Proof that Not Everyone Belongs at a Spa

For Christmas a couple of years ago, the father of a friend of mine (to protect the innocent, I’m going to call her K) gave her two gift certificates for a local spa. One was for her, and the other was for a friend of her choice. You guessed it – I got to be that friend. Neither of us had ever been to a spa, and we quite arguably are not “spa people,” so we were excited to give it a go.

Armed with our certificates, we marched into the rather unremarkable (at least from the outside) building. Immediately, my olfactory senses exploded. I mean, they practically blew right out of my head. I was choking on a disgusting blend of odors – hair products, wax, nail polish and remover, dyes, lotions, and God only knows what else. We settled into the waiting room, and as my lungs tried to filter the swirling toxins (those poor employees!), I thought about what lay ahead.

Here’s what I pictured: my friend and I, lounging side-by-side in wooden recliners, our hair up in towels, green mud masks on our faces, laughing and talking and sipping exotic juices while we exfoliated or effervesced or whatever the hell it was that we were supposed to do in a spa.

Here’s what I wasn’t prepared for: first, we were separated. I was led into a small, private room and told to undress down to my undies (what?). I was handed a teeny smock-type thing (was this the hospital?). That smock really disarmed me – I mean, I was only getting a facial. I wasn’t sure how wearing my own shirt would hinder them from smearing cocoa butter on my face. But, always the agreeable customer, I turned to undress. That’s when I saw the bed.

Yes, I said “bed.” No chaise lounge here, just an actual bed, albeit small and oddly-shaped. With sheets and pillows and everything. Now I was getting really worried. Was I supposed to lay in it? I’m fairly educated, but at no point was I ever taught how to behave in this strange environment. Protectively wrapped in my smock, I approached the bed. I poked it. It was real. So I sat on it. Awkwardly, I might add. But this didn’t seem right. I got up and stood next to it. Tried leaning a little. I might as well have written “fish out of water” on my forehead. Then I tried rationality: if there was a bed with covers, I was probably supposed to get into it. I gathered my courage and slid in.

So there I was, all alone and almost naked under covers that certainly weren’t mine, in a room with some type of eucalyptus-bamboo-trickling-stream-relaxation mood music that really wasn’t relaxing me. I’m pretty shy, and I hate being caught in any situation that could potentially embarrass me. So just try and imagine how I felt: I’m in a bed, facing the door, wide-eyed and confused, with the blankets pulled up to my chin. I was, without a doubt, the proverbial deer in headlights. Realizing that I looked like an idiot, I readjusted the blankets. Don’t worry, it didn’t help.

I imagined K loafing in a public facial room with lots of other women, chatting and laughing, mud mask and all. I was certain that some horrible mistake had been made. I had accidentally wound up in someone else’s room -some wealthy and spoiled spa-going pro that had come in for a full-body massage and possibly some private waxing. Like an in-grown toenail patient who sees his gurney being steered into invasive heart surgery, I knew I had to stop this!

Then a woman entered and all bravado was lost. I tried my best to seem a little classier than I felt, chatting merrily from my powerless position. She dimmed the lights – because perhaps things weren’t weird enough – and began to gather lotions. She talked in a low, breathy voice – I guess so as not to compete with the mood music – and explained what she was doing: I’m preparing a chamomile-and-green-tea purifying rubâÂ?¦.this is a bamboo-cream-butter skin cleanserâÂ?¦ now here’s a Grande-caramel-macchiato-avocado peelâÂ?¦”

Not that it mattered what she said. I didn’t understand any of it. Anyway, I was so nervous and intimidated by that point that she could have told me she was rubbing elephant shit on my face and I wouldn’t have spoken up. So she coated me in strange ointments, all the while narrating soothingly. Eventually, my breathing slowed and I started to chill. This wasn’t so bad. Then the massage began.

I’m not a touch-feely person. And I didn’t sign up for any massage. I’m not comfortable with non-PHD-holding strangers touching me, especially not when I’m wearing just my underwear. She started by rubbing my temples, which, in retrospect, was kind of nice. Plus, it’s a part of my face, so I guess it was acceptable. But then she began to massage my shoulders and arms – all clearly NOT my face. This was completely uninvited contact. And the gift card only covered a facial – was I going to get charged extra for this? Or was she just being gracious and going way beyond the call of facial duty for free? Either way, I felt like I was being violated.

Then came yet another curveball. The spa woman (what do I call her, anyway?) asked if I’d like her to “remedy my blackheads.” Now, I hadn’t even been aware that I had any blackheads, but hey, she was the expert. “Sure,” I said, “remedy away.” I pictured some magic lotion, or high-tech machine, or ancient Asian procedure that would rid me of skin impurities forever. For a second, I was almost excited.

Then I felt a strange pressure on my cheek. Ah, yes, a skin-perfecting machineâÂ?¦oh, wait a minuteâÂ?¦I knew that sensation! But it couldn’t beâÂ?¦was sheâÂ?¦was she popping a zit?? Oh, the humiliation! It wasn’t her job to do this to me! Even I don’t do this to me! I felt like dying. I prayed for sudden cardiac arrest, which would force her to stop touching me and call an ambulance. But no such luck. After a few agonizing minutes, she must have felt that I had been cured, because she stopped.

Needless to say, my forty-five minutes of relaxation was anything but. At the end, I almost passed out with relief. The woman told me to take my time getting up and dressed, and that she’d be waiting in the hall. Take my time? Ha. I was dressed in 0.273 seconds. Superman actually called me for tips. I burst into the hall; ready to suck in every noxious fume they had if it meant getting the hell out of that mortifying situation. And I ran smack into K, who had a dazed and slightly panicked look on her face. I knew in an instant that she’d endured the same “calming” treatment as me – which made me feel a whole lot better.

It was there that I saw a mirror. I had been wholeheartedly anticipating the final result of my trials and tribulations. I imagined a new me, with glowingly healthy skin, a radiant smile, and invisible pores. Instead, I saw a makeup-less me (never a good thing), slick and shiny with the residue of a thousand lotions. I saw red spots where I’d been “remedied.” I wasn’t radiant or glowing, unless you count the light reflecting off my greasy forehead. K looked pretty much the same. Not exactly the look we were going for.

Then the woman brought us out glasses of water, which I gripped in a jaws-of-life fist but didn’t drink. I didn’t trust anything. We began to walk the long hallway that separated us from the refuge of the sane, outside world and her car. She looked at me out of the corner of her eye and whispered, “Did sheâÂ?¦I mean, was thatâÂ?¦were you in a bed?” At least I wasn’t the only fool out of place in this house of supposed female nirvana.

Finally, the exit was in sight. At the register we presented our gift certificates. But then we stumbled across another etiquette hurdle: Do you tip? I didn’t know. I mean, the woman willingly popped my zit, for God’s sake. I think she earned one. But maybe a place this upscale wasn’t supposed to accept tips? If I pulled out some wrinkled bills, would I look like an unschooled bumpkin who’d never been anywhere other than SuperCuts? For their information, I’ve been to Holiday Hair as well! How much more shame did these people expect me to swallow? What should I do?

In the end, I tipped. And we enthusiastically left. But the whole experience wasn’t a total bust. It made for a great laugh and some very interesting dinner conversation. And I guess my skin looked a little better once the oils seeped in. I’m sure if I’d been a little more cultured and spa-savvy I could have relaxed enough to truly enjoy the whole experience. Most women do. But I guess it’s just not for everyone.

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