I was walking down West 20th
Street the other day, when I noticed that Spa Soleil was gone. It
wasn’t exactly a shock. New York
is the original home of the fast disappearance. No matter how chic a place may
be, how hard to get reservations, it can vanish between the Friday evening you
spend there and the Monday you stroll by on your way to work. Still, I was at
once powerfully reminded of my first visit there. Spa Soleil, on its
appearance, was an early sign of the kicking-into-high-gear gayification and
gentrification of Chelsea.
It wasn’t even all called Chelsea
in the late 90s – Flower District, FIT, lower Fifth Avenue – still some seedy
connotations back then. But one early winter evening, coming out of work and
heading for the 1 train, my eye caught on the bright, minimalist-tactful window
where before there had only been the depressing security grill and grimy glass
of some industrial concern.
A discreet sign along the side of
the stainless steel and glass door announced Spa Soleil in nearly invisible cursive. On a side panel was an
equally low key menu – Spa Services – Massage, Manicures, Pedicures, Body
Treatments, the full panoply of approved bodily pampering with the proper
sub-categories: Swedish, aromatherapy, hot stone, ayurvedic, acupressure;salt baths, multiple wraps. As a lifelong
massage and cosseting fanatic, I was enraptured.Whenever I travel anywhere, I look for two
things beyond the advertised local attractions: horseback riding and massage,
from Australian songline therapy to Native American sweat treatments.
I pushed the door open, entering a high-ceilinged contemporary-elegant room with wood plank floors, dove-grey walls, rows of faux leather couches in that saggy design that swallows you up if you’re daring enough to plop yourself down on one.Free- standing modular shelving in glass and stainless displayed a select array of moisturizers, scent, bronzers, gels, shampoos – every conceivable aid to beauty, the label pour les homes much in evidence. Behind an abstract desk stood a faun with a computer, one of those more than beautiful young men you see in Calvin Klein ads, with dark brown Grecian curls and skin the color of light toast. He looked, really, a lot like the unfortunate slave boy who attempted to assassinate Atia in the final season of Rome.
It was hard to drag my attention away from sizing him up, but he smiled shyly and said, “ Hello, I’m Justin. Can I help you?” The teeth were great too.>
“Well, I’m interested in your massage services – do you have a menu or something?” “Are you interested in one of our therapies now?” “Is something available?” “Oh, yes, I can book you an appointment within 15 minutes or so – and we have our Grand Opening specials going on on.” I was dazzled. Usually I had to book any of the spas I went to at least 3 or 4 days in advance.
Justin was talking again.“Now what variety of therapy would you like? And would you prefer a male or female therapist?”
I said therapist gender was of no significance, and did they do acupressure? “Oh, yes, and I can assign you to Devin – he’s one of our best deep pressure specialists. He’s studied in Thailand and Japan!” I was pretty impressed as I retreated to one of the couches to wait my turn. There were two or three men, patently gay waiting theirs, but whether for acupressure, aromatherapy or a seaweed wrap, I didn’t know. A young woman with one of those massive bags paced around examining the goods displayed on other shelves against the walls – bath linens, robes and the odd loofah. In less than five minutes a door behind the desk opened, and another appetizing young man emerged, came over to me with his hand held out and said, “Hi, I’m Devin. Would you come this way, please?” A very different type from the receptionist, Devin reminded me of a marine I dated for a while in high school. Not too tall, but compact and with every muscle enunciated clearly beneath a Spartan t-shirt and snugly fitting, striped workout pants. Strong jaw, Indian brave nose, erect carriage and a white blond, regulation brush cut, he could have posed for a recruiting poster at a moment’s notice and probably ensured filling that month’s quota. I assumed he was gay because of the tenor of the establishment, but just taking him in, I’d have had to flip a coin.I followed him into the dimly lit recesses at the rear. No communal locker rooms here; everything was set up for privacy and personal ease.
Devin showed me into a sizable room with massage table ready, with décor embellished by a couch, drapes, flowers, even a selection of discreetly erotic art on the walls. Fruit, nuts and juice stood by for flagging energy.Pointing out the attached shower room and towels, he left me to my preparations, which consisted of rinsing off and stripping down, before flinging myself under the towels already set up on the table. Devin’s massage technique was not for the fainthearted. He began, as do most, by asking about any “specific issues you may be experiencing”. I’ve come to know that this isn’t a reference to my psychological state, and usually maunder on about shoulder and jaw tension. Happily, he wasn’t unduly chatty either, although at the beginning he spoke of his origins in the Deep South and mentioned a hitch in service. I didn’t ask if it had been the marines. “You do have a lot of tension here,” he remarked digging savagely into the space just above my shoulder blades.
Deep tissue I’d asked for and deep tissue I got. It was a point of honor not to squeak or otherwise express shock when the strokes sank deep into muscle tissue, and I must admit that when Devin finished with each section, tension had vanished and muscles felt as if they were flowing freely over the table. I concentrated on exhaling every time the pressure really ramped up, and eventually became attuned enough to his rhythm that I didn’t even have to resist any tendency to yell. Even the work on the soles, usually the most likely to send one into giggles or spasms, went without a hitch.
I was feeling pretty much like liquid throughout, the point at which you know the massage is approaching its end, when I felt Devin’s hand between my legs. Not quite as brutally as in the acupressure, but certainly relentlessly firm and just as active. Now that I think of it, from the angle and rotation, he must have been left handed. With the limpness of post-acupressure condition, I probably couldn’t have made much resistance in any case, but in truth I felt no impulse to resist. Devin’s skill at this coda segment were equal to his earlier ones, and the groundwork had been well laid. Within a short time, my pelvic areas were as relaxed as everywhere else.
“Thank you. Take all the time you need,” were Devin’s last whispered words, as he slipped out of the studio.
Needless to say he got the biggest tip I’ve ever left for a massage. I returned to Spa Soleil a few times, but was never again assigned to him. I don’t know if he even worked there regularly, but I will say the spa was always good at getting you in for a session on short notice. Then, my office moved uptown, and I never went back again. But I'm still sorry Spa Soleil closed.