by Walker West


Bath House


My family of five migrated down to Cheju island during the Korean War.  Elder sister was six, and younger one, only five months old, born in the midst of bombing in Seoul.  I was only three years old, and mistook air raids as hide and seek games.

One morning on the island, my mother dressed me in a purple satin smock, urging me to follow uncle Mei.  I was skipping to pace with his long strides holding his thumb. We watched lady divers arising from the tides with a basket full of abalone.  The squirmy slippery creatures were hard to chew. But, still, I always wanted more.

Uncle Mei guided me into a brick building across the shore.  Inside was a mirrored hall. He draped his bare body with a white towel, then, helped me to undress. He glided the door to the right; my gaze fixed, and my jaw dropped.  He pulled me in.  All the men sat naked on a cement floor. Gray misty light filled the room above a rectangular steaming tub. Dark tangled yarn crunched between their thighs. Their tubes, ten times larger than my index finger, were lodged in the middle.


Family Bath


Few families had private baths at home in the late 1950s in Seoul.  My parents built a large cast iron tub, which was heated by burning wood from outside.  Its rounded bottom was too hot to touch; mother placed a wooden sieve under our feet.  With a matching lid, it reminded me of a giant steamed dumpling pot.

Mother established a special bathing practice, separating the family of seven into two groups.  Father, younger sister, and I were the first group.  Mother and two little brothers formed the second group. Big sister was an assistant to mother. She was 13.

Somewhere in-between the transition, I was left alone with father.  He turned his back toward me, squatted, and aimed at the drain.  I craned my neck to peek at him: between his two fingers, I saw his private part. That was my last day in the first group.


Public Bath


My friend Hai and I got up at 6 am every Sunday morning to beat the public bath crowd.  I was rooming at her parents’ to attend a better junior high school. My conical breasts had become fuller; I flinched at the thought of being naked in the public bath.

One woman with sagging breasts and stretch marks all over her stomach swaggered like a duck, while the other with layers of warbling pouches waved her daughter to come in.  An old wrinkled lady yanked his grandson. “Why are you standing there like a log? Hurry in to get a good spot,”  Hei yelled at me.

Hei demonstrated how to scrub every inch of the skin, folding a rough wash cloth into a ball. She was a perfectionist; her way was the right way. After peeling our dead skins, we did each others’ backs.  I did hers first.  “Harder. You’re doing a half-assed job.”  I rubbed more briskly to please her. I had to obey her: she was two years older than me.  Now, it was my turn.  Hurting a lot, but, I endured.

I held two hand mirrors to check my back at home the next day: a galaxy of tiny red scabs all over my back.  Aching and burning.


Honeymoon Suite


When we arrived at a honeymoon suite in Cheju island, the sun was about to go down. It was my second visit to the island since the War. We ordered oysters, sea cucumbers, and abalone from the room service, and relaxed over rice wine while looking at the dark sea.

“I will go first,”  he murmured closing a bathroom door behind. I was relieved not to be naked with a stranger so soon. We hadn’t hugged, or kissed yet, although we had gone to concerts, dined out with families, and saw several foreign films. Was it normal? I had read about first night rituals, even heard stories about the proof of women’s virginity on the first night.  In the old days, the bridegroom had to bring blood stained gauze back to his mother.

His soon to be ordained brother matched us; I was a research assistant at the laboratory where he had pursued his doctoral dissertation on parasites.  He used to bring me daisies, art books, and coffee. The colleagues made bets: “He won’t make it to be a priest. Why didn’t he proposed to Kay?” No. He wanted to be a brother-in-law to Kay, that was I.  His generosity and devotion blinded my conviction: I protested against human grooming, as well as arranged marriages.The morning after the silent sleep, he delivered a statement: “I shouldn’t have married.... But, I was afraid that my brother would fail

to be a priest if I...our family honor is important...”  “Why didn’t you tell me that two days ago? We could have canceled our ceremony.”  I felt dizzy, nauseated, unsteady, yet calmly assertive: “it’s over. It’s OK. Thanks for being honest. I am going back home alone.”  He sobbed, burying his head into the hands.  I pulled a diamond ring and band from my trembling finger, and placed them on his bible.

My official husband, stranger than an alien, ordered abalone porridge for me, begging me to stay.  “So sorry, forgive me, give me another chance, everything will be fine. I shouldn’t have said that to you.”

I left the room alone heading to the airport.  I was still a virgin. 


Catherine Residence Hall


During my first graduate year in the United States, I had shared a dormitory apartment with an Italian roommate, Mary.  She had a thick mopey hair, majored in anthropology, practiced Arabic, and watched Johnny Carson every night.  I had heard her belly laugh while I studied late into the night, electronic transfer, sodium pump, transfer RNA, etc.

