Relaxation Damnation

A former 'Seinfeld' writer tries to relax at a California spa

By Andy Robin, Tuesday, Jun 13, 2006, 3:49 PM

I like to get stress relief from mundane things like TV, exercise, and paperbacks. When I'm sick, I turn to legal drugs and people with a healthy respect for the scientific method like, say, doctors. To steal from the PiƱa Colada Song, I'm not much into yoga. Or crystals, colonic incense aromatherapy, or homeopathic anything. So when I found myself driving up the California coast to a holistic health spa, it was with a stunned wife and not a little trepidation.

Ten years of living in wacky Los Angeles, two months of intense back pain, and one fat gift certificate from my agent had pried my mind open. "It's the best, the only spa my wife goes to," he bragged. Low expectations were probably a good thing. Spas set the bar pretty high for themselves with words like "rejuvenate," "pamper," and "indulge." As it turns out, even if we had been headed to the Abu Ghraib Desert Inn we would have had seriously dashed hopes by trip's end.

Trouble was in the air as soon as we got out of the car. Literally. We were prepared for the geothermal "rotten egg" smell, a sign that nearby sulfurous springs were doing their salubrious thing. But we weren't prepared for garbage. Rotten eggs, sure, but also old banana peels, putrefying fish sticks, and other telltale aromas of trash. An open dumpster placed ten feet from the entrance helped to explain the smell. But nothing explained our receptionist's bizarre anger at being told of the problem or her reluctance to remedy it. "We'll take care of it," she lied testily, handing us our keys. The open dumpster was proudly basking in the sun when we left two unhappy days later.

After we checked in, I guilted myself into letting the bellhops bring our lone suitcase to the room. While waiting three hours for them to lose it, find it, and carry it 50 yards to our cramped, stuffy room, my wife and I sat by the window, drinking warm pomegranate juice (the minifridge was broken) and admiring the partial view. Unfortunately, "partial" turned out to mean around 1/32, so only one of us could admire at a time.

We had scheduled massages for the afternoon and were advised to soak in the resort's hot tubs beforehand to loosen the muscles and get into the general spirit of things. The tubs were co-ed, and apparently clothing optional. An obese gentleman, au naturel, soon joined us in ours. Our hot tub being, in fact, a tepid tub made escape from Mr. Immodesty all the easier. But, streak holding fast, the second tub was pretty much scalding. In my life I've had pretty good luck at adjusting to what at first seemed like an excessively hot bathtub or Jacuzzi, but when acclimation yields to countless microblisters I'm ready to throw in the towel and call the maintenance guy a sadist. Or a moron. Or nonexistent.

Our early departure from the heat-challenged tubs took us into a pre-massage waiting area complete with trays of organic orange slices, assortments of holistic health magazines, and impressive swarms of all-natural fruit flies with an ardent desire to explore our noses, ears, and mouths.

Shortly after we commenced battle with the fruit flies, our pursuit of peace was again thwarted, this time auditorily. Distressed cooing noises cried out from behind a wall. At first, we were sure a dove was being choked to death, but when the terrified gurgles turned human we realized that a young woman was being massaged the wrong way or in the wrong places. Later, the poor soul emerged and revealed himself to be an elderly man, intensifying our horror and coating it with a sort of creepiness, especially we saw how red and swollen his eyes were from crying.

Without time to shudder, my wife and I were simultaneously called to our sessions. We nervously scanned the two masseuses, wondering which of us would soon be gurgling. My therapist being burly and austere, with a Wagnerian name, I figured I held the short straw. The massage corroborated. Hildegaard or Gretchen, or whoever she was, lashed out at my defenseless kidneys like a laser-guided missile. My pleas for lighter pressure helped a bit, but so displeased Gretchen that I ended up with pretty much no massage at all. I wondered if she doubled her spa duties as hot-tub thermostat setter.

Chastened by the first half of the first day, and somewhat constrained by torrential rains, I hid in our dank room, emerging only to force down flavorless vegan meals. My wife bravely tried avocado masks and mud-pack treatments until an angry red rash on her chest, neck, and face forced her to join me in exile.

It was with a combination of relief and disbelief that we packed our bags, headed home, and tried not to let the experience harden into bitter hatred of all humanity. My back was still hurting, so my wife took the wheel and flew us down the pitted dirt road that led to the Pacific Coast Highway. A lesson dawned on me: Vacations are just one of those things you ought to pick entirely yourself. Then a pebble shot out from the car in front of us and cracked our windshield. No, we didn't meet the deductible.

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Andy Robin is a film and television writer and director. He spent six seasons on "Seinfeld," penning such memorable episodes as "The Junior Mint" and "The Fatigues," which won the 1998 Writers Guild Award. He and writing partner Gregg Kavet recently wrote "Saving Face," a humorous guide to awkward social situations. The duo also wrote and directed the feature film "Live Free or Die," which won the Jury Prize at the 2006 South by Southwest Film Festival. For the past five years, Robin and his family have made their home in Rhode Island.