I have only been in a sauna twice before, both times suspicious of their authenticity—the fiberglass rocks that needed to be plugged in were a big clue. But I’m in Finland where taking a sauna is an art form. This is my chance to do it right.
After shedding my clothes, I open the sauna door and startle the naked woman lying across the lower bench. I shut the door behind me and apologize for the interruption. She lies down again. In the low light I climb to the top bench with all the poise I can muster, and stretch myself out long and languorously, as if I sauna often. But as soon as I close my eyes, I feel the heat lay on top of me and hold me down. I try not to panic. Besides, there’s a cold plunge pool waiting for me down the hallway when I’m through.
I try to relax. The woman on the bottom bench exhales. Usually I would be scrambling over myself to talk to someone from another country but I am jet lagged and too hot. I wonder how long she has been in this sauna. For no reason at all, I decide she knows twenty-four languages and that her English is better than mine. It hurts to breathe. It hurts to blink. If I said anything now, it would only come out as drool.
I look at the clock. I’ve been in here exactly ninety seconds and I want to get out but my competitive nature, normally reserved for men, absurdly kicks in and I am determined to stay until she leaves first.
Two minutes later, she stands up thank God and I do mean GOD, but she doesn’t leave.
“May I increase the heat a little?” she asks in a sultry voice, gesturing toward the water bucket. Her blond hair, wild from sweat, makes her look like a Nordic Medusa.
Despite the fact it’s hotter than I can stand it already, I urge her on as if the place were feeling drafty. “Oh yes please,” I say. “Absolutely.” This, I am certain, is the crucial rule of the sauna: always say yes to more heat. It can never be too hot. To say no would be like sending a drink back for being too strong.
She snatches the ladle and douses the rocks with two big scoops of water, causing a flair-up like an out-of-control grease fire at the St. Clair Broiler. I turn my head away in anticipation of the coming heat. The wave of it breaks over me—my face, my breasts, my hips, and settles at my feet.
“That is better, don’t you think?” she asks.
Trying not to pass out, I agree.
“You are American,” she confirms, settling herself back on her bench.
So now, me staying in here longer than she does is not only a matter of personal pride, but one of patriotism. The United States, known for its unwavering fortitude, is relying on me to maintain this reputation. I cannot let my country down. It’s my duty to ignore the feeling that I’m lying in a house fire.
I decide other things about the Nordic woman. I decide she is a musician of orchestra stature. A first chair violinist. She and I have zilch in common, but maybe her Scandinavian relatives and my Moravian forefathers do. Nothing comes to mind though, except the Black Plague and goat cheese. It’s been exactly four minutes. Not only are the sweaty toxins running out of my pores, so is my resolve.
I try to imagine the healing powers of the sauna. I try to think poetic thoughts, I try to form stirring odes to people I love or once loved, but I can’t. My brain is rising like a Bundt cake and I can only think of the people in my life who made me cry: my high school math teacher, my freshman year roommate, the gate agent who left me stranded in Frankfurt for three days, the guy who tried to tow my car in 1998. Bastards, every one of them.
Another minute passes. I can’t stand it in here any more. I smell the cedar wood, I taste the sweat on my lips, I feel it roll down my jaw and along my neck. I can hear my heart begging me to be reasonable and quit this foolishness. And when the heart speaks, a person ought to listen.
I think of the cold plunge pool, a six-by-six sea of salvation, and I get up. The Nordic Medusa wins. The U.S. will have to reign glorious without me. I fly out of there, run down the hall, and jump in the pool. The cold water is deep. I’ve been slapped awake like a newborn. There is no greater reminder that I am alive, and that’s what matters.