Based on a suggestion Sozia reads in the comments section of her mother’s blog, Sozia and Belz decide to go to an inexpensive banya in the undocumented part of the city. It takes three buses to get to the banya, so Sozia and Belz splurge on a car service. The car service driver assumes they are wealthier than they are and pitches them his idea for a nightclub. To Sozia’s annoyance, Belz seems amused by the driver’s mistake and eggs him on by asking questions about his ideas for DJs and drink specials. Sozia can’t think of a way to signal to the driver that that they do not have the kind of money he thinks they have. She knows she cannot flat out say We do not have the kind of money you think we have because that is exactly what someone from the investment class would say. Sozia makes sure to leave the driver a larger than usual tip.
When Sozia suggested the trip to the banya, Belz acted as if she had never heard of the place. However, as soon as they walk under the admittance arches, Belz pulls up a coupon on her contact console that indicates that she is a Very Valued Customer and her ticket will be twenty percent off on account of this being her tenth visit in under a year.
She informs Sozia that the banya has a special permit that allows them to stay open past curfew. Even though it’s only mid-afternoon, something slows pleasantly in her bloodstream when she hears this information.
A stern banya attendant directs them to strip naked and hand over their clothes to be placed in a safe locker. This alarms Sozia, but she pretends that it doesn’t. Sozia and Belz are then directed into a closet-sized room that contains a lukewarm whirlpool. They ooh and aah more for each other’s benefit than their own, and comment on how relaxed they feel.
After sitting in the whirlpool for a good half hour, Sozia and Belz are ushered into a white-tiled room and instructed to strip down and sit on large plastic buckets. They are scrubbed down by two older health spa attendants who carry on a conversation in an undocumented language and only address Sozia and Belz when they want them to turn or bend over. Sozia knows that this lack of direct conversation and eye contact is something that richer ladies would complain about in the government-sponsored anonymous online reviews, but she is actually quite relieved not to be too well attended to. She wishes the car service driver could know how relaxed she is being about this, but she also hopes he didn’t fully realize how un-chill she was on the car service ride.
After the scrub, they put on the health spa-provided robes and slippers. Sozia’s robe is red and embroidered with old-fashioned yellow hammers and sickles. Belz’s robe is white and embroidered with a row of kerchiefed dolls, each one smaller than the one to the left of it until the tiniest doll on the far right side of the robe looks like it is just a bright, smudged thumbprint.
Now, they are directed to drink water with citrusy granules rimmed around the glass like margarita salt. They are told to avail themselves of the Specialty Dry Steam Rooms, which are really just a series of regular steam rooms with walls made of different, allegedly healing elements.
The first Dry Steam Room they go into is called the Agapetus Room. A helpful, young health banya attendant stationed at the entrance to the Agapetus Room informs them that
...this room is designed with elvan to release both infrared rays and negative ions. This room helps relieve symptoms of many common diseases by changing the body’s type from acidic to alkaline in order to purify the blood and decrease stress.
The door to this room is shaped like a valentine heart. Belz tries to start a conversation by asking Sozia something about weather, but she doesn’t answer with anything more than an Mmmmhmmm because there are two other women in the Agapetus Room, and weather talk is a neon welcome sign for strangers to butt in.
The second Dry Steam Room they go into is called the Barlaam Room. A second helpful, young health banya attendant stationed at the entrance to the Barlaam Room informs them that
...this room is designed with charcoal to absorb inorganic substances like chlorine, lead, and mercury. It emits infinite negative ions North American Indians used a version of this room to treat gas pains and skin infections. The charcoal also helps to purify the blood, promote a vigorous metabolism, and rid the body of wastes.
The door to this room is shaped like a hand with its fingers spread out. There is no one else in Barlaam Room, and Sozia feels guilty about brushing Belz off earlier. Also, Sozia is remembering that Belz is her only friend that will go to these types of things with her. Sozia realizes that, to make things easier, she will need to talk first.
You’re bringing him up now, why?
Just because he’s, like, the person we have in common.
We have lots of people in common.
I dunno. It’s hard to think of someone when you put me on the spot.
Sorry. I didn’t mean to.
Yeah. It’s cool. Anyway, I’m trying to see less of my uncle.
I was just thinking how you don’t really look or act alike.
We grew up in different places. And we’re not related by blood.
The blood thing probably has more to do with it than location.
Maybe. Depends on your belief system.
Sure. I mean. That’s true of everything, though.
The third Dry Steam Room they go into is called the Charitina Room. A helpful, young-ish health banya attendant stationed at the entrance to the Charitina Room informs them that
...this room is designed with rose quartz to enhance minute vibrations. This room became very popular after Synthia Rite, the star of the long-running show, Saturn’s Alamo, praised the room for assisting in curing her cancer. All of the Western doctors had given up hope when she visited this room with her secretary, Marie-Marie, her constant companion of twenty-two years. Synthia Rite and Marie-Marie spent two hours in this room. Upon exiting, they immediately made arrangements to have an exact replica of this sauna built at their Le Ridge estate. After spending several hours a day in this replica room for several months, Sylvia Rite’s Western doctors were baffled to announce that her cancer had vanished. This right here is the original room, and it is even better at assisting with cancer than the replica at Le Ridge. In addition to assisting with cancer, the enhanced minute vibrations soften lymph nodes, reduce back pain, purify the blood, and promote positive excretions.
