When Massages Attack

When Massages Attack

I love a good discount so when Groupon took off, I jumped onboard that cyber train pretty quickly. For those who may have been living in a shoebox the last few years, Groupon is an online coupon website that is able to offer deep discounts on everything from teeth whitening to all-you-can eat sushi. The consumer is able to join a group of likeminded shoppers who want the same product, allowing for a massive group discount. The business makes up its profit in the volume of customers.

My Groupon honeymoon period was nice. The first purchase allowed me to frame some pictures that had been sitting around my house for about 100 years (71% off!), then I tried some adventurous restaurants that I would not have otherwise (though the raw food vegan experience still offends my stomach a little when I think about it), and even went to a price-gouging Broadway show for half the cost.

When I finally overcame my skepticism of a $39 Groupon massage (“cheap massage” as a collocation just sounds lewd), I redeemed it at a place called Skin Spa and despite their Skinemax-sounding name, it was a rather nice experience. But a devoted Grouponer can’t be too picky. A discount for the same business only comes around once in a while, and is often reserved for first-time customers, so unless you want to use a fake name for subsequent visits (upping the creep factor even higher), you’re only going to get one cheap massage out of Skin Spa.

Hooked, I bought another massage a few weeks later for a place called Healing Hands, which just sounded so…healing and soon headed out for my marked-down, slashed price hot stone spa massage.

Healing Hands, rather than being a “spa” was actually a cramped room on the ninth floor of an old, rundown office building, the kind where the heat clanks from the radiators as it’s firing up, and turns the room into a steaming, overheated cave. There were no soothing Buddha murals on the walls, or smells of aromatherapy bubbling away my stress. But I relaxed into things and, happy to close my eyes against the stark dirty-beige walls decorated with only a three-year old calendar, I figured a good massage would whisk any problems away.

Have you ever had a hot stone massage? The therapist will typically place a series of warm, smooth stones along those body parts that hold stress: spine, lower back, calves, and then she’ll deliciously massage your muscles while holding a stone flat in the palm of her hand. It’s supposed to draw the heat out of your body, or put heat into it, or whatever. What matters is that it’s a mind-melting experience that leaves you with your muscles tingling with peace and goodwill. When it’s over, you’ll be left on the massage table with warm stones holding your eyelids closed, while you doze and drool and make your way back to reality.

On this day, though, I flinched at the first touch of those “healing hands.” My therapist, whom I will nickname Sadie, had gone directly to the major muscles on the side of my neck with what felt like her knuckles, and perhaps a set of keys placed in between each finger. Now, a human neck houses important organs relevant to the rest of our bodies, so when I started to become nauseous, Sadie told me it was because she was draining my lymph nodes. Her weapon of choice was not, in fact, keys but the edge of one of the smooth, flat stones that had in gentler times given me such nice massages. She had actually been grounding the edge of the stone around and around the same, tender part of my neck until I literally felt like puking.

For the next 30 minutes, Sadie found every sensitive pressure point in my body and gnashed down with her elbows and thumbs, even once dragging her razor-edged knuckle up and down my spine. The frugal part of me wouldn’t let the rational part leave—I did pay $39 after all. And I thought, maybe this is one of those really detoxing massages that’ll leave me feeling amazing afterwards.

We fell into a rhythm of me thrashing about in pain, asking her to please lighten up her touch, while Sadie, tenacious as a priest in an exorcism repeatedly responded, “No. Toxins must come out.”

Eventually I flipped over so she could work on my upper legs, and when she produced from under the table a wide belt made of bamboo beads I thought, OK, now comes the nice part of the massage. She climbed on top of the table, straddled me at the ankles, and rolled the bamboo beads over my top upper legs, using the whole force of her body weight.

When my legs, through their own free will, buckled up close to my body and out of her reach, my abuser looked at me blankly and said, “That hurts, too? It’s because your legs are fat.”

With Sadie’s tip meter quickly heading downhill, we gradually finished the massage, albeit with rules that sounded like we were engaging in a gang-style street fight: no knuckles, no weapons, and just stay above the belt where I can see you.

I considered at one point that maybe I was being pranked, or involved in a hidden camera sting, trying to expose some sort of massage bullying, and I almost hoped that were true. I imagined the video going viral; Sadie the Sadist vilified, an outpouring of support and free massages for me. Sound bites would take over the airwaves, listeners in disbelief:

Me: Ouch! Is that your elbow?

Sadie: My fat clients love this. It’ll get rid of your cellulite.

Me:  Stop saying I’m fat!

Sadie: You should have your thyroid checked. It doesn’t feel right.

Me: My thyroid hurts because you’ve been grinding a rock against it!

Sadie: When you go, tell your doctor the left half of your body is swollen. That’s probably something serious.

 But no hidden camera emerged. We simply parted ways, me with the understanding that the massage would have hurt less if I had asked Sadie to stand on the other side of the room and just pelt me with the hot stones for an hour.

And the most important lesson I learned is that massages are like sushi. Just pay full price.