A young writer's hunger to connect leads him into the labyrinthine world of a gay bathhouse.

Gay Bathhouses in Montreal
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

I walked by the bathhouse building several times. It had a discreet entrance, a nondescript façade. On the few past occasions I’d gone into a gay bathhouse before—in gay old Barcelona, in gay old San Francisco—it had been this way: a last-minute mental fencing match, a wrestling with the bathhouse angel, Thinking Fast and Slow About Whether or Not to Enter the Bathhouse. Now I was in gay old Montreal, passing along Saint-Catherine Street again. I turned a corner, walking in an expanding spiral away from the bathhouse on the Plateau, then reversed course, spiraling back towards it. This prolonged little drama of indecision might, I thought, either exhaust my racing mind, which was eminently capable of talking me out of doing anything, ever, or successfully muzzle that sweaty, stinking animal curiosity that had gotten me moving in the first place. Of course I was kidding myself: during that part of my life, curiosity won out almost every time, at least when it came to the question of entering some gay lair or another. I craved a connection—higher, lower, however one came by it—and the craving mastered me.

A thunderstorm had passed through earlier in the day. Now, however, as I made my way back to Saint-Catherine, the sky was “clear,” which is to say: oceanic, dark, deep inasmuch as it stretched out and out into the great, grave beyond. I knew almost no one in town, and I’d be leaving soon. Straight couples and small groups strolled along the park, speaking Québécois French, West African French, English, blends of these, other tongues. Soon, the dotted, solemn, yellow-white lights of the park gave way to the cheerful ones of the boulevard, where people dined and drank en plein aire or in luminous rooms behind glass. A pleasing aroma of flesh and char and fat wafted from a brightly lit kebab shop.

I went inside the bathhouse. Indigo bulbs gave the antechamber a warm glow. No attendant appeared to be on duty—just a nerve-wracking absence at the front counter. Keys on coiled red rubber bands hung from hooks on the wall. The ideal me wouldn’t need to wait, standing there with his want exposed; he’d know in his stride all the laws of movement between one world and the other. In fact, the ideal me wouldn’t even be an individual, differentiated body: the essential crisis, the cosmic crisis then driving my life, was a rampant desire to feel at home everywhere, to absorb and master all codes, all languages—from hieroglyphics to the hanky code to HTML—to devour everything and be devoured by everything and so become one with the world, never again so youthfully lost, so stiff with insecurity. A little relief from being human, or maybe a lot: was it too much to ask?

Just when I feared I’d have to call into the bathhouse in order to soldier on toward this goal, an unsmiling, sinewy man swept in behind the counter, running a hand through his messy black hair.

Bonsoir,” he said. He appraised me with a certain flatness of manner, a tired eye.

A short exchange followed in French. Once I paid, the attendant switched to English. “Come this way,” he said. He opened a door into a second antechamber. There were a few plush-looking chairs. A man in his forties or fifties sat on one. At the far end of the room was a bar, unmanned. The attendant must have usually covered that too, flitting from one task to the next, head skeleton of the bathhouse skeleton crew.

With a tight-lipped, thin smile, head skeleton handed me a towel and key. “You are room number 19,” he said. A comforting reduction: I was a room now. He gestured down a dark corridor, nodded, told me to have fun, then returned to sit with his friend, who was watching me.

The halls seemed deserted. Many neighboring rooms waited, empty, open. I found number 19 and closed the door behind me. It had a hard little bench and a tall locker. I undressed, folded my clothes neatly, and put them all away.

Orange Line

Questionable thinking had brought me to Montreal in the first place. I’d been laid off from a job answering phones at the San Francisco Ballet, and so decided to celebrate joblessness by leaving the country. A friend deposited my unemployment checks for me while I was in Canada. At that time I was also infatuated with a drag queen who’d been sober for many years; the solid sense of identity he seemed to find in performance and sobriety fascinated me. So he had an irritating nickname for me (“The English Patient”—I couldn’t keep weight on, I was disappearing), so he criticized my coffee-stained teeth even though his were crooked, so he felt contempt and fear and incredulity in the face of my desire for him. So what? In some hidden chamber of myself I nurtured a hunch that taking shelter in intimacy could really roughly approximate the relief I’d found a handful of times in things like smoking heroin, before the ex who introduced me to that vice died from his addiction: relief from being human, from being a frightened, feeling animal.

