For the first time in 15 years, I took a bath. Just now, in fact. I still feel licks of it in my hair and ears.
I was just going to take a shower. I turned the water to it’s typical mediumish place on the dial and tested the water. “Cor, that’s bloody ‘ot,” I said, suddenly Cockney for reasons that elude even myself. And seeing as how there was plenty of hot water to spare (probably the result of two of my housemates being absent), I was struck with the sudden impulse to take a bath.
Baths are wonderful things, and it’s a shame we visit them so seldom after childhood. But that preserves the memories, I suppose.
Baths are like dreams. Amidst the drowse and laze, memories from childhood float along the water’s surface. Memories are dreams too, for the past is as much a fairy tale as Mary Poppins and Peter Pan.
I had bath toys, like many other kids, but perhaps they were not the most typical. For a few years, the stars of the porcelain theater were assorted viscera: Mr. Bones and Squeaky Guts.
As a kid, I used to listen to old radio programs from the 40s and 50s. Abbott and Costello, Red Skelton, Fibber McGee and Molly, Burns and Allen…through these, I developed a nostalgia that out-aged even my parents.
And these vaudevillian variety show were mimicked in the tub by a skeleton and innards.
Mr. Bones and Squeaky Guts were my own name for the odd couple. Mr. Bones was a rubbery plastic skeleton, and Squeaky Guts was an oblong red and purple blob of organs that fit inside the rib cage. The blob of organs squeaked when you squeezed it, and this was how he communicated, and got his name. I’ve searched for them online, but cannot seem to find proof of their existence anywhere.
Mr. Bones was the straight man of the two, while Squeaky Guts was decidedly more goofy. His squeaks were unintelligible to all but me and Mr. Bones, and their friendship was reminiscent of C-3PO and R2-D2–vaguely co-dependent and abusive.
I recently rewatched The Brave Little Toaster, a childhood classic about a toaster, an electric blanket, a lamp, a radio, and a vacuum cleaner who go off on an adventure to find their Master. The film is delightfully dark, with a great story and the highest body count of any G-rated kid’s movie I can think of.
Watching this movie again reminded me of my lifelong ability to personify anything. It didn’t stop at rubber body parts, either. I used to voice long conversations between constructions of K’nex. They didn’t look like people, either. They were just long spiraling coils made by linking all of the red 90 degree pieces together in one spiral and all of the green 135 degree pieces in another. The red spiral was thin and square, and the green one was big and octagonal. Red was a little sneaky and conniving, though not in an altogether unlikable way. Green was dumb, but lovable.
I suppose this was the point at which I should have realized that I would either be a writer or schizophrenic.
But back to the bathtub!
The tub had other denizens from time to time. There was an albino alligator that lived there for a while. He squeaked like Squeaky Guts, but you couldn’t trust him, because he was always trying to eat the rubber frogs and lizards that sat on the tub’s edges.
A house with a water slide hung from the shower wall by rubber suction cups. Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and Piglet lived there, looking down on the remains of the Hundred Acre Wood, which was now always flooded. The house was too small for the three of them, and they were eternally tricking each other into falling down the slide and into the water.
And last but certainly not least, there was the Tugboat. Tugboat didn’t talk much, or associate with most of the other toys. I don’t even know if he had a name, other than Tugboat. But Tugboat had a role to play. You see, along Tugboat’s keel, there were numbers. You couldn’t see them most of the time…not until he got into the water, and the water was good and hot.
I realize now that Tugboat was meant to keep me safe. His temperature readings were supposed to make sure that the water never got too hot. But Mom and Dad didn’t count on my avid fascination with numbers. I ran my baths good and hot to make sure every number showed up on Tugboat’s keel. It wasn’t a truly good bath if I didn’t see all the numbers.
92, he said, in bright red digits.
94, in orange.
96, you could barely see, because of the light yellow tinge to the numbers.
98, green…at this point the water was starting to get uncomfortable, but I kept on, until I got to…
100. These numbers were the brightest blue I remember from my youth.
That was good ol’ Tugboat for you. Quiet enough most of the time, but when he wound up in hot water, his true colors showed through.
Looking back, I see the glimmer of a writer growing up in that bathtub. I had a wide cast of characters there with me. Pastiches of characters I’d seen before, yes, but they were my characters nonetheless. And I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
* * *
So take a bath!
Not today, or tonight, and certainly not because I told you to. Baths must be taken, but only when they are also given. You’ll know it’s time when you feel in your bones an ache for childhood that you haven’t felt in many years. And if it’s time, the water will echo the sentiment, and show up just as hot as it should be.
Settle in the tub and work the faucets with your toes. They have little enough to do as it is. Let them have their fun, and give your fingers a long-needed vacation.
Don’t complain that your bathtub is too small. It’s supposed to be too small and uncomfortable to sit in. Let it take you back to a time when happiness was measured in more than comfort. Remember a time when danger brought happiness too. Danger and adventure were no respecters of comfort, but they inspired the greatest joys and thrills.
Swish the water around, so the hot and warm do not separate, but stay blended. If the bath is hot enough, you will feel your blood begin to pound. Your body is remembering childhood fears of being cooked in a cannibal’s stewpot. That’s all right. Let the fear come. It is good to be afraid, for while they do not resemble the jungle wild-men of storybooks, there are still man-eaters in our midst.
Close your eyes, though do not fall asleep, unless you would prefer to bathe in Lethe. Let dreams, half of sleep and half of waking, flow in eddies around your mind.
Linger until the water begins to cool. Like all dreams, this dream must fade, its death pronounced by entropy rather than alarm clock. Once more with your toes, remove the stopper and let the drain-gargler have his drink.
But don’t get out of the tub just yet. Why be in such rush to escape the dream? Instead, let the waters ebb out from underneath you, gently returning you to the weight of waking life. Neither should you grab at the towel too hastily. Let the water leave you on its own time, evaporating invisibly into the air. Inhale these vapors, and enjoy this last gift of the bath.
And then, if it’s 4:30 in the morning and you’ve been writing a blog post for the last hour wearing nothing but a towel, then go to bed, and give other dreams their moment in the mindlight.