It’s been almost two years.
It’s been almost two years, and I think I’m finally ready to talk about it. About the time I went to a Russian bathhouse.
A Russian bathhouse—or banya—according to Wikipedia, can refer to a number of types of steam baths popular in Eastern Europe. A Russian bathhouse, according to me, is an underground swamp hell, built of germs and hair and sweat where overweight Russian men glisten and beat patrons with branches.
In 2014, I went to one for my cousin’s birthday.
This cousin’s name is Caitlin. If there ever existed an objective list of the world’s most fun, pleasant people, Caitlin would be at the top. So, two years ago, when I found out she’d be celebrating her birfday in New York City (she lived in Puerto Rico at the time), I traveled down to meet up with her and join in on the festivities.
The festivities were fly. Caitlin, her friends, and I ate hamburgers on English muffins and drank drinks with alcohol and I think even danced dances, maybe. The next morning we ate bagels and peanuts and more hamburgers. By Sunday afternoon, we were engorged with meat and booze—and while the process to get there had been fun, we felt and smelt like beefy alcoholics.
Caitlin decided a trip to the Russian Turkish baths in Manhattan would reverse our feelings of beefish alcoholism. She told me that when she still lived in New York, she and her friend Nikki would go there all the time. It was really hot and intense, Caitlin said, but wonderful and rejuvenating.
“Well, I despise heat and intensity,” I said. “But don’t I love wonder and rejuvenation. Plus, I trust your judgment. I’m horrified by the sounds of this, but I will join you.”
“Word!” said Caitlin. “We’ll just have to buy some bathing suits first. I think today’s a non-naked day.”
If you’re ever invited somewhere, and you’re told it’s a “non-naked day,” I suggest you shout NAH THANKS PLAYA and turn the eff around. If a place a business has naked days and non-naked days, I promise it’s not the type of establishment you want to mess with. That’s important advice I did not learn until after I went to the Russian bathhouse.
We bought bathing suits at a department store in Brooklyn called Bobby’s. No disrespect to Bobby’s, but their bathing suit selection is … straight covered in pudding. For real—the day we went, every bathing suit available at Bobby’s had been manhandled by grimy pudding fingers. I bet you’re thinking, Pudding? Why do Bobby’s customers got such pudding hands?
Here’s a secret just between you and me, homie: Bobby’s customers probably don’t have pudding hands—they probably have poop or blood hands. But we told ourselves it was pudding because Caitlin’s friend Nikki was already waiting for us at the bathhouse, and the train was coming, and we needed bathing suits—poop, blood, and pudding be damned. I chose a shiny blue bathing suit and Caitlin chose a pretty teal one, neither of which we tried on, for $3.99 each. Then we went to the bathhouse.
When we got there, several men with round, gleaming stomachs greeted us. They were all half naked, sitting at tables, eating pork and mashed potatoes.
“Hey,” I whispered to Caitlin. “What’s going on with all this pork? Where are the garments for these men? THIS ALL SEEMS VERY STRANGE TO ME.”
“Come on, there’s Nikki. Let’s get our locker keys,” said Caitlin.
We got our keys and then went into the locker room, which was located directly off the pork café and had only the flimsiest of saloon-style doors.
“I like how these doors swing so freely,” I thought. “A very nice quality for locker room doors.” (My thoughts were hella sarcastic that day.)
We changed. Since it was towards the end of winter, I hadn’t seen myself in a bikini in a while—and I’d never seen myself in a bikini quite as sleazy as the one I got from Bobby’s. There was an alarming amount of pale flesh and dark hair (and I’m on the blonde spectrum, fam!). It was as if someone had dropped an industrial-sized batch of white bread dough on a dog groomer’s floor, picked it up, and then stuffed it into a glimmering string bikini.
“Yo, peep this,” I said to Caitlin, turning toward her. “I look like someone dropped an industrial-sized batch of—WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU?!”
“I …” said Caitlin. “Something’s gone astray.”
Nothing had gone astray with Caitlin—something had gone astray with her bathing suit. It was tiny. So crazy tiny. Child’s size small tiny. Which makes sense, because that’s the size bikini she’d purchased, child’s size small. It covered about 1/50th of her body, but that didn’t matter. She still had to wear it. And wear it she did! Right down into the depths of the bathhouse.
Imagine, right now, that you are sitting in a room. That room is made of stone blocks and is 130 degrees and has at least an inch of water on the floor. You’re wearing a dirty, undersized bathing suit, likely with someone else’s poop or blood or pudding on it. There are 25 other people in the room with you, some of them touching you, most of them grunting or moaning, all of them sweating like old men eating plates of pork and mashed potatoes. Scummy soap bubbles build up around your feet, and a couple branches float by. You find a long strand of hair between your fingers, from a different color spectrum than your own, fam. Two men start shouting at you in Russian.
That’s a bathhouse.
If you want to make it extra terrible, like Caitlin did, you can purchase a platza treatment. Doing so will get you 20 minutes of being violently attacked with branches and contorted in unnatural positions by a burly Russian man. She loved it; I did not. I did not even like watching it. I felt like the worst Samaritan of all time, standing there not doing anything while my cousin got the shit beaten out of her on her birthday.
After an hour and a half—an hour and a half of simmering in the sweat of strangers in a literal cesspool—we left. On the way out, the man who had whipped Caitlin with branches gave her a hug and promised the next visit would be on the house. I told you, she is objectively the world’s most fun, enjoyable person.
On the drive home back to Maine, I had the driver’s side window cracked. It was precipitating a wintry mix that day, and a plow truck in the southbound lane sprayed some slush across the median and it hit me right in the face. It was amazing actually, how fully it got me. A straight up white wash.
For scale: The experience of having a pound of gritty slush smack me in the face while driving on the highway was at least 16 times better than going to a Russian bathhouse.
All right, did it. I told my story, and now I will never speak of it again. (Unless you want to go, in which case I’m in.)