YOU WONDER WHY I TAKE BATHS ALL THE TIME
Ten p.m. He would be home in about an hour.
She jumped up and turned off the television. Nothing romantic about having the television on, especially at eleven o’clock. He’d come in, tired from working the night shift, pushing the door shut so he could put his coat in the closet, and all he’d hear would be news of yet another killing, bank robbery, or some other piece of bad news. What kind of homecoming was that?
She walked, quickly, back to the bedroom. She passed the childrens’ doors, paused, heard their soft breaths. She hoped they dreamed of happy things. She had made sure that the last thing they saw every night was some comforting teddy bear or soft pastel picture, and that the same sight woke them up every day, the teddy sitting in the same place, having watched them all night long, the angel in the picture still ushering the little children over the little bridge.
She went into her own room. Their wedding picture was hung across from their own bed. She had hung it there with a similar idea in mind, that the last glance of the day would be one of smiles and floating rice.
She walked to the bed and turned down the sheets very carefully. She sniffed the pillows. Her new regimen of opening the windows wide and letting the bed air for an hour was beginning to show. There was the smell of today’s bracing wind in the linen. She thought of how briskly it had blown all day. She had stood on the front porch feeling it, letting it blow away the night.
She walked over to the radio and turned on the oldies station. She stood and listened for a minute. It was just the right sort of music. Not too hard and loud, preventing any thought of sleep, but hopefully it was soothing and cheerful enough to take the edge off of any slight dispute with an underling, or to soothe any memory of disrespect from a superior. Being a middle manager wasn’t easy, she knew.
Didn’t she spend her whole day between the demands of her children on the one hand, and her husband on the other?
She got a cold beer from the refrigerator and put together a sandwich. She put it on the table where he couldn’t fail to see it, on a little tray that would be easy to take to his bedside table. She checked to make sure everything looked fresh, clean.
A sound in the driveway made her catch her breath. If that was him, he was early. Was it really him? She was taking no chances. She dashed into the bathroom and quickly locked the door. She sprinted to the tub, and turned on both faucets full blast, slapping a rubber stopper over the drain. She knelt against the side of the tub and listened.
It WAS him. Over the sound of the water rushing and slapping against the porcelain, she could hear the key turning in the lock, his heavy step coming through the entrance.
She walked very quietly to the door and pressed her ear against it. He was hanging up his coat. Walking into the kitchen. He would see the sandwich.
Over the sound of the water she wasn’t sure if she heard or just imagined the slight clink of the plate that would mean he had picked up his meal. But she definitely heard him start to walk down the hall.
And then pause.
She held her breath. He must be right outside the bathroom door. Please don’t say anything, she thought. You have your sandwich. Your nice soft, clean bed. Your music and your beer. Please walk on down the hall.
After a few minutes, he did.
She let out her breath. The tub was full enough. She turned off the faucets and sat with her back to the water, listening.
She heard the clatter of coins being thrown on the dresser first, missing the little plate she had put there for that purpose. And that louder clank would be his keys. He would be loosening his tie now, unbuttoning his shirt.
She began to undress herself, feeling somehow dishonest to be beside a full bathtub with all her clothes on. Her pajamas fell soundlessly on the floor. She had been ready for bed for hours, had taken her bath at eight o’clock. Clean and groomed, she stepped in the water as quietly as she could, as if he would forget she was here as long as he didn’t hear the slight movement of the liquid rising around her.
She heard his belt come off, with a slither and a slight slap. She shivered. The sound brought back the terror she had felt as a child when her daddy’s belt came off. It was the sound of punishment, of justice.
He had never hit her with it. But hearing the sound, knowing he wore a belt too, filled her with fear.
She hugged her knees in the water and put her forehead down on her knees, waiting. She heard him in the other bathroom. It bothered her to hear the sound of his bodily functions coming through the wall.
What if his body followed the sounds into her quiet, warm, clean space?
The sound of all that water rushing out of him. She pictured him, his shirt off by now, his fly open, his knotted hand holding himself. He was all over weapons.
