Imagine that you are working in a prestigious university department, with a group of over-achievers who think that sleeping more than every other night is grounds for dismissal, and on top of supervisory duties your boss has left you to assemble the components of a 5 millon dollar grant application, any technical errors in which could cause you and your colleagues to be out on the street. Imagine the occasional little twitches in your shoulders that gradually become bigger, more frequent twitches, and finally coalesce into a constant knot of muscle. What springs to mind ? No, that would invalidate my life insurance. No, that would land me in jail. No. I was thinking of massage. A long, deep, massage that would render my forelimbs useable again.
At this point I did actually show some wisdom. I thought "Ah ha. Be careful,
you've heard about some of these places. BE SURE TO CHOOSE A RESPECTABLE ONE".
That was the last time I recall showing any wisdom in this story. So, off I
went to the yellow pages, flipping past marriage-guidance services and
martial-arts clubs (I was pleased to see that they have different numbers),
to massage parlors and massage therapists. The latter I cavalierly decided
were for people with injuries rather than discomfort. You'll remember that the
cavaliers lost. I sifted through the parlors. I wasn't really too worried
about my choice, I merely wanted to avoid the embarrasment of having to decline
Mandy's "extra services", or worse still think that she meant complimentary
toe-nail clipping, and accidentally accept. University Massage. That's the one
for me, I thought, can't get much more respectable than the university. Might
be a bit cold and clinical, but no worries about having a twitch of the ear
misinterpreted as the secret sign for "can you just move the stiffness
elsewhere ?". I phoned them up and asked for an appointment. No, they didn't
take appointments, it was a walk-in service, open from 6 until 2. Hmmm. Strange.
"Aren't you open in the evenings ?"
"They are evening hours".
Oh, well, I suppose people are too busy during the day to go off for a massage, and besides, they wouldn't want to go back to work and waste the effect. And with so many service workers forced to work unsocial hours they must keep getting people coming in off shifts well into the night. Like I said, I burned out on wisdom with my earlier effort.
So off I went on my fateful journey to the big yellow house on the high
street that I realised I'd passed a hundred times before without noticing what
it was. Inside it was dark. Dark green. So dark green, for instance, that one
wouldn't really be able to identify anyone else who had been in the room, not
to the satisfaction, of, say, a jury. In fact I was alone. Alone to
contemplate how they must have planned it this way so that one became mentally
calmed in preparation for the physical relaxation to come. But I couldn't
contemplate this for long, as I was soon summoned up the stairs of what now
revealed itself to be a normal domestic house. Upstairs the lights were
brighter. Brighter red, to be precise. Before I could dwell on that I was
forced to dwell very rapidly on the three swimsuit-clad women sitting on
chairs on the landing, and then on the price list pinned to the wall. There
were maybe twenty items on the 'menu', and it is one of my life's great
regrets that I only remember the first three, which were : topless massage,
mutual massage, and mutual massage in shower. I started to wonder if something
were wrong. I ran over the information available to me : I'm in the heart of
the bible belt, on the high street of a college town, in a place called
University Massage. But it looks like a brothel. I came to the conclusion that
the received wisdom that I was a sick little pervert was probably true, and
that I was jumping to unwarranted conclusions based on my twisted view of the
world, and that the truth was simply that respectable massage clinics operated
a little differently from how I'd imagined. So they offered some interesting
services, but surely they must still give a regular massage. Mustn't they ?
The simplest service cost 40 dollars, about what I expected for a good work
down taking half an hour of professional time. Except it said 10 minutes.
Including shower. They must be really professional, I supposed. These thoughts
must have taken some time, or maybe something else gave me away as a novice,
but one of the women (definately not girls. Women with a capital W, and perhaps
a capital M too.) gently asked if it were my first time.
"Well, we usually recommend our regular mutual massage service for first timers. Most of them are very happy with that." Most ? What about the others ? Did they really want the irregular mutual massage service ?
"Err, I just wanted a regular (unilateral ?) massage, actually."
"OK, and which of us would you like ?"
How was I supposed to judge their massaging skills with them just sitting there in their swimsuits ?
"Err, I'm sure you'll do fine."
"OK, if you'd like to come in here, take your clothes off and give me 40 dollars and your driving licence."
I waited for the conditional subclause. It never came. I wondered if they had them in America. I also wondered why she wanted my driving licence when she didn't look a bit like me and would never get away with using it. To check to see if I were a policeman ? But surely the police must know about such a blatant operation. I decided that it was more likely that she just wanted an ID in case I gave any trouble. I undressed and lay on the plastic-sheeted bed, noticing that the place was still indistinguishable from a domestic dwelling, with perhaps the exception of the bottle of Johnson's baby oil on the bedside cabinet. The bed was a standard divan, well used. How did I end up here, I wondered ? Oh well, at least I'll be getting my massage soon. Never mind the details. Then the early-middle-aged woman came back, rolling down the top of her swimsuit as promised in the menu. I wondered if in one of the more expensive options she kept it rolled up. But perhaps it somehow helped her massage more freely. Apparently it didn't, as all she offered was a sloppy smearing of the baby oil over my skin. After a minute or so she even gave up on that.
Ah ha, I thought. Someone else knows that word.
"Err, you do know that 'relief' is included in this service"
"Err, I rather gathered that, but really, I just want a massage"
She tried. I'm sure she tried, but it was painful to she her trying to stretch out her one-minute warm-up routine to 10 minutes (minus shower). So they don't even do massages here ? I was incredulous. Was I really so stupid to expect a massage at a massage parlour ? I had to ask.
"So, err, do you get many people coming here for a massage."
"You're my second."
"Like, in a row ? Or total today ?"
I was surprised. Really. Naive is one thing, but it seems that at best I'm the second most naive person in Chapel Hill in the history of this woman's career, and I don't think that was particularly short. So what's the story ? Is it part of American high-school education to learn the difference between therapist and parlor ? Do other people wimp out when they get to the landing and realise that something is up ? Or am I really the second most naive person in the world.
You choose. Don't tell me the answer.
Oh, and here's a picture of the place that I took on a later visit a few years later :
Doesn't it look innocent ?
© Mark Harris 2001