a naked story

It seemed that Igor learned English from watching porn.  He mastered (and I use that term loosely) “take off clothes,” “turn over,”  “hot, very hot now,” “would you like harder?”  “come…come” and these were the only phrases he knew or really needed to say to his clients.  He always got his point across with hands as thick and commanding as his Russian accent.  Igor could make you feel good, real good…but believe me, you were going to suffer for it.  Very few American “vimps” could endure his deep tissue massage and the intense heat of “The Only Authentic Russian Banya in America.”

Igor and Irena Bosynkorov, whose dramatic leave of Moscow in ’95 was a story Irena told us over dinner, insisted that we all come try their Banya. It was the least they could do to repay us for sharing our Thanksgiving with them, their first in this country. Irena insisted we let them return the hospitality Russian-style. None of us knew what it meant to try the Banya. We’d seen the quaint, ornately carved wooden cabin that sat unexpectedly in front of a ‘60s ranch hemmed in by sprawling commercial growth southeast of the city. It was utterly out of place—a fairy tale next to a strip mall. I drove past it daily on the way into the city.  A couple times I’d stopped for lunch at the Bosynkorov’s Russian Restaurant nearby, which is how I met them.  I was always the only customer, so Irena and I got acquainted while I ate Borscht, which she wouldn’t let me pay for because “now ve are friends.”  Naturally, I had to invite the Bosynkorovs to Thanksgiving dinner, the first I ever made entirely on my own.

So, over pumpkin pie, Irena explained the Banya, adding that Igor built it himself (without benefit of building code or permits, I would later learn) as her eyes looked heavenward, “It is like massage, but more more more than massage.” Her English was considerably better than Igor’s but still lacked some vocabularic essentials.  My folks were in town for the holiday, and dad was already out of comfort zone because I made the turkey dressing different than mom.  Dad politely, but instantly, declined the idea of another man touching him.  My mother’s and my exceeding politeness left us wide open for what happened next. Tom pushed the point, “why don’t you and your mom go…you two would enjoy that.”  Irena clapped her hands happily, so the deal was done.

This is how I came to be sitting buck-naked beside my mother on a roughly sanded bench in the ante-room of said quaint cabin the very next morning.  We had taken off clothes and jewelry as directed.  Then we waited glum as prison inductees for Igor’s return. We were not at all sure we would enjoy this. In fact, I was pretty sure my mother was already disembodying in the way of people going into shock.  She doesn’t do naked.  She’s the sort of modest woman who sews a swatch of fabric across the bodice of her swimsuit so her cleavage won’t show. I hadn’t seen her naked since the day I was born.  But there we were el buffo, deshabille…our eyes strategically averted from one another, searching intently for anything else to look at…like those lizards with eyes that work independently.  She sat mute as I justified mushrooms in my turkey dressing recipe and dawdled on other topics akin to what you say when you’re waiting for the doctor to call you in from the waiting room for test results you know won’t be good.

Finally Igor appeared.  He was nearly naked, sporting only a tiny tight red swimsuit of the sort worn by the burly-man-kicking-sand-in-the-face-of-the-puny-guy-on-the-beach in those ads in the back of old comic books. His thighs were blunt and strong; his chest two heaving pectoral hills.  He held out his hand to my mother who hesitated, then rose, trance-like, and followed him into the steam room, a look of “lie back and think on Mother England” resignation on her face.  I breathed a sigh of relief at not being taken first, but about that time Sergei entered the tiny room and that’s how I met Igor’s 19 year old son.  That’s also when it first occurred to me that they really should provide towels in this joint, and have age-requirements for staff.  Idiomatically-challenged but enthusiastic Sergei announced, “I vill do you today.” His father, Sergei explained, had been a sports trainer for the Russian Olympic gymnasts in the ‘80s, and was now teaching Sergei the art of deep tissue massage. But I shouldn’t worry, “Iz not my first time,” he assured me.

The next thing I knew, I was flat on my back on a raised wooden platform in the steam room. The kamenka, a small woodstove, hissed a few inches from my toes, prompting the question I would ask later, and how I learned of the aforementioned lack of building plans, permits and code violations.  I couldn’t see well through the steamy white haze, but I knew my mother was just an arms-length away across the skinny aisle where both Igor and Sergei competed for space. They bumped and jostled each other as they worked, Igor grunting impatiently at his son who didn’t have the routine down yet.

