Lessons about Life and Belonging I Learned from Spa Going and Listening to My Inner Monkey.
I’m a regular at Korean spas in Los Angeles.
For 15 bucks a spa customer in Koreatown can experience a heated jade floor, a hot cauldron of mugwort tea to rejuvenate their chi flow, an herbal steam room, a clay sauna, cold pools and an oxygen room.
At first I thought I was going to these spas because they are so cheap and my aura definitely feels refreshed after a visit.
But a deeper reason for going to the spa became apparent: I was connecting to my inner monkey.
I found her when I was sitting in the steam room breathing in thick curls of smoky water. She was lying on the spa floor; hairy, wet, scared and crying.
“Who are you?” I asked this strange looking monkey creature on the floor.
It was too hairy to be a human. And yet I could see wounded eyes peeking through its coarse black hair.
“I am Iku,” she said emanating angry female energy at me.
She turned away and kept crying softly. I tried to reach out and touch her but she shrugged my hand away and evaporated into the steamy room.
I shook off this strange sighting and returned to my normal spa activities; soak, steam, float and rinse.
Crawling home through the gnarled L.A. traffic that evening, I flashed upon the image of the hairy creature I had encountered. Who was that? Why was I seeing an upset monkey at the spa? I tried to communicate with Iku again in the car but she hid from me.
Iku showed up again at my next spa visit. I was sitting in the steam room and saw the unsettling image of a wet, hairy monkey creature lying on the floor. It was clear that she was too primal to be human. She was an animal; a pissed off projection of my subconscious.
None of the other spa patrons or employees could see her. Just because she was a projected image from my mind didn’t make her any less real.
I didn’t know how to relate to Iku, so I just let her cry on the floor. It seemed like she’d hang out with me as long as I let her cry but she didn’t trust me enough to let me touch her. So I uncomfortably watched this hairy heap sob and squirm in the corner of the steam room.
Iku stayed with me through the whole spa visit until I put my clothes back on and drove home.
When I was not at the spa I started thinking about this new hairy creature in my life. Why was she crying? What did she want? I was going to try to ask her what she wanted but I knew she was touchy so I had to be careful.
As usual, during my next spa visit I watched the Korean women scrub each other in squatting positions around long, rectangular pools of warm water. I felt a twinge of jealousy and I didn’t know why.
Why would I care if an old Korean woman was being scrubbed by her granddaughter?
Suddenly the hairy monkey appeared and was scrubbing the old woman’s back. Iku was cleaning this woman thoroughly and looked happy!
In every other sighting it looked like she needed me to call a veterinarian. That’s it! Iku wanted to scrub Korean women’s backs at the spa!
She looked over at me and shot me a telepathic message:
“You idiot! Don’t you get it? I want to be touched.”
So that was it! She just wanted to be touched.
“Okay, well I guess I could hire those ladies in the black panties to give us a salt scrub,” I suggested.
“No!” Iku yelled inside my brain so forcefully it hurt. “They only touch for money! I want real touch!”
Iku was right. I got a salt scrub once and felt like cheap hamburger meat that was vigorously pushed and plucked. There was definitely no tender warmth radiating from that black panty clan of employees.
It sounded like a reasonable request for some physical contact until I imagined asking other spa patrons to touch me. I pictured the Korean employees immediately escorting me out like a troop of angry semi-nude police.
“You stop touching! You go now!” they would yell at me in broken English, throwing me into the parking lot with wet hair and a miniature towel barely covering my butt.
Asking other spa patrons to touch me would seem more pathetic than asking for spare change on the street.
I communicated telepathically back to my monkey out of sheer frustration:
“Hey, Iku, don’t ask me to do that. They’ll throw me out of here!”
“You either figure out a way to get tribal touching for me or I will do something wild. Figure it out lady! Soon!”
Then she disappeared into a cloud of red steam. This definitely sounded like a threat. I felt scared. I knew I’d better start listening or else she was going to do something extreme in public to embarrass me.
My monkey made me think a lot more about touching. Of course I hugged and touched my husband all the time. But Iku was very specific that she wanted to be touched, groomed and hugged by a whole tribal community.
This need for connection and touch was not a sexual urge.
