This summer, I’m going to take Tallulah for a long walk every single morning before it gets sweaty-hot outside. I should walk her down by the water and get a cup of coffee afterwards! Wait: the people at Starbucks won’t allow me to bring her inside and I’m not about to tie her to the pole next to the door. The chance that someone might look at her and realize she’s worth a bounty is way too high. I’ll just walk her up and down the hills near my house. I hate hills. I also hate Jonah Hill…
There was a line at the front desk and every single person standing in front of me wanted to use a gift certificate and then promptly lost several shits as each realized she would have to pay the difference. One woman flatly refused and asked instead to see a list of cheaper treatments before settling on a facial that doesn’t include an extra blast of what I’m guessing is very costly oxygen. I decided to make the choice not to get annoyed by the way certain people can be so inconsiderate of strangers waiting patiently in a line behind them and I got through my minor exasperation by slowly and deeply breathing in some oxygen that nobody charged me for.
I don’t miss pizza. I really thought I’d miss pizza. I also thought I’d miss bagels, but now I hate that feeling of so much dough landing with a clunk inside of me. I do miss cake, especially layer cake. I should bake a cake and then decorate it using that icing piper someone gave me all those years ago! I should do that tonight! Who even gave me that icing thing? It was probably my sister during her Pampered Chef phase. That was a way better phase than the pajama phase when she went on a buying and wearing and gifting rampage and every present I received for well over a year was made out of either satin or flannel. I like sleeping in a tank top and boyshorts. I wonder why I care that they match, even on the nights I crawl into bed alone. Where did those striped grey boyshorts go? Did I stuff they into my lingerie drawer by accident? I really should find them…
“Do you have a gift certificate?” asked the harried woman at the front with a practiced stillness in her voice.
“Nope, this is a gift from me to me,” I answered.
She led me back to the locker room and instructed me to put the robe on and to then wait in The Relaxation Room. The masseuse would come claim me there. I went into a curtained stall and removed all of my clothing and then wrapped myself in yards and yards of white terrycloth. I shunned the slippers they provided, kept my own flip-flops on, locked my stuff up securely as though my tee and skirt were valuable, and headed into a room that had been given a name to make it seem important. It was really dark in there and the room itself was small. Velvet chairs in kind of a mushroom-brown shade lined the walls, each accessorized with a perfectly hacked throw pillow. Along one wall stood a table with a pitcher of cucumber-infused water, a wooden box of assorted herbal teas, and a canister of hot water. Glass mugs were set up in neat rows and the total uniformity of the setup made me instantly realize two things: 1) Someone with OCD definitely runs the place 2) I should buy a wooden box filled with assorted tea and leave it out on my counter because it looks very pretty.
I was alone at first and I didn’t help myself to anything because I wasn’t there for a nice beverage. I was there for a fucking massage. The initial want had morphed almost violently into an authentic need and the tenseness in my neck and my shoulders had caused me to feel and to hear a loud crack the day before when I turned suddenly to my left. I was debating whether or not I should throw my hair up into a bun with the band that was around my wrist when the door to The Relaxation Room slid open and a woman walked inside. She too was wrapped in terrycloth, and she stopped at the table to peruse her options. Settling on some tea, she then plopped herself down on a matching chair. It was then that the floodgates opened. Every three minutes, yet another woman in a robe entered the room and made herself a nice cup of tea. We all did that smile-briefly-with-our-mouths-clamped-shut greeting thing, but I really wasn’t in the mood for small talk. I was born with what one of my friends calls “the gift of the gab,” and she’s not wrong; I can talk to anyone about anything and I can make that person laugh hard at least twice in five minutes flat. Still, just because I can do something does not mean that I want to do something and, as I listened to the stilted chatter surrounding me, I sort of wanted to stand up and announce, “You guys? We’re strangers. We don’t have to politely jabber away about how it’s finally warm outside or that this room is really crowded. Can we not all just agree to sometimes shut the fuck up?” There’s a real part of me that felt almost compelled to make my little announcement and for a second I felt that tingle inside that usually lets me know that I’m about to cause some trouble. More of me, however, was concerned that my robe might burst open when I stood dramatically to take a stand for no good reason at all so I just fiddled with my hair band and sat silently as strangers around me discussed why they hate when it rains in May.
Only think of good things, okay? Do that change-the-channel stuff in your mind if you mentally wander anywhere that feels even a little bit unsafe. Stay in the present. Meander into the future. But if you stumble into the past, try to think only of that one night when his arms were around your waist and the heat of the day had finally lifted and he reached up and stroked your hair as you both gazed at the boats bobbing in the harbor in the moonlight.
The woman sitting directly beside me is lucky to have made it out of The Relaxation Room alive. She appeared not from the sliding doorway from whence everyone else had come, but from the open doorway that leads to the hallways lined with massage rooms. She glided towards a chair, a completely blissed-out expression covering her face. Her hair was a mess; clearly a cranium massage had been part of her treatment. She sat down in the dark room that had grown rather crowded and looked around directly and smiled dreamily at each person stuck in one of those velvet chairs.
