The bathtub is beautiful. Stunning. Majestic. Strong. Its talons span the cracking floor, casting an invisible net that keeps the ancient tiles from falling to the lower flat. The porcelain, chipped and abused though it is, carries her weight in its belly, her water-lightened body floating in the cooled pool.
Tatters and scraps of charcoal-darkened paper lie damply about the room, close-up pencil drawings of a claw, a rim, a drip-drop of water.
She rises from the tub, languid and warm. Rivulets stream down her skin, running back to the comfort of the huge, heavy tub. She winds a thick towel around herself and steps out, using her art for a bathmat.
Still wet, she sits on the closed toilet lid and puts charcoal to drawing pad, sketching and shading and rubbing and forming.
Her voice is faint, lilting, almost under the realm of human perception, even hers. It is so constant as to be white noise. It is as if her thoughts have become audible.
“It’s so much like it was, isn’t it?” Still sketching, outlining, filling. “Every day, every moment. I stay here for that, you know. I stay because you’re here.”
She is alone in the room, but her words make another presence palpable, shimmering on the outside of visibility. She knows he listens.
Laughing, “I remember Bo-Jangles. Poor kitty, he really hated me. I took his spot on the bed. One afternoon while you were at the hospital he came in here with me. He never left me alone when you weren’t here, you know. He was so suspicious. He sat right here on the edge, twitching the end of his tail and blinking smugly at me. I thumped a couple of bubbles at him, which he didn’t acknowledge in the least. And then, so fast he couldn’t even wipe that snotty look off his face, he slipped and slid right into the water. He came out looking like a drowned rat, and so skinny with all his fur wet. Don’t you ever feed the poor thing? Anyway, I saved him and blew him dry with my hair dryer, and made a little bed with a hot water bottle. You never knew why he changed his mind about me, did you? Well, now you know.”
She sketches, filling the page, her hands moving so confidently, her eyes piercing the atmosphere. When she runs out of thoughts to vocalize, she hums and endless loop of a distantly familiar tune. The day passes; night could fall and another day begin, and still her world confines itself to this cold space.
She doesn’t hear the apartment door screech open, bang closed. She doesn’t hear his heavy steps across the peeling, squeaky wood floor. She doesn’t look up when he sweeps grandly into the bathroom.
“Maria, Maria, my beautiful, sweet, sweet girl.” He lifts her from the toilet and holds her jubilantly, her wet towel clinging to her for the sake of modesty. “You did it. It sold. They all sold, they all sold. You are wonderful, and this big ugly tub is wonderful.”
He sets her down long enough to kiss the tub’s curled edge. He reaches into the water, soaking his coat sleeve, and pulls the plug. His size, his energy clouds the room, pushing out all the intangibles she has spent the day filling it with.
She blinks as if awakening. “They sold? People actually bought them?”
He laughs, a loud, joyous, ear-thrumming sound. “People actually bought them. I hardly understood it myself, girl. Not your paintings aren’t passionate and breathtaking, but I’ve never seen that crowd so eager to write checks. I still can’t believe you didn’t want to come to your own opening. You should have seen them!”
“They’re all gone, then?”
“Sure, every last one. And Peter is waiting with his teeth bared for your next show.” He holds his arms open for her leap of joy that doesn’t manifest itself.
Instead, she resumes her drawing stance on the toilet seat, opening her pad to a new, clean, fresh page. “I’ll have to paint it again.”
“Fine, fine, paint it again.” He tugs the pad away from her, flinging it into a corner, hiding the flicker of hurt that tightens his weather-sculpted face. “Paint the commode, too, but later. We’re going out to celebrate. And tomorrow, we’re going out to find you an apartment that isn’t a health hazard.”
“I like this apartment, Nick.”
“You like this bathtub.” He forces another cheery laugh and catches her up in his arms. “Tomorrow.”
He dances her out of the bathroom, like a puppeteer struggling with a life-size marionette. He firmly closes the bathroom door, the darkness in his eyes belying the happiness in his voice, leaving the water to swirl down the tub’s throat, gurgling and choking.
And the bathtub waits for her return.
The darkness is broken with the flick of the switch. The bare bulb hums alive, splashing off the cool white porcelain. Maria slides her hand around the tub’s rim, her nightgown softly brushing its curving sides. She kneels, the cotton fabric ballooning around her as she gathers the portraits from the floor. She folds them into her slightly damaged drawing pad.
