I do not remember my first sauna.
I may have been a newborn, or perhaps it was months later; I know only that I was young. Before I was born my father built saunas–peculiar, coopered structures that resembled iron-hooped winebarrels–in the Adirondacks, so their occurrence and use was normal not only for our family, but for our relatives and neighbors as well. Saunas were a staple of my childhood, and more. They served as substitute baths, excuses for gatherings, and especially as buttresses against the cruelty of bitter upstate winters. I remember crouching on the floor to stay cool while the sweat seeped from the grim and glistening dimly-lit adults above me, and I remember jealously guarding the wooden pail of melting snow (the result was meant to be poured on the hot stones atop the cast-iron stove, an event I hated, as it would turn the air inside to scalding steam), and I remember the extremes of intolerable cold and intolerable heat and the happy thrill of shrieking naked through the night between them.
I do not own a sauna–and these days realize how still-unusual they are in this country–but I love them with that sweet familiar love that comes from a memory writ large in a body much smaller than the one I have now.
But this is all merely to introduce the Russian bath house within walking distance of our apartment here, a bath house which, until today, the summer had conspired to dissuade me from. I had last been there this spring, when, possessed of a hacking cough and an aversion toward hospitals, I decided to huddle in a steam room until I could breath freely again. Anticipating a lengthy recuperation, I had bought a half-dozen visits. I ended up needing only one.
Today I remembered my remaining passes, and wandered over in the early afternoon. The interior–chambered and stony and still–was empty save for a trio of heavily tattooed Russians, muscled and paunchy and clad in battered swimsuits and felted Soviet sauna caps. (They had seen fit–in the absence of any objection–to stoke the sauna to a comfortable 240° F, something I didn’t realize until the skin on my extremities started mottling into peculiar red-and-white leopard patterns. The air was so hot I ended up soaking my towel so I could breath through it occasionally; the air was so hot that deep inhalations were otherwise painful. I was grateful for the cold plunge outside.)
I spent the next few hours sweating in the dark, all the while being subjected to a bizarrely interrogative still-birth of a conversation. The three men spoke Russian between each other, but every so often one would bark a question–in affectless and heavily accented English–in my direction:
YOU. DO YOU DREAM. YES? OKAY. DO YOU CRY IN YOUR DREAMS? HOW OFTEN. HOW OFTEN DO YOU CRY IN YOUR DREAMS?
ARE YOU PAINTER. YOU PAINT? NO? YOU PHOTOGRAPH? OKAY. WHAT WAS LAST IMAGE YOU MAKE?
YOU. DO YOU KNOW DIFFERENCE IN BURNS FROM HEAT AND BURNS FROM ACID? IS THERE DIFFERENCE. YOU THINK YES? WHAT DO YOU THINK IS DIFFERENCE?
YOU HAVE NO TATTOOS. ARE YOU HAPPY? IN YOUR LIFE, ARE YOU HAPPY. SO WHY YOU HAVE NO TATTOOS?
I am sure they were merely trying to include me in the group, or, more likely–given that my answers would result in their returning to a quiet Russian murmur–simply supplementing the boredom of their own familiar conversation with some additional material. Still, given the flickering darkness of the room, my heat-dazed state, and the spit of their rough accents, the experience was one of a surreal purgatory.
It felt strangely and sweetly like home.