Given how exposed I already feel about, you know, writing a book that causes my own friends to ask what the hell is wrong with me, you'd think I'd avoid going naked in public. You'd be wrong, though; last week I made my first trip to Spa World, a Korean spa in Northern Virginia, about an hour away.
I checked in at the counter, paid out my thirty-five bucks, locked up my shoes, and headed down the hall to the locker room. To understand Spa World, picture a modern-day Roman bath. There's an enormous hot tub/jet-filled pool-- two, actually, because they're segregated by sex-- filled with different "stations" of water jets that power-scrub your body from all different angles. There are cascade faucets as well-- like mini-waterfalls for your shoulders-- and around the perimeter of this central pool sit a selection of even warmer hot tubs and a cold tub as well. There's a showering area, naturally-- required before you get in the tubs-- and lots of Japanese-style scrubbing stations, where you can sit on a little stool, scrub down with a Korean bathing mitt, and rinse off with a showerhead on a flexible hose.
Did I mention everyone is naked?
Women of all ages. Little kids, middle-aged women, old ladies hobbling around as they are led by the arm by younger, equally naked people. Women of all races: lots of the clients are Asian, but there was a very respectable sampling of Caucasian and African-American women as well. Lots of the women there are Russian-- I took two years of Russian, so I could tell what language they were speaking. It was a whole exuberant fun park of naked people.
It took a few minutes of getting used to. But I'd read on the Yelp review that if everyone is naked, it's like nobody is naked, and that proved to be true. Also, my friend C. had visited the place a month or so before me and gave me a full review, which included assuring me that I wouldn't be the chunkiest person there. The holidays, man-- that and a hellish revision that dragged on for almost three months during which time all I wanted to do was eat iced gingerbread-- it all got to me. It really did.
As part of what must be Spa World's hazing ritual, I got into the hottest hot tub alone. It's a pretty small tub. I look up, and this naked woman with sturdy rugby-player's shoulders-- covered in animal-print tattoos-- is climbing in too. As she settles into the water I notice she's got a large tattoo on her calf of two interlinked stick-figure "female" signs. Ha, Spa World, I think. You're going to have to try harder than that. Sitting naked in a hot tub with a heavily tattooed lesbian is nothing to me. Little did I know the place had bigger and better tricks up its sleeve.
Eventually I saunter back to the locker room and dress myself in the desk-issued orange shorts and T-shirt-- a sort of prison uniform for all of the spa's inmates/customers. I make my way into the co-ed sauna section. Now, this is a surprise: not the individual little sauna rooms and stone igloos whose doors line the walls, but the large and open center area, on which dozens of people-- seventy? eighty? -- are lying around on synthetic bamboo mats, watching TV, working on their laptops, sleeping. It's more or less like what McKeldin Mall looks like on a nice spring day at the University of Maryland, but consolidated into a space the size of a high school science lab, and without the frisbees. Feeling a little disoriented, I head over to the bubble tea bar and order a honeydew bubble tea using the locker key that's on a bungee cord around my wrist. They have a nice little system there: you can pay for everything extra with that key, and you only need to see the damage of that once you check out.
The honeydew bubble tea is awesome. I've only ever had bubble tea in malls, and I don't know whether it was low-quality or I've just gotten used to the unique texture of the giant tapioca pearls, but I had fantasies of getting another one for days afterward. In any case, I walked circles around the room as I drank it, reading the explanations outside the various sauna rooms, which I'll get to in a moment. I wish I had photos for you, but for some reason people in saunas don't take kindly to somebody taking their sweaty and orange-clad photos.
There's something vaguely familiar about this place, and it takes me a few minutes to hit on what it is. Spa World feels a lot like the Mormon Temple. No joke: maybe it's the lack of clocks leading to a sense of freedom from time, the people all wearing the same clothing (all white in the Temple, and at the spa, well, you know), or just the general sense of idle relaxation, but it's distinctly there. It's been a couple of years since I had a Temple recommend-- the ID card that gets you past the Temple bouncers-- but I'm quite sure there was no bubble tea bar, hot tub, or cafe serving kimchi and Russian dumplings in the Temple. You can make your own evaluations about which kind of relaxation you prefer.
