09/05/2014 11:50 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

My Epic Faceoff With the Thai Massage Lady

First off, let me just say, it was utterly barbaric.

I limped, Igor like, into the nondescript mini-mall storefront in the suburbs looking for relief. What I got was redemption, by fire.

The muscles in my left shoulder were clenched like Mike Tyson's fist, and deep in its wrathful gap toothed grip was a dull ache that snaked up my neck. I woke up like this two weeks ago and the pain just seeped in the muscle fibers amoeba-like, the result of too much time hunched in front of the computer and the stresses of life as a 21st century humanoid. While I was ignoring signs of trouble, my brain nerves were silently cranking up my trapezius muscles, a bit at a time, until it became a seething mass of pulsating raw tissue.


I switched pillows, bought a stand to prop my laptop screen up to eye level, texted awkwardly with my phone held up to my face, did countless downward dogs and child's poses, and still I woke up every morning sore and battered, feeling like I spent the entire night fighting in the Hunger Games. 

It was time to face my nemesis. 

She nodded to me when I walked into the tiny nondescript front office, which consisted of a few chairs, an old desk and a golden Buddha statue mounted on the wall presiding over several tangerines.  

She had seen me before, but never this desperate.      
I gestured back along my shoulder. "Pain. Tight." 

She was a worthy opponent -- square face, broad shoulders and muscular fingers, ruddy cheeked like she spent years plowing dirt and digging up roots in some hard scrabbled pre-industrial East Asian countryside, single-handedly feeding a horde of offspring with the brute labor of her burly hands. But was she ready to face a wound up white collar Asian American stressaholic?

"One hour Thai massage," I said.
We smiled at each other.  

Sh*t was about to get real. 

She led me to one of the dimly lit cubicles in the back, each separated by brownish pink walls, and handed me shorts and a cotton gown that opened in the back.  I changed and laid on the massage table. A few cubicles down, I can hear rustling and a pained groan, another close combat in progress.

Soft yogic music played overhead. As if I could relax at a time like this.

My face faced the ground, through a round hole in the massage table padded along the edge with small towels. I heard the curtains draw back from the entrance, and footsteps.

It's on.

With her first touch, I knew she meant business. An explosion of sensation shot up my leg as she pressed down on the back of my right foot, as though she were crushing an entire clove of garlic in one fell stroke.  Was she using her hand? Her elbow? Her foot? I couldn't tell. All I could feel was hot electricity sizzling my nerve endings.  She continued kneading my legs like two loaves of dough. 

Then she got to the steel cables in my shoulders.
She made a surprised sound when she pressed down, as though something shoved her right back and slapped her face.  Oh yes, she has met her match.  

"Yup.  It's bad," I mumbled into the ground.

She collected herself.  She didn't work so hard to get herself out of a tropical mosquito infested jungle and make it thousands of miles away to this arid metropolis to go down without a fight.  

She started digging into my shoulders, breaking down the connective tissue that formed a defense around the knot like a city under siege. I was being invaded and tenderized.  In the midst of pain and relief I wondered silently if this is what Kobe beef cows go through before they meet their end, a thought that made me consider going vegetarian for approximately 30 seconds, until she began killing me softly by squeezing my neck. Cold blades slashed my brain stem. I thought I might pass out.

Sweat beaded on my brow as she pressed down on my back leveraging her full weight, and like a string of firecrackers on Chinese new year, my spine and her knuckles crackled all in a row.

What must this experience be like for her, I wondered, an expert in the terrain of the body.  As a writer, I dealt in words. She dealt in skin, muscles, ligaments and bones.  What did her expert hands sense about the language of people's bodies? What did the textures, bumps, and knots tell her about them and how they dealt with the thousand cuts of life?

In my trapezius, I tucked away all my doubts. In my neck, I hoarded my worries. In my deltoids, I packed in my fear. She smoked those scalawags out of their foxholes, and suddenly I saw that they weren't a permanent structure of my persona, but something separate from me that I didn't have to carry around. The drawbridge fell open, the prisoners were driven out , and the tightly constructed walls were tumbling down.

Then she whipped me around so quickly and before I even realized what was happening I was propped up on my knees doing a spread eagle. I couldn't see what she was doing but I surmised that she was standing behind me on the table and somehow tucked her feet in the space beneath each shin, then she wrenched my arms back, flaying me open like a rotisserie chicken on a cross.

I was a toy doll suspended in mid air that she could fling at any time to my death. There was nothing to do but to surrender to my conquerer. Teardrops trickled down my face. I started to chuckle. She started to chuckle too.

We have a winner.

I submitted meekly like a new born babe of yore. I was basic again, a tabula rasa, newly baptized.

Dear Thai Massage lady, I don't know where you came from - what your story is, how you came to be working in this little massage parlor in the American suburbs, how you got those epic fingers of steel. Heck, I don't even know if you are making a living wage. I hope so.

You are not a doctor, you are not a saint, but today, you saved my life.

Thank you, warrior princess.