It was coming from a deeper hunger to belong to humanity.
Iku helped me understand that my own biological family represented both extremes of touch in the American psyche.
My father’s Nordic family rarely hugged or touched each other. My grandmother would talk only about our glorious plans for the outside world. It was our American duty to achieve, achieve, achieve! The unspoken family rule was to stuff our feelings into a tidy compartment and just forget about any hairy inner monkey who wanted a hug.
My mother’s family was at the opposite end of the touching spectrum. Pushing, shoving, choking and chaotic energy permeated their touches. They were mean, scary, crazy monkeys.
Now I understood my jealousy of the Korean women who tenderly scrubbed each other at the spa. I felt all the places inside of me that were never touched or were touched too violently and layers of grief would release out of my body.
Iku started giving me strange powers to question things that are askew in our American culture.
What was this insane need to prove our individual importance through hierarchy and competition?
Why is it scary for us to share our energy together?
Why are we so brainwashed to become important, exhausted individuals?
Why have we forgotten about our primal need to connect to each other as a tribe?
I didn’t know any of the answers but I felt a strange relief that we were asking these questions together.
It was clear that the spa felt safe for Iku and modern society was depleting her. Something had to be done.
I bought an annual pass. My monkey was very pleased. I became committed to going to the spa with a vengeance to resurrect this scared, tired, deflated monkey who wanted tribal touching.
“I need to float in warm water and be inside of monkey mommy’s womb,” she told me.
Iku understood life on a deeper level than I did. I listened more. I began feeling really pissed off that society had hurt my hairy monkey so much and damned determined to correct the artificial rhythm of Los Angeles looniness.
My inner monkey was happy that I was questioning society and going to the spa regularly, but she let me know that she still wasn’t getting enough a tribal touching.
She explained that washing, grooming, and squatting with other human monkeys around water was an innate craving. I explained to her that I couldn’t become a spa stalker.
I could ask my husband to scrub my back in the bathtub at home, but I knew it wouldn’t work. The last time I took a bath at home I heard my neighbor Jett yelling through our thin walls at her boyfriend and it ruined any hopes I had for a primal monkey experience.
“Goddamnit Matt! I just spent $126 dollars on frozen dinners and cigs from 7/11 and you haven’t given me shit to chip in,” she hollered as I soaked in my tub.
“Yes dear,” Matt answered in a high falsetto voice he used when she got upset about money.
I told my monkey I was sorry but she’d just have to accept that I didn’t have a tribe in Los Angeles who could touch her. I cringed picturing Jett or Matt scrubbing my back with cigarettes dangling from their mouths.
“You are going to need to be more patient with me until I can figure out how to get your touching needs met without getting arrested,” I explained to her. I was beginning to love my monkey but realized she needed boundaries for my own societal safety.
“Okay, I will give you more time to figure this out,” she said taking some pressure off me. “I do enjoy seeing everyone naked in their body outfits.”
Iku told me that she preferred nudity to the shield of clothing. She liked to observe human skin morph into all of its packages: athletic, flabby, short, tall, petite or huge.
Every body told its story. Some women were missing teeth. Some had mastectomies. One had no arm. Many of the white women had boob jobs and sculpted pubic hair. The older Korean women didn’t give a shit about any of this body modification. Some of the bodies seemed dragged down by life. Others seemed perky and resilient. Some held deep wisdom.
Others seemed to only have a vacant understanding of life. But they were all interesting to watch as a part of our psychodrama in the human-monkey tribe. Even if I couldn’t touch them, my monkey eyes were soaking up their energy.
We all became strange monkeys to each other inside the spa whether we understood this or not.
One day while I was sitting in the clay sauna a very old Korean woman and her friend were pointing to my vaginal area and laughing.
“Am I imagining it or are these two old ladies laughing at my vagina?” I wondered.
She kept pointing to her vagina and laughing and then pointing to my vagina and laughing more loudly:
“Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha.”
Her friend seemed to be shaking her head in comical disbelief at me.
“Hey you,” the old woman said pointing her finger rudely at me. “You have very long hair. Ha! Ha! Hair too long! Look, me have no too long hair.”
