It’s a dark box in which pasty, middle age men sit in pools of other people’s sweat and stare through plexiglass windows at small children frolicking in kiddie pools.
Where else in normal society do people loudly groan or sigh, crack their knuckles and necks, and pant as if they’re in labor? Possibly only during yoga. Described to an alien, the uncomfortable heat of sauna might sound like a prison or a torture chamber. It can also be used as an execution device.
Last Thursday after an hour-long swim I cracked the door of the sauna and slipped through into the hot darkness. The dry, woody smell always manages to overpower the aroma of sweat and feet. I’m always awed by this. The sauna was packed today. I spotted a seat at the back upper bench and crammed myself between a pasty white older gentlemen with a heavy fur coat of thick, coarse chest hair, and a small woman that appeared to be mostly passed out, muttering yogi chants to herself. I settled in for the long haul. I was going to do at least a half hour. The thermometer on the wall to my right read 190 degrees. It was hot today.
The first few minutes of the sauna are always pretty pleasant, especially if you’re coming from the cold water of a pool or a long, frozen February ride. I scanned the room and counted nine people, not including myself. Just as I finished counting another person came in. He was dressed in gym clothes and just stood by the door after he closed it since there was no room to sit. It appeared that he was just warming up before lifting since he was fully clothed.
No one spoke. Sometimes conversations sprout up among strangers or friends, which helps pass the time if you don’t have a magazine to leaf through. I stopped bringing magazines half a year ago when my free subscriptions to Runner’s World and Men’s Health (and one other that I can’t remember) ended. Magazines and books fall apart pretty quickly in a sauna. Note: do not take library books into the sauna.
I looked through the plexiglass window at the clock outside and saw that I’d been in there for 10 minutes. Shit. I wasn’t supposed to check the time this early. 20 to go. Over half the occupants of the sauna had exited by then and had been replaced by others. It was still jam packed, which meant I couldn’t put my legs up on the bench.
I was beading sweat pretty heavily by the time a young guy came in and squirmed in next to me, uncomfortably close. I made an angry noise of displeasure under my breath as he sat down. I recognized his shaggy black hair and peace sign tattoo on his left shoulder. He was always at the rec center, though I never knew for what purpose other than killing time. I’ve seen him in the weight room just sitting on the stationary bikes watching TV without even pedaling, and I’v watched him wading around in the kiddie pool from time to time as well. The main reason I was pissed that he sat next to me was because he has the worst BO imaginable. That, and he’s incredibly annoying.
“How long you been in here, man?” He asked me
“Not too long. 10 or 12 minutes.”
“Shit man that’s pretty deece. Pretty deece. I was in here over an hour the other day. Now that was hot.”
“An hour? Wow, that seems kind of long.”
“True stuff. I’ve been building up for like two months now. The longest I was in here was just over two hours.”
I didn’t believe a word of it but all I said was, “Huh” and left it at that. I didn’t want to waste the energy on a debate with this guy.
“Hey man if you don’t believe me that’s okay. That’s fine. Just check the clock right now and you’ll see,” he said as he pointed outside to the clock. He seemed to be building a bit of anger over the fact that I didn’t believe him.
“Okay. Yeah that’s pretty long. Good luck.”
I decided to just humor him, wanting to avoid getting in an argument about something as stupid as how long one can stand the heat of a sauna. Then I remembered that I live for idiotic arguments like this.
“Actually, I think you’re full of shit. I bet you can’t last more than five more minutes.
“Seriously? What the hell, bro? Where’d did that come from?”
“There is no way you were in here for an hour. How hot was it? 180 or 190?”
“I didn’t look but it was about this hot. You think you’re the king of the sauna or something?”
“No I just don’t buy it. No one could be in here for two hours. And you couldn’t stand 30 minutes let alone hours.”
“Whatever man just wait and see. Just wait and see…”
“I bet I can last in here longer than you,” I said. I had no intention of staying past 30 minutes but knew he wouldn’t last more than 15 anyways. I’d seen him in the sauna before and he’d never been in longer than five or ten minutes. Also, I just didn’t like him. I didn’t have a good reason but his personality just annoys me every time I have to look at him.
“Suck it loser. It’s on,” he said.
“Okay” I laughed, wondering who even talks like that.”
He didn’t say anything after out conversation. He just sat there looking straight ahead with his mouth shut tight. Sitting right beside him, I sat in the same position, looking straight ahead as the awkward silence following the strange argument unleashed itself upon the captive victims of the sauna. Two people got up to leave within the next 20 seconds. I didn’t blame them.
A few minutes later a mother came in and held the door open for her two little girls for a good 15 seconds, letting the heat out. I heard the guy a few places over grumble as the trio took their time coming in, only to leave after about 20 seconds. It’s proper etiquette to only open the door just as wide as needed, and enter or exit quickly to minimize the heat loss. I was getting somewhat uncomfortable at this point and didn’t really mind the momentary relief from the gush of cool air, though I understood my fellow sauna users’ contempt.
