Ever so subtly, while restrained under two hundred and fifty pounds of perspiring pressure, I slowly craned my neck to the right. Trapped and pinned face-down I could barely see the circular white wall-clock with my peripheral vision. “Shit” I whispered through clenched teeth, but it was more like “SSSSSShit,” such as you might find in a Kavanesque calendar. The clock read ten past six, the same as last time, which must have been less than a minute earlier. My big clammy captor was non-communicative and unrelenting as he applied increasing pressure at key points on my ensnared vertebrae. Starting at my trembling tailbone, he systematically and piercingly thumbed all the way up my squirming spinal cord to the back of my skull. “Not my head,” I said in a perfunctory disapproving tone. “That is your spine,” he retorted, pushing even harder on my occipital with some seemingly oversized blunt finger. “Okay, but not here,” as I motioned to my cranium with a waving right hand, thinking how absurd it was to be debating anatomy with my tormentor. For the record, the definition of my head includes those areas with hair, just above the neck.
This one, for sure, was going to be tagged as a bad massage. When I booked it at my little boutique hotel in downtown Kiev I had imagined a relaxing, rejuvenating, pre-dinner Swedish style rub, probably from some Ukrainian lovely. But instead I got Jaws, who was evidently taking a break from the Bond franchise. “Hey,” I said, using more antsy direct language, “do my legs, not my back.” “Yes, I will do your legs when I’m finished with your back,” said the hulking henchman, and so it went for the rest of this particular eternity. The clock, which was apparently close to the gravitational field of a Ukrainian black hole, had now advanced by two excruciating minutes, with another forty-eight to go.
My theory on the difference between a good massage and a bad one is that it is galactic in scale, where awful experiences are seared on graffitied walls in your hippocampus. I remember each and every one of them: the lousy ones, that is. The distinction is consequential: It’s not the same as some unsavory meal that you didn’t finish or a tedious movie where you leave mid-way or fall asleep. You don’t limp home from The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle or get an incessant irritating rash from insipid Shrimp Scampi Linguine. For me, a good massage is the pre-Cobain definition of Nirvana: every muscle and tendon meticulously soothed while you lie there like a beached whale; and you forget all about the clock.