First, we were fileted with Dubovny Veniks, leafy oak branches drenched in a ten-gallon bucket of scalding water and smacked on our screaming skin.  Sergei switched me head to toe as I lay there, eyes pinched and body wincing during this warm-up exercise.  I guess I’d been holding my breath, because as soon as it seemed the beating was over, I gasped for air.  It came in like a fire hose. The steam room was so hot I couldn’t breathe. After a few sputtering, searing attempts, I figured out how to pull tiny hits of air into a shallow space at the top of my lungs, my lips parted thinly and stretched tightly so my teeth wouldn’t catch fire.  I heard my mother bleat TOO HOT and Igor cracked the tiny window near the ceiling.  Then Igor barked “turn over.”  And we obeyed.

Sergei smoothed oil gently down my back and arms.  I figured the worst was behind me, now we’d get to the good part.  Two feet away, Igor slapped and kneaded oil into mother’s body. His style was decidedly more vigorous than Sergei’s.  My mother’s body was jumping on that table like she’d been shocked with electric paddles. I peeked through my lashes and saw her arms stretched out in front, her hands trying to brace against the logs of the wall, her skin the color of candied carrots.  Then I turned my head and look away…there was nothing I could do for her. It was every woman for herself now.

If Igor was deep tissue, then Sergei was more like pass the tissues.  He was as self-conscious and uncomfortable as I was about his hands on my body.  He chastely thumbed the ridge of my backbone between the shoulder blades down to the waist, then relocated his attention to my calves and feet.  I was beginning to feel gyped.  I said, “Ummm, I could take it just a little harder, please.” Taking this as a challenge, Igor instantly switched positions with Sergei, and began separating my muscles from tendons, my ligaments from bones. He concentrated torturously on every nook and knot in my body.  Other than during childbirth, this was the only time I ever used Lamaze breathing.  Then I felt something hot and thick pouring across my lower lumbar, just above the dimples. I assumed my back had broken and this was the feeling of spinal fluid leaking.  But Igor was ladling honey over me.  It liquefied almost instantly and splashed as he coated me (“turn over”) with widespread hands, front and back.  Honey dripped from me, it was actually sort of delightful and I was giggling as he pulled me to my feet, “come….come.”  Ummm, come where?

Igor directed Sergei in Russian, and Sergei took the buckets of oak switches and went outside. As we followed, I stole a furtive glance at my mother whose arms were folded mummy-like over her breasts, legs crossed, eyes shut, face blank.  I hoped she had lost consciousness before Sergei laid a blushing, embryonic finger on her, so at least she would be spared that future hour of psychotherapy.

We emerged into broad daylight in his front yard, blinking like moles, Igor walking backwards and leading me, still naked, by my hands. Of course, this meant my hands were unavailable for any attempt at modesty.  But at this point, Igor at seen it all and, for that matter, he had rubbed it all, too.  One could only hope that the decent citizens driving by were not seeing us through the scrubby juniper hedge that stood between me and public humiliation.

“Sit,” Igor ordered. So I sat on a small stool while Sergei came around the cabin with the first of several buckets now full of frigid water out of the hose.  Igor hefted one onto his shoulder, then nodded at me, “Oblivanye?”  Was he asking me a question?  If so, he certainly didn’t wait for the answer, which, to my shrieking surprise, I learned soon enough.  Ohhhh, Oblivanye—the Russian word for dumping buckets of ice-cold water over a person’s incandescently hot body, a practice that can actually shatter stone—that Oblivanye.  Bucket after bucket, steam roiling off my body, I experienced a heat extraction process that took me cataclysmically through the stages of volcanic to cryogenic.

Igor would be waterboarding mom next, there was nothing I could do to stop it.  In a brief moment of lucidity, I wondered if she would survive Oblivanye, assuming she hadn’t already drowned in honey. Maybe she’d be left with just a mild impairment—nothing serious—just enough memory loss to forget that the Banya ever happened. If the topic ever came up again, she’d do that forgetting-thing she does with unpleasantness in general and nakedness specifically.  As for me, I blocked out every Thursday evening for the rest of my life for Igor.

~ © L. Seaver 2012



From my regular column for The Hands & Voices Communicator

If someone ever explained a French kiss to me, I can’t recall. When it came time to know, I just knew or else I pretended to know. This is how it goes when you’re 11 or 12. You get a whole new vocabulary describing a lot of things you’ve been imagining or couldn’t possibly have imagined.

I’m quite sure that the time I needed this information came well before I had any direct, first-hand experience of the topic. It came the way all knowledge of this sort comes: from your friends or, better yet, from the friends of an older sibling—those wizened up 15 year olds who had been around…plenty.  They knew things.  That’s who you have those kinds of conversations with—the ones you are not having with your parents. Or, if you’re deaf or hard of hearing, the ones you’re not having with your parents or teachers or speech therapists—the very people who are probably your primary, maybe only, linguistic resources.

