Maybe it’s guy thing, but I’m not good at treating myself, especially during the holidays. However, when I saw that a friend of a friend was offering “pay what you wish” Thai massages, my lust for a good bargain outweighed my faux-selflessness, so I phoned right away.
The masseuse gave me her address and asked that I arrive fragrance-free, not an unusual request for a screwy hamlet that believes that iPhones cause dengue fever, so I skipped the shower and deodorant. No biggie.
The masseuse lived in the kind of apartment complex where groups of men feel comfortable pulling engine blocks in the parking lot, and mumbling old ladies limp around in their pink bathrobes clutching plastic bags full of what appear to be unwanted stuffed animals. I made my way past doors guarded by security gates and a failed attempt at a tropical garden underneath an open-air staircase.
“Wow, you’re really scented,” she said when she opened the door.
“I am?” My sense of smell isn’t very keen, but I was sure I wasn’t as bad as the sickly sweet air blowing out of the broken laundry room vent three doors down. The masseuse was obviously strong, dressed in sweats with her dreadlocks gathered above her head like an exotic plant or a very large sushi roll.
“It’s your detergent. Do you mind wearing something of mine?”
“Not at all,” I said nervously, not wanting to sour the deal of the year while also trying to recall when I last laundered my clothes and the brand of soap we used at home. I swore the bottle had some kind of symbol on it that I thought meant it was organic or saved sea otters or something.
She emerged from her bedroom clutching a pair of black spa pants and what my dad would call a “hubba hubba” blouse.
“I just took these off,” she said, referring to the pants.
I had no idea how to feel about that.
“Oh, and put your clothes in these.” She offered me two plastic bags.
When I’m in unfamiliar situations, I tend to obey. That’s how I ended up dressed like a woman holding what could have been stuffed animals in two firmly tied grocery bags. My shirt revealed far too much cleavage, so I wrestled with the collar a bit as I placed my contaminated garments by the door and lowered myself down on a futon in the living room. I work with someone who is sensitive to perfumy stuff, so I believe in fragrance sensitivity more than other quackery such as UFOs or acupuncture, but I had to wonder how the masseuse could worry more about fabric softener than all the toxins inherent in living in a building straight out of an episode of The Wire.
Some people call Thai massage “rich man’s yoga” because someone else does the stretching for you, but I didn’t care as she stripped the sinew from my muscles. I completely forgot that I was draped in a peasant blouse with a pair of still-warm pants; I ignored the Wiccan cookbooks and witch’s guide to child rearing on the masseuse’s shelves; I pushed away my myriad questions on how a massage therapist with such sensitivity could work on clients who came from places like Texas, where fragrance abuse is as natural as big hair and belt buckles the size of Frisbees. Everything melted away as she pressed, pushed and propelled me from one side of the futon to the other. I imagined animal faces in the plaster (speak to me, oh weasel of the wall!), uncovered long-forgotten memories (GI Joe, why did I shave you like that?), and hung loosely like one of Gustave Baumann’s marionettes. The 90 minutes culminated with me in the “baby pose”—crouched over, facedown—while the masseuse draped herself across my back.
“Oh, mamaste,” I whimpered and vowed to live fragrance-free forever.
Robert Wilder’s most recent book is Tales from the Teachers’ Lounge. Daddy Needs a Drink appears the first Wednesday of each month in the Santa Fe Reporter.