In my family, men didn’t go to spas. Not even the uncle who managed gay bars for the mob. His “spa” was falling asleep on the floral print couch at my grandma’s house after Sunday dinner, because he closed the bar at 4AM that morning. My father worked in construction, and while he smoked Capri cigarettes and loved Barbara Streisand—he was a complicated man—the closest he ever got to a manicure was when he nearly cut two fingers off with a circular saw and I had to change his bandages. I’m a third generation immigrant and the first on my mother’s side to go to college, and also the first of the men to go to a spa.
Note: not a massage parlor. A spa. Named after the town of Spa in Belgium, which was supposedly famous since Roman times for its healing waters. Now you don’t need a mineral spring to have a spa, just some some hot rocks and cucumber slices, and a bunch of people with too much money. Of which I am now one, to my enormous, ex-Catholic, blue collar guilt. After following my father’s command to make the hardest thing I do at work be pushing my chair away from my desk, I’ve become a bougie white collar dweeb. I may be built like a tank because I’ve been a gym rat since high school—after three coked-up Jersey-Shore douchebags from the wrestling team clobbered me—so I’m the guy they look for at work to help push 3500 pound IBM enterprise server racks, and in my family, I’m the amateur masseur. I have strong hands and a knack for finding the knotted tendon in the shoulders of someone tired from waitressing all day or carrying sacks of concrete. But no one is strong enough to return the favor. Sarah got tired of doing the cha-cha-cha on my back and told me to go to the spa down the street.
Church of Bangz! I saw their bus videos, bro!
We live near a spa built in a former 19th century Masonic Temple, which itself had taken over a Baptist Church. It is said to be haunted, and some think its existence is blasphemous. Why? The Pope washes people’s feet, so what if you go to a former house of God to get yours exfoliated? It’s not like the Limelight in New York, which put S&M acts in cages in a former sixth avenue church, though monks probably invented flagellation…. I haven’t seen any vengeful spirits, but most of the time I’ve been staring at the mirror from a barber’s chair high up in the loft where the secret rites must have been performed, or face down on a massage table, high on aromatherapy and hot stones stacked like Blair Witch cairns on my scoliotic spine. I asked my barber, and he said, “I haven’t seen anything, but others have.” Like what? Is a poltergeist throwing loofahs?
Because the building is a historic landmark, they had to leave the exterior untouched, so I imagine the brownstone church was once occupied by Knights Templar, before massage therapists and hair stylists took over in a bloody battle that left freemasons impaled on thinning shears and colorists disemboweled by halberds and Bohemian Earspoons. The co-owner IS a master mason, so I was on the lookout for hidden statues of Baphomet.There’s something that about strutting into a gutted church, the vaulted ceilings and stained glass intact, to have your body worshiped by a legion of trained, attractive, well-coiffed artisans that inflames the privilege something fierce. I use a back entrance that takes you right to the spa area, down half a floor in an elevator, which gives it all an Eyes Wide Shut meets Get Smart kind of vibe. “Would you believe, under this cloak, I have a schwantz the size of a kosher salami?” Once inside, it’s all dark wood and gleaming chrome, with the sound of a waterfall on river stones behind glass, more of a Rainforest Cafe designed by unimaginative, overmoneyed tech bros. The cheerful receptionist points me toward the men’s locker room, because few men come here, all of us dazed, slightly embarrassed, and afraid we’ll break some kind of spa code and be banished for life. I’ve only met another man in the locker room once or twice and they are either terrified into silence or unnecessarily garrulous: “They got granola,” they’ll announce, pointing to a pitcher of lemon water and the jar that dispenses oats and raisins like a gumball machine at the petting zoo.
