Spa Day moved from Friday afternoons to Tuesdays when my Friday night class was added. It was a lovely way to end the week, but  after the spa I can never be sure my hair will be presentable enough to make a public appearance, which means I might have to stop at home and shower. In any case, after the postgraduate classes on Tuesday morning I deserve a reward — some serious relaxation —  and afterwards I can spend time downtown without having to rush or fight the weekend crowds.

                Pam introduced the concept when we first met over brunch at Coogan’s Irish pub/sports bar in Washington Heights. “Might there be,” I ventured, “anyplace in town to have a facial?” (A two-hour facial at the luxurious Babor salon is always a highlight of my summer in Wroclaw, which may be the facial capital of the world.) “Facial and massage, two and half hours, $12,” she replied. “My first semester, I had no classes on Tuesdays, so Tuesday was Spa Day.”

                And so it is again. The postgrad classroom is a 10-minute walk from the North Gate, a convenient meeting place and the beginning of the No. 14 bus route, which improves our chances of getting seats on the lurching ride to downtown Xiangtan. The bus lets us off right outside a modern complex of shops (including Avon and many shoes), restaurants (the one that advertises Western-style food serves a club sandwich that contains peanut butter, hard-boiled egg, cucumber slices and a unidentified pink meat) and, on the fourth floor, the Panco Salon, a heavily pink celebration of being female.

                Several young women in pink-and-white uniforms greet us enthusiastically – Pam has been a regular for almost two years – and gesture toward a table, where they bring us pale green tea. When they’re ready for us, they gently touch our arms – who would have pegged the Chinese as touchy-feely types? —  to maneuver us toward the dimly lighted changing room, actually a circle veiled off floor to ceiling circle. We abandon our clothes for a single towel each, and then it’s into the steam room, a two-seater whose misty atmosphere encourages confidences between women who, after just a few weeks, are still relative strangers. It’s also a good place to muse on weekend explorations: should we take the new high-speed train down to Guangzhou for the coming holiday weekend (Tomb-Sweeping, which seems to be something like Memorial Day and coincides  with Easter this year), as we had discussed, or maybe in the other direction, to Wuhan, where a student has just told me the region’s best cherry blossoms should be in bloom?

                After 15 or 20 glorious minutes of steaming open our pores and sinuses, we’re shown to private showers. There we exchange our towels, now soggy, for simple under-the-arm shifts and tissue-paper panties that balloon like hotel shower caps, or would if they came in my Pennsylvania Dutch size. As we step outside in our plastic steam-and-shower slippers, an attendant exchanges them for plush ones, gently drying our feet in the process.

                From there we are led to a three-bed massage room, where we lie on our backs, swaddled to our chins as a mother might cover her baby, which is what I feel like in my soft cocoon. But not for long. Soon the coverlet comes down and the massage begins: first the scalp; then the, uh,  chest and shoulders; then, once I’ve flipped over, every inch of my back, in many different ways; then another flip for the facial massage. A gauzy veil, permeated with some cool liquid, is placed over my face, to be followed by the final mask and an arm-stretching. Throughout, the massage room is all but silent – a blessing indeed when you consider that our business in this city is talk.  All I can hear are an occasional murmur or music from outside when the door opens, and the thwacks as a nearby body (or is it mine?) takes a restorative pummeling. Being alone with my thoughts here is almost as good an isolation tank.

                When I rise from the table after nearly two hours, it’s a little hard to get my muscles back to work. I dress languidly, as if I’ve almost forgotten how to put on my clothes. Out at reception, as I sign my account over another glass of green tea and a slightly warm, slightly sweet black bean soup, I wonder how I’ll summon the energy for even a quick run through Bubugao, the shopper’s paradise downstairs,  or navigate the hustle and bustle of downtown Xiangtan. But each week, I manage.

                At the end of my first spa day, I was asked if I would like to set up an account – 15 visits for 1200 yuan (about $160), enough to see me through the semester. Oh, yes.

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