Not long ago, I made a massage appointment at my health club, an overpriced institution with a cranky, late-70’s tennis legend as its spokesman. I didn’t check on the sex of the massage therapist. As a straight male, I somehow assumed-or maybe just hoped-that the receptionist would give me a female masseuse. My sexual preference, it turns out, was a moot point: My gym only offers male masseurs.
I discovered this as I walked into the small, dimly lit massage room, where I met Hans, a tall, well-built fortysomething who looked as if he owned a pair of leather chaps for weekend use. No problem, I thought, trying to keep positive. Hans seemed nice enough, and when he lit the candles and started the Enya CD (does the massage guild require all members to use the same music?), I began to drift off into that semi-relaxed massage-induced state.
Massage therapy, once an indulgence of the country-club set, has become the Starbucks of the bodywork world. An estimated 35 million Americans spend roughly $3 billion annually on visits to massage practitioners, totaling 75 million visits each year. For me, it’s become the equivalent of air travel or medical exams: I rely on it, but I tend to want the procedure to be over relatively quickly, and I can’t be bothered with idle conversation. Hans, however, was unnaturally talkative for a man whose livelihood involved rubbing naked flesh. I did my best to ignore him, but the questions kept coming. “What do you do for a living?” “Do you stretch after you exercise?” “Do you know how tight your abductors are?”
I mumbled responses-I’m a writer and a comedian, usually; I didn’t know I had abductors-hoping my terseness would put a damper on his curiosity. It didn’t, and he continued chatting as he kneaded his way up my thighs, his fingers dancing dangerously close to the unauthorized no man’s land. I was put more at ease when he moved to my shoulders, safely away from the more vulnerable territories to the south. Eventually he asked me to turn over.
The flip-over is always tricky, particularly when all that separates you from full exposure is a rag the size of a postcard. But through a mix of dexterity and towel origami, I was able to make the turn relatively smoothly. Now Hans was working on my front side, so he was able to speak directly to me. I could no longer pretend I couldn’t hear him. I was vulnerable, and Hans seemed to sense this.
“So, have you ever modeled?” Hans casually inquired, rubbing my chest.
“Uh, no,” I said, pausing. “Not really.” Not really? Why my response left open the possibility that, yes, I did do backup work on the occasional Tommy Hilfiger print campaign, I’m not sure.
“Oh. Well, you should think about it,” Hans replied.
“Yeah, um, I’ll look into that,” I said, wondering aloud whether freelance day work would disqualify me from collecting unemployment benefits.
And so it was that I learned an important rule of massage: Never discuss your recent layoff, unless you actually want career advice from a man rubbing warm Juniper oil into your midsection. After a mumbled response from Hans and a moment of uncomfortable silence, things seemed back on track, and he moved down to my quads. He then announced that he would move on to my head and neck. Fine, I thought, closing my eyes.
The next question knocked me off-balance again. “Would you care for a release?” Hans asked matter-of-factly.
“Um, I’m not sure. What is that?” I stammered, hoping that the “release” was an ancient method by which he was going to balance my chakra or realign my negative energy.
“Well, some clients like to be masturbated as a part of their massage,” Hans answered, as calmly as if he were reading aloud from the box scores of a meaningless midseason Yankees-Tigers game.
“Masturbated-huh.” It had been a tough season with the ladies, to be sure. But even so, I was not prepared to move to this level.
“Yes, masturbated,” Hans said. “Does that interest you?”
“Um, yeah, not so much,” I said. “But thanks for the offer, I think.”
Undaunted by my refusal, Hans continued on as though nothing had happened. But my mind was racing. Had I done something to inspire this offer, or was it simply part of the normal package given to all male clients (like some perverse form of free underbody rust-coating)? Had he broken the law? And was I now obligated to give him a bigger tip? I was confused, and suddenly not at all relaxed.
The massage went on for another 10 minutes. When it was over, I walked out quickly, thanking Hans under my breath. I took a long shower and considered my options. I could complain to the management, demand my money back and, possibly, score some gym-based perks as payment for my trauma (free Cliff Bars for life?). But then Hans might be fired or disgraced professionally. That seemed too harsh. I chose not to say anything.
When I got home, I checked out the Web site of the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB), a not-for-profit whose mission is to “foster high standards of ethical and professional practice for therapeutic massage and bodywork professionals.” My research yielded no mention of the “release” as a current standard or recommended procedure. Hans, it seemed, was working off the books.
And while the “release” or “happy ending” is quite common in certain corners of the massage world (Asian parlors are particularly famous for it), one doesn’t generally expect it at an upscale Manhattan establishment. Perhaps, as massage therapy goes mainstream, it’s simply harder for the agencies charged with governing its practices to keep a watchful eye.
In the end, Hans’ offer felt presumptuous and objectifying-but I also know that that’s slightly disingenuous because, had it been a cute woman, I would have faced a tough choice. And in fairness to Hans, I should admit that I fall into the “straight but gayish” camp: men who, while sure about our heterosexuality, gravitate toward mid-century modern design, opera and flat-front trousers. That we even use the term “flat-front trousers” is evidence of the sexual-orientation vagueness we seem to emit. A bit of unwanted male attention is the price we pay for being just gay enough. So, while Hans’ offer was flattering, it left me wanting to swaddle myself in pleated Dockers while guzzling pitchers of warm Schlitz in a sports bar.
I still belong to the gym, and I still see Hans, hovering in the doorway of the massage room. We don’t make eye contact, though I think I can feel his cold glare. It’s my allegiance to the gym that forces me to deal with our awkward situation-a release-crazy massage guru and a former client weathering the uncomfortable silences of a not-so-happy ending.