“Don’t worry,” she whispers, her mouth close to the cold tub, “I promise I won’t leave you, Jonathan.”
The darkness returns with the flick of the switch.
She stands before the mirror, examining her features. She does not style her hair, and her face remains free of decoration. Her right hand reaches across her waist, hugging her midline as if another stood behind her, wrapping her in his scent and warmth. With her left hand she traces the shape of her face in the mirror, her eyes seeking.
Nick stumbles into the bathroom, half-dressed and half-asleep. He hugs her waist, displacing the imaginary embrace she prefers, and kisses her neck.
“Good morning,” she says, watching the woman in the mirror smile. “Where are you going today?”
“Peter and I are hunting in Soho. I hear there’s a kid who brings old copper wire to life.”
“A sculptor. They’re always so… interesting.”
“That’s one word for it.” He closes his eyes and buries his nose in her hair, resting. She leans back against him, soaking up warmth and strength and peace, though her smile slides away and her eyes fall to the reflection of the tub in the mirror.
He says, “This afternoon, we can look for your new abode.”
She stares at him in the mirror, her face losing its small droplets of color, becoming as hard as the ceramic beneath her bare feet. “I like this abode just fine.”
Stepping away from her, “Let’s don’t start this again. This place is just waiting to collapse on itself. Not to mention the fact that your neighbors only have memories of what it’s like to have a normal blood-toxin level. I can’t even think of you being here by yourself without wanting to call a cop to sit on your doorstep.”
She props herself against the sink, requesting its aid in standing with strength. “You said yourself I’ve done my best work here.” A glance to the bathtub, “I feel an aura here. It inspires me.”
“Other, safer apartments have auras. I’m sure we can find one with an aura.” He, too, glances at the tub, but his expression leans toward resentment.
“Don’t say it like that, like I’m a gypsy with a 900 number.”
He exhales his anger. “Is it such a bad thing that I want you safe? That I want you to be alive somewhere outside this room? You don’t think about things like that, but I do.”
Softly touching his cheek, “I know. But I’d rather be here and run that risk than somewhere…somewhere that doesn’t beg me to tell its story. Please don’t ask me to choose.”
He hesitates, his mouth opening as if to make just that request. But rather than forcing an answer that wouldn’t favor him, he kisses her palm, cradles the soft, magical flesh. “Okay, I call a truce. If we don’t find a place with a sufficient aura,” a smile of supplication, “you can stay here.”
She nods and lets him take her in his arms, but she longs only for the comfort in the lapping of warm water.
She traces the charcoal lines with her fingertip, smudging and shading. Her white wrap carries gray dust, stray from the drawings. Her wispy hair floats around her head, falling haphazardly from a knot on the top of her head, the late afternoon sun gilding the wisps with glowing gold.
She hums without knowing she hums. The melody is sweet and sad, like plucked, half-eaten strawberries. She is only peripherally aware of her own voice when she speaks.
“It isn’t that I don’t love you anymore. I promise you that. Never think that.”
She quietly rises, takes a step to stand next to the tub. “I’ll stay,” feather touches on the tub rim, “No matter what the money, no matter Nick’s worrying. I’ll stay.”
Slowly, she sits on the edge and swings her legs into the dry bath. She lies in it, as though it were full of steaming water and gently popping bubbles.
“He does all the things I don’t like doing. Like grocery shopping. Selling my work. Cocktail parties. And sometimes, if I close my eyes very tightly, and I try not to think about it that he smells different, and sounds different…If I close my eyes, he doesn’t feel all that different.”
She resumes humming, singing softly to the empty bathroom, her voice echoing off the tiles.
The front door crashes open, crashes closed, and feet that are not Nick’s clomp hurriedly across the rotting floor.
She continues to hum, not hearing, not caring.
A man runs into the bathroom, a rat in a maze. He wears a sideways baseball cap, a shiny satin team jacket, and carefully worn and ripped designer jeans sag from his hips, exposing a band of gray underwear. He races to the window, tries to lift it with one and a half hands, the other half occupied by a chrome-encrusted blender.
“It doesn’t open,” she says without opening her own eyes. “I think it’s because that window falls right along the line that separates the half of the building that’s sinking, and the half that isn’t. So it doesn’t open. And the other one doesn’t open, either. Painted shut.”
