Leaving the spa, my mom surprised me by saying something as awkward as it was true—that we’d just had two old Korean ladies strip us down and clean us better than we’ve ever cleaned ourselves.
Let me back up, though, to the last time I’d seen my mom naked: when I was four, and still showering with her. As a child, I ended most days the same way—washing in the streams of water that bounced off my mother’s stomach, eye-level with her crotch. My mother’s body used to be my plaything, to which I had full access to grab and hold whenever I pleased. Then I turned five, could be trusted not to drown myself accidentally, and learned to give myself my own baths.
20 years later, the distance between our bodies has grown large and correspondingly fraught. While I still occasionally fiddle with the soft skin on her upper arms and tease her about her Spanx, my relationship to my mother’s body is withdrawn, diplomatic. I tell her she looks nice in clothing, that she still has great legs, but I can’t picture her at her most essential. And it never crossed my mind that I should seek out this missing information. Why should I know what my mother looks like naked? Isn’t that the premise of Psycho?
Nonetheless, my mom is still my go-to partner for new and potentially uncomfortable experiences. She is the person I turn to if I want to try dining in pitch dark or go to an interactive theater performance. She is unflappable, maybe because she doesn’t care about looking foolish. She emigrated from China when she was in her twenties, and she quickly learned that the best way to deliberately lose yourself in translation is to laugh a lot, at yourself, at your English, and at the situations Americans no longer find strange.
When I heard about Korean day spas and their full-body exfoliation packages, I didn’t immediately think to invite my mom. But soon she became the only person I could think to go with. Who else would take the utilitarian Korean spa experience in stride? Without hesitation, my mom agreed, and I made an appointment the same day. I warned her about the large amounts of communal nudity, but, since she’s still my mother, she was convinced that I was mistaken. There would surely be private rooms, she told me. I shrugged, knowing the truth.
Hani Joa Day Spa is located in a strip mall, in front of a massive Goodwill, in Falls Church, Virginia. The layout is narrow but deep, and resembles a sprawling hallway. When we entered for our appointment, no one was at the front. A Korean drama was playing on a small TV. Loose shoes were scattered in the foyer.
A minute later, a petite, sinewy Korean woman, old enough to be my grandmother, appeared in black lingerie. She gave us cotton robes and led us into the changing area. We passed a big glass door on the way down the hall, and peeking in, my mom exclaimed, “There’s a naked woman in there!” There was indeed a naked woman, in the middle of her treatment, sprawled out on a massage table, next to two empty, identical tables. Given the acoustics of the spa, she no doubt heard the next five minutes of giggling, shushing, and strident exhortations to avert eyes as we shed our clothes and put on our robes.
We showered in the same room as the naked stranger, whose body was being simultaneously oiled and pummeled by the Korean lady from before. In the shower, my eyes never left the tile. I don’t know what I thought would happen if I glimpsed my mother’s bits and pieces. That the ground would crack open and swallow me hole? That I might see an extra nipple, and thereby inherit the family curse, sprouting a third nipple right then and there? The stakes felt extremely high, and then, we moved to the sauna—where it was so hot that, given the choice to use our extra towel to shield our modest crotches or to facilitate breathing, my mom and I chose to cover our mouths, not our bodies. We sat there for 15 minutes, waiting for our skin to soften its grip on our flesh. All the while, hot drops of condensation fell from the ceiling, burning our shoulders. The stasis felt anti-climactic, still charged. Giggling fits started for no reason and lasted for too long. I was naked with my mom, staring at the unexpected Grecian statue they’d installed in the opposite corner of the sauna. Life was strange and marvelous, punishing and therapeutic. And I was maybe getting high off the medicinal herbs steaming within the statue.
Then we were released back into the main spa room, led over to the massage tables (the mystery naked woman was gone). A second Korean lady joined us. Together, the two of them woman-handled us in the best way while gossiping in Korean. The muscles in their forearms stood out like tree roots. At one point, my lady threw both my arms over my head and yanked me up the table, my oily body frictionless against the vinyl. I felt like a piece of meat, a prime slab of Kobe beef.
They scrubbed our bodies with large exfoliation gloves and Irish Spring soap, their movements so vigorous that the towel they’d thrown over our eyes fell off halfway through the session. The sensation was almost painful, like a slow rug burn. Every twenty minutes, they filled up a bucket and washed off our bodies and our tables. Curious all of a sudden, I opened my eyes and saw that I was surrounded by what looked like lumps of wet clay. I squeezed one piece between my fingers, and my dead skin rolled around like wet, gritty spaghetti.
Then I looked over at my mom.
Her skin had the milky-pink sheen of a young, clean pig. She looked, on her back, like the mirror image of me. Which is to say, she had arms, legs, breasts, a stomach, an ass, everything that I had. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting that. And I thought back to what she’d been muttering before. That I didn’t have to worry about being naked because I was young—that she, on the other hand had something to hide, something to be ashamed about. She had been so adamant about hiding her body, in the spa and in other instances, that I had also begun to believe there was something horrific about a mother’s naked body, my mother’s naked body.
But she was perfectly normal. As the ladies contorted our bodies to reach all our nooks and crannies, bumping their stomachs and breasts against mine, I saw again and again that there was nothing worth hiding.
After a deep-tissue massage—a series of tenderizing smacks, pops, and punches culminating in a hot milk bath—we were sent back to the showers. This time, passing each other’s shining bodies, my mom and I shared a look and a gleeful grin. We were wonderfully nude, clean for the first time in our lives. Clothing would have felt like an extra layer of grime.
“You look good,” my mom told me. “You look better,” I replied.
Behind us, without fanfare, our ladies had shed their dirty uniforms. Now we were four women naked in a room, going about our business. Then, it was over. We toweled off, dressed, and paid at the front.
As I drove my mom back home, we traded impish glances through the rearview mirror. The experience was exhilarating, and not altogether relaxing. I felt as if I’d been swimming for hours.
You can feel so close to your mother and never see her as she is most plainly—a woman with a body, with a stomach that sometimes aches, sometimes jiggles, and breasts that do the same. At the spa, I got to tell her with supreme confidence that she looked good, and I got to watch her believe me. Dead skin isn’t the only thing that sticks to your body: ideas, stigmas, baggage, distortions clump onto flesh just as easily and doggedly. After awhile, these useless hangers-on become your body, or even replace it.
Of course, Korean day spas aren’t magic. My mom’s body and mine were not transformed from remarkable and embarrassing into ordinary and wonderful by the forceful touch of an exfoliation mitt. But that day those women scrubbed all the grunge away, leaving only what was always there, always showing through.
Lillian Li is a second-year MFA fiction candidate at the University of Michigan. In March 2013, she was a Granta New Voice. She went to an all-girls high school, which is her excuse for everything. Follow her @ZillianZi.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.