By Matt Gordon
Once a friend of mine dragged me to hot yoga. If you don’t know what this is then you are farther behind the times than I am, and, in short, there is probably no hope for you. I’m sorry, but I just want to be straight with you. But so that we are all on the same page here, let me summarize for you: hot yoga is an attempt to allow humans to experience here on earth what stretching in Hell is like. If all the bending and contorting and the sheer heat of it all weren’t bad enough, my friend—we’ll call him Mitchell Casteel since that is his name—arranged for us to attend a 5:45 AM class. In his reminder email the day before our jaunt to Hades, he chided, “Be sure to be there early and come hydrated!!” Yep, he put two exclamation points like that, just to be cute I guess. Early? Come early to a 5:45 AM course. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure such a thing was possible—that time exists pre-5:45 AM seemed suspect to me. And then there is the whole hydration thing. “Come hydrated!!” Um, do you have an I.V. I can borrow, good sir? Because I’ve got an eight-to-nine hour commitment before hot yoga that I’m sort of locked into—it’s part of a routine humans have been keeping, you know, forever and stuff.
But I went.
Not peaceably. Please, think better of me than that. No, I complained and moaned and belly-ached, all the things a sensible person does when forced to do something not just against their own will, but against the will of sane creatures everywhere.
I do, however, think it honest to make one small confession and it is this: It wasn’t all bad. I mean the bending and stretching and scorching heat was certainly that bad and then some. The instructor Ashley telling me I “did a really good job for my first time” was laughably awful because I did no such thing. I was inflexible in both body and mind. No, the part that was okay is the same part that always is in these situations. It is nice to try new things. It awakens some spirit of adventure, some sense of possibility, some naïve gusto about life and all the unbidden things to be tried that lay in hiding all around us.T
The whole to-do put in mind a similarly disastrous foray into the hot-lands. That, too, I suppose I mostly said yes to because of the longing for something new, the desire for more which lurks in every heart. Or perhaps it was just my youthful exuberance for any free thing. The conversation would indicate the latter:
“Want to do a Turkish Bath with me tonight?” asked my father.
“I don’t know. Sounds kind of weird.”
“You’re only in Istanbul once. I’ll pay for it . . .”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Oh, young Matt. See him standing there, munching an apple or some such thing, aloof to the danger ahead. Now, looking back on this, I understand the cryptic foreshadowing of the sentiment, “You’re only in Istanbul once.” For me there is a reason, and I met him that evening around 8 PM.
I entered the Bathhouse steps behind my father, but likely a far way ahead of him in terms of expectations. I envisioned myself upon a soapy throne, a harem of dark-eyed beauties surrounding me, washing me, and treating me as some exotic thing: a mysterious pale wanderer from a strange, faraway land.
At the check-in counter, I noticed that the path diverged in two directions: a lane for the males and one for the females. There was no Robert Frost about this—women were washed by women and men were washed by men. As my dad bartered with the matter-of-fact worker, I glanced toward the women’s side. The door-less entryway allowed me to see block basins for patrons to sit upon—some sort of pre-bath area—and then, suddenly, strutted up a mean-faced, heavy-set woman. She was even heavier-chested, a fact for all the world to see, as she wore only a towel sort of garment around her waist. Her cold-dark eyes locked my own with a sneer, and then she walked on. I gulped hard and tried to think of any excuse to exit this surreal carnival of horrors: plane to catch, upset stomach, late for hot yoga . . . anything.
“Well, ready!” my father chirped.
I shuffled slowly behind him to the door on the other side, away from the burly, topless female masseuse. I stood at the threshold, preparing to surrender any innocence I had retained through my fleeting two decades on earth. The sign above the door said something in Turkish. It could have been “MALES” or “ABANDON ALL HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.” Who can say?
And of course, when one tries something new, the narrative in our own head always paints the worst possible picture. The inner voice wormwoods around, convincing us that this is the worst possible thing and that we shouldn’t have agreed to this. Then we carry on with things—we step off the ledge and trust the bungee or whatever—and we realize how silly we had been. The experience is always better once we have pushed through that initial fear and doubt. These thoughts comforted me.
And then I met my bather.
I don’t know technically if “bather” is the right term. Honestly, I don’t know anything because my bather knew no English, so any attempt at fact-finding was dashed. Well, actually, I take that back, he would lovingly utter a repeated English phrase in my ear throughout this sordid affair: “Remember tip,” he’d growl menacingly. What it took no translator to ascertain is that he was an absolute brute of a man. Living things grow and non-living things do not—it is what keeps this world inhabitable: just imagine if rocks and sinks and bookshelves would annually add in size and weight . . . there would be no room for you, me, and certainly not for this man. But if inanimate objects could, say, grow up, this Turkish fellow and an adult-sized bowling ball would have similar dimensions.
I got a good look at his face in this next phase because, after snarling “Remember tip” into my ear, he swooped me up like one does a small child who must be carried to bed or, a more fearful image at the time, a groom does a new bride before entering the threshold. Oh, what other thresholds might I now being whisked toward? But there, with my head approximately on his shoulder, I assessed his face. He had constantly furrowed brows, two of them, one above his eyes, bushy as a bramble, and the other above his lipless mouth. It was like two dark caterpillars were racing sideways across his fleshy face. He had a stubbly chin and dark, angry eyes. These little coal orbs sensed me and darted to my own eyes, widened manically, and though it was his mouth which spoke, it was as if the sound was emanating from these minuscule black holes. Lovingly, tenderly, they said to their new bride, “Remember tip!”
