$50. That’s the price I paid to be touched.
Most of the time it costs more than that — $75 or $100 or even $150, but who am I kidding? I’ve never spent my own money on one before. The only other time I’d gone, it was a gift from my former boss. We’d just wrapped a major project and she wanted to treat me to a massage. “Your masseuse is a guy,” she teased on the way to the spa. We’d been drinking wine all day, it didn’t happen often but earlier we’d had one of those lunches where every word flew out like it’d hurt to keep it in; we were brainstorming and vibing and getting louder and louder and by 2 p.m. we both acknowledged over a fourth glass of wine that we would not be returning to the office that afternoon.
He was young and attractive and lived in the neighborhood next to mine, the masseuse. I lay face-down, trying to be calm. “Just relax,” he whispered. I have trouble doing that, relaxing, especially when someone is asking me to do so, but I tried. It’s a little easier because I’d just had some champagne in the locker room. I fell asleep at one point, or two points, I can’t remember anymore. When it was all over I felt full of peace but still waiting for something, blue-balled, half-tantric. I’d never experienced anything like it before — an hour of what basically amounted to foreplay capped off by directions to put on a robe and head into a locker room. I liked the disconnect. No one had ever touched me like that, like it was only about me.
I tried to recreate it last week. I called another spa, one that was running a promotion. $50. “Do you mind having a man massage you?” the receptionist asked and no, of course I don’t. It was raining when I walked over. I checked in and I’m offered wine and yes, of course I’d like some. White, please. Parades of people walk in and out of the foyer as I sit waiting, customers and spa techs and maybe masseuses. Which one of you will be touching me?
When he emerges I know it’s him and I’m immediately disappointed. He is small and thick, burly. Old. He introduces himself and a familiar name tumbles out of his mouth and all I can think is, “Why wouldn’t that be your name? Of course that’s your name.” It is the same name that belongs to someone I never had to pay, someone whose touch is free. At least, it used to be.
He leads me into a room upstairs and waits in the hallway as I disrobe. I lie on the table, cover myself with a blanket. “Come in,” I say when he knocks. Just like the doctor’s office. “Are you injured anywhere?” he asks. I’m getting older, I actually have an answer to this question that isn’t “no,” I’m always injured now in some small way. “I messed up my ankle,” I kick my leg up, “this one. Please just…” “I’ll be gentle over there,” he says in some unidentifiable accent, “anywhere else?” “My stomach hurts,” I tell him, “be careful by my stomach.” He scrunches up his face. “Are you injured there?” “I’m not injured there, it just hurts. I drank too much yesterday.” Can we get on with it, already? “You must have not been drinking the good stuff,” he says, “the good stuff doesn’t make your stomach hurt. Or maybe you mixed. That will make your stomach hurt, too. Don’t worry, I have magic hands,” and he can’t see my face, it’s face-down and hidden and resting on a donut-shaped pillow but my jaw is shut so tight I think it might snap.
“Just relax,” and what, do they always say that or is it just me? I hear the massage oil escaping from its bottle, into his palms, onto my body and it’s like I’m just now remembering what I’ve signed up for. For sixty minutes someone I do not want to touch me is going to touch me and I’m going to pay for it and this used to be free.
“Loosen up,” he says as he works my shoulders, and I wish he would just quit talking already. I don’t want to hear his foreign voice, a voice that belongs to a man I don’t know. Just be quiet, I think, just shut up and I don’t know if I’m talking to him or to myself. I can’t control the deafening volume of my thoughts; it’s too loud in there. He’s a professional, who would you rather have touch you? And I think on this, I swap him out with men that I know, men that I don’t, exes and fantasies and James Franco but no one quite fits. I hear two older women gossiping and giggling in another room, the walls are too thin, can’t you just be quiet? Be quiet for once.
I start to become lost, I’m relaxing against my will but then it slips away. I’m clenched and relaxed, clenched and relaxed, over and over like my mind is gripped in a vice, it’s like getting blood drawn. Make a fist and let it go. Make a fist and let it go. Do it again. Don’t forget to breathe. I’m always told to make a fist and let it go; I have baby veins. A nurse told me that once.
I came here to relax, but maybe I’m incapable. There’s too much to think about anyway, like all of the things you can pay for now. Massages. Vibrators. Man with a Van. Escorts. Blow-up dolls. Homemade meals. Porn. If you need something to love you, you can buy a pet. If you need someone to talk to, you can pay for therapy. You can buy it all. You can have it all. Can’t you?
When it’s all over he asks how my stomach feels and I say, “Better.” “I told you, I have magic hands,” he says, and I quietly adopt his definition of magic as my own since I don’t know where to buy that.