Just over five minutes after he entered, my friend, got up all of a sudden and rushed to the sauna door. “Bye!” I said as he stepped out. I chuckled to myself, knowing that it was a completely worthless victory and a dumb argument, yet I still found some amusement in it and it had helped pass the time if nothing else.
By 23 minutes all of the original occupants had gone, their replacements had gone, and some of the next set of replacement had exited as well. The average sauna user, by my observations, only stays for about eight minutes, excluding the outliers that come in for less than a minute.
At 25 minutes my heart rate was elevated to about 130 and I was completely drenched. The discomfort was growing with every passing second, though I was on a good day. I could hammer out the last five minutes without having to look at the clock or go down to the lower seating. I felt good enough that if I’d really wanted to, I could have done 40 minutes. Sometimes when I go over 30 minutes I almost faint on the walk to the locker room and I have to hold onto the safety railing when I’m in the shower. I didn’t feel like pushing it today.
I inhaled a few deep, hot, slow breaths, wondering if it’s better to breath through your nose or mouth to stay cool in a sauna. I figured that if you breath in and out through your mouth, more heat gets dissipated but if you breath through your nose the air might be less hot by the time it reaches your lungs. I was deep in this thought process when I heard the sudden, shrill shriek of a siren. The sound of a bird chirp amplified ten thousand times violently pulled me out of my own thoughts and into reality. I catapulted down to the ground from my bench, along with two others that were in the sauna with me. It had cleared out quite a bit in the last few minutes. The siren was just the fire alarm. Although, in my melted state of mind, it seemed more intense than any fire alarm I’d ever heard. I saw a rush of human bodies move past the sauna door outside as lifeguards yelled at people to get out. The guy closest to the door gave a push. Nothing happened. He pushed harder. The door didn’t budge.
“What the?” He gave it a hard jam with both hands. At that point I was at the door and shoved it myself as hard as I could, to no avail. We tried together at the same time. Then began pounding on the door and yelling for someone outside to help us. But by that point, only 45 seconds after the fire alarm first began going off, the pool area had been cleared and the last lifeguard could be seen going outside through the emergency exit door just now.
“Fuck.” I backed up and front kicked the door. Once. Twice. Three times. I kicked it as hard as I could. I looked back at the third person in the sauna, who was an older woman, maybe 70, and realized she wouldn’t be much help in our efforts to break down the door. The other guy, middle aged and about 50 pounds heavier than me in his midsection, continued kicking at the door. He gave it a few shoulder rams, which seemed to hurt him more than anything.
“Stop. Stop!” I yelled. “We need to figure this out before we faint.”
I put my face against the plexiglass and looked down outside the door to see what was causing the door to jam. There it was. A U bike lock was latched onto the outside door handle and the railing of the wall.
“Fuck!” I screamed and beckoned the other guy to come over and look for himself. He moaned “Oh no. Why would they do this? Who would do this?” He seemed to lose half his reserves in a heartbeat as he stood there looking out the window. There was no possible way we were getting that door open. It was designed to keep heat in and was seven thick inches of pine. I looked at the clock. I’d now been in the sauna for 30 minutes. If I remembered correctly, the guy next to me had entered about 15 minutes ago and the woman…I looked back at her and saw her on the floor, slumped against the bottom bench row with her eyes closed. I cursed and went over to her to lay her on her back, out of the way and underneath the bench on the ground, as far from the furnace as possible.
“We need to break the glass,” I told the guy. ‘Help me break this off,” referring to the wooden railing that served as a barrier between the furnace and us. It was made of 2x4s and with a few frantic kicks we had it apart in 15 seconds. I took one of the pieces and slammed it into the glass as hard as I could. I slammed it again and again. The plexiglass held. It didn’t even crack. The glass, just like the door, was beefy to keep in heat. It must have been two inches thick. By now the other guy was banging on the glass with a piece of wood as well. Sweat was pouring off of him and his face was beat red with panic and fatigue.
“Okay stop,” I said. Let’s think of something else.
“We need to get out of here. We need to get out!” he screamed. He continued hammering at the glass, using up precious energy.
“The furnace. Help me with the furnace!” If we could break the furnace, at least it wouldn’t continue pumping out heat.
I looked around the backside to see if I could figure out where the cord was or a metal pipe. Anything that I could break that might cut off its power source. I didn’t see anything at all.
“It must be underneath,” I said. I knew I wasn’t making any sense to the other guy at this point, since I hadn’t described my plan at all and my speech was mumbled from heat fatigue.
