Just over an hour later the three of us—Pete, Libby, and me—were sitting in the warm, humid air of one of several sauna rooms at the CCCP Sauna & Spa. Each of us was sweating profusely: it ran down our faces and fell from the tips of our noses and rivers of it streamed down our arms and torsos. We sat hunched over, elbows on our knees, sitting up every so often to take it big lungfuls of hot air, as though hoping to cleanse out our insides through scorching them.
“How long do you guys usually stay in?” asked Libby.
“Long as we can stand it,” said Pete.
She nodded, sending a few drops of sweat flying in the process.
And in some ways this was the goal: to endure the heat as long as possible. Like training itself, there were elements of profound joy to be had in the sauna, as well as suffering—especially if you let yourself cook a little too long. Yet I loved those sauna visits—typically just Pete and me—even as I brought myself to what I felt were the limits of my abilities to withstand the trials of sitting in a room that felt like an oven.
The door to the wood-paneled sauna opened and a thickset man sporting an enormous gold chain and a pelt of dark hair on his shoulders walked in. He was carrying a group of birch branches that were wound together at the base and fanned out at their leafy ends. He sat down on one of the sauna’s tiered benches and after a moment or two—just long enough to work up a sweat—he began beating himself vigorously over the back and shoulders with the branches. A few leaves disengaged themselves during this flailing and floated around the room like small green snowflakes. When he was finished he stood, breathing heavily from the effort of his self-flagellation, and exited.
“Er… what…” began Libby, looking to me and Pete.
We both shrugged. It was a common enough occurrence, but not one whose purpose or reasons we’d managed to ascertain, as of yet.
“No idea!” said Pete. “But we gotta do it one of these days.”
The CCCP Sauna & Spa was a strange little haven of Slavic culture located in a northern Jersey suburb of New York City—and the suburb itself was home to a significant population of Slavic immigrants. The sauna was located, incongruously, in an otherwise nondescript medical office building that looked like it could have been designed by someone who learned architecture in Soviet-era Russia: grey, severe, with minimal ornamentation or frivolity. Even the windows—ordinary glass rectangles—looked excessively decorative compared to the rest of the structure. But inside this uninspired and uninspiring building, in a hallway lined with doors that were a slightly different shade of grey than the one used to paint the walls and the exterior, was an enormous—and ludicrous, given its setting—wooden door, richly lacquered and set with shiny brass fittings. A total anomaly, like finding Louis XIV in full regalia working as a toll attendant on the NJ Turnpike, and speaking French while doing so.
To go through that door, which required no small effort given its size and weight, was like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia: aside from the door itself, nothing about the building or the sad-looking parking lot out back or the grey hallway hinted at the opulence behind it. There were marble stairways leading down and polished brash railings and faux classical statuary. In this subterranean palace, which made certain Vegas casinos look restrained by comparison, a thick-lidded Russian took your keys and wallet and let you loose. After donning a bathing suit in the locker rooms you had access to saunas and steam rooms of varying intensity, along with a range of masseuses offering different levels of torture, a restaurant with a bevy of food and drink options, and all the fresh towels you could ever want.
“How the hell did you guys find this place?” asked Libby.
“Nikos,” said Pete.
I nodded. Like nearly all Eastern Europeans Nikos consistently attested to the recuperative powers of sitting in a hot room with a bunch of other people and sweating profusely. No ailment, no matter how serious or obscure, was immune to the healing properties of the sauna. “Five years ago,” he once told us, “I have bad toothache. Terrible. Can’t sleep. Dentist say big operation is needed. I go and take sauna, steam, mineral water—next morning, pain is gone. Dentist say he never see anything like this.” And, as if to prove the validity of this story, he smiled broadly and indicated one of his teeth. Pete and Ricky and I had nodded, although no doubt our American sensibilities—which had no innate link to sauna culture—prevented us from truly accepting this account. Yet we went all the same…
“Nikos told us about this years ago,” I said to Libby. “Organism must recover,” I added, doing my best Russian-accented English.
“Recovery. The organism. It’s how he talks about the body,” said Pete.
“Sauna, sleep, food,” I said. “And… other things.”
Libby looked at me. Pete gave me a look, as well. I realized too late that perhaps this wasn’t the moment to bring up other things. Not that there ever seemed like the right moment, despite Ricky’s urgings to do so. But given that I was trying to figure out whatever had happened between us the previous night, this seemed like an especially inopportune time.
“Other things?” she asked.
But before I could answer Pete stood up. “I’m boilin’ in here! An’ this is the coolest one. I need some mineral water and a plate of pierogis to get my strength up before we hit the hotter rooms. You guys hungry?”
We rinsed off under cold showers and then ordered bowls of borscht and solyanka and a plate of pelmeni. We ate and drank bottles of Belarussian mineral water and relaxed in terrycloth robes, watching the other patrons wander into the restaurant or go from sauna to sauna. Flatscreen TVs blared Russian news programs with footage of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan or sporting events. In this space moved a mix of Russians and Ukrainians of varying ages and sizes: old women in what looked to be knit wool one-piece suits from another era and young women in tiny bikinis; middle-aged men built like bears and lean young men with two or three cell phones a piece; and then us, a strange trio in a strange place, as conspicuous among that crowd as the wooden door was that led down there.
“I’m pretty sure we’re the only Americans in here,” said Libby, looking around. “We’re certainly the only people speaking English.”
“What’s wrong with that?” asked Pete with a mouthful of sour cream and dumpling.
