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DREAMSCAPES: In the Japanese Bathhouse

Public Bath
Joe Sinclair

Charlie couldn’t help but feel they were
laughing at him.

Charlie stood facing the wall. He peeled off his socks and rolled them into a ball. Then he pulled down his trousers, balancing awkwardly on one foot and then the other as he tugged free of the legs. With that done he loosened the noose of his tie and pulled his shirt off over his head. Finally, glancing over his shoulder, he slipped off his underpants.
He left his clothes folded in a neat pile inside the locker and locked the door. Then he fastened the rubber band with the locker key around his ankle. He took the small white bath towel and wrapped it around his waist, pinching the ends together between thumb and forefinger just above the hip. Then he walked on through the locker room towards the communal baths.
He had expected people to look. It was only natural – him being the only foreigner – but he was determined to overcome his self-consciousness and let his daily stresses evaporate with the steam. Yes, a hot bath would be just the thing.

As he approached the glass door it slid open automatically and a warm fog billowed towards him, misting his glasses. He propped them on top of his head and squinted around for the shower area. A tiny old man brushed passed him, disappearing in a plume of steam.
The showers ran along the right hand wall at waist height, occupied by a line of Japanese men who were squatting down on yellow plastic stools, lathering, scrubbing and rinsing. They ran hot water from the tap into a plastic bowl, tipping it over their heads, down their neck and backs, and sprayed themselves clean with the powerful showerhead. The air was thick with heat and soap.
Charlie found a space next to the old man who had passed him in the entranceway and plonked down onto a stool, which gave slightly under his bulk. The old man had a scrawny neck, bony shoulders and worn yellowy skin. He soaped his hairless bodies mechanically, his face void of expression. "Looks like a newt," Charlie said to himself with a chuckle.

Charlie felt large and a little cumbersome propped on his stool next to the little man. As he lathered himself in soap he took surreptitious pinches of body fat. It occurred to him that he wasn’t in the best of shape. He was touching thirty and with little time in his busy schedule for exercise, his body was beginning to spread.
His thoughts were sharply interrupted by a spray of icy water. It hit him on the shoulder and he flinched against the cold. He looked sideways at the old man, who continued to shower under the cold water, seemingly oblivious to what he had done. But it must have been a mistake, so Charlie began to shampoo his hair.
The shampoo ran down his face, stinging his eyes. But as he rubbed his eyes another jet of water pummelled into his back. The cold whipped through his spine. He turned sideways again, looking at the old man through blurred vision. But just as he was preparing to issue a polite reprimand he felt another spray attack him from behind.
He spun quickly on his plastic stool and immediately caught a strong jet of cold water full in the face. It was another man washing and splashing unawares, his eyes glazed like a dead fish. Even more annoyingly, the jet was shooting right out from underneath the man’s arm, redirected towards Charlie via the man’s armpit. Well enough of this, thought Charlie, and he stood up.

Now that he had washed thoroughly – carefully observing the etiquette of the bathhouse – Charlie was looking forward to relaxing in one of the steaming hot communal baths. There were indoor baths with electric thermometers reading 41 degrees and the outside bath was designed like a rock pool with a cave and fountain. Charlie was particularly looking forward to a sauna, a great way to finish a relaxing few hours.
He stepped down from the ledge into one of the indoor baths, feeling the heat of the water wrap tightly around his calves. He let the small towel drop from around his waist, then folded it and placed it on his head like the other men in the bath had done. As expected, the other men looked over at him as he removed the towel. But he had nothing to be ashamed of.

Charlie lowered himself slowly into the water. His skin prickled as the back of his legs touched the surface. Gradually he submerged his stomach, chest, shoulders and neck, until only his head remained above the surface. As his bottom settled on the floor of the bath he let out a deep sigh of relaxation.
Then he remembered his glasses. Where had he put them? There was a moment of panic before he remembered with a smile, feeling for the metal frames propped on his head.
He looked around the pool. Several heads were submerged in the water, their bodies lost to the dark pool. Charlie couldn’t see very well through the steam and without his glasses, but a feeling crept into his mind that they were all looking at him. Their eyes were like cubes of ice refusing to melt in the heat, lingering on him coldly. And when he stared back they didn’t even react.

Sweat dripped from his face as the bath became uncomfortably hot. The submerged heads were making him feel nervous. They looked like crocodiles waiting in ambush. So Charlie stood up, deciding to try the outdoor rock pool.
The automatic door grated unpleasantly as it slid open. Immediately the night air gripped his body. Charlie felt his ball sack retract against the cold. He tensed his muscles and stalked barefoot across the rocks towards the pool, with only his towel for protection. Desperate to escape the cold air he waded quickly into the bath, sending waves across the pool, then sank down without hesitation into the water.

