A Spa Is Born: Stroke Me, Knead Me, Massage My Brain Waves!

Beneath the cement and schist of the city, the Four Seasons spa is undergoing a top-secret $3 million makeover that won’t be unveiled until September. However, on a recent afternoon, I was able to meet with the “creative team” responsible for the renovation. When they began to speak of brain-wave treatments and electronic kneading thumbs, I felt a prescient tingle ….

Above ground, the I.M. Pei–designed tower stands as a citadel devoted to inconspicuous/conspicuous consumption. The hotel is famous for its capacious rooms, 60-second steeping baths, $2,900-a-day suites and complimentary shoeshines.

Before the spa closed temporarily last April, I rode the elevator down to what seemed like the center of the earth. I felt a sense of decompression, a pressure at my ears. I have hallucinatory memories of a chic Hieronymous Bosch-a supermodel’s clenched buttocks, her buns of steel. There was a tunic-clad man with mortuary good manners, a Romanian woman attendant who rubbed me with Dead Sea salts. As a finisher, I had been wrapped in a Mylar shroud, my “Astrofoil.” The massage room was devoid of features, save a round wall clock that seemed to chart my decline. I imagined myself in an episode of CSI . I recall the electrocution-chamber appearance of the foot-pool chair and the upside-down wash, gel and soap dispensers. Sybaritic yet sterile, the old spa seemed a sensuous version of same-day surgery. Would the new installation, I wondered, soften or extend this original forensic-chic concept?

Now, in summer, the Four Seasons seems even more Deco-dent, the indolent air of the lobby reminiscent of my favorite old film, Land of the Pharaohs . The limestone columns provide a vanishing-point perspective …. While I feel dwarfed upon entering, dwarfing is not an inauspicious start. I’ve been sitting at a computer, writing non-stop for four years; I carry my book fat as love handles. I recall Colette, in Cheri , and her description of a truly “crushing ass.”

I re-enter the Four Seasons in a voluminous summer dress with primary-colored tulips, a shriek in this neutral setting.

“We have no colors,” the hotel spokeswoman, Leslie Lefkowitz, says. “We are monochromatic.” I note that even the floral decorations are “discreet”-gray, curly willow arches bearing infinitesimal neutral buds. The willow is lit so that the twigs’ shadows reprise the veins in the marble below.

Leslie, a pretty, black-ringlet-haired woman (cast as an Egyptian/Jewish princess in Land of the Pharaohs ?), points to a faint moss-tinted settee. “That is as close to color as we dare. I.M. Pei had this concept to emphasize the Deco design above the inhabitants.” And so, like extras in a pyramid scene, we cross the soaring lobby.

I will be the first, I’m told, to meet the Inova team in charge of the renovation and learn their hitherto-secret plan. I am mellow from a hot-stone massage in the temporary spa quarters. Until the netherworld is complete, hotel guests are being offered bargain $135 to $255 “in-room massages and wraps,” and I took advantage. A fifth-floor hotel suite has been temporarily adapted to serve “outsiders.” There, Suk Mancinelli, the Korean-born spa manager, personally administered to my wounded body, working with lava stones heated in her Cooks Essentials roaster, which she had lugged up from the sub-basement. Suk, who’s been overseeing the subterranean spa for 10 years, seemed refreshed by the chunks of daylight upstairs. “I have a window now,” she said. “I always went out once a day to see the sun.” Suk is a compact woman, with neat short hair, glasses and a gentle, firm manner that matches her touch. She imparts an unusual degree of empathy throughout the treatment. We had murmured, to the chiming of “Bliss Aeoliah from Spa Sound Scapes,” of our respective lives. Suk had remarried, an Italian widower; I had adopted two baby girls.

The soft touch and tender confidences exchanged upstairs contrast with the spa executives, bristling with enterprise, whom I meet in the lobby. Joseph Conant and Diane Hess are fresh from their triumphant creation of the Four Seasons Spa in Chicago. Now they’ve been summoned to New York to surpass themselves. “Here at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York, we must be”-Joseph introduces the concept-”the first, the only, the best!”

“The first, the only, the best!” echoes Diane as she glides into the seat beside me.