And though I told myself I’d joined AA shortly after meeting the drag queen because of a pre-existing yen for substances of all kinds, the truth is that I longed to absorb any and all details related to his life. I wanted his life in my veins; too much of my own there. I’d failed to properly work the first of the twelve steps (“Admit you are powerless over alcohol”) by the time I left for Quebec, but continued my performance of sobriety for most of the trip—until, released from my obsession with a man I'd watched put on pantyhose and Kryolan makeup to lipsync Tina Turner and Bjork and Siouxsie Sioux on the stages of small, booze-soaked gay bars, I finally ordered a glass of Pinot Grigio on the terrace of a bistro during my last week in Canada and drank it alone. I recall wishing the wine would have some sublime effect on me—I’d held off drinking, after all, for months. But I only felt like I’d had a glass of wine again, and that the world was a chaos to which my having or not having a glass of wine brought no greater sense of order.

The queen liked Montreal and had a close photographer friend, a Montrealer, with whom he was collaborating on a book of high-gloss photographs of drag performers. I met the friend there, even went on a road trip with her and two Parisians to Quebec City. We visited her grandmother—“Grand-mère Quebec!” she told me to call her, in her melismatic French—who sat with us late into the evening on the terrace of her suburban home, drinking and smoking. At one point she turned to me after I’d declined several offers of wine, beer, and cigarettes, and said, “You don’t drink, you don’t smoke—what do you do?” I didn’t know what to say; I was watching her, trying to understand what it meant to become a person, to grow old and gradually become one’s irreversible self. I was—perhaps it goes without saying—25. Getty Images

In Montreal I sublet a one bedroom apartment in Laurier, on the French side of town. The tenant, a sprite-like young blonde, left me her boyfriend’s bicycle. I rode it all around the city (or “mill town,” as an older gay curator friend and mentor had called it back in Berkeley, as in, “Why are you going to that mill town?”), and often up and down the hills of Parc Mont-Royal, where I hoped to meet men. I was seriously off my game that summer, though—as evidenced, I guess, by the fact that, as an outgoing 25-year-old who had been told ad nauseam that he was handsome and charming and so on and so forth, I eventually resorted to the bathhouse—and I never managed to connect with any guys. Not in parks, not in cafés, not in bars. I wanted so much to have a summer fling in Montreal. It was the closest thing to a summer fling in Paris I could afford.

I did meet an attractive young French-Canadian woman at the park one day. She was sitting with a friend when I pulled up on my bicycle to a neighboring bench. I’d intended to gaze upon nature, to project my erotic fantasies on it like a sexually frustrated bourgeois living in the 19th century, and to read a bit of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin. As I settled in, the pair spoke to each other in French, glancing at me often.

“Excuse me,” the young male friend called. “Are you single?” When the young woman, whose name would turn out to be Marina, slapped his shoulder and apologized to me, I knew he had asked for her and not himself.

“Well, yes,” I said, “but I’m gay.”

A harassed look came over her. “Damn it!” she said. “Of course you’re gay. Of course!” Marina was tall and slender. She held herself with easy confidence, perched in good posture on the bench, but had an air of mild exasperation, too, as though my gayness represented only the latest in a string of absurd injustices. She wore a dark blue sundress, a color that complemented her pale complexion and the long, black hair falling over her shoulders. Flattered to have a ravishing young woman notice and admire me, I apologized for being gay. The truth is that I wasn’t the least bit sorry: being gay meant, if nothing else, theoretical protection against the possibility of physical intimacy between us—an intimacy that I felt might spring up, so to speak, in the natural course of things, which would in turn disorient me and expose my fractured humanity. I would’ve hated to have to face myself all over again, to reconsider myself, by wanting to sleep with a woman.

We got to talking, and though she lent her lament a comic air, there was a real ache behind her jokes about romantic frustration. “I can’t meet a good man in Montreal to save my life,” she said. “Everyone’s gay and I’m going to die alone.” I apologized for these things as well—first for being gay, then for her frustration, then for heterosexual men in general, who were all, we agreed, dogs. I knew her conundrum well: a state in which one’s intense desire for a thing only makes it more elusive, mutating into a desperation that does no one any favors.

