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Photo by Max Charping, Maxxicle, is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Bathwater

Susan was from Beijing and didn’t speak much English. She took long, hot baths that left the mirrors afog and the floor pooled with water. And though we lived together, I didn’t know much about her, beyond her bathing inclinations and her quiet resentment towards the MTA, which she expressed to me once, the only time we took the train together (to a P.C. Richard & Son’s for a wireless router). She told me Beijing had several railway lines passing through, which led to almost every corner of the country. In short, they knew what they were doing in a way New York didn’t.

I had long suspected the newness of Susan’s English name. The roommate-pairing agency had given me the name Shu Wei. I was certain she’d visited the Seinfeld-themed diner across the street from our apartment, studied the floating frames on the wall, perhaps lingered too-long by the captioned poster of Susan handing George a dollar bill, and decided that yes, this is who I’m going to be now: Susan. Susan. I respected the reckless impulsiveness of choosing to identify as a nineties sitcoms’ most tragic character. Maybe her English name had always been Susan. I never asked.

Susan and I weren’t friends as much as two strangers catapulted into domestic intimacy by an algorithm that sorted roommates by their alien status. What I knew about Susan: she was roughly my age, she was a grad student in the Engineering department. And, above all, she liked baths.

Susan had the larger room in our apartment. I’d seen the inside of it hours before she’d moved in. There were three french windows—impressive for the rent we paid—and the walls were coated a fresh white. A computer desk cabinet sat beside a sloping twin XL bed in one corner. The space reeked of paint and Clorox wipes. I felt like she had the better end of the bargain until I closed the door behind me, and there it was: a five-inch, cheese-wedge gap between the bottom of the door and the unleveled floorboards. Buildings in Beijing probably had firmer foundations, too.

The morning after Susan moved in, a soft stream of soapy liquid ran past my feet as I opened the bathroom door. I groused privately for an hour or two, making excuses for her—she was new in town, she probably couldn’t figure out how to work the shower, we didn’t even have shower curtains yet! —before I finally gave in and texted her about it. Susan apologized so profusely I felt cruel for bringing up the issue altogether. “Please excuse me so sorry I will dried water by when you get home,” she texted back. When I got home from class, the bathroom was almost entirely dry. I looked up to find a shower curtain with smiling green and blue owls.

The bathroom was swamped again the next day.

I’d gotten acclimated to the bathwater by the night Sheila and David came over with a bottle of Heaven Hill Straight Bourbon—Kentucky’s finest. We’d congregated to test a four-hour playlist for a party we were planning. After careful deliberation, we’d decided to name both the party and playlist “Pre-thanksgiving bangerZz”. I knew Sheila and David from school, and later they’d be the first people I’d give copies of my keys to, but that hadn’t happened yet. Right then, we were just three new friends who felt lucky to have found each other as we left our old lives behind. We slugged cheap bourbon in mix-and-match teacups and watched the snow billow from my apartment window, while we argued over something we could’ve very easily looked up: the title of a 4 Non Blondes song that Sheila and I were sure was “What’s Going On?”. At some point in the night, as David disappeared into the bathroom, Sheila took me aside and told me that he most definitely had a thing for me.

David re-emerged moments later, socks in hand, the bottom inch of his jeans soaked, a quip on his tongue about foot-baptism. Sheila suggested I talk to Susan about her bathing habits, but I couldn’t complain. It was ten minutes past midnight and we were smoking cigarettes out the living room window, singing along to the next song into a USB-powered karaoke microphone, barely feet away from the cheese-wedge gap. I was surprised Susan loaned us the apartment for a party at all.

Susan had moved in with one suitcase. I expected her to accrue more material things over time, perhaps a throw blanket or a nightstand or even some kind of plant—as one does—to make her space a little more hospitable. But weeks went by and the common area was clear of her possessions. All she had bought was an electric kettle. In the meantime, I had found friends, peeled myself from the carcass of a stale relationship, adopted a red media cabinet from the curb and lugged it up the six flights. Also, I was throwing a party.

On the day of Pre-Thanksgiving BangerZz, Sheila and I spent a half hour drying the bathroom floor. We corralled the water around the door with towels to prevent it from spreading, then soaked up small puddles by the tub with extra-absorbent Maxi Pads.

Susan arrived with a grocery bag right as the playlist started and unveiled a bag of clementine oranges. Minutes later there were forty people in the apartment smoking cigarettes out of every window. A plus-one stubbed a Marlboro butt into a clementine. I could tell Susan was uncomfortable. She averted her gaze and made for her bedroom only to emerge minutes later with her purse and an excuse. Susan left the party before “What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes came on, before three different boys I was casually seeing walked in at the same time. Which is to say, she missed the party.

I texted Susan an apology the next morning. She told me there was nothing to be sorry about. “Sorry to make you feel inconvenient,” she texted.

A month later, Susan asked me if she could have the living room to herself for an afternoon. She was going to have a boy over for lunch. I said, of course. I wasn’t sure what came of the meal. She never told me and I never asked. But days later I found a new addition to the shortlist of things Susan accrued since she moved in: a bath oil from True Botanicals in the shower caddy. I tried a pump in the shower. It smelled expensive. Like sandalwood and helichrysum. I assumed things had gone well.

