I entered the sauna and it was pretty full: faces, towels, varicose veins. Most of the occupants had bunched at the door as if expecting a fire alarm to go off at any moment, so I put on what I thought was my most “excuse me” smile and stepped past most of the legs, faces, people, up onto the top of the two benches that ran the length of the two furthest walls, and turned and sat directly where the two walls intersected. I had to set my back against the wall gingerly because it was just that hot in there.

Silence for a breadth, then the man sitting nearest to me got to his feet and fetched the empty pail and the ladle sitting next to the bank of hot rocks near the sauna exit.

“Mind if I get some more water to create some steam in here?”

To which the other people in the sauna all agreed excitedly, exclaiming various types of affirmative gestures: here an enthusiastic hand wave, there a loud “ohhhh yesss.” It felt to me that everyone was a little too excited for the idea of adding some water to a bunch of heated rocks, but shit, maybe these people were just that jazzed about everything, the kind of people that view life as a ripe fruit dangling loosely from a fertile tree, begging to be plucked and bit into, fruit soft and wet, the juices running down their chin.

He moved to exit, and then he was held in place by a small murmur. “Actually…”

It was the woman seated closest to the sauna door.

“What does the water do?” she asked.

He smiled; she seemed well meaning enough, a curious type is all. Though maybe his hands betrayed him, because they started to adjust downward to rest at his sides, like twin balloons losing air. “You pour the water on the rocks to create steam, and that increases the heat.”

She returned his smile but what she said next hadn’t seemed to catch the flavor of her smile on the way out of her mouth: “Oh, I don’t want that. I can’t handle a wet heat.”

Silence in the closeness. The room – carpeted, ceilinged, and wallpapered with dark thin wooden slats – already seemed claustrophobic enough as it was, but the silence made it seem even more so. While we were using the silence to question the validity and intelligence of what she had said, she took the silence to mean that she should go on.

“I mean, isn’t there a steam room next door? I can’t handle a wet heat.”

One of the other women spoke up. “It’s out of order. It’s been that way for a week.”

What remained confusingly unspoken was the fact that when you poured water onto hot rocks, it creates a steam yes, but it’s a steam which quickly dissipates in the heat of the room. That there was no such thing as a wet heat in a dry sauna. That if pouring water on the rocks in the dry sauna created a wet heat, the rocks wouldn’t be there in the first place. I suppose it remained unspoken since it seemed so obvious to most people, and therefore unnecessary to be stated.

No matter. The man retreated to his seat next to me, still holding the pail and the ladle in his hands. “No matter,” he said, though the atmosphere in the room had definitely shifted.

Silence for a breadth.

Then the woman with the unsmiling words reached under her towel and pulled out a kitchen timer, the ones you twist clockwise to set your time, and with a dry, heated twist of the wrist, she set her time, and the countdown started. You know these timers. These are the ones which count down the time with the annoying and deafening buzz of a billion cicadas emerging from their 17 year gestation with a deep and insatiable hunger. And in a small room such as a dry sauna, the noise quickly overwhelmed all thoughts of relaxation, all thoughts of peace, all thoughts of having thoughts.

It was just you and the buzz.

I suppose that might be zen like in certain circumstances, but not to one woman, who removed the towel that had been lying on her face and craned her neck from her reclined position so that she could look up and look around to see what primeval, insectile god had been awoken from its slumber to in turn awake her from her own.

Having traced the source of that noise to the timer, she said finally: “Is that necessary? That noise?”

To which the woman replied, unabashedly, “Yes. I need to know how long I’ve been in here.”

The other woman, the one who had told her about the broken steam room, piped up helpfully: “There’s a clock just outside the sauna door, you can watch the time that way, I’m sure you can switch places with this woman,” gesturing to another woman here, “so you can see it from where you sit.”

To which the woman replied, unabashedly, “Oh no. I like being closest to the door.”

Silence for a breadth. Well no. Silence with a heaping side of torturous noise, on a hot plate of slowly building tension.

I took this moment of silence to risk a sideways glance at this woman, and her simplistic, wide eyed stare took me aback a bit. See: big, wide eyes are typically universally recognized as representing innocence; think kittens, or those strange big-eyed stuffed animals that are currently all the rage in toy stores. But this wasn’t an innocent look as far as I could see. It was the look of someone that is completely self-absorbed and -involved, and not only that, but someone who was perfectly at peace with their self-absorption and -involvement: she on her throne, the rest of us, faceless, colorless, groveling at her feet, bit actors in a play where she was the only headliner. It was a look that dared others to say that the universe was otherwise than what she believed: she the sun and we the dead gaseous planets caught in the purposeless ellipse of our orbit, our days only bright whenever she deigns to shine the light of her attention on us.

I’m skipping ahead a bit, but when I was back in the men’s locker room recounting this story to my friend B, I told him my conclusion: that I had no idea people could be so self-involved. He stopped putting shit into his locker just so he could turn to me and give me the full force of his incredulous look, then said: “it took you this to realize how self-involved people could be??”

And it really caused me to think. And it (obviously) proved itself important enough for me to write down. I don’t know, you know? I mean, I know deep down that people are fundamentally for themselves, but I didn’t know that this kind of self-absorption could so effectively impact the environment and people around you: that your awareness of others, their feelings and thoughts and actions and even their spatial proximity, could be that atrocious.

I’ve seen the funny videos of people walking with their phone in front of their faces and falling into a fountain…could it be that our self-absorption is the “phone” we hold in front of our face each step of every day, our environment fading into a soft focus while the center of our attention remains always our bright, crisp, clear selves?

That’s a hell of an Instagram filter.

Or maybe I’m putting too much into it. Maybe it was innocence I saw in that wide-eyed stare; although innocence in the sense that she was oblivious to how ridiculous she was being, putting her needs above the sum total of the four others in the (dry) sauna.

No matter. Back to the sauna.

The buzz went on. “No matter,” I muttered under my breath, and closed my eyes and relaxed my head against the wall. I felt my heart beat in my chest and my sweat slowly tickle its way down my calves and sides of my body. Concentrating on those feelings and experiences, drawing inward, the stale buzz of the timer receded, and I began to, in the words of the wonderful television show 30 Rock, “unwindulax.”

Then the timer reached zero and began to sound its alarm with a sound like God’s own rooster.

No, more than that: a sound like Jesus is honest-to-goodness actually coming back, and he’s coming down from heaven not on a cloud but in a chromed-out Hummer the size of the fucking moon, and he’s laying on the horn so that everyone notices but he’s putting so much pressure on it the thing is straining to perform so the sound that comes out as he approaches is kind of a long, tortured, buzzy bleat. It’s a sound that makes you want to run but at the same time a sound that is so all-reaching you simply know that there’s nowhere to run; the only thing to do is to fall on your knees where you stand and hope bleakly for it to end soon.

That was when I decided it was about time for a shower.

I put on my “excuse me” smile, made my way past the bodies, legs, and the one wide-eyed stare, and left the sauna. Coming into the men’s locker room, I saw my friend B, and we conversed, and we discussed…well, see above.


One thought on “Sauna.

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