The intruder stops halfway to the second window.
“Don’t none of your windows open, lady?”
“No. If you want some fresh air, you should go for a walk.”
Breathing hard, he looks back toward the door. Silence. He hugs the blender to his chest, protecting it from late-coming scavengers. He finally looks to Maria, and forgets the blender for a brief moment.
“There ain’t no water in your bathtub, lady.”
Opening her eyes, Maria turns her head to him. “There’s no fruit in your blender.”
He holds the blender up, looking for traces of fruit in its depths.
“I was just going out to get some.”
“Through my window.”
“It was a shortcut.” Catching his breath, he peers out the bathroom door. Seeing no signs of pursuit, he swings the door shut and slides the rusty bolt home, locking the door.
He takes her seat on the toilet lid, picks a sodden sketch out of the sink. “You sure like that bathtub, huh, lady?”
Maria stiffens, her make-believe cloud dissipating to reveal a stranger in her sanctuary. She grabs the edges of the tub, shielding it from him. “Why are you here? Who are you? How did you get in here?”
“Don’t get all upset, lady. I, uh, I live downstairs. I ain’t gonna hurt you. We’re neighbors, see?”
“Downstairs?” She squints at him, unable to place his face. “In the Villanovas’ old flat?”
“Sure.” He looks to the door. Still quiet.
“Oh.” She curls up into a ball on the floor of the bathtub, uncertain. Her pale eyes lock onto the faucet that drips randomly.
“How come you don’t got no water?”
“How come you wear a net on your head?”
He touches the hairnet that wraps his hair tightly. “So’s my hair don’t get messed up.”
“Oh.” The faucet drips as she considers. “I don’t have water because I wasn’t taking a bath.”
“Okay, lady.” He becomes more comfortable the longer the door remains closed, the exterior flat quiet. “Yeah, I got my water turned off one time. I had this deal working with this chick down at the water company, you know, but then she got this new boyfriend, and he made her work at his McDonald’s. And I don’t even get free fries from her or nothing now, you know?”
“I have water. I pay my bill.”
“Uh-huh.” He fishes a half-finished painting from behind the toilet tank. A ghostly image of the porcelain tub, brimming with icy water, floats upon the stretched canvas. “You do this? Paint it, I mean?”
He nods knowingly. “Yeah, I’m an artist too. I got some great stuff on a wall down on Fifth. You prob’ly seen it.”
She smiles at him unexpectedly. The expression lifts her whole body, flicks a switch on behind her eyes. “Then you understand.”
“Sure,” obviously not understanding, “and sometimes I sit in my bathtub too. It’s pretty bulletproof.”
Her smile leaves abruptly, but her eyes remain alive. “Some bullets you can’t see.”
“What, like drive-bys and stuff?”
“And stuff.” She studies him, his net-head, his brand-name athletic clothes, the appliance still tucked in his arm. “Is that yours?”
“Hell, yes. I worked hard for this blender. I had to climb up five flights of those rusty fire escapes and then bust into that dude’s kitchen. He had one of those yappy dogs, too. Thank God he was naked and stoked, or he’d’ve caught my ass.”
“It’s a lovely blender.”
“Thank you.” He stands, at ease with his little safe haven. He tucks his hard-earned blender under his arm and peruses the drawings that have become scattered about the floor again. He picks one up, turning it over and around, studying it closely. Pointing, “Who’s this guy, like, your boyfriend or something?”
“What? I don’t paint ‘guys’.” She grabs the page from him, peering at it.
He points to another, and another. “Don’t act so surprised. You drew him. He’s in all of ‘em. You think he’s pretty hot, huh?”
Maria snatches all of them, piles them into her hands. “He’s here…that’s why…He’s here, in all of them, in…” She tosses the drawing back in his face, rushes to a corner where a small stack of canvases rests. She spreads them out before him, displaying them.
“He’s here, too, in these? You see him? Jonathan?”
“Sure, lady, he’s in all of ‘em. Didn’t you know that, I mean, you painted them, right?”
She slides heavily to the floor, her legs folding underneath her, her finger reaching out to the painted canvases. “Here…”
“Hey, lady, you okay?”
She sputters through a film of tears. “I wasn’t really sure, but now I know. He really is here.”
