The Showerhouse and the Reading Room

A strange thing happens in my mind when I begin writing about a topic. I hop a flying carpet like something straight out of Aladdin and am practically forced to ride until it dumps me off. I don’t feel like a writer at all. I feel like a reporter. I fly over the story, observe it in great detail, and then retell the story with as much color as I can muster.

I’m on that carpet tonight, flying past that gray block cottage overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a tad unfortunate, because it’s 12:47 a.m. and I’m just getting on. I don’t choose my carpet schedule. It just happens.

As I’ve already mentioned, and clearly bear scars from, I didn’t like to shower at the beach. I would do almost anything to avoid it. But there was no avoiding it ultimately. I mean, I was a kid. When a parent told me I had to shower, I had to shower. And sometimes, the salt gumming up in my arm hairs was motivation enough. The showers went okay when I remembered to take them before dark. In the daytime, I was still top of the food chain. Girl empowered with soap and towel. But once the sun slipped below the horizon, all bets were off. When the sun retired, the food chain took on a different appearance. It was the look of an Orkin commercial. Because after dark, the bugs came out. And this was Florida in the summertime. These bugs were gargantuan. And predatory. To this day I look away when exterminator commercials air.

This egregious, forgetful, after-dark mistake occurred on multiple occasions. I think of these memories as one collective trauma. On these occasions when I would realize I had played my last card and come up with a 2 of clubs, I would grab my shampoo, grab my towel, and the biggest flashlight I could find. I was gonna use that sucker as a weapon if I needed to. And I would. Need to.

The showerhouse was 18 steps from the bathroom side door where there was a perfectly good, perfectly well lit, perfectly indoor shower that imperfectly didn’t run water. Still I do not understand this. How much could it have cost to fix that shower? I mean, save up if you need to. YEARS went by. Anyway, I would click on the flashlight and tiptoe down the concrete path in the dark, my yellow flashlight beam laying like a golden thread in front of me. The light was deceptive. It wasn’t enough to eliminate my fear. It was just enough to play tricks on me in the blackness. When I arrived at the showerhouse, I would squeak open the wooden door, cracked and sticky from moisture and salt air. I always chose the first shower stall. Always the first one. Never the second. 5 more feet was just too much to ask. With the door open, I shined my beam into the stall to see what creatures had already come to the bar for a drink. Sometimes I was pleasantly surprised. Sometimes, I ended up running from a bug big enough to ride bareback. And sometimes running from one sent me into the arms of another. It was not always as traumatic as all that, but it was never pleasant. However, at the end of it, I was clean. So there’s that.

After cutting the water and drying off urgently in the battery operated beam that I had balanced on end in the corner, I would high tail it back to the bathroom with the unworking shower stall. At times I could hear it snicker as I went past, like a leftover hiss of water in the pipes from days gone by. Walking through the bathroom, I’d change into pajamas and emerge into the back room where everyone else was already settled. This was our indoor common room; the closest thing to a family room we had. Besides some weak overhead lighting, this room was lined with a collection of mismatched lamps. And in an L shape, like a makeshift sectional, sat the strangest couches I have ever seen. I’ve never seen one like it since. They were metal-framed and padded with foam cushions that were blue and black striped and kind of velvety textured. I think they were probably quite hideous in truth, but somehow they seemed to fit the space. And they were comfortable. Besides everything, the most interesting part of the couches was their ability to forecast the weather. If it was cold, they were cold. If it was raining, or going to rain, they were damp. The couches didn’t lie. They were anchored at each end and in the elbow of the L with end tables that were little storehouses for books and coffee cans full of crayons. On each table sat a lamp. On each couch sat at least two people. And someone was always in the raggedy blue chair in the corner of the room. When you got up from this chair, you had a fabric tattoo on some part of your body.

I loved this time of night. This space. Almost more than any other facet of coastal living. Because then and there, we were all gathered as a family, bathed in the warm orange glow of feeble lamplight. And we were reading. All of us. No one talked. But everyone communed through a love for words. When that house left the family, when our family left the area, when my grandmother left the earth, this left too. Never again have I had this with anyone at any time. We were all in different worlds, but in ways, never closer.

At times like these, I picked up my familiar Madeleine L’Engle books and devoured them. My grandmother read Catherine Cookson novels and then passed those to my mom. My brother read Tolkien. My dad read the paper and magazines and sailing books and sometimes real estate contracts and his Bible. I looked up every now and again to see if anyone was reading DIY books on how to fix a shower. But no one ever was.

But they should have been. Goodness.