My shoulder hurts. This thirty-something body has revealed itself to be the traitorous wretch I’d always feared. I’ve done nothing specific or egregious, but there have been months of strange beds, insomnia, and the tension resulting from the shit thrown at women during their tender mid-adulthoods. It is suggested that I do something about my inability to move my right arm without swearing — a massage or, perhaps, a doctor?
I loathe massages with a passion reserved for minivans, grocery shoppers on cellphones, and the word “yummy.” But I hate massages less than I hate doctors.
Though I have been assured that such behavior is normal, I hate massages because they make me cry. I’m not a monster — I’m happy to shed socially engineered tears for sweet commercials about piglets or reports on spunky math-letes. However, an unintended breakdown in front of a stranger while being serenaded with Tibetan chanting and tinkling fountains seems the epitome of self-discliplinary failure. And I’ve been crying indiscriminately of late, a salt-watery superpower over which I seem to have no control. It’s a damned good thing it isn’t fire.
So, after the bank and the carwash and the plant nursery, I resign myself to call the spa down the street.
“What time do you want?” asks the telephone girl.
“How about four?”
I huff. I wanted three. “Fine.”
“Come now,” she says. “You can soak.”
I hang up. My insides wilt a bit as I realize what I’ve done. Mandatory soaking. At the Naked Lady spa. I look down at myself. I’m ten pounds heavier than I was three weeks ago. My skin is a mess. I’m wearing waterproof mascara that, when introduced to liquid, redistributes itself into a three-day-bender sort of pattern. I’m in no position to soak.
The first time I heard about this particular Korean spa, I remember thinking I’d need a double dose of Ativan to walk into a place like that. Traipsing around nude. Roman baths full of Athenas and Aprodites with braided hair and cherry nipples, tittering as they ate their cold grapes. I’d be turned away at the door.
Eventually, I duped Besty Friend into joining me during her visit from Los Angeles. “It sounds really relaxing,” I lied. On arrival, we were relieved of our shoes, given a bundle, and led down a long hallway. We peered through the windows to said baths for longer than was strictly polite.
Then we stood side by side, hands on the knots of the ties of our robes. “Okay,” I said, flashing my tiny teeth at Besty.
Then we did it. And it was done. We were naked in a big wet room full of other women. We took deep breaths. We walked to the hottest pool, eased ourselves down the stairs, and sat.
I won’t say that no one looked at us. Most of the women did. But as they did, their expressions read, “Oh look, more people are getting in,” or “I’ll have to move over,” not, “My god, Madge can you see how low her breasts are?” or “How do you think she managed to coax all that fat onto her hips?” Hiding in the water, Besty and I said nothing for a long time. We got too warm and moved to another pool. And so it went, back and forth, as if we did this all the time. Thirty others moved around us, our own extemporaneous naked ballet.
And it’s true: we really are beautiful. The fat ones and the skinny ones. The dark ones and the light ones. The ones with the big black bushy bushes and the ones with the sparkling navel rings. The ones with the muffin tops and the ones with the sagging hips. The ones with perfect, bobbing breasts and the woman with just one breast, paired with a scar bigger than my outstretched hand.
That woman, whoever she was, jarred me from my navel gazing. I was fat and red and short and the lady next to me was tall and thin and brown but we were both beautiful because we were alive. “I’m alive!” I hissed to Besty Friend. “We’re alive!” She told me to stop splashing.
That we are beautiful and that we should appreciate ourselves is a horse that has been sufficiently beaten. That we allow those insecurities to limit the way we live is the thing that must be changed. In ourselves. In society. In the media. It’s the thing that lets us break free. One day, our bodies betray us for a final time. And then it’s too late, no matter what our plans might have been. We use what we are today or risk standing still.
I started dancing again in a plus-sized leotard. I restocked my high heel collection. I wore red despite being classified as an autumn. I lost a little weight. I went out more and hosted more dinner parties. I bought tickets. Lots of tickets. I was thankful I’d been shown something.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I was also thankful that I hadn’t been shown something. That woman was an acceptable distance away from me. All the bodies that I loved were still in acceptable order. I continued to live, but I forgot. I forgot that woman.
Twelve months later, cancer was found deep in my grandfather’s lung. I hightailed it home to hold my grandmother’s hand as they removed it from my grandfather’s brain, and to hold his hand as he recovered. We watched as the chemo ate away at his body. Our hope was sucked from the air like the blue at the beginning of a storm.
That’s when the crying started.
“What am I going to do?” I sobbed through the phone to Besty Friend. “I’m not ready.”
I ran back and forth between Seattle and Montana, trying to prop up myself up with shreds of normalcy. I had to start living again. Wasn’t that my mantra? Didn’t I owe him the respect of not wasting any time? And yet, how could I not revere this coming death? I felt paralyzed. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t think.
Not a month later, Besty’s mom was diagnosed with colon cancer. By the time we learned this, there wasn’t enough energy for hysterics on either side of the telephone. Keep going, we told each other. But our hearts weren’t in it.
Four p.m. comes. The massage therapist retrieves me from the circle lobby. She’s a brunette knockout with a deep voice. She tells me she’s Justine. She asks how she can help.
I give her information in dribs and drabs. Shoulder hurts. There. Everywhere. I broke the elbow on the same side once and it never healed. In fact, that whole side of my body doesn’t really seem to perform very well. I haven’t been sleeping. I’ve been eating crap. And drinking a lot of wine. She writes this all down on her clipboard and leaves.
I’ve been soaking for over an hour so I’m disheveled enough that, even if I did start to cry, it would be impossible to detect. I galumph my shameful body onto the table. I pull the covers up around me and ponder what to do with my arms. Despite the beautiful women in the beautiful pools, I don’t feel beautiful today. I don’t feel much of anything.
Justine returns with a quiet knock and sets to work. “Hmm,” she says. “Wow.” I ask her what she’s found. She’s cagey. “You’ve got a lot going on here,” she says, burrowing into my shoulder. “Does that feel okay?” I have a high pain tolerance, I tell her, and it’s not a lie. “How long have you been like this?” I manage a grunt.
We chat. About literature. About life. About being in our thirties. And then we talk about the beautiful pools and how every young woman should go to the baths to learn about liberation and self acceptance. I talk academically because I know what I’m saying should be true, even though I can’t feel it anymore.
She tells me that she wishes her mom would go, but won’t because she’s lost both of her breasts and doesn’t know she’s still beautiful.
So we talk about cancer. I tell her that, for me, it’s easier now. That time has at least given me the gift of knowledge so that I don’t have to wake up and relearn the news, re-experience the shock like I did in the beginning. That I’m sad but not scared, angry but not enraged. That if I just knew what was around the corner, I’d be able to start living again.
Justine begins to cry. I apologize. And, of course, I start crying too. But instead of being ashamed, I feel awake. This sadness — it’s just more death. Premature death. This impending maelstrom deserves our attention, but not our lives. Justine and I realize this in a still moment, connected by her hands. And after, we promise to try to remember to love ourselves, to use the time we have wisely, to live fully as we are, and to try not to forget.
She sends me back to the baths for another soak. To try again. And this time, this time, I remember.