I've been here dozens of times, but the door's always been closed. I often wondered what it looked like inside, and today—on a whim—I see. The room is small, maybe eight by twelve, and most of it is occupied by the padded table in its center. A few shelves mounted high on the walls hold towels, oils, candles, a CD player, and a small collection of discs—classical music and nature sounds, although none are currently playing. On the ledge beneath the table are stacks of clean sheets, neatly folded. A wicker basket in the far corner contains the used linens. The walls are a soft shade of taupe with a hint of russet blush to warm them, and a mud brown area rug stretches virtually wall-to-wall, covering the bare linoleum tile. One large window, on the only outside wall, is covered by bamboo blinds, closed to the day's bright sunlight. A torchiere lamp tucked into one corner provides the only unnatural light, and its bulb is shaded with a pale peach scarf. The wall fountain gurgles lightly as water trickles over its rocks. In all, the room has a very earthy—almost primeval—feel. It is an atmosphere conducive to relaxation.
I stand in the doorway and watch her quickly strip the linens from the table and replace them with fresh, her movements fluid from years of repetition. When she finishes, she immediately turns to me, arm extended, and I hand her the clipboard, with its completed client information sheet. She tucks it under her arm and grins, putting me at ease. Her features are elfin—delicate with an underlying strength, confident and devastatingly feminine. I feel a hint of something that I'd rather not feel in this environment—with this person. I'm here on business, after all—even though that business is pleasure. Health, too. And vitality. Vigor. Peace. All those things. All those things wrapped up in touch—in skin. My throat is suddenly dry.
"No," I manage to croak.
"Then you know the drill. Undress to your comfort level," she continues in a soft voice, handing me a pale green flannel sheet which feels as if it's just been taken from a dryer, "and lie on the table on your back. I'll be back in just a moment."
I can't look her in the eyes. In a few minutes, she'll be running her hands over my skin, and it's too much—too close for comfort—to also let her capture my gaze. I feel the need to hold that part of me in reserve, so I busy myself untying my sneakers and just say, "Okay. Thanks."
The door closes with a soft snick, and she's gone. Exhaling, I peel off my socks and stuff them into my sneakers. "Steady now," I mutter as I disrobe, hanging my jeans, sweatshirt, and underclothes on the hooks on the back of the door. No mirror, I note. That fact would have comforted me at one time, but now it's merely an observation. I used to dislike being naked, even when alone. Doesn't bother me any more. I've worked hard to regain my health, and in the process, I've become more comfortable in my own skin than at any other time in my life. I still expect, though, to feel at least a little self-conscious being naked in an unfamiliar place and—very soon—with an unfamiliar person. However, I don't today and that surprises me a little. It makes me wonder if I am somehow familiar with the situation in ways of which I am not conscious, or if I've really changed so significantly in the past few years. I hope the latter.
It's not at all chilly in the room, but I don't want to be standing there in my birthday suit when the door opens again. It's a busy place, after all, and I really don't want to flash the other customers. So, I quickly mount the table and cover myself with the sheet. It's warm! No, not the sheet. Well, the sheet's warm, too, but I'm referring to the table itself. It must be heated, although I noticed no cords or controls. Damn, it feels wonderful.
I lay back and stretch the sheet from toes to shoulders. It's light weight and clings to my curves, making me feel somewhat like a topographic map. I notice the ceiling for the first time. Just the standard drop tile, but someone's painted it a deep blue and sprinkled tiny yellowish-white stars across it. I'm thinking they probably glow in the dark when there's a soft knock on the door.
"Ready?" she asks, opening the door a crack.
I experience a moment of apprehension—a miniature panic attack at the looming intimacy—but swallow it with a gulp. "Yeah."
She slips into the room, closes the door, then remembers something. She reopens the door, and I know without looking that she's putting the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the knob. I hear a beep as she turns off her cell phone and places it on a shelf.
A hand prompts me to lift my knees. First contact. When I do, a semi-cylindrical bolster slides beneath them.
She hears something insincere in my voice and studies my face for a moment. I smile and assure her that I'm very, very comfortable—physically. She catches my drift. She knows I'm pushing myself. She also knows I need this.
In an effort to ease my unease, I ask what type of oil or lotion she uses. I'm kind of a snob about the stuff, which is rather weird seeing as how I'm far from a "high maintenance" kind of woman. But, this is skin we're talkin' about! I'm serious about my skin. I'm rather surprised that she can't rattle off the contents of the jar in her hands, but she does the next best thing and reads it to me.
Funny how the label reading calms me, but it does. There are no complex chemical-sounding names and, more importantly to me, no mineral oil or petroleum compounds. Just nut oils and other organics. Good. They can actually nourish the skin, whereas the others just lay on top of it. I'm ready now—or as ready as I'm gonna get—and she senses that.