“He your boyfriend, or what?”
“My husband. He is my husband,” touching the canvas, leaning into it. “He’s very…he’s…”
The apartment door squeaks open, slams shut, and Nick’s heavy tread approaches the bathroom. “Hey, you, you can’t work all day and night,” his voice calls.
The boy with the blender panics, darting around the bathroom, stumbling over Maria’s still and oblivious form. Nick strides through the door.
“Hey,” Nick stops short. “Who the hell are you? Maria, what—”
The boy shoves past him.
“Maria, are you all right? Goddammit.”
Maria whispers, “He’s here, Nick. Jonathan is here.”
Before she is finished, Nick is following the boy, pounding the floor so hard that her toiletries rattle on the sink.
Maria holds a canvas close to her, as the boy held the blender. She is clutching it to her breast when Nick returns, gasping for air and collapsing on the closed toilet.
“I couldn’t catch him,” he says, “That kid’s fast. Did he hurt you, are you okay?”
“About what? How to pick locks?”
“We talked about art.”
“He’s an artist too.”
“I’ll bet. A con artist.” He runs a hand through his hair, surveying the bathroom-turned-gallery. “How much did you give him?”
“I didn’t give him anything. He brought the blender with him.” She flips the painting so Nick can see it. “Do you see him too, Nick? Do you see Jonathan?”
“Ah, Jesus.” Nick tugs the canvas away from her, letting it settle unceremoniously in a corner. His face crinkles at all the images in the room as though they are emanating a foul, decomposing odor. “Of course I see Jonathan. He’s in everything. In your sketches, in your paintings, in your voice when you cry out in your sleep. You didn’t think you were just painting a cruddy old bathtub, did you?”
She nods blankly.
“Maria, he’s a ghost. He’s a goddamn specter, and he’s taking you with him. It breaks people’s hearts.” He gestures futilely at the paintings. “That’s what makes those people open their wallets. He’s motherfucking everywhere.”
“He is here,” Maria insists. “In this room.”
“I know.” Nick rises, goes to the stuck window, hands in his pockets. “It’s why I’ve wanted to get you away from here.”
“No. No, I can’t, especially not now.”
Turning, “Especially now, Maria. Especially now. He isn’t here, that’s the thing. You’re here, I’m here, but Jonathan is gone.”
“How can you say that when he’s all around you?”
“He’s all around me because you pump him into this room. For Christ’s sake, if he’s anywhere, if he is a ghost, he’s probably hovering outside the window, trying to scream at you to please, for the love of God, let him go.”
Maria falls back against the tub, fumbling over it for support.
Nick reaches to her. “I’m sorry, Maria, I didn’t—”
Maria grasps the edge of the tub and pulls herself up. “Go, please, Nick.”
He makes no move toward the door. “Maria. This person you’ve become, this isn’t the woman he loved. You’re a shadow. You eat and you sleep and you paint, all of it in some other place than the one I live in, some kind of in-between. He loved you because you were alive, and now you’re just a zombie. Jesus, I loved you because of all that, and as much as I thought Jonathan hung the moon, I hated him for having you first. And every day I watch you fade out bit by bit, every day I hate him more. It isn’t even his fault, but I can’t bring myself to hate you.”
Tears cascade down her face, her white, translucent cheeks. They find the hollows of her neck and float there, puddles of sorrow. “Hate me then,” she whispers. “Just go away.”
He slowly turns to the door, his once-jubilant energy dimming to a broken sputter. “I’ll be checking in on you.”
As soon as he leaves the bathroom she falters, leaning heavily on the tub.
“I told you I wouldn’t leave. I told you I’d stay.” She climbs into the bathtub, pillowing her head with the drawings and sketches that fill her mind.
In the darkness, she wakes, alone. Stiff and kinked, she untwists her body and struggles out of the tub.
The silence of the midnight bathroom is punctuated by a tapping. She follows it to the closed window.
She spies movement, shadowy and fleeting, on the fire escape. She lifts up on the window, but nothing happens.
The movement solidifies suddenly, a charcoal form topped by a moonlit face filling the window frame. Maria gasps and covers her throat, stepping back.
He carries no blender this night, but his eyes are just as frantic, seeking signs of his pursuers.
“Lady, let me in!”
“I-I can’t. It’s stuck, remember?”
