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The Not-So-Happy Ending
“Big hands I know you’re the one . . .”
When asked by a curious novice to define jazz, Louis Armstrong famously quipped, “Man, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.” The same edict apparently holds true for certain aspects of the ever-popular massage, a fact I learned the hard way.
Not long ago, in preparation for an upcoming triathlon race, I made a massage appointment at my health club, an overpriced Manhattan institution with a brash late-seventies tennis legend as its spokesman, never check- ing on the gender of the massage therapist. As a straight male, I assumed that the receptionist would somehow match my implicit preference (female). Preference, however, would have been a moot point: my gym offers only masseurs (males).
Unfortunately, I discovered this only as I walked into the small, dimly lit massage room. There I met Hans, a tall, well-built forty-something who looked as if he owned a closetful of well-worn leather chaps for weekend use. But no matter, I thought, trying to keep positive. Hans seemed nice enough, and when he lit the candles and started the Enya CD (does the massage guild require all members to use the same music?) I began to drift off to that semirelaxed place that massage purports to induce.
Massage therapy, once an indulgence of the country club set, has become the Starbucks of the bodywork world. An estimated 20 million Americans spend $3 billion annually on visits to massage practitioners, totaling 75 million visits each year. Countless millions more are spent on less-regulated massage services, advertised in the backpages of alternative weeklies and often sought out for reasons that have little do with the restorative benefits. Clearly, many people see the massage experience as a potent form of stress relief and a pleasurable undertaking.
For me, it’s become the equivalent of air travel and medical exams: I rely on it, but I tend to want the procedure to be over fast, and I can’t be bothered with idle conversation. Hans, however, was unnaturally talkative for a man whose livelihood involved rubbing naked flesh. I did my best to ignore him, but the questions kept coming. “What do you do for a living?” “Do you stretch after you exercise?” “Do you know how tight your abductors are?”
I mumbled short responses—“I’m a writer and a comedian”; “usually”; “I didn’t know I had abductors”—hoping my terseness would dampen his curiosity. It did not, and he continued chatting as he kneaded his way up my thighs, his fingers dancing dangerously close to the unauthorized no-man’s-land. One of the more curious things about massage is that fondling what would be illegal in most civilized settings is considered the mark of a fine craftsman in this environment. But Hans stayed in bounds, which, given some of the previous indications, was a relief. I was put more at ease when he moved to my shoulders, safely away from the more vulnerable territories to the south. Eventually he asked me to flip over.
The massage roll is a tricky endeavor, particularly when all that separates you from indecent exposure is a threadbare rag the size of a handkerchief. But through a mix of dexterity and towel origami, I was able to make the turn without issue. Now that I was on my back, Hans was able to speak directly to me. I could no longer pretend I was unable to hear him, or bury my head further into the table’s extended face rest (which did not fit my face and was thus not particularly restful). I was vulnerable, and Hans seemed to sense this. As he was rubbing my chest he asked a question that came from well beyond left field.
“So, have you ever modeled?” Hans casually inquired.
“Uh, no,” I said, taken aback. “Not really.” Not really? Why my response left open the possibility that, yes, I did do backup work on the occasional Giorgio Armani print campaign, I’m not sure.
“Oh. Well you should think about it,” Hans replied.
“Yeah, um, I’ll look into that,” I said, wondering whether freelance day work would disqualify me from collecting my unemployment benefits.
And so it was that I learned an important rule of massage: Never discuss your recent layoff, unless you actually want career advice from a man rubbing warm juniper oil into your midsection. His suggestion was of concern to me for any number of reasons, not the least of which involved the fact that I lay prone and nearly naked in a dark room that may or may not have been locked from the outside. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, things got back on track, and he moved down to my quads, paying particular attention to the aforementioned abductors, which he claimed were “terribly knotted.”
As he was finishing with my legs, Hans announced that he would now move on to my head and neck. Fine, I thought, closing my eyes to avoid further conversation. When he was not taking advantage of the situation to try to chat me up, Hans was actually quite competent as a masseur. The rubdown did have its positive moments, from a physical perspective, and I found myself enjoying it, despite the suggestiveness of his previous remark. But just as I was getting relaxed, Hans stepped up to the plate, looking for a home run ball. “Would you care for a release?” he asked matter-of-factly as he was massaging my shoulders.
“Um, I’m not sure. What is that?” I stammered, hoping that the “release” was an ancient method by which he was going to balance my chakra or align my negative energy. But it was not to be.
