The Bather

Ilene Dube

Lately I’ve become aware of bathing facilities in unexpected places. Faced with the temptation, I find I cannot resist.

At the public access station where I work, the restroom has a shower alongside its single stall. This is odd, because the building has been office space since it was constructed in the 1950s. At that time, employers had yet to offer bathing facilities as a perk. Perhaps an opportunistic builder wanted to cover all the bases.

At the natural foods grocery store where I shop, one of the two all-gender restrooms has a shower alongside the toilet. I wonder if the shower is for kitchen staff  who would otherwise go home smelling of ginger, garlic, and cardamom.

The Victorian building in which the gluten-free bakery is housed was indeed, at one time, a residence. Whenever I stop in for a knish or a vegan wrap, I make it a point to use the restroom, just to fantasize about luxuriating in its magnificent claw-foot tub. I tease the staff that I’ll return in the night to take a bath. They must hear this all the time because they don’t even fake a smile as I drop coins into the tip jar.

Back in the office, I hear the monitor in the station manager’s office broadcasting a documentary about public bathing. “From Russian banyas and Japanese onsens to Turkish hammams and Finnish saunas, immersing in hot water to release toxins has been practiced since the Neolithic Age,” the voice-over ethnologist tells the interviewer.

Painted depictions of steamy wood cabins and zaftig bathers appear on the screen. “In Russian banyas it is not uncommon to wear felt hats,” says the ethnologist, now on camera in a gray wool cloche with Ukrainian embroidery.

The station manager switches to a locally produced show in which the guest interviewee, a candidate for town council, is fulminating about the state of the world: “…from the high-level cover-up by the drug industry, to the wildfires and flooding and plastic detritus winding up in the intestines of baby albatrosses; the invasion of the spotted lantern fly and emerald ash borer; and now the resistance to fact-based science and medicine… No wonder we are seeing a rise among those living on the streets.”

We have aired numerous documentaries about programs to help people who have lost their way, from alternative housing solutions to art therapy programs. Restoring personal hygiene can be a first step toward regaining a sense of worth, according to one.  The chronically unhoused are more approachable by helpers when they have access to bathing facilities.

As a journalist, I try to experience what my subjects have been through, in order to better show their perspective. Or could it be that I became a journalist because I wanted to absorb myself in others?

I decide to test out the shower at the TV station late at night when no one is likely to walk in. There is no lock on the door, and the shower has no stall or curtain.

I usually keep my gym bag in the car, packed with towels, shampoo, conditioner, soap. I stuff the gym contents into my camera bag. My towel is bulky and just barely fits—I can’t zip the bag completely shut, and a flap protrudes. Out of the corner of my eye I see a mermaid fin, then realize it’s just the towel corner.

I am editing a documentary about an organization teaching sewing skills to unemployed women. As my coworkers filter out for the day, I finesse the continuity of a social worker’s speech, along with B roll showing fish pillows the clients have created. Fifteen minutes after the last worker departs, I nuke a frozen dinner and eat it while checking e-mail. After digesting, I walk around to make sure the coast is clear, then haul in my bathing supplies. As a measure of security, I block the door with my camera bag.

It’s a good thing I packed flip flops because the bathroom floor at the TV station is not what I’d want to step on in bare feet. It would have been ideal if I’d brought along a terry robe, but there’s no way that would have fit in my camera bag.

There’s a separate nook that serves as a dressing room for TV guests. I spread out the clothes I remove, then wrap myself with the towel and carry the basket of toiletries to the shower.

Apparently the fixture has not been used in ages. The lever is impossible to turn. I struggle until beads of sweat form on my forehead but the lever will not budge. I’ll have to come back with a wrench. I pack up my bath supplies, then repeat steps A and B the following night, this time with tools. I use a hand towel to protect the chrome lever, then turn the wrench. It is still extraordinarily difficult but finally it gives way and cold rusty water spurts out, staining my towel orange and causing me to shiver.

I wait and wait but the water does not warm up.

Finally, I take the soaking wet towel and wrench and struggle to turn it off, but it will not close. Water gushes at a steady pace.

I dress, pack up the wet washcloths and towel, and clean up as best I can. The only evidence is the water. I am simultaneously shivering and sweating from fear of getting apprehended.

Emerging from the ladies’ room, I check the hallway in either direction, and steal back into the editing suite. I put on my coat, shut down the computer, and grab my bag to leave. On the way toward the exit, I hear the janitor mopping the floor at the other end of the hallway. I skedaddle without looking up.

The next day, I notice the plumber’s van parked outside the TV station. A memo goes out stating in no uncertain terms that the shower in the lower level restroom is not for staff use. In fact, the entire restroom is closed for two days as the plumbers work on the repair.

We are instructed to use the restroom at the affordable housing office, located in the same building. There had recently been a fire at one of the community housing sites—an elderly resident had fallen asleep in the bathtub with candles burning and subsequently drowned. The candle dropped on her robe, which was all cotton, not a fire-retardant fabric, and the fire spread quickly. Thirty residents of the subsidized unit lost their homes. There is a fund drive to help them out, and I contribute what I can.

The shower at the health food store looks to be in better shape. The bathroom has been redone with white subway tiles and shiny chrome fixtures. I fill a reusable grocery bag with my bathing supplies. During the middle of the day, I enter the restroom as if I just need three minutes to perform the usual bathroom functions. Before stripping off my coat and clothing, I test the water. Again, the knob is tightly shut, but I have brought along a piece of rubber with which to grip it. Sure enough, it loosens!

