Birthday Suit

Last Saturday was my birthday.  Most of my friends forgot, which was disappointing.  The ones that didn’t, I took a handful of them with me to Spa Castle — a Korean jjimjilbang in Queens.

Admittedly, I am not much of a birthday person, and I don’t typically care about these kinds of things.  But for some reason, this year was different.

Where is this place, again?

College Point.

Where’s that?

End of the 7 Train.

The day before the event, I sent my friends an email, with a link to the Yelp reviews:

Just so you know what you’re getting into, there may be some awkward naked moments.

I had originally wanted a party.  But that didn’t work out.

So Spa Castle it was.

Strand, Mal, Eee, Kat, and I went, in a minivan rented for the occasion.

Spa Castle is essentially a water park cum day spa with a view of the Whitestone Bridge.  You enter, pay a fee, and they give you a bracelet, to which you can charge food, drinks and services.  Otherwise, you have the run of the baths and pools and saunas.  The bottom floor is gender-segregated baths, which require a full shower and complete nudity before entering.  To use most of the rest of the facility, one must don the Spa Castle-supplied uniform.  For the top-floor, outdoor pools, a full bathing suit is required.

We entered the locker room, and changed into our uniforms.  Then we decided to check out the baths on the bottom floor.  The bath floor was a dark-tiled cave with sparklingly lit baths of different colors and temperatures.  Some of them had individual lounge chairs built-in; others simply had bench seating.  Each pool had a temperature gauge displaying the heat: 99F; 104F; 108F, and so on.  Some were bubbling with piped-in air; others were still.

The whole effect was at once mysterious and tranquil; mesmerizing and disorienting.

As I sank into the water, stripped of…everything, really…it occurred to me what a challenge this last decade was.  Loss, illness, divorce, choices that weren’t really choices at all…

I usually focus on what I have, and not what I don’t.  I am a person who is grateful for what I have.   But in the water, naked, I was focusing on what I didn’t have.  Maybe it was because I was naked.  But maybe it was because I felt disappointed — in aging, in the party I wasn’t having, in where I was and where I wasn’t.

How does one recover from a bad decade?  How does one slough off the skin of a terrible 10 years, and re-emerge — bathed, scrubbed, fresh, ready to face what comes next?  Is there a map, a guide, a method?  If there is, I’d like to know about it.

This is weird, but nice, someone said about the hot pot of water in which we were sitting.  It was true.

We lingered for a few moments, watching the women pass us; watching women move from tub to tub and try to select a a tub that was a good temperature.  The bubbles in our tub didn’t lend to lively conversation, so we mostly just sat and observed — something that is rare in our group.

A few minutes more, then we got out of the baths and decided to put our uniforms back on and explore the rest of the facility.  Next up was the Hinoki tub on the roof, with a view of the bay, and the bridges.  The water was warm, and the air was cool.

And there were obnoxious kids splashing everywhere…

I don’t want to oversell this place.  Spa Castle is weird as hell.  The clientele is essentially what one might find on an average day in Terminal 7 at JFK.

But for some reason, the water, the bubbles, and the view — it was exactly what I needed.

We finished out the day by baking in the saunas — the loess soil; the salt; the gold — and then, flushed, scrubbed, warm — we changed out of our uniforms and back into our clothes.  We weren’t really different, but maybe we had changed just a little.

There is no guide to divorce; there’s no guide to not getting what you want.  There’s no bible on aging gracefully, and no manual on how to handle disappointment.  But maybe, when you are stripped down to nothing, and when you are scrubbed clean, you have the ability to see that you have had the answers inside you, and in front of you the whole time.

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