“Well, some clients like to be masturbated as a part of their massage,” Hans answered, as calmly as if he were a drinking buddy reading aloud from the box scores of a meaningless midseason Yankees-Tigers game.
Clearly the “release” was part of his regular massage routine, and the client’s answer was, I assumed, generally affirmative. As with the jazz novice, asking about the release was an indication that one was not in the know.
“Masturbated, huh.” It had been a tough season with the ladies, to be sure. But even so, I was not prepared to stoop to this level.
“Yes, masturbated,” Hans said. “Does that interest you?”
“Um, yeah, not so much,” I said. “But thanks for the offer, I think.”
Undaunted by my refusal, Hans continued as though nothing had happened. But I was in shock, my mind racing with questions. Had I done something to inspire this offer, or was it simply part of the normal package given to all male clients (like some perverse form of free underbody rust coating)? Had he broken the law? And was I now obligated to give a bigger tip? I was confused, and not at all relaxed.
The massage went on for another ten minutes. When it was over I walked out quickly, thanking Hans under my breath. I took a long shower, rinsing the episode from history, and considered my options. I could complain about the unprompted violation to management, demand my money back and, possibly, some healthful perks as compensation for my trauma (free Clif Bars for life?), turning a bad experience into a windfall of protein. But then Hans would likely be fired or disgraced professionally. That seemed too harsh a course. I chose not to say anything.
When I got home, I logged on to the Web site of the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB), a not-for-profit whose mission is to “foster high standards of ethical and professional practice for therapeutic massage and bodywork professionals.” My detailed research yielded no mention of the “release” as a current standard or recommended procedure. Hans, it seemed, was working off the books.
And while the “release,” or “happy ending,” is quite common in certain exotic corners of the massage world (Asian parlors are particularly famous for it), one doesn’t generally expect it at an upscale establishment that features locker room attendants and exercise programs designed for pregnant women. Perhaps, as massage therapy goes mainstream, it’s simply harder for the agencies charged with governing its practices to keep a watch- ful eye. Or maybe, these days, “massage” is now just code for a hand job with forty-five minutes of bodywork foreplay.
Life in the modern world constantly tests the limits of our personal sovereignty. We are confronted daily with the crush of humanity—waiting in line for overpriced coffee, riding on the bus at rush hour, crowding into an office-building elevator next to the cologne-happy finance guy who thinks the world should bow to him because he has an MBA and a BMW. And while not always pleasant, these social interactions are guided by unspoken norms that the majority of us follow. For example, it is perfectly acceptable for your mother to walk up to you at a busy airport and plant a kiss on your cheek, inquiring how your flight from New York was. But when the ad rep from Syracuse whom you happened to be seated next to on the plane does the same thing, he’s quite likely violated your personal sphere of privacy.
In one way or another, we’ve all experienced a Hans—the overfriendly stranger who gets too personal too soon and who, despite the best intentions, puts us on the defensive by creating a dynamic of palpable discomfort, and then charges us $75 for the privilege.
In the end, Hans’s offer felt presumptuous and objectifying. But I also know that that’s slightly disingenuous because, had it been an attractive woman, I would have faced a tough choice. Moreover, in fairness to Hans I should admit that I fall squarely in what has come to be termed the “straight but gayish” (or previously alluded to “metrosexual”) camp. This defines men, like myself, who, while completely certain of their heterosexuality, tend toward midcentury modern design and flat-front trousers. That we even use the term “flat-front trousers” is evidence of the sexual ambiguity we seem to emit. To the women who like this sort of style and emotional sensitivity, we are just gay enough.
And while metrosexuality does have its advantages, it can, at times, backfire. Somehow, in my straight- but-gayness, I had been unwillingly escorted into an underground homosexual society. Perhaps gay men at high-end health clubs across the world were part of this global release conspiracy, enjoying a new level of benefits left out of the clubs’ advertising material and not made available to straight members. I know of gay male friends who have come across all sorts of adventure in sports club locker rooms. To be granted entrée into a world based, in large part, on looks and physique was a compliment. But while Hans’s offer was flattering, the incident left me wanting to swaddle myself in knee-length Gap denim shorts and high tops while chugging a pitcher of warm Schlitz in a brightly lit sports bar, moving cleanly into the realm of the unremarkably straight.
I still work out at the gym, and I still see Hans, hovering in the doorway of the massage room, his large, strong hands a reminder of the way we were. We don’t make eye contact, though I can feel his cold glare. It’s my allegiance to the facility that forces me to deal with our awkward situation—a release-crazy massage guru and a former client weathering the uncomfortable silences of a not-so-happy ending.