The whole celebrity culture thing -- I'm fascinated by, and repelled by, and yet I end up knowing about it.
-- Anderson Cooper
I surveyed my surroundings, noting the worn carpet, the paint peeling from the baseboards, and the overall JC Penney-ness of the greeting area, its linoleum floor crowded with buckets and shelves of makeup and body creams. A little R & R was my birthday gift to Ency, and my research had shown this to be the only spa on the island. I still had ten minutes to clear my head, made fuzzy by a transcendental rub down, before Ency would be finished with her facial. I sat on a loveseat across from two rows of lockers, waiting for refreshments to appear on the coffee table before me. One of seven doors opened, an employee emerged, passed by in a frenetic blur, and exited through another door on the opposite side of this transitional space. I wondered if I should have the "spa platter" delivered elsewhere, but the only other location I could think of was the pool, and the sound of shrieking children is the enemy of relaxation. And it was imperative for Ency to relax. David's mother usually exists in a state of overextension, but for the past week she'd been spread thinner than ever, and not just figuratively -- constant fretting had eroded at least ten pounds from her already petite frame. Days before our pampering appointment, her husband Robert had a stroke. I hoped the down time might distract her from her worries.
A plate of fruit and cheese was set on the table moments after Ency sat beside me, a look of near-relaxation on her massaged and moisturized face. Taking stock of the posttreatment treat that requires a day's advance notice, I thought, So, that's why it was only ten bucks. Rather than the French St. Andre , Spanish Manchego , English Stilton , berry compote, dried apricots, and bakery-fresh baguette I'd imagined would comprise a "spa platter," I was looking at cubes of grocery-store cheddar and pepper jack, sandwiched between prematurely harvested melons and water crackers.
This place was no Estancia (my favorite spa in La Jolla), but Ency seemed to be so close to calmness that I kept my criticisms to myself. That is, until we were offered tea. "Would you like any sugar or honey?" asked a pretty Brazilian girl.
"I'd love some honey," I said.
She gave me an odd look and disappeared behind one of the doors. When she returned, placing a small dish on the table, she said, "Actually, we don't have any honey -- not for tea; this is the honey we use for facials. But don't worry, it's real honey." She walked away, leaving me dumbfounded. After she'd vanished behind another door, I muttered, "As long as this isn't the leftovers scraped off someone's face," and scooped a spoonful of the golden stuff into my little paper cup. Ency rolled her eyes and smiled in agreement.
The commotion began before I'd taken my third sip. Two women burst through one door and flung open another. Ency and I watched as they fussed about the small room, stringing tiny white lights on a plastic tree in the corner, rearranging furniture, wiping down all of the surfaces. "What's going on?" I called out to one of the women as she ran by us for the third time.
"Rachael Ray is going to be here any minute," she said. "We're getting the room ready for her." Ency and I shared a knowing look. We were already aware that America's 40-Dollars-a-Day darling was on the island -- the following night I was scheduled to attend a taping of one of the TV personality's food shows at Lola's Seafood Restaurant with Ency's friend Leslie, who'd gotten the tip-off from Tony, her cable guy.
Ency looked at her watch. It had been a Herculean task to convince her to turn off her cell phone and fully immerse herself in pleasure, but now I could tell she was already thinking about the X-ray film we needed to pick up from Robert's doctor on the way home. I was determined to force her into a state of serenity, for her own sake. All the hubbub wasn't helping.
"Do you mind if I make a little noise?" I looked up to find a middle-aged woman in large wire glasses and matronly floral print dress standing over us, a menacing hammer in her right hand, a rectangle of blue canvas in her left. "I just need to make a few bangs to hang this painting."
"Now?" I asked incredulously.
"Well, we have a movie star coming," she said, as if this explained everything. Is she new or something? I wondered. Brushing shopping carts with celebrities is old hat for islanders. Jackie-freakin'-O used to ride her bike to buy fresh fish down at Larsen's, and this one's all atwitter over the new mascot for Dunkin' Donuts? I guessed this woman was the manager, because she had been directing others in the bedlam. I stared at her in awe as she continued, "You know how when you have a guest coming over to your home you want it to look nice?"
"I can't help but feel slighted," I said. The woman stopped hammering. "You obviously have no idea who I am." I wanted her to ask, as I was dying to answer, "I'm a paying customer ." But she didn't seem to care. Instead, she stammered out some story about how the painting had fallen earlier and how she'd been meaning to re-hang it, and now that a "special guest" would soon be arriving, it was the perfect time to take care of things she'd been meaning to do anyway. As she continued banging on the wall and babbling unapologetically, I considered the implications of her words and behavior. The message received was, "Regardless of how much money you give us, your pleasure and enjoyment are not as important to us as the pleasure and enjoyment of another paying customer, who is about to arrive." I wouldn't have been surprised if she handed Ency and me a few rags and asked us to take care of the bathrooms.
Ency waited outside while I dealt with a considerably confused cashier. She'd enjoyed her facial, and I had luxuriated in my massage, but the overall "experience" I'd hoped to provide her with remained an elusive idea, at least for now. The next day, Ency would take Robert to a hospital on the mainland for more tests, and David and I would join her friends at Lola's for food and entertainment. Leslie's cable guy had also said that Rachael Ray was expected to sing with the band. I was neither particularly excited nor particularly disinterested. I've never seen any of her shows, and her presence on the island had a negative effect on my spa day with Ency, but I had nothing against the sprightly cook. I doubt she made any absurd demands of the spa staff that would cause them to forego the most basic level of customer service for their other patrons. She was, like me, just another girl getting a massage.
Halfway to the car, a familiar furrow appeared on Ency's brow, the first sign of relapse -- I panicked that if I didn't act fast, she would lose her relaxed glow and once again be consumed by worry demons. I wanted to give her something to look forward to, a vision of relaxation to come. "This was just a taste, a teaser of pampering, you know," I said, through an optimistic grin. "The next time you come to San Diego, I'm taking you to a real spa."