A recent massage at a new-to-me spa proved once again that sometimes I don’t get what I want, I get what I need.
First off, it was a Korean spa, but not the one that has been a personal oasis for the past five years. Since that one has gotten overcrowded and I feel like a victim of its success, I settled on a less popular backup with whirlpools of varying temperatures, hot and dry sauna and heated rooms (salt, sand, charcoal, clay, jade) where I could disappear and chill for a few hours.
Unlike the old spa, the new-to-me one was co-ed. Instead of a robe, I was handed an oversized mustard short set to wear in the heated rooms. I sighed disappointment at the scatter of baritone clucking. They were friendly, but the rough-edged guy energy just felt weird at a spa, although I could imagine a few scenarios where it would have been pleasant.
1) A pampering date
2) A communal bathhouse in, say, Japan since they always seem tranquil in movies.
No, these were bulky bulls ignoring the Quiet signs and yapping about sports; blatantly avoiding relaxing muscles they’d probably just made.
The side-eye worked, but the ambience was still off when they cleared out.
Maybe I was judging everything against my fav spa which seemed to be the model for this knock-off. Except for a tea room, it had identical offerings, but the vampire lighting and unfinished look tilted towards gloomy, and why were there big-screen TVs in both the upstairs and downstairs lounge set to action movies? My spa mind didn’t know what to do with that.
Maybe wait a bit, I encouraged myself. It was fairly empty and I had scored a special-deal treatment package and that was nothing to sneeze at.
The scrub and seaweed treatments felt wonderfully familiar, and I cycled through the heated rooms again and then went to the massage suite.
The first thing I noticed about Cocoa, the therapist, was that she only came up to my ribs. I am 5’7”, so you do the math. She was senior but muscled and her English was broken, something I’m used to at Korean spas that warmly reminds me of my year in South Korea where I first fell in love with massage.
I had requested a relaxing Swedish massage at the front desk, but should have known from the way the receptionist kept pronouncing it “sweat-dish” that I was in for something else.
This could have been my imagination, but I thought I heard Cocoa crack her knuckles before she started on my back and wildly swing her arms back and forth as if loosening up for a workout. Her strong fingers made their way to my neck, quickly fascinated by my hair. “Is this real hair?” she asked and I wanted to sarcastically joke, No, it’s yarn. I hate that question. I also openly resist letting random people pet or play in my hair. I get that it’s different, cool and Medusa-like, but when she gleefully fluffed it a few times, I had to shut it down. She quickly apologized and rubbed up and down my back so firmly and with such entitlement that any remaining illusion I had that I was getting a Swedish massage died on the table.
“So flexible” she marveled, rearranging my limbs into more convenient kneading positions for her elbows and fists. It bordered on uncomfortable, but due to slight scoliosis, my chiropractor has yanked me for years in ways that my rationale mind thinks should hurt but don’t. With this upkeep and yoga, I have never had back pain, so I was curious to see where she was going.
It was aerobic and invigorating—whirling energies erupting. After a few minutes, I even found myself thinking: Bring it Cocoa. Show me what you’re working with.
Sometimes something new can take you back to something old but cherished and I hadn’t realized how blah and burnt out I’d been feeling from work, winter, life, and all the shit coming out of the White House.
Don’t ask how, but I dozed off briefly. There was drool and lost minutes as she brought me back to life with fists, elbows, pulling, twisting, and finally a bit of effleurage before pounding rapidly on my feet and legs. I opened one eye to confirm her face was calm not enraged, then shut it again and smiled because it felt so good to have the tension beat out of me.
In those last moments, I made the final spa comparison. Cocoa was not Clara, the therapist I usually see at the other Korean spot, who ironically is actually Swedish. Clara’s soothing touch is between soft and medium firm and hardly the brisk Rolfing-almost-wrestling Korean-style massage that it turns out I really needed that day.