by Hugh Gilmore
Last week’s opener of this story left me sitting in a Saratoga Springs bathhouse, “taking the waters.”
The attendant said, “You’ll be here for a half-hour, sir,” and left me alone in the tiled room.
I thought, “A half-hour? How will I be able to just sit here in a tub for an entire half-hour? That’s impossible.”
I was only there because it was Mother’s Day and my wife, Janet, had asked me to join her as a present. We could compare experiences, she said. She was over in the women’s wing, however, and I was in the men’s, feeling bored already. I decided to escape, get dressed, tell the attendant to keep the change and wait for my wife in the lobby, when I eased back and rested my head on the small towel that lay on the rounded edge of the tub. Aaah.
The tension and declension of my everyday body had begun leaving through my skin and I didn’t feel like moving, lest I jar the peaceful new balance. I wanted to stay there, forever, just like I was. Quiet. Warm. Alone. My face felt like a smile had replaced whatever usually sat there.
Lazily, I thought, “I can take a half-hour of this. What was I worried about?”
Just as that thought reached my sodden brain, a torpedo came rising up toward it. A half-hour? One lousy, measly, little half-hour? I’d waited all my life to feel this good. I shook my head as though clearing water from my ear and let my common sense take charge. A half-hour will do fine, I thought. Just fine. And I closed my eyes and shimmied a bit to renew the watery pleasure on my skin. Where the skin goes, the mind will follow. Aaah.
Torpedo Number Two shot up from below and detonated, blasting my mellow into fragments. “Tick,” “Tick,” “Tick.” Time! I didn’t have 30 minutes anymore. I had, maybe … 24 now? And with each passing minute, second and nanosecond, I had less. What should I do? How should I spend the remains of my limited visit to heaven?
“Calm down. Sit back. Maximize,” I said. “Let go of the negative. Let go of time itself. Just be.” (I’d read that in a Buddhism-for-Idiots book once).
I closed my eyes. I let go of my body, my fears, my worries, and my cares. I just leaned back with my eyes closed in that beautiful unearthly tea of life.
I was happy then for several minutes. I had reached a kind of Nirvana For People on a Time Budget. I who was nobody had achieved nothingness just as Torpedo Number Three burst through.
They say you never realize it’s so quiet you could hear a pin drop until a pin drops. This was so much more. A horrible, aggravated, grunting noise broke the silence of the bathhouse, reminding me that I was not deliriously, deliciously alone, but in a public building which was co-inhabited by fellow mortals. A male voice had begun groaning in what I can only describe as either a mountain troll’s mounting pleasure or his desperate need to be flatulent. It was hideous and disgusting, and perhaps only two bath stalls away.
My paradise was ruined.
“No,” I said, “it’s not. I’m keeping my calm. I will it to be so. That is merely a human sound from the human world. I’m not letting go of my narcolepsy. I’m going on with my dream trip, despite the braying from beyond.”
And I did, I went on. I ignored him. His groans were merely part of the ambient noise of the universe, the kind astronomers can hear coming from deep space. I accepted that. I sank back into my mineral bath. After too long a while, he stopped. When, I can not say, for I heard it not, nor did it matter. It was all one. It was all good.
Time was up. My valet arrived, bade me go naked to the changing room. He asked me to turn around and draped me in two clean, warm sheets, fresh from the dryer. They smelled great. They felt great. I lay wrapped on the bed. He left, saying I’d be cocooned there for 10 more minutes. I didn’t mind at all.
Somehow, I later emerged fully dressed, in the small lobby where I would wait for my wife to come out. Through my haze, I noticed two tall, Swedish-stewardess-looking, lovely women waiting their turn to go in. They might have asked me what it had been like. Maybe I volunteered. Still trance dancing, and feeling Messianic, I sat and foretold for them the glorious experience lay ahead. They seemed to like hearing my message, but who knows, maybe they were thinking of calling the cops, I couldn’t tell. I loved them. My fellow humans. I loved everybody. And everybody loved me.
Janet came into the lobby and I introduced my two new friends to her as if this was a reunion of former campmates from the Garden of Eden summer camp. Janet smiled and led me away, thanking me for the nice Mother’s Day present.
“Sure, hon, sure. Anytime.”
But I never went back. Nowadays, my neck hurts and knees creak. I have indigestion. I’m surrounded by noise and discomfort. But you know what? Some people just can’t be trusted with Nirvana. It spoils them. And what’s more, if you go back and try to repeat a perfect experience, and you succeed, then you can’t remember it anymore as perfection.
Hugh Gilmore is the author of a memoir titled “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.” He lives and writes in Chestnut Hill.