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Into the Steam


An attendant gave us two striped towels and we repaired to a room, where we removed everything we owned. Naked under the cloth, we followed a stooped old man, who showed us to a domed room filled with steam.  

The Cemberlitas Hammam was a public bath built in 1584 by Sinan, one of Turkey's most celebrated architects. For more than 400 years, the men of Istanbul had taken their ritual cleansings here. I'd lived in the city six months, separated from my wife due to a job she'd taken in Iraq. Preoccupied and unhappy, I shied away from anything fun. But my friend insisted.

Hot air filled an octagonal room about fifty feet across. Dozens of men sprawled about on a knee-high marble platform in the center, most looking asleep, or perhaps expired. Through dozens of dinner-plate sized skylights bored into the dome, the faint light of a rainy day filtered down. Our glasses fogged, and we laid out on the hot slab and began to sweat.

I was in a foul mood. In a bathing suit and perhaps with a beer in hand, perspiring under the summer sun can be satisfying, but it is an altogether different project to roast slowly on a vast platter of marble. Especially when you'd come with such a sour feeling, as I had, grumbling and suffocating in the fog of man-scented steam.

To our left, eyes closed, lay a tall, Germanic fellow who had no idea that a broad-shouldered Turk loomed over his prostrate and exposed body. He smiled, leaned over, and gave the German's feet a slap.

"Sit," he told him.

The German sat, eyes wide, and the giant began rubbing him and twisting his limbs and doing other things I could scarcely see -- because my glasses were fogged and I found myself averting my gaze, as if from a car crash.

Perhaps they'd let us lie around on the marble for a while, after which we could leave, and then the day would end, as most of them had. Then I remembered with some relief the stooped old man who'd shuffled in with us. Perhaps he would be the one to attend to us?

Visions of a tall whiskey on the rocks dancing in my head, I felt my friend rustling and sat up to see his feet tapped by the old man. Great. Then I saw him, my charge, a burly brute, leering and knuckle-cracking, with a mustache and an expanse of rippling muscle. My heart sank.

I considered my options, and as I sized up the exits, the Turk produced a sort of cloth bag, the size of a loaf of small bread, which he held in front of my face, twisting it around as if we were inspecting a jewel. Then he rubbed the bag with soap and water, taking it to his lips, where he blew it out into a foaming ball of soap suds the size of a beach ball. He pushed me onto my back and onto my stomach landed the feathery sphere, and then he proceeded to suds me down, gently kneading my stomach, my arms, my legs.

"Turn," he said. It wasn't bad, actually.

Then he began to grind his fat paw into my back, then into the long muscles that made up my legs. And it was at this point I began to feel like a piece of meat, like a man who could be eaten, or at least a creature who could not deny that his parts were maybe not something he could ever again take for granted. I felt muscle cleave from bone, ligaments stretching, the edges of functionality challenged, wistful for a time before pain, and the burning in my calves made my legs spasm involuntarily, and still he grinded deeper and slower, using thumb and forefinger, as if he was searching for a coin he'd hidden, or for the special button that would allow him to pop off a leg and walk off with it.

Then he grabbed my right arm, pushing it across my chest, past its limit, things clicking and a fire spreading. I'd never been so aware of my commonality with a supermarket chicken, all my joints and places of weakness. My left arm twitched, and I felt the man take it in a wild new direction, arms now crossed grotesquely, and I could feel my shoulders giving way.

"Sit," he said.

I prepared to tell him everything: That I was jealous of my wife, how I wasn't working hard enough, ungrateful for my privilege and comfort, how I was wasting what could have been magical months with our daughter. Onto my head he poured a wall of water. I could scarcely imagine fast enough the sweet relief of forgiveness. More soap followed, and the world was a bubbly, choking blur.

Then he thwacked my head with a stiff palm, and I was ready to tell him whatever he wanted, even to admit, perhaps, that this day might change me. But he could hear nothing and began to push my head down, like a man trying to insert a shovel head deeper into the cold earth, and I felt the first joint in my spine pop, then the next, rippling down my back, and I was sorry for every day I'd ever taken for granted.

Groaning, blind, hot, clean, regretful -- I was led like a lamb into a cool room, where I sat weaving and whinnying beside a 500-year-old sink. Tears were a possibility. The Turk worked methodically, and a series of cold bowls of water washed me of heat, of soap, and of that time when my neck still worked. At last he stood me up, and my knees were shaking, and I was a man who was looking into another man's eyes, and he grabbed my hand and squeezed.

"You're done," he said.

I looked at him. Here was my chance to show my stuff, to prove that I was perhaps more than a supermarket chicken, so I grabbed his hand again, grinding and grunting and breathing heavily, trying to put everything I had into my own shake, and then my vision went white, and for a moment I wondered if I'd finally said something.

The man looked down at his hand, pantomimed pain, laughed, then turned and walked to the next customer.


This piece was published by American Circus. Read the original here