Platza at the Russian Baths

by Thomas Beller


268 E 10th St, NY, NY 10009

Neighborhood: Lower East Side

This passage appears in the novel, The Sleep-Over Artist.

Alex hadn’t really believed that Katrina would agree to visit him in New York, and so he threw himself into the task of convincing her with a kind of easy abandon, as though it were a joke really, and he was teasing her. She had children, after all, and couldn’t just get on a plane. So he was shocked, elated, and, he had to admit, almost disturbed when she responded to one of his invitations (he threw them the way a boxer throws a jab, little exploratory forays, teases really) by saying yes.

Her son Patrick would be spending spring break with his father. And she would come to New York.

Confronted with this awesome task of hosting, he set about planning activities; walks in the park, restaurants, museums.

But when she finally arrived at his front door she fled past him and flopped face down on the bed and refused to look at him for a long time.

“This is too weird,” she said.

She looked around at his walls with a slightly grief stricken expression, and refused to look at him at. But eventually she looked at him. He liked her in his apartment. He liked his apartment with her in it. He saw no reason to leave.

“But I’d like to get out and walk around,” she said.

They took a walk. He should have known right away that something was wrong by the way she dealt with red lights.

She dealt with red lights by pretending they did not exist. She stood ten feet from the curb, the cars practically brushing against her as they sped past, and at the slightest opening waded into the avenue.

“Honey,” he said, pleading. “Baby. Please. The red light has nothing personally against you. It’s not an insult. You have to respect it. We don’t have zebra striped crossings here the way you do in London. The cars here don’t stop!”

“I’ve been to New York,” was her rather cool response.

His plan for their first full day together was not realized. It turned out she had friends in New York. They met one at a restaurant he had never been to for lunch. Then they met another at a gallery he had never been to, and together strolled to yet another gallery he had never been to, which was owned by someone she was obviously dear friends with; it was obvious by the way he burst forth from that hidden back room, cordoned by a velvet rope, and gave her a hug.

Later that night she took him to a restaurant he had never been to and met more friends of hers. Their eyes were bright with excitement and a kind of amusement. He remembered how exciting it can be to see someone you know from home in some far away place. It’s one of those irrational but powerful forces, like when you hear your favorite song, which you own, on the radio, and turn it way up. You have the record, you could play it any time, but somehow the fact that it is on the radio changes everything. Same goes for seeing people you know from home in places other than home. Alex joined the table of English people sitting around, a little giddy, as though high on the strangeness of life, that they should all end up in New York.

In his own home, she was his guest. She was his woman. She let herself be vulnerable. She let go. Their sexual relationship had been fiery from the start, but now it was even more heated and deliciously sordid.

But as soon as she got outside, into the atmosphere of New York, the rosy glow their intimacy disappeared, and she became cold and brazen and ignored him in subtle ways, mostly by having an action packed schedule of activities.

“I want to take you to the Russian baths,” she said. “Have you been?”

As with every other establishment she had taken him to, he had not. And as with nearly every other establishment she had taken him to, it was a strange fascinating place that he berated himself for not having known about.

The Russian baths had a sauna, a steam room, a plunging pool of cold chlorinated water, and a Russian bath, a large furnace heated room that was like a dungeon full of writhing tortured bodies. The heat slapped his face and singed his ears. The room was full of people wet with their own sweat. It was standing room only. Their flesh was lurid and flush under the bare light bulbs. There were all different kinds of skin. Black and brown and mocha and yellow and bright pink. Some of the men had opulent rolls of fat and hairy chests; they seemed to be trying to sweat out their age, as though the brutal heat would perform a kind of reduction, and they would emerge closer to their younger more taut selves. Other men had harder, younger bodies, like his own, and these men seemed to be performing a kind of distillation, a purification in which all unnecessary fluids were purged to make their sperm more pure, more potent. Their glistening flesh made him think of sex.

