I had a massage twenty-five years ago at an aromatherapy centre in London. I went because some girlfriends wanted to go and because aromatherapy was relatively new then and I was curious.
I hated it. Inside the freshly painted walls of a Kensington clinic, a girl with a white smock and dainty hands rubbed ylang ylang oil over me as I counted backwards from a thousand, wishing at the outset that this forty minutes of pampering would end.
Given my early experience with massage, I was wary of getting one at the hammam in the beautiful city of Granada, where my son was taking a week of language classes during spring break. It was a weird time in my life. I was getting over a love affair that had taken place during the 15-month separation from my husband, and frankly I wasn’t over that either.
A hammam in Spain is not quite the experience one might have in Morocco, where they use black soap and exfoliating gloves and give no thought to anything so prudish as a bathing suit. But for someone as squeamish as I am at being seen in a bikini, and who had been almost incapable of lying on a table years ago in that white room in London, letting a stranger touch my back, it was a daring move.
I am used to English changing rooms where you constantly feel a draft through your towel, where one freezes in cold showers amid the cries of half-dressed children, and where the only steam comes from your own body in the chilly space beneath tubes of cold light.
But the changing room at the hammam—good god, I could almost have stayed there for the duration of our visit—there is no texture or temperature or sound that does not give pleasure. One enters through gauzy curtains, eyes adjusting to candlelight in the gracious, tiled room filled with lanterns and burning scented oils. Everything is lush: the smell of sandlewood and cinnamon, of burning wax from candles set in recessed ledges along the walls, the stone shower cubicles with shower heads wide as dinner plates, the mirrors that glow in lamplight and reflect only vaguely your dewy skin. The room is so beautiful, you wonder how it can house toilets, but there they are behind dark, carved wooden doors. The lockers are the same smoke-coloured wood, the floor warm beneath your feet, is marble. Nowhere could you could be cold or uncomfortable — steam and candlelight and Arabic music waft through the air and you float on a cloud of pleasure all the way to the vaulted rooms that house the bath waters.
And now, you are in bigger rooms, a warm mist softening every angle, green sugared tea on silver platters waiting for you in each of the rooms: the one with a cold rectangular pool beneath a rough plastered ceiling, the one with the marble columns that divide the warm pool, a rectangle almost large enough to swim in, and the hot pool – hotter than a bath and far nicer – in which you can lean into the tiled edges and look up to the stars carved into the ceiling above you, or admire the latticework through the glow of lanterns.
At some point a woman in a blousy red suit that flowed to her knees tapped me on the shoulder. It was time for my massage. I walked down a short flight of marble steps lit up by floor lanterns to greet a man so beautiful he might have been sculpted. He held a towel up like a flag, a shield for me to undress by. “Your bikini top,” he said in a heavy accent, and I pulled it quickly over my head rather than fuss with the laces.
Few things are better than food, but his hands were richer and more filling. I did not want him to stop touching me, nor the seconds to pass by as he did so. I concentrated hard on staying in the moment, not allowing myself to think about how my boyfriend used to knead my shoulders or how my husband, before him, knew the place in the very middle of my back that always wanted scratching.
I felt the pads of the masseur’s fingers against the muscles of my back, his knuckles on the recesses above my shoulder blades, his palms against the base of my spine. He rolled his hands against my flesh. He stood with his belly near my head and pushed against the tops of my arms. When finally he was finished, he lay the towel gently over me and I was drunk with pleasure. It took all I had just to sit up.
To imagine this had been taking place for decades without me. That these rooms had filled and emptied, that the ceilings carved in their sacred geometry had shown stars and sun without me. I could go every day and not make up for all the years the candles burned until they were level with the floor their wicks scorched, their bases sooty with ash.
I bathed for an hour, my thoughts in slow waves. Amid the quiet stones, the glowing waters, the steamy changing rooms, I thought how you can feed your body, care for your body, ask less of it for a few hours, ask less of yourself.