It felt like his skin had flared and caught fire, burning in the water. He jumped up in shock, dousing the heat in cold air. Then lowered himself once again – more slowly this time – allowing time for his body to adjust to the temperature.

As Charlie settled into the water he noticed two pot-bellied men sat on the edge of the pool, like toads croaking with laughter. Charlie couldn’t help but feel they were laughing at him. When he looked up at them they ignored him, chuckling at their private joke. It felt like they were mocking him. Then the sound of laughter ceased abruptly, disappearing in the mist and leaving a disconcerting silence. Charlie felt their dead eyes looking down on him before they turned and walked back inside, making no effort to cover their buttocks.
Left alone, Charlie tried to enjoy the bath but he couldn’t help feeling that he wasn’t welcome here. Maybe he should just go. But the more he thought about it, the more worked up he became. He had done nothing wrong. "Why should I leave?" he said to himself. He was determined to relax so (clenching his fists) he stood up purposefully and strode back indoors to try the sauna.

He pushed the door a little more forcefully than he had intended and it swung back against the wooden wall with a bang. Several faces – shiny with sweat – looked up at him through the hot mist. A wooden bench ran in three tiers around the sauna. He took up a position on the lowest rung and draped the wet towel between his legs.
He concentrated on his breathing, slowly filling his lungs with the heavy air as a clock ticked somewhere above him on the wall. Sweat leaked from his pores and trickled down his skin. He could feel his chest and leg hairs prickling to the heat.

There was a hissing sound as somebody poured water onto the coals. The room grew steamier, so that he could hardly see, and the temperature rose. Charlie thought he felt something slither over his foot, then realised that somebody was trying to get passed. He looked up but the figure was silhouetted in mist, like a ghost. The ghost hissed something under his breath and his voice sounded like steam: "Ssumimasssenn".
Charlie was feeling very uncomfortable sitting in the cloudy room surrounded by shady, half-visible figures. His position on the lower step made him vulnerable, but to climb any higher would mean an increase in temperature. He was already feeling overheated, suffocating in the thick air.
He heard the door open and close and Charlie got the uneasy feeling he had once more been left on his own. Unable to bear the heated atmosphere for any longer Charlie stood up and felt his way along the bench towards the door. With some relief he located the door and pushed. But the door didn’t move. He pushed again, harder this time, but still the door wouldn’t budge. Charlie started to panic. Somebody must have locked the door from the outside, trapping him. He stepped back, then flung himself at the door with a shoulder charge. The thick wood didn’t give an inch.

He sat down again, his body drenched in sweat, his chest heaving and wheezing as he strained for breath. The metal frames of his glasses were burning thin lines into his forehead. What was he going to do? The heavy heat was sapping him of energy, saturating him with despair.

Then he heard a shuffling noise. He looked around, twisting his body from side to side, peering through the steam. He stood up and raised his arms, preparing to fend off an attack. There was another noise – from behind this time – and Charlie span around on the defensive. A shadow slipped passed him, pulled the door open a fraction and slipped out. Charlie rushed at the door, determined not to let it shut, and stumbled out into the bathhouse

Disorientated from the heat, Charlie stepped right off the edge of the cold pool and plunged into the water. He belly-flopped and the water splashed up on either side before swallowing him up. There was a brief moment of bliss before the cold started to burn. His head broke up through the surface, his skin fizzed, shrink-wrapping his flesh, and he starting to hyperventilate again.

He stood up a little too quickly, and stepped out of the freezing water onto the ledge. It felt like an immense pressure had been released from his body, like his flesh, his skin, and each of his cells was expanding in pulses. His arms and legs were buzzing and weightless. He staggered across the bathhouse, trying to regain his balance and to stop himself from floating off towards the roof. He steadied himself against a wall, the blood rushing in waves through his head.

Then he felt a cold hand on his shoulder. He turned around and found himself face to face with the slim shadowy figure from the sauna. With each wave of blood surging through Charlie’s head, the face rushed towards him like a cobra on the attack. Charlie swayed backwards away from the face and then, as the face retreated, he lurched forward again into the space. Struggling for balance, he placed a hand on each side of the face, gripping onto the man’s shoulders.
The mouth was contorted in a mocking grin, sharp little brown teeth open around a black hole, ready to swallow Charlie up. The mouth stretched and gaped, pulling lines across the man’s face. The mouth was laughing at him and mocking him and then it started to spit out a mash of garbled sounds: "Daijoubudessska. Ssamuidessshoussonopooru. Kiotsssuketene. Dokonossshussshindesssuka."
Charlie had had enough. He found that his hands were sliding towards each other over mottled skin of the snake-man`s shoulders. They met around a skinny neck, gripping tightly. And with all his remaining strength, Charlie squeezed.

© Joe Sinclair June 2003
joe_sinclair@hotmail.com

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