I hesitate. We stand for many seconds, each of us waiting for the other to move, facing one other next to the table which, I’d noted when I came in, did not appear to have a top sheet.
When he motions a second time I pull the belt of my robe tighter. He lights up and says, “American, you need towel,” before bending down to proudly hand me the tiniest possible piece of cloth, a towel so small it cannot possibly cover both my upper and lower private parts at the same time. And yet too embarrassed at this point to turn it down, I accept what he offers. I take the towel. I surrender.
For the last two decades getting regular massages—sometimes as many as two or three in a month—has become my go-to method for taking care of myself. The way I ease pain, physical and otherwise. When I feel bad I don’t wander the mall with giant shopping bags; when I’m lonely or have a headache I don’t run out for a grande triple shot mocha latte; when my heart is broken or my feet hurt I don’t shop online or fill my closet with the promise of cuter shoes. When I’m traveling and jetlagged and my feet ache from being a tourist intent on not missing anything, I don’t suck down the Ibuprofen and hope it works. What I do is call a spa and book massage appointments. And I feel ashamed. I feel ashamed at how easily I scan the menu of Swedish and Deep Tissue and Lomi Lomi and Hot Stone and Reflexology to figure out what I want. I feel ashamed of the implied privilege and luxury in the words massage and spa. I feel ashamed, even, to say the words “I’m getting a massage.”
I had my first massage in my mid-20s, and I was almost-literally dragged there. The woman working in the cubicle next to mine booked me with “her guy” for a $50 hour and drove me to his office in south St. Louis after I threw my back out (yet again) and could no longer afford the burly chiropractor who scared me more than I let on and, after six visits, was no longer covered by insurance. Still, I balked. I’d grown up in a family where money was never spent on a luxury and no one touched anyone. We waved our hellos and goodbyes from the door. We did not back-to-school shop or treat ourselves at Dairy Queen. Aunt Mary shoved toddlers off her lap because they were always “hanging” on her. If I sat too close to my own mother she pushed me to the other end of the couch saying, “You’re making me hot!” I was terrified at the thought of being touched by a stranger (how do you know they’re above board?), of being naked (could I keep my underwear on?) in a room (would it be light or dark?) with a strange man (big or small, young or old, burly like the chiropractor??) rubbing and pressing his hands on my exposed (would he touch my actual butt, what if I farted?!) body.
I survived that first visit and—when my shoulders, after so many weeks askew, fell back into place so I could travel again and sit at my desk pain-free again and sleep through the night again—I booked another appointment. I was hooked.
Over the years I’ve learned a lot of what I know about myself from my therapists, the massage version.
I’ve learned I’m not a klutz (as I’d always insisted) but in hurry. “You’re not constantly injured because you’re clumsy,” no-nonsense Ned insisted, his hand resting heavy on my shoulder. “You’re injured because you need to slow the hell down.”
I’ve learned I throw my back out doing ridiculously ordinary things, like turning over in my sleep or washing my hair. “You are a violent hair washer!” Seattle Sarah said.
I’ve learned that, as much as I want to believe I am open and trusting when meeting strangers, my public openness is often just a sneakier version of a self-protecting façade. “You need to relax,” said Kentucky Teresa the second time she worked on me, even as I happy-chatted away and insisted I was nothing if not relaxed. “Try and trust me,” she said, pulling the sheet up and around my shoulders. “Stop working so hard, trying to get me to like you.”
Which brings me back to the Thai massage—my first.
It is one thing to have a sheet over you and a stranger’s hands working on your body, but it is in another stratosphere—especially growing up the way I did, waving hellos from the door and with a mother who insisted she adored me while shoving me to the other end of the couch—to have the therapist on the table with you, his body pressed against yours (I gotta be twice this kid’s size); his knees in your back as he pulls your shoulders to open your chest (is it dark enough in here?); his bare feet and toes kneading and digging into your butt and upper thighs (the possibility, still today, 25 years on, of errant gas to pass); and to top it all a voice with more authority than question, “I massage breasts now?” (where in the hell did that tiny towel go?).
For me, it is not at all about having the right sized sheet or towel to hide behind. It is not even about feeling physically vulnerable or exposed. It is about the questioning that continues to run like a tickertape through my head no matter my age—am I too fat or frivolous or judgmental or prudish or mean or naïve … or or or or or??—and how all of these questions seem to circle back to one central theme. Kentucky Teresa’s gentle massage therapist voice saying, “Stop working so hard, trying to get me to like you.”
Tiny towel or no, I remain a work in progress.