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My Multiday Massage-a-Thon

About a month ago, editors from this magazine, which employs me, and from which I am therefore loath to turn down assignments even when they are horrifying, assigned me to get a series of massages and other body treatments here in the coastal town where I live, Wilmington, southeastern N.C., Port City of Progress and Pleasure. There was a semi-legitimate journalistic impulse behind it, but it was also billed as an act of mercy. I’d been traveling and writing a lot for them, spending a lot of time in middle seats on international flights, and my body had reached new levels of vileness. The yellowish gray-green circles under my eyes had a micropebbled texture, and my skin gave off a sebaceousy sheen of coffee-packet coffee. My calves had developed a vague thrombotic throb. It was the kind of premature aging where you think, I’ll come back from this but not all the way.


When you feel like that, you don’t leap to be naked in rooms with an assortment of strangers while they rub their hands all over your bare flesh — there’s probably a fetish group for becoming as physically disgusting as you can and then procuring massages, but that’s not my damage. Also, there’s something about massage in general that makes me less, not more, relaxed. The boredom of it, the entrapment. Like you, probably, I know a couple of people who go around parties rubbing other people’s backs, and I cringe at their approaching hands. One of these shoulder-pirates laughed at me for it once, after I flinched, telling me I needed to “learn to receive love,” and I thought, That’s probably true, I’d bet I do. Faux-wise passive-aggressive hippie maxims always seem true and wounding in the moment.


Still, everyone, including my mother, who was visiting, said: “Your job! To get paid to get massages!” So I tried to embrace that. It seemed churlish not to. Even my body deserved to be touched, to be kneaded and ministered to. I drove around town checking out different places — only a couple looked sketchy; I think Wilmy has a pretty light scene when it comes to massage of the highway-billboard variety. I made a few appointments and then canceled them. Massage and I were just teasing each other.


Then one morning, inevitably, I woke up with a headache. Not a migraine, but a kind of necky, achy number. I rang up Miller-Motte College, a technical school on Market Street with a locally recognized department in Massage Therapy.


The next morning, a brown-haired young woman who looked to be in her very early 20s — and turned out to be 19 — introduced herself as Victoria and said that she would be my therapist. The room she led me to was spare, with a kind of maroon-gray-olive palette, hotel-conference-room colors. Victoria opened the blinds on the door window — it was one of the things the therapists had to do, so that their teachers could look in.


The erotic element of nonerotic massage is somehow comical. Even to mention it seems louche, but to glide past it is bizarre. My spouse, for instance, would say it’s creepy that I noticed it, but if I were blind to it, that would mean I was a sexually dead person, and she wouldn’t love me, and would be seen to be keeping me around purely in a “Weekend at Bernie’s” kind of way. When you think about it, there’s no other situation in life in which a man or woman touches you the way a massage artist touches you except in bed, or on the way there. It doesn’t matter if your person is attractive to you or not, and it can be the opposite sex from the one you’re attracted to if you’re attracted to only one. It’s just the simple act of someone rubbing her hands all over you, and not with the precise, deliberate motions of a medical procedure, but with, you hope, a certain tenderness and warmth. Even the traditional phrases — “I’m going to step out; you undress to your comfort level” — imply a problem, that a wrong move could make things uncomfortable. Nothing wrong with all this, of course — it probably adds to the health benefits — I merely mark the static.

非色情按摩中的情色元素往往比较滑稽。哪怕只言片语也会让人觉得道德败坏,但是对此默不作声却令人感到十分不自在。例如,我的妻子会说我意识到这一点十分诡异,但是如果我对此无动于衷,这也就意味着我的男性雄风已荡然无存,而且我妻子也不会爱我,就算她继续留在我身边,也只是形式大于意义的事情,一如电影《老板度假去》(Weekend at Bernie’s)。回过头来想想,除了床上的男欢女爱或前戏,人生中再没有其他人能像按摩师那样触摸你的肌肤。你不必喜欢按摩师。如果你只喜欢男人或者女人,按摩师的性别可能正好相反。按摩的内容很简单,只是有人用手在你全身触摸而已,动作不一定非得精确地、刻意地按照医疗程序进行,那种带有些许柔情和温存的动作才是人们所向往的。即便是惯例性的语句——“我先出去;请自行宽衣”——也会带来问题,即错误的举动会让人觉得尴尬。当然,这一切都没有错——这可能会让健康受益——我只不过在自寻烦恼而已。

I can’t say that the first massage penetrated very far. I had thousands of hours of Quasimodo-like keyboard-hunching stored in my torso, so it would have taken a genius to break through in an hour. Thankfully, Wilmington is full of massage places — there’s one in every strip mall practically — and I’d soon booked some tables. My take had shifted. The first massage was nice, and now I remembered that I could get unlimited free massages anywhere, which suddenly seemed exciting and like something I’d been cryptically but deeply deserving for a long time. I shaved, I took a shower, I took a couple of walks, I didn’t want to be quite as gross for the next one — motivation was creeping in. It’s like what they say: If you leave the house, you’ll want to go out more.