“I’m going to have a cup of tea,” she announced.
For a second or three, I wondered if maybe she couldn’t actually see because the room was so dim and part of her believed she was speaking to people she thought she actually knew. See, I’m a relatively nice person and I’m willing to give bizarre strangers in robes the benefit of the doubt.
I need to stop being nice and I need to stop quickly.
It quickly became obvious that not only did this lady know full well that she was talking to total strangers, but she also wanted to suck up every bit of ambiance a Relaxation Room decorated with Pier 1 furniture is able to provide. Me? I like to finish my massage, pretend to drink some of the water the masseuse hands me, and then hightail it back to the dressing area because the massage is over and it’s time to go home. I do not need to smile dopily at women who are about to be rubbed by paid professionals and I certainly don’t need to mindlessly chatter about whether I should choose the ginger tea or the pomegranate tea (not being a fucking idiot, I always go with chamomile) and then announce to a room at large that I will go ahead and have a cup of both.
At that point, super annoying though she was, I was prepared to let the woman live in the name of relaxation and sisterhood. Then she started sipping her first cup of tea. I should have known – I should have just guessed – but it took me by complete surprise when every single sip was accompanied by a sound effect. Yes, there were aaahhhs all over the fucking place and nothing besides someone else’s nostril-breath traveling down my face icks me out more than an eater or a drinker who supplements every bite or swallow with some sort of bullshit nonverbal form of narration.
Wembly, Red…what were the names of the other fucking Fraggles?
Maybe it’s because part of me is already preparing for a world of tyranny due to the very real possibility that Donald Trump will be our next President, but I did consider taking charge and turning to her to simply and sarcastically say, “Really?” Keep in mind that she had prepared two cups of tea because she couldn’t choose between flavors. Keep in mind that all this went down before I paid some stranger to rub my entire body with oil and marvel at how knotted my shoulders felt. Keep in mind that there are so many people over the years I have refrained from slapping the shit out of and that sort of personal restraint is probably why I needed a massage in the first place.
Can I remember the entire poem? How old was I? Sixteen? Seventeen? Let me see…
“Walking along, feeling uncertain. The blanket in my hand is guiding me and the wind whistles warnings from above.
It takes forever to reach the spot where we choose to lie because I’m not sure it’s safe. Can the others see? Am I doing the right thing?
These questions swim up the shore and settle down in my conscience as I fight to remove my clothing that doesn’t seem to want to come off. Is this a sign?
Looking up to gaze at the black sky, I see your face instead as it hovers above me and you look like a stranger though I know you well. I need to see a sky full of stars whispering reassurances that this is right, this moment that ends so quickly stays in my mind for an eternity. It will be hashed and rehashed until it is not even real anymore but a series of events that ended badly and when I think of it, I feel cold. When I speak of it, I do so in clinical terms.
I gaze outside at the darkness -- only now I can look up and see the night sky filled with stars and not your eyes which are shut so they can’t see me.”
I remember what I was wearing when I wrote that: black satin shorts and a matching top. It was during my sister’s pajama phase. I was cross-legged on my bed and it was late. It was a Sunday. Friday night was Homecoming and I’d puked Jack Daniels up into Nick’s bushes. That was the last time I ever drank Jack Daniels. The journal I wrote the poem in had a green cover and Bob Dylan lyrics written on the very last page…
One by one, a relaxation professional summoned each person sitting in The Relaxation Room. Somehow, despite being the first one there, I was the last to be called for my massage and that meant I was able to experience every single sip my newest nemesis took of what had to be the two largest cups of tea ever consumed by any person at any time in all of creation. When she finally got up and announced to seven empty chairs and me, “I’m done!” and then walked into the changing room, I almost wept with pure relief.
Tomorrow I need to teach the genesis of psychosexual fury to two classes, explore how suspense is created cinematically in that scene from Misery in one class, put production groups together in fifth period, and explain the road often taken to make a movie if a studio is not involved...
The woman standing at the open doorway looked at me with a completely puzzled look on her face. She obviously was expecting to see a man and here I sat, either a woman or a drag queen with remarkable makeup skills.
“Close,” I replied. “I’m Nell.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she burst out with what sounded like real regret. I couldn’t have her feel anything but strong just as I was about to disrobe before her and task her with singlehandedly removing my clenched stress.
“I blame my mother for gifting me with this name and you can feel free to go ahead and blame her, too,” I told her as she led me down long hallways and up some stairs to an enormous room with a massage table right in the center. I’d never been in that particular room and I’d never had this particular masseuse so she spent a minute or so asking me about my problem areas.
“Neck and shoulders,” I told her. “And my left side is weirdly more tensed up than my right. Oh, and my feet. I wear heels every single day – and that includes Sunday.”