The bakery department is on the other side of the wall—I can smell the yeasty dough. Now I worry that they will hear the rush of the water. I turn it ever so gently. Again, the water is cold and rusty, but soon it warms up.

The health food store has various soap products on the shelf for customers to sample. I get a feeling this is going to be a delightfully fragrant shower. I quickly undress and lather up, giving myself a quick shampoo with something called Selkie Soap with Sea Buckthorn and Ylang-ylang. The water has turned delightfully warm and I would have enjoyed luxuriating longer, but I quickly rinse off, towel dry and dress. Just in time, as there is a knock at the door. “Be right out,” I shout, and shake my head to dry my hair. I quickly mop up the wet areas with paper towels, then emerge from the restroom with dewy skin.

When I pass the bread window I see the baker looking at me with a scowl. I run my fingers through my short wet hair, ignoring the stares as I head for the exit.

“Mmm, you smell good,” says a woman in the cheese aisle. “Is that the Selkie Soap?”

The bath at the gluten-free bakery is going to be more relaxing, I anticipate. No one ever goes up to the second floor, where it’s located. I’d have plenty of time to soak. The tub does look a bit gritty so I give it a quick swish. It would have been nice to have had a bath mat, but it would have made my bag too bulky. In my haste at the health food store I had absent-mindedly packed the Selkie Soap, so as the water runs I pour in the viscous liquid and the room fills with the scent of ylang-ylang.

It does take a good long while for the tub to fill. If I were waiting in my own home I’d be listening to the radio, but that would draw too much attention here. I don’t want to put the water on full force because of the noise.

On the wall is a poster of Pierre Bonnard’s “Bather”; the subject is completely submerged in the tub. I’ve read that Bonnard’s model/muse/lover Marthe was secretive about her name, age, and family, and was a paranoiac recluse with poor health. She self-medicated with hydrotherapy, bathing several times a day. One of Bonnard’s lovers, a young friend of Marthe’s, drowned herself in the tub when Bonnard spurned her for Marthe.

I get in while the water is shallow and close my eyes as I slink down. Just as I am completely relaxed, there is a knock at the door.

“Right out,” I say, trying to release the water while minimizing the gurgling sound. I rinse the soap from my body, then rinse the soap scum from the tub. The knocking persists, and I towel off, giving myself a short massage with cardamom body butter. At least I don’t have to deal with my hair, which has stayed out of the water. I quickly dress, pack up my supplies, wipe the steam off the mirror and a few wet spots on the floor.

When I open the door, the head waitress is staring at me sternly, arms folded. I can tell she is also stifling laughter. Surely she dreamed of taking a bath here herself and is jealous that I’ve actually done it. She can’t find the words to reprimand me, so I blithely make my way down the stairs, one hand on the curvilinear balustrade. I love this old building, with its creaky old wood. Downstairs, I see the manager and the owner looking up at a drip drip drip in the pressed tin ceiling.

A few weeks later I lose my job at the TV station—they tell me there have been budget cuts. I am given a day’s notice to pack up my things.

It is hard finding new work at my age, and after a few months of not being able to pay the rent, I move in with my brother, sleeping on his couch. My brother isn’t the best of housekeepers—his bathroom is fairly grotty. He has only a shower, no bathtub—thank goodness, I don’t want to have to clean up a bathtub. A shower, in my view, is self-cleaning.

Staying with my brother, I have a nightmare. While visiting the city museum, housed in an Italianate former mansion in the center of an historic park, I encounter a jewel of a clawfoot tub. Checking to make sure I am alone, I turn on the faucet. An alarm goes off, and miniature police arrive. They manage to handcuff my big toe and pull me out—though tiny they are strong. I notice that one of the officers is the ethnologist in the felted Ukrainian hat. “Why did you do it?” he interrogates.

“Because it was there.”

After a while my brother grows tired of hosting me, and I find myself moving from place to place. Fortunately, the weather has warmed. My gym membership expired and I am in arears on the insurance payments, but I still have my car. I am no longer welcome at the health food store nor the gluten free bakery, but the library offers most of what I need.

The community housing office has rebuilt the unit that burned. The residents haven’t yet moved back in—there are inspections and approvals underway. It occurrs to me that I’m now eligible for subsidized housing. I go to look at the model apartment. The leasing agent has taken a prospect on a tour, and I am left to wander the model on my own.

On a coffee table I see a raggedy copy of a collection of John Cheever stories. I thumb  through to find “The Swimmer,” about a 1960s suburban man who, after a few drinks, sets out to swim home through all the swimming pools in his county. At one point, when he has to swim in a particularly dank pool, he reminds himself that he is a pilgrim, an explorer, and takes the plunge.

The bathroom in the model apartment includes a tub shower stall. It still has the manufacturer’s stickers on it but that doesn’t stop me. I turn on the water and let it flow, remove  my clothes and step in. I pour the Selkie Soap.

I hear the familiar knock, faintly this time. “I’ll be a while,” I say, lighting the candle that had been left on the sink. The air is cool, and I slip down to fully submerge.

About the author
Ilene Dube is a writer, artist, filmmaker and curator. Her short fiction has appeared in more than a dozen literary journals, including Kelsey Review.

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