When I came out of my scrub, Clancy was lying on one of the simple wooden benches that lined the walls surrounding the two plunge pools. It was his first time being professionally bathed, and one thing he had repeatedly expressed hesitation over was the possibility of being bathed by a man. Now he was two-thirds of the way through his platzing treatment. Your skin is brushed, swept, and beaten with bundles of sticks (one birch, one oak), covered with semi-dry leaves. Bits of the leaves fall off as they beat you. The sticks are dipped in a large wooden bucket of eucalyptus water. For a glorious moment the brushing is cool, but as he thrashes you, back and forth, up and down, the bundles become hot. Like concrete in the hot sun. Banya’s sauna is an authentic Russian sauna, meaning it is 200 degrees in the cedar sauna bath. The brushes reach a temperature that is close to scalding. I think for experienced bathers, the brushes do scald. (Clancy had broken blood vessels all over his back and sides the next day. He whined about these.)
Banyas—traditional Russian bathhouses, which have existed for centuries—are popping up all over New York, Miami, and wherever else the new money from Moscow is settling in. Downtown Banya—in Everett, Washington—enjoys a reputation as the best Russian bathhouse in the greater Seattle area. It took us about an hour to get there from my apartment in West Seattle.
Clancy was lying supine on the bench against the wall. He was making intense noises. Of pleasure, it seemed to me. Because he was no longer in the sauna, to be clear. He had survived two beatings. When they do the bottom of your feet, it’s like that grotesque torture scene in Midnight Express. I was surprised, because what he had just gone through seemed, to me, to be much like the descriptions he’d summoned when I told him about bathing. In his mind, it had all sounded like a nightmare.
“I thought they beat you on the feet in prison because the bruises don’t show. But Alex told me it’s where your nerves concentrate,” he said.
Yet here he was, done with round two, about to go in for his third.
He said, “You’re going to love it.”
“You really liked it?” I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic. He looked happy. Or more like a woman who has just given birth.
“I feel like the Buddha,” he said. “The only thing that’s a shame is you didn’t wear a bikini. You’re going to want as much skin exposed as possible.”
I was wearing a modest, navy Speedo. More, I had put over it a pair of skimpy American Apparel boy shorts in red nylon. I was not dressed for a Banya, or even a swim in a pool. I was sort of dressed to play beach volleyball, if I were a shy person, which I am. Exceedingly.
Clancy thought a bit and said, “Maybe you could just wear your bottoms. Really, you’re going to want to have your skin exposed, it doesn’t make sense for him to do it to your swimsuit.”
I thought about it. I am extremely shy, as I said, however, I enjoy putting myself into positions in which a person ought to be shy, because then in some ways at least I feel my demeanor is appropriate. Also, a lot of bathing places—co-ed or single sex—require bathing in the nude, and so I thought his suggestion was sound.
“Will you ask him for me?” I said. “Will you make sure it’s OK?”
Clancy said he would. He said, “Come in with me, so you can see it.”
Alex laid out two towels on the upper tier of the sauna. He put a rolled towel for Clancy’s head. He had his back to us, and I gestured to Clancy, “Ask him.” Clancy nodded. As he was lying on the towel he said to Alex, “When Amie goes, it’s OK, just bottoms?”
Alex nodded. He was wearing a white wool cap with earflaps and a large red star on it. He was heavyset, muscular. A Russian Russian. Shoulders like a bookcase. He could definitely give James Bond a real fight, if necessary. He went outside to fill a bucket of water.
“Are you sure he understood what that means?” I asked.
Clancy said, “Oh yeah.”
“Well what about when I go for the cold plunge.”
“You’re just going to have to be a little European about this,” Clancy said.
He finished his platza, and I went and took off my swimsuit, and put on my robe. The Banya is ordinarily quite crowded, but we had come late on a Monday, and so for a moment, while I stripped out of my suit, it was empty. But coming out of the changing room—in my robe and shorts—I passed two men and a woman. They were my age.
I went to the treatment room, where Clancy was stripped for his scrub. I said, “There are people here. Two of them are men. Are you really sure?”
Clancy is the jealous type and his behavior seemed completely out of character.
“Of course. Don’t be silly.”
And so I went into the sauna where the towels were waiting. I took off my robe, and lay topless on my stomach. Alex came in, followed shortly by the two men my age. Reader, you will be surprised to know that I did not look at their faces. Alex gave me the platza, gently, allowing the leaves to reach a temperature close to scalding, but not slapping me so hard. The treatment goes in escalating intensity, and round one is gentle.
“Do you want to turn over?” he asked.
I said, “Why not,” and with my eyes closed, I flipped topless onto my back. The conversation of the two men in the sauna paused for a moment. The platza began. They regained themselves.
When the face-up, round-one session was complete, I stood and headed to the ice-cold plunge. I want to emphasize that this plunge was very cold. I—like most women—have a high tolerance for pain. I also have bathed a bit. Earlier in the day, Clancy had been unable to remain in the ice-cold plunge 60 seconds, while I could. But now, in this funny otherworldly state of mortification (of flesh and mind), I really could not even feel the cold, and I believe two, three minutes went by before a thought went through my mind, “I think it is possible I will die.”
Silly? But I tried to haul myself out of the pool. As soon as I got mostly out of the water (supporting my weight) and into the air (topless), I recognized I was going to faint. This has happened to me many times in my life, and as a rule, it comes on as a dizziness, and it passes with a shake of the head. But ten seconds passed, I think, and I had not regained anything. I was alone in this room. This is the last room I ever see, I realized.
A female attendant opened the door. She ran to me. You understand, I was standing with my knees completely bent, legs still in the 38 degree water, topless, grasping the metal rail. She got under my shoulders and said, “I’ve got you.”
But she didn’t. The room was rolling. I said, “Take me to the bench.”
It was dramatic. It was the strangest moment of my life, or one of them. It is up there. It is the closest, I think, that I have come to some kind of physical peril, which just tells you—knock on wood—the luck, so far, of my existence. Once I was lying prone on the bench, the attendant leaned over me. It was a bit like the scene in a hospital movie. She said, “Ma’am, could you put on your top?”
I completed the treatment. Alex was gentle. (I had returned to my Speedo). We had massages, scrubs, we recovered. We were there for four hours. The men who had seen my breasts happily offered us glasses of homemade kvass. A skinny tanned woman in a bikini—who may or may not have seen my breasts, I’m a bit unclear now—explained that it was quite a single’s scene on the weekend.
“Banya,” she said. It’s sexfoliation.” (I’m still not quite sure what that meant). Apparently I made an impression.
Amie and Clancy were bathed at Downtown Banya in Everett, Washington. They received treatments from Alex Budnik, Tasha Budnik, and Victoria Pattison. They loved Banya, and heartily recommend the Venick Platza treatment in the dry sauna. The banya has a (very hot) steam room, the dry sauna with a gigantic brick oven, a cold plunge and a large sauna bath. Amie recommends that women wear proper attire.
Amie Barrodale and Clancy Martin, written together from Amie’s perspective. Seattle, June 2012.