I stepped into the hammam this afternoon. I disrobed and entered the steaming bathroom. A young woman guided me to lie down on my belly on a mat in an ornately tiled shower stall. She filled a bowl with steaming water from the tub and began to pour it on body ritualistically. I closed my eyes, partly because of the water on my face, partly because I felt modest about being so naked in front of this stranger, and partly so I could meditate on the ritual.
After I was soaking wet, the girl spread hot argan oil all over my body.
She moved her hands with a sense of care, a knowledge of the female
body, and a sense of purpose. She spoke no English. Her only command
was "Madame" as she instructed me to flip onto my back so she could oil
my chest and belly, and then sit up so she could pour the hot liquid on
my hair and face. She oiled every pore of my skin from the top of my scalp to
in-between each toe.
I thought about a time you and I had given one another massages with
exotic oil. I remember how I lovingly stroked every limb of yours and pressed
into each muscle on your body. I remember how the oil stained our bedroom comforter. I had wanted to take your pain away, open up your body,
clear out the old, and invigorate your weariness. I imagined you in the
hammam. You would undoubtedly enjoy the busty and bra-less woman lubing
your skin in this sacred tradition. So, as the bath continued, I imagined that your spirit was near. This
wasn't something you'd want to miss: the erotic and symbolic
experience of a young stranger bathing your grieving love. The thought of your presence was tranquil.
After I was shining with oil, the girl spread a black olive and
eucalyptus exfoliant on me and began to scrub me with a rough
loofah. The experience was abrasive, not gentle. Her thin arms ripe with muscle, she scoured off every
bit of my skin that you had touched. I opened my tear-filled eyes. As
the salty drops left my eyes I saw that my skin was everywhere.
Two and three-inch rolls of dead skin covered my body and the mat I
laid on. It was horrifying to know that so much of me was being sludged off. I watched the dead parts of me escape down the drain.
I closed my eyes again and thought about the symbolism of the
experience. I thought of how my own cycle has shed my womanly walls two
times since you've been gone. How my body knows of her need to cleanse.
How it was making me pure again, even without my mind's permission. I
thought of the way I usually bathe: a quick rinse in the shower, barely
submersing myself in water, just enough time and effort to be fresh, to
rinse the day's sweat and grime. While she scrubbed my skin away, exposing new raw flesh, I realized I'd
never been this clean before. I'd never once taken the time to really
rinse away the old. Maybe I've never been willing to rinse away the
past, to let go.
Your death has been a lesson of impermanence. "This too,
shall pass," it is said. I don't know if it will. But as I watched the skin you touched on my body rinse away, I succumbed
to the cleansing. I let the earth take parts of me, just like it took
you. Parts of my own physical body die too and now those bits of me
can be with you.
The girl rinsed the scrub off of my tender skin with more bowls of scalding water. I sat in silence. I imagined the mikvah I took when I was twelve-years-old. It was the ceremonial bath I was given in order to convert to Judaism for my Bat Mitzvah. I remembered how cold the water was. I remembered how modest I was, just coming into my womanhood, hiding behind the walls of the tub while the Rabbi said prayers in Hebrew. Now I was being cleansed again – rinsing off every part of my body that has ever been touched and that has ever been loved. I tried to be strong and let it be beautiful. I tried to be empowered and let my body be re-virgnized for self-love. But I am not always strong and I am not always empowered – and I do not want those memories to wash down a foreign drain and into pipes of polluted water and gutters of sewage.
The hammam continued: a clay mask, more hot water, shampoo, more hot water, body milk, more hot water – cleanse after cleanse after cleanse. Then came a massage. A different woman led me into a cozy and warm room with two beds. One for me, one for... another reminder that you were not there. In silence, she kneaded every inch of my body. I have had many massages, and this was the most intimate. The silence was deafening. She placed her hands on every bit of my anatomy. I thought of all of the emotions she was pressing in and out of me: fear, loss, sadness, longing, despair, confusion, trauma, desire, grief... the list continues.
Behind closed eyes, I had a vision. I saw myself as a corpse in ancient Egypt. My body was being embalmed. I was being oiled with care, every pressure point attended to, and ceremoniously prepared for the afterlife. I imagined the rebirth of my corpse. I imagined the possibility of life with you.
The two-and-a-half hour treatment was the most waking silence I have given myself since you died. I have fearfully filled space with sights, sounds, and conversation. But this afternoon I couldn't talk. I didn't speak the same language. I also didn't want to fill the space with noise. I wanted this cleanse. I wanted this sacrament. So I let the quiet seep in. I let myself be touched with strong hands. I let myself be weak. I let myself be raw.
The experience was powerful. It was provoking. It was frightening. It was opening. I felt comforted because for the first time in seven weeks, someone touched my naked body. There's real beauty in this ritual, a woman bathing another woman in soothing silence, pain and stress being worked out through silent massage. But, now, with my skin as soft as its ever been and my body so fresh, I feel sterile. Because what I really want is to offer this body to you, and I can't.