I am obsessed with bathing. Some days I bathe three times—once upon waking, once with my daughter (we play mermaids, drink seaweed tea from plastic stacking cups, squeeze the lemon from the mouth of a rubber duck), and once again in the late evening, the house quiet, her asleep. This is my real bath, my essential bath, the one I need. The water must nearly scald me—in the winter when our apartment’s water heater struggles, I pour in big pots boiled on the stove till the steam rises and my skin reddens, and sometimes an hour later when the tub has cooled and I’m shriveled and shivering, I call to my husband and he boils another pot, carries it in oven-mitted and shaking his head. It’s research, I tell him. I’m writing about a character who is obsessed with bathing.
Bathing, I read. Tales of the City, the poems of Sylvia Plath and Li Young Lee, feminist theory. I read Martha Stewart’s Living, The Utne Reader, pages curling, pocked with drips. I keep a pencil in the wire rack with the cotton swabs and washcloths. I use it to mark important passages, things I want to write down. Sometimes my daughter, a three-year-old Picasso and budding poet, has taken my pencil during the day and I’m forced to fold corners, a method of remembering that feels like holding water in my hand.
I don’t use bubble bath or scented oils, though people keep giving them to me as gifts. I don’t light candles or sprinkle the water with salts. I had one of those inflatable pillows, a nice one, covered with terry. It was a birthday present, but after I’d used it a few times it mildewed, so I just lean on the porcelain, unreclining and cold. In order to avoid flooding, I guess, our tub has one of those drains halfway up, so you can’t fill it past your belly button. When I lie back, my breasts break the surface tension, floating, my thighs and knees hopelessly exposed. This isn’t luxury. I’m not pampering myself so much as I’m—what? Resting? Thinking? It’s something about being alone. I’m cordoned off, see? No one can get to me.
Only, that’s not entirely true. On days I’m rash enough to try and bathe alone when Annabelle is awake, she moors herself to the side of the tub, sometimes building a city of squeak toys and plastic eggs and stacking cups on the tile floor next to me, yelling so I can’t read, telling stories to herself no one her age should be able to invent—she is too interesting to ignore, too persistent, too loud. Once, trying to give me a kiss on the shoulder, she fell in head first in all her clothes. When I’d pulled her out of the water and she’d coughed and cried, she said, still gasping: “Here’s the problem—I have no gills.”
Bathing, I feel held, touched everywhere, like experiencing a perfect form of intimacy, surrounded and alone. I feel focused, unimpeded, singular. I inhabit a space with my body, I fill it—this white, warm, clean place I have scoured with vinegar and baking soda so as to avoid chemically irritating what Annabelle calls my pink parts. It’s as if I’ve built a little wall around myself and yet I’m loved. Hot water feels like love to me, like quiet, needless love.
Three days ago you pressed my nipple with your tongue, held it in your mouth for the last time. I knew the next day you’d be weaned, one more tether between us gone for good. I haven’t made milk for weeks, and we discovered in those many dry days what was essential about my breast, what made you need it—not hunger, it was clear, because so long after nothing could be found there, no nourishment, you returned. Your sadness in the first two nights I refused to raise my shirt at bedtime was fierce and wordless, and this seemed right. Today, though, when we talked you told me, I think I can bear it. Watching you sleep, your lips still faintly suckling as you dream, maybe, of the old days when the breast was your constant companion, when the milk that tasted, you told me, like cake, seemed endless. Watching you now my resolve wobbles, your willingness to weather this new separation startling to me. After just three days, you stand at the train station blowing brave kisses at milk, and I know that you will forget this old love soon and for good.
And I need you to forget, to forget the woman who slept twisted and propped and pulsing with pain so you could nurse all night; the one who swore off caffeine and chocolate and broccoli and worse and better so what passed between us would be as pure as possible; the one who didn’t dream for years, her sleep so broken she could not slip into that deep place. I need you to forget that woman because you can’t ever see her again. I seem to have eaten her with a suddenness I’ve only ever seen on nature specials. I overtook her without her knowing, snuck up behind, holding my ragged breath, and swallowed her whole. Don’t blame her; she’d have stayed forever, but even you know everything ends. You made the leap from autumn leaves to your own death months ago, and we can’t even use the word always without your reminding us what a false and flimsy notion it names.
Here’s the thing: I’m lying. I didn’t eat her. Or I ate her, but she’s still struggling in there, like that old lady and the fly. She won’t go all the way down, won’t stop waving her arms, kicking, beating inside me like a heart. I want to wake you from your sleep, from that place you go without me every night, and cradle you and feed you from my body. I want you to wake without words, that baby I had who had no inkling of the symbolic order, who was, merely, a symbol of my own rightness, my goodness and strength. After all, I had made, was sustaining, protecting you with my body. Nothing in my life has ever felt more mindless, so simple as the blessing of belonging to your need, a need I could satisfy with what seemed, at the time, so little effort. On those same nature specials, you see female tigers and hyenas and bears, on their backs, their bellies exposed, their eyes glazed—they are nearly made unconscious by the suckling of their young, they are made sleepy and slack jawed and still. But for Christ’s sake, if they stayed that way, they’d get trampled and torn up. They’d lose any chance they have of ever returning to the hunt, of prowling the night listening for the heartbeats of smaller beasts, slower beasts, meat. They’d never relinquish vigilance, never slip away and into the one meager but moonlit body of water the drought hasn’t dried up, never bathe alone in the silent night again.