A Southerner Sweats

© Jay Harden

    I just wanted a massage, nothing more:  no trouble, no problem. As you will see, I got so much more than that. And it still amazes me.

    All my life I’ve had a phobia about people – especially unknown people – putting their hands on me. Still, from time to time, I’ve often wondered about the appeal of massage. In my work travels, it seemed to be a popular and acceptable amenity at nicer hotels and resorts, and I never heard complaints. Never saw the perpetrators, either — they just appeared by appointment, I suppose. Logically, I couldn’t see trusting a stranger to touch me, much less understand how that could be relaxing at all. Just thinking about it only make me tense, sometimes really tense.

    Then my cousin, whom I trusted because she is a Ph.D. (and they are real smart), talked about how much her husband enjoyed a massage as a vacation treat. She often gave one to him as a gift. A woman who pays another woman to handle her man was strange enough. Perhaps that branch of the family tree was, well, different. But it got me to thinking that perhaps I had missed something - perhaps even something wonderful. For months this positive possibility repeatedly invaded my mind. Perhaps, I wanted to keep up with the branches. With typical determination, and emboldened by increasing inflammations of curiosity, I resolved to confront my fear and get one of them there massages before the millennium was out.

    I had planned a trip to south Georgia. On the way from Virginia, I was going to stay overnight with my sister near Atlanta. So I went to the Internet and found a masseuse near her. If it didn’t work out or I chickened out, I figured no one would be the wiser about my private challenge and failure.

    I showed up at what I though was the right time and place, already pre-conditioned to a state of proximate panic. I know my heart was lifting my shirt, and the trembling inside had to be visible. But, as fated circumstance would have it, the door was locked!  There I was:  willing, able, and ready with money in hand. I had been stood up!  Now, my fear instantly flipped to internal furor!  All my anticipation, anxiety, and courage had been wasted!  Not ready to admit failure, I can back one hour later, assuming that my slight dyslexia was the cause. By then, my anger was redirected at me and I was livid - cursing under my hot breath, sweating profusely, and expending all kinds of worthless, physical energy that could have melted Teflon. Fortunately for the world, no witnesses were around.

    Bullheadedness, a genetic Rebel trait, asserted itself and I resolved then and there to get this massage over and done with - right now - even if it killed me. So, I stomped to the nearest gas station and ripped through the Yellow Pages. I decided not to choose a sweet, young, irresponsible masseuse this time. I started calling at random. Most referred me to voice mail or pagers. Hey, I had no time for that. I was now on a quest, a mission from God and I was in a hurry to get saved. I just wanted it over with so my mind would ease and life then become routine once again.

    At last I reached a live voice. She sounded more my age, so I assumed she had a real brain like me. She also had a surprising English accent, which soothed me somehow. She sounded professional. She said she was formally trained in massage (a qualification I had not considered previously), but that this was not a sexual massage (I hadn’t even fantasized about THAT one, except maybe just a little) and that she didn’t work in the nude (well darn, OK). I didn’t know if all this was good news or a warning, but in my present altered state of neuron frenzy, I abandoned caution and took the appointment.

    She told me to come to her house, a 16-acre farm. Say WHAT?  Now this worried me. Why would she let a strange man into her home?  I could be a serial something!  Who massages on a farm, anyway?  Who WAS this woman?

    In the intervening hours, I did not calm down. My imagination and energy ran amok and into one another. I decided on a cover story and to keep my given name, John. That along would be the sole true fact - even though it sounded like an alias. I decided to take off all jewelry and identification and keep on me only the cash and the key to my car. I was no fool.

    I arrived early to case the place, complimenting, as well as placating, my cleverness. It was a good quarter mile from the gate to the door. Not good. I could just imagine having to sprint from the house to the car. What if I was naked?  Damn, I had no backup clothes in the car!  I resolved to park as near as I could to the door with the car headed outta Dodge.

    It was a slow, slow drive up the rutted, single lane gravel path. That ruled out a floorboard getaway. I was cursing God and myself interchangeably. How stupid could I be?  I’m risking my Pentagon career, not to mention my life here. For what?  For something I don’t like anyway!  This has to be the dumbest idea of my life.

    I was so worked up when I turned off the ignition that all I could think of was prayer. God, just get me out of here in one piece and I’ll never do anything stupid again, I swear. I’m willing to go into a monastery. Hell, I’ll even consider a nunnery!  All I wanted then was to get this torture over with and survive. I was already looking forward to leaving in my safe car. But that same frightened voice in the back of my head knew that if I turned around now, I’d never get enough courage to be back again. By now my mental circuits were fried. Emotional overload. It felt like going to the dentist or my own execution.

    Glumly, I started the 100-foot trek to the house. Now, my legs weren’t working. They were thick and shaking. My breath was shallow and rapid – when I remembered to breathe. My mind was spasming in random visits to other realities. Then I saw the beast.

    He was not just a dog. He was big and he was black and he had his eyes locked on me. Why are you doing this to me, God?  I didn’t know whether to stop or sprint back, so I kept the momentum of walking - after a fashion - wishing I was Clint Eastwood. Then the beast started toward me and the beads of sweat popped out of my brow. He would clearly intercept me before I reached the door. Would he rip my throat out? 

    That thing in his mouth transfixed me. It looked kinda like a bone but, you idiot, dogs don’t bring bones to people. They run off and chew them, and defend them ferociously. Hmm, could be the remains of a previous client who didn’t fare very well. Nyah. But, yes, it was a bone. The closer he got, the more it looked like a slab of ribs. Nyah. Huh?  Damn, it was!  And they were fresh!  From where?  Stolen off the grill?  No dog in his right mind would behave like this. So, maybe he is a deranged stray!  That black Labrador stopped me in my tracks and dropped his prize at my feet. Yep, clearly one of us had a problem. He put his nose to my hand and I hear this lovely voice say:  “Sage, no lick!”

