The entrance hall of the Sanduny Bath House, Moscow’s oldest and most impressive banya, is ornate and heavy with patterns. I stand under the archways trimmed in blue and gold, the gold detailing snaking its way across the ceilings in curlicues, forming kaleidoscopic patterns under the dome. The floor underneath my dirty, snow-caked sneakers is marble; the tiles anchored to each other’s corners by smaller gold squares.
I am sprawled on the sauna’s wooden floor, cross-eyed with the heat, my lungs constricting. My body is slick with sweat, and the smell of eucalyptus or mint – both? – fills my nostrils, aggressive and assuaging at the same time. I am naked, as are my friends beside me. “If we do Sanduny, we do as Russians do, we do it right by going ALL OUT, none of this bikini bullshit,” Maria had said earlier. On our heads are the obligatory felt hats, crucial in keeping them at a comfortable temperature as we boil in the bowels of banya hell.
I will die naked in a felt hat that makes me look like an elf, I declare silently to myself. I would’ve laughed if I wasn’t already dying. It’s only been 2 minutes into the 5-minute session we’re supposed to complete. The heat rises and it’s dry and arid; I’m an astronaut untethered from my oxygen supply, from my spaceship, and I’m hurtling into darkness and towards the center of the sun, screaming silently into my helmet. I’m not going to make it.
I make it out. Still naked, we enter the baths. Our rubber slippers squeak against the tile flooring. I stand under a hanging wood bucket and pull at the string. It needs a bit of a tug. Raised in the Philippines in the ‘80s, cold showers — along with mosquitoes and fluorescent lights — were detestable. But then the bucket tips and unleashes an avalanche of icy cold water, leaving me gasping in relief, in joy.
To pass the required 15-minute break between sessions, our towel-wrapped selves retire to our rented booth. It is made of dark wood and is high-backed, a cocoon of privacy. We gulp down hot tea, which we flavour with honey and lemon slices. We eat salmon and salads and nibble at bread. There is gossip about a teacher whose husband left her; plans are made to go to the bookstore, to see a play. Katya recounts an argument she had with her husband, looking at us straight in the eye to see if we are allies and we murmur our allegiances to her, siding with her but naturally, as we’ve only met her husband twice and only in passing. There exists a circle of trust between us: together we trudge to the bus stop at 7am every day of the school week, in snowstorms or rain or heat… an alliance formed in the simple act of depositing our children to the mouth of the schoolbus that is constantly late, that makes us stand in the cold much longer than needed before we’ve even had a cup of coffee. We have seen each other naked, here in the banya, several times now, our hair matted underneath our hats, exposing our unshaved legs and lopsided breasts to each other; unselfconscious and noncommittal. We are at our most unflattering. We are at our most beautiful.
On our third round, a Russian woman enters the steam room and barks at me to lie on my stomach. She fans me with a venik, which are branches tied together, and I feel the hot air swish around me before the leaves make contact with my body, from neck to back to the soles of my feet. Each whack makes my body twitch slightly, and I can’t tell if it’s painful or not.
The whacking continues. Lying down on my front, then my back, I submit to the experience. Beneath my closed eyelids I see the palm trees that frame my bedroom window back in the Philippines, remembering how they moved from side to side during typhoons, bending to the wind but springing back up again.
The three hours are almost up. I skip the buckets and go to the plunge pool in the corner. It’s squarish and large enough for one person, for two tiny strokes end to end. I dip my toe in the freezing water first, then drop myself in with aplomb. It is the most refreshed I’ve ever felt in my life. I imagine the tiny stings left by the branch massage on my skin sinking to bottom of the pool to line the grey tiled floor, a seabed of tiny thorns, a coral reef of pain. I emerge gasping. My felt hat, which I’d forgotten to remove, floats next to me in the water.
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