Photo by Ville Miettinen
The massage was about three-quarters of the way through when Galina stopped what she was doing and disappeared, leaving me face down and naked on the table, without a word of explanation.
Bafflement gave way to blessed relief that her thumbs had, for a moment, ceased bullying me into a state of relaxation. I cautiously released my shoulders from their tightly braced position around my ears.
Is that . . . smoke?
The sharp smell of a freshly ignited cigarette wafted over to the table. Staring down at the dingy carpet through the hole of my donut-shaped headrest, I realized, stupefied, that my masseuse was taking a smoke break.
I thought wistfully of the sumptuously tiled bathhouse in Budapest where I’d had my first true spa experience, and of the pristine Argentine hot springs in which I’d spent days soaking my way to health and rejuvenation. How far they seemed from the Russian bathhouse near Coney Island where I now found myself, bruised and cowering on a massage table, waiting for Galina to finish her cigarette.
The bathhouse, or banya, was located in a far-flung section of South Brooklyn that had managed to defy the borough’s otherwise rapid march toward gentrification. Three subway transfers and 90 minutes away from my apartment in Queens, it felt like I was embarking on a true New York adventure, one undertaken in the company of my college chum Lindsay. She was a longtime comrade in similar escapades throughout the five boroughs, frequently forwarding me Groupon deals for things like soca-dancing lessons in the Bronx or bouldering clinics in Central Park. Game for pretty much anything, we leapt at the chance for a two-for-one spa day at a traditional Russian banya in Brooklyn.
What a hoot! we’d crowed, congratulating ourselves for venturing so far off the well-trod New York path. I wonder if they serve borscht!
They did—and sausage, and onions, and great steaming heaps of cabbage, dished out poolside to glowering locals, who seemed largely unamused by the two curious interlopers who had deigned to invade their humid sanctuary.
BATHING HAS A LONG HISTORY in Russia and throughout Eastern Europe, receiving mention in Slavic texts dating from as early as the first millennium A.D. Of the Russians, however, it should be noted that theirs is an extreme variant of the bath and spa traditions found elsewhere in the region. For centuries, they’ve sought to detoxify their bodies and improve circulation by plunging themselves into pools of alternately scalding and frigid water, leading one medieval chronicler to describe the ritual as “not a mere washing but a veritable torment.”
Lindsay and I were unaware of this legacy when we arrived at the banya, an imposing concrete building nested between auto-body shops on a busy commercial stretch of road. The acrid odor of vinegar-braised vegetables greeted us at the door, coasting on a wave of wet heat.
The receptionist, clad in a tank top and men’s swimming trunks, wordlessly inspected our Groupons before showing us to the changing rooms. In stereotypically Soviet fashion, the decor was about twenty years behind the times—wood paneling, chrome fittings, garish posters framed in opalescent plastic—and the clientele were outfitted accordingly. Women in fringed pastel bathing suits cut too high at the leg sauntered alongside muscular men in Speedos, gold medallions buried in tangles of black chest hair. Lindsay and I exchanged conspiratorial looks, bemused to have discovered this time warp in our midst.
The main bathing area centered on two sizable but sparsely populated pools, one with whorls of gray steam rising languidly from its surface. In the other, a spindly boy of about seven or eight splashed in inflatable water wings, shouting in an inscrutable tongue to a group of people seated in the cafe area on the opposite side of the room. They eyed us suspiciously as they sipped hot tea and red wine, a feat so inexplicable in the fetid heat that I nearly heaved at the sight of them.
I was eager for a soak, but tradition dictated that we start with a sweat. We ventured into the sauna, walking carefully over the wet tiles as our eyes adjusted to the gray haze of steam. The temperature gauge read 180.
Surely not, I thought, assuming it impossible for the human body to carry on functioning in such heat. Lindsay, who is of fainter complexion than I, began to turn a color alarmingly akin to that of steamed shrimp.
