Yesterday, Maureen Johnson www.maureenjohnsonbooks.com/index1.html tried to kill me.
Here’s how it went down. Yesterday—bad day. I felt generally unwell and Woody Allen-ish, i.e., it was the sort of day in which I did not seem right in my skin and I was certain this was a portent of my impending doom. Some people feel not right and they think, oh, I should get more sleep, or hey, maybe if I eat some protein and drink some water I’ll be right as rain. This goes against my fatalism. No, when I feel “off,” it means I have cancer of twelve different organs and I am going to die a spectacular death—which may not come until I am 95—but along the way I am going to suffer the death of a million paper cuts of anxiety. (This makes no sense. Whatever. I’m in pain. Don’t judge me.)
So. The scene: Me. Robin Wasserman. www.robinwasserman.com/ Maureen. A café in Manhattan. Writing implements. Coffee. I manage to get some work done but it’s not really happening because my neck and shoulders are so stiff and kinked up from the daily grind of dragging my computer around on my back up and down subway stairs and in and out of the city every day, that I can’t get comfortable in any position. I mention that I probably should just see if I could get a massage somewhere.
Maureen’s head shot up. “I know this place…” She scrutinized me. (Really, you have not been properly scrutinized until you’ve had MJ scrutiny. It leaves you feeling slightly soiled.) “How hard can you take it?”
Now, despite my anxiety-as-an-art form habits, I am very macho. I will not cry “uncle” even if it is in my best interests to do so. I ran cross-country as a teenager. I did natural childbirth…on Pitocin. (An evil drug used to induce labor when necessary. It takes the contractions up to 11.) This is not a good survival technique. It’s also probably why the thing that will eventually take me out will fall under a Darwin Award category.
“They can turn my spine to liquid and I will be silent as the slippers of a ninja.”
There was more scrutiny. Finally, she said, with a tone that hinted at challenge, “Okay. Here’s this place I go to. It’s not far. They will work your business out. It hurts at the time, but for a week afterward, you will feel so ah-maaaaa-zing.”
Robin looked alarmed. She tried to blink out a warning—“Are you insane??!”—by frantically fluttering her eyelids, but I just thought she had a deadline-related tic and it would be rude of me to mention anything.
“Give me the number,” I said.
MJ fished into the Impossible Well of Weird Things (Her purse, but honestly, so many oddities get pulled out of that bag that I half expect her to produce a llama or a portal to another dimension. It reminds me of the Fairy Handbag in Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners kellylink.net/magic-for-beginners, .). She produced a business card. Cream stock with black lettering and the name and address of a super-secret place. It looked like a card for a doctor’s office. Or somebody who might sell you house siding.
“So I just say I want a massage?” I asked.
“They’ll ask you how much time you want—60 or 90 minutes. Some people go for 90,” she said, and I thought I detected a hint of a smirk.
“I don’t think I need 90,” I said, in what, praise Jesus, was an unprecedented self-preservation move on my part. With trepidation, I called the number. “Um, I’d like to arrange for a massage?”
“What time?” said the serious voice on the other end. It sounded like we were arranging an illegal arms drop.
“We will see you at 2:00.” Click.
I packed up my gear and walked the fifteen blocks north. The House of Pain was located in a narrow, blink-and-you-will-miss-it building on an obscure block. It was sandwiched between a coffee shop with all the charm of a Soviet-era apartment and a small parking garage that was actually prettier than either building. A truly baffling buzzer took up half the entry wall. I spent a good five minutes searching for the right number (There was no logic to the grouping so 800 was near 72 and 106. This just furthered the sense of mystery—you have to figure out the code just to get in!) I have a thing about elevators, especially small elevators in unknown buildings where there is no one monitoring them. I have been stuck in elevators before. It was probably only about five minutes but I swear I had an out of body experience and they found me communing with the walls and whispering about the buffalo when the doors opened again. (They still talk about me at Target.) I don’t do confined spaces. Instead, I found the fire exit and climbed the eight floors of incredibly steep stairs to my destination. By the time I got there, I didn’t need a massage so much as an oxygen tank. The very skinny hallway smelled faintly of plastic and garlic. I opened the door and entered a room with a desk, three chairs, and a beckoning cat figurine welcomed me with a raised paw. There was no soothing new age music or essential oils with names like Healing Lotus Blossom of Lavender burning in a ceramic bowl in the shape of a mother-and-child yoga pose. Nobody came over and asked me in a whisper if I’d like some lemon-scented water or green tea with infusion of honeysuckle. There were no elaborately packaged products lining Ikea-style open shelves or a rock garden with one rock of wisdom: Love your body, love your self. I’m telling you, if Marines ran a spa, this would be it.
The girl behind the desk asked, “Is this your first time?” which made me feel so unhip.
“Yes,” I answered.
She handed me a no-frills clipboard with an intake sheet. “Fill this out, please.”
