The massage cost the equivalent of 4 Canadian dollars. The young Indonesian man who provided it – sprightly, pleasant, deserving more in life than my tepid fleshy torso – smiled pleasantly as we met, not looking me in the eyes, in case either of us were ashamed of what was to come.
I had never had a massage before. I knew, theoretically, that they were pleasant affairs, and was curious to experience one. However, they occupied a place in my mind that was reserved for people far richer than I. Massages were for the wealthy, for people who swam in Scrooge McDuckian pools of gold, for people who sampled caviar and spat it into their crystal spittoons once their palates had been stimulated.
And indeed it was pleasant: a thorough kneading, ambient south Asian muzaak, the humidity of the tropics. Our masseuses and masseurs even did us the solid of wiping down all the oil and grease we had accumulated so that we left the spa relaxed, refreshed, and even less slick than when we first entered. I was so mushy that my deep, writhing awkwardness, the uncomfortable knowledge that I had paid someone else to massage me and that it was really weird, was a distant emotion, like an anxious sunrise on a faraway shore.
I grew up firmly middle class – comfortable, but in no way flashy. If I wanted a cell phone, I needed to save up my pennies, get an after-school job, and pay for it myself. I evaded student debt through the careful scrimpings of my grandfather, and then through several long summers of pleading for tips at a golf course snack bar. I had to earn the things I wanted, and I usually had to consider whether I really needed them, and whether it would maybe ruin my credit rating.
Of course, middle class North American living meant that I was pretty pampered and still riding high above large swaths of the planet. But still I had a strong mental divide between me and the rich, a stark and heavy dividing wall with all of those devil-may-care aristocratic dandies mincing about on the other side. While I woke up at 4:30 to start brewing the coffee for elderly golf enthusiasts, rich people were off somewhere receiving night-time champagne colonics. Rich people never wore the same underpants twice and they slept on the plucked feathers of thousands of dead endangered geese. I looked upon them as another race of humanity, as another species unto itself: homo richicus, tall and green and terrifying and always wondering if the coffee was fair trade and artisanal.
And it is with this staunch Venn understanding that I behold all experiences of wealth and indulgence. It is why I find encounters with richness, with extravagance and pampering, so embarrassing and uncomfortable.
I jogged through Incheon airport, half-remembering paths from repeated use, knowing which hallways to run and translating signs as I sped past. I slammed my boarding pass at the check-in counter moments before they prepared to close, a hopeful grin pleading across my visage. They scanned my boarding pass, and a disturbing buzzer sounded. Consternation, fretting, and then the boarding agent crossed off my seat and wrote down another assignment.
10D. I had never received a boarding pass with such a low seat number, and I dreamed meagrely that perhaps I would be behind the bulkhead, that I would luxuriate in three glorious extra centimetres of legroom. That no one would recline early and slam their seat into my kneecaps. That I would receive my serving of airplane manna first amongst all the plebeians.
I shook and trembled as I stood before a business class seat marked “10D.” I looked around, certain that everyone could tell, that they could smell that most of my clothes were from Sears. It took me nearly ten minutes to actually sit down once I had found my place, as I frantically searched my surroundings for hints that I was wrong. A searing dread filled my heart, a vision that the flight attendant would saunter by, take one look at my unmoneyed person and beckon me back to steerage to shovel coal. I felt certain that all of the other business class passengers could read me, that my unfamiliarity with the seat controls betrayed my lack of a trust fund. I marvelled at how many USB ports and AC adapters haloed me, by how often I was offered snacks and orange juice. Was it pity? Could they tell that this was my first, tangential brush with elegance?
The grunge of backpackery has always attracted me because it felt harmonious—it made a perfect kind of sense. How else could I, young and stupid and unmoneyed Michael, manage to finance world travel unless it was also simultaneously repugnant and filthy? I needed to have cold showers and the constant risk of intestinal rust because without those signifiers, the world started to fold in on itself and get all slanty. Calluses and parasites and food the colour of calluses and parasites was just what I deserved, and what I needed to assure me that I was still alive.
When I arrive in a place where my money goes a long way, I am stunned and trembling the whole journey. Restaurant tables with more than a single fork, pleasant and smiling staff who carry my bags or polish the bathroom until gleaming. People everywhere looking to care for my various unseemly needs, with ghoulish grins affixed to their faces. That I currently have a maid who polishes my apartment twice weekly fires watts of neurotic torment through my soul. Even being referred to as “sir” makes me feel ill-at-ease, as though certain I have slipped into an alternate universe where everyone is a giant squid, or that I have died and am experiencing a prolonged hallucination as the last few neurons of my brain spark and fizzle out into dendritic nothingness.
And so I must try to hold on and bear it. I must smile as though I am accustomed to being treated like something other than scum; I must preen and roil in luxury as though I was born to it. Being shocked by a salad fork or a personal driver or a clean toilet marks me as the oddity. After all, discomfort is so pedestrian.