So, how are you learning the ropes?  Where are you getting the specialized vernacular that could keep you from getting beat up on the playground when you’re ten, or pregnant when you’re 16?  If you want to be taken you seriously by your pimply-faced peers (and you do), you must have at least a functional vocabulary with a basis of partial knowledge of the sort of things your parents, teachers and speech therapists are miserably uncomfortable to impart. Of course, “you” are not even reading this column, but your miserable, uncomfortable parents, teachers and speech therapists just might be.  So let’s shift focus to them.

Hey, I’m Talking to You

You may find a way to skip through life without ever actually balancing your checkbook (guilty as charged…I no longer even pretend to be embarrassed about this) but there is a biological imperative driving all human beings to have a lively interest in and working knowledge of their sexuality. Parents of children with hearing loss and communication challenges have a special moral obligation to proactivity in this regard. It’s not “just the facts” but all the incidental information we have to fill in or ensure gets filled in for them. We have to recognize that our children are not overhearing the conversations of their older sibling and his friend. They’re not tracking the sort of scuttlebutt on the bus that took the place of “the Talk” our own parents managed to avoid having with us.  I’m sorry to be the one to inform you that you don’t get that kind of pass on this one—you’ve got to stand and deliver.  FYI: this is not an article on how well I’ve done this personally. Just keep reading and you’re bound to feel better about your own chances of getting it right.

Sure, plenty of kids with typical hearing are likely to absorb misinformation from the 15 year old Oracle of the locker room.  But there’s no denying that kids who are deaf or hard of hearing are at increased risk for being misinformed or even entirely uninformed. At my daughter’s soccer practice one Saturday morning, I listened to some hearing neighbor kids bragging about Don Juan of the Bleachers who got in really big trouble over a football game fiasco. It involved things that definitely would have fallen into the category of “unimaginable” to me at age 14. But I listened to the whole story with a new kind of horror: how in the world would Dane, my deaf son, follow a conversation like this one around a loud, crowded picnic table in a windy park? Which words would he have recognized at that age? Would he have picked up on the unspoken messages being sent—did the laughter of the other kids mean that Don Juan was cool or gross?  Would the “teachable moment” of punitive consequences from the school principal be noted?  Sadly, I was pretty sure all would have been lost on him…except maybe the location (a word easy to lipread).  Yeah, my kid would have picked up on that part, and at the next football game, he’d be headed straight for the dark underbelly of the bleachers.

Truth or Dare

Actually, the first time some little neighborhood Pandora opened up this particular Box at my house, I was downstairs in the kitchen noting that it had been a while since I’d heard a peep out of Dane (then six years old) and the girl (a worldly eight) who were upstairs. Nothing I saw when I eventually found them in the closet was particularly jarring. Kids are naturally going to be curious, of course. In fact, I was so unfreaked by the whole scene that when I called the neighbor girl’s mom 15 seconds later to come and get her hussy daughter with whom my son would not be playing for the foreseeable future, I was entirely calm and collected.  And since the subject had been raised in such a natural manner, I knew I had an unparalleled opportunity to respond to the debacle teachable moment it presented.

So as naturally as possible, I sat down face-to-face with Dane, gripped took his hands in mine, and strained maintained a smile as I explained that hiding in the closet with a tramp girl whose shorts were pulled down to her knees askew was probably not the best choice they could have made with their play time. Still, it was only natural that he would be curious about this sort of thing that no doubt that little trollop had instigated.  There was nothing at all unnatural in being curious about what girls were like inside their Underoos. It would be only natural for him to experience certain natural feelings, and it wasn’t at all wrong to be feeling those natural feelings.  Surely, he had some questions? I nodded reassuringly at Dane, who seemed to have lost his ability to blink.  This wasn’t going quite as well as I’d hoped. Plus, I was pretty sure he now suspected that “natural” and “feelings” were naughty words.

If at First You Don’t Succeed

One’s karma always comes back to her, so in the way of all epic do-overs, I had another chance to respond to an amazing opportunity to share the beauty of human sexuality and reproduction—this time under slightly different circumstances.  Actually, the circumstances were vastly different, but my recall is somewhat imperfect due to a partial memory block that I only wish had been more complete.

Cheryl DeConde Johnson, the president of our Hands & Voices board, and I were invited to keynote and do workshops at the 18th Annual Philippines Congress on Deafness a few years back.  Cheryl would be taking on some audiological and technical topics, and I’d be focusing on family support.  By now, Dane was an adventure-seeking, capable teenager so I brought him along. He would do some recreational activities with the deaf youth.

