"You like old lady massage?" the receptionist inquired.
After 22 hours at 35,000 feet and another one spent slumped against the check-in counter of my Bangkok hotel, my joints ached. I felt a creeping paranoia that deep-vein thrombosis, aneurysm, life as an institutionalized turnip loomed unless I quickly found someone to restore what remained of my circulation.
The sign on the establishment door had indicated generic Thai massage. Old lady massage?Was there some other kind?Fixing me with a glazed expression, the receptionist said flatly, "Young lady massage."
It became clear that, Bangkok being one of the global capitals of sex tourism, old lady massage was code for a standard therapeutic rubdown, perhaps provided by the rare practitioner who does not moonlight at a local nightclub performing unprintable acrobatics with a Ping-Pong ball. Young lady massage was the other sort, the kind where gentleman customers are manually eased toward what is politely termed "release."
I forgave myself the confusion, signed up for a therapeutic package, and was escorted into a neat cubicle where a tidy mat was made up with clean sheets. Since Thai massage is done clothed, I stripped and dressed again in a pair of cotton pajamas and then found myself greeted by a wizened fireplug, who said something merry in Thai and went briskly about her work.
Two hours later she had finished stretching and pummeling me, and I felt that my spine was once more in alignment, my blood flowing, my sinews holding the joints in their sockets. I no longer seemed like one of those weary, discombobulated heaps of bones and organs that one so often sees shambling down a Jetway. I felt relatively new. Past a certain age and mileage status, it is an achievement to be able to make a statement like that.
As if to defy writer Elizabeth Hardwick's observation that when you travel the first thing you discover is that you do not exist, I felt securely located in my body, which after all is the only fixed address any of us will ever possess. It was the old lady's hands that had set me right, and it is for this reason that I make it my business whenever I travel to seek out a massage.
The habit was formed years ago. What began as a defense against jet lag evolved into a means of getting physically oriented to new places, and of easing the existential dread that takes hold when one spends eternities in airport purgatory and inside metallic tubes hurtling through space at inhuman speeds.