There’s No I In Steam

Sweating into oblivion at the gym.

Author by Rachel Z. Arndt
Art Credit: Jun Cen

Sliding a quarter into a locker outside the steam room, I feel conspicuous, like everyone can tell I’m at the gym for the sole purpose of not working out.

When I really start sweating, it comes from the tops of my hands and behind my knees. It comes from my earlobes and back, and it dawdles on my lips before falling to the floor, where it gathers in a puddle that glistens on the steam room’s tiles. Around me, people breathe heavily, air moves visibly, and a hangover seeps from my pores. The thick air is menacing, holding a heat wet enough to make me start sweating more or less upon entering the room. Two shirtless men sit across from me, their arms plopped down on thighs covered by baggy basketball shorts that dangle over flip-flops for one, sneakers for the other. I had figured a sports bra, running shorts, and the deck shoes I’d worn to the gym would be equivalent.

The two men pant. I think they’re being a bit dramatic until the novelty wears off and the heat and dampness fall around me and on me, heavy and full. I sit, my back rounded, watching the wet air and my own sweat mix and drop down into the creases in my stomach, then into my waistband. I’m glad my shorts are black; it makes the saturation harder to notice. But there in the steam room, steamed into submission, sweating isn’t something to be embarrassed by. It can’t be: The room itself, with its faucets spitting vapor and drops dripping from the ceiling and drains lackadaisically taking in the slow-streaming rivulets tracing the tiles downhill—the room itself is sweating. And to enter a place so atmospherically demanding without abandoning myself to it, without being willing to do nothing but sweat, seems like missing the point.

I’ve long been ashamed of how much I sweat, and I’ve long loved sweating. When I was little, at judo practice, I’d envy the adults whose faces were lined with moisture. They’d leave little trails of liquid on the mat, their pants darkened at the knees and waist. Then one day it happened: I looked into one of the mirrors along the side of the mat and saw a lone bead of sweat making its way down my cheek. I smiled; the sweat bead, up against my raised cheek, paused, then fell to the ground as I let my face ease back to neutral.

Sometimes the judo coaches would chide our class if we weren’t sweating sufficiently—we must not be working hard, they’d say. Even now, even in winter, if I leave judo practice with a shirt damp only at the small of the back, I feel like I haven’t worked hard enough. But then other times, particularly outside of sports, it takes no work at all to become drenched. It took me much too long to understand the importance of color and fabric; it took a soaking night in my early twenties for me to understand the hazards of wearing light gray.

A friend and I were walking from my fan-cooled apartment to an outdoor bar. It was July. New York was still with heat. About 20 minutes into the walk, I hit the point of no return: I was going to ruin my dress. On an empty street corner I ducked to the side of a former office-supply store, now vacant save for white metal shelves and reams of paper, and reached up the dress to dry my stomach and back with a handkerchief, the same one I used to dab my face in the subway. My friend kept watch from the street, where traffic wove around dump trucks and cranes outside the new stadium. A plastic bag rustled by, bouncing across the sidewalk and over the curb. The sweat kept coming, no matter how much I blotted, and I began to suspect that the act of blotting was actually taking enough energy to make me sweat more.

Later, on the bar patio, I sat up straighter than ever, arms held out slightly from my sides so my forearms could rest on the table like I was a king holding a scepter. A friend held his glass of icy whiskey and ginger ale against my neck as I sucked on rough-edged ice cubes. Then I excused myself and went into the single bathroom, where I saw it, my savior: an Xlerator hand dryer. After checking that both of the door’s locks were secure, I took off the dress and held it under the jet of hot air, trying to keep my body away from the heat.

I didn’t look in the soap-spattered mirror at my warped reflection. I didn’t look down at the black bra saturated with sweat; if I didn’t see myself nearly naked in a bar bathroom, then maybe I wasn’t nearly naked in a bar bathroom. After a few minutes, I myself was still clammy, but at least the dress was dry, its dark streaks and patches faded away.

I used a similar technique on other nights, when, before going out, I’d check my shirt’s armpits and, if they were damp, blast them with a hair dryer. (It’s not ironic that the solution to wetness caused by heat is more heat; it’s just unfortunate.) If only we could accept sweating, I’d think in those moments, falling into a fantasy of blotchy shirts and shiny noses, everyone’s sleeves perpetually damp at the wrists from wiping foreheads. But no, the body cannot show its uncontrolled and uncontrollable tendencies—it cannot let on that the mind within is not always the boss.

Sweat marks the nervous, the uncomfortable. It marks the panicky and the late. It is a sign, always, of something—context dictates exactly what. But when that sweat is so obscured by place, overshadowed by the purposeful humidity and sweat-stained intentions of a space like the steam room, it no longer functions as a measure of a person’s internal state. It no longer functions as anything; it doesn’t even serve its purpose, for that matter, of cooling the body through evaporation. In the steam room, nothing can have any purpose, and what production there is—of sweat, of breath—has no measurable bearing on anything. In the steam room, one has no control, not even over temperature, only the option to leave.

A novelist whom I once had a crush on goes to the steam room because he thinks it helps his novel-writing. A friend from my judo club goes when he needs to lose weight, an unfortunate imposition of the explicitly measurable onto a space that otherwise defies measurement. Another friend goes not to contemplate plot or to shed pounds but to seduce strangers. His face blurred by vapor, he communicates with his body, with movements both furtive and obvious, a language derived from the outside world but specific to this inside one.

And me—I go there to do nothing. Novels, weight loss, sex—none of it is the aim of my steam-room time. The aim is to have no aim. For me, the steam room, with its tiles and low light, its two-tier seating and arrhythmically dripping faucet, is the one place where I can sit and do nothing without feeling any urgency, without feeling any need to be productive. Bludgeoned by hot humidity, I go slack with exhaustion despite my stillness. I stop noticing passersby through the fogged-glass door. The world outside the room fades away and I fall into something like the trance of musical improvisation or the liminal gap between waking and sleep that becomes clear only after it’s closed.

I sit and I sit, unsure how long I’ve been inside or how much longer I’ll stay, unsure how much I’ve sweated, unsure how red my face is, unsure that I’m doing my muscles any good at all. And that is the point, that uncertainty, that unquantifiable everything of the place, the place dense with no expectations, dense with voids. I think of nothing—no, I do not think.  


Originally published in the first print volume of Woolly, which you can buy here

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About Woolly

A curious exploration of comfort, wellness, and modern life — emotionally supported by Casper. It’s a beautiful magazine published by a mattress. Come on, you know it’s not the weirdest thing to happen this year. The first issue includes a love letter to comfort pants, a skeptic's guide to crystals, and an adulting coloring book.