How To Use A Japanese Onsen
Take off your shoes as you walk into the locker room, place them neatly on the shelf by the door. Pick an empty locker and begin to disrobe. Peal off layer after layer, folding each neatly until you are left standing in your own skin, exposed as you are, with nothing to hide and nowhere to do so. Take only your towel and shut your outside self behind the locker door. Keep your eyes down as you pass by a row of sinks and mirrors on the way to the onsen’s entrance. You know I see you. Slide to open. I won’t be avoided forever. Step inside and be engulfed by the warm air.
Pick a shower stall and sit down on the stool laid out in front. Hello, woman. A mirror under the shower head in serious need of a polish, still manages to do its job. Flawed human, there you are. You sigh through your whole body. She smiles back ruefully. How long has it been since you’ve looked her in the eyes? Two dark halos, hollow like trapdoors, ready to drop you down into truths you aren’t ready to face. Too late you realize you are inching forwards, the razor thin denial you sit pretty upon a precarious perch. She knows this and it makes her laugh.
Turn the shower on, let the water close those traitorous eyes. Feel with your fingers for the shampoo, conditioner, body soap. Scrub with a surgeon’s precision, extracting every ounce of guilt and shame from this skin, not stopping until you are pink and raw. Turn the shower off. Gather yourself in your hands as you take a deep breathe, open, look straight ahead. Steady now. Here I am. She holds you in her high beams, you squint but stand your ground. Page after page of this story, flashing like a headline written across your face. But you are in no rush. The running has stopped. With patience now you read the words flush in scarlet. Adultery. Immoral. Liar.
Here I am. Rinse off the stool behind you as you get up to leave.
Find an isolated spot not too close to the other bathers and step into the onsen. Feel free to sink your whole body in leaving only your head above water. Let the warmth unclench your fingers, relieve them from their death grip upon this doomed daydream. Let your muscles release their anxious hold over your bones. Pour the stress out through your opened pores. In this war between the head and the heart, standing by as the casualties pile up, haven’t you hurt enough? Wouldn’t it be wonderful, to pull yourself off from the battlefield, to pick up the pieces of your battered soul and get them patched up?
Close your eyes and let the heat do the talking. The gurgle of the jet gently drowning out the voices in your head. A much needed respite, like a room with all of its furniture suddenly emptied. Empty, like the hollowed possibility, behind the hand resting on your belly. Hand, devoid of hand, it desperately wants to hold. Ten fingertips trace outlines of memories, or were they just fantasies? It’s getting hard to know. Nothing real when your whole foundation is built upon a lie. This ersatz kingdom, smoked away like a cigarette one puff at a time. Doomed if I do, a slow death if I don’t. But how can I live a life avoiding mirrors? She will know, she always knows. If you can’t take the heat, feel free to get out of the water and sit on the sides of the bath. Rest until you are ready to get back in. Repeat as necessary.
A good option while at the onsen is to take advantage of the sauna. Turn the hourglass upside down as you step inside. Sit and let the moisture on your body be replaced by sweat. Feel the tears evaporate before they even reach your cheeks. Poof, like they weren’t ever even there. Don’t give up if it gets too hot. Stay in the discomfort, reverse the suffering you feel inside onto the outside for once. Stay just a little longer. You will know relief the moment you step back through the sauna’s door. Shame the burning in your chest can’t be put out with a similar easy fix.
Back to the shower stall to rinse off your body. Pick up the pieces that asked for repentance and take them back with you. They aren’t absolved, but then again, they don’t have to be. Love them for being the tapestry stitching up the sky. Polka dotted stars in the night, in the absence of darkness you’d never see them shine. You may never have the answers, but you do have yourself.
She is looking at you. Looking at the same you, but different. The eyes, the nose, the mouth, still flush with remnants of the woman before. The arms, the stomach, the legs, will fit seamlessly back into their outside skin, tucked away in anticipation behind the locker door. The feet – one, two – will step back into the shoes placed neatly on the shelf by the door. Make sure to leave nothing behind. Shut the entrance to the onsen on your way out. Nothing amiss, not a single hair out of place. Only the lingering trace of lavender, a souvenir from the shampoo you chose, to ever reveal a hint of where you’d gone. But she and you will know. The ritual is complete.