“Shit.” He puts his meaty shoulder to the window, pushing up with all his might. A creaking, a groaning, a faint squeak and protest. It opens, screeching, inch by inch, inviting in a cold breeze, and the stench of the rotting garbage from the alley below.
Running footsteps echo off the asphalt outside, the brick buildings, the iron fire escape. A man shouts, and Maria’s uninvited guest curses vehemently. The window has not risen enough to allow him into the haven of the bathroom.
He abandons the window without so much as a nod at Maria, who stands watching the scene unfold. He quickly turns away from her apartment to climb further up into the dome of the night.
Maria approaches the new aperture to the outside world, tentatively looking out. The boy is clambering off the uppermost landing onto the roof, his glimmering sneakers sparking in the orange light of a nearly streetlamp before disappearing entirely.
The men below shout out again, and run toward the front of the building, out of the alleyway.
Maria, alone now, reaches one hand out of the window, letting the cool night air taste her fingertips. A warm, sweet breeze trickles through the bathroom, rustling paper and lifting her hair.
Though the boy is gone, a shadow remains. She can see it from the corner of her eye, wavering in a corner of the fire escape, disappearing when she turns her head to peer directly at it.
“I can feel you,” she whispers. “Are you really there?”
She ducks, sliding her head and shoulders through the narrow opening. The fit is tight, but her body is drawn, small and undernourished. She stretches to reach the shadow.
“Jonathan, please. Help me.”
The shadow does not approach. Tears crowd her vision, cutting off even the peripheral view she has of the transient form.
“Please, I need you.”
Her arms extend toward where she believes he stands, her weight pressing on her pelvis on the windowsill. The cracked wood digs into her flesh, tearing the outer layers through her nightgown. She does not feel it.
The front door, Nick’s oh-so-familiar tread on the floor, interrupts her nearly silent pleas to the long-dead man she cannot see. Nick’s hard-soled shoes clomp across the hardwood floor, their voices approaching her like the ticking of a clock. She pulls harder against the window frame, knowing that if she can only reach him, touch that shadow in the corner, Jonathan will grasp her wrists and pull her into his arms, fly her away, take her home.
“Maria?” Nick calls, knocking softly on the bathroom door. “Maria, I’m sorry. I said a lot that hurt you, I know, but I didn’t mean to.”
Maria’s feet leave the floor, scrabbling now, desperate now, kicking against the man in the other room, against the canvases and sketch pads piled around the white-tiled room.
“Jonathan,” she whispers, urgency weighing her words.
Her foot finds her sanctuary: the bathtub. She feels its satisfying solidarity against her sole, and leverages her body against it.
“Maria, I’m coming in, and this time you’re not kicking me out until we reach some sort of agreement. You hear?”
She shoves, her muscles straining, the skin on the points of her hips giving way under the pressure. Her nightgown rips open, leaving behind jagged scraps of gauze on the windowsill. Her legs slip through, and she is gone.
Nick opens the bathroom door tentatively, as though he expects objects to come flying at his head.
“Maria? Can we talk about…”
Entering, he loses his voice, loses his momentum as he discovers the room is empty, devoid of even illusory human breath. He flings open the door, shattering its crystal knob against the wall.
“Where are you, girl?” His shoe slide, on paper, not tile. He crouches and plucks a half-finished sketch from the floor, just the briefest image, passing, falling into soft charcoal dust.
A flap of nightgown flutters, drawing his eye. He drops the sketch, rushing to the open window.
She floats at the end of the fire escape, the tatters of her nightgown whispering about her, barely covering her body, its wings struggling to lift her into the orange glow of the nighttime city. She does not even flinch as he screams at her to get off the railing.
He shoves at the window, straining to lift it high enough to allow him through, but it staunchly refuses.
He reaches one hand, one arm outside, so far away from touching her. “Maria, come back inside, please.”
She raises her arms, not as a bird, but as a lover welcoming an embrace. She steps forward, and a shadow encompasses her, darkening her ethereal body to a black and white sketch, a picture devoid of color.
Her feet find nothing but air, and she drops from the fire escape, seeming to drift down like a snowflake on a calm winter night.
Nick launches himself at the window, which shatters but does not give way. He cries out her name.
Her response echoes up from the alley below, a faint, choked, tear-filled whisper: