When my friend asked if I wanted to go downtown with her to get a massage, I texted, “I love massages!”
“It’s cheap. Only $65,” she added.
The address lead me to a busy street of restaurants and small shops with that East Village shabby chic charm. I stood in front of a nineteenth century town home that had been modified innumerable times over the last one hundred years, with peeling signs and neon.
Inside was an artificially bright but worn-out room with handwritten posters in Asian letters, a few Buddhas, and some overgrown bamboo plants leaning in their too-small pots. A young Asian couple sat side-by-side in a row of recliners, holding hands, getting pedicures from hunched-over Asian women. A middle-aged Asian guy sat behind the counter, slurping his noodle dinner with chopsticks. Down the hall was a line of frayed, homemade drapes. No one spoke any English.
This wasn’t the kind of spa I was used to.
My friend greeted me and within a minute, we were waved in by a smiling, plump middle-aged Asian woman. ‘She seems nice,’ I reassured myself. ’This will be fine.’
Then my friend asked, “Do you mind a man?”
‘Do I mind a male masseuse that doesn’t speak a word of English in this make-shift spa, where his hands will be all over my naked body?’ I thought, but heard myself say, “Okay.”
He encouraged me to follow him like a master luring his dog close enough to slip a harness over its head. I took a cleansing breath, thought ‘this is an adventure,’ and followed him to a closet like space made from poles and curtains like a booth in a convention hall. A portable massage table sat in the middle.
I had LOTS of questions, the first one being, ‘Are those sheets clean?’
‘It’s cheap,’ my inner voice replied to myself.
My masseuse laid a supposed clean towel over the sheets and handed me another folded one.
“Do I remove all of my clothes?” I asked as I made note of the semi-private environment and the very small towel. He smiled with incomprehension, mimed that I should lie face-down, gave me the international one-minute sign, and disappeared.
I repeated my new mantra to myself, ‘this is an adventure’ decided to strip down, pulled the small modesty towel over my bare backside, and waited.
He started the massage by rubbing my back over the rectangular covering. I finally felt my body relax, enjoying the kneading when he adjusted that no-longer-modest towel, totally exposing my nakedness. I wondered if this was acceptable for massages in his culture and I was just being prudish. Then it occurred to me that I’d never be able to identify this man by his face in a police line-up, so I studied his shoes.
When it was time for my masseuse to work on the right side of me, he slid the massage table to one side of the cubicle, the table’s metal legs squeaking across the floor. My elbow, now pressed against the curtain felt the butt of the masseuse in the next booth. I giggled.
Eventually I relaxed enough to enjoy the massage, not worry about bedbugs, and trust he wasn’t going to violate me. Then he suddenly stopped and just left. ‘Am I done?’ I attempted to reach for my phone to check if the time was up when he returned with a bucket of hot stones for the massage finale. When he was really done, he patted my shoulder and bowed his way out of the narrow space backwards, managing to avoid knocking the whole pole and curtain system down.
In the reception area, the guy behind the counter used his dirty chopsticks to point to the iPad. “$80 with tip.”
“How was it?” my friend asked.
“Worth every penny.”