If I was going to be naked in public, I was going to be naked in public on my terms.
The more time ticked by, the more ridiculous my initial angst over how to comport myself in the bathhouse seemed. Why should I feel eye contact with a stranger passing in the hallway was inappropriate just because we were both nude? Why was I feigning interest in the ornamental ceiling when a woman stood up and exited the Jacuzzi? After a while I couldn’t figure out what was weird and what was normal, and it took me the better part of an hour to realize there really wasn’t any different social contract in the bathhouse, just because everybody was naked. Everyone had signed on for this, and the same rules applied: just don’t stare.
After a while, considering the novelty of the situation, it almost felt wrong not to look around. Although I must confess: I saw some things I wish I could un-see. I encountered an old man whose butt looked like two globs of mud dripping down a wall. I watched an obese man with an apron-like belly displace an impressive amount of water in the warm, stage 9 bath, which had a filter that slurped and gurgled whenever someone waded in. At one point, Tom turned to me and remarked on the incredible effect pants have had on the shape of the human body. He had a point; everyone at Friedrichsbad looked like he or she wore an invisible belt.
IN FRIEDRICHSBAD’S PROMOTIONAL LITERATURE, the pools get the most photo space, especially the stage 11 “Thermal kinotherapeutic” domed bath, a circular, about-40-feet-in-diameter, three-feet-deep, exactly-28-degrees-Celsius (82.4 degrees Farenheit) pool located under the building’s central dome. The red-white-and-gold dome is molded with deep quadrilateral reliefs, which converge near its apex around a circular skylight. It’s quite a striking place, especially when compared to some of the other rooms, which have little ornament on account of the steam. The domed room is also the place where Friedrichsbad’s two wings meet and one of the bathhouse’s two permanent co-ed areas. (During “separate bathing” days, the two wings are segregated by sex, but the central dome and an adjacent, warmer pool remain co-ed. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Sundays, and bank holidays—we were there on a Sunday—Friedrichsbad is 100 percent co-ed, and, male or female, you’re free to wander as you please.)
Tom and I had floated around in the pools for about a half-hour when the French family we’d seen in the lobby entered the pool area. The four had been tense when we’d seen them earlier. Now they were naked and couldn’t hide their fear as they tiptoed quickly through the pool area and then back into the wing from which they’d come. As they scurried, they covered themselves—hands over crotch and across chest—as though someone had just yanked back a shower curtain on the whole family.
For the first time that day, I saw heads turn. Some people frowned in disapproval. It looked like I was right: the most assured way to attract attention in a bathhouse is to show fear. I empathized with the French family, who seemed to be having a genuinely terrible experience. For some, public nudity is just a non-starter.
I lay back on a large, almost full-body jet, and as bathers around me came and went, I began to float. It was nice—the warm water, the weightlessness, the bubbles. I closed my eyes, let my head sink underwater, and thanked God I had the good sense to not bring my parents to Friedrichsbad.