Wednesday, August 21

Bath

THE DINNER-PARTY had come to an end. I sat there in one of the chairs on the patio, staring with dazed interest at the twinkling lights above me, suspended from the canopy. The distant voices trailed off as I heard, above all, Bethany wishing them a good-night. I took a deep breath, my eyes pointed above, waiting for her return. Before me were half-empty dishes of chocolate pudding, coffee cups drained down to the grounds, candles running out of wick & wax, crumbling blocks of cheese, and a set of photographs that no-one had cared to put back into their respective boxes for safekeeping.
The front door closed. A car drove off in the clammy midnight air; its intrusive headlights disturbed the walls of the neighbour’s house. Through the outstretched fingers of candlelight I could see gnats circling, engaged in a late-night soirĂ©e.
Bethany came to the back door and stared at me for a moment, sighed, then said—‘ I’m going to take a bath.’
‘Okay.’ I said, not moving my eyes.
When she had gone, I remained in my place: the seat I had occupied all evening, except for toilet breaks and to make coffee (because it was a ritual for me, though no-one else appreciated it). The peace and quiet afforded me reprieve. Tapping my fingers on the arm of my chair. I continued to sip my wine. After everyone had been & gone there was a unfamiliar silence all around me, as though something could happen at any moment; perhaps I would wait. The twinkling lights blinked back at me, mechanically orchestrated by the little controller on the wall: sparkle, flutter, fade-in-fade-out, all on, chasing each other; their patterns seemed to be endless.
Bethany was not happy with me.
I knew that.
How long does it take to run a bath? I thought of her and how I had let her down.
When the guests had arrived—only a half-dozen of them—I was fatigued and in no way ready to greet them. I wished only to lie on my bed, drinking beer, slipping in and out of sleep. It had been arranged, though, so that I had to attend and listen to all of their stories, be a host, converse. As they spoke to me, I drifted in and out; I could not focus; everything they said to me was very boring; the sky percolated from blue to orange to red to death; the stars punctured everything very gradually and I was alone with my thoughts as they resigned to only addressing Bethany while I sat there getting more and more drunk.
I locked up. I turned the lights off. The twinkling lights shot out. The gnats groaned and took their party elsewhere.
Through the open bathroom door waved gentle flags of steams through the crack. The ripples of bathwater reverberated off the tiled surfaces. I went to our bedroom, undressed, took a look at myself in the mirror—my stomach a little swollen with food & drink—and walked back into the hall toward her.
She had arranged the occasion with the sweetest enthusiasm; updating me along the way with the menu, table arrangements and the latest goings-on from the soon-to-be attendees’ lives. I had a good idea about these people before I met them.
I wondered what they knew about me.
‘These are my friends,’ she told me. ‘They’re good people.’
‘As long as they clean up when they miss the bowl, I don’t care.’
During the course of the evening, she & they recounted memories to me and I listened intently. By the end of the evening, I wanted my love back. She glistened in a way that I had not seen before. It wasn’t that she was unfamiliar or even that she was the best version of herself, but she was different; laughed at different things, even performed different facial expressions. At times I felt like I didn’t know her, though—please know—I was no less in love with her or unfamiliar. A previously unknown fraction of Bethany had been carried into our house by her guests and reconstituted itself on the seat beside me.
She was lying in the bath. I entered and, hanging my head, took my seat upon the closed toilet. She didn’t look at me. She was in a state; recovering, staring into the blurriness of her bathwater as if it were an object far away. I had not seen her like this before; it was as though she was pushing a great many things away from her.
I put my hands between my knees and closed them together.
‘How are you?’ I asked.
‘Okay.’
‘What have you put in the tub?’ It smelled very strongly.
‘It’s this bath-oil shit … it’s meant to relax you and calm you down and help you meditate or something.’
‘Is it working?’
‘I’m pissed off. It’s not working in the slightest … and I tossed the receipt.’
‘You could say your aunt bought it for you and she died and was buried with the receipt. You could say she loved that receipt and she loved that store and she was a hoarder in recovery.’
‘I don’t have an aunt.’
I know that, but they don’t.’
We sat in silence for a bit.
Bethany lay in the bath and splashed water on to her shoulders. The tips of her black hair were sticking together. The room was soup with steam and the scent of the bath-oil. Sitting there upon the toilet with no clothes on, I felt a little ridiculous, but I was free to cast my eyes at Bethany, and she looked as I had not seen her before. Her eyes were down; white naked eye lids and long black lashes; her skin was pink from the heat of the water; waves around her breasts made the skin there a sheet of shiny blemishlessness.
I picked up a book that we kept next to the toilet: it was a collection of comics by Chris Ware. I absent-mindedly flicked through it, feeling the breeze on my wrists and getting a whiff of the paper & ink. I was waiting for Bethany to admonish me, but instead she said—
‘Tonight felt strange. I did not feel myself.’
‘You didn’t?’ I asked, putting the book back down.
‘No. Something happens when people come round, especially old friends … I feel as if I go into autopilot or something, and that nothing could stir me out of it. Fucking hell, if Jenny had picked up a knife and swore she was going to stab us all I probably’ve still just smiled and asked if she’d had enough to eat. My face freezes up in this stupid smile and my laugh…’
‘You sounded different,’ I said—‘You seemed different.’
‘I felt different. I laugh at whatever they say and think to myself—“That’s not funny!” but I keep on doing it … I can’t stop.’ She paused to splash more water on her shoulders and her dry chest—‘Back then they seemed so interesting but as they’ve got older they’ve become boring and I can’t be arsed to listen to a word they have to say or any of their stories. Still, I sat there and took it all in and laughed at the right times … Most of all I was wishing they’d leave. If I met them now, we wouldn’t be friends. It’s history—history binds us to each other, whether we like it or not, but I could do without them. I felt more alone with them here than I’ve felt in years.’
During this pause, I climbed into the bath with her. It was a sizeable tub—one picked out by her for such occasions—and she hardly had to move to accommodate me. I put my legs either side of her. The water was hot. I understood why her skin was so pink. Little gasps floated out of my mouth as I sunk in (she smiled). I put my feet against her thighs and she hers against mine. Her elbows were rested on the bath edge and her long slender fingers were skating across the surface of the water.
‘I’m sorry for acting so badly this evening,’ I said.
She looked up and shook her head—‘O, don’t worry about it. If the shoe was on the other foot…’
I poured more of the bath-oil in. It glooped and splashed.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Don’t you jerk curry. This’ll sort us out.’
‘It’s shit.’
‘Most likely.’
The rest of the time we played with each other’s feet, giggling when we felt like it, but not saying a word. She washed, rinsed and got out. She toweled herself off in front of me. Before she left, she leaned down and gave me a bath-oil smelling kiss—‘I don’t want those fucking people in my house again.’
‘Me neither,’ I said.
When I was finished in the bath, I wrapped the towel around my hips. Quiet music came from our bedroom and the ruffle of the duvet. I took a bucket from beside the tub and filled it with water from the bath. Groaning and a little drunk, I carried the bucket to the garden, the dry grass, the prickly yellow mess that was without dew, and I poured it over as much of it as I could. I repeated this, again and again. I smelled the bath-oil. I thought of Bethany. I thought of Bethany when I’d met her and how she was now. I thought of the whole evening. A dozen journeys, back & forth. In the vaporous moonlight the grass sparkled and the bath was empty. I tightened my towel and still smelled the bath-oil; subtracted from her skin and from the confines of our bathroom it wasn’t bath-oil at all but the smell of something else, frayed, alien, detached.
She was reclined, listening to the music, yet still fully awake when I entered the bedroom—‘Where’ve you been?’

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