She amazingly pointed back and forth between our pubic hair regions just to make sure I understood her observation. Her friend seemed unable to contain her giggles.
“Hair too long,” she said again boldly with the same hand gestures.
“Well, I guess I’ve just really let it grow out too long,” I confessed in an apologetic tone.
As soon as the words slipped out of my mouth I wondered why I was apologizing about my pubic hair to a total stranger. How dare they laugh at my most private area! It was the oddest conversation I’d ever had with anyone.
I was stunned by this woman’s crudeness.
I felt vulnerable and consulted my inner monkey for comfort.
“Can you believe these two rude women?” I asked Iku feeling outraged.
“I kind of liked it,” she replied happily, surprising me.
At that point I realized the universe was mocking me. This was a gift. I needed to laugh at myself. Iku knew that these women were comfortable enough with themselves to initiate us into their tribe. It made her feel connected to be ridiculed.
The next month at the spa there were no more bizarre interactions and Iku began to get bored and restless.
“Touch! Touch! Touch!” she insisted. “I’ve been waiting for you to figure this out and you haven’t helped me.”
“Okay, look, I’m sorry,” I said. “Sometimes I have to make money and go grocery shopping. I just don’t have a lot of time to create some magical monkey spa world for you,” I replied with a hot flash of impatience.
“You know I’m important! You need to let me grow,” she said angrily to me.
“Okay, okay, I agree with you completely. Tribal touching is real and we both need it. I get it. But it’s not so easy in Los Angeles to create these places you’re talking about.”
“Why don’t you just call one of your friends and ask her to go to the spa with us?” she asked me.
Of course! It was such a simple solution. I ran through a picture of all my friends in my head. Jenny was an uptight conceptual artist who cared too much about what serious, academic people thought of her to be an absurd monkey with me.
I could call Sarah but she had bulimia. She felt too uncomfortable with her own body let alone connecting to my body and the world of invisible monkeys.
I thought of my Russian friend Veronica but she talked too much about her plans to become rich. I’ve run into Veronica at the spa before and she hops and splashes like a free-spirited happy kangaroo. The last time I had coffee with her she talked for 45 minutes straight in her heavy accent about plans to become a multi-millionaire through the merging of zee lotion and zee yoga.
It was insane and boring to listen to. My opinion is lotion should keep being lotion and stay out of the world of yoga. So as much as I appreciated Veronica’s hopping and splashing skills she was out for my monkey exploration project.
Then I thought of April. She would be perfect. April was a Buddhist, an environmentalist and a performance artist. In one of her performances she asked people to come into her garden and poop into the soil to fertilize it.
God, I loved this woman! She would’ve done this monkey project with me in a minute but she’d moved up to Sacramento to work on her pooping-composting environmental vision.
Then Andrea flashed into my head. She was warm and earthy with long, strawberry blonde hair. She laughed a lot and was a philosophy professor. I always noticed how full I felt after she hugged me when we greeted.
“How about Andrea?” I asked Iku.
“Yes! She’s the one. Call her tonight and ask her!” my monkey insisted, hopping up and down excitedly.
That evening I called Andrea.
“Hey Andrea. How’s it going?” I asked.
“Good. I’m just grading a lot of papers. What’s up?”
“Well, you know how I’ve been going to the spa a lot lately?”
“Well, this may sound strange, but I was wondering if you could go to the spa with me and we could pretend that we were monkeys together. I was hoping I could scrub your back and you’d scrub mine, ” I said nervously biting my lower lip.
“But you want us to pretend like we’re monkeys the whole time we’re at the spa?”
“Yeah. Pretty much,” I said feeling self-conscious. A few seconds of silence passed.
“Sure. I’m down for that,” she said.
We arranged a spa date for our monkey exploration.
When I got off the phone I felt pleased with myself. I had stuck up for my little monkey who was just a sweet animal who wanted to feel more love and connection to a wider circle of human beings in Los Angeles.
I promised Iku that this was just the beginning. Fuck my job and chores and traffic and capitalism! I was part of a new consciousness movement. I could create a community of people who’d touch each other in a compassionate way. Iku had crazy wisdom and I was listening.
