Hard Lesson

ThaiMassage2The woman who walks through the door is little. Very little. She is wearing no expression.

“Hi,” I say. I want to apologize for being in my underwear; I never know how to greet strangers while I’m in underwear. Today it’s a polka-dotted boxer affair which I am only now rethinking on the mat in this Thai massage house. Before I can move my lips again, the woman barks a quiet order at me:

Stand up.

I do. Slowly. I grunt involuntarily, but it has the dual purpose of letting her know how badly my back hurts and conveying the idea that, boy oh boy, she’d better give me a damned good massage. Because I need it. She fixes the sheet, orders me back on the mat, and washes my feet. And with that, at minute 2, ends the calm and soothing portion of the 60-minute massage.

For the last two days my neck and back have been in severe pain. The origin of this pain is surely a night of swimming three days ago. Evidently, during the drunken karate kid flailing that I call ‘the breaststroke’ I created a knot in my upper back so large that it could be used to cross the River Kwai.

The pain is impressive. The kind of impressive when you begin to realize how much you’ve been taking things for granted, like walking, sitting, and the ability to turn your head. I never appreciate parts of my body more than when they are under attack by spasm, ulcer, or rupture. When I have a mouth ulcer, I can’t imagine life without it. A bad headache sends me into nostalgic reminiscence for a time when brain trolls weren’t poking the backs of my eyes with hot pokers.

It’s been a day and a half of muscle relaxers and ibuprofen. It’s been Youtubing Yoga poses for the upper back in a desperate attempt to return to a realm of life without excruciating pain. Turning my entire upper body to look both ways for traffic, I resemble that too-built no-necked linebacker from every high school. (All that’s missing is the muscles!)

And then there came salvation. I remembered that I had a voucher for a massage. A Thai massage. This morning, I waddled into my bedroom and found it. The voucher was in an envelope with some brochures and I scanned the joyous, comfortable, relaxed faces of the people enjoying the massage delectibilities peculiar to the Thai people. I made the call. Almost immediately, I felt better.

Until now, the extent of my Thai massage knowledge and experience has been from questionable videos on the internet, and a ten-minute foot massage ten years ago. I have had other kinds of massages, and they have all been pleasant. Perhaps this is because I have gone for massages only for simple pampering or to relieve some mild-to-medium soreness.

The experiences have mostly been the same. Quiet music. Candles. Basic conversation. Pleasure mixed with occasional pressure. Stress disappears for a while. Finished too soon. A stretch. A thank you. A compliment. No real change in feeling. In a word, easy.

But now I have pain. Real pain. And I want this small woman to fix it.

She does not beat around the bush. She picks up my right leg and begins kneading it like old Play-Doh. She digs and presses the sore muscles, finding another whole set of muscles underneath that I didn’t know existed until they were in excruciating pain. She does not let up at all, no matter how much I wince, moan, groan, and implore in manly wails of anguish. She does, however, go for the other leg.

It occurs to me: I am being tortured to death.

She attacks my arms as if they talked about her momma, digs her fingers into my pectorals, and performs a cavity search on cavities that she has just created in parts of my body that didn’t have cavities. She turns me over and I try to blurt out my name, rank, and serial number. As I slip into my happy place (Bob’s Big Boy Meatathon 2001), she stands on my ass.



I think: there is a human being standing on my ass. And then I think: I’ve never had to process that statement before. Nevertheless, the information goes through various mental filters, (which we’ll call denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), just in time for her to step onto my hamstrings.

Somewhere along the way, I curse the internet for lying to me about Asian-themed massages. I also direct hatred towards teh people on the brochures, whose faces convey comfort, peace, the melding of body, mind, and soul, not the twisted rictus of bitter agony that is gracing my mug.

As my masseuse steps onto my calves and bears down, I turn to philosophy. I don’t mean that I look to philosophy to help me cope with the pain, I mean I actually turn into a puddle of philosophy on the mat. Here’s what I come up with: I had pain and I had a problem and for some reason, I expected that to be worked out with no discomfort on my part. Why would I think that? And then I start to apply this to other areas of my life. Writing. Relationships. Education. Sometimes I want the payoff but minimal stress and pain along the way. I guess that’s unrealistic.

My masseuse presses her knees into my back and pulls my arms towards her, forcing me into a one-man Twister game. In this position, I conclude that nothing good ever comes easily. And then I peer open an eye, glance at the clock and notice that I only have five minutes left. I weep for joy.

When it’s over, she smiles at me and asks: ‘Are you OK?’

I nod. She leaves.

I stand less gingerly than before. I put on my clothes and do the post-massage diagnostic dance. I search for the pain that was there before. I am tender, but the pain is no longer bad. I can turn my head, thus ending my linebacker career.

I thank her on the way out and promise I won’t report her to the Geneva Convention.

I forget to apologize for my underwear.

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