“Nothing,” she said. “Not for me at least.” She looked around again. “I just wonder what they make of us.”
“The world loves us!” said Pete.
She looked at him, unsure of whether he was serious. Even I wasn’t certain.
We spent the rest of the afternoon at the sauna, cycling through the various rooms—hot, hotter, nuclear—along with the occasional cold plunge and breaks for food and water. Whether or not it had any real physical benefits was beside the point, as far as I was concerned: the experience was was what mattered.
The only sign the entire afternoon of the previous night’s tryst with Libby came when we were walking into one of the steam rooms—and it was incidental, rather than any real sign from her. As I opened the door to let her enter I saw—while my eyes moved down curve of her shoulders and the expanse of her back, a back that was impressively broad and still bore the traces of summer color, despite the season—I saw the tattoo she had just above her hip: a dolphin or whale of some sort, with a long pointed tusk or horn. In seeing it I also remembered it from the night before. So much else was hazy and indistinct, but this stood out for no good reason other than that I’d never seen a similar animal tattooed on anyone else.
But otherwise in our time at the sauna there was no touch or look or word passed between us—for all that I hoped—to suggest our relationship was any different than it’d been previously.
Yet still I maintained some hope. On the drive home Pete asked to be dropped off at a Mexican grocery store on Easton Ave when we arrived back in New Brunswick—no doubt a ruse intended to give me time alone with Libby. He winked at me as inconspicuously as possible as he left the car.
“Library?” I said when he’d left, hoping perhaps she’d suggest something else: her place, my place, an empty parking lot, anything.
She nodded. “Yeah, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” I said.
We drove and chatted idly—what she thought of the sauna, what work she was doing that evening—and then she asked something that had clearly been bugging her all day, though it was not what I’d hoped.
“Does Nikos really talk about… other things? Like, steroids for recovery?”
I hesitated: her tone didn’t suggest one way or the other whether she asked out of curiosity—as in, she was open to this and wanted to learn more—or shock—as in, she was horrified to discover this truth.
“He’s mentioned it,” I said, trying to take a neutral path.
“What does he say?”
“I mean… at the highest levels everyone is taking stuff,” I said, keeping things vague and unspecific.
“Even the women?”
“Probably. I… haven’t heard as much about the women but I wouldn’t be surprised.”
For a few seconds she was quiet as we sat at a light at the College Ave intersection. “That’s terrible,” she said at last, which cleared up where she stood on that front.
“It’s… I mean, it’s normal in high-level athletics. That’s how it is in any sport if you want to train to be the best.”
“Would you ever want to do that?”
“Of course not,” I lied. “But I’m not trying to be a World Champion.”
“But if you were you would?”
“Uh, I mean, I don’t know…”
“But not if everybody is doing it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, it’s a normal part of being in high level sports. For any sport.”
“How does that make it right?”
“I’m not saying…” Shit, I thought. This was not anywhere near where I was hoping this conversation or this car ride would end up. “It just seems like there’s a lot more at play than we’re aware of. Like, people make decisions about what they need to do based on their own circumstances. And other people make decisions about what is or isn’t right. I don’t know what it’s like to be an athlete in Bulgaria, or wherever. Or to train and compete for a living.”
“Jesus,” she said, half to herself. “I had no idea. So, what about Ricky? He was up at that level… so?”
“I don’t think he was on stuff,” I lied again. There was no point in even letting a shade of truth slip in.
I pulled up to the library. It was still relatively early evening—not quite 8 yet—and the street had a fair amount of foot and car traffic still, preventing any chance at a long, slow goodbye while I was parked illegally on the side of the road. Despite the early hour it was already dark, and felt later than it was.
“Thanks for inviting me today,” she said.
“Yeah, I’m glad you enjoyed it.” I looked at her, waiting—hoping—for some sign. For a moment I thought I caught one—a glance, or some hesitation in her movement—and I tried to goad myself into action. Move! I thought. Fortes fortuna iuvat! But any sign or signal she may have given was inscrutable to me, and I felt like a stranger in a foreign land, totally unable to understand the language and thus frozen into inaction.
She smiled—perhaps this was it?—and then quickly opened the door.
“I’ll see you in the gym tomorrow,” she said, stepping out. “Thanks again, and thanks for driving.”
And with that she shut the door.
* * *
Back at the apartment I relayed all this to Pete, who listened with an attentive and understanding ear. We were sitting in our underwear in the living room, watching Heat and taking turns rubbing each other’s shoulders and back down with astringent to keep our skins’ oil under control (critical, given our elevated hormonal levels). Ever since getting on test and d-bol this had become a thrice-weekly ritual—one more way in which to bond, like a pair of (relatively) hairless baboons grooming each other on the savanna.
“Well,” he said, “ain’t no need to give up hope just yet.”
“Nothing…” I said, shaking my head.
“Maybe she’s just shy! Needs a little time to adjust, you know. Needs to make some sense of it all.”
“Or maybe she regrets it.”
“Also possible. But, wait an’ see. Ain’t like you never gonna see her again.” He threw away the cotton balls and closed the bottle of astringent. “Anyway, cheer up. You still got me in the meantime!”
I sighed. “I’ll take that, especially since you’re cool with me taking shit.”
He smiled. “Not only am I cool with it, I endorse it! Here, have one of my d-bols,” and he actually handed me a pink pentagon from the two he’d planned on taking that evening.
I took it, so touched by the offer I feared I might tear up, and washed it down with a swallow of mineral water.