Standing at the head of the table, she starts with my face. Damn! It's not easy to let someone touch your face, and I feel the muscles in my brow twitch—itching to form that little crease between my eyes. Even a lover's caress is typically brief, moving quickly away from the intimate and toward to the erogenous. Big difference, I realize. Huge.
She feels my reticence and backs off just a bit. She lifts the back of my head into her palms and allows the fingers of each hand to stroke the long, tight muscles along the back of my neck, pulling slightly upward and turning my head gently from side to side as if to ease it from my body like a cork from a bottle. I make an involuntary guttural sound, which she interprets as appreciation. It is.
Just a little bit of scalp massage. It feels good, but I don't think I hold much—if any—tension in my scalp. I'm thinking that I'd rather she focus on the trouble spots when it hits me that she's back on my face. Sneaky!
This time, she works my jaw. It's not as unsettling as having the central part of my face touched.
"No," I murmur. "Why?"
"You're tight here."
I just grunt something monosyllabic and non-committal because she's moving back toward my eyes and my forehead. It doesn't faze me now, though. A barrier has been overcome. Oh, it's not as if I would've stopped her earlier, but the objective here is to lessen tension—not heighten it. She understands this very well. Very well indeed.
Her fingers lightly cover every millimeter of my face. No deep pressure, just feather strokes and tapping. My lips, conditioned to respond to touch, want to capture the fingers between them—to return the caress in an equally pleasurable fashion. I remind myself to be still. Accept. Take, for a change. I'm not very good at being passive.
Arms are next. As she works, I recall how I once hated my upper arms; how I wouldn't wear sleeveless tops even on sweltering summer days. She somehow senses this and asks, "Did I trigger a memory?"
"Baggage," I admit. "Good riddance."
"Gotcha. This isn't easy for you. I can tell."
Is it that obvious? I don't know how to respond, so I do what I typically do in those situations: I retreat. I tiptoe away, leaving my body to enjoy her touch without the interference of my mind. Alone in my little emotional cave, safe and dark, I wonder why I invest so much energy into hiding my insecurities. In so doing, what do I achieve? More importantly, perhaps, what do I lose? The deepest, most fulfilling relationships I've ever known are those in which I bare those insecurities—or, at the very least, am willing to do so. Is there any love deeper than the absence of fear?
"You're doing great, though." Her voice follows me into my mind cavern. My body is sinking into the warm table; muscles—even the ones she's not yet touched—are beginning to let go of stored frustrations. I drift. It's quite pleasant, ethereal.
She hums softly—or, maybe it's me. There's a blending, it seems, of our selves. Her confidence, her competence, infuses me with a peaceful energy. Then, with a hand resting on each bare shoulder, she whacks me with an emotional 2x4:
"May I massage your tummy?"
My tummy. Oh, fuck! The core of all my body angst. I remind myself that even when it was firm and flat, I believed it unattractive. Now it's round and there's ample cushioning over the muscles. And scars, too. Those striped mementos of three big babies and over a decade of neglect. Can't forget the scars.
She waits. While she doesn't speak, I can hear her saying, "Trust me." What's the worst that could happen? I ask myself. What's the best?
"Sure." My own voice surprises me.
Without opening my eyes, I can feel her smile. She takes my consent as a compliment, which, in a way, it is. "Thanks."
"Here," she continues, forcing me to open my eyes. She lays a folded sheet across my breasts. "Pinch the corners of this for just a sec."
I do, and she carefully tugs the cover sheet from beneath it, pulling it down and exposing my abdomen. I try not to think about what she may be thinking. She's a professional, I remind myself. Not that it helps. Professionals can be nit-picky critics, too. But, really, what does it matter if she finds my tummy repulsive? How can I expect her opinion to differ from my own?
The worst, of course, doesn't happen. She doesn't gasp or exclaim, "Ew, gross!" I knew she wouldn't, really, but fear is not rational. A goal I've long sought teases my consciousness. I think I see a way to reach it, or at least a way to continue the journey.
As my mind wanders, she's doing things to the muscles on either side of my navel: pressing deeply, having me inhale, bend my knee, and then exhale as I slowly lower it. There are audible popping sounds in my back as I comply. I am amused. She seems pleased with what she's accomplishing—on more than one level, I suspect.
"Does this hurt?" she asks as she circles the table to repeat the process on my right side.
"No. Should it?"
"As hard as I worked it? Yes, definitely. But, you'll notice a big difference in your lower back when you stand. Those muscles connect to your spine. They initiate walking, which is why they often knot."
