My quest for a safer massage during the pandemic

A backyard session proved the best way to get this kind of self-care

Massage in a pandemic
Monish Lahiry, of Blank Canvas Massage, gave me a masked backyard massage that felt safe.

Photograph courtesy of Christine Van Dusen

My mission seemed simple enough, but everywhere I turned, I hit brick walls—no, we don’t do that. It’s too hot. Try someone else. Then came a cagey Facebook reply: “I have a guy. DM me for his number.” I immediately followed her instructions, waited several days, followed up again, and then was given the contact information.

I was in need of someone with a particular set of skills, I told the guy, and a willingness to follow my rules. For $90, he was in.

This is the process I went through in order to schedule an hour-long massage that seemed safest during a pandemic: outdoors (to avoid contaminated air), in a massage chair (thus facing away from the therapist for the majority of the time), with both of us wearing masks (in case one of us was unknowingly infected).

These are strange times, times that have called for sacrifice, for isolation, and for hypervigilance about the spread of coronavirus. Meanwhile zippy listicles, pithy Instagram posts, and supposedly inspirational podcasts have repeatedly reminded—nay, commanded us—to practice self-care. But for many of us, this is fraught. We are afraid to go back inside gyms for endorphin-boosting exercise, and fear the germs that might reside inside even the swankiest of spas. We try to make the best of things, working out at home and breaking out the old foam roller for some approximation of a rubdown. But it’s not the same.

I was not on a massage schedule before the pandemic hit; I saw the service as a small luxury, and I’d just pop into my local place whenever I felt particularly tense, desperately needed a break, or had a gift card to cash in. When the pandemic took hold, I stopped going, and I didn’t return, even after the state said spas were permitted to reopen. We all saw the jokey videos, but yeah, I wasn’t interested in being massaged at a distance by a broom.

As the first day of all-virtual school approached for my eight- and 10-year-old sons, and I tried to keep up with the associated barrage of emails while also working full-time, I found myself daydreaming of simpler times, of strolling into I Love Massage and spending $40 (plus tip) for some serious muscle-kneading.

So I made it my mission to get a pandemic-appropriate massage.

Monish Lahiry, a therapist with Blank Canvas Massage in Kirkwood, drove to my house on a humid Tuesday evening. He rang the doorbell and was greeted, through a small crack in the door, by my loud and scrambling dog and by my somewhat-annoyed husband, who asked Lahiry to please go through our side gate to the backyard.

Lahiry, wearing a mask, waded through our knee-high grass to the back deck and set up his massage chair and a speaker playing soft trip-hop, then wiped everything down. I met him there in my own mask, then turned on a small fan and lit two candles, not for ambience but in a sorry attempt to keep the mosquitos at bay and drop the temperature a few degrees. For extra protection, I sprayed myself down with bug repellant—not Lahiry’s massage oil of choice, but it would have to do.

With my masked face in the cradle, it was at first difficult to unwind, what with the mosquitos biting my fingers and my worry that Lahiry might pass out from the summer heat. I also became keenly aware of the base level of stress I’d been feeling for the preceding months of the pandemic, how I was always pushing my limits and suffering sleeplessness and irritability as a result. I tried to focus on the feeling of the massage, which consisted mostly of pressure-point techniques and myofascial release, and the little hotdog men on Lahiry’s socks.

He eased the tension in my neck and lower back and relaxed my shoulders. I melted into the chair and underneath his hands, and then another thought popped into my head. The pandemic had put me into a constant state of wanting—wanting to go to house parties again, wanting to go to the gym again, wanting to perform with my band in a packed bar again—and in that state of wanting I had ascribed to these experiences an almost magical, transcendent quality. But could any of these experiences really match up to expectation, once I had the chance to participate in them again?

I realized that perhaps it was alright to miss things but that they shouldn’t be built up to mythic proportions, and that it was healthiest to stay in the moment, enjoying what I could have. So I closed my eyes, breathed through my mask, and let go.