The marble table is heated and wet so when you lie on it there is almost no friction. To move a limb, you slip right, left, up, down, as though you are skating on hot ice. The young Spaniard, my masseur, has a heavy beard and a red tank top loose across his shoulders. He tells me to lie on my back, then gently rolls me, his hand on my hip, until I am in the right position.
This is a traditional Moroccan massage, done with special soap and exfoliating gloves and so much water you might be in a warm sea. He pours the water from copper bowls above me, bowl after bowl, onto my chest, my belly, my thighs, my calves. The swells of water, the warm marble, the Arabic music, is more pleasure than I have had in years.
The man is invisible, yet everywhere. He swings a wet cloth into a pot of bubbles and then over my belly so that it feels like a hot cloud has settled upon me, the surface of warm bubbles shivering against my skin in a sensation I have never felt, nor ever imagined. To think that there was such a pleasure of which I knew nothing. That out in the world was this sensation to which I have, until now, been oblivious.
I have been reckless in the pursuit of love, never afraid to ask or describe to a man how I want to be touched, but I have never been touched like this. In the glowing light from candles set against the terracotta walls, a man whose name I don’t know, shows me what I ought to have been looking for all along.
His blousy red pantaloons are rolled to the knee. His arms are bare, his muscles flexed. He swing towels up into the air as though throwing dough. The air makes the bubbles swell and multiply until at last he casts the thin hot towel replete with bubbles onto my shoulders, my back, my thighs,. Once I am thoroughly soaped he uses an exfoliating glove to scrub my skin – back, shoulders, thighs, feet – with enough pressure that every nerve is animated. I can feel the edges of my body, the membrane between myself and the pleasant air. It is painless, invigorating. He shakes the cloth over my calves. He blows against my skin as though putting out a match. Now begin again the bowls of warm water. I welcome each one.
Minutes pass. I am in a dream. The masseur is the intoxicator and the comforter in one . “Are you all right?” he whispers. At first, I am not sure he is even speaking to me. I’m in a place so far away it seems impossible that I can be reached. He asks again, this time putting his hand on my shoulder.
“Yes,” I manage, a he helps me to my feet. “Tan bueno.”
Above me, the ceiling has been carved so that windows of stars and diamonds cast beams of light onto the glassy water. Below me, the tiled floor is warm. My skin tingles. My head is gauzy. The masseur (is his name Henrico?) helps me to a new table, this one covered in a towel, and I lie on my belly while he sprinkles warm oil on my back and begins something new.
Now, the messaje relajante, the relaxing massage. He rolls his thumbs down my back, kneads the muscles on either side of my spine. He stands in front of me, pushes against the hollows of my shoulders, working his fingers into my neck before at last letting his arms go, pressing lightly as they glide down my slick arms until his palms rest in my open hands and we stay like that for a moment, palm in palm, amid the red tiles and delicate curtains, under the spell of the hammam. Then, just as suddenly, his hands glide back, reeled in as though on a fishing line, and he begins the process again.
If I lived in Granada, I would come to the hammam weekly, my skin growing rosy in the heat of a Spanish summer. Under the amber glow of candlelight against adobe, I might look for Henrico, or perhaps I would purposely not look for him or anyone, the anonymity being part of the experience.
His touch cost me nothing – only money. All my life I’ve been touched by men who have cost me so much more. A professional with a skill that seems too personal to be a profession, the hammam masseur is doing a job all the same. I didn’t even have to talk. Is it too dreadful a confession to say I have never before been in such circumstances with a man, where it was all so easy?
It occurs to me that I have spent my life entertaining men. Listening, nodding, telling them stories, making them laugh. Sex has been a balancing act, sometimes awful, sometimes okay, occasionally brilliant. But sex is so demanding these days, the bar set so high by the makers of pornography and their parade of imitators. Sometimes, I wonder if sex education for girls should include a course on how to please a man without being injured, for surely it is coming to that.
What did it feel like to receive everything that day in Granada and to give nothing? To be entirely absorbed by my own body and by the sounds and shadows and water and oil? It engaged a part of me that was about not about sex, nor appetite, but a place that has yet to be named, cannot be imagined, must be experienced. It was an education in my own body, long overdue.