Mervyn Kaufman overcomes a lifelong fear of embarrassment—and finally treats himself to a (nearly disastrous) full-body service.
Years ago, when men of all ages were dipping their toes—and more—into the spa experience, I opted out. A struggling writer and editor, I could barely make rent, let alone make room for indulgences. But cost wasn’t all that held me back.
I couldn’t help but recall my Army service in the Far East, hearing tales about Japanese baths. Sergeant Gifford, holding court after a long weekend debauch, would boast about massages and oil rubs that were “better than sex.” The masseuses were tiny and cute, he’d say. They spoke no English. They climbed up on the table and literally walked up and down your back. It felt terrific.
Then they turned you over. The only thing covering your crotch was a small towel, and before you knew it …
Hearing those stories, imagining this poor young woman staring at me, giggling and pointing, trying to navigate around it, all I felt was incredible embarrassment. No massages for me, I decided. No way.
This all-encompassing fear steered me away from spas and rubs for years—until the inevitable happened, and I was put up in a Florida resort for a magazine sales meeting. I and the others in our group were urged to take advantage of spa facilities—the more services we signed up for, the more advertising we’d bring in. A trade-off. So, I got a facial, which was fun, then an herbal body wrap, which I hated—arms pinned so I couldn’t move; I felt claustrophobic. “It’s no good unless you fall asleep,” said the attendant. I didn’t. He unwrapped me; that was that.
Finally, I succumbed and arranged for a massage. Figuring this might be a once-in-a-lifetime event, I chose the longer session, despite my trepidation. I scheduled it at the end of a long day of meetings. I opted for a Swedish massage.
It was a wise choice. The masseur, a serious man of few words, was beefy and confident. Over the course of the hour, he found ways to unknot nearly every nerve and muscle in my body. When he finished, he helped me off the table, my muscles almost like jelly. Relaxed? I had never in my life felt so loose. And there was nothing, absolutely nothing, embarrassing about it.
Back home, feeling proud, I recounted my exploits to my friend Richard. “I’d never do that,” he insisted. “What if it happened in the middle of the massage?” And I agreed, of course, that it can be unpredictable and uncontrollable. But a massage is not an erotic experience, I assured him. He praised my courage, but he was unconvinced.
A few years later, in Chicago for a design-industry conference, I saw that the fitness center in my hotel offered massage services. I could charge one to my bill and add it to my expense account. Great. I called for an appointment. The only time that worked was 6 a.m., two mornings later. “Too damn early,” I said, then reconsidered. “I’ll take it.”
The wakeup call sounded at 5:45 a.m. as planned, and I bounded, naked, out of bed. Still naked, I wrapped myself in my hotel bathrobe and found the courtesy terrycloth slippers I’d kicked off near the john. I had the sense to grab my key card, but, in a rush, left behind my wallet, my clothes, even my glasses. Though nearsighted, I knew where the elevator was. At that hour, I wasn’t concerned that any dressed-for-business types would sneer at my casual state of almost undress.
When I arrived at the check-in desk, an attractive young woman flashed a bright good-morning smile.
“You’re the one I’ve been waiting for,” she purred. Who, me? She quickly hustled me into a booth and pointed to a narrow table topped with a firm mattress. She handed me a folded towel. “Lie down and cover yourself, hon,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
I stood for a moment, hesitating, not quite sure what to do or if I wanted to do it. But, for God’s sake, I was there. I was virtually undressed. How stupid would it be to back out now and offer some feeble excuse? What could I say, “I have a previous engagement”?
So I held my ground. Undressing was easy; all I had to do was whip off my robe. I quickly wrapped the fresh towel around my waist and cinched it. Then I lay down on the table … and waited.
When the masseuse arrived, she first readjusted the towel I had knotted, very tightly, around myself. “I’ll be in charge of that,” she said, releasing the knot and laying the towel discreetly over my backside. Businesslike, she went to work right away.
I closed my eyes and allowed my mind to focus on my shoulders, my upper back, my tender lower back, my calves, even the soles of my feet. I felt relaxed, as I’d hoped, and also transported. She was as strong as the beefy guy who’d given me my Swedish massage. She really knew what the hell she was doing.
Then I felt her lift the towel slightly. “Now turn over, please,” she said, and I did. It was a smooth transition. I had a sense that, to her, mine was just another body, and probably not a particularly memorable one.
Lying face up, I could watch her as she worked. Despite her good looks, there were signs of age and stress in her face—which at times came very close to mine. She gently manipulated my face and neck and moved down to my chest. Her touch was softer now. I was determined to keep my cool. I forced myself to maintain control. I focused all of my energy on feeling loose and relaxed. And then, feeling her hands on my upper thighs, I felt my body heat beginning to rise.
Maybe I should stop this—tell her, “Enough. I’ve gotta run—an early appointment.” But just as my panicked thoughts began to shift to strategy, she started to talk.
“My mother calls me a whore, can you imagine? She says anyone who handles men’s bodies like this is no better than a street girl. And she’s not the only one, you know. I’ve lost two boyfriends, and my sister hasn’t spoken to me in years.”
On and on she went, revisiting the indignities she’d endured, over time, as a result of her calling. “I’m a good person,” she added. “I go to church, I pay my bills, I did my training.” I found myself nodding and clucking my tongue as she talked. The focus had definitely shifted. I was thinking about the sad life of the woman who was now squeezing my toes and pressing her fingers into my arches.
It worked like magic. The mood had been shattered—maybe for the best. There was certainly no movement in the towel I was wearing. But there was no floating feeling, no release from tension and stress. I don’t remember how I responded to her story, but I sensed no response was needed.
At the end, I sat up slowly, as directed, then stood up—and my towel fell to the floor. I was buck-ass naked, mere feet away from my masseuse, but at that moment I didn’t care. She handed me the robe and, with a slim smile, wished me a good day. Then she was gone. The session was over. The front desk was empty. I staggered down the hall, one hand clutching the key card in my robe pocket.
What’ll I say to my colleagues when I meet them for breakfast? I wondered. And what’ll I tell Richard when I get home? The answer, in both cases, was simple to concoct. It never happened. Period.