by Chris Wallace
Sometime around 1984, when I would have been six-ish, I had a revelation—a kind of satori. I was in the tub when it happened. My perspective began to pull back, out the back of my head, up, out of my dad’s apartment in West LA, back out of California, off the continent, off the planet, out beyond Mars, through the asteroid belt, and past Jupiter as if drawn back on the string of a cosmic bow. I got all the way to Saturn before the zoom-out slowed to a stop and I shot back to Earth where I regained my wits in the tub. As opposed to the more minor, weedy we-are-all-one revelations I’ve had a few times since, the upshot of this grand dilation and contraction of consciousness was an awareness of my individuality. In all the vastness and noise and debris, I now recognized, I existed—unique, separate from the mass organism of cosmos, in the bath. I recognized my own identity. It was the moment I realized I was me.
A few years later I had just gotten into the tub with a bowl of morning cornflakes when the October 1987 quakes hit the Whittier Narrows a few miles away. I got in, there was water, and then suddenly the tub was empty. Big things poppin’ when I’m in the bath—big, sodden, pruney-fingered moments in my life.
Who would stand to shower when they could slump-float, or whatever it is one does in a tub? I mean, you’re not telling me you still pee standing up. At home? When you could be on Instagram?
And I’m in the tub a lot. Though these days it’s not without a healthy dose of anxiety that I draw gallon upon gallon of steaming hot water from the miraculous and surely overtaxed reserves in New York, where I live. I also recognize, vividly, just how thumb-sucky and decadent it is for a grown man to spend long stretches of time in the tub. (Hey, Tom Ford takes four baths a day—or, wait, does that prove my point?) But who would stand to shower when they could slump-float, or whatever it is one does in a tub? I mean, you’re not telling me you still pee standing up. At home? When you could be on Instagram? I’m tired just thinking about it.
It is in the tub that I feel most safe and protected. It’s that whole womb thing, probably—the calm warmth and weightlessness where I am safe and sound—and I do pretty much bathe the way a cat kneads a throw, purring with eyes a-loll. I live alone in my apartment, but still I close the bathroom door and settle into the tub as if entering a fortified inner sanctum. Its walls are the adult version of the forts I was always building in each of my parents’ living rooms as a kid: confined, comforting.
For that reason, bathtime for me is synonymous with privatetime. It is the most alone I can get, doubly reinforced by the walls of plaster and porcelain that protect me. I’ll listen to an argument for an outdoor bath in the private garden of a Balinese-style villa, in Bali, but everyone knows that hot tubs (whether après ski, on a redwood deck built in the ‘70s, or the Encino set of a dating show) are crucibles of creep. And public baths—spas, bath-houses, call them what you want—are to actual baths as a Carnival parade is to a quiet stroll. Solitude is what I’m after, and I have an only-child’s tolerance for alone-ahol.
Any lover who peeked in at me while in sudsy situ acted as if they’d caught me doing something—something louche and debauched.
Upon running into me, a former roommate once said, intending either flattery or facetiousness I know not, that I looked good, healthy. “I mean, you take care of yourself,” he said. “Those baths.” The word had a tint of conspiracy, as if he knew of my queer taste for conflict diamonds or rare rhino tusks, but was too on-the-level to say anything. He didn’t outright disapprove of my two-a-day bath habit, not exactly, but he was clearly shaking his head.
Some girlfriends, upon discovering the full extent of my bathing regimen, wanted to trade notes on skin care, feeling they’d found a kindred exfoliator (which of course I am; though, it may be these same exes who would later wonder if I wasn’t in fact gay—which is another story entirely). And any lover who peeked in at me while in sudsy situ acted as if they’d caught me doing something—something louche and debauched.
But I only ever do nothing while in the tub. That’s the point of baths, foamy nothingness. On the best days I will settle into a kind of meditation, letting slip my anxieties and any firm grip on consciousness itself. Looking like a precog in Minority Report, I imagine, I let go of my singularity to join a broader network, and, from this view point, begin to see with a wider eye, feel with greater compassion.
The bathtub is where my clearest and best ideas come to me, sometimes propelling me, slippery and soapy, into the next room to write them down.
When the bubbles clear, though, I am left looking down on the pale, peaked figure crumpled into the bath, I always have the same thought: this is all that I am, this is all that I have to get me through the world. I’m struck by the frailty of the body, the vulnerability of flesh, the limits of my reach, the creeping weakness of muscles, entropy of the mind.
In the privacy of the bath, isolated by the white noise of cascading water, I’ll replay some of my social missteps; even a teensy bit of awkwardness from four months ago can spring up, swelling with the attention into a monstrous Michael Bay-scale mental reenactment. Or I’ll go the other direction, writing and re-writing drafts of my life that are yet to take place, rehearsing lines I anticipate having to say later in the day (“We put things on to either protect or project our persona,” I’ll say, in response to some cue I’ll think up later, “but what about that which is put on us?” Ha. Zing!), practicing to get them just right, give them that unrehearsed vibe, resulting inevitably in my flubbing them later on, delivering them as if fresh from a can. My baths are a riot of bad faith.
I remember being haunted, as a kid, by stories of people drowning in only a few inches of water in the bathtub—as shallow as they are, it is in these waters that I get deepest. This is where my clearest and best ideas come to me, sometimes propelling me, slippery and soapy, into the next room to write them down. There are times, of course, when what I get to paper isn’t as deep as the pen groove that holds it, but often enough, the ideas are so good—in other words, so simple, so seemingly self-evident—that I sit with them in the tub, savoring them. Ideas like: I ought to write something about taking baths. Or: aging feels just like a slow build toward hallucination or freak out—everything overly bright, glaring, glaringly loud, crowded, pushing in and quickening, pressing forward at hyperspeed. There are the stray thoughts, too, like, what if one is not trapped in time and free from the hazards of aging, as a perfectly formed vampire, say. What then is the end game for that gym routine?
Most of my tub thoughts, though, are of the hackeysack humanist variety. I imagine that the “me”-ness I first discovered in the bath all those years ago begins to melt in the heat my little cauldron, oozing out to join again the primordial soup, the universal organism—I am the soapy Sufi, I think, returning to my senses and ruining the selfless revelation. Soon I’ll have to get out, I think, turning on the hot water again.
Chris Wallace is Senior Editor at Interview Magazine. He contributes regularly to The Paris Review Daily and The New York Times, among others