How do you hold it in

In February, the yoga studio I sometimes go to sends me an email about “March Madness.” My first thought is, of course, something about college basketball (without ESPN on in my space 24/7, i.e., since I don’t live at home anymore with a father who somehow manages to get play-by-play updates sent directly to his bloodstream, I can’t bring myself to care: delete), but since it takes .0038 seconds and almost zero physical effort to scroll down and see the rest of the email, I scroll down and see the rest of the email.

“March Madness!” It says again in bold red, complete with exclamation point. Smart of them to write, “One hour massage” in bigger letters right underneath that, so I keep scrolling instead of hitting the trashcan button with my mouse. And even smarter to write “$38” in bigger letters, right underneath that.

A massage, I think, and bring my hands up to rub my shoulders, pretend like I can tell they’re tight. I could really use that. And only $38?

Thirty-eight dollars is not bad. Thirty-eight dollars is three movies (four matinees) and maybe a box of Sour Patch Kids. Thirty-eight dollars is huevos rancheros and margaritas for two at my new favorite Mexican place with the mosaic tables. Thirty-eight dollars is 95 games of Skee-Ball at the mini-golf place down the street. Thirty-eight dollars is a shitload of Taco Bell.

It’s that three that really gets you. Three-ty eight. It sounds so much less than four-ty. It’s like how places sell things for $7.99 because that sounds so much cheaper than $8, or how Wal-Mart sells the same thing for $7.97 because that looks so much cheaper than $7.99. So I know what they’re trying to do here. I know that $38 is almost $40. And forty, friends, is actually a little bit. Forty, I tell myself, is the check you just wrote for the electricity and water bills. Forty is a tank of gas. I let my brain shift into “I’m a poor student” mode, decide that no massage is the thrifty, wise thing to do, and send the message to the trash.

In mid-March, the email comes again.

“March madness is half over!” its first line reads.

Oh, I think.

“$38 Full hour Swedish massage!”

Swedish, I think. Ooh. I decide to let this one stay in my inbox. But then I see the US Airways email about the flight I booked to Northern California for spring break, and think two-hundred-dollar airfare. I check the box next to the $38 massage email and then hit “Move to trash.”

When I get to Northern California for spring break, I spend three hours in my friend’s Brookstone massage chair. It’s a fake massage, but it feels so good. Something mechanical and movable and wonderful rolls up and down my back, and I think to myself, See, this was the right decision. The butt and leg cushions inflate and deflate to squeeze and unsqueeze the muscles in my glutes and calves. Something not entirely unlike a pair of highly-trained and super-patient hands kneads at my feet. I think of the emails I deleted: I didn’t need anyone’s $38 massage. My friend hands me a Guinness milkshake (brilliant, right?) and I fall asleep in the massage chair watching old home videos. Warm fuzzy things are stirring in my body and my memory. I feel virtuous, resourceful—like I know how to take care of myself on all kinds of financial, physical, and relational levels.

A few days later, back home in Arizona, I get in a little fender-bender. It isn’t a bad crash—I hit someone at exactly two miles per hour at a U-turn—but when you get in a car accident, no matter how small, you feel the exact opposite of the way I felt in the massage chair. Your warm fuzzies turn into cold spikies, and it takes everything in you not to yell at the cops, the kid you hit that wants to call them[1]everyone driving past in their non-crashing cars, America, the system, The Man, the world. This gets worse when it comes time to write the check for your citation, or your increase in insurance, or—in my case—your traffic school fees. But soon, after all your muscles, all the way from the tip-top of your scalp to the tiniest stub of toe, tighten with solid rage and leaden frustration, you realize something: you’re going to be handing out money right and left all your life anyways, so you might as well get over it and spend on something you will enjoy as well, if it’s not too much trouble. Like, for example, a massage.

I go to my email and un-trash the March madness $38 massage messages. I call my yoga place and ask if they still have openings for massage appointments, even though there’s only five days left in March. The parts of me that still can’t shake the idea that this is a misuse of time and money—the parts that trashed the email in the first place—are banking on it being too late, are counting on the lady saying Sorry, we’re all filled up for March, but I can fit you in full-price in April.

“Sure,” she says instead. “We have a spot this afternoon.”

That’s too soon for me—I’ve got to finish my four hours of online traffic school—so I schedule one for Thursday.

“Excellent,” she says. “Do you want to upgrade to a hot stone or deep tissue massage? It’s ten more dollars.”

“Sure,” I say, and go for the deep-tissue.

