the public bath

i haven’t been able to open my email (send or read notes at all) so i’m grateful for at least this way to reach you. i don’t know how often i will be able to have access to the internet when i leave the city tomorrow for the south so i want to say as much as i can.

last night i slept in my old room that looks so different, so different. they put gold paneling on the walls, and islamic artwork in the ceiling. i’m lying on my bed, which serves as a couch in the morning, and looking at the rainbow colors flooding into the room by the multi-colored window panels on the door. The skinny couches line the walls of my room leaving the center empty and myself on the edge of one wall. I wonder the same thing i always do when i lie here, looking up, feeling the wall on one side and the edge at the other. i wonder, will i fall, just as i also feel cornered. i think about you and i wonder how anyone can have sex like this. it’s just me here and i’m going to fall. so where exactly do you go when you want to be with someone? of course, as Lachen put it a year ago, “of course we have sex!” clearly, but he never did answer the question, even though i know well enough that you can find a place anywhere. at this thought, i think of you again, i smile, i laugh, i almost fall down…opps, i hope that didn’t wake them up.

…getting up in the morning, my mother gives me a jalaba and we walk a few blocks to the hammam. i was sure i could fool them this time if i just acted as if i knew what i was doing. i think i almost got away with it except when i disrobed. i’m standing in the outside area where you are either exiting or entering, putting on clothes, or taking them off and my mother is fully undressed joking with some ladies as i’m waiting until the very last minute to let them know i’m not from here. don’t ask how they know but they always do. clothes off fast before marriage proposals come this way!

we bring our buckets, the stool, henna, shampoo, (my razor) soap, and enter the first room. It’s dark in here since we’re under ground and there are is lighting except a small opening at the ceiling, opening to the ground above. this is the first room, it’s warm but in the scheme of the hammam it’s the coldest room. my mother never ever baths here. we walk through this room to the second hall which is packed with women on their mats and stools, kneeling on the ground, with hands in buckets, on backs, lathering hair for the third time as the steam is getting thicker. the second room is full of older women, children, young mothers, sisters scrubbing each others backs, but my mother never stops in here either. she enters the third room, the last room and it looks and feels just like it did the first time.

i can barely breath it’s so hot and the steam is making everything hard to see with the only light source coming from two small openings on the ceiling that are dripping with sweat. this room is the third of the hammam that is divided into three areas/rooms/spaces centered around the boiling tank of in the last room that we are now in, where the light is opening over where the women are bringing their buckets. nothing divides the rooms except corners and archways that require you to turn from one wide arched opening to another from the first room to the last room, defined by the water and this heat.

my mother lets me sit on our little blue stool by the edge of the wall as i look back at some women looking at me. they aren’t staring, it isn’t critical, but occasionally they will glance me over and repeat. we don’t really look away from each other since there isn’t any point. we can’t make the look less intrusive since we’re both in this, naked sitting in one dark sweaty room, gasping for air, feeling as if even our own skin is too hot, losing all the water in our bodies, losing our skin that either our mother, sister, or the never-met-you-before-woman next to you is rubbing off. you may feel eyes but it is difficult to look away. eyes are on you as it’s billowing with steam and fog but you pretend that you have no fear of dying in here at all. no fear that you’re losing your breath on the heat and that you’ll surely lose your air now under the buckets of steaming water your mother is pouring over you, again, and again, with only a few seconds in between to open your mouth for air but finding the air thick, opening your mouth but no answer.

it’s frightening in the hamam…it feels like you are going to die as people watch you do so. it’s hard to say if it’s the dying or the seeing that scarier. the beauty of it though is that they don’t see you go under, they watch as you simply, frighteningly shed a skin, coming up. it’s painfully scary, frightening to expose your skin and your represed panic publicly, as eyes witness what feels like a demise. the looking speaks. they tell on you as they seem to know despite your best efforts that you are not from here. sometimes saying, “you’re beautiful” because you look back at them, because you’re young, because you’re old, because you look afraid, because you don’t look afraid, because they are watching their death in you. watching things shed, things falling, suffocate, blur. but after being burnt, sometimes cut, red in the face, after walking through rooms that once felt warm but now feel like ice, after collapsing, being out of breath, exhausted, immobile; after feeling this and looking out again, you look up to find the same colored feeling, feeling red, feeling flaming.

after she puts back on my jalaba, after we walk home past the men at the door, after this, after that, i’m here thinking about you, feeling my heart back home with you. feeling no ill will for you. not feeling at all as if you should have told me. feeling that you do not owe me ‘the …’ on anything. because it is in you already, housed in your body, is the truth and beauty.