“Well, aren’t you just Mister Scrumptious?”
The older man had followed me into the dry sauna, where I had taken a seat on the upper bench, arranging my towel to cover myself comfortably. My skin broke out in a blissfully hot sweat right away in the scorching heat. I took a swig from my water bottle.
“You really are very scrumptious.”
I hadn’t even had time to acknowledge the first statement before he spoke again. This time I looked over, and nodded, muttering a thank you. He was likely in his late 60s, thin white hair brushed over his scalp. Wearing only a towel, the man was barely 5 feet 5 inches, his skin a bit sallow and spotted. He had on a pair of thick glasses that were fogged up, and I realized there was no way he could see me nod, so I said thank you a bit louder, then settled back against the wall, closing my eyes.
I breathed the hot air into my lungs, then held it there for a moment, clearing my head of the world outside. I was facing some big decisions in my life soon and it felt wonderful just to shut my brain off.
“Do you mind if I touch you a bit, Mister Scrumptious?”
I tilted my head slightly, curious and confused at this particular combination of words I had never expected to be spoken aloud. I kept my eyes closed. “Um, no thank you. But thank you for the offer.”
“What, you don’t like to be touched?” His voice was a mix of determination and frustration.
“Everyone likes to be touched sometimes. But I don’t want to be touched right now.” I felt my stomach contort with a laugh.
“Well, then, what are you looking for?” Now he sounded annoyed.
“I’m not looking for anything. Just relaxation. I’m here with some friends.”
The man paused, quiet for a moment, and he lowered his voice to an almost whisper. “Well, your friends aren’t here now, but I am, Mister Scrumptious.”
This time I laughed out loud. He was certainly persistent. “I think my friends are out in the hot tub. Thank you again, but I’m just here to relax.”
“Oh come on, who comes to a bath house just to relax. Everyone here is looking for something.” His voice took on a whiny pout now.
I sat up and faced the man, who still had his fogged glasses on. He had his arms folded and one leg crossed over the other. What was I doing here, I wondered. I was here in Denver on a road trip with a few friends from Salt Lake City, all of us formerly Mormon, all of us fathers through our previous marriages to women. Despite being in our 30s and 40s, we were still learning about gay culture, being gay, and how the gay community interacts. We had been sitting in our hotel room. Someone had mentioned a bathhouse and we had all curiously agreed that going to one would be a learning experience. After all, there are thousands of bath houses across the world, in every major city.
It was a Sunday afternoon when we found the facility, tucked into a back residential neighborhood, a single sign discreetly placed revealing its location. We had parked our car in the parking lot, which was tucked away from view, and entered the main room, a dark small space with a front desk attendant tucked behind a security glass window. The man had explained that only members could enter the bath house, and that we could purchase an annual membership for 25 dollars, plus a mandatory locker rental fee each time we used the facility. We paid for memberships, rented a locker, and were given a single key to an assigned locker along with a plain white towel.
We had entered the locker room, all of us curious about the new experience, stripped down, and put on our towels. I wandered through the building, exploring. The main floor had vending machines for snacks, coffee, and water. Down a long hallway, there were individual rooms that could be rented (higher priced than the lockers), each small with an individual bed and television (used for pornography). A few of the rooms had the doors slightly ajar and I could see men inside, their doors left open on purpose as they clearly hoped for some company. A small swimming pool and two hot tubs were available, one indoors and one out on a patio over a small grassy yard, as well as three separate saunas, dry and wet. A room sat off to one side with benches, and pornography played on a large screen.
A long stairway went down to the lower level, a basement where long darkened hallways twisted and turned in a maze-like pattern that was intentionally disorienting, leaning toward men being able to meet anonymously for sex. Various rooms were set up with bunks, benches, slings, and holes in walls. A few men stood in their towels in darkened corners, hoping to meet someone.
Outside in the hot tub, I had ruminated with my friends about the history of gay men. Millions of men who grew up in secret, telling no one about their attraction to other men. Connections to other men, including through sex, had to be carefully protected, discreet and anonymous, to protect families and careers. For decades, men had only met other men in public parks designated as gay meet-up spaces, at bars, or at bathhouses. Now, post-2010, being out as a gay man was much easier. Meeting other gay men through phone apps, dating sites, or public events was commonplace. Yet clearly there was still an appeal, a fascination for bath houses, the potential for anonymous sex away from prying eyes.
“Men do like their sex,” I had said. “In fact, if women enjoyed bath houses, straight men would be in these places all the time. Straight men use coercion and violence in the name of sexual gratification, yet places like this inspire such discomfort to others, hidden in plain site.”
We had had a long discussion about our former lives and where we were now.
And then I had walked to the sauna. I looked back at the older man with the fogged glasses, there waiting for me to show interest in him. I certainly wasn’t looking for random sex with an older man in a sauna, much as that might frustrate him.
“Honestly, sir, I really just here to relax.”
He got the flirtatious tone back in his voice, not missing a beat. “Well, I can help with that.”
My word. “Sir, really, you’re very nice but I’m not interested in that right now. We can have a conversation if you like, but I’m not looking for a hook-up.”
The man got up, tightened his towel around his waist, and headed toward the sauna exit. “Well, all right, Mister Scrumptious. But if you change your mind, I’ll be downstairs. You’ll know where to find me.”
I thought of the man in the basement maze below and laughed to myself again as I leaned my head against the wall, thinking of humans and their history, and my place in all of it.