It was on an assignment nearly 15 years ago that I received my first massage. Reviewing a new spa, I was sent for a massage and facial. Though I had no other professional massage to compare it with, I had casually exchanged them with friends over the years and thought surely I could evaluate whether something felt good.
As it approached, I got nervous. I worried about when and how much to disrobe. I imagined my masseur might find some aspect of my revealed body unacceptable and storm out — citing an offending mole as a reason he could not complete the procedure. On the other end of the spectrum, I also worried that I might enjoy it a little too, uh, evidently.
When I arrived at the spa, I was a wreck — anxious perspiration only adding to my fear of being judged. But the interior had a clean scent and calm feel. When I was escorted back to the treatment room, my masseur had a zenlike ease about him, and although English was not his first language, he ably offered directions about preparing. It seemed that I had only just begun to relax under his deft hands when he announced it was time for my facial. He noticed my look of surprise. “Next time,” he advised, “you ask for longer massage.”
I have been the lucky recipient of a variety of massages since then. I vividly recall my most attractive masseur; Slavic and sinewy, he seemed like he had leapt off the cover of a romance novel, and he had skills — kneading deep and finding muscles I’d not even realized were there. However, my satisfaction was somewhat undercut by the fact that he subsequently slathered me in some truly awful-smelling substance, then wrapped me in something that felt like tinfoil, and left me to sit for some time like an abandoned baked potato.
My most exotic massage was at a Hammam in Vienna. It started out with a ritual washing during which burly men roughly scrubbed me down in a tiled room — a sort of full-body exfoliation. Next I was escorted to a space hung with colorful fabric, where women massaged exotic-smelling oil into my skin. I could see the logic behind it — the bracing manhandling followed by gentler womanhandling. But I was underwhelmed by the massage portion. I’d seen furniture polished with more vigor, and because of our language barrier, I wasn’t able to express my desire to be handled less like delicate crystal.
It would be the first of several times I ended up with female massage artists who did not do much more than skim the surface, even when I was able to politely request more pressure. I hated the idea of stereotyping, but over time I learned to simply request male massage artists — as they seemed to be the only ones willing to dig deep. So it was with some disappointment that, at a spa in Vermont when I had specifically requested an appointment with a man, I was assigned a woman. Rather than risk disturbing the calm quiet of the spa by making a fuss, I simply sighed and followed her into the treatment room with the expectation of being petted like a poodle. As in times past, I encouraged her to not treat me with any degree of delicacy, and we began chatting convivially about our shared background in amateur theater. I thought to myself, “Well at least I’ll get a nice conversation out of this.”
On the contrary, this woman ended up pummelling me like no other. She’d ask me to inhale and then press her entire body weight into my back as I exhaled — even getting on top of the table to drive down harder. The noises that came out of me were foreign and guttural, more bark than moan. At some point I became aware that I was drooling. It was, without a doubt, the best massage I have ever received.
Indulgence is often about getting exactly what we want. But that day, I was reminded that sometimes exactly what one wants is waiting in a package that doesn’t look like one expected. So, while I have had both fairly wimpy and impressively aggressive massages since from both men and women, I have learned to make my request for a firm massage clear from the start and hope that (whatever the gender) I end up in good, strong hands.
Last modified: May 15, 2018