They say human beings – especially women – have short memories when it comes to pain. We remember that there was pain, that it existed and was terrible, but we tend to forget exactly what it felt like. We make approximate guesses when describing it to our friends: “Imagine sitting on a knife!” But it can’t be the same; the precise feeling fades rather quickly after the pain stops. It’s just as well – if we could really, really remember exactly how awful the pain was, we might be too afraid to get up in the morning. Short pain memory explains how women are able to go through childbirth numerous times. It also explains how I completely forgot how excruciatingly uncomfortable South Asian massage is.
We walk what feels like hours a day: navigating hawker stalls, Little India, Chulia and Cintra Streets, and peeking wistfully at the Eastern Oriental hotel. I’m in flip flops and filth clings to me; my feet are encrusted with dirt and blisters. It’s hot and my feet swell like balloons. What could be more enticing than an 8 dollar half-hour foot rub? Nothing. It isn’t until the smiling woman at the massage parlor pulls out her small, wooden rod of death that I suddenly remember another smiling masseuse in Thailand, back in 2007, pulling out that same little tool. My Malay masseuse begins to score my foot muscles with the instrument, digging in between my toes and dragging the hard, blunt rounded end of the wand up and down the soles of my feet. It’s a horrible mix of tickling and digging that makes all the muscles of my body clench in agony. How could I have forgotten? What, did I black out due to pain during the foot massage I got in Thailand? Suddenly, I’m in both countries at once – experiencing both post-traumatic massage flashbacks and the very real pain of the here and now.
The masseuse lays down the wooden rod and my muscles unclench … until she starts on my left calf. She digs her thumb in between the muscles running alongside my shin and the hairs on my limbs shriek to attention. I’m at a total loss as to how the South Asian massage industry stays afloat – how could anyone possibly find this relaxing? Every muscle in my body is alert, frantically searching for escape.
“Pain?” she asks me. Yes, yes!! I whisper limply. She loosens her grip slightly and I frantically prepare the speech I will give when I ask her to please, please not do the same thing to my right leg. My metal plate and screws are in there and if all this thumb digging is so excruciating on my good left leg, I can’t even imagine what it will be like on my bum right leg.
When she finally lets go and removes the towel covering my cowering right leg, I tell her, thank you, thank you and gesture to the whole of it, from my ankle – where my biggest metal screw juts out below the bone – to my knee – 6 inches above where my plate ends but I don’t care; I’m not taking any chances with this torture. The masseuse surveys the long, white scar running down my shin and promises to keep her massaging efforts localized to my right foot.
Thank you, I say. Thank you, thank you. She smiles and so do I … until she pulls out the wooden rod and, again, the dull pain of the past and the clenching misery of the present blur into one.