The steam room is hot. Very hot. A naked woman standing in the centre is whipping a towel around her head and complaining loudly in Russian that the chamber is beginning to smell of coffee grounds from another patron's home cure.
She could have picked any number of kitchen pantry items to be offended by here at the Ambassador Club's Russian Baths, hidden between Subway Sandwiches and Spartan Convenience in the subterra of a plaza at Sheppard and Bathurst.
Like maybe the honey, running like golden water from its overheated plastic bear onto my bright red skin. Or perhaps the Sifto salt I was exfoliating with that it met on the way down my leg, or the hardened pâté of cornmeal on my companion to the left.
There is only so much you can take of this heat. You lose your body. You lose your mind. I test myself by trying to remember my ex-boyfriend. I can't even be bothered to muster any ire about him. I must really be disconnecting.
The wooden bench is so hot, it burns your back even through a towel. You leave at the point just before nausea, just when your body doesn't know which way to pump the blood any more.
The Russians, clever people that they are, have an excellent antidote to this senseless condition: dive into cold water. But you don't want to because your mom would think it's terrible for the constitution, even if the Chinese doctors say it isn't. You don't want to because you know it will be so cold. Colder than January. Colder then the biting wind at the bus stop. Colder than....
Too late. I'm now fully immersed. I am alive. My skin has two distinctive components - the outside epidermis emitting waves of cold shock, and the inner layers counteracting with pangs of heat.
The two forces meet in non-cooperational sine waves, turning the surrounding water into a thought and sensory deprivation chamber. I coast on my back, floating, slowly paddling my feet as the chlorine-blue water lifts me psychically past the low-rise urban sprawl and into the night sky, dissipating into the surrounds in great turquoise gobs as I paddle, paddle, paddle, treading now as much sky as water.
There I meet no one, in the place where total sensation meets total absence of sensation.
Slowly I want to come back to earth, for I think it's been a long time, and then as I right myself - as right as my naked lone frame can be in chlorine water - I see a barrage of denuded expatriates of several former Soviet states. These endlessly rubbing women don't realize no amount of prepping could make their elephantine shapes more beautiful.
I realize I'm the only non-Slav in the safety of this subterranean spa, which with its bleached and cracked walls protects from men, all notions of my own culture and any leaps of science or industry made after 1975. Owner David Vainer says many patrons have been coming here to sweat and soak for decades, some even into their 90s.
Exiting the yellow latex interior of the foyer, painted to offset the three clocks telling time in Moscow, St. Petersburg and New York above an oversized photo of the Kremlin, I leave a time that doesn't exist. Those who came to this country 30 years ago still cling to a time-trapped bygone era.
My young Russian friend asks for "vietnamka" - flip-flops, so named because they've been produced in Vietnam and shipped to the Ukraine since the late 80s. The middle-aged attendant who immigrated here over 20 years ago has no idea what she's talking about. To her, flip-flops are still, and only, "tapochka."
As I emerge to the honking cars above, everything that melted away in the sweaty underworld begins to frost back up again.
I look forward to making this relic my ritual - a hidden respite from the cold, a subterranean vacation with the Slavs. A perfect salve for the soul.