In the Bathhouse

Written: July 10, 2020

Originally published in The Maine Review

My grandmother is naked as she sits beside me on the stone step and pours water from the hot spring over her shoulders. She fills the white plastic bucket and dumps the steaming water over my head. I exhale in surprise as my skin turns bright red. She smiles widely and hands me the bucket. “Do you want to do it yourself?”

In the bathhouse, naked women squat and walk and scrub and rinse. Outside the low-lit room of showers and baths is the brightly lit, clear-aired locker room, and outside the locker room is the lobby of the hotel. The hotel lobby in this small city an hour south of Seoul is filled with red-lipped, pink-cheeked, white-powdered women squeezed into waist-tightening, figure-compressing, height-enhancing fashion. But here, in the bathhouse, all the women are naked.

In a society that values women’s modesty, no woman is modest here. The women here abandon their mincing steps and stride confidently from the showers to the baths, from the baths to the sauna. The women here bare their breasts and their butts, crouch pleasantly on the hot stone steps, and lounge comfortably. There are no crossed legs here; there are no crossed arms here. Water is poured and soap is scrubbed on every visible inch of skin. The women here have scars on their bellies and moles on their sides, they have fat under their arms and sagging skin around their lower back, they have hair in their armpits and hair between their legs. The women here have clear faces, golden skin, unpainted eyes, wet hair, bare feet.

Outside, in the world of the hotel lobby, in the world of South Korea, the women are always hiding something: shoulders, secrets, facial imperfections, farts, belly fat, sexuality, insecurities, improbable dreams, impossible desires. Inside the world of the bathhouse, the women are all naked in the same way, and I am one of them.

My grandmother scrubs herself with a small yellow scrubber and a block of white soap. She marinates in water that steams up from the hot-spring and splashes as it hits the tiled floor. Water pours on the smooth surface of her shoulders, on the rough patterns that cover her elbows, on the rolling hills of her stomach, on the strong lines of her calves.

The skin on her arm is red and raw, and she says, “Look at this ddae,” and shows me the flecks of black and gray on her fingers. It is a spice blend of dirt and dust from the outside world, dead skin cells, hardened crystals of sweat once secreted by pores, polluted fragments of the epidermal layer.

“Here, scrub yourself,” and she presses the soap and the scrubber in my hands. The soap has rounded corners and slips silently into my palm. I slip my hand into the scrubbing mitt and rub the slippery slope of my knees and vertical planes of my shins.

“No, put more soap on it, and pour more hot water on yourself first, like this. Now scrub.”

My skin turns red, but its surface remains smooth with soap and water, unmarred by ddae. I apply more pressure and urgency, scrubbing like I would scrub the stain out of a shirt or the inside of the oven. “Maybe I don’t have any, I joke,” but my grandmother dismisses this notion.

“No, you need more hot water. Open your pores.” She hands me the bucket, and I perform a painfully hot libation. I shut my eyes, and the clatter of buckets and chatter of women and patter of shower water fades into a pleasant radio-static. I breathe with slow breaths and expel the insecurities and doubts and regrets from my lungs, which have been made pliant and mellow from the exposure to the heavy steam. I personify the pores of my skin as bogged, filled, clogged, cluttered, and now, bloated and lethargic from the heat of the water.

My grandmother takes the scrubber and soap and turns her attention to my skin. She starts with my leg and after a few strokes I begin to see the dirt and dead skin cells I had been unable to conjure earlier. She is diligent – she polishes the circle of my knee, the flap of skin tucked between calf and hamstring, the corners between my toes, the sides of my feet.

“Turn around, I’ll get your back.” She scrubs the back of my neck and hairline that demarcates head from body; my shoulders, covered in figure-eights with an infinity of spuds and abrasions; the long path downwards following the slippery path of the spine; my lower back that swoops to the top of my butt. I close my eyes as my grandmother expertly maneuvers skin and its long history of sweat and dust and dirt. She scrubs ruthlessly until I am red and raw and flayed. She finishes with a scorching splash of water. I yelp, and she hands me the scrubber, grinning widely.

“Doesn’t it feel good – how hot it is? Okay, your turn. Scrub my back. Scrub hard. Scrub until you see ddae.”

My grandmother’s back is curved forward from her lower-back surgery several years ago. Her skin ripples comfortably and unabashedly in rolls of fat, wide on her upper back, thin like tight springs on her lower back. I am gentle, but she says, “You have to scrub harder than that.” I put my weight into it, scrubbing until crowds of ddae like constellations gather in the folds of her skin, in the crevice of her shoulder blades, on the shadow of her spine.

She stops me and pours the white bucket of hot spring water over her head, drenching herself. Her short hair flattens like a flower drooping from dew over her face. Her eyes are closed as she baptizes herself once more with the steaming water, then hands me the bucket.

Around me, grandmothers scrub granddaughters, daughters scrub mothers, friends scrub friends. White buckets of water steam on the ground beside the feet of the women, who hold yellow or green or pink scrubbers in one hand, blocks of white soap in the other. I dip the white bucket into the hot-spring water, close my eyes, tip my head slightly back, and dump the steaming water over my face, and again over my raw and tender back, and again over my legs, and my arms, until I am exfoliated and detoxified and polished and shiny, until my skin is clean.