THE BATH HOUSE
by Lucia Joanne Novara
illustrations by Gail Boysen-Preset
After ten months of living in China, there is one aspect of the 5,000 year old civilization that I enjoy more than all the rest- “water culture”. Water culture refers to the uniquely Chinese custom of going to the local bath house and washing up in style. For the price of a designer coffee you get cleaned, massaged, and reconnected with your group grooming instincts. So drop your inhibitions, drop your towel, and let’s go to the bath house…
With the help of a smiling attendant you are shown to your locker and commence to stripping naked. You don’t look down, it makes the walk into the shower room feel less like that dream where you go to school, sit down, and then realize you forgot to get dressed. The attendant leads you to a shower cubicle, walled on the side so you can’t see the person next to you, but open to the rest of the crowded, steamy room. She turns on the high pressure shower head and adjusts the heat to exactly the right temperature before you’re allowed in. Armed with a wash cloth and disposable toothbrush, you step into the hard hot stream of water. After a thorough scrubbing and some blissful moments with your eyes closed and the water running off your face, you turn off the water and head out into the steamy jungle of the common area.
There is a giant hot tub in the middle of the room. Along the wall opposite to the showers is a row of stone seats in front of mirrors, also equipped with shower heads. On the far side of the room behind a half wall a dozen massage tables covered with plastic wait for use. On the other side are cedar saunas designed to target any evils in your system and make them evacuate your body in full surrender, carried out by giant, authoritative drops of sweat. The whole area is alive with women of every age and size washing and chatting, grooming and calling. You think of a Discovery Channel special on a group of extremely social monkeys playing in a jungle lake. Before shame, before Puritanism, before Adam and Eve got little bunches of leaves, this was how you got clean. It’s a family affair.
The hot tub. You sink in and let the bubbles push against that spot in your back that even your attentive lover’s hands couldn’t quite find. Little girls splash each other and giggle, two young women help a stiff old one ease into the tub. She lets out a long sigh and closes her eyes. You imagine the water worming its hot fingers into her muscles and tendons, bunched up like knotted twine until they begin to untangle a little. You take a minute to look around at all the women engaged in various stages of washing and relaxation. Everyone is naked but for jade pendants on red string. There are young women with knife flat stomachs, peanut shaped babies with crowns of soap suds splashing in little plastic tubs, and the women easily identifiable as belonging to the tribe of motherhood. These women look the same as others from behind, but when they turn you can see the markings; bag breasts and distended stomachs. The battle hardened warriors have long, wickedly smiling scars bisecting their stomachs like a tear in the skin of a peach. One woman sits at a stone stool and as she holds the shower head over her, the curve of her waist and the strip of black hair almost down to her buttocks seem to describe the very first form of the female. The mold and the essence.
Once their hair is clean, the women pile it on the top of their heads in upright buns. They look like ancient monks, Bath House Confucians capable of reaching enlightenment through sweating in the sauna.
But before the sauna is the “sorbet”. After a serious soak in the hot tub it’s time to hand your body over to a powerfully built woman in a two piece Speedo. She lays you out on a massage table and gears up with a towel wrapped around her meaty right hand like a mitt. She begins at the top of your head, scrubbing away dead skin, and she won’t miss a square inch until she hits your toes. The amount of skin that comes off is spectacular. You didn’t know you had that much skin to begin with; linty black clumps she sweeps to your chest and rinses off with oily water. Her scrubbing is powerful, but not painful. From somewhere deep in your psyche the knowledge that you were once a small cat and your mother bathed you like this bubbles to the surface. After you’re stripped of your dead skin, she puts a small box of milk in warm water and mixes a potion of bath salts and cow juice. While it simmers she gives you an aggressive full body massage, snapping your fingers and digging into your tender nooks. When she hits a sore spot and your eyes pop open she smiles; she’s a friendly sadist. Finally she cups the milk potion in her hands and gently rubs it over your tender new skin, allowing the exposed cells to absorb their first food. The warm mixture runs over your body, covering your nakedness with a thin rose scented film. Finally she notices you shivering a little, pulls you up from the bed and directs you towards the sauna. Not wanting to turn your milk blanket into yogurt, you head for the showers instead. It’s time to dry off, and put on the Official Bath House Pajamas- soft cotton shirt and shorts that proclaim “Tuesday” no matter what day you chose to visit. You sit at a vanity and allow another woman to comb and dry your hair, but decline the offer to have your ears cleaned. It’s time to go upstairs, munch on the buffet and choose a giant padded chair to snuggle down into and doze off. You’re so much more than clean.