The women’s shapes were varied too, but distinctions of pretty and ugly were somehow obscured in the heat. Such hot bodies in such close proximity seemed, at first, disgusting, but it was weirdly comforting and exciting too, because everyone was glaringly human, and in a few moments all his thoughts turned to issues of survival–how to survive the heat, how to survive her visit to New York, how to survive her. Everyone in the room was just reduced to being just a body, and they all had a common afflicting enemy – the burning hot air – which was also a friend, a restorative, the reason they were all there.

Alex and Katrina took a seat on one of the benches amidst the bodies. He told himself over and over: This is pleasurable, this is good, I like this.

Faucets poured cold water continually into white buckets, placed around the room, which filled to the brim and then overflowed until one of the heat struck inhabitants hoisted it over their head. Each faucet poured at a different speed, with a different velocity, and there was a kind of melody of pouring, of water flowing, that filled the room, punctuating by the frequent loud splashes of when someone poured a bucket over themselves.

In the corner two Russian men prepared to administer a Platza to a woman. Her skin was white. She was plump. Her bathing suit was a one piece, bright blue, and she pulled it down for them, exposing her breasts, her pale pink nipples bobbing for everyone to see. Alex looked.

Then she lay face down. A veteran, he thought. She knows what she is doing. But then the men put their fingers under her bathing suit now pulled down to her waist, and pulled it down further, and her ass popped out into the open, and he saw her twitch a little. The room was packed and she must have felt briefly self conscious about her ass showing. Once it’s out in the open, an ass is just an ass, he thought, but the moment of transition between hidden and exposed is always fraught.

He remembered the first time he told her that he loved her. Another fraught moment of transition. The announcement caused him pain and grief. Why? It had felt like a surrender, a defeat. It felt like an awful birth. He was sure she did not love him back, or did not love him enough, or did not have the resources to love him as much as he needed to be loved.

She wore a black bikini, and wrapped her bottom in a towel. She looked down. She had told him that her previous visit had been on the all women’s day, and that she stared with utter intoxicated inhibition at the other bodies. But now on Co-ed night she was being demure. He looked at her. Her breasts, which normally had such a powerful effect on him, seemed diminished in the heat. It was impossible to have overt sexual feelings in this torture chamber. His penis was in a state of frantic self protecting retraction. Her cheeks were already pink. Little beads of sweat were forming on her upper lip. The top of his head was burning.

He had a primitive and brutal notion of how love worked. He associated love with pain. He had been loved before, but was apathetic and disinterested in the face of it, which in turn, as he saw it, perpetuating it.

The burly Russian men were beating their subject with oak leaves. One man worked the upper body, the other the legs. They beat her and washed her and rinsed her with the buckets of ice water. Her pale skin became pink, then deep red. They turned her over and worked on her front. Bodies entered the room and left it. He poured buckets of restoratively cold water over his head. She did too.

“It’s time to go out,” she said. “We’re getting too hot.”

He followed her out of the hot dungeon with the same compliance that he had followed her into Dean and Deluca, where they shopped earlier that day, and into the gallery they had been to, the restaurant, everything. She was so assertive. She knew what she wanted.

Sitting out by the cold pool, he watched fat men plunge in and scamper out, purged of something. It was the cooling section, where people regained their strength before the next episode of self torture.

“You’ve got to get a Platza,” she said.

“What’s Platza?” he said.

“It’s that thing they were doing, when they beat you with leaves.”

“You think I should do that?” he said. “It’s a human car wash.” She smiled at this. He loved it when she smiled at things he said.

“I’ve always been obsessed by car washes,” she said. “Maybe that’s why I like Platza so much.”

Making her come and making her laugh had become his two main objectives in his life in the months since he met her. They were both difficult objectives.

“It’s the most wonderful thing,” she said. “You must have it.”

She stood up and walked over to the huge muscular bald fat burly Russian – he had a hairy back and a hairy chest but smooth shoulders – who had been administering the abuse. He had the vigorous athletic Russian style body that suggested that his idea of a relaxing winter afternoon was to take a swim in a frozen river and then warm up with some Vodka.