“Just help me break it,” I told him. I picked up my piece of 2×4 and began smashing it into the furnace. The other guy, who I assumed would be content with smashing something other than the plexiglass window at this point, gave a few feeble swings and toppled over. He landed hard on his side, slapping his head on the concrete. I cursed and kept on swinging at the furnace. I spent the next two minutes working at it. I was completely out of breath, my head was pounding and I had an intense heat-sick feeling within. The furnace was dented all over but I hadn’t seemed to inflict any real damage.
A wave of heat hit me in the face. I was dizzy and needed a quick rest to catch my breath. I glanced out the window at the clock right before I laid down on the hot cement floor. I’d been in there…it took me a while to do the math. 55 minutes. I vomited on the floor. As I wiped it away from my mouth I looked over to see the woman not moving, maybe not even breathing. I couldn’t tell. To my right, laying beside me, the guy was pulling in short, shallow, frantic breaths. His eyes were closed and his teeth were bared. There would be no help from him anymore. I had to do this myself.
I picked up my piece of wood and found my feet once more. My new strategy was going to be to pry at the base of the furnace. Maybe I could use some leverage to snap a vital pipe. I kicked at what was left of the wooden barrier to break it the rest of the way and gain access to the bottom area of the furnace. I was losing stamina and was growing increasingly dizzy. I stuck the 2×4 under the furnace and placed three other broken 2×4 segments underneath it to form a lever, albeit a short one. I needed a 2×4 that was at least five feet long but the longest piece I had was only about two and a half feet.
I gave it everything I had pressing on the lever. The furnace didn’t budge. Didn’t even groan. I yelled at the collapsed guy to help me as I gave it another go. He didn’t respond. I stood up and stomped on the 2×4 lever hoping that would work but all the pieces scattered and went everywhere. I began gathering them up and saw that the guy had stopped his shallow breaths. He seemed to be alive, but was no longer conscious. Over an hour in.
The inner top of the furnace was guarded by a metal grate.Underneath that grate were a few dozen large, heated rocks. It’s a dry sauna but for some reason there are still rocks for pouring water on. If I could break the metal grate and use the rocks to pound at the plexiglass, maybe I could create a crack. With a bit of new hope in me, I took up the 2×4 again and began beating on the top to break open the grate. It took a long time and a lot of energy, but it finally gave way. I quickly took off my swimsuit to pick up a rock without burning my hand, then immediately set to smacking it on the plexiglass.
I gave up a long time later, completely out of energy and the plexiglass still holding strong. It was cracked and dented but not even close to giving way. I had enough energy for one more attempt at destroying the furnace.
After reassembling my lever under the massive furnace, I gave it another couple minutes of frantic abuse before I stopped and laid back down. I needed another plan. The furnace seemed to be indestructible. I had once thought that maybe after I pried it off the ground I could pick it up and throw it through the plexiglass, but now I knew how impossible that would be. Assuming I could even pick the scalding thing up at this point, it still wouldn’t go through the plexiglass. Nothing would. I thought again about the door. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to break the door, but the outside door handle that the lock was attached to? Maybe. It was worth another try.
I stood up and almost fell back over from a head rush. My heart was beating above 170 now and my vision was fading. My skin was dry, which meant that I was severely dehydrated and probably suffering from heat stroke. I took in a deep breath and screamed as I kicked the door as hard as I could. I fell forward through the door as it broke free, the wooden handle on the other side having given out. I landed on my stomach on the other side of the door, just a few paces away from the cool waters of the pool. I got to my hands and knees and frantically crawled towards the pool. My fingers hit the water, then my hands, arms, chest, head. I sucked in cool water through my mouth and drank heavily. I came up gasping for air and remembered my two sauna prison mates back in there, who were most likely dead. I got up to my feet and went towards the sauna, the fire alarm still blaring, and was just about to go back in for them when I saw a third person lying on the ground beside them. It was me.
Confusion took hold at first, before I realized what was going on. I was still in there and this was a hallucination.
My cheek stuck to the cement floor like hot gum. I was still lying inside the sauna, the door completely intact. The dream of smashing it open and drinking pool water was just a fantasy. I was too weak to get up after that last attempt at prying the furnace off the ground. Now I would die. I got to my hands and knees and crawled over to the furnace and began banging at it with a 2×4. I was going to die, but not lying down. I fainted again a few minutes later.
Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap tap tap…tap tap.
I heard the noise coming from the window. Through blurry eyes I looked up to see someone standing outside the door, smiling. He was holding a watch.
“One hour and 57 minutes!” he boasted, pointing at the watch.
I recognized him. He was the guy I’d made fun of earlier who’d stormed out.
I opened my mouth to talk but found that no words could come. I couldn’t say anything. I was too weak and my mouth was too dry.
“Let’s see how much longer you can go,” and walked away.