After a while she realized he wasn’t going to call her and she allowed herself to relax, very slowly, back against the end of the tub. Her skin, which she had washed very gently that morning, was clean and white, punctuated only by a few blue and purple spots. Here in the tub was the only place the bruises showed. They seemed to glow under the water. She shut her eyes so she wouldn’t have to see them, any more than anyone else in the world ever saw them, hidden beneath her carefully chosen outfits.
She would stay in here, soaking in the heat and the warmth, wrinkling in the moisture, until she was absolutely sure that he was sound asleep. How she loved this tub. She had been a shower person when they married. She would stand under the water and lather her hair and get on with her day. So much had changed about her. Her aversion to loud noises. Her tendency to jump right out of her skin at sudden movements around her. Her refusal to sit with her back anywhere but against the wall, so that nothing and no one could sneak up on her from behind.
She breathed slowly in and out. When the water cooled, she ran just the hot, half power, so as not to wake him up. He had probably been asleep for a while now, but there was no sense taking any chances.
She watched the water. It was a miracle to think how the water started up in the heavens, with God and his angels, fell upon the earth, into the lakes and rivers and streams, soaked down into the ground, and eventually made its way all this way into her faucet, into her bathtub, onto her body.
She turned the faucet off and laid back again. The heat made her woozy.
She thought about the legends she had heard all her life of alligators living in the sewers under the city. Jokes about baby alligators getting into the pipes.
She lay and let her mind wander. As her weight shifted, she winced. Ow. That one on the hip she couldn’t even explain. Something about how it was her fault his orange and white shorts were no where to be found. She had searched everywhere for them, even called his parents to see if they had left them there last weekend. How did she know what had happened to them? She didn’t get rid of his clothes, as he seemed to think. If she did, there were a lot of things she would get rid of before the orange and white shorts. That ridiculous burgundy jersey, for example. It always required its very own cycle, so as not to stain all the other clothes.
She decided to run the water again, and this time add bubbles. Why had she forgotten the bubbles?
They covered marks as well as any turtleneck. Scrubbing bubbles take spots out. If he didn’t watch it she was going to wear a V-neck soon. Or a halter top. Maybe to the next office party. Let him explain for once.
Gradually she became aware of something else in the room.
Not in the room exactly.
Underneath the room. Underneath the bathtub.
Yes, she could hear it, but more than that, she could sense it. Right below her, breathing in and out, its scales rising and falling. It must be as long as the tub itself.
She could picture it, its long teeth and sharp claws. Its nearness terrified and thrilled her. She thought of how it must have been brought, possibly as just an egg, from some demonic marsh many miles away, released into the water supply, where it had hatched and crawled up through the darkness, squeezing through impossibly tight spots, expanding in and out like her old suitcase, all to get to this point, resting, waiting just beneath her.
She slowly, painfully, bent forward and gingerly pulled on the plug. She pushed her knees to one side and watched the water go down the drain.
Drink, she thought, drink. Drink the flavor of my sweat and bruises and tears. Drink it up.
She stared down the drain. Yes, she was almost sure she saw the glint of a claw.
She laid back on her side in the now empty tub. The water cooling on her skin made her feel like a reptile herself. She pushed her hands and and one ear flat against the bottom.
There were things in the world one couldn’t explain but they were true just the same. She knew the monster could sense her presence as well. They breathed in and out in unison. Oh, Mr. Alligator, what big teeth you have! Oh,those claws!
But they couldn’t get at her. Not here. The porcelain was a sturdy shield between them. In this bathroom, in this tub, she was perfectly safe.
KAREN FALLEN-RHODES is a mental health therapist who believes that much of mental illness is, at its core, simply loneliness. Hence her ardent belief in community, which she backs up with her lifestyle sharing a crumbling mansion in the suburbs with ten other people in “intentional community.” A former newspaper reporter, she is happy to still be writing in what is fast becoming a “post newspaper” age. This is a work of autobiographical fiction for an upcoming memoir.