I’ve come at the most expensive hotel in the city for a massage. In the spacious dressing room I find my bathrobe and a pair of slippers, both wrapped in plastic. I know that I’m the only one who will ever wear them, and that they’ll be thrown away the moment I leave. Then I go underground, to a brightly lit basement smelling of chlorine and incense. There’s no one else there, yet it doesn’t feel deserted, more as if the room has been waiting patiently for me. Mentally taking notes, I observe various baths, hot and cold. A plate full of apples, hard and green. Birds chirping, fake. Plants, real.
‘I’m Elsie,’ the masseuse says. ‘You’re going to relax today.’
‘Okay,’ I say.
‘I will leave the room now, she says. ‘And then you can get ready.’
‘What do you want me to do?’ I ask, as if I’ve never done this before.
Take everything off and lie down on your back, says Elsie, and she disappears.
I take off the bathrobe and lie down on the massage table, covering myself with a towel.
The massage is part of my work. I write about women’s bodies and the many ways in which they can be preserved. My target group consists of women who are alive, but while watching the mortician apply a milky liquid to my mother’s arms and a moisturiser to her cold face, I discovered that the advice I give also applies to dead bodies. A beautiful hydrating base for the foundation, the mortician explained, rubbing the hollows of my mothers cheeks.
I nodded. I knew. Skin is skin. It makes no difference whether it is wrapped around something dead or alive, as long as it is sufficiently moisturised. As far as my own skin is concerned, it is a hard shell holding my soul neatly in place. And massages? I don’t like them, they make me cry.
A knock on the door.
‘I’m coming in now,’ Elsie says. She lifts the towel off my body and holds it up, as if shielding me from her gaze.
‘Turn onto your stomach,’ she says.
I do what I’m told. She uses the towel to cover my buttocks and squirts some oil into her palms. The bottle splutters.
‘The oil’s finished,’ she says. ‘I’ll get some more. Keep your eyes closed.’
Next to the hotel is a museum where an exhibition by David Hockney has just been opened. This is where he sleeps. I’ve heard that he got stuck in the hotel elevator last night, accompanied by various people, including a local artist who took full advantage of the opportunity by showing Hockney some of his own paintings on his phone. Portraits of his ex-wife, a famous plastic surgeon – a beautiful woman, awful paintings – naked in a garden chair, naked on a lawn. I do understand him, though. Getting stuck in an elevator with David Hockney is a dream you want to squeeze till the last drop. I’m thinking that David Hockney might be underground too now. I think he would appreciate the pool.
Elsie returns with fresh oil and rubs some onto her hands, making squishy sounds.
‘I’ll do your legs first,’ she says.
‘Okay,’ I say with my face pressed into
a towel. She puts her hands on my calves and starts kneading.
Sometimes I go for a coffee with a man I know. We talk about work, and while he explains to me how I can reach my full potential, he touches my knee underneath the table. When he’s been touching my knee a tad too much, he gets his phone out and shows me pictures of his girlfriend: his girlfriend on holiday, his girlfriend in a garden chair, his girlfriend at an alpaca farm where he took her for her birthday.
‘Relax,’ Elsie says.
The girlfriend in the photographs is never naked, but the message is clear. What he gets from her is love, what he gets from me is eroticism – the knowledge that something lies hidden beneath the words we speak, something neither of us will ever point out. It’s eroticism of the dutiful and cautious kind, the kind experienced in urban coffee bars, the kind that is often taken for a friendly meeting between colleagues, because that’s what it is, too. I love alpacas, I say, and then it’s usually time to get the bill.
Elsie is done massaging my back.
It completely passed me by.
‘Turn around,’ she says. I turn onto
‘This is the only part of a massage
I look forward to – the moment someone concentrates entirely on my skull. Skin is skin, but the closer Elsie gets to my head, the more difficult it is to disappear. She strokes my neck, my jaw, the hollows of my cheeks. For the first time,
I get a sense of where I am: at the hotel, in the basement, in her hands. She bends over me, softly pushing her pelvis against the massage table that wobbles as a result of her movements and my weight. I feel her breath on my face. It’s sweet, earthy, smelling of something that lay buried but was dug up.
‘You’re doing great,’ she says.
‘Thanks,’ I say. But then, just before I step out of my body again, she puts her fingers in my ears. I freeze.
‘Relax,’ Elsie says. ‘Please.’
Tomorrow I’ll have coffee with the man. I’ll tell him about my massage, just to let him know that even though I’m alone,
I do have a body that likes to be touched with patience and care. I’ll tell him that I really enjoyed it, that it was exactly what I needed. In order to confuse him, I’ll tell him about the moment when Elsie put her fingers in my ears, that it was repulsive in the best possible way. Perhaps I’ll use the word obscene and pull a face.
‘Oh, but that’s not that weird,’ he’ll say, completely unperturbed.
‘My hairdresser does it sometimes. It’s to stimulate the vestibular system in the inner ear. Would you like to see the lunch menu?’
‘Oh yes,’ I’ll say.
Oh no, I think. I don’t want to see the lunch menu. I want you to stop touching my knee and get your hands out from underneath the table. I want you to close your eyes and ask me to put my fingers in your ears. I want you to tell me that you’ve never done this before, and that it’s your turn now. I want you to reach your hands out to me and put your fingers in my ears, deeper and deeper, until you reach something that has always been hidden underneath, something neither of us will ever point out.