2019 General Nonfiction Honorable Mention
© Copyright 2019 by Brittany Rohm
After trekking around Petra for ten hours under the scorching Jordanian sun, my cousin Elena and I were eager to relax at a Turkish bath. Although widespread in the Islamic world, the only examples we had seen were at archeological ruins like Jerash and Beit She’an. With tired bodies but inquisitive minds, we were excited to experience a modern take on the days of yore.
For half the cost of a massage in the States, our hostel owner booked us each a ninety-minute package at Al Yakhor. Made from stone, the outside of the building appeared not unlike some of the temples we had seen earlier that day. How authentic, I thought, gazing at the entrance. This is going to be great.
We trod up a dim stairway and entered a room with tile flooring and Arabic-style sofas. A few middle-aged foreigners sat on the red and black cushions, but before we could join them, or do anything more than exchange friendly nods, a man in his early 20s waved us up to the counter. In broken English, he asked for our hostel name, then handed us sarongs.
“In there,” he said, pointing at a door across the waiting room. Black curls edged his hairline, and dark eyes sat expressionless under thick brows. The corners of his lips curved neither up nor down.
“Ohhhkay,” I muttered to Elena as we walked away from the counter.
She shrugged and pulled open the door. In the cramped room, we went behind the two curtained partitions and traded our clothes for the sarongs, putting the former in a cubby against the wall, and tightening the latter around our chests.
“Was that guy supposed to tell us what to do?” I asked, tucking a loose piece of the sarong into a fold near my underarm. “Or are we just supposed to—”
The man who had checked us in entered the changing room. Without speaking, he ushered us through another door and into a bigger room.
A wet heat enveloped me, and I recalled childhood vacations in Florida. Only instead of white sand underfoot, I stood on tile as slick as a skating rink; and instead of beachgoers dozing on towels, sarong-clad men lay face-down on a large slab of stone, grunting and groaning under the hands of masseuses.
The man directing us—whose role was still nebulous; was he a tour guide? A professional bather?—led us away from the loudly exhaling men, and Elena and I exchanged confused looks. We had no idea Turkish baths were so labyrinthian—or that men and women intermingled in them.
The next room was smaller than a studio in Manhattan, and about as warm as a Mongolian summer, but at least it was devoid of men-turned-beached-whales. Exhausted from the day’s adventures and determined to relax, I plopped onto the tile bench. I leaned against the wall, stretched out both legs, closed my eyes, and—
A whistling pierced the air and I leaped off the bench. Steam whooshed in, obscuring my hands mere inches from my face and muffling Elena’s shrieks. I blinked furiously, as if that would clear the steam or quiet the hissing, but it only helped me to see the young man lumbering toward me like Frankenstein’s monster. With a cold, vacuous stare, he resembled a male Nurse Ratched.
In his hands he held a bucket, and a second after I figured that out, he flung its contents at me. Water straight from the Arctic Ocean drenched me from head to toe, saturating every pore as if I had been aflame and Mr. Ratched was the world’s most thorough firefighter.
I couldn’t scream—I could barely breathe—but I did manage to hold out my hands and find my cousin. We clung to each other with freezing arms, rubbing the goose bumps that covered our skin like rashes.
Mr. Ratched then led us to the stone slab, vacated by the beached whales sometime while we were in the Scream Room, and he gestured for us to lie on our backs. For some reason, we again did as instructed, and I could only hope that whatever was next would be better than part one.
The instant my skin touched the slab, I realized Mr. Ratched had gotten me confused with a tuna steak. I couldn’t smell anything burning, but I felt like I was being pan-seared over the highest heat imaginable.
I peeked at Elena, trying to see if she, too, was draped across the surface of the sun and just keeping quiet—lest Mr. Ratched inflict more pain on a complainer—but she looked fine. Calm, even.
Oh, no. Despite the heat, a chill sliced up my spine. I turned away, my mind in a panic. Has she already burned to death? Just like that, without any warning? Or did she suffocate in the Scream Room, but then manage to walk over to the Sun Slab and then succumb—
A gurgled yelp ripped through my thoughts and I whipped my head back around. Water spilled down Elena’s face and chest, and Mr. Ratched removed a hand from her nose. In his other, he gripped a dish not unlike a dogfood bowl.