“Okay, sweetie,” she said with a beatific smile, the kind I’ve only managed to pull off after doing yoga or getting high. “I’ll let you get settled. We’ll start with you face down.”
So out of the guys I’ve slept with, how many of them did I fake it with? Let me see – more than I didn’t fake it with. That’s depressing. It’s funny what remains, what I remember, because it’s the stuff that never really mattered. One would randomly shove his hand down my pants while he slept. Sometimes that would lead to us getting naked, but often he’d stay asleep and I’d just go ahead and sleep with his fingers there. One never said a word during sex and I hated that. One I turned to afterwards and said, “Not to sound too porny, but when you come, you come a lot.”
I think the best part was when she concentrated on my neck, which I thought was pretty wound up, but I had no idea just how bad it was until she glided her thumbs upwards and I felt something shift and almost pop beneath my skin.
“I might not get the entire thing,” she said, “but I’ll loosen this for you.”
Her voice, like the tinkling music playing in the room, was soft and soothing.
“Are you on a computer a lot?” she asked as she all but called in backup to get rid of the humongous knot I was carting around like a loved one.
“Kind of,” I answered. “I write and teach.”
“Isn’t that wonderful!” she exclaimed. It was a lovely reaction, but I’m the kind of massage client who wants total quiet. Still, since I couldn’t hear her either breathe or swallow, I decided that this woman was a fucking queen and if she wanted to have some generic conversation, I’d be willing.
I really love sushi that’s wrapped in cucumber…
Luckily, the masseuse stayed quiet and so did I, at least until she got to my feet and I softly asked her if the pressure could be slightly increased. She began to circle her fingers around the ball of my foot and I reminded myself to pay attention so I could bring joy to the feet of the men I’d wind up caring about in the future.
“Are you okay with getting a scalp massage?” she asked then.
“Completely,” I responded.
Something warm and smelling vaguely of either nutmeg or patchouli was placed over my eyes and the total darkness enveloped me in pure comfort. The pressure of whatever had been put on my face managed to open some inner valve and my other pressures drifted out. It was probably the point during the massage that I felt most relaxed and also somehow the most alive – and that was before the scalp thing began.
I hadn’t checked out her hands too closely when we’d shaken hands hello, but I was relatively certain she only had ten fingers. It’s possible she sprouted six new ones for my scalp massage. I don’t think I ever realized how much tension I carry in my head! Maybe it’s because my hair is so thick (too thick) and that weight causes pain I didn’t even know I felt. The entire thing went by way too quickly and it felt so insanely good that I immediately complimented myself for the scalp massages I’ve given a few select people in my life because, like the masseuse who I decided should be my new best friend, I’ve got scalp massage skills for days.
Sell my script, publish a new book, take barre classes, stop looking at candy, grade all my papers, pay my cell phone bill, win an Emmy, meet Springsteen, convince my parents not to vote for Trump, fold my laundry, stop by the drycleaner, fall in love…
At a certain point, all the massaging stopped. I could smell a hint of peppermint in the air and I listened as I was told to inhale through my nose and exhale through my mouth. In one second flat, any congestion I’d been having from allergies and spiking pollen levels were destroyed.
I should get a massage every week…
“Okay, Nell,” she said, and I dreaded hearing those words because I knew that they meant it was all over. “Take your time and I’ll meet you downstairs with some water.”
“Thank you so much,” I replied. It sounded almost like my voice had come from someplace else like maybe some distant meadow where there were rows of sunflowers in bloom, cool steady breezes that would ruffle my hair like I was standing in front of a wind machine, and nobody anywhere in the vicinity who made an aaahhhh sound while drinking a cup of tea.
I pulled the robe around me and knotted the tie into a big floppy bow. I could feel it: I was covered in massage oil. All I really wanted to do was go home and take a shower and use the new exfoliating brush I’d just bought so my entire body would no longer smell like a Tic Tac. Somewhere around the start of the scalp massage, the band in my hair had been removed, but I hadn’t even thought to ask about its whereabouts. I toddled downstairs without it. I was moving a bit more slowly than I had been two hours before. I could still feel the impression of the gentle kneading of fingers touching my head.
“You look beautiful,” the masseuse said as she handed me a glass of water that tasted like oranges.
I should infuse my water at home…
“That was a great massage,” I told her with a smile. Then I shook her hand warmly and she led me back into the darkness of The Relaxation Room.
The place was empty now and the empty mugs the aaahhhh lady had sipped from had been removed – both of them. I suppose I could have taken just one more quiet moment for myself. I could have sat down in one of those velvet chairs and luxuriated with some tea in a place where nothing had to matter.
You know exactly what you want, you know exactly who matters, and you know who truly believes you matter…
And with that, I tossed out my cup, changed back into my clothing, and left a gigantic tip for my masseuse because the woman had fucking earned it.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.