It also didn’t play around. Instead of the usual, “Do you have any medical conditions our therapist should be aware of?” or “Do you take any medications?” “Do you prefer a softer (Swedish) massage or a more vigorous massage?” it asked whether I had deep vein thrombosis or heart problems. It was like I was being drafted, and they needed to know if I could handle the rigors of combat. When I turned it over to see if there was more on the other side, I saw somebody else’s intake sheet all filled out and with a line through it. I was wondering if he hadn’t made it back.
But MJ had promised this place would cure my ills, and I was going in.
I was ushered into a communal room bordered by drapes, like a shared hospital room, and told to undress and lie face down on the table with the covers over me. The covers consisted of one of those paper sheets you wear at the doctor’s office and a towel. I lay down and waited. The therapist (whose name, I found out later, was Lisa) entered and immediately complained to the receptionist who told me to get up. I had gotten on the wrong sheet. Lisa exhaled sharply at my stupidity and ordered me about and already I was itching for her to abuse my knotty back. Any woman who starts a massage by letting you know just what a burden your incompetence is to all mankind, well, that woman knows the way to my heart. This woman will not play. She will not ask you to picture a beautiful beach in your mind. She will bring it.
Once I was lying on the proper sheet, and all modesty had been thrown to the wind, Lisa yanked down the cover and dropped hot, damp towels on my back. Like, really hot. “That’s what I’m talking about,” I said in my macho mind as I tried to ignore the smell of seared flesh. Then Lisa got down to it. She rubbed—hard—and though it was slightly painful I told myself this was what I was paying for. But, apparently, that was just the warm-up. I was, I suppose surprised is a good word, when Lisa climbed up on the backs of my legs, pinning me down so that I could not escape, and introduced my shoulder region to the not-allowed-under-the-Geneva Convention application of her elbows. I made a sound—I think it was a cross between a gasp and an intercession to the saints. And then…then? Then Lisa got serious.
Oh, sweet Jesus.
I’ve always been somewhat vague on the location of my internal organs. It’s kind of like certain Midwestern states—Idaho is near Iowa…ish? This is how I have been about the latitude and longitude of my kidneys and liver. I know they’re there; I’m just not real certain where there is.
I now know, with excruciating accuracy, exactly where my liver is—what’s left of it. Because at some point, Lisa reached through my back, grabbed hold of my liver with all five fingers, then kept digging until she had plunged my organs through the table, the floor, the pavement of New York City and then, Gandalf-styles, into the fiery bowels of Middle Earth. I made a sound that I think was a scream but it was only inside my head as I waited to hit some merciful rock bottom with the Balrog, but I just kept falling in a cone of flesh-melting, Lisa-induced agony.
“Too hard?” Lisa asked.
“No. ’s good,” I gasped, because I think we have already established my skewed ratio of face-saving to survival skills. Christ, this woman was killing me. I hated Lisa. Hated her with the kind of hatred I normally reserve for people who stop to text at the top of an escalator. How did she sleep at night? She probably had a framed picture of Stalin. Hell, it was probably autographed. And who had sent me to this Brutality Pit? Maureen Johnson. I was beginning to understand why “The A Team” is her favorite show. Maureen Johnson is more of a bad-ass than I ever gave her credit for.
That’s when I started in on the visualizing. Beaches. Soothing colors. Goodnight Moon. Puppies. But the puppies kept turning into rabid, teeth-baring predators who wanted to eat my ligaments, and Goodnight Moon started off, “In the great green room, there was a telephone and a red balloon and a slow descent into the sort of hellish madness that incessant pain brings.” At some point, I was conscious only of the sound of my breath, hard and feral, very close to Lamaze breathing, and the chirpy girl on the other side of the curtain also getting a massage who had the audacity to say, “This feels so awesome!” I wanted her dead, too. She probably got some touchy-feely massage therapist—the anti-Lisa—who encouraged her to “love her muscles” and who told her all her feelings were special.
For five merciful seconds, Lisa stopped to re-oil her hands. My body said, “Psssst! We have to get out of here! Quick, while she’s distracted!” And then I had a terrifying realization: She still had to do the other side.
I lost all sense of time. I vaguely remember coming up off the table at one point in an involuntary way and drafting a will somewhere in my head. And then, by some miracle, the timer went off. Lisa beat her fists against my back in farewell and left without saying a word. When I finally managed to maneuver my body off the table, I promptly fell over like a toddler. With effort, I dressed. I couldn’t manage the snaps on my coat and figured that snapping your coat in 20-degree weather is overrated. I paid, tipped Lisa via envelope (I was too scared to see her again), and hobbled down the eight flights of stairs out onto the New York streets. It felt a little like the end of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” when the girl laughs maniacally at Leatherface from the back of the escape vehicle.
Today, I am wearing the softest clothing I own and I can’t actually place my back against any object, say, a chair, because I will scream in agony. But my neck and shoulders are completely free of knots, and I feel as if I have cheated death.
And I have a hell of a dentist to recommend to Maureen.