EDITOR’S NOTE: This blog post is WAY over due, but it’s a timeless narrative of our family vacation to Hot Springs, Arkansas, last Spring Break. I asked my brother-in-law Scott to write this post. He’s a funny guy, and I thought he’d provide a humorous perspective. He didn’t disappoint.
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by Scott Ramirez
When I was young, my family was an island. It had its rules, its customs, its traditions and rhythms. Then I grew up, and I created my own island. I married a girl, I bought a house, started a career, and so on. From time to time, people leave their island to visit mine, or I to visit theirs, but soon enough, everyone goes back to their island, back to their problems, to their leftovers, to their inside jokes and bedtime routines. I gravitate back to my island again and again, to my wife, to my dog George Strait, to my DVR. I don’t particularly like new experiences, that feeling of being inexpert and exposed, but new experiences are crucial–I know this–so I force myself, with furrowed brow and tightened jaw, away from what I know. But not alone. I go at it with friends and family. It is better in the company of islands you know.
My island is close to all the other islands in my wife’s family. It’s better to think of my island as part of a chain of islands, an archipelago. Our islands get together a lot, once or twice a week, for dinners and birthdays, for baseball games and block parties. My wife’s parents stop by some evenings just to chat. It always feels so old-fashioned and elegant when we do this, like we should be talking about The War, what the Germans are up to, how jazz music is evil. I love it. I make them a drink, and we sit and gossip into the evening. But still, everyone goes home soon enough, and then I’m back on my island. It is a balance. We stick together, but we are alone.
Once a year, my wife’s family takes a vacation. We blaze off in dusty Suburbans: bags stacked on top of coolers, kids doped up on Dramamine. This year, it was a lakeside cabin in Hot Springs, Arkansas. At sunrise each morning, a small group of us would whisper out of the house with mugs of coffee and hike until lunch. The afternoons would slowly burn away in a haze of dominoes and naps and paddle boats. Somewhere along the way, the idea surfaced that we couldn’t leave Hot Springs without visiting the bath houses.
Hot Springs takes it’s name from the natural hot springs located at the foot of the mountains near downtown. In the early 20th century, a row of bath houses built up around the springs, transforming the town into a spa destination that thrived for a few decades before slipping into decline. The houses sat vacant until recently, when a few of the older, more storied bath houses were bought and reopened to the public. And so, on one of our last mornings in town, Drew, Mike, and I got up at dawn and drove to Bath House Row.
Drew and Mike are my brothers-in-law. With brothers-in-law, you become friends slowly, without much effort. You sing “Happy Birthday” while their sticky kid mutilates a cake. You borrow their extension cords, and smile uncomfortably while their wives chew them out. You drink beers and stare into the empty space of a campfire. You ask them about work, and you forget to listen. You are, in odd way, married to them, and so friendship comes easily.
Mike is a big, bald, retired baseball player. His wife and my wife are sisters. He’s a sharp guy, good with numbers. When the family gets together, he often disappears to watch games, check stats, or bake cookies. He occasionally loses himself, like when the Mavericks blew the finals in ’06, and he threw a couch across the room. One afternoon a few years ago, we were driving around running errands. I was complaining about a man I had seen in the steam room at my gym, who startled me when I found him lying naked on his back with his legs sticking up in the air.
“That’s not okay,” I told Mike. “You can’t do that in the steam room.”
“That wouldn’t bother me,” Mike said. “You know, I’ve showered with thousands of men in my life. Thousands.”
There was a long silence. “No, Mike. I was not aware of that.”
“If I add up all the teams I played for in high school, in the minors, in the pros, well then I’ve showered with thousands of men. It’s just part of the job. You don’t even notice the fact that you’re naked. You’ll be walking around, playing on your phone or something, and just forget you don’t have any clothes on.”
“Well, I have bad news for you Mike. That’s not normal. Normal people are uncomfortable when they’re naked in public. Normal people know that naked situations like the shower, steam room, whatever, require everyone to be on their best behavior. It’s like church–just sit still and be quiet.”
Drew is my wife’s older brother. He’s loud and big-hearted, and a gets a mischievous buzz from awkward situations. On my birthday last year, he took me to a martial arts class. We had decided months before, while sitting around a campfire, that we weren’t real men unless we knew how to protect our families. We were half-joking, but the idea seemed entertaining.
“We should take Krav Maga,” I said.
“Krav Maga, ” I said. “I read about it. It’s Israeli. It doesn’t have any of the spiritual woo-woo stuff. It’s just how to not get killed if you’re attacked.”
