The Truth About Steam Baths


Smoke signals from the east tell of a Robert Benchley writing contest--but can a female scribbler compose a piece in the master’s style?

While sipping a martini, I read Benchley’s essay Turkish Bathing. I find humor in the piece and want to explore the topic further, but dare I venture into the local Steam Baths? Yes, but first I must have one more martini.

Although the Steam Baths are located in a historic neighborhood, rumor has it no one has been shot with an arrow.  At the desk, I receive a tiny towel.

What to cover with it?  I suppose I could wear it like loincloth.

After locking up my clothes, I covet a grass skirt with an elastic waistband or better yet a toga. A shy writer, I’m not used to being naked among strangers.

I sidle into the main steam room, where reclining maidens remind me of the Lotus Eaters from Homer’s Odyssey. Will I become so lethargic I forget my friends and family, never leave, and the attendants have to drag me out?  The corner hot tub entices me, and I descend into the cauldron. My legs and feet cry out for mercy.  After five minutes of boiling myself, I’m dizzy. I wobble out like a shipwreck survivor.

A stocky matron holds a bristle covered brick and asks, “Do you want a scrub?”

 “Not now, but if I pass out have your way with me.”

I settle on a slippery surface, but it’s too damp to knit. Perhaps I could meditate, but the only mantra that comes to mind is “Shugga bugga.” 

Then I discover a small room resembling a monster’s cave.  The steam blasts me. The outline of a bench appears, and I sit. The air is so hot I feel like I’m inhaling steel wool. Like a true masochist, I begin to savor the torture. All four of my cheeks burn.

Time passes.  A glimpse in the steamy mirror reveals a one-eyed woman with no hair.  I glance away, spot a high school classmate, and groan.

            “What a surprise to see you here.”  (I forget her name)

“Yes, yes.” (She’s also forgotten mine.)

 “How’s your tennis?” I ask.

“Great. I won a match in Wimbledon.” 

“Congratulations,” I say.

“Thanks,” she says. “What’s new with you?”

“Have you heard of Robert Benchley?”

“I thought you were Robert Benchley.”

“And I thought you were John McEnroe.”

 My masseuse lassoes me and the classmate and I say our fond goodbyes.  After a dainty massage, I call the masseuse a wimp and she calls me a taxi.

As I ride in the cab, I have a vision of Robert Benchley laughing in heaven.  “Thanks for the adventure,” I whisper.

The cabbie delivers me to my favorite bar, and seeing my writer friends I say, “Home at last.”  After a few drinks, I talk my buddies into toasting the master.