Illustration by Kristian Henson
A review of bathtubs in Scotland, Iowa, Tokyo, and Boracay
Whenever I am writing something—a story, an article, a letter—I like to imagine I am writing it from that bathtub in Lasswade, Scotland I enjoyed so many times. They hung a unique piece of rubber tubing in the shape of a letter Y, or a giant floppy wishbone, by a hook on the bathroom door. I had thought it was an enema instrument, until in a moment of inspiration I stuck one end on the cold water faucet and the other around the hot water faucet and let the mix come out of the other end. Filled with water, the tub looked like an enormous egg, freshly soft-boiled and peeled while still steaming, propped up on four legs.
The water was never the right temperature. The spring of 2003 was an erratic spring. The only consistent thing was the view from the small window in the ceiling, a pane of sky obstructed by the jutting outline of one of the castle turrets. That was the farthest north I had ever been and I was fascinated by the fact that it was almost never dark because there were twenty-two hours of daytime.
I was supposed to do some writing while I was in Scotland, but that never happened. The days and weeks gave way to mindless lolling in bed and wandering into neighboring towns and cities. On one of my last evenings in the castle, I discovered someone had filched a hundred-dollar bill from my wallet in my room while I was sitting in the bathtub looking at the sky. In retrospect I probably would have paid one hundred dollars to sit in that tub, so it was even stevens.
The bathtub at the Iowa House Hotel in Iowa City, USA, where I stayed a good two or three months, was less handsome but more functional, just as America mostly was to me. It was large and as white as teeth on TV and cemented into the bathroom layout. It was a good tub, with a ledge flat enough and wide enough for my papers and my laptop. Conveniently, they supplied a LAN cable that was long enough to reach the Ethernet outlet in the room. You can imagine what happened there, or didn’t, while I tried to earn the one thousand dollars they gave me for every month of my residency. Additionally, I threw up in that tub many times after drinking too much great American bourbon. They came and scrubbed it clean every two days. Well, at least someone earned their salary.
At the Tokyo Prince Park Tower Hotel the bathtub is the centerpiece of a bathroom whose size defies preconceived notions of living in Japan. There are two sinks, two stools and a separate shower. The only thing absent is the toilet, which they have placed in another room to make sure that the only smells here are clean smells and the only sounds are the sounds of water. There is an area rug in the middle of the room so you can stand on something warm when you have taken your clothes off and you are studying your naked body in the full-length mirror before you step into the tub, where the water stops automatically when it reaches the right level. Your nipples are perched right above the waterline and your breasts appear like they are beautifully floating on the milky sudsy water. That is the only thought that came to me when the water, preprogrammed to my desired temperature, automatically stopped flowing.
I’ve heard many times that wealthy persons don’t feel paranoid or prudish about their exposing their bodies. Perhaps this is why the bathtub at the Shangri-La Resort and Spa on Boracay island is separated from the rest of the room only by a glass wall. That’s so you can see the TV and the view of the sea and whoever is in the room with you. If you want privacy you need to draw three columns of wooden blinds down, but I imagine nobody really does that. I tried doing it but the little holes and the gaps only made me feel more exposed. During the course of my stay I noticed some of the wealthy-looking guests took off their bikini tops when they sunned themselves on the beach, or didn’t even bother to wear underwear at the breakfast buffet.
So, sex in bathtubs. I’ve never had it. It probably tastes like soap and hurts more than car sex. But I can understand car sex. There’s urgency and the thrill of being found out. Bathtubs on the other hand are, by operation, quite premeditated. They’re for careful planning, such as the trimming of hair, or the lighting of many candles, or the strewing of rose petals, as one might have seen in bad movies. But even in good movies it’s contrived. You simply can’t write a good scene for it. In Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Victoria Abril lets a tiny plastic diver paddle toward her startlingly full muff. What normal grown woman would keep a plastic diver for that purpose? In 9 Songs, a shared bathtub nonchalantly develops into a setting for a very visible footjob. What a setup! Everyone knows the correct water level in real life is too high to reveal one’s penis—even one such as mine. It’s part of the reason why men sit in bathtubs in the first place: to be able to be naked without having to deal with the sight and the weight of one’s body.
Now, I can draw a perfect bath, after hundreds of hours of practice. I don’t think there’s really a correct sequence to it, and I would write a good process paragraph about it if I could get myself to think about it hard enough, but really, it’s all perfunctory until the time comes to insert myself into the picture and swell the progress. I start thinking, and that’s when I find nothing can happen gracefully, especially if the bathroom is terribly small, almost an afterthought, such as at the Hotel Auberge in Mashike-cho, where my party and I were snowed in one night, or features a badly placed mirror, such as at most hotels in the world.
