Bad Sex With Neal Pollack

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For twenty-three years, since the first shoots of curly black hair began to sprout in my Netherlands, I’ve really wanted to have sex in a steam room. Here’s how the fantasy goes: I’ve been schvitzing for a quarter-hour, so I’m slathered with a fine salty sheen. The air is thick, but the steam has dissipated. Then the door opens.

   Her face and the rest of her body depend on my passing celebrity
interest of the moment. But I consistently see the same legs. They’re smooth
and perfectly formed, slanting upward into a deep blue one-piece bathing suit.

   “It’s sticky in here,” she says.

   “Yeah,” I say. “It feels so good.”

   She notices my very appealing body for the first time.

   “There’s sweat all over your muscles,” she says.

   “I hadn’t noticed.”

   We hear a hiss. Steam, smelling of both lavender and menthol, oozes out of a hole in the wall. Within seconds, a hot, wet cloud consumes the room. She sits down next to me. I put my index finger on her calf and run it up the inside of her thigh, where I gently place my palm. She gives a little moan, barely a murmur. Her face turns to meet me. Our mouths puddle together. Invisible and anonymous, we melt into the mist.

I should begin the “Bad Sex” portion of this tender essay with an acknowledgment: If I were gay, and I really wanted to have sex in a steam room, there are as many options available to me as there are brands of beef jerky in a Colorado convenience store. But I’m not gay. For the straight man in America, wanting steam-room sex is like wanting vodka in a dry county when you have a suspended driver’s license. I began to realize this early.

   My senior year of high school, I dated a Swiss exchange student, about whom I’ve talked in this space

might think it’s erotic to stand naked next to your friend with your legs

before. Her host family had some money. One winter weekend, they took us skiing in Park City, Utah. The lodge had a steam room.

   I spent the first day with my skis in a V, slowly going over moguls the size of quarters, while my girlfriend did spread-eagled flips on triple black diamond runs with names like Beezelbub’s Anus. Suitably exhausted, I suggested that after supper we retire to the steaming chamber to soothe our sobbing joints. I had my hand on her thigh before the door closed. She looked around nervously.

   “They’ll send me home if they catch us,” she said. “I don’t want to go home. I hate Switzerland.”

   I leaned in to kiss her.

   “Come on baby,” I said. “It’s only me.”

   “Don’t,” she said. “I’m so scared.”

   Scared, I wanted to say. Right. This was a young woman who once had sex with an Afghan freedom fighter. But no problem: I had the rest of my life to fulfill my fantasy.

   Eighteen years later, I was still seeking my chance. A
2002 trip to the famed St. Mark’s Russian And Turkish Baths in New York yielded
only a relaxing afternoon with a three-dollar bottle of juice. The lone woman
present among the four-dozen-or-so bathers, was an attractive Puerto Rican who’d
learned by necessity to tune out the voices of men while in environments that
exceeded 100 degrees. In the ’90s, I attended an Indian sweat-lodge ceremony
Skokie, Illinois, and tripped my nuts off on a cup of mushroom tea. My shaman
was a bearded social worker named Billy. During my Amsterdam period, I visited
three separate steam and sauna establishments. They were all totally relaxing.
Plenty of naked women roamed around. But my odds of having sex would have been
better in a department store. Damn the Europeans and their utter lack of bodily

   For several years in Chicago, I belonged to a neighborhood gym at the end of its line. It featured a steam room that hadn’t been repaired since 1945 and hadn’t been cleaned since 1975. My years of membership yielded no potential partners: I just couldn’t develop a special kink for an Assyrian juvenile probation officer, a middle-aged Korean brothel owner, or a 400-pound black barber named Bunny. The health department finally shut the place down after the police discovered the owner in the steam room, dead from an after-hours coronary.

   I continued to search. One afternoon, my friend Jim and I visited
the Division Street Baths, Chicago’s most revered ancient steaming chamber. You
might think it’s erotic to stand naked next to your friend with your legs
spread against a mossy wall while an ancient Pole lathers you up with a
brush made of eucalyptus leaves and Jesse Jacksons Sr. and Jr. receive massages
at open-air tables not more than fifty feet away. But I can tell you from experience
that it’s not.

   Steam havens are still infinitely valuable to me, just not
in the way I once desired. I’ve determined that, for straight men, steam rooms
aren’t erotic settings at all. Rather, they’re places where we can blow snot
without fear of
criticism, dump buckets of water over our heads and flap our
lips in the manner of, and at the volume of, horses. I tossed my sexual fantasy
into history’s dustbin of discarded lies.

One afternoon last summer, I found myself driving around metropolitan
Los Angeles, because I figured that L.A. really needs another overeducated Jewish
guy trying to write funny screenplays. Three of my appointments had canceled,
so I had about six hours between meetings. Driving down Beverly Boulevard, I
passed Brooks Massage Therapy, which had a sign out front promoting a “Steam
Sauna.” The sign also indicated that the business was celebrating its fiftieth

   Brando might have steamed there!

   I paid my twenty bucks. A sign indicated that no sexual contact
would be permitted in the baths. Well, then I

His eyes were attempting to lock on mine. Don’t look down, I said to myself. Whatever
you do.

definitely belonged. A few minutes later I was basking in meditative bliss. Some great screenplay ideas popped into mind. Somehow, I knew that this was the place where I’d come up with the story that would make my Hollywood mark. Hell, I thought, if that goober who wrote Traffic can win an Oscar…

   The door opened. In walked an even skinnier version of William
S. Burroughs. He sat down across from me. I gave him a quick nod and returned
my meditation about how the protagonist in my screenplay would best react to the

   “It’s perfect in here,” the man said.

   “It sure is,” I said.

   “Mmm,” he said.

   His eyes were attempting to lock on mine. I twitched my head
around even more nervously than usual. Don’t look down, I said to myself. Whatever

   I looked down. A throbbing knockwurst of a cock hung out the right side of his towel. He pumped it slowly. His mouth moved as though he were chewing gum.

   That’s what I get for trying to steam within walking distance
of West Hollywood. But why couldn’t I have at least been fodder for some modern
version of Montgomery Clift? Then I might have gone for it just to end my streak.
But no. I had to draw Dr. Benway in the lottery.

   “Goddammit to hell!” I said, and stormed out of the sauna.

   I hope he got what he was looking for.  

Bad Sex With Neal Pollack appears monthly.

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©2004 Neal Pollack and
Neal Pollack is the author of The Neal Pollack Anthology Of American Literature, Beneath The Axis Of Evil, and Never Mind the Pollacks: A Rock and Roll Novel. For a daily dose of his satirical brilliance, visit his website, He lives in Austin, Texas.