A couple weeks ago, I rearranged therapist appointments and school tours, postponed insurance claim calls, ditched the dishes and the laundry, left the suburbs behind and ventured into San Francisco for something different.
I’m not generally a spa person. I’ve had about five pedicures in my life, I prefer my massages medicinal, I don’t like the feeling of someone waiting on me in that way, pampering me, simply because I’m paying for it. Perhaps because I spent my twenties waiting on people because they were paying me for it. It all makes me highly uncomfortable.
This spa, though, this Korean spa to which I was heading, is, I’d heard, not about pampering. That theory proved true.
I embarked on this adventure with my friend, Mary. There are probably only a handful of people with whom I could imagine spending three hours naked and Mary is one of them. She is six feet tall and the definitive ectomorph. Tan, blonde, gi-orgeous. While I’ve often compared myself to Mary physically and found myself wanting (once she chopped her hair short and dyed it brown, almost my exact cut, and I found myself thinking, “Oh, look, it’s me, only taller and thinner”), she is a person who is at home in her body. Which I suppose I am, too, most days. Being naked with someone like that is a lot like being naked alone, except you can chat.
We disrobed in the clean, chlorine-scented locker room. Dressed only in our spa-provided bracelets (Mary’s said “4”, mine “5”), we sank into the hot tub while we waited for our scrub appointments. As we sloshed from hot tub to cold plunge, we whispered compliments about each other’s breasts (“God, Mary, you look like you’re sixteen.” “Your boobs are so full and nice, Liz.”). Yes, guys, this is what ladies talk about.
Soon a squat, middle-aged Korean woman uniformed in black granny undies and bra (truly, that’s the uniform) entered the bath area.
“Four?” she called in heavily accented English. Mary dutifully followed her, smiling at me over her bare shoulder.
Soon enough, another squat, middle-aged Korean woman in requisite black undies and bra arrived.
“Five?” she asked gruffly.
I followed her into a small curtained annex off the bathing area. She gestured for me to lie down on a massage table covered in heavy plastic.
“Down,” she said. Guessing, I lay face down. A moment later, I was attacked. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of her hand in some kind of glove. It was a hybrid shower-glove/brillo-pad/oven mitt. She held me down with one mitt and scrubbed me with the other, exactly how I might imagine her getting a stain out of her living-room carpet.
This went on for at least a half hour, her furious scrubbing. Once she’d finished a body part, she’d dump a bucket of water on it. There was no talking as we didn’t share a language, only her hands flipping me over and scrubbing. Legs, back, belly, breasts, arm, armpits, everything. I was a little concerned she was taking off more than the desired one layer of skin. I was silently saying farewell to my nipples. And I was laughing. Forty-two year-old white suburban mom naked on a plastic sheet, totally at the mercy of a determined Asian woman in black underwear.
Upon release by my Brillo-mitted captor, I reunited with a dazed and pink Mary. Then, again, two more Korean ladies entered the bath. “Four?” one said. “Five?” said the other. Mary and I had time for one shared eyebrow raise before we were ushered into separate, tiny massage rooms.
This Korean lady, my masseuse, was younger, smaller and infinitely more smiley than my scrubber. She gestured for me to lie down on yet another massage table, this one, happily, covered with a sheet – cotton not plastic.
I closed my eyes and listened to the plink-plonk of the music coming from a small boom-box by my head. And then I was attacked again.
Somehow, this sweet little lady had massive, super-human hands. She kneaded my thighs and my calves with such force that I worried that my kneecaps would splinter.
“You walk?” she asked.
“Um,” I squeaked, “Yeah. I run. In the hills.”
“Maybe no walk,” she said. “Tight.”
It wasn’t until she got to my upper back and I felt the air forced from my lungs that I realized that what I had taken for hands were actually feet. I listened over the sound of my wheezing breath and could hear her hands sliding on metal, what would later prove to be a horizontal pole above us. She was walking on me.
After thirty minutes, she finally jumped off the table and switched to her hands. I fell immediately asleep. Or maybe I passed out.
When I came to and exchanged smiling nods with the Walker, I found Mary in the hall. She looked about how I felt, beaten and raw.
We found a ramen shop next door for lunch and we toasted our shared Sapporo, grateful for our intact bones. Mary confessed that her rib might be out.
I felt exorcised. If the purpose of a massage, of a spa, is stress relief, this was mission accomplished. I drove back over the Golden Gate skinned and mellow. Maybe it was the scrubbing, maybe it was the walking, maybe it was just the laughing. Whatever it was, I needed it.