I was in a panic realizing my appointment at the spa was in 30 minutes. I still had to get dressed, dry my hair and make myself presentable. Dashing out the door with wet hair, I hiked to the subway. Huddled in the harsh, fluorescent glow of the number 1 train with no make-up, I began to see the trade-off. Buying relaxation comes with a free sample of humility. Head down, confident I was about to run into an ex-boyfriend, I sprinted five blocks to the Broadway Day Spa for my facial.
I burst through the door, straggly-haired and red-faced, and collided with the soothing wall of hush when it occurred to me that spas in New York need decompression chambers. I’d just run past jackhammers, dodged strollers, and jumped over piles of dog crap. Entering such a cocoon of calm shocked my system.
As if to solidify my title as Ugly Duckling, the man behind the counter was tanner and more beautiful than I could ever hope to be. As I handed over my sad little Old Navy hoodie, I silently swore that next time I’d wear heels.
As I lay in the dentist-style chair and ready to let the leisure begin, I was informed that I’d put the sheet thing on wrong. It was enough embarrassment to kick off the next piece of information, “Every single pore on your face is clogged.” Exit self-esteem.
New Yorkers can choose from an endless variety of activities and services promising to restore our vitality. Spas, salons, studios, and soirees beckon from every corner. In their midst, we are obsessed with obtaining a physical receipt for our repentant relaxation. We crave the red, greasy face, the extraction and exfoliation, the sore muscles and the depleted bank balance that assure us, yes, that we “treated” ourselves. At the end of this particular spa visit, I could shout to the world that I’d endured the soothing benefit of having someone smear acid on my face…Acid.
Why did I schedule this facial in the first place? I was hosting what I’d hoped would be a fun, laughter-filled, elegant dinner party and I wanted to look at least as good as the food. Of course, New York guests—even close friends—expect gourmet cuisine. So I spent an hour running to three different markets to get the spices I needed, barely leaving time to pick up all the mixers for the fully stocked bar—an absolute necessity at any respectable city dinner party.
After my decidedly uncomfortable facial and the fun-for-my-friends-but-mindblowingly-stressful-for-me soiree, I needed to relieve some tension. Trolling Facebook, I found a deal on a $37 massage and made an appointment. The Madison Ave address was enough to replace a reputation at the time, but upon arrival I was singing a different tune. The salon’s name was scrawled in pen on the building directory, the elevator was rickety and the hallways were dingy. I peeked my head inside and saw another woman recovering from a massage, shiny and blissed out, which was enough of a sign to go through with it. The room was lined with signs on the wall forbidding “money deals” and instructing me to leave on my panties “for hygiene purposes.” Oddly enough, it was the best massage of my life. Still, given my desire to quickly flee the scary dump, my shoulders didn’t truly relax until I was home in one piece.
Despite all the talk of plucking and rubbing, I’m not Paris Hilton. I didn’t grow up in a mansion with an army of staff. I do my own laundry, clean my own bathroom and I’ve worked my share of service industry jobs. The Puritanical values that founded this country are still alive and well. Work is good, relaxation is evil, lazy, and indulgent. Going to a spa or gym isn’t a necessity. So dashing past a man collecting soda cans to recycle to drop $100 on someone else washing my face or stretching my quads, has a jarring poignancy. Perhaps we compensate by making sure our leisure activities hurt. Twenty sets of squat-thrusts ought to cancel out last night’s nachos, and the shame of overindulgence.
We’ve bought into the myth that doing something for yourself actually has to involve doing something. In New York, it’s as if the maxim is “I do, therefore I am.” The idea of not doing something is unheard of. An hour of yelling for tourists to stay left as you try to jog the Brooklyn Bridge, the scramble for a spa chair at the nail salon on a Saturday morning or throwing elbows for space in front of the mirror to get your “om” on just in time to fight the post-yoga brunch crowd us is all evidence of how our relaxation has become an extension of our daily stress from which we are desperate to escape. Getting out of the city seems like an option, until you factor in cab fare or an hour-long subway-to-bus ride to LaGuardia, security lines and major runway delays because of the massive air traffic into NYC. I’m tense just thinking about it. So instead of rushing to spas, fighting for a table at a restaurant or even dashing to the airport, perhaps the most relaxing activity is simply not doing anything at all.