I got facials, something I never thought I’d do. It was like impersonating someone. For the people doing the facials, it must have been like having a grime-encrusted hillbilly come out of the forest and ask for a Brazilian. I did a couples thing with my wife at Paradise Body Works and Day Spa, where a woman named Rose worked on me. Rosita Messier is her full name. One lotion she put on me had a certain evocative smell I couldn’t place (“Pumpkin,” Rose said — they’d gotten in new scents for the holidays). Later, at the slightly more upscale Sambuca Modern Apothecary, I got a blissful two-hour biodynamic facial/massage from Tracy Meyer, learning about Dr. Hauschka’s skin-care products, said to be pure in ways that others aren’t. That procedure left me almost unable to rise from the table. I wanted to lie there like a glowworm in the feeling of cellular wellness. Tracy had good stories about her years traveling the world doing massages on cruise ships and a European ferry. More than a few of the people in the bodywork world, I noticed, had done significant international travel before choosing the profession. Massage can be one of those jobs you fall into when other things don’t work out. But that’s true for so many of us — we fall into our lines of work like coins dropping into slots, bouncing down off various failures and false-starts. And just as many of the women seemed sincerely passionate about their art. I was moved by them, and by the strip-mall salons and parlors where they do their healing work.

我做了面部美容,这是我自认为从来不会去做的事,而且感觉有点像在刻意模仿他人。对于那些面部美容师来说,这无异于让脏兮兮的乡巴佬走出森林然后去做巴西式除毛。我和妻子一块在Paradise Body Works and Day Spa美容院做了一次面部美容,接待我的是一位名叫罗斯(Rose)的女子。她的全名叫罗斯塔·莫塞尔(Rosita Messier)。她给我用的一款乳液闻起来似曾相识,但我却想不起来在哪闻过(“南瓜味”,罗斯说——他们特意为节日引进了一些新的香氛)。随后,在略为高档的Sambuca Modern Apothecary店,特蕾西·迈尔(Tracy Meyer)帮我做了一个极为惬意的两小时生物动力面部美容/按摩,期间,我了解了德国世家(Dr. Hauschka)品牌的护肤产品,得知它们拥有其他产品所没有的纯净。护理结束后,我几乎无力从按摩台上坐起来。我希望能像只萤火虫那样躺在那,去感受每一个细胞所散发出来的健康。特蕾西跟我讲起了她环游世界的故事,她曾在邮轮和欧洲渡轮上做过按摩。我注意到,在美容护理这个行业中,不少人在选择这一职业之前都曾周游列国。当找不到合适工作的时候,人们很容易就会把目光瞄准按摩这一类行业。其实这对相当一部分人来说都是适用的——人们入行如同硬币掉进老虎机,过程中充满了失败和抢跑。就在很多女士似乎在全身心地从事她们的艺术创作的时候,我被她们打动了,连她们从事美容工作的购物中心沙龙和美容院也让我为之动容。

My face looked markedly better when I got home. Blood was getting to more of the cells. I had extrication performed on a few bad pores. I had that gleaming countenance you see on people who’ve just come back from the spa. This is why they do it, I thought. No wonder there are more and more metrosexual men. Why wouldn’t you want to look slightly less ghastly? I bless their rage against the dark, saluting them as they pass by into a future of prolonged sexual plausibility, while I remain hobbled by my father’s midcentury notion of manhood, that any male who spent more than five seconds considering his physical appearance might as well be living in Liberace’s guesthouse.


