The horror stories started on board the Kittitas as it lurched through the Northwest mist toward the south tip of Whidbey Island. One woman had suffered a leg wax from hell. Another had had her cuticles assaulted. Yet another had had her entire body scrubbed with what could only be described as a currycomb of pain.
I was with a gaggle of girlfriends, en route to a highly recommended day spa tucked away among the pitch and pine of tiny Langley. Spa veterans all, the women swapped war stories with the cool bravado of downed fighter pilots. To me, their experiences sounded like a cross between "Queen for a Day" and "Fear Factor," but then I had no experiences of my own to draw upon. I had never been to a spa in my life.
Granted, I had an inkling of what they were all about, my perceptions based on fleeting images from "Sex and the City" and "I Love Lucy." I imagined an abundance of tiled floors, thin robes, hot steam and naked women, sort of like a 9-year-old boy's fantasy of ancient Rome. I pictured women splayed like rag dolls, their bodies being briskly massaged or slathered with mud or "therapeutically" beaten with spruce branches. I envisioned greasy avocado face masks, cool peppermint foot-cream, terse Swedish matrons, and the inevitable slices of cucumber.
Naturally, when I called Spa Essencia to make reservations, my ignorance showed like a bad slip. The owner politely explained the various aromawraps, body polishes and sea-clay masks, but all in all it was like explaining snow to a Tongan. After 30 minutes of ill-advised exclamations ("Extraction? Good God, what's that?") I opted for an Essencia Massage Facial, an hourlong treatment featuring a steam bath and hand, foot and face massage.
As our ferry cut through the slate gray waters toward land, I tried to focus on the tranquil healing environment that lay ahead, but my companions' horror stories wound around me like wispy ropes of bad incense.
"First they wrapped her in a plastic tarp."
"Ice-cold jets blasted into her face from every side of the pool."
"They say your pain tolerance is better in the morning. That's the time to get a wax."
Abruptly, the ferry began to shudder and I knew we were minutes away from the dock in Clinton. The time for speculation was over. I was about to enter a mysterious world of mud, sweat and, possibly, tears. At long last, I was about to truly become a woman.
Langley is a sweet community of about 1,000 artistic souls that hugs the east side of Whidbey Island and its sweeping view of Saratoga Passage and the Cascades beyond with an affection usually reserved for newlyweds. Clapboard buildings, in a variety of Northwest pastels, house antique shops, gift boutiques, art galleries and the like. Bakeries, bookstores, bistros and the odd saloon round out the rest of the downtown streets. In Langley, the people not only know each other, they know each others' dogs.
Spa Essencia was a five-minute walk from Langley's main drag, hidden away along the water's edge, deep within Paul and Pam Schell's Inn at Langley.
They were waiting for us when we got there. Not the former Seattle mayor and his wife, of course. The spa therapists, who greeted us with serene smiles, then whisked two of our party into a back room and plied the rest of us with health forms. "Would you be adversely affected by steam-bath heat?" the questionnaire wanted to know. "Are you adversely sensitive to any essential oils?"
What's an essential oil? I wanted to ask. And if it's so damn essential, how is it I've lived my entire life without it? But I held my tongue.
I knew I'd stepped within the borders of a foreign country, knew it from the strange musky smells, the odd Celtic music, the mysterious phrases that flitted around my head like tiny Solstice Parade dancers. Structural muscular balancing, polarity therapy, ear candling.
Ear candling? Hadn't mothers warned against that for centuries?
Forms completed, I headed for town. I had 45 minutes to kill before a stranger in a gray smock systematically began to freshen my natural glow. I prayed that the currycomb of pain would not be involved.
Fifty minutes later, I was naked and sweating bullets. And I hadn't even hit the steam room yet.
My therapist, Karen, had just put me through a grueling round of questions about my skin. Was it dry? Was it oily? Was it combination dry and oily? Was it normal? Was it not? What was my primary skin concern?
My only response a baffled look, Karen had come at me with her thumb, slowly rubbing it from the bridge of my nose to the tip of my cheek as if she were applying war paint.
After a moment, she told me I had normal skin and began to catalog the facial products she would be using on me that day: oatmeal jojoba this, green tea and gingko that. They sounded sort of tasty to me — a bad sign. Then she told me to strip, grab a robe and head for the steam room.
That's where I found my buddy Casey. Groping my way through the 115-degree white fog, I lowered myself onto a small wooden bench next to her. The heat quickly permeated everything: my skin, my brain, my bones; I could feel the toxins I'd been hearing so much about pouring out of my body like rats from the Lusitania. I felt cleansed, invigorated. And then I began to feel like a hombow.
"How ... much ... longer?" I panted.
"You've only been in here 30 seconds," Casey said. "You're supposed to steam at least five minutes."
There was a tap outside and I answered it. A tall woman stood in the doorway, a shiny black apron stretching from her shoulders to her knees. She looked like a butcher.
"I'm here for Casey," she said in a low, accented voice.
"What are you going to do to her?" I cried. Casey just laughed and slipped by me out the door.
A half-hour later, I was lying on a table having my face painted like a Fabergé egg.
My therapist, Karen, had begun by draping steaming towels over my face, no doubt a calculated move on her part since it made it impossible to talk. The jojoba oatmeal cleansing scrub followed. As did moisturizer, although it was hard to say what exactly was happening as I was starting to regress into the womb. At some point, she began to work on my hands, massaging them, moisturizing them and then tucking them into hand diapers. (The official spa term, Karen told me repeatedly, was moisture barrier.) After a while, I didn't care what she was doing.
"I'm going to spritz your face with some aromamist now," Karen said, her voice blending with the sounds of a waterfall and some pan pipes.
"Fine," I said.
"Would you prefer jasmine lime, rutabaga peach, or peppermint yam?" I knew I was hearing things, but at that point, didn't care.
"Fine," I said.
She spritzed. The music tinkled. The candles guttered.
"Fine," I said.
Time stood still, and the world became Karen. Her strong hands massaged my temples, my fingers, my toes. She smoothed my brow, soothed my sinuses, chased away my worries and tensions and knots. The two of us became thick as thieves, as close as lovers. Together, we detoxified, we deeply moisturized, we regained our natural glow.
After a while, Karen finished painting my face. Then she popped chamomile pillows over my eyes and left me to do some deep breathing. I listened to the soft strings, the throaty flutes, wondering how much the rents were in Langley. I thought about the horror stories I'd heard on the way over. Obviously, those women had been going to the wrong spa. Obviously, those women had never met Karen.
I vowed they never would.
Riding back on the ferry, the eight of us were quiet, contemplative, as spent as post-Christmas rag dolls, each girlfriend lost in her own world. It was a pure and fragrant world made of steam and honey, oleander and exfoliation, seaweed and Swedish massage and sweet, careless repose. It was spa world, where no bills were due, no children were hungry, no husbands or bosses demanded appeasement. It was a lovely world, and I was happy I'd traversed its borders.
Granted, I still didn't know what made some oils so essential and others, say, good for baking, but I had a sneaky hunch that one day, perhaps another misty morning in Langley, I just might find out.
Diane Mapes is a free-lance writer who lives in Seattle.