I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.
The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.
A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.
Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.
My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.
What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.
I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?
An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.
What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.
Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.
Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.