She spoke to the Russian, pointed back towards him. He looked away.

It was arranged. They went into the scalding room. She took a seat on a bench. They lay him out face down. The hot air was searing the backs of his legs. As an act of mercy, they threw a towel soaked in ice water over his head. The room went black and he was grateful. The first thing they did was yank down his bathing trunks. His ass was now exposed. It was revoltingly sexual in an embarrassing way. He felt completely powerless. What was she trying to do to him?

The men began to beat him. He gasped for breath in the dark wet airless space under the towel. Every now and then an incredibly strong hand reached down to the muscles of his neck and shoulders and administered a furious and utterly ungentle massage. His legs were burning. The heat was savage and homicidal, and they were beating him. He wanted to call out: Please stop! He wanted to flee. But he made himself go absolutely still. He turned himself off. He deactivated the survival mechanism and hoped that he could thusly pass for a man who could take it (whatever ‘it’ was). He heard her vice penetrate din. Through the clamor of voices he heard her call out: “It’s his first time!”

How utterly humiliating. He was lying face down in a scaldingly hot room full of sweaty people with his ass exposed, being beaten with leaves, and his girlfriend was calling out, “It’s his first time,” as though he were some kind of sacrificial virgin. He tried to fathom a way in which his dignity might somehow be preserved, but there was no way, it was too late, he was a passive helpless creature, his ass was in the air being beaten with leaves, his girlfriend and thirty panting strangers were observing the scene, and the worst of it was that he was supposed to rise from this, should he survive it, and pretend to his loved one that it was some wonderful reinvigorating experience.

Afterwards the walked up tenth street towards second avenue in silence.

“Wasn’t that wonderful?” she said. He did not reply. “Oh come on,” she laughed. He walked on in silence. He was in a state of fuming despair. He couldn’t even understand why he was so upset. Nothing was happening the way he planned. That wasn’t true: the most important things, the sex, the intimacy, that was going well. But she refused to admit that there was a connection between the two of them in bed and the two if them in the world. She had subtly commandeered him in his own city.

He cast a quick glance at her. She looked like what she was: a stylish mom.

They turned left on Second avenue. It was a cool spring evening. They walked some more.

“Where are we going?” she said.

“It’s a surprise,” he said.

He didn’t know where he was taking her. He just knew he was going to dictate the next move. He would be in control. Yet all his previous thoughts about ways to make her happy no longer applied. His motives had changed. He wanted revenge. They walked some more in silence. He turned right on second street, and emerged onto the Bowery right next to CBGB’s. There was a crowd outside. The sleek pleasant prosperous professionals who she had introduced him to would not fit in with this crowd. They were young and most of them had strange haircuts. The hard-core scene had never made much sense to him even when he went to CBGB’s to see bands, and that was a while ago. But he recognized the pent up malevolence on their faces, the desire for release.

“This is a famous club,” he said “I used to come here all the time.”

“I don’t want to go to a club,” she said. “Can’t we just go somewhere for dinner?”

“Just a peek, come on.”

“I’m not in the mood for music,” she said.

“Oh, for God sakes honey, just do one thing with me, all right? Just trust me.”

She rolled her eyes. The place was dark, the band seemed to have finished setting up. He pushed forward through the crowd until he was past the narrow abutting the bar, and in that open space ear the front of the stage. The bassist had just lit a cigarette. He had a Mohawk. They stood together and for the first time he took in the faces, their anticipation. It was a smoldering moment.

“Are you ready motherfuckers!” screamed the singer at an excruciating volume. Alex saw Katrina flinch and put her hands to her ears. He felt a small spark of pity for her. A moment later, with the first crunching chords, the crowd would erupt in mayhem. It would be like being caught in a riot. She would hate him. He could already perceive, in the lines creasing her forehead, the beginnings of the rant against him. But he didn’t care. He was at last showing her something of New York.

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