I don't like being touched by strangers. Not even when they're massage therapists.
But touched by a machine? Now that's another story.
The setting for my tale of mechanical massage is an unlikely one — Six Flags Great Adventure theme park. There, for $20, I bought 15 minutes of bliss in the form of an Aqua Massage — and didn't even get wet.
I was in the park as a parent chaperone on a class trip with 80 eighth-graders. The kids were allowed to go off on their own as long as they checked in at certain times. So I found myself wandering alone past the Whac-a-Mole game, the Dare Devil Dive and the Kingda Ka coaster.
It was a warm day; I felt hot and sticky. My shoulders hurt from working at the computer the day before. My back ached from a heavy bag.
Then I noticed a sign: “Relaxation Station.” I heard a soothing recorded voice promising a “full-body water massage without ever getting wet ... Ten to 15 minutes of invigorating water massage while you're fully clothed.”
Inside, a few patrons sampled an aromatherapy/oxygen bar and massage chairs that resembled big comfy armchairs. But it was the Aqua Massage that I wanted.
I took off my tight shoes and put down my heavy bag. Then I lay face down on a narrow bed in a small dark room with a beaded curtain instead of a door. It felt private but not claustrophobic.
The attendant lowered the lid of the machine over my body. Only my head stuck out. “Here we go,” she said, and left the room.
A roar louder than a shower filled my ears. A soft sheet like a waterproof windbreaker was attached to the cover of the machine; it conformed to the contours of my body and formed a barrier between me and the water. Waves and jets and needle spray began rolling over me, from my toes to my aching neck, without my ever getting wet.
After a few minutes, my mind filled with images of water. I thought of waterfalls, rain falling on a tin roof, plunging my hot feet in an ice-cold river, diving into a lake and floating on a wave at the beach. Over and over the Aqua Massage undulated, cooling and kneading and flowing over me.
At first the noise seemed like an airplane engine rather than waves at the beach, but gradually I grew accustomed to it and became immersed in my watery dreams. (I later learned that most Aqua Massage stations supply soundproof headphones so you can listen to music instead of the machine.)
Suddenly the roar stopped. The cover lifted. The attendant appeared. I climbed out and put my shoes on. The ache in my back, shoulders and neck was gone. My feet never felt better.
Another customer stood waiting to take my place. She looked a little apprehensive.
“Don't worry,” I murmured as I walked past. “You're going to love it.”