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The Turkish Baths Cabana 12 | fiction | Lollipop
The Turkish Baths, Cabana 12
by Jamie Kiffel
collages by Rebecca Lindstrom
When my friend Cindy suggested we go to the Turkish baths, I thought it must be some sort of historical, living museum-type place. But you don't get naked in museums. At least, not the last I checked.
Yet there we were in New York City's East Village, strolling up 10th Street in search of the apocryphal "baths" Cindy had discovered in a weekly online hipster newsletter... when she suddenly burst out, "Look!" I believe she also pointed. There, across the street, was a rotund, balding man wrapped in what appeared to be a monk's robe. But it was purple. He glanced at us, then climbed the steps of a brownstone, over which hung a small, black and white sign stating, "Russian-Turkish Baths."
Cindy and I looked at each other. Then at the doorway. Then at each other. It simultaneously dawned on us that this dark, narrow mouth of a door the same one that the old purple monk had just entered was where we were going. I am certain that everything my mother ever warned me about did, at that moment, come out from that dingy doorway in the form of a reddish vapor shaped like a beckoning finger. Cindy and I looked at each other, let out a last squeal, took a deep breath, and headed for it. We both knew that we were adults who couldn't possibly be in any danger and also that something totally outside the realm of normalcy, something nasty and frightening, yet irresistible in its forbiddingness lay in there. We had to know what it was. We entered the dim, noisy little hole. We were hardly through it when we were met by a tight group of Russians the monk included calling, "Come in! Come get something to eat!"
We stepped inside. The place was somehow clean while giving the impression of dirt. There was a short lunch counter that looked like it belonged at a swim club, with orange and brown stick-on lettered signs. But instead of advertising "Pepsi" or "Diet Coke," they touted wheat grass juice, pierogies, and cherry dumplings. A few purple-robed men sat around a smattering of orange and brown Formica tables, their plastic slippers half-kicked off, eating and watching CSPAN on a TV hanging in the corner.
At the tiny desk opposite the juice bar, a brusque Russian lady pulled out two safety deposit boxes, handed me and Cindy keys, and told us to put in our valuables. I wondered what constituted "valuables." Cindy decided that meant her package of mints and part of a card of Eclipse gum. The lady encouraged her to put in her wallet, too. Neither of us understood this because we hadn't paid yet. "You don't need money," the woman said impatiently. "No money. We put it on your key number and you pay at end." Oh. Cindy scheduled an "oak leaf massage." I hadn't counted on getting a massage, too, but I now realized that if I didn't, I'd be left alone in this house of questionable repute for half an hour. "Well, I guess... I'll get an oak leaf massage, too," I said uncertainly. "Um, what is an oak leaf massage?"
"Two big guys whip you with leaves while cursing at you in Russian," someone said.
I swallowed. "Just a half-hour massage, please," I reconsidered. A young, Antonio Banderas-esque Russian eyed me and said thickly, "Room 12. See you at 4:15." Did he have a slightly hungry look in his eye? Nah. Did he?
In any case, after some nervous disagreement over whether we were supposed to get nude in the tiny room of lockers which was only separated from the men's lockers by a six-foot partition and separated from the rest of the place by two saloon-style swinging doors, we took a breath and pulled off our clothes. No one said anything. We pulled on bathing suits. We put on gargantuan rubber slippers that kept sliding off, and stepped outside.
I grabbed a towel and a monk's robe and awkwardly covered myself as much as possible. Then we descended the slippery tile steps into the steam baths.
Suddenly, we were surrounded by wet, half-clothed men and women, lazily trodding from one steamy room to another. I also spied a small pool and a door beyond which was something I couldn't see. Cindy and I nervously hung up our towels and robes and stepped into the "Turkish Room." It was overpoweringly hot. But it had a clear view of the clock on the wall, and so I didn't want to move. I didn't want to miss my appointment. It was then 4:00. Okay, I thought. Fifteen minutes until... something. Something unknown. Something called "Massage."
We sat there, alternately frying and steaming as men covered in mud and towels trod in and out, sometimes sitting uncomfortably close to us. Nonetheless, the steam felt incredibly good. It was so hot that at first, I forgot to breathe. But after a few trial inhalations, I went for it. Hot air in, hot air out. Whew. Someone stood up, pulled a chain, and suddenly, cold water was streaming down, bouncing off the stranger's body and hitting me. Wow, this was really communal.
