When Cole pitched me Jake’s “bathhouse with a stranger” idea, I expressed what could be best described as polite wariness. “Sounds good?” I noted in my e-mail, then, “I’d prefer a different activity.” I didn’t have any alternative suggestions, but just about anything would’ve been more appealing. Despite my hesitation, the idea stuck and, for a brief, cynical moment, I felt the two of them were disguising schadenfreude as journalism. Try telling a cute girl that you’re spending a Friday night at a spa in Queens with some guy you’ve never met and you’ll find yourself ironically defending your plans, making gay-panic jokes like a character in a Judd Apatow film.
I found Jake sitting at a bench on the 7 train platform of the Court Square stop. Although I had never met him before, I worked with him on his Washington Square piece for the site and read some of his other work, and my familiarity with his interests helped dispel some of the tension that comes with meeting somebody. He appeared to squint in recognition through his dark sunglasses, closing his book and offering his hand in greeting. I grabbed a seat next to him and discussed city living, job satisfaction, MFA programs and writing habits as we waited for Cole to meet us.
I’m relieved we didn’t meet directly at our destination. From the subway ride to the end of the 7, the quick beer at a Korean restaurant and the Spa Castle shuttle of dubious service, our travels gave us an opportunity to get to know each other in environments that didn’t completely harness our attention. Still, even when we spoke about international sporting leagues, traveling, or the Replacements, conversation always steered back toward the spa — what’s this place going to be like? I was enjoying our time just hanging out, but as the shuttle pulled up to the building, I suddenly remembered what we were getting ourselves into.
Jake seemed to have a better idea about the whole thing. He intentionally left himself in the dark about the facility’s services, but his previous journey to a Turkish bathhouse must’ve clued him into what we could expect. It informed his entire approach to the Spa Castle experience and his adventurous “let’s go for it” attitude. After we placed our belongings in our lockers on the lobby floor, we realized that the connecting indoor spa had a mandatory-nudity policy. As I fretted over whether or not I should check out the other amenities instead, Jake dropped trou and headed toward the nearest mineral pool. Afraid to appear wimpy or self-conscious, I followed suit, dipping into every jet-streamed pool, giving myself a quick (facial) shave and testing both the wet and dry saunas. Jake led the entire course as if he was an official Spa Castle tour guide. I didn’t want to be surrounded by so many nude men, but his gusto made the experience more endurable. Even being naked among the Realcity men wasn’t as uncomfortable as anticipated. Once you surrender yourself to the environment, shrugging off the distress comes naturally.
Similarly, when we donned the Spa Castle hospital-scrub uniform and ventured up to the unisex first floor, Jake determined the order for the saunas we’d use. At the LED sauna, he extrapolated on the virtues and comforts the yellow light had to offer. We cycled through each of the six or seven colors — red resembled “strength,” blue symbolized “intuition” — but Jake kept returning to his beloved yellow. Later, in the restorative 59-degree “Cooling Sauna,” he suggested that we lean our heads against the pseudo-snow shavings that lined the walls. Writers tend to make the most of their experiences in the vain effort of garnering enough “material,” but Jake didn’t appear preoccupied with these thoughts. When we finally made our way to the outdoor pool on the second floor, he laughed and smiled as he surrendered himself to the push of a strong whirlpool.
We grabbed some dumplings and beer at the Aqua Bar, trying to tackle exactly what it was we were experiencing. To me, it was reminiscent of a luxury cruise I had taken with my family during middle school, where debilitating relaxation took precedence over anything else. An unfavorable comparison, but I wasn’t complaining about Spa Castle. Physically, I felt light and free, as if some internal knot had finally untangled itself.
Jake and Cole pondered about the habits of the clientele: Did some people come solely to drink and socialize in the outdoor area, while others sequestered themselves to the sex-separated nudeatoriums? We reached tentative conclusions — visit with a small group of friends or just your girlfriend — but nothing could be definitively stated beyond Jake’s enthusiastic endorsement. Even now, I could only recommend this place while providing a list of caveats.
Having exhausted Spa Castle’s resources, we showered up and brushed our teeth back in the indoor spa. During our multi-vehicle service out of Queens, Jake and I geeked out over maximalist novels, the underrated work of David Mitchell and the hotness of Zadie Smith. We returned to the topic of writing itself, the difficulty of balancing a solitary, creative pursuit with life’s other commitments or desires. I sensed a burden within him that I also shared, the obligation to write and the panic of not writing enough.
“I’m not sure what to write about,” Jake confessed as we were about to part, referring to our inherently bizarre but not entirely uncomfortable trip. In the confines of a spa, stresses are placed on the backburner. Now that we were back in the city, we would have to face the real world of tiresome responsibility, and the corresponding anxieties would soon resurface. As appealing as unfettered relaxation might seem, it’s not as remarkable as the beautiful struggle that constitutes the bulk of human existence. Instead of telling him this, I offered a sleepy goodbye and fantasized about how revitalized I would feel the next morning.