We exchanged phone numbers. I felt isolated in Montreal, and was beginning to want to forget the drag queen, to forget that I’d longed to forget myself by forgetting myself all over again. The pleasure of a platonic and diverting summer friendship—a stopgap while I found another way to disappear, to chase that sweet relief from being human—beckoned.

So Marina and I met up now and then. She showed me another side of Montreal: she worked as an architect, and on strolls around town would point out noteworthy buildings. She took me to a favorite museum of hers where an exhibition of sculpture and ceramics was on. I don’t remember any of the buildings or the art, as I was too busy trying to be simultaneously present and unavailable. Because even though we were doing the gay friend-girlfriend thing, I couldn’t deny a certain physical magnetism between us. This made our hanging out feel date-like at times, a sort of inadvertent seduction, which gave rise to all-too-human psychic distress. Uncomfortable silences would descend. I might look into her eyes with more intensity than I could help, feel too keenly the heat of standing close to her. What on earth, I wondered—afraid, probably, of the most obvious answer—were our bodies for?

On these outings, Marina often circled back to her loneliness. “I don’t understand,” she would say. “I’m attractive, I’m intelligent, I’m an architect. I just don’t get why I’m alone. I want to have a summer fling!” She would then look at me with more intensity, more hope than she could help. Eventually one of us would change the subject. I asked a lot of questions about architecture that summer, though I couldn’t tell you today even one thing I learned about it.

It seems stupid to me now that I didn’t surrender to instinct. We were both dancing around the idea, both lonesome and hard up, both drawn to each other. And from a distance of ten years, it appears that the main thing holding me back was this protective conception of myself as a gay man and a gay man only—a fundamentalist gay, if you will. We could’ve just acknowledged the feeling and gone from there, maybe even talked the prospect into an early grave if it came to that, maybe shared a good laugh.

I do remember an afternoon when a chance for us to fall into bed together came and went. We’d run into each other at a coffee shop in Mile End where I often went to read and write. Marina asked if I wanted to see her apartment, which wasn’t far. I did, I said.

It was a one-bedroom, minimalist, clean—just how I’d imagine a young architect’s apartment to be. Inside, we chatted in a casual way, her seated on the white, rumpled bed, me leaning against the door frame to her bedroom. The sun was shining through the windows; particles of dust floated in the light. There came a moment when we both fell silent, when I watched her from the threshold and she watched me back. Instinct stirred; I resisted. Why? Fear guided my life too often. I wish I’d tried to face it, wrestle it to the ground, even just admit to it. “I’m a little frightened here,” I might’ve said. Or I might have just, you know, done something, moved through it and into the new.

What I said was this: “I’d better be going.” I’d better disappear, dear. I turned after a too-long beat—one during which I hoped, I think, that she would protest. That way I wouldn’t have to, and being human wouldn’t be my fault.

Orange Line

Here are a few selling points taken from the websites of several Montreal bathhouses:

10,000 square feet of high sensations

it’s up to you to get free of your clothing and take advantage of the pleasure of walking through an oasis of real men

Students always 50% off

To this I’ll add: Sex without lasting connection is the hopeful center to which all hallways and blind turns lead. The lighting is extremely low, which not only flatters tired features, but gives the place an air of fetishized sordidness, criminality, imprisonment. Depending on your mood, this may seem thrilling or banal or like one of those homemade haunted-house affairs at Halloween—as if something might jump out at the next pagan station, wailing, grabbing at you with a rubber hand. A far cry from how I imagined, as a teenager, winningly homoerotic Roman baths: august and marbled and clean, pure in the light of the Mediterranean world and my fantasies. All our bathhouses, back rooms, dungeons, etc. inherit part of their atmosphere of Gothic decay by operating in the long shadow of AIDS. They are, in their way, ruins. Entering one—for someone like me, who was born around the time this plague began ravaging the gay community, was raised on a small island in Seattle as this horror unfolded beyond his immediate sphere of awareness, and so can only be said to have stepped out, as a young man, into the wreckage left behind—is like crossing into a realm where the shades of recent history roam, and not only because a majority of the men there are often old enough to have lived through the annihilation by disease of so many of their friends and loved ones.