Treat your body like a temple, in ours…
I like to make it as uncomfortable as possible, by grunting responses in my brashest of Jersey accents, the one reserved for talking to a longshoreman about a trucker who walked outside the safety lines and got cut in half by a mobile gantry. “What ya gonna do?” So if they think I’m hitting on them, they’ll at least assume I’m a bear. It is a locker room in name only. There are no benches for old men to lounge upon naked with their nutsacks* dangling to the slate floor like a fleshy perpetual motion desk toy. There is folding screen for shy customers to change behind. There is granola, as mentioned. And there are grooming products for you to freshen up with. They don’t have my favorite: Consort hairspray for men. Designed for prospective male concubines, and meant to compliment Hai Karate cologne. My father used a jar of minty fluorescent gloop called Dippity Doo, which sounds like a cartoon dog sidekick. Scrappy Doo’s dumber brother. I have the locker room to myself today, so I change into the provided rubber slippers and a white terrycloth robe as thick and plush as a litter of sleeping Samoyeds, partake of the lemon water, and wait on the faux cowskin sofa until Liz, my massage therapist, knocks on the door.
Proud to say I’ve broken all of these rules in one day.
I’ve been going to Liz for half a year, usually after a few hours of Krav Maga and boxing, so she can undo the damage. She’s from the Dominican Republic and has a house there, which survived the last storm, thank goodness, but needs fixing up. It will be her retirement home. She’s also the deep tissue specialist, and has the strength of a Terminator. When I strained my rotator cuff and could barely move my arm, she tortured me for twenty minutes, muttering quiet succor—”poor baby”—while she crushed my tangled tendons beneath the marble rolling pin of her forearm. I wanted to scream, but one glance at her pitiless gaze and I bit through my tongue and bored holes through the ceiling with my eyes instead. But she fixed me up like Mister Miyagi, so she is a goddess in my eyes. A curly-haired myrmidon of Themyscira, whose iron forearms can deflect bullets like Wonder Woman, though they be bronze flesh and not enchanted vambraces. Liz leads me past rooms labeled “Serenity” (also a brand of adult diaper) and “Haven,” which she opens and tells me to sit on the table and dunk my feet in a washtub of soapy water in which she has sprinkled blue crystals. She could be a witch making bone broth out of my metatarsals. I do not care. I am under the spa spell.The first time she washed my feet I had to pretend she was the Pope, so I didn’t feel like a rich asshole making someone wash my wide-ass Hulk feet. Liz distracts me with talk of New Year’s Day and I try not to laugh because I am ticklish and this is weird as fuck. I have a thirty-year relationship with my podiatrist—I told you I have sasquatch Hobbit feet—but this never feels not wrong. I don’t care how many triple negatives that is. Thankfully it’s over in a minute and Liz leaves me to shuffle off my robe and struggle under the heavy blanket. She knows I wear boxers, but there’s a ritual to this. I think it’s so you can squeeze out any stray farts in solitude. Which would get trapped under the blanket unless she released them like smoke signals.
Shyly changing behind the screen lest others see my no-nos
Which reminds me, don’t those weighted blankets make you dutch oven yourself? How does that soothe your anxiety? As soon as you lift a corner, you’re going to get a whiff of your last three farts, marinated in your own juices. I tried one once, and it felt like being buried up to your neck in a Care Bear’s ass. Speaking of, I roll under the blankie and plant my face in a plush cushion shaped like an ass donut pillow for hemorrhoid sufferers and try not to think it’s a padded toilet seat or a glory hole. I inhale the intoxicating minty beach breeze aromatherapy pumped into the room, so much better than cave-aged blanket farts, and absorb the mellow tones of the Sirius XM Spa channel piped through the speakers. I know the name because the announcer husks it every few minutes like Kathleen Turner on Quaaludes. This is Sirius XM Spaaaaaaa. There’s only one ‘a’ in spa, Kathy. But as I wait, I find myself extending it like a koan. Spaaaaa.Spaaaaaaaaaa.
The music varies from windchime-and-whale fart auditory sleeping pills to spacey lounge and white people appropriating indigenous choruses, and the occasional bored Gregorian monk chanting passages from Revelations with accompaniment on the pan flute. I wish you could bring your own mixtapes. I could dig Isao Tomita’s Snowflakes are Dancing, or the Vangelis soundtrack to Blade Runner. What I listen to relax is drone metal by Sunn O))), three guys in Satanic robes with Marshall stacks that emit the brown note of super subsonic bass that shakes loose RNA from your chromosomes. Sarah says it sounds like garbage trucks downshifting on the highway, but to me it’s like an ASMR channel on YouTube. I don’t even know what that means or how you pronounce it. I say it assmurr. So I’d want to be assmurred out by subwoofers thumping their doom songs like “Her Lips Were Wet With Venom” and “Cursed Realms of the Winterdemons” while Liz donned a black cloak and rubbed me down with 15W50 motor oil and hot stones made from basaltic rock stolen from the tombs of evil warlords whose names were so loathed that the peasantry gouged them from the lintels of their crypts. Then she couldn’t hear me whimper when she grinds her elbow into my lats.