“First of all, you realize,” Drew said, “that if we do this, then every time we tell the story afterwards, we’re going to have to explain what Krap Mapat is. Secondly, after we’ve explained what it is, people are going to ask why in the world we picked Kram Magam, and I’m not going to know what to tell them.”
“If we do karate or kung fu or whatever, we’re going to have to buy a uniform with the belt, and we’re going to get a bad belt, like a white one, or yellow maybe. And then there’s going to be some 8 year old kid walking around with a black belt like he’s hot shit.”
“Here’s a question,” Drew said. “If you challenge someone with a higher belt and defeat them, do you get to take their belt?”
“I don’t think they want a grown man challenging a child to a fight, so I’m going to say no.”
Eventually, Drew came around on the idea. After all, it was my party and I could Krav Maga if I wanted to. He did some research and found a place that was advertising a free trial class. The night we went, we figured out that the classes weren’t divided by ability level. Experts were mixed with first-timers. I wasn’t too concerned. I was envisioning we’d be lined up in rows, punching the air in unison, the way it looked in Karate Kid when Daniel-san visited Cobra Kai’s facility.The Krav Maga instructor began class by telling us we would find a partner, wrap our arms around each other’s necks, and start wrestling as if our lives depended on it, for two minutes. After two minutes, he said, we would switch partners, and begin again. While I was grappling with what must’ve been my fifth partner, I happened to look across the room and lock eyes with Drew, who was leaning against a wall, trying not to throw up. He shook his head, grinning.
The bathhouses in Hot Springs are big, heavy-built structures that reminded me of old hospital buildings. That hospital feeling continued as we walked into the lobby. Everything was white: white marble, white tile, white chairs. Two sleepy-eyed women greeted us from behind a white counter. We reviewed pricing, and all ended up with the standard package, a $60 value. We took our complimentary loofahs and walked through a door that said “Locker Room.”
It was a narrow room with tall ceilings, black and white tile floors, and gray marble walls. A row of changing booths lined the sides of the room. Each booth had a curtained entrance, and inside were lockers built into the wall. We sluggishly filed into the middle of the room. An older man with a long grey ponytail, dressed in white scrubs, sat with his back to us at a small desk in the corner, listening to a portable radio and reading the paper. He collected our tickets, and led each of us to a booth.
“Put your clothes in a locker, and take the key with you,” he said before turning back to his desk.
Drew hurried off to find a restroom, and Mike immediately ducked into his booth and pulled the curtain. Finding myself alone, I paused outside my booth and took in the details of the room: the honeycomb tile, the raddled curtains, the coats of paint on the window frames. I lingered in the moment a bit longer, because it dawned on me that very soon, I was going to be naked, and when I am naked, I generally don’t have much interest in architecture.
In the booth, I stuffed my clothes into one of the lockers. My hands were shaking a little bit, so I took a few deep breathes before stepping out of the booth wearing only my wedding ring. The man with the ponytail was waiting outside my booth with a clipboard. He smiled and then looked down at his clipboard. Nothing was said, and it became clear he was waiting for Mike to step out also. Ponytail man seemed oddly relaxed as he stood face to face with a naked man. This made me even more uncomfortable, and I found myself fidgeting, trying to figure out where to put my hands. Crossing my arms seemed too stern, so I tried resting my hands on my hips, but I thought that made me look a little too chipper. Eventually, I folded my hands behind my back and stared off into space like a naked groomsmen. A few seconds later, Mike stepped out of his booth. He was wrapped in a white towel. It was then that I noticed, glancing back at my booth, a towel hanging on a hook.
“Oh,” I said, darting back into the booth for the towel.
An old black man named Bud appeared in a doorway and motioned to me. I followed him out of the locker room into a massive two story room. Every square inch of the walls gleamed with white marble, and the floors were weathered white tile. The room felt stately but industrial. The walls were lined with stalls, separated by white marble partitions. Each stall was just large enough to hold an over-sized cast iron tub. Bud led me to a stall, took my towel, and told me to get in the tub. It had been a rough start with the locker room, but at this point I was still optimistic. It’s called a bath house. They’ve got to have the bath part down, I thought to myself.
I took stock of the tub. It was huge–really tall, so that the sides of the tub reached up to my waist. I braced my hands on the rim and then swung one leg over, like I was getting on a small horse. Nobody looks good doing this naked, and I don’t want to think about the view Bud was getting, but I did take some solace in the idea that I was athletic and coordinated enough that I could negotiate this maneuver without a problem. Once I had my first foot planted in the shallow water of the tub, and I was starting to swing my other leg over, I noticed the the step-stool positioned at the side of the tub.
“Oh,” I said, sliding down into the tub.