Becky Blake is two-time winner of the CBC Literary Prize and her stories and essays have appeared in publications across Canada. Her debut novel, Proof I Was Here, was published by Wolsak & Wynn in 2019. She is currently working on a second novel and a memoir-in-essays.
THE NAKED SAUNA ESSAY: A LESSER-ROBED SUBGENRE OF CREATIVE NONFICTION
One of the first personal essays I ever wrote was about my mortal embarrassment while visiting a co-ed sauna in The Netherlands. This piece almost got published once, but then the editor realized it was too similar to another recent story they’d run. Flash forward a decade and I discovered, as a creative nonfiction teacher, that this overlapping content wasn’t a huge coincidence. In fact, so many shy writers have a mortifying “naked sauna story” that it almost feels like its own sub-subgenre. While I wait for someone to edit an anthology of these blushing bare-all essays, I thought I’d share mine here:
A Spy in the Temple of Steam
The first time I traveled from Toronto to The Netherlands to meet my Dutch boyfriend’s parents, they invited me to a nude, co-ed sauna.
“It will be our treat,” said his mother, smiling.
“I don’t know,” I said, looking to my boyfriend for help. “I don’t think I really like saunas.”
“Don’t like saunas!” His father laughed.
I squeezed my boyfriend’s hand.
“I think we should just go for dinner instead,” he suggested.
The next afternoon, I sat cross-armed in the passenger seat of our rental car somberly staring out my snow-flecked window at the lowland fields rolling by. My boyfriend had dared me to go to the sauna—just the two of us—and because I like to think of myself as a risk-taker, I’d been forced to accept his challenge. Now I was having second thoughts. “It doesn’t seem like a very nice day for taking our clothes off.”
“Not true,” my boyfriend said. “It’s a perfect day for going to the sauna. It’ll help to warm you up.”
A group of blasé sheep turned their heads to look at me as we drove past. “What’s the big deal?” they seemed to be thinking.
I grabbed a black and white candy from a bag on the dashboard and popped it into my mouth. “Eww, what is this?”
I rolled down my window and spat it out. Candy was not supposed to be a punishment. And being naked in public was not supposed to be a treat. What was wrong with these people?
When we pulled off the highway at Sauna Soesterberg I was surprised at the size of the sprawling complex. The sauna looked like a four-star hotel, and the busy parking lot was full of young, attractive patrons—work colleagues, university students, and what appeared to be an entire soccer team—all streaming toward the entrance.
“Do people pick up here?” I asked my boyfriend.
“No. There are other saunas for that.”
“What other saunas?”
“Sex saunas. Swingers’ saunas.”
“And this isn’t one of those?”
“No. Don’t worry. This place is just for health and relaxation.”
I found it impossible to believe that this sauna’s clientele would be oblivious to the allure of each other’s bodies just because they were in a “health sauna.”
We entered the main building, and my nose tickled at the mingled scents of essential oils and chlorine. In the co-ed change room, I put on a robe as privately and quickly as I could. All around me extremely tall people were stripping off their clothes. A group of naked, post-sauna women returned to the change room and swarmed around my boyfriend’s locker. They were flushed and glowing, with damp skin and healthy teeth—like actresses from a pornographic milk commercial. I watched my boyfriend to see how he’d react, but he just continued to undress as if nothing unusual was happening, calmly folding his clothes and putting them into his locker.
When he finished, he turned. “Are you ready?”
I couldn’t believe I’d gotten myself into this situation. I was now only steps away from my nude debut. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Sure you can.” My boyfriend steered me toward the showers. “You’re never going to see any of these people again. And besides, it’s going to be fun!”
In the shower room I stood for a few seconds facing the wall. This was the moment I’d been dreading, but to hesitate any longer would telegraph to everyone in the room that I was stricken with fear. I hung up my robe, took a deep breath, and turned. The man under the nozzle across the way gave me a passing glance. I was sure he could tell that I didn’t belong, that I was thinking all the wrong thoughts: about his body, my body, everybody.
If I wanted to blend in, I had to find a way to look more relaxed. I tried to imagine myself as a spy on assignment, that I was investigating an important cultural anomaly on behalf of my country. This pretense allowed me to move forward again. On the surface I now appeared confident, while on the inside I was retreating, folding up my feelings into a dense packet of top-secret information that would only be accessible once I had safely escaped.
“What would you like to do first?” asked my boyfriend.
I looked around. There were atmospheric saunas with colored lights, and deep wells of frigid water where people were dipping themselves like popsicles. I pointed at The Herbal Temple which seemed to be dark inside. We opened the door and steam encircled us as we descended into a eucalyptus-scented hot tub. My nudity now partially concealed, I scanned the group. Three minutes into my career as an under-covered agent and I was alone in the Herbal Temple with twelve naked men.
I started getting hot, like maybe-I-was-going-to-have-a-heart-attack-hot. I had to escape but if I stood up I’d be exposed on every side. Everyone was speaking Dutch and I was pretty sure they were talking about me. Sweat ran down my face, and it was getting hard to breathe. My only weapon was the element of surprise. I rose up, sudden and unexpected like a sea monster, and began my epic getaway through the knee-deep water toward the door. The sting of twelve combined appraisals hit me. I broke through the door into coolness and light.
Outside the Herbal Temple, my boyfriend joined me and wrapped me in a towel. I was beginning to feel less like an international spy and more like a shy Canadian again.
“Do you want to leave?” he asked.
Through the main doors I could see the steaming turquoise water of an outdoor pool. I took his hand and pulled him outside, my bare toes curling up against the cold. At the edge of the pool, I let go of my towel and jumped. If I wanted to continue thinking of myself as a risk-taker, it was time to let go of more than just my towel; it was time to drop my alias and to fully inhabit this moment as myself.
Becky Blake visits Brockton Writers Series via our YouTube channel on Wednesday, January 12, 2022 starting at 6:30pm alongside Jessica Westhead, Jane Woods, and Hollay Ghadery. Our guest speaker Nadia L. Hohn gives us, “Writing Kidlit in a Nutshell.”
Please log in at 6:30.