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Alice Kahn

Taming Fear of Massage: There's the Rub

July 31, 1988|Alice Kahn

I believe it was Jane Fonda who once said, "I can give up anything for the revolution but not my weekly massage."

That was 20 years ago. The revolution has come and gone, but I'll bet she still gets massaged once a week whether she needs it or not.

There are only two kinds of people in this country. Those who get massaged and those who don't. I guess I'm one of those nice girls who do.

I've done it a total of four times now. The first three times I did it under the guise of journalism. What perversions haven't been committed as an exercise in the First Amendment?

I would lie there like an inquiring jaybird interviewing the masseuse, doing my best not to enjoy it. No hedonism here; just trying to get the facts, ma'am. I quickly learned that massage providers are not the most articulate people. Generally speaking, they let their fingers do the talking.

This fourth time, I dropped my cover and my covers. I was just going to lie back and feel good.

The scene was the Esalen Institute, a place known for putting a California spin on higher education. What Harvard is to belles-lettres, Esalen is to bare bellies.

I had gone there once before with my husband, who enjoyed the quaint Esalen tradition of nude masseuses on the loose. Even for 55 bucks, he was ready to try again.

This last time, my excuse wasn't journalism--it was doing something nice for my husband. Alas, his Katherine of Esalen was not available. The reservation desk told me the name of two masseurs who were available. Thinking again that I was doing my husband a favor, I took the one called Attila.

We waited in the hot tubs for the call. While sitting there, I noticed another man in the tub. I had always been told that it isn't polite to stare at naked people, but I realized the man was Richard, my husband's old classmate from Amherst College in puritan New England.

I began to worry that Richard was the name of my husband's masseur and that they would have an embarrassing alumni reunion. What a long strange trip--from the '60s, sitting in madras shirts reading Emily Dickinson, to the '80s, lying naked getting Rolfed.

Attila came for me and I wondered when my husband's Hun would come for him. While Attila worked his magic, I just shut up and relaxed, except for one brief moment when I opened one eye and saw a man who appeared to be an ex-Marine wearing nothing but a tattoo and sunglasses putting his knee in my husband's back.

Afterward, my husband said it was hell. Not only did his guy do a flamenco dance on his back, he spent the entire session telling him what a mess he was. "You better get a massage every day or you'll explode," he warned him.

That's the kind of chitchat that'll really relax you.

This, of course, was my worst fear about getting a massage--that the masseur could somehow read your aura, tell all your problems from your muscle tension. And, worst of all, that he would then have the gall to share what you already knew: You're a physical wreck.

I used to fear beauticians for the same reason. You'd go in for a haircut and end up feeling like suicide was the only way out.

Your ends are split! You need more protein! Don't you ever condition your hair?

Once, on the advice of a beautician, I sat there with the contents of a jar of mayonnaise on my head wondering what I had done to deserve the heartbreak of unhealthy hair.

But in the past few years, I've come to accept myself. Only briefly, of course--most of the time I still know I'm a mess. But occasionally I will enjoy myself and not give a damn how I look or if my masseuse knows I'm up-tight.

In those happy moments, I will say to myself: I am what I am. And I will say to the world: What you see is what you get. Hold the mayo.

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