I've always felt at home with women who strip for a living; there's something cut-to-the-chase about them, an impatience with pretenses, that answers to my own. And these are only kids, after all. They sit cross-legged on the bed in their pjs and speculate about the day, while the old man potters about packing up his massage kit. The sun floods into the dim room around the edges of a crooked blanket slapped up for a curtain; the feeble air-conditioner wheezes. I see the two young women in double-exposure: both as vulnerable girls, my daughter's age; and as the objects of desire I used to see up on stages back in the bad old days. They pay me in crisp fifties, which I – picturing them as having come from the wallets of men who look like Paul Ryan – handle with faint reluctance.
They are absurdly, impossibly beautiful. One odd thing about the alchemy of massage is, that while their beauty strikes me in retrospect, it makes no impression on me at as I'm working. All the emblems and totems of status go away with the clothes. Backstage, we're all human, and nothing but human. All those markers, so important in the faces we present to each other, just go away: the flatness of the tummies doesn't mean a perfect 10 and trophy potential, but only that the lay of the abdominal muscles is easier to read; the pimple behind the ear is not a flaw, but a marker of stress and a buoy to steer around. I don't want to possess them: I want only to unwind and unclot their bunched muscles and accumulated unhappinesses. The beauty a person has on the massage table is not special or exclusive: it's the beauty everyone has. Not negotiable currency.
And now, as I pack up, we are all equally awkward; all, equally, jammed halfway into a world that can neither digest us nor spit us out. If we had ever learned to be fluent or at ease in the appearances, to serve up the appropriate small-talk on all occasions, I suppose we would be Paul Ryans or the wives of Paul Ryans. But we are only grateful for each other, grateful for the daily bread of ordinary respect and kindness.
We are de trop in the world of Paul Ryan: slackers, failures, also-rans. But as I stand by the table holding this young woman's hand in both of mine – pausing for the space of two synchronized breaths – I permit myself to doubt that his world holds many such moments of tenderness. I'm content to live here, on the margins, where the unauthorized spaces open. This is as much home as I will ever have.