The door to this room is shaped like a bird. There is one other woman in the room, but she has her eyes closed and is wearing headphones, so Sozia doesn’t feel guilty about talking.
People are always telling me that my hair looks the same as a character from that show.
Saturn’s Alamo. The one the attendant just said? Apparently a minor character had the same style as me. She wasn’t important. She wasn’t the one played by Synthia Rite.
I don’t see anything especially sci-fi about your style.
I’m not the one who thinks it. Strangers come up to me on the street all the time and say so.
I don’t really like shows.
Me either. I mean, not usually.
I really don’t like shows, though. Not even as a kid.
You know, I thought about going into hair. After I was through with skating.
I remember Boris mentioning something about that. He thought it was really hilarious.
I mean, just because it would have been such a departure.
Yeah. That was probably the point.
The fourth Dry Steam Room they go into is called the Daumantas Room. There is no helpful banya attendant stationed near the door to this room. Instead, Sozia and Belz make do with pressing a button on a post near the door and listening to a recorded voice inform them that
...this room is designed with imported amethysts to sober and tranquilize the internal organs. Amethyst has been deemed “nature’s opiate” by many healers because of its effectiveness in relaxing not only the mind, but also the nervous systems. Besides being a stone of tranquility and repose, amethyst is also known for the enhancement of mental strength, stability, and stamina. It is also helpful in protecting the mind from psychic attacks, relieve toothaches, reduce convulsions, reduce neuralgia, and purify the blood.
The door to this room is shaped like two stars overlapping slightly at their sides. The room is so crowded that they have difficulty finding a place to sit down next to one another. Sozia’s tongue and brain feel smudged. She lets Belz start speaking this time.
Thought you didn’t want to talk about that.
I didn’t say I didn’t want to talk about him. I talk about him.
You acted like it was weird that I brought him up.
I just know that you had this huge crush on him and I didn’t know if you knew that I knew.
I didn’t know that anybody knew. I barely knew.
It doesn’t, you know, bother me or anything. I think it’s kind of cute. Did you doodle little hearts and wings around his name and stuff?
I never tried to do anything about it.
You totally should have.
He doesn’t even like women.
He’s made exceptions before.
Yeah. But I wasn’t really the exceptional type.
Guys who make those kinds of exceptions usually go for either really androgynous women or mega feminine women. And, like, nothing in between.
I don’t think that’s true. That’s how it goes on shows, but real life men who mostly like men like all kinds of women.
You don’t watch shows.
I know what happens on them, though. I read a lot of articles about how gender gets portrayed in the medias.
Okay, but, even if I was one of Boris’ types, he wasn’t going to ruin his coaching career for me.
Yeah. Maybe if you’d actually placed in the Olympics.
I placed at Worlds. Twice.
Huge difference. Prestige-wise. At least for coaches.
The fifth Dry Steam Room they go into is called the Eudoxia Room. A new helpful, young health banya attendant informs them that
...this room is designed with essence of gold to reverse the effects of radical free toxins. Ancient cultures were known to use this essence to prolong life and exponentialize beauty. Golden essence also aids in the reduction of infertility, pockmarks, and excessive stress. Daily exposure has also been known to purify the blood. This room is the first room ever built at this banya. Although its popularity has decreased somewhat in recent times, it is still a highly recommended room by many professional healers.
The door to this room is shaped like an eye and it has some markings on it that look like they are maybe the hieroglyphs you learn about in school when you study the Egyptians and the pyramids. They are alone in the room.
Practically all of the same people competed in Worlds and the Olympics.
What you said before.
Hurt your feelings?
I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.
And, I’m glad nothing happened between you and Boris. But even it had, at this point, I wouldn’t even care.
I’d care. Probably? No, definitely. I’d care.
Yeah. I still care about people I knew when I was an Under Thirteen. I’m almost positive I’d be caring about whatever would have happened between Boris and me.
That’s...not a good thing, Soz.
Can’t help it.
Don’t want to help it. You mean.
Sure. Let’s just not discuss it right this exact minute.
You’re the one who brought it up.
You’re the one that re-brought it up, though.
Who re-brought it up.
Although there are another three Dry Steam Rooms in the banya, Sozia and Belz agree that they are feeling as dried and as steamed as they’re going to get. Sozia isn’t angry, she is just done for the day. She feels a bit guilty. She wishes she had guided the conversation away from men and hair and more towards politics or philosophy or something more important than Boris. Not that Boris wasn’t important, but, since she couldn’t exactly say what had actually gone down between them, it would have been better not to bring Boris up.
They end up leaving the banya well before curfew. Both make a show of commenting on how they feel as if they had been there for much longer than just a few hours. Both hasten to reassure one another that this much longer feeling is in a good way.
Belz wants to take the car service again, but the bus they need rolls up in front of the admittance arches before Sozia can even think of an argument, and they already have an established tradition of not taking any timing or transportation-related coincidences for granted.