I’ve been bathed by others in bathtubs. In the spa industry they call it a body scrub by default. Most of the time it’s done on a wet table, but if you are lucky they will put you in a bathtub and scrub you there. One time it happened, the woman placed a wet face towel on me for modesty and, midway through the procedure, proceeded to scrub my wrist suggestively as though she were jerking it off, turning me off completely. Another time, the therapist giggled as she scrubbed my armpits with a gloved hand, as though she were the one being tickled. “It’s like I’m washing a baby,” she said. I reached for my phone to make quick notes, thinking the moment would find itself in one of my stories one day.
And it did, just now, surfacing after years of being forgotten. In The Dreamers, an image of lost innocence is pressed on us by the sight of a young man and his sister and his sister’s lover sharing the bathwater. This is in Paris, of course. My one bathtub experience in Paris was in a beautiful hotel room my best friend paid for, in the Marais district. If that didn’t seem odd enough, you must realize that this arrondissement is also known as the city’s gay district. There was a club called Cox right around the corner.
But I was alone, of course, and assuredly. My best friend booked another room for himself and his wife. We could triple-shared but he had known me long enough to know that as a writer, I was a firm believer in alone time, spent preferably underwater and behind two locked doors.
You sit in your dirt and your thoughts and you hear the very personal sounds your body makes. You do your remembering and you do your regretting. The only time I remember sharing bathwater was with my siblings in my prepubescent years. We had a bathtub in my parents’ bathroom in the house we all grew up in. Well, sort of one. What it really was was a sort of high wall in the shower area covered up in tiles. To make bubbles we used odd bits of soap and shampoo dregs we coaxed out of the bottom of their containers by forcing water into them. We screamed and we sparkled and when our fingertips puckered up, we took that as a sign that it was no fun anymore. I can’t remember the last time I used that tub, or even the last time I saw it. I left that house decades ago, in bad shape, both of us.
I would tell my father now, if he were still alive, that a tile-covered bathtub is never going to work because all that grout gets grimy. I’ve learned to be picky when it comes to these things. Even the most inviting-looking ones can be lined with mildew. Some hotel tubs even have rubber seal cement smeared on to mend surface cracks. Signs of a dropped showerhead, or a domestic fight. It’s annoying, perhaps not because it shows signs of the hotel’s age, but because it reminds me that I am just a guest. Countless others have used the facilities before me. I’m suddenly thinking it’s very possible that in any one of the bathtubs I’ve sat in, my buttocks and balls flat on the bottom, someone might have died.
That scene in Rules of Attraction is recalled, where it is taught that a vertical slit on the wrist is what works. And, never forget, Groundhog Day. Meanwhile, some of us might already have forgotten about Jim Morrison and Whitney Houston, who were discovered dead in hotel bathtubs.
This is what I must remind myself constantly about when I’m traveling and working and seeing people and trying to make money: there are always windows for stillness and darkness in any given day, where anything can happen and no one can know what really happens. In bathtubs I choose to try to make what I can out of my writing. It’s work that requires stillness and darkness, and idleness and urgency. I’m always expecting to rise out of the water, trim and gleaming and victorious, my deadlines falling away from me before any puckering has begun.
In 1945, Lee Miller, a fashion model and photographer for Vogue, entered Adolf Hitler’s apartment in Munich and stepped into his bathtub, mere days after he committed suicide in Berlin. Many observers and critics have suggested various meanings—that it depicts continuance, or the absurdity of life, or the triumph of life over death.
The existence of this photo was made known to me by someone I know who can actually write in the tub. She goes into the bathroom with her papers and her laptop and her cigarettes. The tub is dry and she sits there fully clothed in an Indian squat, sometimes for hours. Music is played. The words just flow. There’s always something to show for it afterward, a draft or a thick sheaf of notes. It makes me envious, of course, because I’ve never actually written anything in a tub.
I went for a bath in a Japanese onsen a few months ago. It was a great-looking ski resort, the Hilton at Niseko Village. You had to take all your clothes off in a locker room. You put the towel on your head when you walked into a pool of hot spring water that looked out at a bank of snow. It was two in the morning and I expected to be alone there, but the bath was full of people sitting still, doing nothing but breathe and emit vapor.