As I lay on my stomach with a Chinaman sitting on top of me digging his elbow painfully into the most tender spot on by back and breathing heavily into my ear I couldn’t help but ask myself How did I come be here?
For several weeks now my wife has been trying to get me to go with her for a massage. “It will be fun,” she said with a devious grin. “It will be relaxing.”
The facility itself looked harmless enough as we exited the elevator on the second floor of a large commercial building. Low lighting, couches, dark walls, soft music. This looks like where Yani might live, I thought. What could possibly go wrong?
I have to admit I was more than a little apprehensive about the experience, picturing a masseuse as a large Scandinavian woman dousing me with ridiculous quantities of lotions and oils. Instead, we were ushered into a small room with three beds, each with a round hole cut out near the end. Will there be vomiting involved? I asked myself, noting the plastic bucket situated directly under the hole in the bed I was next to.
I had been prepared for the possibility of being naked for the massage. After trying to communicate with the staff about clothing arrangements we were handed large one-size-fits-all pajamas that I’m pretty sure used to belong to my grandfather. We quickly changed into our pajamas and were directed to lie down on our stomachs on adjacent tables.
My masseuse, or in this case man-seuse (I was expecting a female) looked innocent enough and attempted to break the awkwardness with small talk about where we were from in broken English. Apparently that was about the extent of his English because the only other phrases he uttered for the remainder of the time were “relax” and “OK?” The fact that he felt the need to tell me to relax was a little unsettling. But not nearly as unsettling as what came next.
There are a few sounds that I have heard in my life that make me cringe – fingernails on a chalkboard, car horns, the Backstreet Boys. The sound that accompanied my introduction to massage, though, quickly rose to the top of the list. My man-seuse had centered himself directly over and, without so much as a warning, dropped a piano on my back. Or at least that’s what it felt like. I had no way of knowing for sure because I was pressed against a mat with my face crammed into a hole looking at the plastic bucket beneath me. I was growing more and more certain that the bucket was there for a reason. The sound of my back cracking was roughly equivalent to a dozen Turkish men cracking their knuckles at exactly the same time. He did this not once but four times, each time leaving me shocked and gasping for air, my legs twitching in the air like a caterpillar’s antennae.
“Relax,” he said, more a command than a suggestion.
Moving from my back to my neck, my assailant found the spot that hurt the most and relentlessly continued to poke, prod and kneed it. “OK?” he asked as a formality. My muffled screams and cries for help must have been interpreted as a yes because he continued to dig his fingers into my neck until I thought – hoped even - that I might pass out.
Am I actually paying for this? I asked myself, cringing in pain. Who does this for fun? Perhaps there’s been some kind of mix-up. Have I inadvertently stolen something in Riyadh? Isn’t this why Guantanamo Bay is getting shut down? I replayed in my mind scenes I had seen from movies depicting torture. My man-seuse dug his small Asian elbow into my tender back and held it there. Perhaps he is hoping for a confession.
Apparently “Please, Sir, you’re hurting me” translates into Chinese as “Please, Sir, do more of what you are doing. Much, much more.”
My heart rate increased as I thought about what might come next. I was pretty sure the next step in the “relaxation process” would be to connect jumper cables to my genitals. Did I see a car battery on the way in?
While the jumper cables never made an appearance, my body continued to endure the most painful experience of my life. I was twisted like a pretzel, pulled like taffy and pounded like a batch of rising dough. Again my thought was: I’m actually paying for this? Granted, the cost of a massage in China is only the equivalent of nine US dollars. But it’s the principle of it: I was paying for pain. Does this make me a sadist? I always pictured sadists as creepy, pale, middle-aged deviants wearing black leather. Not wearing grandpa pajamas; not in a building with classy décor and bottled water; not my wife!
Next in my “relaxing” massage was a head rub, which felt good until he began to drill his fingertips into my temples until I couldn’t see straight. Maybe he was trying to purge my western mind of all its evil capitalist notions. Maybe he thought I would enjoy it. Maybe “softer” in English translates to “keep digging harder until you see blood” in Chinese.
I never thought that I would feel worse leaving a massage than when I entered. I never thought that I would need a safe word, especially one in Mandarin Chinese. I haven’t felt that happy to leave a building since I went to see Speed II in the theater. Just awful! Standing outside, feeling the warm sun on my face, free from my masochistic torturer, I thanked God that I was alive. The birds were cheerier, the sky was bluer. Well, less smoggy anyway. As we limped away, happy to be alive, I asked myself Is this what they mean by a “happy ending”?