An ode to bathtubs, ‘PEN15,’ and the women in my life.
That bathtub and the time spent there instilled in me a deep and abiding love for baths, which only grows deeper as I get older. I adore baths: the heat; the looseness of one’s body afterward; the practice of adding different bath salts to the water, watching the fragrant spread of color. The only thing that keeps me from taking a bath every night now is the setup of our standard-Chicago-apartment bathroom, which does not have a separate tiled shower area to clean myself in before getting in the bath, as Japanese bathrooms do, and which features the disappointing shallow basin that most Americans call a bathtub. Still, I manage to take a bath three or four times a week. I believe a good bath is one of life’s greatest, simplest pleasures.
Sometimes I worry that I write about baths too much. They appear in my writing so often, usually as a signifier of vulnerability, honesty, a place where veneers and illusions are scrubbed away and the truth of something is finally seen. The other day I worked my way through a pivotal moment in my would-be novel, a scene in which two characters finally speak plainly about a deep hurt between the two of them. It was almost as if I had no choice—I could not think to place the conversation anywhere but the bath, and so I wrote them in a bathhouse, sitting side by side in a rotenburo (open-air bath), speaking aloud the pain they’d caused each other.
Whenever I write essays about my body, I often find myself wanting to locate myself in the bath, searching for healing and understanding in the calm of a pool of hot water. In a workshop about identifying writerly obsessions, writer Esmé Weijun Wang asked us students to imagine a PhD candidate somewhere in the future reading our work. What might they find reappearing in our writing? What motifs, images, or colors would repeat themselves? I imagined a bespectacled reader of the future shaking their head at each appearance of the bath, wondering after my fixation with bathing.
In my defense, the bath isn’t just a symbol of vulnerability for me. It has often literally been a place where I am forced to reckon with something. I remember clearly the ivory tile of the hotel bathroom where I first felt the prickle of body-hate and self-loathing as a preteen. I have committed to memory the steam-flooded rectangle of the bathhouse near my Baba’s home, where my mother took me to try to shake me from a bout of disordered eating. One tender, jet-lagged morning, my sister and I spent hours at a twenty-four-hour multistory bathhouse, quietly getting reacquainted with each other after a year spent mostly apart.
A few weeks after I got married, feeling bewildered and disoriented by this suddenly altered family structure, my mother and I had a ferocious, several-hour-long argument in an outdoor bath in Kyoto. The fight was unrelenting and acrid, picking apart long-buried sources of pain and confusion. I am sorry to all the people who could not use the outdoor tub that morning because of our conflict. Still, I firmly believe that we would not have persisted in talking it through were it not for both our physical and emotional nakedness.
Beyond my personal reckoning, I realize now that the bath is also a precious site of relation with the women in my life. There’s a Japanese word I keep thinking of: スキンシップ、or skinship. A portmanteau of the English words skin and kinship, skinship refers to the sense of intimacy fostered by being near someone’s skin, or body. It’s not as involved as physical intimacy, nor does it carry a romantic or sexual tone. Skinship works against what I perceive as the Western revulsion for bathing together, for nakedness, for the Reddit thread that wonders if it is “normal” for Maya to bathe with her mother at thirteen. The bath can be a sort of church of skinship, a sanctuary where bodies can exist in vulnerability, putting aside for a moment all of the tangled politics and difficulties associated with existing materially in life.
From arguing with my mother at a Japanese bathhouse to washing my hair next to my sister in companionable silence to sweating it out in a Korean sauna with my two best friends, the bath presents an opportunity of honest care; of accepting and loving someone without the bells and whistles of clothed life; of knowing them without pretense. The willingness of all these loved ones to sit with me in the bath, to talk and wash and be quiet together, turns this closeness back to me, giving me a space to be accepted as I am.
Skinship refers to the sense of intimacy fostered by being near someone’s skin, or body. It’s not as involved as physical intimacy, nor does it carry a romantic or sexual tone.
In the fifth episode of the second season of PEN15, middle school social tensions have come to a head and Maya finds herself in the bathtub, confessing to her mother, “Everyone thinks I’m disgusting.” Around them, the air is thick with steam, their gestures punctuated by the rippling sound of water. Yuki, Maya’s mother, tries to explain to her that “girls are like salad bowls,” telling Maya that too many girls together sometimes results in chaos. The point is not the actual advice given, but rather Yuki’s demeanor. She jokes a little. She listens intently to her daughter’s heartfelt distress. And although she has words of comfort to offer, it is more the sharing of physical space together in the bath that infuses the scene with love, with closeness, with skinship.
The scene ends with a pocket of quiet, an aerial shot that fills the rectangle of the screen with the rectangle of the tub. In the center of the frame, Maya leans her dark-haired head onto her mother’s bare shoulder. Yuki, visible in slight profile, her gray hair pinned up, curves one arm softly around Maya’s back. The water is clouded with blush bath salt and bobbing with clementines, obscuring their bodies from view. On the edge of the tub is a bar of soap, a wash rag, signifying the utilitarian, mundane nature of the bathtub—this isn’t a special sauna or glitzy spa; it’s a well-worn site of unremarkable everydayness. This intimacy and vulnerability, this nakedness between Maya and her mother, is both precious and prosaic.
I watched this scene with my sister, sitting on the couch in my apartment. When the show shifted from depicting disastrous hilarity to this quiet moment in the bath, my sister turned up the volume, our laughter fading away. We rewound to make sure we could hear every word. As we watched and listened, my sister’s body became somehow more solid, heavier next to mine. She pressed her shoulder into my shoulder, her knees into my knees. I could feel the chorus of relation between us, humming, bodily and without words, as we watched the achingly familiar bathtub tableau unfurl, as if singing: Remember? Remember? Remember?
Nina Li Coomes is a Japanese and American writer, currently living in Chicago, IL. Her writing has appeared in EATER, The Collapsar, and RHINO Poetry among other places. Her debut chapbook haircut poems was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2017.