With that we had arrived. With the sensitivity of a toddler grasping a cat’s tail, he flopped my body onto a stone bench. These stones were about five-feet from end to end, and there were many of them making a circle around a pool with water pouring into it from above. Though many of the benches were unoccupied, a few in the ring had men sprawled on them with bathmasters of their own standing over them, doing all manner of bath-things to them. I didn’t pay too much attention to the action because I was finally putting together the dress code. My own bathmaster, whom I had begun to call “Igor” in my head, had put a thin loin cloth roughly the size of a cocktail napkin on my jeaned leg. He motioned with his head and thumb, and then pointed again to the loin cloth.
“Change into this?” I asked skeptically.
“Remember tip!” he grunted back.
I looked around again to confirm the other men had been similarly stripped down. I did not notice if my father was in the room or not—I had, by this point, given up any hope of ever seeing him again.
Inadequately clothed, I placed my clothes and personal effects into a basket Igor had fetched for me. He carried it away and I sat on the cold, stone slap and wondered about existence. Death comes for us all, I had just always pictured receiving him with with far more clothes (and dignity) on.
“Remember tip!” Igor announced his return.
He then laid me facedown and began dousing me with scalding hot water out of a bucket he’d fill from the pool in the middle. I was a rat caught in a Jacuzzi jet. And then came the hands. His meaty, powerful hands began to rub on my body. The only rules—it seemed—were that the pressure had to be applied as if my body were dough that needed kneading and that he wouldn’t touch loin-cloth-covered areas. Since my loin cloth essentially covered no area whatsoever this last rule was a catch-22. He would flip me and bend me and twist me, always digging in with those powerful flesh shovels. Without notice, he’d dump more water on me and pour an even-steadier stream of reminder: “Remember tip.”
Then I was scooped up in true child’s pose once more. Maybe there was a fire or Interpol had showed up to save the hostages, and he was carrying me deeper into his cave for safe keeping? Instead he hauled me into a single shower stall with a sort of seat in it. He spiked me like a football onto this seat—and I braced myself for our one-on-one time. I hoped he’d be gentle with me . . .
He turned on an overhead faucet of sorts and warm water rained down on me. He left for a moment, and I thought about making a run for it. I had no idea where I was, but surely intuition would lead me to the dry, sweet light of the city? What stopped me was the thought of my intuition failing me and me running into the massive arms—and breasts—of the female bathmaster I had seen on the way in. The thought stilled my heart and my body.
Igor returned. He had a strange fabric bag. It looked like a giant’s sock, only it had small perforations all over it. I was going to ask Igor what it was, but had not opportunity for such niceties. Igor swung the bag like a Davidian sling and smacked me across the torso with it. It stung a bit. But what hurt worse than the soap-emitting sack, was the surprise of it: here I had trusted Igor and then this blindside!
I don’t know how long he beat me with that soapy bag—I slipped out of time and space. But, in all honestly, after the surprise of the first smack, it felt kind of like being tickled—not quite good, but certainly not bad either. I nearly laughed after the third or fourth time, but Igor saw the corners of my mouth moving in unfamiliar upward direction and chided me with a stern, “Remember tip.”
Then he left. The water continued to run, rinsing the soap from the bag-whip from my red-splotched body. I sat in that shower for a bit, maybe five minutes or so. It was a strange lonely feeling. I’m not going to say I missed Igor, but there was something about being a world away from home, in a town I didn’t know, in a bathhouse I couldn’t say, in a remote stall in a place that could have been anywhere and may as well have been no place at all, with the water muffling all other sound . . . it was something like not-existing at all. Or maybe it was the opposite of that. Maybe it was like only existing? Perhaps I was feeling what it was like to be untethered to all I knew, to all longing, to all sense of purpose and pain, connection and direction? I was forgotten by the world and knew not the way back home. Igor was the only person left to me, and though I didn’t trust the meaty man, he was all I had. And he too had left.
The water continued to rush over me, and with it a realization—my life was not in those days all that different than this. Purposefully, I’d disappear down unknown hallways, away from light and sound. In short, I had been running and had arrived in exactly the place I was running toward, and, like this drab, unfeeling shower, it was not where I belonged. There was no why to it and hence no how to the living part. It was just sitting and existing, waiting for more nothingness to fail at filling the void.
Speaking of void-filling, Igor came back, announcing his presence, “Remember tip.” He shut off the faucet, threw a towel at me, and sat my basket of clothes down at the doorway to the shower, then stalked away again. I dried and changed out of my loin cloth with a thought I wished could have been unthought: “I wonder who wore this before me?”
Once dressed, I followed Igor back to the lobby where my dad was waiting.
“Well, what’d you think?” he asked.
It was a loaded question. I couldn’t respond that in some ways the shower had washed away some sort malaise from my soul. That I wanted—nay, needed—some purpose in my life. When the water shut off, I resolved to have the light come on. But since I didn’t understand any of this, I answered the only way I could when one becomes aware of his own pursuit of nothingness.
“It was really something.”
With Igor and my dad’s bathmaster standing near the entrance to the male side of the bathhouse, we settled up with the cashier lady. I heard Igor clear his throat.
“Do we add our tip to the receipt or just give it to you?” I asked.
“Absolutely no tipping, sir.” She rebuked me.
I looked at Igor. And back to her. Then to my father. Then back to Igor’s angry frown.
“I’m just gonna wait outside, Dad.”
“Well, it will only be a sec–
But it was too late, I was out the door and on my way. I wasn’t sure where I was headed, but knew clearly one thing: it was away from where I’d been.