I’ve only had two previous massage experiences, I mean, official ones you pay for for just you, not the kind you barter with family and friends and significant others to prove you really love each other. The first one happened during high school when I had some nerve-hip (sciatica, if you want to get professional about it) issues from running track; as part of physical therapy they did a hot stone massage on me. It was hot and stony and God-wonderful but pricy—there’s a reason you just do physical therapy until you’re better—so it remained my only one until the next.

I’ve only had two previous massage experiences, I mean, official ones you pay for for just you, not the kind you barter with family and friends and significant others to prove you really love each other.

My next and only-other massage experience was a present from my mother when I turned 18. It was supposed to be an adult thing, a woman thing—we got facials too—and it started out real nice, but partway through the massage, it got funky on my end of things. I was lying there on the table enjoying everything, facedown in all kinds of soft and silk and warm and dim and scenty, getting my muscles dug into by someone who really knew what she was doing. And then my left nipple—yeah, my nipple—started hurting, like someone stuck a needle in it, i.e., like a, how-you-say, mofo. Of course at that point the massage stops being fun because it’s supposed to be relaxing and ease-inducing, and now all of a sudden it’s uptight and hard. I don’t know if what’s happening to me is sexual, or natural, or normal, or cancerous, or right, or wrong, or what. I don’t know what it is, and I’m not about to ask. So I get weird because I can’t just sit there and fake like the nerve cells in my nipple aren’t yelling out in pain, while all she’s trying to make me feel is pleasant. But the thing is: I actually can, so I do.

People talk and write about this all the time,[2] and live inside it every day—the fascinating ways we act and lie and play parts of us up and shut parts of us down just to get by or through or over anything. Sometimes this is good, like trauma victims who fake smiles so they can have a good time at a picnic and practice moving on with life; and sometimes this is bad, like if those victims never process or address the things that traumatized them. Suppression and repression, we often forget, are neutral terms. They’re simple actions, reflexive verbs, real things we do inside ourselves. It’s oppression that's bad—the things we do to others or that others do to us. Me and the massage-nipple-incident, though? Me and something I signed up for? I don’t know. It was just weird.

Weird is fine and all—and good for storytime at parties—but in a world in desperate need of more-than-neutral, weird needs to end up good as well.

The first thing I do at the yoga studio, after I check in and say hello, is pee. I know no matter who is rubbing what and where, I won’t be comfortable if my bladder is too full. I’m still worried, though, because I’ve been drinking lots of water, because I know massage releases toxins in your body and you can get dehydrated if you’re not careful. I drink another cup from the lobby cooler while I wait for my masseuse to come get me.

My masseuse, Candace, comes out and introduces herself, and she looks about my age. She probably doesn’t think that about me—probably thinks I’m a lot younger, probably thinks What is that girl doing here without a parent? I get this a lot, like in the elevator at work the other day a woman whose program I’m assisting with turns to me and says, “You can’t be more than what, thirteen?” I’ve come up with a line, now, where I smile nicely and say, “No, I just look it, but it’ll pay off when I’m forty.” But I’m getting real tired of saying it.

I wonder about the difference in massaging a small person like me. At first I think maybe I should be paying less, since I have less surface area than human beings in the 5’1”-and-up range. But then I remember that here I’m paying for time—that it’s going to be an hour either way—so technically I’m getting the long end of the stick this time. This is also, I note, a direct contrast to body waxing (another intimate beauty process I’ve dabbled in, and another service this spa offers), where the aim is to take as little time as possible. Were a bikini wax to take something over 30 minutes, you’d flee without the job complete; with a massage they have to cut you off at 60 or you’ll never leave.

I stop thinking about waxes and short jokes and follow Candace into the massage room—the first one on the left, where it’s dim and warm and soft and silk and scenty. She has a pump-top bottle of massage oil strapped to her waist, and I think, Cool. She’s like Lara Croft but strawberry blonde and less malicious (one hopes). She looks really strong—good arms—but not cut, not buff. Gentle.

She leaves the room for a minute, and I get naked because that’s what she said to do. She said it a little tenderly, apologetically, explaining that it’s easier to get the hip areas without anything around the waist, but I’m down, I get it. We all know I have no problem shedding layers. I get in under the sheets and lie down on my tummy. I put my face into that little donut at the head of the bed, and gravity instantly messes with my sinuses. I start sniffling and then begin worrying about drainage. It’s dark, so I can’t see if there’s any dried boogers on the carpet, can’t tell what the precedent for this is. I wonder if I’ll enjoy the massage if I’m busy trying to keep my snotsicles in the whole time, wonder how I’ll fake it’s good if I sound like I’m in sobs the entire hour.

I put my face into that little donut at the head of the bed, and gravity instantly messes with my sinuses. I start sniffling and then begin worrying about drainage.

