By: Tanya Ward Goodman
Friday evening, when the clouds are as heavy as my exhausted eyelids, I pay my first visit to a Korean spa. Though I am in the company of a dear friend, I have to admit, I’m a bit nervous. First, there’s the whole walking around naked thing and then there’s the scrubbing. Fierce, fierce scrubbing. The kind of scrubbing that in a perfect world could turn back the clocks; the kind of scrubbing that could also leave a mark.
At the front desk, my friend and I are issued numbers and locker keys. In the locker are two extremely small towels and a pale green robe. Nudity is postponed momentarily as we both pull the thin fabric around our bodies.
I raise my wrist to show my bracelet and a stout Korean woman wearing only black panties and bra takes my hand. She quickly divests me of my robe and gives me the kind of firm pat you might give a horse.
“You soak,” she commands, pointing to a steaming pool.
I slip into the water next to my friend and feel my shoulders relax into the warmth. Too soon, my number is up.
“Number 72,” my guide says, gesturing for me to get out and follow.
I trail her to an area behind a low wall where there are five or six tables covered with oilcloth. The walls are tile and next to each table is a large drain in the tile floor. My guide pats the table and gestures for me to lay face down. I look across at my friend a couple of tables away and she gives me a huge smile. I smile back and hoist myself on to the table.
Warm water is poured over my body and then the scrubbing begins. And it is wonderful. I feel myself relax as these big, scratchy mitts make their way over my body. I let my shoulders loosen and give over control of my arms and legs to this kind woman and her cleaning powers. Her belly bumps against me from time to time, like a friendly pillow. It could be weird, but it’s not. She’s has an efficient thoroughness that is almost parental. And it goes like this: scrubbing, rinsing, scrubbing, turning, rinsing… for over thirty minutes. When it ends, and I am sent to the shower to “rinse well,” my legs wobble.
I return and my guide slips her fingers under my arms, makes a little “tsssk” sound with her tongue and sends me back to the shower.
Like a dutiful child, I rinse and rinse.
And then the massage begins. Despite being on a table in a brightly lit, very public room, it is incredibly relaxing. The sounds of running showers, the little splashes that accompany an entrance or exit to the soaking tubs and the liquid sound of water being poured over the prone bodies of my neighbors on the tables creates a kind of lulling ambient noise. Just above the music of the water, hushed voices engage in conversation. The woman massaging my shoulders chats in Korean with the woman working two tables over. Their words are simply sounds to me, blending in and then standing out from the sounds made by sinks and faucets and drains.
I realize that I am having the kind of experience that a baby has every day. Even as a child grows, I think the words of grown ups continue to form a kind of unintelligible cloud around their heads. My seven-year-old understands more and more, but I know he often finds himself exactly where I am right now. It feels good to me to return to this watery, mysterious world, but it also helps me understand why my son is often so filled with frustration. My return is voluntary, while his journey is canted forward as a kind of escape.
The massage ends and my friend and I dress slowly and prepare to re-enter the world. Once outside, in answer to a question posed by our rumbling bellies, we head to a nearby restaurant. At the table, over a feast in small bowls, we share our birth stories. Hers were hard, slow labors and mine both began with a spectacular burst of water. It’s been a long time since I repeated these stories. My children are so tall, so sure of themselves, it’s hard to believe they were once swimming inside me. Perhaps it was our own trip to a watery world that brings these tales to the mind’s surface and makes them so fresh. We raise a glass in toast to our friendship and to our children while, outside, the clouds let go of their weight in rain.