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