“Yes, we’ll be using brain waves to really hit that R.E.M. stage,” explains Joe, as he likes to be called. He’s a tidy man, perhaps in his early 40′s, balding, who wears glasses and is distinctive for a dewiness of complexion and a zealousness of tone. Diane is a monochromatic blonde in the prescribed taupe and gray, attractive, with a coordinated buff tan that gilds her serious manner. She blends beautifully into the backdrop. Long habituated to one another, Joe and Diane execute a business version of yin and yang. Joe tends to lofty ideas (“The brain-wave technology will relax!”), while Diane slams hard on past errors (“I have no use for incense”). As I sit flanked by the pair, information whizzes past my head in a series of sci-fi volleys, with occasional shots down the alley of a more ancient past. “We weren’t interested in the old Geisha facial paste made of nightingale droppings,” Joe says, and Diane slashes forth with a derisive, “Bird poop!”

I review the top-secret plans (so secret they are whisked out of my hands, but not before I see the words “mechanical kneading thumbs”).

” Give that back ,” Diane says, her slim tan hand snatching the plans. “You should not be looking at that!”

Back on message, Diane says, “The brain-wave room will be the first, the only …. “

” … the best,” I say.

“You’ll be connected to a box,” Joe tells me. “The electrodes will send brain waves to hit your R.E.M.”

Me: “Will I be wearing a helmet?”

Diane: “No helmet!”

Joe: “Goggles and a head set. Sonic therapy … sound waves …. “

“Color goggles … pulsing lights!” murmurs Diane.

“We will have soft massage tables … preheated, ” Joe says.

” … a new kind of table-beyond a water-bed feel,” Diane says.

“A cocoon of hot gel!” cries Joe.

“Your body will sink down and disappear,” adds Diane.

“Will any part of me be showing?” I ask.

“Your head.”

With the goggles and the head set, I will enjoy the subtle pulses of sound and lights-waves that match the mental state I want to achieve ….

“Forget incense, Muzak, crystals.” Diane spits the words as if into a cuspidor.

“We are moving away from ‘beauty’ as a concept,” Joe and Diane agree. “The beauty spa is old,” Joe says.

“And with the sonic waves, what music?”

Joe: “Synthesizers, shakuhachi flutes, Tibetan bells …. “

There will be electronic shiatsu massagers. Those mechanical kneading thumbs, it turns out, “will pulsate in your electronic shiatsu pillow,” Joe confides.

“On the bottom neck roll,” Diane adds, “the pillow itself kneads.”

And the pulsing eye goggles? “What color will I see?”

“The spectrum,” Joe assures me.

“Pulsing lights induce more flow,” Diane says. “The eyelids connect to your brain.”

“Oh,” sighs Joe. “The electrodes we couldn’t talk about, name the vendors …. Some of this is so new, the patents were not yet applied for. We couldn’t say a word till now. There will be three paths: to revitalize, rejuvenate, achieve longevity.”

I can’t wrap my as-yet-unelectroded brain around the difference between rejuvenation and longevity.

“It’s about looking younger, unwrinkling. We’re getting the best cosmoceuticals,” Joe explains.

Cosmoceuticals?

“Yes! Cosmetics merge into pharmaceuticals.”

Joe gives a sneak preview of the décor: “Very Zen-like.” A sculptured glass wall-”I won’t call it a waterfall … it will suggest water.”

I stumble onto 57th Street. The city steams, a mirage wavering above the softening asphalt. I can still feel the impression of Suk’s fingers massaging Jojoba oil into my skin. I hear, as if on cross-circuits, her whisper about her second husband-”He adores me”-cut with the news of a newly discovered gaseous planet, a hitherto-unknown galaxy of “burnt-out stars.” And I think of this portion of the globe, 57th Street, where we will soon see through pulsing goggles, surf brain waves and “hit the R.E.M.”

Where I can have these treatments now ? I want to know.

“In a lab,” Joe and Diane respond.

Laura Shaine Cunningham is the author of two memoirs, Sleeping Arrangements and A Place in the Country , and the recently published novels Beautiful Bodies and Dreams of Rescue .