Sprawled across the wood benches like spandex-clad walruses were several rotund, elderly Russian ladies. They seemed completely unfazed by the suffocating heat and, after pausing for a moment to consider our intrusion, they resumed their conversation. Each was wearing a conical cap made of heavy brown felt, a curiosity I presumed was meant to generate even greater heat in the body but is actually an ancient method of regulating internal temperature.
No one had advised us to take such safeguards, and our conversation, which proceeded cheerfully at first, eventually petered out to silence as we succumbed to an encroaching torpor. We fell to watching the grizzled man standing barefoot in the corner, who would periodically pour a bucketful of water onto a small brick enclosure to unleash a sizzle of steam. He then waved his arms frantically to circulate the air, transforming the sauna into a makeshift convection oven. The walrus ladies, clearly inspired by his show of athletics, began to swat each other vigorously with fat bunches of eucalyptus branches, the antiseptic aroma mingling with the swirling steam. I’d learn afterward that this ritual of flagellation, or venik, which also can be executed with birch, oak, or raffia, is thought to further aid in circulation. At the time, however, I looked first at the red welts forming on their arms and backs and then, worriedly, at Lindsay, wondering if we were next.
“Cost extra,” growled the oven man, a slight smirk suggesting bemusement at our fish-out-of-water unease.
We decided it was time to move on.
THE BATHING AREA FELT REFRESHING at a comparatively brisk 98 degrees. We headed for the cooler of the two pools, which, mercifully, was kept at a tolerable tepid instead of the more traditional icy cold. The boy we’d seen earlier was still in there. He retreated to the opposite wall as we lowered ourselves into the water. I smiled reassuringly, hoping to assuage what I mistook for shyness. He responded by spinning swiftly in both directions with his arms stretched wide, splashing us with force.
“Is this kid for real?” Lindsay grumbled, her well-known intolerance for children prompting immediate condemnation. She warily rubbed the water from her eyes. I mustered good cheer and tried to shrug off what I thought were childish hijinks—until the kid’s snarling expression revealed that he was, in fact, for real. He muttered angrily to himself in Russian as he splashed armfuls of water in our dumbfounded faces. His caregivers, still drinking tea and wine in the poolside cafe, barely raised an eye, despite our startled cries of protest.
Realizing eventually that he wasn’t going to let up, and still radiating with too much residual heat from the sauna to relocate comfortably to the other, hot pool, we retreated to the cafe, our wet bathing suits squelching against the plastic chairs. The triumphant little shit, meanwhile, went back to enjoying the water all to himself.
Lindsay and I fell into a stilted, objectless conversation, both of us growing increasingly vexed by what was turning out to be a failed experiment in cultural exploration. We’d had so much fun on earlier adventures throughout New York City—tracking down sublime arepas in a hidden corner of Jackson Heights; discovering cloistered Hasidic neighborhoods during an eight-hour “urban hike” from Chinatown to Brighton Beach; photo-bombing a quinceañera celebration in Flushing Meadows Park. Were we really on the verge of being beaten by a couple of glorified bathtubs and an excess of water vapor?
There was one classic banya ritual remaining: a full-body deep-tissue massage, graciously included as part of the Groupon deal. We reported to reception at the appointed time, soggy and eager for a change of tenor. Lindsay’s masseur was built like a tank, with massive fleshy hands and the look of a Soviet-era Olympic weight lifter. Comparing him to the ropey middle-aged woman with bottle-dyed magenta hair who’d be working on me, I wondered if she was strong enough to work out the kinks in my perennially knotted back.
“I am Galina. Come.” She issued the order without asking for my name, then turned abruptly and advanced toward the stairs. I had to run a step or two to keep up. I followed her down a dim hallway to a cavernous suite of rooms bereft of anyone but ourselves. There seemed to be a surfeit of sofas, all upholstered in pink-and-teal florals. The lone massage table seemed woefully adrift amid the flotsam that cluttered the backmost room, an afterthought masquerading as centerpiece.