4:15 rolled around, and two large men hauled Cindy off. They were holding huge bunches of oak leaves in their fists. They were hairy. "She wants to get hit!" one said to the other, motioning to me as he wound up for a whipping. I stood stock-still and closed my eyes. Then I heard laughter. It was my masseur. "Ready?" he asked with a smirk.
"Yes!" I said, as upbeat as possible. I hoped I sounded as naive as a Girl Scout.
He lead me up the stairs, to the rooftop. We stepped outside. I was wearing a robe, the ugliest two-piece I own, and oversized flip-flops. Luckily, it didn't feel too cold out there, what with the steam still condensing in my lungs. He lead me into a tiny cabana labeled "12."
"Lie down, take off your top," he said.
"Ha... huh?" I observed.
He didn't crack a smile. I was suddenly reminded of a mortifying time when, as a child, my doctor told me to take off everything from the waist down and I got confused and instead, took off everything from the waist up. I certainly didn't want to make a similar mistake now, especially since this guy didn't speak great English. Maybe we'd just had a communication failure, I thought.
"Take off your top," he said. Then he walked out to wait, like a doctor.
Okay, I thought, evaluating the situation. I was in the middle of NYC, half-naked, secluded in a tiny hut on the roof of an obscure building with a strange man who was about to touch me. What does that sound like to you?
But then I chided myself. This is a massage, I thought. This is just how it's done. And, never having had one before, I had nothing to compare it to. I took a breath, took off the top and whipped myself flat on the table, making sure all the important parts could not be seen in any possible way, not even through the hole in the table where you stick your face to breathe while they massage you.
The door opened after what seemed like ten minutes. "Okay," Young Russian Man said. Through the hole in the table, I saw his white-socked and black-sandaled feet walk behind me, then suddenly felt two heavy hands, very oily, on my back. They were moving very slowly and smoothly... sort of... seductively? But no. This is supposed to be relaxing, I reminded myself. That is, until his hands made their way to my neck. Well, one hand did. The other made its way down to the front of my chest.
Pectorals, I mentally corrected myself. He's feeling no, not feeling... massaging, my pectorals. And they were sore anyway. Okay, this is all fine. This went on for a while, this massaging of pectorals. I kept pressing my chest very hard to the table such that his hands could not roam into private property. I was pressing down so hard, in fact, that I ended up with very pinched flesh.
"Ow," I said as he squashed my breasts together (pectorals, I reminded myself).
After several minutes of this, he said, "Okay, turn over," and tossed me a towel. A very tiny towe
l. And this time, he didn't make a move to leave the room.
"Uh, turn... over? But I'm... well," I stuttered. He laughed.
I managed to grab the virtual washcloth and sort of cover my front as I flipped over, but it was hopeless – it slid aside and I whipped it back into place. He laughed again.
"What's wrong with you? This is a massage!" he teased. Right. Massage, I chided myself. He's a professional. I decided to ask him about his job.
"You must have a lot of time to think, with a job like this," I said.
"Think? About what?" he asked, moaning lightly as he dug into my arms.
"Well, whatever," I said uncertainly. "Most jobs now, you don't get time to, well, think."
I wondered what possessed part of me had come up with the bright idea of conversation.
He snickered and started to massage my legs. Up. Way up.
Wait, had he crossed into a restricted area?
Again, I thought, Doctor. It's like the Doctor. I'm sure his hand grazed the area by accident...
The massage continued. He bent my knee up to my ear and pushed pressure points along my calves that made me shout in pain. I was not getting relaxed. In fact, I was contracting every possible muscle in my body as hard as I could. Last of all, he tied a towel around my head and pulled my neck until I was in terrible pain and heard a cracking noise that convinced me all was not right with this massage business.
Well, when I went to pay, the Russian lady at the front asked me if I'd like to tip my masseur. "
Uh, sure...$3," I offered, feeling exceedingly gracious. After all, I wasn't suing.
"Three dollars? No. You tip at least $5 or you tip nothing," she blurted. Her husband chimed in. "Nobody tips less than $5! May as well not work for $3!" As every muscle that had potentially been relaxed immediately knotted up in my neck, I growled, "I've never bargained on a tip before."
"But..." the husband began, but I was no longer listening because I'd noticed my masseur behind me, suggestively rubbing the shoulders of an old, bald man who seemed to be asking for something and reaching into his pocket.
I shrugged and gave them the $5. Clearly, justice had already been taken care of.