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.
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 myselfall 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 clich 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.
My body was like a steel safe of memories to which Lulu held the codeI never knew what she might release in our hour together.
What does it feel like to lose sensation in the hand you used the most? I would nag my mom as a teenager. It was her left hand that was paralyzedthe one that had supported the melody on the piano and written spontaneous observations of single motherhood on napkins. When Lulu pressed into my dominant right palm, I pictured all the nerves under my skin sparking and connecting, where my mom's cells were a sea of darkness, lost within the swollen flesh of her curled, limp hand.
Another time, Lulu's thumb to my foot set my mind adrift to layers of white fabricfirst the medical curtain separating my mom from the rest of the ICU, then the hospital blanket over her bodythat gave way to her ballooned foot. Confusion led to horror as my eight-year-old eyes traced their way up her newly swollen body in a coma. Someone told me to hold her hand; maybe her daughter's touch could bring her back to the surface.
From that moment onwards, touch and trust would become intrinsically linked; shaping my willingness to unfold myself in every relationship to come. As mine with Lulu matured, so too did my trust, and her weekly touch began to break down the tissue that had become so tightly bound over the years; layers I had formed to protect myself.
But like any good relationship, mine with Lulu had to endan expired visa saw me heading home to Canada. Following my last appointment with Lulu, I tried to explain I was leaving. I wanted to tell her she made me feel safe and loved when my grief had prevented me from dating like most young adults my age. I needed her to know she gave me the mother's touch I longed for since the age of eight, the last time my mom had given me a two-armed hug. I wanted her to understand she had massaged away the hard shell I had formed around my body from years of associating the absence of touch with neglect and abandonment.
She would never know. I left her with a gift card and hefty tip on a Saturday night like any other. In the wake of the Atlanta spa shootings, I keep thinking of Lulu, and all the other Asian immigrants who paint nails, buff feet and rub backs for a living. Will they ever know how much their care means for those in need of healing?
My new massage clinic in Toronto is not unlike the one in Brooklyn: It's a no-frills walk-in and my Chinese masseuse Terry doesn't speak much English. Here, my clothes and a sheet separate his skin from mine. Still, I've become a regular, because at the end of each massage Terry rubs my neck with the same Nivea lotion my mom applied before bed each night. For a few precious moments, I'm with her.
I may always be searching for an unrequited mother's touch, but to remain untouchable won't protect me from heartbreak. Instead, it risks losing opportunities to find pieces of her essence in unexpected placesin fragments that accumulate over time to mend the parts of me that remain wounded.
Now that we've had the choice of touch and socialization taken away from us, I see how those who help us heal are rarely the ones we expect. Like Lulu, who enabled me to see that closing myself off to new forms of contact, in the name of love for my mom, is a waste of my ability to feel all the physical sensations and emotional textures she didn't get to. As the world opens up again, I'm hopeful I will too.
Read more on: beauty
Click here to personalize your skincare in 2 minutes