Cheap Reflex

11/23/2009 By Shawn Burns

The sign, neon and blue, read “Reflexology” and the pink silhouette of a foot reassured the patrons that yes, this was indeed the establishment they were seeking, if what they were seeking was a little foot action.

“They actually do full massages here, cheap,” Emily said. “Twenty-five bucks for an hour!”

It was true. Although there were no massage tables, and you kept your clothes on (except for your shoes and socks), this massage parlour promised a close approximation of the purchased relaxation usually promised and delivered by more luxurious establishments.

The trick was the license: they didn’t have one. And privacy: they didn’t have any. What they did have was one large, softly lit room filled with big leather chairs that folded down into what were effectively massage tables, though lower to the ground, with face cutouts revealed with the flip of a flap. Any burly inspectors from the Board of Massage Licensing and Other Ridiculousness could be assured, “No, what? Massages? No, no massages here. Only foot spa. See? Bucket? Foot spa.”

Despite the strangeness of participating in a common-area massage, I preserved an open mind. It was a rare night that Emily and I were able to leave the house without an extra four legs, four arms, two noses, and forty-five pounds of solid cuteness. I would make the most of it.

The room was full, but Emily and I were shown to chairs opposite each other. We sat and awaited our attendants. It was an unlicensed “reflexology” parlour in the Silicon Valley so there was no predicting who would be helping us.

Nonetheless I was still a shade, a mite, surprised  when a slight, athletic, Asian, dude, approached me and said “Hi.”

Ah, here begins a situation rife with comedic tropes: the hetero-male, acculturated against intimate male contact, will squirm uncomfortably while another man behaves completely professionally and with no sexual overtones whatsoever. Hilarity.”

I resolved to subvert stereotypes and remain completely relaxed and professional throughout the massage. I would not be that guy. I am enlightened. I am unthreatened by male contact. There was nothing new or weird about this situation.


I made it through the face and scalp massage without incident. And the arms were wrestled into relaxation. But then he started to shake my left thigh back and forth, jiggling it to loosen it up and suddenly all I could think about was Jason Alexander as George Costanza muttering “I think it moved.”

It was like a leak in a dam, or a giggle in church. The writer in me began narrating the experience in my head, attempting to turn it into a story, compulsively trying to capture it for the future, but all that accomplished was to concentrate the humour, make it more potent. I started smirking.

Shit. Now, what if he looks at my face while he’s jiggling my thigh and he sees me smiling? What if…what if it moves and he catches me smiling?”

Have you ever had a thought and told yourself to stop thinking it? How did that work out for you?

Just calm down. You are Enlightened Man! You control your destiny. What the hell? Why is he slapping my legs now?”

The music in the room changed from unfamiliar, but stereotypical East Asian instrumental sounds to…

What the hell? Is that “Chariots of Fire”? For Chinese woodwinds?”

My attendant, whose name I never got but who I’ll call Thomas moved from my legs down to my feet and I was introduced to real, true, pain.

Apparently “reflexology” means “faaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrggggggghhhhhh” in Mandarin.

Take a knuckle to your instep and press as hard as you can; now do it harder, and drag it up and down fifteen or a hundred times. I wondered why I wasn’t screaming aloud; more importantly, why wasn’t anyone else screaming? Surely every person in the room was being put through the same treatment. This was a technique the CIA had never employed, else every renditioned terror suspect in custody would have given up everything he knew. I think in the end I didn’t scream because no one else was screaming. Peer-pressure preserved a small fragment of my manhood. Briefly.

I can’t remember how long the torture lasted. But Thomas transitioned from inflicting intense pain on his victim to, well, I think I need to invent a new term for what he started doing:


Mas-toe-bation is exactly what it sounds like it is, but with more lotion.

Oh come on! Who wouldn’t go to the weird place in their head with this going on?”

Again, there was no telling how long it lasted. And I’m not sure it accomplished anything as far as the overall goal of relaxation is concerned. And the sudden, violent explosion of foot slapping that followed was also not really what you’d call “calming”. But there was more to come.

Because all that was just on the left foot. There was still a whole other foot for Thomas to abuse and knowing what was coming ensured that I was not getting out of my head any time soon.

The knuckle-instep enhanced-interrogation-technique began, and it was just as painful on the right foot as it had been on the left. And this time I knew it wasn’t going to be short. I knew it was going to go on and on and on. I started to beg.

Please, please, please let him start on my toes soon. Please get to the mas-toe-bation before I scream.”

My prayer was answered and relief granted.

Now, this entire time I was also reciting a mantra to myself: “This isn’t erotic. This isn’t erotic. This isn’t erotic.” And it wasn’t erotic. But it was all so typical of the uncomfortably homoerotic situation for the hetero male that I had to battle my own reflexive discomfort with an inner monologue.

But look, Thomas wasn’t making it easy on me either. After he was done with my toes he asked me to turn over onto my stomach then positioned himself at my head and started working my lower back. He spent a lot of time there, trying to work out the tension that, frankly, he was responsible for since he was (1) punching me in the back and (2) standing in probably the second most homoerotic position possible: think about it.

So, yeah, I wasn’t relaxing very quickly. And this clearly bothered him, because it’s his job to see to it that I relax. So the more I tensed up the more aggressively he attacked my back until I became convinced that this was a hate crime. He clearly, my pain-addled brain decided, hated me and he just wanted to abuse me as much as he could. I had smirked and giggled through his advances and now this was his revenge.

Eventually he gave up. My physical and disappointing mental discomfort came to an end.

I tipped him five dollars, shamefully replaced my shoes and socks, and exited the room with Emily as “The Greatest Love of All”, arranged for Chinese woodwinds, played our exeunt.

And damn me if it didn’t feel like I was floating on my feet, or walking on marshmallows. Apparently Thomas knew what he was doing after all.