The Italian Masseuse
©Linda Watanabe McFerrin
Or so it seemed as I lay in my skimpy paper underpants, standard issue at the thermal spa center in Santa Cesarea Terme, a tiny town on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, in Puglia, at the absolute tip of the high heel of the boot that is Italy. She was a bit of a dominatrix, my masseuse, and I liked this about her: the way she slapped me around. Sometimes one needs a good dressing down.
I was at the tail-end of a lengthy stay in Europe that had included living the high life with jet-setting pals (one actually used the phrase “economy class scum” albeit ironically, to describe a certain tribe of travelers to which I did not immediately claim membership) in London. I’d been wined and dined at glamorous private cocktail parties and escorted about the city to plays, restaurants and museums—all of this with a big black cast on my injured left wrist and hand—and though I was hanging out with a first-class crowd, I will confess here that I am, at heart, economy class scum, which means that I’ll do what I need to do to get a ticket to ride, including sitting, knees pressed to chest, in the cheapest seats in the house. I would do the same for any of Shakespeare’s plays, which I approach with similar jubilation and enthusiasm. I’d stand for heaven’s sake. And I would stand on a plane, too, if it meant my flight dollars went further. I am actually one of those people designed with economy class in mind. I am five foot one and 435/455ths of an inch in height—unless I am wearing stiletto heels, which I almost never do—and I weigh, well … let’s just say I weigh less than one of the larger breeds of dogs.
When I sit in first class—which I’ve had the honor and discomfort of doing from time to time—I cannot bend my legs, as the edge of the large seats is closer to my ankles than my knees and my feet stick straight out … unless I wiggle forward in the seat and fill the open area between my spine and the seat back with huge numbers of those tiny, made-for-an-airplane-snooze pillows. Either way it’s an unpleasant ride and I’ve often thought of auctioning my seat off to some super-sized person miserably crammed into economy class accommodations.
I realize this is quite a preamble. All of this is simply to supply you with a little background information. I just want you to understand my state of mind as I lay there naked, but for those paper undies, at the mercy of my masseuse’s ham-sized mitts. I must admit I was worried. She was very rough and I am, even in my relative youth, quite decrepit.
Take that black cast for example: I’d broken my hand right before I left for Europe when I was attacked by a pit pull in Stockton, California, and forced to the ground. What was even more aggravating was that I’d had the area cast only a few years before when I shattered my wrist in Holland whilst on a bike on the dyke that circles the Isselmeer. What I like to call my bionic wrist, because of all of the metal in it, was having an unpleasant soft-tissue flashback due to the new injury. That was keeping me up nights and the black cast was cramping my style, both kinetically and cosmetically, though friends had assured me that they had mistaken it for a quirky and delightfully Goth fashion accessory. Have you ever heard of a bracelet that keeps you from taking a shower or limits the number of pieces of luggage (must-have camera, laptop, backpack, needlessly large pairs of shoes for various sports, clothes, heavy recreational reading) that you can comfortably carry?
I should reveal, as long as I’m on the subject and the masseuse still hovers above me, that I also have metal parts in my leg due to what I cavalierly claim was a fall from a barstool around one year ago. The injury is not yet completely healed. No matter, I still get around … so the high life continued in Italy: in Rome and in Puglia where we criss-crossed the length and breadth of the region while the feasts rolled past with clockwork precision and I, who am allergic to gluten, shellfish and caffeine and generally averse to the consumption of red meat, was finding it hard to keep these fine but afflictive substances out of my ridiculously finicky system. So by the time the masseuse had me, I was exhibiting celiac-like symptoms: swollen throat, elbows broken out in a rash and an unpleasant feeling of bloat, in spite of what I felt was an assiduous attention to what went into my mouth and what came out of it (after all, it was a gathering of very clever writers).
So you see, not to whine, but I really needed the massage and a good dressing down, a contemplative slap on the buttocks as if to say, “Hey, aren’t you getting a little ahead of yourself? Shouldn’t you slow down and smell, rather than drink, all that coffee?”
And what better place to do this than on the massage tables of a therapeutic facility known far and wide for the treatment of various physical, rheumatological, cardiological, dermatalogical, gynaecological and rhynogeneous complaints? The place is a veritable clinic by the sea. It has that air of relapse and recovery for which, I’m sure, the great spas of the world were once celebrated—that is before spas became more cosmetic than curative. It even smelled deeply reparative, with its sulfur pools, mineral muds and the faint but pervasive odor of perspiration that mingled ever so subtly with the cleaner chemical notes.