That night, I went with my mother to the Asian Relaxation Center, better known among locals as the Asian Foot Soak Sanctuary, in the same strip mall as Fuzzy Peach fro-yo shop. You walk through a vestibule into a dark room, with black leather chairs, like beauty-shop chairs but as comfortable as those coin-massagers in airports. My petite mother sat in the chair next to mine. We got our feet soaked and I hope desanitized in tubs of fragrant red fluid, she by a powerfully built man in his 40s, and I by a woman, equally strong-looking. They started on our heads, which I loved, but which my mother could have left off the ticket, because it messed up her hair. But when they moved to our feet . . . there’s something about the feet and the ears, I noticed across the various sessions. This woman was practicing Chinese reflexology on me. She got her fingers up into the bones of my feet and started playing Rubik’s Cube. I yelped when she popped my toes. It’s easy to hurt the feet — which seems strange, when you consider all the abuse and weight-bearing they’re heir to. I’ve read a theory that possibly they evolved so many nerves because they’re prone to infection as well, and the more you can feel them, the less liable you are to slash them open and die of some disease. My mother at one point announced into the silence, “This foot massage is incredible!” It was. But the remarkable thing happened later that night, in the shower, when I bent down to wash my feet and found that I could feel them in a way I hadn’t done in 10 years. They felt almost strange, as if they belonged to another body, the way a limb feels when it has fallen asleep, only not numb in this case but newly sensitive, and softer. The woman was a magician. But quiet. I hadn’t even been able to extract her name. She’d been in the country only three months. She spoke very little English and mainly just smiled and nodded to questions, so I gave it up as awkward.

当天晚上,我和我的母亲去了趟亚洲娱乐中心(Asian Relaxation Center),本地人多数叫它“亚洲泡脚胜地”,与Fuzzy Peach冻酸奶店同在一个购物中心。穿过前厅,我们来到了一间暗室,里面摆放着皮质座椅,有点像美容院的座椅但跟机场投币按摩椅一样舒服。我身材娇小的母亲就坐在我旁边的椅子上。我们开始泡脚,我希望盆中红色带有香味的液体能帮助杀杀菌。我母亲旁边是一位40多岁的大块头男士,而我旁边则是一位女士,块头看起来跟那位男士差不多。他们开始帮我们按头,这个我很喜欢,但我母亲对此无爱,因为这会弄乱她的头发。但是当他们开始给我们按脚时……我注意到,在很多环节,我的脚和耳朵都有异样的感觉。这位女士正在给我做中式反射疗法。她用手按压我的脚骨,然后把我的脚当成了魔方。当她抽拉我的脚趾时,我大叫了一声。脚部容易受伤——这听起来很奇怪,尤其考虑到脚部工作量和它所承受的重量。我也曾看到过一个理论说由于脚部神经众多,因此很容易受到感染,而且脚部敏感的人不容易受伤,也不会轻易生病。我母亲的声音打破了静寂,“足部按摩太舒服了!”确实如此。但是当天晚些时候发生了一件更加神奇的事情。洗澡的时候,我弯腰去洗脚,我发现我的脚变得异常敏感,这是十年来没有过的事情。这种感觉很奇怪,好似这双脚是别人的脚,一如睡觉时手臂对外界刺激的感知度,不是麻木的感觉,而是如获新生的触感,而且还软软的。这位女士真是个魔术师,但话很少。我甚至都没问出她叫什么名字。她来美国才三个月,基本不会说英语,只是微笑,面对提问总是点头,因此尴尬之余我也只好放弃。

One woman I visited was unlike the others, a multimodality healer from New Mexico named Susan Chavez. She had silver bangs and was seemingly in her early 50s, though she professed to be many billions of years old. When she answered the phone the first time, she told me that she was outside gathering kale, and I pictured her in a field or forest, but as it turned out, when I showed up to her charmingly cluttered one-story house in a tucked-away neighborhood, she was growing kale in pots out front. She put me on a table in her side treatment room and used different psychometric devices on me, tuning forks and Tibetan singing bowls, also a vibrating eye mask. She told me I had a giant glass ball around my head, which needed cracking, and after she cracked it, she performed a Lakota Sioux raindrop treatment on my back.

我所接触过的女护理师当中,有一位与众不同,她就是来自于新墨西哥州的综合治疗师苏珊·查维斯(Susan Chavez)。她留着银色的刘海,看起来好像50多岁,然而她声称自己已经成仙了。当她第一次接电话时,她告诉我她正在外面采摘甘蓝,而我脑海里则呈现出了她在森林中的画面,但事实上,当我来到她家时,她正在门前的盆中种甘蓝。她住在一个偏僻的区域,她的家是一座平房,看似凌乱,但还是蛮有味道的。她让我躺在房屋侧面治疗室的一张桌子上,然后开始使用各种灵媒测试仪器,像调音叉和西藏唱钵,还有一个震动的眼罩。她说我头部周围有一个巨大的玻璃球,得打碎。在她打碎之后,她又给我的背部做了拉科塔苏族(Lakota Sioux)雨滴疗法。