I once interviewed for a job in a bathhouse. I’d just turned 20, and after finishing a fine arts study program in France and Italy, I flew to Barcelona on my own. I was flirting with the idea of dropping out of school and staying in Spain, of disappearing there, and had temporarily moved in with a Colombian named Sergio who had a long scar across his upper lip—from being pistol-whipped by the secret police in Bogotá, he told me in Spanish—and who, since I’d started hanging out with a group of young, stylish Colombian male prostitutes, and since we first met on the street corner in front of Triangulo on Las Ramblas where I’d first encountered them, thought for most of our first date that I was a prostitute, too. It made sense; I just smiled and said, “No—soy estudiante.” He would later crack jokes—frightened, I think, doubting me—about how he was sure I spent all day with my clientes, an American college boy hustling in Spain, while he cut hair in a salon near La Sagrada Familia. In any case, I’d bombed an interview to become a busboy at a restaurant, and so inquired at a bathhouse that I’d heard, through my new professional network of Colombian prostitutes, needed a janitor. The job was mine if I wanted it, said the attendant. In the end, swayed by tearful phone calls with my family (I told them I’d found a job in a health spa) and arguments with Sergio, I decided to return to America and finish my degree. And so I disappeared from Spain, and from Sergio’s life, as suddenly as I’d appeared in it.

I digress. Back in the Montreal bathhouse, I wandered through the dark halls, puzzled by how empty the place seemed. I passed a couple of well-muscled men in their early forties who clenched their jaws and bulged their eyes with the unmistakable intensity of addicts. Their come-ons were so crazed, so famished, that I couldn’t bring myself to say yes. If only I’d been high, too. One, a tattooed, athletic dude with brown hair and wild eyes, squeezed his bulge when I saw him a second time, then whipped open the front of his towel. He said something I didn’t understand, though I assumed it wasn’t anything I might hear at a weekly French conversation group. Then he put his hand on my shoulder and gave me a pleading look. Getty Images

Non, merci,” I said, pulling away. I put my hand up in the universal sign for “you’re on too much meth.” I sensed an aggressive turn coming. Sure enough, he started ranting at me, presumably taking issue with the fact that although I’d entered the bathhouse and had now been walking around for some time, I wasn’t having sex with anyone. He brought a vial of poppers to one nostril—he’d been keeping it clenched in his fist—then held it towards me. I shook my head and began to walk away; this pissed him off even more, and in one swift motion, he grabbed my neck and forced the vial under my nose. Enraged, I shoved him. The whiff of poppers left me unpleasantly light-headed, but I stood my ground, cursing him out in English while he berated me further in French. Finally, he retreated down the corridor.

Within moments another man appeared at the doorway of his private cell nearby, curious to see what the fuss was about. He looked friendly and reassuring—in his sixties, I guessed. I approached, and he gave me a pat on the chest. “Entrez,” he said, stepping aside.

He closed the door for privacy. We kissed for a couple minutes, caressed each other, sighed. The popper buzz faded. The man must have sensed my desire ebbing, too. “Ça va?” he said.

Un instant,” I said, pulling away. We both sat on the bench, side by side. A conversation followed in which I described having the bottle of poppers thrust beneath my nose by the tweaking muscleman, and the fury I felt. It’d rattled me more than I let my companion see—the high of the poppers, combined with the adrenal rush of fighting them off, left me trembling. My new acquaintance shook his head, saying, “Non, non,” adding that sex should be natural. “Naturel, naturel!” he insisted, by which he meant free of chemical influence, and though that wasn’t my point, exactly. I half-agreed, saying in French, “Yes, something like that—something like natural.” Maybe, he added, “un petit peu de marijuana,” but he lamented all the meth, all the amyl nitrate, all the reliance on chemical highs.

I laughed a little and he rubbed my shoulder. There I sat in the cell of a man who’d no doubt come of age in the sixties, a quasi-Emersonian bathhouse hippie, a transparent gay eyeball who’d surely tasted his fair share of free love, seen no small amount of lesions, wasting, agony, disappearance. Sitting by him felt somehow safe, though as I told him that I wished we had un petit peu de marijuana right then, I wondered to myself: what was he still doing there, haunting this maze? What was I still doing there, foiled in my desire to escape from myself?

