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Who thought of putting a massager in the middle of a mall? And why am I in it?

Mall Massage

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Embarrassment is a mental state, which means that overcoming it is simply an exercise in self-control.

I do not see those people staring at me, I tell myself. I do not hear that woman chuckling. I do not feel odd taking off my shoes in the middle of the mall.

My mind replies: Oh yes, you do.

This is how I've chosen to relax?

On this particular afternoon, I've driven to the Chesterfield Towne Center, the mall that houses the Richmond area's one and only AquaMassage.

The AquaMassage is a kind of robotic masseuse-in-a-box that uses jets of water to supposedly melt away your stress. It is a blue, coffinlike plastic machine in which you lie face down while motors shoot warm water up and down the back of your body.

It has two key features. One, a plastic sheet of some sort is layered between you and the water to keep you dry. Two, you don't have to get undressed.

Apparently, those two selling points have led the makers of AquaMassage to reach one conclusion: This thing is perfect for the mall. The middle of a hall in the mall. Right in the median of the shopper traffic — which means that anyone using the machine is about as inconspicuous as a flaming roadside accident.

Which is, actually, where I would prefer to be right now.

I walk into the mall briskly, as though I know where I'm going. Perhaps that will make me feel more confident, the way smiling is supposed to make you feel happier . I hope this machine is somewhere out of the way, maybe in the appliance section of Hecht's. It's not. After I breeze past the "I can write your name on a grain of sand" necklace booth, I see it, just beyond a guy selling incense sticks. There it is: the AquaMassage.

And in case I harbored any hopes of at least avoiding the opposite sex, the AquaMassage vendors have foiled me again. I'm thrilled to see the AquaMassage stationed right in front of Victoria's Secret.

Looking as though she stepped from the window display of that store, a fit, well-tanned, exotic-looking young woman is manning the machine. A rug is laid out on the floor, with two canvas beach chairs. There is a cash register on a small counter. I approach.

Tell me about this thing, I say — casually, as if I had just come across it on my way to the GNC store for protein powder.

She launches into her spiel. It is $10 for eight minutes (on Mondays you get 10 minutes). I will like it, she says. OK, I answer, let's do it. I hand her my credit card. She tells me to take my shoes off. I sit down in a beach chair and unlace.

This is strangely awkward. I feel as though I'm testing out deodorant in a CVS aisle. Or reading Playboy in the middle of Barnes & Noble. Or singing karaoke before an audience of professional singers.

Isn't it weird to have this in a mall? I ask.

"That's what I think," she answers. But that's the only place you'll find them, she explains. "They're not even for sale."

I mentally remove the AquaMassage machine from my Christmas wish list.

I sign my credit card slip, lie down on the cushion inside the machine and rest my face on a piece of paper towel. I settle in while a motherly woman with curly blonde hair stops dead in her tracks and stares at me, as if to say, "So that's the kind of person who pays for this."

The top of the machine, like a tanning bed, closes down on top of me. My head sticks out one end. "Do you want music?" the AquaMassage girl asks. "Sure," I answer. She puts headphones over my ears. Enya.

Then the machine starts, and the music is drowned out by intense swishing, motorized sounds. Starting at my feet, the pressure jets work their way up to my neck, pelting hard, causing my head to rattle.

It's like I'm wearing a raincoat while someone directs a shower massager at me. The spray moves up and down, changing patterns. I hold a button to pause the pressure whenever I want. It's not so bad. I try to relax. I don't care what people think, I think.

And eight short minutes later, it's over. When the machine opens, I quickly hop out, to minimize the number of people who might see I was in there. An elderly couple catches me emerging. A woman pushing a baby stroller chuckles. I put my shoes on. I thank the AquaMassage woman. I leave, get in my car and pull into what is now rush-hour traffic on Midlothian Turnpike. I

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