Susan’s was the most complex of the treatments I received. She was full-on spiritual, whereas I, like Esqueleto in “Nacho Libre,” believe in science. So I was torn between my uncontrollable skepticism toward her techniques and the fact that some of them seemed to work — the singing bowls really did seem to be vibrating certain zones of my body in an obscurely powerful way. I don’t know. I’m still working through stuff I got into with Susan. I felt newly open to massage after meeting with her, but also vulnerable to it. After all, even if there’s something inherently funny about massage, down to the very word, massage, there’s also something unavoidably intense about paying that much attention to your body, not as an abstract concept but as the physical dying fact of it, lying in all its animality like a study by Lucian Freud. At certain moments I missed my old mode, which was to proceed as if I had no body at all.

苏珊的护理方式是我所接受过的最复杂的疗法。她奉行的完全是超自然的理念,而我却类似于《疯狂的神父》(Nacho Libre)中的伊斯克雷多(Esqueleto),相信科学。因此我感到很纠结,一方面,我不由自主地对她的方法感到怀疑,另一方面,其中的一些方法确有效果——唱钵确实让我身体的一些部分发生了共鸣,隐隐约约地,还很强烈。在经过她的治疗后,我觉得又重新有了按摩的欲望,但仍对此感到后怕。毕竟,即便按摩有其固有的乐趣,但是,就按摩这个词而言,它的落脚点将不可避免地直指你的肉体,这并不是一个抽象的概念,而是一个不争的事实,完完全全是人的本能,这一点在卢西安·弗洛伊德(Lucian Freud)的研究中有所提及。有些时候我很怀念我的老做法,那就是从肉体中超脱出来。

But the treatment that left the deepest impression on me was one that in the moment left almost no impression at all, the craniosacral with Mindy Totten, at the Oasis Center. You may know what craniosacral is already — I’d never heard of it. In fact I thought that “sacral” referred to sacred, and that it was more mystical than it is, but really it refers to sacrum, the triangular bone at the bottom of the spine. That said, it’s still somewhat mystical. There’s little hard science yet to show that people who practice this treatment are actually helping to regulate and balance the flow of craniosacral fluid through your body, or to indicate what such a balancing would achieve. But people subscribe to the method like you wouldn’t believe.

绿洲中心(Oasis Center)曼迪·托腾(Mindy Totten)的颅骶疗法(craniosacral)——事后给我留下了最为深刻的印象。但在治疗中,我却全无感觉。可能你已经知道了什么是颅骶疗法尽管我从来没听说过。事实上,我以为“sacral”一词可能与神圣(sacred)有关,而且充满了神秘感,但实际上该词与骶骨(sacrum)有关,也就是脊椎末端三角形的骨头。话虽如此,但它仍带有神秘感。很少有科学依据表明,接受这一治疗有利于帮助调理和平衡脑脊髓液在身体里的流动,或能起到平衡的作用。但是人们对这一疗法的狂热度令人难以置信。

Mindy said, “We generally work in silence.” For an hour I lay in a room while she barely touched me. At times I actually didn’t know if she was touching me. Her hand would hover above my leg, or lie under it, in perfect stillness.


Some profoundly emotional memories rose to the surface, the kind that can follow a troubling dream. I was thinking of people who died with whom I was not sure I had perfect transparency while they lived. It felt at the time as if the natural magnetism of Mindy’s palms was conjuring these thoughts. Whether something was being effected through the laying on of hands, perhaps through some unknown mechanism of the physical world, I can’t say. It seemed to matter less and less. Maybe that’s what massage is to a lot of people, those who don’t have chronic pain or migraines — it’s enforced meditation for those of us too distracted to meditate. You’re paying someone to meditate you. It’s not anything they’re doing, necessarily. It’s that they open a little window. They give you an excuse to lie there in silence and pay a deeper attention to the fact that you exist. The true value of shamanism may be a concealed one, that it holds us in place and says this.


Also, in the end I did look better. My mother before she left to go home commented on my skin, which had gone from looking like two cigarette holes in a white blanket to something more alive-seeming. I can’t say my immersion in the world of massage gave me calm — my anxiety proved impenetrable to all modalities, none of them touched the core, none of them breached the sarcophagus. But I am alive, and ready for fresh insults. I can feel my feet, albeit less and less each day.

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