“Could we maybe close the door?”
I’m lying on a plastic recliner, naked as a salamander. Through the open doorframe I lock eyes with a little girl splashing around in the pool. We pretend she didn’t just see my entire ass. I’m convinced that humans have only survived this long because we learned to make these kinds of wordless covenants with strangers.
The older Korean lady turns to me. Her right eyebrow flits upward. She decides not to hear what I said and keeps washing her hands. I guess if you’re willing to get nude for one stranger, you might as well do it for two—it does seem a little ridiculous to be picky about these things.
The spa sits on the third floor of an unremarkable building in Koreatown, wedged breathlessly between barbecue joints and karaoke bars. If you hit the wrong button in the elevator, you could walk right into an office space or a wave of beefy smoke or a soju-happy rendition of “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
I usually make my pilgrimage when the start of school is in sight. While the ides of August have many people clinging to the hard-earned summer in their hides, I am eager to shed and start anew—and I mean this very literally. I don’t go to the spa to drink citrus water or mingle in the sauna: I go to the spa to get dead skin and dirt expunged from every inch of my earthly person. I emerge 50 dollars poorer, reborn.
“Asian women are so timeless; you know that.” Since I was sixteen years old, I’ve used this line on dozens of skeptical bartenders. No one ever knows how to respond.
It’s an old trope: Asian women don’t age until they hit menopause, when they turn into the sock-and-sandal-clad gargoyles dragging wire laundry carts on the bus. We’re cherry blossom beauties until we start breathing fire and smacking medical school into our children with rolled-up newspapers.
Though prolonged youth is my purported birthright, I’ve always taken care to do a bit of maintenance. I lie down on the plastic recliner so the Korean lady can scour the passage of time from my skin. I widen my eyes when I pose for pictures. I don’t know when or why I stopped smiling with my teeth.
There is no sunlight in the scrub room. This is not a white-tiled nail salon of the uptown variety, where ladies with hungry blue eyes wonder, “Are the employees talking about me in strange Asian languages?” The women here are unquestionably talking about you in their native languages, and they couldn’t care less if you know.
In the scrub room, there is only dimness and a cafeteria-grade trash bin that’s filled to the brim with hot water. The scene is something out of a twisted Craigslist search: wet old young asian girl naked. It is one of the most physical and least erotic things that has ever happened to me.
The older Korean lady rolls her athletic leggings up to the knees and hikes up her shirt to reveal a black sports bra and a modest middle-aged paunch. She is not playing around in the slightest. This is a goddamn exfoliation rodeo, and you can bet it’s not her first. She dips a basin into the enormous trash can and dumps bucketfuls of hot water onto my posterior half. I’m pressed on the recliner like an unlucky pigeon on a window, so I never know when the scalding splashes might hit.
Then she straps on her exfoliation gloves, which are essentially oven mitts made out of sandpaper, and calls my newest and least frictional self into being. I shift my eyes to get a glimpse of the debris.
You don’t realize how much junk accumulates on your outer layer until you see it plied off your body in soggy epidermal flakes. The encounter with your own cells is at once horrifying and miraculous, like peeking into your Kleenex after a gnarly noseblow. There’s disgust, then self-recognition—these clumps of filth were a part of me just moments ago—and then you wonder what other awful things your body is doing while you’re not looking. You vow to take your multivitamins.
The woman assails my outer layer like she hates it, and grins a little when I balk at the wayward organic matter scattered about. She wields the coarse loofah mitts like chisels. By the time I open my eyes, she is gone and I am naked and remade.