The name of my masseuse was Celestina, I believe—a particularly good name for a woman with the hands to heal. Celestina covered me in mud, let me wallow in it for a while then threw me into a tub for a pommeling hydro-massage. I was nearly comatose by the time she retrieved me and ushered me into the quiet room where she planned to attack my every ache and pain. That’s when she presented me with the undies and arranged me face down on her table.
“Si chiamo che?” I had slurred incorrectly and indecipherably into the sheet as she vigorously assaulted my thighs. Did I mention that her massage table, like all of those at this facility, I imagine, did not have a hole for your face to poke through and that my neck had to twist in an ungodly fashion (old movie buffs, I am referring to The Exorcist)—a posture that I found hard to achieve—in order to be understood?
“Celestina,” she said. “Come si chiama lei?”
“Mio Linda,” I mangled, drooling into table and sheet, not the least bit embarrassed by the primitive manner whereby I was communicating. I was in paper underpants, wasn’t I?
“Lin?” she responded.
“No, Linda,” I slurped. “Ohhhh, that feels great.”
“Eh … piacere di conoscerla. Parla italiano, lei?” she inquired.
“No. Non parlo. I don’t speak, but I’m trying,” I slobbered.
Our conversation proceeded in a sloppy, halting way and I learned that Celestina had lived her entire life in the province of Lecce, in Salento, the southernmost portion of Puglia and that she did not speak French or Spanish or English or Japanese, none of which I can speak effectively either, though I sometimes pretend to. At least I think that’s what she said. I also think she told me that she had three children; that one son was a musician, one a garbage man or a member of the Mafia—I’m not sure which—and that her third and youngest child, a girl, was mentally impaired and living in an institution.
“Oh, che tristessa. Oh, what sad!” I said, commiserating and feeling an immediate bond.
“Si,” she responded punching me in the way that a good Italian chef will punch the air out of pizza dough.
“Anche mio. Me too,” I confessed and explained to her, in the slack-jawed pastiche of sounds that I have come to call pidgin spitalian, that my daughter, Marissa, had died shortly after she was born and that I have never gotten over it.
She was silent. The room filled with the sound of her breathing and mine. Then a small droplet bounced onto the bare skin between my shoulder blades. She wiped it away and her large, warm hands sank deeply into the trapezoid of muscle stretched tightly between my clavicles. “The world is sad,” I think she said.
Celestina was extremely attentive. When she came to my right ankle with its symmetrical scars, she asked tenderly, “Che fa?”
“Mucho injury,” I responded, switching for some reason to Spanglish as she proceeded to unknot those tendons.
What happened after that? She flipped me like a pancake and covered me in an oily substance, telling me my skin was “magnifico.”
“Shank you,” I drooled, by now totally punch-drunk and stupid.
It was hard getting dressed. I could barely button my shirt. I staggered out into the brilliant sunlight and sat, wrapped in a long-sleeved white shirt, hatted and sunglassed, as covered as I had moments before been exposed. Nancy, one of the writers, drifted by and we took a stroll together, finding a room filled with machines for the thermal treatment of ear and nose related diseases: adenoid hypertrophy, chronic pharyngitis, recurring pharynx-tonsillitis, allergy rhinitis, nasal polyposis, rhine-bronchial syndrome, chronic sinusitis, various forms of catarrh and much, much more. In the spa’s inhalations treatment department row upon row of flowing water contraptions, each with an empty chair in front of it, stood ready to bath the noses and throats of the afflicted. Of course neither Nancy nor I could fathom what the machines were for, though the various knobs and dials and the yellowing plastic tubes and masks suggested snot, mucus and sulfurous solutions—a combination quite unappealing on every possible level. We left shaking our heads.
Back outside, I took a seat again on the terrace, looking out over the sulfur pool and the Grottas Gattulia, Solfurea and Fetida, across the turquoise waters of the Adriatic toward that exquisite point where the sea meets the sky. There I waited in a peeled and polished kind of oblivion, like a patient in a chamber before a transfer, feeling old but transformed, turned inside out and ready for whatever was to come, totally intoxicated by Created by Linda – 7 -the sense of physical ruin and spiritual repair. The other writers gathered and lounged, looking nearly as bleary as I. I wondered what miracles they had found in their separate rooms, what doors to the soul had been unlocked, what demons routed.
It was late when we left, the ride home long and debilitating in the gentlest of ways. The next day I would find bruises all over my thighs and sigh. Of course the sojourn in Puglia was not over; it would go on, as life tends to go on and on and on. But I would remember Celestina, I thought, and the ministrations of Santa Caesara Terme, and the way the sea on that strip of coast in Salento slapped at the rock hard until it formed beautiful coves and grottos. And I would remember those soft, hard, kind, brutal hands, and I would be left with longing.
—Linda Watanabe McFerrin