Serenade’s End

In an update to my angsty previous post, things are back to relative normalcy with Sasha, Fey, and the gang. I’m sure there’s still weirdness bubbling under the surface, but we’ve been having normal conversations and I’ve pretty much snapped out of the funk I was in. Well, that funk.

Anyway, back to getting whipped in the ass with branches.

So, yeah, to recap, I’m naked, in the banya, with a bunch of other naked Russian guys, in plastic sandals with a strange (but traditional) woolen hat. I feel more wet than I ever have swimming. The overpowering humidity mixes with more sweat than I thought I was capable of producing. Later, recuperating in the lounge, I was told to drink water to make up for the alarming amount lost through the pores. I heard it’s even possible to lose a few pounds throughout the process. I ran through the cycle three times–endure the heat as long as you can bear it, dunk yourself thrice in the freezing wooden tubs, brief but crucial break in the showers–when my masseuse gestured for me to follow him into the steamroom. It was time. Apprehensive but undeterred (a good motto for those visiting Russia), I followed.

The next fifteen minutes defy description, at least to a certain extent. It was a kind of peak experience. Wholly consumed by the moment, my mind was torn between being pushed to the limits of endurance and the kind of inner peace one feels in any massage. It certainly wasn’t relaxing, but there was a definite sense of serenity; an oxymoronic active tranquility. I was desperate to escape, to find relief from the inundating heat and pressure, though simultaneously captivated by the intensity of it all. All this while the guy was busting out a pretty bitchin’ drum beat on my ass cheeks with his branches. That’s not an attempt at poetry; there was a fellow prisoner/massage recipient to my right, and our masseuses had quite a catchy duet going for a bit there, only adding to the surreality of the episode. Each whack brought a burning sting and a blast of hot air, on top of the room’s ever-present oppressive swelter; only alleviated, ever so briefly, when he would firmly press the branches into my upper back. The leaves must have been cooler than the air itself, and they offered a momentary respite

Some time into it, impossible to say how much, I heard the man ask my audience (remember, I was laying on a board in the central area of the room, surrounded by benches seating many burly Russian men, all of them older than me) how to say something in English. After some deliberation a chorus of heavily accented ‘turn over’s rang out. After the beating my buttocks received, I wasn’t so sure about exposing my opposite side to the line of fire. Apprehensive, yes, but undeterred. I flipped. Probably after seeing my crazed, rapidly-blinking eyes, one of the spectators asked if I was alright. “Всё хорошо,” I shakily replied. All good. Once more I was thrust into the vortex of lashes and heat. With a couple notably close calls the masseuse managed to avoid my most sensitive region, though the intensity of the smacks did not falter. More time passed, and I was told to sit up. I moved to put my sandals back on and was stopped; we weren’t quite done. Next I had to spread my arms, pat-down style, and each was whipped in turn; as well as my face and another coat for my back. Only then was I released to stumble, dazed, into the showers. The man wasn’t yet done with me, though. With his hand on my shoulder and my head under the showerhead, he alternated freezing cold and shockingly hot. After a couple minutes he headed off, with a farewell that I barely registered, and I was left with blissfully tepid water coursing down my body, thousand-yard stare on my face.

I left that day with my body coated in red and white blotches. Felt pretty good the rest of the day, too. Very relaxed. Mom got out about an hour after I did, and I spent a dreamy half hour listening to gentle music in the lobby while I waited. When she still didn’t show I headed outside for a walk in the soft rain, Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, and Sufjan Stevens playing, and smoked a cigarette. Nobody tell my mom.