She pulls the sheet over my tummy when she's finished there. I'm so proud of myself. I conquered a fear. Hooray for me! I drift into self-congratulatory musings as she moves on to my legs. After a few minutes, I realize that I completely forgot to worry about her impression of my thighs.
By the time she instructs me to flip over, I'm just floating. My body is so relaxed that I'm loath to engage the muscles required to turn. But, turn I must if this incredible experience is to continue.
She lifts the sheet like a privacy screen, turning her head. It's unnecessary at this point, because I've no modesty remaining. I roll onto my stomach, and she blankets me again. The heated table feels divine against my chest. She fiddles with something under the head of the table, and pieces shift such that my arms comfortably dangle and my face rests in a doughnut-shaped pillow. I can see the floor.
When she stands at the head of the table, I can see her feet. She's not wearing shoes. Just those thick socks—the kind the crunchies wore with their Birkenstocks back in my undergrad days. There's a small hole in one of them. The left one.
The sheet settles over a new topography. I'm much more confident in this position. Ass up. My better side, I believe. I'm long in the torso, which gives my back a fluid grace I don't find in other parts of my body. Oh, occasionally I'll glimpse it in the line of cheekbone or jaw, but it's seldom and, I suspect, more a flattering play of light and shadow than anything else.
She starts with my feet, which I absolutely love. I'm not the least bit ticklish—at least, not on my feet—probably because I spend as much time as possible barefoot. Moving on, she uncovers one leg at a time and works each muscle group, all the way up to, and including, my ass. It's extremely sensual, but not the least bit sexual. Again, I drift. My thoughts are of warm waters and gentle breezes and the kind of silent camaraderie that takes my breath away.
Resting a haunch on the table at my waist, she carefully lifts my arm and drapes it over her thigh. The added contact makes me instantly aware of her body, her femininity, her sex. She's very appealing, and the competence and joy with which she practices her craft make her even more so. Under different circumstances, I could easily take her right there on the table. Not today. That's not the kind of taking on today's agenda.
In the course of her ministrations, she presses on a couple of spots above my elbow, and I feel a shift in my shoulder. "Yes! Got that sucker," she whispers, more to herself than to me. After she repeats the entire process on my other arm, she trails her fingertips down my forearm—elbow to hand.
I am stunned at the intimacy. My hands! Oh, stop. It's too much. I'm whimpering inside, maybe outside, too. She makes tiny circles in my palms. Her fingers stroke mine, one at a time—base to tip—pulling me away from my self. Stop! No. No, don't. Don't stop—ever. I've never been touched in this way. I'm exposed. It's frightening—and liberating.
I ache when I think of all the beauty I've allowed to pass me by. A single tear drips onto the floor, and with it goes my fear. All the resistance, all the insecurities, all the worries suddenly seem such a phenomenal waste of time and energy.
She finally pulls the sheet from my back, rolling it upon itself until it rests on the crest of my ass. This is why I'm here. "Neck and shoulders," I'd written on the info sheet as my problem areas. Seems like eons ago, but it couldn't be more than thirty minutes—maybe forty. Moving to the head of the table, she places both of her hands on my back. "Your skin," she begins, but doesn't complete the sentence.
I give myself to the touch, and she delivers. With each stroke, I get lighter. The Unbearable Lightness of Being—I get it now. She's in my head and under my skin, and I can feel our energies merging. I surrender completely, yet I've never been so powerful.
I'm sure time is passing, but I'm oblivious to it 'cause I'm traveling at the speed of thought. That smart guy with the funny hair said it was all relative, and I think he was right.
There's a soft tap on the door. Another, a bit louder.
"Wow," she breathes. "Are you okay?"
I can't yet speak, so I just nod.
"Steph," a voice calls. "Your two o'clock's here."
Turning her head toward the door, she responds, "Sorry. Just a sec."
To me, she continues, "You went so deep, and I got pulled into you. It was like a trance. That's never happened to me before." She pauses for a moment and then repeats, "Wow."
She starts to say something else and instead shrugs and slips out the door.
I dress quickly and step into the reception area. She's telling the proprietor about me—how she was blown away by the experience. On and on. She's as bubbly and energized and enthusiastic as I am reflective and empowered.
"Thank you so, so, so much!" She smiles and extends her arm to shake hands in parting. I freeze. For a split second, I'm afraid to touch it—afraid the force of that intimacy will return. I'm standing up, after all, and it might knock me off my feet. Then, I mentally slap myself. How easy it is to backslide.
I return her smile as I grasp her hand. It's just a hand, of course, but I am again changed. I am—now and forever—open to the infinite, and I am—now and forever—beautiful.