A Body is Just a Body is Just a Body
“You deserve this Suzanne,” he whispers in my ear, “Relax.” The sound of the waves crashing against the cliff below the balcony where I lay, naked, fill my ears as his knowledgeable hands work their magic all over my body. Stefan is strong, but gentle, his long, dark hair tied back in a ponytail. I catch glimpses of his tattooed forearms when I flutter open my eyes as he works on my shoulder tension. I try in vain to force the chatter in my head to melt with the sea foam, but I just can’t relax.
We came to Esalen for a writing retreat, my friend, Jenny and I. “Ooh! Esalen!” friends said, “I heard that place is a nudist colony.” Concerned, Jenny wrote to the organizer of The Sun Magazine’s writing program. “Are clothes optional in the workshops?”
She was assured that our fellow retreaters would be wearing pants when sitting cross-legged on cushions in the writing yurts. So we packed up our flowy tops and leggings, chocolate, wine and journals, and headed to Big Sur for a long weekend.
Sure enough, everyone in line at the kale salad bar is dressed, but down at the Cliff-side spa, not so much. Naked people of both sexes confidently roam the stone halls and stand under the showers, their nipples pointing toward the sky, their penises dangling toward the earth, while Jenny and I dodge behind the columns like Scooby Doo and Shaggy with our towels wrapped tightly around our 50-something freckle-covered bodies.
“That man was good looking,” Jenny whispers as we pass a dark-skinned stranger on the stairway. “I didn’t see his face,” I say. “Neither did I,” Jenny jokes.
We arrive at the massage tables in rows on a patio atop the cliff. No dividers. Nude people on every table and not a towel in sight. I haven’t been naked in front of a man that wasn’t my husband for over 20 years and now I have no choice but to drop my towel, climb on the table and “relax” under the capable hands of Stefan. I keep telling myself, “A body is just a body is just a body. He’s seen a lot of bodies. He’s not judging my spongy buttocks.” And then I feel something scratchy. Is that beard bristle on my inner thigh? What kind of place is this? No way, it must be a callus.
“You can roll over now,” he says calmly, his hand resting in the middle of my back, and I do as he lifts up a near sheer sheet that must have had a thread count of 20. I open my eyes enough to complete the turn and I notice that Stefan is clean-shaven. His face is smooth as I am hoping my legs are. Did I shave before this trip? At least I know it wasn’t beard. I did get a pedicure but I can’t recall if I shaved. And what did they say was for dinner tonight? Some kind of soup of garden vegetables I think. I wonder how my husband and children are doing. Did he remember the soccer snacks? I know I should be relaxing, but I am intentionally trying to think of everything BUT this massage lest I pay attention to the fact that Stefan is kneading my stomach and I am trying hold in my single ab.
The thing is, I usually love massages. I love them so much that I never want them to end. I often spend half of the massage thinking “Please don’t let this be the last thing!” But as much as it is exquisite and is getting into places I didn’t think could be gotten into, this beautiful massage just feet from the ocean can’t end soon enough. And it’s not the first time I’ve felt this way.
I was the PTA president back when my children were in elementary school and at the end of the year, the parents chipped in to get me flowers and a gift certificate for a massage. Wonderfully thoughtful indeed. The problem was, the well-intentioned mama who collected the money, gave me a gift certificate from her family business. And it turned out her husband was the business’s only masseur. I put off using my gift because, well, I didn’t really want to get a massage from the father of one of the kids in my daughter’s class. I couldn’t exactly give the gift certificate to anyone else because, the givers would totally know.
When school started back in the fall, massage mom asked when I was going to redeem my gift certificate and I made up an excuse about not having time for myself. When we gathered for the holiday party, she asked if I might carve out time over the Christmas break and I said we were going to be really busy what with cookie baking and present wrapping and caroling and all. When the next summer came and she asked again, I promised that I would make an appointment.
The “spa” is in an old apartment building turned office suites. The waiting room resembles a living room. The husband/masseur welcomes me and says I can change in the dressing room, pointing to the bathroom. He asks if I would like some water. I say sure and he retreats to the kitchen/commissary to retrieve it.
“There’s a towel on the rack,” he calls out, “You can head right into the treatment room and make yourself comfortable on the table.” I head to the dressing room with its 1940s salmon-colored Burbank apartment bathroom tile and neatly fold my clothing as if I’m in a doctor’s office, hiding my bra and panties in the folds of my jeans and I’m thinking “Shit Shit Shit Shit”. There aren’t any spa robes, but there is indeed a tiny towel. I wrap it around me and it barely connects under my armpits. I am fairly certain my butt cheeks are visible below the bottom seam as I scamper across to the treatment room with a massage table where the bed would be, and an assortment of lotions and oils atop a doily on a chest of drawers. Incense is burning and the sound of running water and flute music is coming from a CD player in the corner.
I hang the teensy towel on the hook behind the door and quickly dive onto the table, pulling the sheet on top of me. This sheet is crepe paper thin. I can see my freckles through it. “A body is just a body is just a body. He’s seen a lot of bodies,” I tell myself, but I jump up and retrieve the towel from its hook just as the PTA dad knocks on the door. “One moment,” I say as I rush back to the table and put the towel over me pulling the sheet up over it. “Sorry dude, you ain’t getting the full show.”
To be clear, nothing untoward happened, and I think it might have been a decent massage if I hadn’t personally known the guy’s wife. I was grateful that I rarely saw him at school because let’s face it, it was awkward as hell that there were two dads at that school who’ve seen me naked. And I wish I’d just trusted my instincts and said no. I went because I felt bad for all of the parents at our Title One School who’d given their hard-earned money to get me a gift. I used it because it was a gift, but I knew in my heart I should have gone with my gut and told that mom that it was WEIRD to give me a massage by her husband. I should have declined.
But I was brought up to be polite. I was brought up to be grateful. I grew up in a time when most women heard sexist jokes and laughed them off, when men in the office would pat my butt and I’d casually take it because you don’t call someone out for a harmless touch. I never did hone my HELL NO THIS IS INAPPROPRIATE RADAR skills so I put myself in a ridiculous position for no good reason except that I didn’t know how to say No.
It has been over two years since my last massage. I cannot wait for the next one. What I know is that I will be more comfortable with a female therapist. The towels will be thick and come to at least mid thigh. And I will try to stop the chatter in my head to take in the sound of waves, flute serenades or my own peaceful breath because I have evolved beyond accepting needless stress on a massage table. A body is just a body, but this body only deserves the best.
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As shared at Story Salon on April 27, 2022.