hair, black skin. She apologized shamelessly for missing my messages earlier. “I’m on vacation! I’m not about to be on my phone all day!”
Her voice sounded different on the phone. And I realized, that that was a professional voice. For making a massage reservation, for dealing with people like me.
She lead us through the kitchen, past her family, none of them white. I tensed slightly, intrigued and apprehensive, wondering what race means now, after the recent resurgence of civil rights protests. Protests that for me had just been headlines and news clips, and my feeble displays of support, from my isolated bubble of a quarantined island. ‘Is the whole world tense now?’ I wondered.
But Gail didn’t seem tense. Quite the opposite. She was on vacation. She whisked us outside. “Let’s set up by the pool!” she sang, her exuberance infectious. The shock to my assumptions quickly melted into exhilaration. Everyone cooed excitedly for the massages they were about to get. Banter and laughter flew across the lawn and cocktail glasses clinked in celebration of the birthday, the vacation, the break from the grief of our world. I smiled as a shriek and a cackle shot over from the other veranda. This would be a fun couple days of work.
Through many of my jobs, I’ve been a fly on the wall for family vacations, observing rhythms, relationships, dynamics, and cultures. Who is just waking up, who is sleeping now beside the pool, who seems more introverted, who is the driver, how do they plan meals, what do they eat.
I’ve watched Indian families on kayak trips, Puerto Ricans in the jungle, Southerners at beach houses, city folk on sailboats. But, I realized, I’d rarely…maybe never? experienced a black family together on vacation. In fact, I tried to recount how many black clients I had actually had for massage. Probably, I reasoned, because I’d lived in mostly white or latin cultures.
Or was it something else?
I worked silently in my private corner of the yard, and the family danced around me, weaving me into their vacation without skipping a beat, without making a ripple. I was as much a part of the banter, the love, the rowdiness, as the young man doing push-ups in the grass, or the birthday girl dancing with her drink in the shallow end of the pool.
Meanwhile my hands learned subtle intricacies through the intimacy of massage. From the texture of dry skin, to the hues of sunburns and scars. I learned a new culture of beauty as my fingertips danced around hair-pieces and lashes to massage scalps and faces. I noticed and marveled at differences I’d never considered, facets of life that don’t apply to me and my white body. ‘Is this racism,’ I wondered, hypersensitive to my thoughts and observations.
I bobbed to the music and worked around the table, wishing for more of this joy in my own life. And throughout the hours of massaging and watching, I pondered their situation, as I do with most clients. What is their life at home, what is their job, their routine, and how did they end up here, vacationing at a luxury villa in Puerto Rico.
In general, I am not very good at imagining lifestyles outside of tourism, construction, or farming. I especially don’t know how people live in a city. I mostly know my world, my experience. Which doesn’t include vacationing in a luxury villa, unless by fortunate extension of some endowed friend.
Even so, with my usual clients (which is to say my white clients), my mind falls effortlessly into some explanation of wealth. Some inevitable source of family money, or work in the tech industry, or some investment or start-up, (although I never quite understood what the hell “investment” or “start-up” actually was). I’d worked with enough white people to gather enough information to make simple assumptions.
But here, I found myself at a loss. I gazed around the pool, surprised by my ignorance. What jobs would allow this family to vacation here, at this villa. Why couldn’t I just drop them into the same categories I dropped all my other clients?
It is just accepted when a white family shows up that they have the means to be here. But when a black family shows up, they must have had some success in the arts, or in athletics. Why did it seem like a stretch that they might as easily be accountants or CEO’s or landlords?
Because, I realized, the image didn’t fit. No office I’d ever seen boomed with the jubilance I saw here. No portrayal of professionalism made space for the caliber of character dancing across this lawn. My mind couldn’t understand it because it had never seen it.
And that, I realized, was the problem.
‘Oh, there you are racism,’ I thought to myself, squeezing a big toe before moving on to an ankle.
It wasn’t any malicious thought. It wasn’t any doubt of qualification or education or professionalism. But it was a perspective, born out of my experience, born out of their absence from these worlds of luxury, born out of…the reality of the system, perhaps…that left me confused how they could come to be here, this place in the world reserved for rich white people.
And I felt with a new solidity the weight of systemic racism, which lays such an easy path for those that fit the right image, which makes it so unusual for those that don’t. That ingrained stereotype which left me genuinely surprised to open the door to a villa full of black smiling faces.
I finished the fourth massage on the second day and closed up my table. I stuffed my oiled sheets in a pillow case, and folded my stool. Then I walked over to the other veranda, lingering to say goodbye and spend precious last minutes in their warm company.
Working for them was a one-in-a-hundred experience for me. We hadn’t talked about their lives at home, or their jobs, and so I left that day just as ignorant as when I arrived.
In a sense.
In another sense I knew, as I backed away from the group, waving and blowing kisses, that they’d shed light on an issue, and an awareness far more important.