    “Hi, I’m Shona,” she spoke without a concern in the world, “and you must be John. Sage is a puppy and he likes you.”   Yeah, I thought, thanks so much for the trauma. In my confusion, I kept trying to explain this bizarre canine behavior to her as if she didn’t know. Clearly I was out of the body with no assurance of coming back soon.

    Safely inside the door - safely being a relative term - I attempted an introduction, still fully disoriented and, no doubt, appearing completely incoherent. She seemed nice enough, even sorta safe, though her choice of pets was debatable. For some reason, I followed her downstairs to her office like an unknowing animal to slaughter. It was good that I didn’t know the room was called The Bomb Shelter, for that would have put me out the door.

    The room actually was a bomb shelter originally, small yet cozy. And it smelled nice. Soft candles were everywhere and ethereal music calmed me to the point of recognizable speech. Without forethought, I blurted out my confession as she stood between me and the only way out:  “Look, I’ve never done this before and I don’t know exactly why I am here. Tell me what to do.” Boy, did I sound like a victim.

    She was polite yet unconcerned as if she had heard this before. “Just put your clothes on the couch and lie face down on the table. I’ll go turn off the answering machine and be right back.”  In your dreams, lady. I could well imagine the cops busting in and hauling me away in the buff and cuffs. Nope, I decided, it had to be the lesser of two evils. So I waited till she returned and, to my amazement, undressed in front of her while trying to converse normally. I have no idea what I said, but I do know the last thing on my mind was joy of any kind. I longed to be far, far away. I didn’t even notice how I had embarrassed her so she turned her back.

    I didn’t know the rules. Do I talk or shut up?  If she talks, do I answer?  What happens next?  Face down, I couldn’t see a damn thing she was doing. My mind wandered to thoughts of knives in, not her. Ever so often, I’d hear the plouf-plouf of massage oil dispensing. Nothing on the wall but certificates. This one says she is an ordained minister. Could be fake. I kept that thought to myself. Good thing because, before it was all over, I had a fistful of unbelievabilities about this lady.

     I must have seemed pathetic because she starting talking to me softly as her hands met my immovable, rock hard muscles. Here I was trying to stay alert and tense while paying her to relax me. The incongruity seemed perfectly logical at the time. I focused on her infectious accent -– a kind of trance music without the notes – and concluded that if God was in a good mood, I was going to survive.

    She knew what she was doing. She was good. I was relieved. She told me about herself, how she was presented to Queen Elizabeth as a debutante. (Well, I saw the President once on TV!)  She could trace her family to the Vikings. Yeah, sure, that’s how you ended up in Georgia as a masseuse. I wisely said nothing and even gave her the benefit of the first doubt. She said she was born in India. Possible. Her father was killed in the last days of World War II. Also doubtful. No way. She looks too young and vibrant. And how could she have possibly cured herself of cancer without doctors? She didn’t know my wife died of cancer despite their help. Then she said she held a balloon pilot license. Well, now I was interested. I’d say nothing and catch her in a lie. Ha, she didn’t know that I flew 63 combat missions in Vietnam!

    Plouf-plouf. She said she loved baseball (cricket, surely). She learned it a few years ago and said she was a catcher on a men’s team. Possibly, but not as a catcher, the hardest of positions. OK, give her a break. She probably meant softball, a common error by a foreigner. Little did she know that I used to be a Little League assistant coach and the team scorer. Her claim of batting lessons from on of the Atlanta Braves was a stretch, for sure.

    It got even better. She said she danced in the Olympic Games. She claimed to be a painter, an actress, author and poet, an international speaker, and a former Formula 2 racing mechanic. She was a fundraiser and started a school. She lead tours the desert. She walked on fire, swam with dolphins, and ran with wolves. She’d been held hostage in Tashkent. Did she think I fell off a turnip truck? 

    I calculated there were not enough days in anyone’s life to do all that. But I had to say she was interesting...and sincere. I was undeniably unimpressed and fascinated with this irrepressibly free and singularly gorgeous woman. Who wouldn’t be?  Somehow, beneath all the words, I knew that I was lucky to be here. Something amazing was happening.

    Still alert and wary, I decided to quiz her a bit - with care, not be make her angry. Princess Diana had died recently and for some reason I had started writing about it. Ever clever, I asked for her English view.

    She thought the monarchy was at a crossroads. Then, without hesitation, I began to share my views on a deeper meaning of Diana’s death. To my surprise, she understood, and in that instant we connected:  one human to another. Nothing else mattered now. Not her life story. Not the massage. This lady was a real treasure.

    Suddenly, I was aware that I was no longer afraid. I had survived the massage experience. I had won my battle with myself. Not only that, I enjoyed it and even felt better. I could do it again without worry. Little did I realize the significance of what had changed within me in that hour, or what profound changes were to come. In retrospect, it must have been an epiphany.

    As I was walking out the door a profoundly lucky man, I turned and blurted out:  “I know this sounds crazy, but I don’t think I’m supposed to leave yet.”  I was blushing in complete surprise.

    She replied:  “That’s OK, it happens all the time. Have a seat on the couch. I have time to talk.”  I told her the truth of why I was in Georgia and the truth of why I was so scared of massage. She told me that she was a very good therapist and licensed to do spiritual counseling. Before my defenses could resurface I made an appointment and remarked:  “Now, this all makes sense. I know why I had to come here.”

    What I had so feared turned out to be the sprout for my new life. And what happened after that was an even greater wonder.

Gaithersburg, Maryland

February 5, 1999