The following week Andrea and I went to the spa together. I noticed that Andrea seemed to be instantly in touch with her inner monkey. She naturally squatted around the long narrow pool. She laughed and grunted comfortably as she poured bowls of warm water over her head.
We slowly scrubbed each other’s backs and it was everything I had hoped it would be. I finally felt like I belonged to a tribe of humanity.
I became calmer. I closed my eyes as I scrubbed Andrea’s back with a scratchy yellow mitt. I kept my eyes closed and let myself connect to her, breathing slowly and deeply.
I started hearing tropical birds tweeting in the background. When I opened my eyes and looked down at my arms they had grown a thick layer of light brown hair. Andrea’s back was covered with coarse amber colored hair.
There were tropical vines drooping from the ceiling. The spa had transformed into a small jungle. We had all become happy, hairy monkeys who were quietly grooming each other in squatting positions.
I saw a circle of monkeys surrounding a floating monkey in water, gently rubbing her feet and arms in a healing trance.
I saw Iku and she looked happier than I’d ever seen her. She was touching other monkeys and laughing freely with them. I walked up and hugged her.
“Finally, you are really touching me,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for you to get here.”
I looked deeply into her eyes and saw spirals of tiny monkeys going backwards through time, floating into outer space. I felt initiated into some ancient web of touch that went way beyond my individuality.
We were holding a golden grid of consciousness together.
Somehow Andrea and I had opened a portal; human and monkey consciousness was merging and Los Angeles exhaled a deep sigh of relief.
I closed my eyes and opened them again to realize I’d returned into my regular human skin. I must have drifted off for awhile because my fingers looked like pink puffy prunes.
I noticed a few white women were staring at Andrea and me uncomfortably.
“I think we broke through some kind of cosmic barrier. I really felt like I became a monkey with you,” I whispered when we were alone in the steam room.
“Yeah, I know. That was weird. I felt like I was a monkey with you for awhile, too,” she said dreamily in the mist.
“I think we made some of the white women uncomfortable,” I said.
“They probably just thought we were an affectionate lesbian couple,” Andrea said.
“Well, I don’t care what they thought of us!”
“Yeah! Let’s celebrate by howling like wild monkeys,” she said.
We squatted in the steam room and howled and grunted and swayed like absurd, excited monkeys. I could hear the theme from Rocky in my head with the added sound effects of howling baboons chiming in.
I felt a sense of triumph that I’d never felt before in society. I saw a glimpse into a whole new world of monkey women who scrubbed each other’s backs instead of climbing them to competitive corporate ladders that led nowhere.
I’d merged with my steamy, sweaty monkey!
That’s all I’d ever wanted here: To be free.
I didn’t have to prove my worth to anyone.
I could just be.
Andrea seemed liberated, too. We went out to lunch and laughed the whole time about our bold monkey squatting.
I thought my trip to the spa with Andrea would have completely satisfied my spiritual quest for monkey bliss. But I noticed a deeper longing that I hadn’t recognized before when I was driving over to the spa one afternoon.
I felt more vulnerable and raw after I had visited the monkey kingdom. As I was squatting over the narrow pool that day, I splashed myself as much as I wanted to, ignoring the anti-splash rules that were posted on the walls. I didn’t care anymore if anyone tried to put me into their cage of rules; I’d escaped by becoming real.
“I’ve been waiting for you to touch me again,” Iku said quietly.
I used their cheap, slimy green soap and rubbed my chest, feeling where it ached. I pushed the soap in small circles until I felt my heart become softer and softer. Then it popped opened; my monkey and I became one merged being.
I cried deep sobs when I felt how tender and vulnerable it was to be inside my monkey heart. I felt humbled by its purity. A new voice of wisdom told me to touch my own heart. Iku had shown me the pathway.
As I got dressed I knew I would be taking Iku home with me from the spa that day. She was going everywhere with me from now on and we liked it that way:
Me and my monkey.
Kirsten Xavier is a a creative writer, a librarian, a puppeteer and a kundalini yoga student in Los Angeles. Yoga has expanded her consciousness so that everything in life has become more delicious and interesting.
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Assistant Ed: Christa Angelo/Ed: Kate Bartolotta