One morning, Susan materialized from the bathroom in her pink terrycloth robe and matching flip-flops. She’d caught me in the kitchen, strategically arranging a case of $3 Trader Joe’s wine on the counter behind a row of $8 Whole Foods wine, and said something I can’t quite remember that lightly and underhandedly addressed my drinking as a habit. And then laughed it off with a cavalier but genuinely enthusiastic “have fun!” The following day Susan texted me, while I was in the middle of a class, asking, “may I come to bar with you and your friends sometimes?” I told her she was always welcome. She never took me up on it.

Susan had started taking baths twice—even three times a day—and honestly, I wasn’t sure how she’d been doing it. Did she fill the tub all the way to the brim before getting in? Did she not realize it was overflowing? Where did she think the water would go? In my room, alone, I’d hear her flip-flops squeaking down the hallway to her room.

Soon, there was an extra pair of socks left drying on the radiator. Sheila and David and I had added another friend to our group. Bill would be the third person I’d hand a copy of my apartment keys to, after I’d take back the set I’d given to David. But none of this happened just yet. We were four new friends, playing Irish poker in my living room, cracking open cans of Tecate every few minutes, singing along to the “pre-thanksgiving bangerZz” playlist. Susan would saunter past us in her pink terry cloth robe and matching slippers, and every now and then, one of us would go to the bathroom and return with a joke about The Shape of Water.

On a particularly dry December morning following a night that didn’t go according to plan, a day when neither Sheila nor David were around, I’d called up my friend Madison and lured her over with the promise of a confession. Madison slung her long legs along my window sill and smoked cigarettes with me until I mustered the courage to tell her that I had consensual sex with a person who I had non-consensual sex with the night before. It felt easier to untangle the subject with someone I didn’t see every day. I told Madison that after it happened, I re-applied my fuchsia lipstick before I headed for the door. Madison was a poet so I figured she would be able to tell me why I had sex with my rapist and then stepped into his bathroom to put on lipstick. But Madison had no answers and neither did I. After she left, I lingered on the fire escape, pulling cigarette after cigarette from the pack until there were no more cigarettes. I didn’t realize Susan had been home until I felt her hand on the small of my back in the window. I turned around to find a pink terrycloth soft-serve swirl towering over me. Susan didn’t say anything. Realizing that the smell of smoke clung to the living room, I apologized, went to my room and slept for a day and a half.

I heard a knock on my bedroom door the following morning. A basket greeted me—some tomatoes, onions; and a crocheted pumpkin—with a note that said I got home early! It will be ok~

The night Susan left for the holidays, Sheila and David and Bill came over to the apartment with Madison and my rapist’s erstwhile friend, Jackson. Sheila brought with her two twelve-packs and five multi-colored christmas light-bulb necklaces, which confirmed my suspicion that my friends knew what had transpired, and had united to throw me what was most definitely going to be a consolatory party. I wasn’t sure who tagged Jackson along or what Jackson expected from the evening but he spent the night smoking too many cigarettes and making small talk with me on the fire escape. Bill passed out solo cups and we emptied them, looking up at the planes in the night sky. Jackson offered me his coat. Jackson would be the fourth and last person I’d give a copy of my apartment keys to but then again, this hadn’t happened quite yet. Then, just then, he was just another person out of place, drunkenly holding his hand palm-out to demonstrate the Michigan mitten.

The week Susan was away, I drew myself a bath. I filled the water almost all the way up to the brim, curious to see how much of it my body would displace. The tub auto-drained as I submerged myself. I sat still and let the water pool around me. I could feel the warmth of my blood. I liked it. I thought of Susan and her storm-tossed bathing rituals. Was she flooding the tiles back in Beijing, too? I started drawing more and more baths over the holidays. I’d slip a tabular concoction of acetaminophen and codeine under my tongue and dream of the ocean.

The night Susan returned for the spring semester, I’d found out that my scholarship evaporated seemingly overnight. Susan came home to find Sheila and David and Jackson and me jumping from chair to chair in the living room. Susan smiled a perfunctory smile and quietly made for her room, her sole suitcase trailing behind. I was embarrassed. I wanted to tell her we’d originally congregated over a case of Yuengling to discuss financial aid and international loans. But there we were, playing a game of True American, jumping on tables, chairs and cushions, trying to escape from the molten lava floor. Pretending my life wasn’t about to change dramatically.

The next morning Susan was in my room, for the first time, in her pink terrycloth robe, consoling me. She rubbed my back up and down in soothing motions while I sobbed with my face on her shoulder. I told her I didn’t want to go back to my home country; there was nothing there for me. There never was. But if I stayed, I’d live in the fear of becoming the woman on the subway asking for money to buy tampons. Susan didn’t say anything. Water dripped from her plush pink hair towel onto my bed.

After I took the keys back from David and before I gave them to Jackson, I came home to a dry bathroom. I remember the moment with immense clarity. The moment I walked in with the bottom of my acid-washed jeans rolled up, and found, waterlessness. I called up Sheila and I called up Jackson who then called up Bill. They came over, twelve-packs in hand, and we crushed cigarette after cigarette out on the fire escape. Jackson and Bill invented a game that involved throwing ice cubes across the street. We kept our socks on and we sang along with Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water” into the USB-powered karaoke mic. There was a joke and we knew it very well.

The bathroom stayed dry the next morning. And the morning after that. And I’d begun to wonder if Susan still lived there. I opened the door to the refrigerator and found that all her noodles and produce were gone. I knocked at Susan’s door and there was no answer. A red bean mooncake sat on her empty desk with a yellow sticky note next to it that read Thank you! Goodbye ~

Gauraa Shekhar is an MFA candidate at Columbia University. She lives in Manhattan with her husband.