Last week, I found myself in a predicament that involved water pipes, shampoo, and a string of expletives.
I live in a rented condo in a half block of buildings that have separate entrances and shared utilities. Whoever it is that deals with maintenance and plumbing has recently taken it upon himself to fiddle around with the hot water supply at sporadic intervals. At one point, the condos would have periods without hot water for hours at a time every other day. I am not aware of any particular reason that these people (henceforth known as “servants of the devil”) need to shut off the hot water. There have been no reported leaks, burst pipes, water softener or heater part replacements, or town water issues during these occurrences. From what I gather, these people are turning off the hot water solely to thwart my attempts to clean myself.
First, it was just inconvenient attacks in the afternoon, causing me to have icy cold hands every time I washed them. Then it started happening earlier in the morning. I was actually late to work one weekend because I had been waiting with my fingers crossed for the hot water to come back on so I could take a shower, only to give up twenty minutes before I had to leave, rushing to get ready after dawdling in vain.
Then, last Wednesday it happened. I was in the shower, minding my own business, when I gradually felt the spray of water at my back dwindle and slip from scorching, to warm, to cool, and finally to Titanic iceberg cold. At this point, let me mention, I had just fully lathered my hair with shampoo and had soap running into my eyes as I started cursing the shower, the pipes, and all those parties involved with turning the hot water off.
Needless to say, I was mad. And in the words of Rizzo, “There are worse things I could do, than go with a boy or to…Take cold showers every day,and throw my life away, on a dream that won’t come true.” Well, maybe this isn’t the right context, but who am I to sneer at a Grease reference. And I’m pretty sure after this experience, I would sleep with the whole town rather than have another spontaneous cold shower.
How does this tragic tale relate at all to history, literature, or boys? Well, that part is coming. Now that I have set the scene, let me tell you how I turned my soapy, furious state into a lesson in romantic nostalgia.
First, I had to get the soap out of my hair. Being that I have a lot of hair, and had a full lather going, I decided I would brave the icy waters of the Atlantic and rinse my inverted head with the cold water from the shower head. Though I thought I could stand the frigid waters on my head alone, I had an odd combination of a headache and numbness by the time my hair was clean. Strangely, aside from the yelling and continued cursing, the first things that came to my mind were several historical thought bubbles.
My first (sarcastic) thought was “this is what Jack and Rose must have felt like in Titanic.” While I am pretty sure the water had to be colder in real life, to me at least, it was the most piercing water I’ve ever been immersed in (and I’ve been to beaches in Maine). When the Titanic traveling exhibit visited my area years ago, I touched the wall of ice on display for visitors to feel to get an idea of what temperature the water would have been. The dousing really brought back memories of that wall, and what it must have been like for the unlucky souls who didn’t make it onto a lifeboat.
My second thought brought to mind my various experiences with Romance novels. Yes, of sound body and mind, I hereby admit that I read Romance novels. A lot. Without shame.
Mostly, I read historical genres, and I have been struck by certain themes, phrases, generalizations, and characterizations of protagonists that you are sure to read about later on this very blog. But the one thing I thought about during my sub-zero hair rinse was bathing throughout history. I’ve read many novels set in periods from the Middle Ages to the Regency in which characters take baths in lakes, streams, ponds, and various other natural bodies of water. They’re always talking about how cold the water is, and how they get goosebumps and numb toes, and “shall catch their death!”
Most of the time I wondered to myself, how cold could it really be? Are these men wimps? Growing up in the Northeast and visiting beaches with Atlantic currents in September made me unsympathetic to their so-called plight. Oh, how wrong I was. I have a new found insight into these jaunts into chilly creeks and sympathy for the shivering characters in them.
After braving the arctic waters, and shivering into my robe, I then had the dilemma of figuring out how I would proceed with bathing myself. I certainly couldn’t handle the cold water, but I had to finish my shower because, well, I wanted to be clean for the rest of the day. I ended up deciding to kick it old school; I was going to heat my bath and wash with a pot of water heated over the fire. I got my giant stew pot from the cabinet, filled it and put it over my gas stove. After waiting for about an hour, the water was finally hot enough to be used, and I stood in the tub pouring water over me with my salad bowl.
Ironically, I ended up enjoying my old-fashioned shower and felt a bit nostalgic for simpler days. Once in a while I will sit in my bedroom with all of my lights and electronics off and burn a few candles, pretending I’ve been transported back in time. For some reason, the simplicity of life before iPhones, social networking, and round-the-clock television has an draw that occasionally materializes out of nowhere. The past always has an appeal and a certain nostalgic romanticism that is inexplicable. The water boiled over a flame, bath poured by hand, and effort that went into the whole affair had an antique aura about it that ended up giving me a taste for another time, just like my evening candles.
It also struck me how much bathing is mentioned in Romance novels that take place in pre-plumbing eras. Perhaps we are a culture obsessed with cleanliness, or maybe writers want to somehow make sure modern audiences know their characters are exceptions to the historically correct infrequent bathing rule. I can’t name one Romance I’ve read yet that didn’t at least mention servants heating water for a bath, someone actually having a bath, or the ubiquitous l’amour dans le bain scene. Maybe authors have been victim to the bain froid as I have, or they just appreciate the work that goes into making hot water from scratch.
Now, every time I read historic bathing scenes, I will not only know exactly what it’s like, but I will appreciate the hard work that goes into it and recognize what washing says about the characters, because hand-heated bathes take serious dedication to cleanliness and regard for personal hygiene.
Bless you running water. May you live a long, stable life and fail only when I actually want to take a stroll back in time.