Oh. My. God. Is he waterboarding her? And with a dogfood bowl no less? This is absolutely—
A hand pinched my nose shut, and water sloshed over my forehead, eyes and cheeks. I gasped for air, just before more water hit my closing mouth. For a second, I savored the cool reprieve. I waited—no, prayed—for Mr. Ratched to douse my charred arms and legs.
But douse those roasting drumsticks he did not. Instead, he moved back over to Elena. Unwilling to see what came next, I looked the other way and focused on the loop playing inside my head.
Right calf up; hold, two, three. Left calf up; hold, two, three.
If I lifted the entirety of my legs off the Sun Slab, my bum would press down twice as hard and no doubt melt right off. If I raised only my calves, however, the load could be distributed between my heels, back and bum, and my legs could escape the barbecue long enough that some skin might still be on them at the end.
Elena murmured something and I eased an eye open. A squatty woman gestured for her to get up, and then she escorted my cousin across the room and behind a curtain. Before I could slide over to what had to be a cooler part of the slab, Mr. Ratched grabbed my right arm.
Holding the equivalent of grit, which was surely meant to be an innocent exfoliant, he scraped his hands from my wrist to my shoulder repeatedly, grating off whatever skin hadn’t yet disintegrated. When he moved down to my legs, my brain no longer registered that they were even still attached. Shock had silenced everything, and by the time he scrubbed down to my bones, I understood what it was like to be a skeleton. I wouldn’t even need to dress up for Halloween; I just needed to get off the Sun Slab and stumble into the street.
But first, Mr. Ratched had another phase of the Turkish Torment for me to endure. He gestured for me to rotate, and with the strength of a dying beetle, I flopped over onto my stomach. Thankfully, he rinsed the gravel off his fingertips—what little remained after embedding most of it into my capillaries—but his hands alone were enough. Over skin that had been flash-frozen, singed, and then shredded like cheese, he kneaded my muscles as if he were trying to create the flattest dough in the history of breadmaking. It suddenly occurred to me that I had traveled to another dimension.
I was no longer in a Turkish bath, nor was I even in Jordan. In reality, I had dropped into Dante’s Inferno, like Alice stumbling into Wonderland—except instead of enjoying tea with some nutter in a funny hat, I was being tortured to death.
I didn’t know which Circle of Hell I was currently in, but fiery tendrils reached out for me whenever I closed my eyes. I figured I didn’t have long for this world, and I was glad my cousin had been taken away, ensconced in some room where she wouldn’t see my final moments as a human. Soon, I would be nothing but a jellyfish. No skin, no muscles, not even any bones. Just a blob of goo, frying on a hot plate.
And then my hands were clasped together behind my back, and simultaneously pulled away from my body as a knee rammed into my spine like a piledriver. My chest lifted off the Sun Slab, the sarong fell down, and there I was for all to see.
Humiliation and agony vied for attention, and I’m certain I slipped into the Ninth Circle. For a moment, I saw myself as an outsider might: topless, terrified, and twisted into a position even a trained contortionist couldn’t hold. My persecutor, who ceased to have a name, or even a face, made a noise that sounded gleeful. Then he let go of my hands.
I don’t recall what happened next, but logic tells me that I slammed down onto the Sun Slab. Then, with whatever cells were still alive, I must have slithered off, dragged myself across the floor, and rolled into the changing room. I think I heard some of my skin still sizzling on the Sun Slab, but I can’t be sure.
As I contemplated Elena’s fate, not seeing her in the changing room, a few young women strolled in. Similar in appearance and manner to my former self, one said, “Phew, it’s pretty warm in here.”
I choked, trying in vain to speak through a nonexistent throat. You have no idea, I wanted to say. This. Is. Nothing. But rendered unhuman, I could only stare, hoping my eyes might convey the message to run, get out while you still have legs that work.
But with the naivete I possessed only ninety minutes earlier, the women proceeded past, unwittingly surrendering their bodies to the ravenous inferno of the Turkish bath.