Galina herself did little to inspire my confidence in the endeavor. In fact, she seemed a little annoyed, as though I were interrupting something. She ordered me to strip and lie facedown on the table while she fiddled with an ancient CD player, settling on a selection of Italian pop songs.
“Ready?” she asked, smearing lotion on her hands.
I LAY VERY STILL ON THE TABLE, hoping she’d follow the one cigarette with another, draining away however many minutes remained of this cursed hour. I needn’t have worried that Galina’s slim frame would mitigate her ability to issue an effective backrub. I even had to ask her to ease up a bit, a request that must have irked her, for the ferocity of her jabs and pinches had only increased over the course of the session. A misguided sense of politeness kept me from stopping the offensive altogether, though I had come close to objecting in one particularly disquieting instance in which her hands had unmistakably ventured into a region of impropriety.
“You turn over now.”
She was back. I hadn’t heard her stocking feet approaching across the carpet, so her instruction, delivered on a wave of smoke and Altoids, evoked a flinch of surprise. I gingerly turned onto my back, soreness already setting in around my shoulders. Neglecting to provide a sheet or towel to cover my front, Galina grabbed hold of my neck, pinching down hard to either side.
Is she using her nails?
“Hmm. You are very tense.”
So she has a sense of humor after all.
“You have boyfriend?”
I beg your pardon?
“Because sex is very good for you,” she purred with a sweetness heretofore absent, languidly rolling her R’s as she leaned in close. “It relax you. Make you loose.”
My eyes shot open, alarm superseding pain. Every Dateline exposé I’d ever seen on backroom prostitution flashed through my brain, the surreality of the situation compounded by the discomfiting heat, the musky smell of the massage oil, the inexplicable warren of rooms, just visible out of the corners of my eyes, extending into darkness to either side of the table. Was someone about to emerge from one of those dusky corners, underdressed and ready to party? Or perhaps Galina had something creative in mind to make back the profit she’d forfeited to Groupon.
“Ha, ha, ha,” I laughed, cautiously and unconvincingly, hoping to extinguish whatever conversation she was hoping to spark. “I’ll remember that.” The thud of my heart sounded in my ears.
I SAT IN THE LADIES’ LOCKER ROOM with my head between my knees. The heat had finally bested me, the air, heavy with eucalyptus and borscht, causing me almost to faint.
Galina must have discerned a certain clip in my voice, because she brought the massage to a conclusion a few minutes after her unsettling proclamation, absent any additional advice on the benefits of sex. I’d gotten up too fast from the table, rushed too eagerly to the locker room, my spinning head now tingling with the threat of collapse.
The door swung open, and Lindsay shuffled in. Her eyes were glassy and tired like mine. She made her way over to where I was sitting and plopped down beside me, wincing a bit as her hip hit the bench.
“Ready to go?”
We’d lasted all of two hours, hardly much longer than it had taken us to get out there. We dressed in silence. I struggled to maintain my balance, one foot raised on the bench.
According to legend, Saint Olga of Kiev, who reigned over the Slavic empire of Rus’ in the mid-tenth century, avenged her husband Igor’s death by luring his assassins into a banya, assuring them of its restorative benefits, then locking them inside to bake to their deaths. When Lindsay and I exited the bathhouse, we did so through a gauntlet of scrutiny—from the felt-capped fat ladies, the Speedo-clad strongmen, the poolside tea sippers and cabbage eaters. We waded through the swampy air made that much thicker by the weight of their gazes. I wasn’t aware of Saint Olga’s story before my journey out to Brooklyn, but emerging into the sunshine on Coney Island Avenue, I couldn’t shake a niggling suspicion that we were lucky to have made it out alive.
Marcie Muscat is a full-time editor and occasional writer in New York. Undeterred by the Brooklyn debacle, she’s set herself the task of soaking in as many baths and hot springs as her time on this earth will allow. Next up: Peninsula Hot Springs in Mornington, Australia. E-mail her at