When I left, he told me to enjoy the rest of my visite a Montreal. I made my way down the hall to my room. I closed the door, and sat for many minutes on my own rented bench, rented towel wrapped around my waist. I dozed, unsure what to make of my life just then—my body, the freaked-out consciousness that inhabited it, the time I conceivably had left with that particular dynamic duo. What was it for? What an outrage, that time was always going by, stealing things away: opportunities for pleasure, that much more of the life left in the body, every single piece of everything in the entire world and universe. That’s right: I’d traveled many miles to be maudlin in a half-abandoned French-Canadian bathhouse, to sit alone, too, and speculate about what AIDS had wrought. And I hadn’t even been drinking—I was still pretending to be a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. I never did know how to take a real vacation.

I changed back into my clothes, then stood in the middle of Room 19, looking around. Somehow it felt like I’d forgotten something important, like I still had unfinished business in the bathhouse. But maybe it’ll always feel like that, so long as history reaches forward, groping in the dark, grasping at us, forever unfinished, never sated.

My summer fling with Montreal, such as it was, was ending. I couldn’t wait to get back to California, made human again by my failure to find relief from being human. There I’d drift from the drag queen, my fantasies about sobriety and disappearance having passed like clouds across the open sky. I’d think of Marina now and then, but fall out of touch with her, too, aside from some stray messages traded through LinkedIn. Before I left the bathhouse, though, I had one more mistake to make.

Fully dressed, I returned to the antechamber with the low lighting and the chairs and the unmanned bar. Now there were signs of life there: the attendant and friend no longer sat chatting. Wanting to show good manners, I had the odd thought that I should find the attendant and say goodbye—say thank you, of all things. I also wanted to be witnessed leaving. One feels a little less sure one has left, otherwise.

I paused before a latticed metal door that I assumed was an exit. The door had some signage in French on it, the meaning of which escaped me. Or maybe I spent too little time trying to puzzle it out. Or maybe I knew, somewhere in my heart, what would happen if I opened the door, and wouldn’t admit it to myself. Maybe I wanted to cause a little trouble.

Whatever the case, the moment I pushed the door open, a high, shrill alarm pierced the air. I froze, holding the door while this deafening sound filled not only the front room, but the whole interior, the whole of the bathhouse.

The attendant stormed in then, a furious, horrified look on his face. He swatted toward me with his hand and shouted in French. I couldn’t hear him over the alarm, but started shouting back, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

The hateful look on his face suggested that the alarm meant more than having to run to some control panel, flip a switch, and shut the thing up—it seemed quite possible, in fact, that he didn’t know how to turn it off. Though maybe that, too, was just another fantasy read into a face. Later I’d picture a handful of souls still moving within the maze, either lusting after some passing body or entangled already, suddenly startled apart, bringing their hands to their ears, their faces contorting in confusion. I’d imagine someone in the heart of the bathhouse letting his semen fly just as the alarm tripped. Someone else, dozing and sweating in the sauna, jolted awake as if from a frightful dream. I stepped out into the hallway, the latticed door slamming shut behind me. I couldn’t help but look back at the scowling attendant, watch him disappear into the bowels of the bathhouse as though swallowed up by some powerful force. Some force other than my having introduced a major inconvenience into his work day, I mean. Later I’d imagine him making a full sweep of the labyrinth, checking every private cell, every scurvy corner, every shadow, the dry heat sauna, shouting to everyone over the alarm that they needed to get dressed and go, leave the bathhouse, some young fool, américain bête, went out the wrong door.

It was years before I’d wonder why I ever thought anyone would have to leave. It was, after all, no longer a world of raids and round-ups. Our sex was tolerated, in theory, to a greater extent than ever before, and soon there would be no reason to be alone, to be a ball-gagged slave in darkness, a confirmed bachelor, a strange man living by himself down the lane. Raid was just something we’d buy to kill insects. Roundup we’d buy to kill weeds. And while we pulled the dead weeds out, we’d tell each other stories about the things we’d done and seen on our trips to a vanishing world. “I went to Montreal once,” I’d say. “I was lonely in those days. So stupid with fear—so curious, too. I went into a bathhouse, but I barely touched anyone. On my way out I set off the emergency exit alarm.”

“How very fascinating,” a friend, alive, would reply. “What happened then?”

Evan James's work has appeared in Oxford American, Catapult, The New York Times, The New York Observer, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and has received fellowships from Yaddo and the Carson McCullers Center for his fiction.