Happy Town: I Met Angel in a Bathhouse in Bilbao

I slipped away from a group with whom I was traveling through Spain several years ago, caught a taxi in front of my hotel after a noshie dinner of tapas and Rioja, and had the driver drop me at the so non-descript as to be practically invisible front entrance to Bilbao's bathhouse. After I paid the fare -- in pre-euro, pre-bad exchange rate pesetas -- I had a fleeting panic attack, thinking I had somehow gotten the address wrong in my previous night's club crawling/info gathering excursions around the city. But, wait, there was the address I was looking for, there was the buzzer and sure enough, it worked, someone let me in, and yep, yep, yep, this was a bathhouse alright.

I can't remember the name of the place -- so let's just call it Happy Town.

This was my second bathhouse in Spain. I had managed a brief escape from museums and straight people in Barcelona several days prior and thoroughly enjoyed one of the many spas -- and one of the many gorgeous men (this one no doubt married with children) -- in my favorite city before an evening group tour through one of Gaudi's masterpiece buildings, La Pedrera on the Passeig de Gracia.

Me so Horny When I Travel

So ... checking into Happy Town, they ask me my shoe size. "Just what are you trying to find out kind sir?" I think to myself in mangled Spanish, batting my eyes. You know what they say about big hands, right? Big gloves. But the question isn't some kind of weird come-on, it's so you can tip around in a pair of appropriately-sized flip flops and protect your tootsies from icky foot fungals. There are no private rooms to rent, just lockers so I get a key to one of those. I strip down to towel and flip flops and clip clop all about, getting a lay of the land, so to speak.

There's a dry sauna, steam room, and plenty of rooms with doors that don't lock but which you can move into with a willing romantic interest for a minute or more. There is a very social lounge area with a bar where you can order a beer and a grilled cheese while watching bad game shows on the television and chit chatting with the bartender in mangled Spanish. "There sure are a lot of X's and K's in the Basque language," you say. "¿Que?" he says. Everything is clean, well-lit, and there are a number of men -- varying degrees of hotness on the prowl.

I'm in the steam room in my flip flops. My towel is on a hook outside, so you know this Yanqui is tryin' to get busy. Okay? And I "meet" Angel. We reach for each other and start fooling around in the very, very, hot steam. To avoid heart failure, we move the action into the showers, and then continue in one of the rooms. We do everything, all very natural, uninhibited and sexy and fun. Preservativos (condoms) are unrolled when required. And after a lot of moans and a few shouts/grunts/howls in neither English or Spanish, we've completed Act One.

Instead of smiling and nodding -- "Don't let the door hit ya on the way out" -- we introduce ourselves. "Hi, I'm Jim. And you are?" And we end up talking and laughing, and Angel offers to buy me a beer in the lounge. His English is much better than my Spanish, but his Basque accent is pretty heavy, so this communication stuff is a challenge. We're both up for it. We mostly just look at each other and laugh. Everything is funny -- he has a joie de vivre that is, for lack of a better word, contagious.

Our towels start to tent up again (oh my!) so we retire to a different room from Act One and commence Act Two. The whole process is repeated for an Act Three and Four, with side trips to the steam, sauna and showers. Lot's of flip flopping. This is really a blast.

Finally, we have wrung as much pleasure either of our bodies can produce, and an early morning agenda is looming, so Angel offers to give me a lift back to my hotel. We exchange contact info and kiss each other goodbye.

We stay in touch, remember each other's birthdays, call on holidays and make plans to meet. Approximately a year after our Happy Town hook up, we meet in Madrid, hang out for a day there, and spend almost a week together at his home in Aretxapuleta, just south of San Sebastian. We sort of fooled around once and that was it. Clearly we had sort of moved into a more platonic -- but very affectionate -- friendship. We hung out with his sister and her boyfriend, did the tapas bars in San Sebastian, drove around in the mountains, spent a day at a "legit" spa on the North Atlantic that was just incredible, went to the movies, and ate incredible meals in restaurants and in his home.

I would never have made this great friend, and never would have been exposed to all the things he taught me and shared with me about his life and his country, had we not gotten down, and up and down and up and down, at a bathhouse. That's where we met, that's how we began to communicate, that's how we bonded. How frickin' gay is that?

With crystal mania overtaking us, and hysteria shouting from the pages of the mainstream and gay press, screeching and finger waggling about gay men's supposedly increased risky sexual practices. Can you say demonization? Scapegoat? Wanton hedonist? Yet another backlash is upon us, both from outside our community and more scary, from within. I am hearing "close the bathhouses" once again, from within, and I am hearing lots of fear and judgment, and ya know what, it makes me sad, makes me hurt deep in my soul. Gay men need to embrace and be proud of our articulate, creative and responsible sexuality that is a joyous and magnificent part of gay culture. Our gay sexuality is a gift we have shared with the broader society and with which we have had great, positive influence. Our gay sexuality is something of which we should be proud and protect and nourish.

As a positive man, I made sure to protect Angel and myself as we explored every nook of each other's bodies. As a negative man, he did likewise. The guys getting wasted and taking the loads of hundreds of anonymous partners notwithstanding, most of us in fact practice our sexuality in a much more responsible, thoughtful, compassionate and yes, loving manner. We ain't always perfect, and we could always improve. That's where the vast majority of us are -- trying to do our best as we navigate our sexuality through turbulent times. As we try to engage the small minority of men creating some pretty big problems for themselves and our community, as we try to support their movement on the continuum to healthier behaviors, let's not diminish or demean an integral part of our gay culture and our humanity.

Let's not throw the fairy out with the bathhouse water.

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