Working Through the Layers of My Grief at My Local Asian Spa

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A Yelp search for the “best massage in Park Slope” led me to a neon yellow sign of a smiling foot. The door chimed as I entered a room with four beds divided by makeshift bamboo walls. Shelves of grinning gold cats waved their hands in sync while I waited. I had come for a one-off, inexpensive massage. But I knew within 10 minutes I would want another, despite feeling embarrassed that, as a half-Asian woman, I couldn’t communicate with my Chinese-speaking masseuse Lulu beyond gestures. Within a couple months, I was calling every Saturday afternoon. “Lulu working tonight?” I’d ask. “See you at 8 p.m.”

It’s not like I hadn’t tried, in the Before Times, to find someone who offered more than platonic touch; the kind of physical relationship that could provide intellectual stimulation, companionship, sex. But intimacy risked attachment, and attachment meant heartbreak. I had seen the pattern before.

“This one won’t last,” I would say every time my single mom drove me home from the babysitter after yet another date. Even as a young child, I sensed she yearned for male affection. A brain aneurysm when she was 41, and the partial paralysis it left her with, prevented her from finding that romance before she would die of the same injury at 56. In the 15 years in between, I became her caregiver, and my love and resentment towards her grew so deep that I vowed to never need anyone else.

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Rather than spend my Saturday night at some loud bar skirting around my mom’s death with someone I swiped right on, I chose the sheltered booths of my local massage clinic. With Lulu, I never needed to explain myself—all I had to do was breathe. The synchronicity between each knead into my flesh and exhale of my breath became our own language; a form of physical exchange that never led to rejection or abandonment. It was the one place where I felt safe and supported.

While the cliché grieving young woman would probably escape her grief via self-destruction, as a child caregiver, my responsible version looked more like social distancing and self-care. My friends were concerned with their latest dates while I was managing my mom’s probate; and since many of my mom’s friends distanced themselves after she became disabled, there remained few witnesses of her life I could mourn her absence with. I was lonely in my grief, as many are now after a year of loss and isolation. Without anyone I felt could understand, I found healing across the barrier of language through Lulu’s silent touch.

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