My right lat is abnormally large because I broke my leg by jumping off the ticket booth at the baseball diamond built on a landfill behind my grandma’s house when I was six. What can I say? I thought I was The Hulk. One leg smashed, and grew longer than the other one. I didn’t wear corrective shoe inserts for about ten years when I didn’t have health insurance that covered them. So I used to tie together Dr. Scholl’s heel cushions with duct tape until I felt like I was standing straight, which I wasn’t, and they’d compress and I had serious back pain for years until I got a job with good insurance and could afford the orthotic inserts. I still stand on one leg at shows like some sort of Frankenstein monster sandhill crane hybrid, but years of my body compensating for the leg have left my back a scoliosis disaster, and Liz helps me with the pain by breaking up that tense muscle fiber without mercy.
Did I mention the CBD oil? These sessions are best if you take CBD oil, medical or recreational marijuana, Hawaiian kava root, or preferably all three. I took a massive dose of the first of these, which isn’t supposed to get you intoxicated, but I’m a cannabinoid lightweight and after five minutes of Liz working her shiatsu sorcery, I’m drooling through the terrycloth butt donut face hole and murmuring glossolalic imprecations that would surely summon Baphomet if there truly were ghosts of masonic Templars stalking the flower encrusted halls of this unholy hedonistic sepulchre. I was so mellowed out on the walk down here that I skipped along, pumping nickels into the expired parking meters like an overfed, poodle-haired giggling gnome. And that’s when I really have to fart.
No statues of Baphomet were found in the masonic temple.
You knew this would be a 2000 word fart joke, didn’t you? The problem with holding in a fart during a deep tissue massage is that you tense up, and the massage therapist thinks that means you are either in pain or that they’ve found “the spot,” and start grinding their elbow into your ass cheek like a frantic competitor over-kneading a particularly pasty, over-proofed white dough on the Great British Bake Off. I am the loaf, struggling not to release the gases the yeast has spewn into the glutenous matterhorns of my glutes, while Liz, earnest, professional, unflappable Liz, is rocking me back and forth on the table to loosen my tense muscles. And as I’m squeezing for dear life, I remember the first time Sarah bought me a massage with a Groupon at a little Vietnamese-owned place where we knew the receptionist, and the massage therapist—a taut, black-clad strapping young lad with elbows like daggers—went to work on me in a room so tiny that he climbed up the walls with his feet while his elbow was in my ass cheek, because that’s how much of a tight-ass I am. I gave him a good tip, because that was some parkour level massagery, and also in the hope he wouldn’t talk. “That guy’s ass? It was like hammering granite. I left footprints on the wall. I kept waiting for him to fart and blast me out the air vent.”I didn’t fart that time. But he wasn’t Liz.I can hold my ass kegels for a long time. But Liz is stronger. Assisted by my CBD haze and the new age nasal chorale on the stereo, she defeated me. I cringed as I released what would surely be the interminable, sad death song of a beached narwhal, but I squeaked out what could only be defined as a dry little popcorn fart. A mere blip on the flatulence radar. For someone of my orchestral tuba Le Petomaine concertos, it was barely a fart at all.
Liz laughed. “Good, you relax.” Then she went back at my spine like the bear in The Revenant and breathed in the whispery breeze of sage and butterfly armpits wafting from the aromatherapy machine, knowing the dwarf star death fart was trapped safely beneath the terrycloth, waiting for me when the the massage was over.
Happy new year!
*The things I do for my craft….Benjamin Dreyer is the copy chief for Random House, and the author of Dreyer’s English.