The Philippines does not recognize a separation of church from state. Its population is 95% Catholic, and all the educational systems are run by the Catholic Church. The official opening of the Congress was a formal Mass read in Tagalog by a very important looking Bishop of the Church from Manila, during which time Cheryl, Dane and I tried to make our way through the hefty conference program that had been written by someone who speaks English as a second language. The program read pretty much the same way the long-distance phone calls between the conference planner and I went, which is to say enthusiastically confusing. For example, I’d say “so how many families do you think will be there?” and Sister Mary Holywater (please don’t be offended…this is not her real name, but a friend of mine who was raised Catholic always used this generic reference when he was trying to be funny, and I hope you’ll read it in that vein) would say “Yes, we’re very very excited!”  Then I’d say “Are these families with really young children or more like high-school aged kids?” Then Sister Mary Holywater would say “No, no, don’t worry about anything at all! We’re very very excited!!”

The conference program laid out the schedule for the next four days, a long stretch of almost wall-to-wall presentations for Cheryl and I. It was our first look at the timing. I glanced through it to see if I could glean some information that had never really been clear to me during months of our aforementioned preparation.  OK, some of it looked familiar but here was one topic that had definitely not been discussed with me:  Psychosexual Development in Deaf Children.  Presenter:  Leeanne Seaver.

It seemed like another two or three hours went by in the next 20 minutes before the break when I could snag Sister Mary for a quick reality check.  “I couldn’t help but notice my name right here in print beside this topic, so I wonder if this could be a typo or ????”  No, Sister Mary smiled, no, but not to worry, this is not going to be a hard topic for someone like me.  Well, actually, Sister Mary, I countered, “I am not remotely qualified to speak to ‘psychosexual development in deaf children’ and I’d be hard pressed to even think of a single person in the field who could.”  Through a beaming, beatific face, Sister Mary said, “but surely you have had such a talk with your deaf son. We would like you to share as a mother with these deaf children here at our school.”

Me:  Are you asking me to tell them about ‘the birds and the bees’? Sister Mary smiled blankly. This idiom is apparently not common in the Philippines. So I added “…as in the facts of life? The process of reproduction?”

Sister Mary’s smile grew even broader and she nodded vigorously.  Yes! That would be most helpful! In that conversation could I also say things that would curb their urges and any homosexual tendencies? And could I please present all this information in a Christian context?

My Milli Vanilli Moment

So this is how I came to the miserable, uncomfortable conversation that all parents are pretty much loathe to engage in, but this time (a sure sign that I was absolutely horrible in a past life) I was delivering the material to a group of approximately 75 deaf people ranging from three to 50 years of age. This was because there was only one interpreter and all the deaf people came to my session. I was given 90 minutes. And I used up all my material in roughly 15 minutes. After that, my spirit left my body and sort of hovered above me, looking down on this ridiculous blonde woman yammering on and on.

My son was so utterly mortified that he actually opted to join Cheryl’s session targeted to the audiologists. Thank God. I felt like a bad actress who’d forgotten her lines. Finally, I had the brilliant idea to break people into pairs to discuss the topic. I took a long time explaining how to count off by twos. Someone messed up so we started all over. Then I asked them to share with one another a time when they were…(a disembodied voice in my head taunted “you don’t know what you’re going to say next,” which was true). Yes, where were we…oh yes, please share a time when you were struggling with frustration over your own lack of understanding of this material. Did you wish you had a better vocabulary to express your feelings? In my mind, this was the “psycho” part of the assigned “psychosexual” facet of the topic.  It was the best I could do.

Having already concluded I was a complete poser with this topic, the sign language interpreter just stared at me, along with 75 other sets of blank eyes.  Apparently, the meaning of the assignment was completely lost in translation, so I broke it down more simply.  The new topic was “share your feelings on this subject or any subject” with your partner.  Everyone dug right into that.  After 20 minutes or so, I asked the interpreter to announce that it was time to switch and let the other person talk.  She said she’d already done that ten minutes ago. Then she gave a bit of an exasperated gasp and held her hands out to me in a “do something” gesture.

So I knit my brows, and looked thoughtfully at her, like I had a plan for strategically ramping this all up to a more meaningful level.  But what I was really pondering was if there would be wine at dinner that night, or heck, maybe wine at the next break and how much I could throw down before my son noticed the bad example I was setting; then I pondered why I hadn’t become an audiologist so I could go to Cheryl’s session, too. Finally, I just threw in the towel and asked the interpreter if there was anything else that she thought ought to be covered—she clearly knew the group much better than I did, and I was ready to defer to her on this.  She seemed very pleased and puffed up a bit as she considered her elevated advisory status.  Then she closed her eyes, shook her head disapprovingly and spoke of the problem of couple-swapping that was so common nowadays, particularly in the Deaf Community.  Could I discourage this practice, in a Christian context?  Sure, I thought, I’ll just add that to the long list of miracles I’m praying for right now.

I hope you are having better luck with all of this than I did.