Mary with water melon breasts lugged my 98 lb. frame in her black Thunderbird every Sunday for the weekly grocery shopping.  I paid half the bill, ate a quarter.  She was a chef and I was a dishwasher.  In five months, I puffed up to 107 pounds.

Nothing much to complain about this guardian angel except one thing: her duffle bag in the bathroom, where all her soiled clothes and underwear were dumped together.  Back home, our maid did the laundry so neatly every day. I couldn’t help feeling queasy passing the bag.  I imagined her underwear fermenting with her feminine discharge.

However, I slowly got used to collecting my laundry in a wicker hamper, although I hand washed socks and underwear daily in the tub.  I hung them on the shower curtain rod like flags.  Mary never complained, nor followed my practice.  I found myself accumulating my underwear in the hamper at the end of the year.


No Bath


Berkeley graduate housing had no bathtub, only a boxy shower stall in which my four year old daughter, Hana, and I barely squeezed ourselves. Under the dim light, she asked, “ when do I get those furs you have under the arms and down there?” “Not furs, hairs. You’ll surely get them when you grow up.” “I want now, like you.” Then she found my

dimples on the buttocks. “I want these too.” “They are scars! You won’t get them.”  “I want them. I like to be like you.”

I managed to find an olive green plastic tub that fit diagonally inside the shower.  At least, Hana had a tub.  I squatted on the floor soaping her soft back, when I heard my husband raise his voice across the hall.   “Are you done?  I have been waiting for...”   “Why don’t you read more of Karl Marx, or fiscal policy?” I cringed at my “geisha” duty. It’s 10 pm. I had to get up at 5:30 am to catch the commuter bus leaving for Palo Alto. A mountain of dirty dishes still in the sink. In-laws had already turned off the light!

“You’re not sleeping,” his hot breath crept up my neck.  I didn’t straighten my curled body as his hand grasped my waist like a snake.  “No. No weekdays. We had agreed.” He pulled down my underwear.  I popped up like a Jack-in-the-Box, possessed by an uncontrollable rage, and blurted  something so foreign to myself: “I will sharpen a kitchen knife, cut your dick into slices, stir fry them with virgin olive oil

sprinkled with salt and pepper.  I will feed them to the dog down stairs.”


Mineral Spring


My college friend Suni invited me to a mineral spring One Moon.  I packed my turquoise bathing suit just in case.  Three decades had passed since I went to a public bath.  When we arrived at the spa, she and her friend, a prominent feminist, undressed quickly and walked right in, leaving me in the hall. A pile of skeletons wrapped in skin tent followed Suni’s plump body.  Finally, I changed into my bathing suit in the lady’s room.  I spotted my friends among forty-some naked bodies.  Swiftly I joined them.

Suni shook her head several times staring at my bathing suit. “You’re really brave.  Look around. No one but you came in with the swimsuit. Every one turned their heads when you entered.”  I wished that I had had a pair of sunglasses as well.


Towel Bath


“I only have a couple more weeks to go,” my father said, as I prepared to leave him and fly back home.  It was one week before his 65th birthday.  An avid tennis player and physician, he had been diagnosed with a stomach cancer. It was already too late for surgery.

Only a seven months ago he had visited Washington, DC and described his grand retirement plan to me.  He wanted to write a novel at his seaside condo looking over the ocean.  He would also enjoy fishing, another passion. “I am young. I will retire next birthday. I still have two decades to write.”

The young man with unfinished dreams had become the family’s patient. He refused a hospital bed. Mother became a day nurse, and I, a night guard. We brought towel baths to his bed regularly. One night after the wet bath, he asked me to hand him a bed pan. I supported his frail shoulders turning my head to the side.  I heard him trying to urinate. 

I caught his hand directing the flow. When he had finished, I stared at the dark window which reflected the silhouette of my father and I.


Smallest Bath


The birthing room nurse at the New York Hospital demonstrated how to wash my infant son in a blue plastic container, a medium sized mixing bowl.   I missed my ex-mother in law who had masterfully handled Hana’s slippery body 13 years ago.  She had delivered all her nine children by herself back home, without the help of a midwife or her husband.

Hana stood next to her baby brother holding a hooded blanket as I bathed him in the world’s  smallest bathtub.  Her slanted eyes spread wide. She said, “is that it?  What’s the big deal?”  She scrutinized Michael’s penis and asked, “how can such a soft thing go into a woman?” She had never seen the male thing before.


My Bath


I twist and turn like a dolphin in my oversized whirlpool bath, pushing the 4th button to let all the bubbles charge from the jets. The room is larger than my first studio apartment.  Creamy terra cotta marbles with calcite hair lines that simulate Greek ruins, gleam under the halogen lights. Colored glass candle holders from Murano on the corner, large pink conch shells from Hawaii by the window, and Navaho vessels from Santa Fe on the table. A shot of whisky and Billie Holiday.

No husband, no dogs, no backyard, no job, but  my own dream bath all to myself at last.  


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