Around the same time I'm making that connection, I glance to my left and do a double take. That woman, standing right there at the cash register waiting for a smoothie or some hard-boiled eggs, is someone I know from the Mormon church. Not only that, but I named one of my kids after her. I have to stare for a long time, because I haven't seen her or talked to her in years-- she's long since left the church, I have a rather complicated history with her, etc-- and I'm trying to figure out if that's really her or if this whole Temple/Spa World connection is just screwing with my brain. I decide to write it off as "unresolved" and finish my bubble tea.
Then I hit the saunas. Okay, I took one picture before I chickened out. Here it is:
This is in the first "gem room," which is super-hot and is supposed to fill you with "vibrations" from the gemstones lining the walls. And by "gemstones," I mean huge hunks of amethysts, rose quartz, and whatever else they've got there, all arranged inside this stone igloo in amazing patterns. It was really something to behold. I don't know how much the alleged vibrations did for me, but the room was gorgeous. The next igloo was lined in clay, thick swaths of it that dribbled down like tiny stalactites. After that came a series of rooms: the ice room (imagine sitting inside an undefrosted freezer from the 1980s, with the frosty ice on the wall and everything), another gemstone room (this one done in shades of blue), one lined in wood charcoal, and one lined in blocks of rock salt. There's also my favorite, the clay ball room, which consists of a one-foot thickness of small clay beads; you lie down on it, placing your head on one of the little wooden support blocks, and the beads mold to the shape of your body. Does that sound cool? Oh, it is.
While I settled into the ice room, though, I looked up to see the woman I'd spotted earlier staring at me with the kind of expression that must have been on my own face about half an hour earlier. "Becky!" she blurted. Yes, it was that strange. If the Mormon Temple is supposed to make its members think of what it will be like in Heaven, then I must say the similarities keep right on going with Spa World. I can imagine that in the afterlife there's a lot of looking up and feeling alarmed as you recognize the person taking the next seat in the waiting room.
So once I was done making the rounds of the saunas and frightening people, I decided to get some dinner at the cafe.
I must admit I was disappointed by the bibimbap, which is one of my favorite foods in the world-- it needed some bean paste/seasoning in there-- but it was still decent, and the wait for it was even better. The cafe was packed, and I settled in rather uncomfortably at a stranger's table to wait for them to call my number. The guy sitting beside me, a large and gregarious blond man, immediately asked if I was there for the Meetup. When I told him I was not, he pressed a flier into my hand inviting me to the next one. I thanked him before looking at it and seeing it was an advertisement from the Nudists' Society of Northern Virginia (or something like that). "We'd love to have you," he said, and dug back into his rice noodles as he tried to convince the two Russian girls sitting across from him that they should join up, too.
That's never happened to me at the Mormon Temple, either.
After some time had passed, I took another dip in the jet pool and hot tubs. First, though, I needed to digest my bibimbap and the overall mind-warping experience of the place, and then spin my wheels for a few minutes as I narrowly avoided stripping down to my birthday suit again in front of the former Mormon missionary, who was now putting on her makeup and preparing to leave. Thank God from whom all blessings flow that I didn't run into her while we were both naked. Had that occurred, someone would have had to design an award for Most Awkward Reunion Ever and had the mayor of Centreville present it to me on live television. It would have been that deserving.
This was, without question, one of the strangest experiences of my life-- and it would be hard for me to explain, on a public blog, exactly how profound that statement is. And I can't wait to go back. If you happen to see a naked chick in the water with a Paradise Lost tattoo and an excess of iced-gingerbread weight, please pretend you don't see me. I'll do the same for you, and I won't blog it, I promise.