Candace comes back in and doesn’t say anything, just pulls the sheet farther up my back and starts running her hands over my whole body through the blankets. All I can see through the donut hole are her toenails—purple? Olive? Black? I can’t tell in the light, or lack thereof. Between the soft sheets and her steadying touch, I feel like I’m part of the blankets, feel like I’ve already melted in and become a kind of cushion. My body’s settling in, but my mind can’t yet quiet down. What if I have to pee? I’m thinking. What if I start to feel a fart? What if I’m too ticklish when she gets close to my armpits?

I try to shut it off, put these things aside inside my head. I try to turn my body off, too, and am surprised to realize the degree to which I can. My nose feels okay, and when she nears my armpits I manage to breathe and relax—I actually become not-ticklish. She rubs the bottoms of my feet without a twitch or hitch, and I don’t yet have to pee.

The massage itself is bliss. The way all the women look in every kind of spa ad you’ve ever seen—that’s actually how I feel. That music from those soundscape CDs they sell at Target near the greeting cards is playing, and normally I’d think it’s really dumb and unliterary in every way imaginable, but here it makes so much sense. It sounds nice and makes me feel that way, too. Candace is an excellent masseuse. She’s got something going on where she doesn’t push too hard, but it makes your back all electrified, even in parts she isn’t touching. And she’s careful to tuck the sheets in right at the right places of my upper legs so my ladyparts don’t show, so that no more than one limb is exposed at a time. Bummer, I think, she won’t notice my Brazilian wax job.

Even if she did, though, I’m sure she wouldn’t say anything. Candace doesn’t talk. Neither one of us is saying a word. I had thought, in signing up for this, that maybe we would bond, my new masseuse and I—maybe I could tell her about my stinging nipple, and she’d laugh, or explain it to me, or something. Maybe she’d talk fascia and acupressure, and I could tell her all my secrets. I imagined a therapist, a personal relaxation sensei, a friend. After sitting in the stillness and the silence, though, after letting her meet me in my muscles, I decide she is those things, only here in wordless ways.

At one point Candace hiccups once; at another my stomach grumbles. These events go on uncommented and unremarked. She rubs and rubs and rubs and gets to every part of me except for genitalia, and I start wondering about that, but then I remember that’s what sex is. I smile about this—my naïveté and innocence in wondering very literally about pubic massage. I smile about all of it, but I’m in the donut, and Candace doesn’t see.

I get to where I’m sure that I’m not going to fart, or have to pee, but I’m still thinking on what if. I realize it’s not so much that I don’t know how to be quiet for an hour, but more that I don’t expect my body to be. Sure, you notice more when you have a coughing fit or upset stomach, but on a general and hourly level we people make a lot of noise. We are actually quite loud machines. I think about this, and I also get increasingly curious about what’s going on with Candace. What if she has to sniff or sneeze? What if she has to fart? What if she has to pee?[3] We still aren’t talking, but I’m asking all kinds of questions to her in my head. It’s all so weird. There’s an artificiality about this whole ordeal with which I’m still not totally at peace, with which my brain still has some knots and kinks.

Candace gives me all the answers as she moves her forearms down my back: Oh well, she says in rubs and strokes. Oh well, oh well, oh well.

I keep quiet and keep listening.

It’s good, her thumbs and index fingers say. It’s real.


[1] This kid's a 20-year-old SafeRide employee. He's never been in an accident and before he even asks if I'm okay he's calling 911. Really man? I wanted to shake the guy. We could wipe this scratch off with my sleeve. I want to tell him "It's okay, don't worry, I get in these things all the time," but I'm not sure that's the best thing to do in this case either."

[2] "All the world's a stage," said good old Billy Shakes a long time ago, and since then the idea has just spread like wildfire, especially amongst the gender-and-cultural-studies-type-folk. My favorite recent and most research-related encounter with this idea was in reading a dissertation section that claimed tampon companies make women feel bad about their menstrual blood, lambasting them for marketing their product by tricking women into thinking they could have agency to fix this "problem." "Like any kind of blood, it's wet, it smells like blood, it's red," writes a wise and practical, far-less-anxious commentator. "There's nothing wrong with it, but it's still something you might want to control."

[3] I think back on my old jobs and how I dealt with numbers one and two in those positions—lifeguard (blow the whistle, get your supervisor to come out and cover your zone so you can get down and use the ladies’ room), swim instructor (you just pee in the pool, right in there with your classes, and the chlorine levels kill it in half a second), art instructor (honestly? I just went and left the kids, and told the brattiest one to keep everyone in line), English teacher (these days in undergrad they’re so busy on their phones and laptops that they don't notice if you’re there or not).


MELISSA GUTIERREZ is working on her MFA at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and gets her body worked on at the salons and spas there, too.