A Short Story by Liz Varley
Written using the suggestion "Paper"
Originally featured on 02-19-2007
As part of our series "Anniversaries"

I haven’t taken a bath in nineteen years. This isn’t to say that I haven’t showered on a regular basis, but my older sister Miranda instilled in me a fear of laying down in the ripe age of six when she held my head underwater for nearly forty-five seconds. Luckily my mother was dying her hair at the time—golden chestnut for the majority of my life—heard the thrashing of limbs and came to the rescue.

A year later I was coaxed back into the bath when my mother promised Miranda was downstairs watching television and had no interest in what I was doing. I believed, and while scrubbing myself clean with the washcloth, inhaling the lavender fragrance of the bath, I relaxed and forgot my fears.

Unfortunately, the summer of that year we vacationed in Maine, and upon following my older brother Mark into the ocean (he was a surfer at the time and had a habit of sprinting into the water at far off signs of good waves), was knocked under the water and nearly drowned. My brother, unaware that I had followed him, rode a few waves and joined the family back on the beach where I was recovering and Miranda was laying on her back glistening with oil. He didn’t understand the angry look on my mothers face, or why she asked, in an exasperated way, “are you two trying to kill your sister?”

The near drowning brought back memories of the bathtub incident, and since that summer I’ve avoided the tub altogether. I’ve been lucky. Growing up, my parents didn’t question it, once I was old enough to shower, and I suppose they felt partially to blame for my fear. In college, there was no bathtub, and though the dorm standup showers were frightening in their own right, my fear dwindled.

My apartments after college were small, first the rundown Eastside Manhattan place, where the landlord had put up an extra wall to rent it as a two bedroom and the shower was barely big enough to lift a leg in. Later, once in Portland, the bathtubs were either the old-fashioned claw foot tubs more decorative than functional or the cheap vinyl ones that molded up so quickly bathing in them seemed as revolting as it did frightening. It never occurred to me that I had to tell anyone about my fear, as it was always superfluous.

When I met Rorey, I knew he was the one, right away. I’d always put up with my past boyfriends but this time I found that I was becoming sensitive, pliable even. We rarely fought—we compromised—because neither of us could stand to upset the other. I’m not going to say it was perfect, because perfection is just something people believe in to justify their own complaints, but it was close.

We found an old red Victorian house, with three bedrooms, and a wide staircase.

“How do you feel about putting a new tub in the upstairs bathroom—there’s more than enough room for it,” he asked me one afternoon.

“Wouldn’t you rather have one of those new showers?” I asked, “the ones that shoot out water from eight different directions?” Rorey nodded in the way I knew was only sympathetic; really he was trying to think how to convince me. It would have made me angry had I not been thinking of my own strategy.

“We have two bathrooms, I was just thinking that a tub would be…romantic,” he said, smiling, his left dimple appearing. I looked at him, his shoulders and knees covered in sawdust, fingernails broken down and cuticles cracked, and I wanted to make him happy.

“If you think it’s a good idea…” I said, feeling slightly lightheaded.

“It’s a great idea,” he smiled fully now, “I know a guy.”

It seemed to me right then, with the man I loved next to me, that I had confronted my fear.

A year and a half after moving in, the house was almost entirely up to our standards. Our furniture was mostly used, but the kitchen shone with new appliances, a fresh tile floor, and scoured countertops. I spent the majority of my time in this room, preparing foods to be catered and sold to businesses, and though this was completely unaligned with my economics degree, cooking was my passion. I cooked at home and Rorey, now that he was done with the house, went back to professional carpentry. The upstairs bathroom remained the one unfinished room and the bathtub seemed irrelevant.

The relevance of the tub was renewed the afternoon Rorey came home with Scott, a co-worker who had become a good friend during the renovations, lending a hand whenever he could. I was folding spinach-filled phyllo triangles when they burst in the front door, bringing in the cold December air with them.

“Sarah!” Rorey shouted, his voice enthusiastic, and I he came into the kitchen still wearing his boots, which I frowned at.

“Sorry” he said, looking down,” but I’m going right back out. We picked up the tub today, Scott’s gonna help me install it.” His eyes were practically sparkling, and I again felt a feeling akin to excitement.

The next time they came through the door I they were grunting under the pressure of the tub, wrapped in thick plastic and I grimaced as they carried it up the stairs, their boots slipping slightly on the polished wood. I listened to them as they worked. I watched from the doorway for a few minutes at a time and tried to imagine Rorey and I in the tub together, how relaxing and romantic it would be. I tried to think that way, but I ended up staring at Rorey and resenting him for forcing me to do something I didn’t want to do.

Rorey took me out to my favorite restaurant for my birthday at the end of January. All through dinner he held a pleased smile on his face and repeatedly took my hand in his. It never occurred to me that he was going to propose, but when he did I completely lost it. I had never been a crier, but I let it go, and tears fell into the remains of my chicken marsala as Rorey gave me the ring.

He told me he had something else to show me as we walked home, and I nodded, fingering the ring inside my mitten. I was dreaming of a new sauté pan and hoping with all my might that the hints had worked. Upon entering the house, though, he led me upstairs, and I began to feel my throat tightening up. Rorey squeezed my hand when he noticed my shallow breathing.

“It’s crazy isn’t it,” he said, his voice loud in the quiet winter air, “us getting married.” I nodded.

The old stairway creaked as we climbed, and Rorey turned around to smile as he led me down the hall, into the bathroom. Along the rim of the tub were dozens of candles and for a moment my heart leapt at the sweetness of it, but then I realized that the tub was full of sudsy water, and that Rorey was taking off his socks.

“What are you doing?” I asked, still in my hat and mittens.

“Christening the tub,” he said and laughed, the candlelight dancing along his face.

“I don’t like taking a bath after eating,” I said and made a face, beginning to back out of the room.

“It’s not big enough to swim in, don’t worry,” he said and reached for my hand.

“Uh-uh.” I pulled my hand back. I scanned my brain for something that could buy time, something that would keep me out of the tub without having to reveal my fear.

“Rock paper scissors,” I said, feeling as if he were behind me, pushing me in..


“Best two out of three. If I win, we’ll forget it. If you win, I come in.”

“That’s stupid—why don’t you just come in for christsake?”

“What, are you afraid to lose?” That did the trick. His eyes narrowed and he approached me.

I put my hand behind my back and looked at him as defiantly as possible with my stomach in knots. He followed suit. I knew he always went for scissors first.

“One, two, three, shoot!” he said, and I threw the rock. He crinkled his forehead as I hit my fist on his two fingers. I smirked. I totally had him.

“Damn,” he said, and we went back to the starting position. I thought hard. He would try scissors again, I was sure, because he thought I would go paper, which I would’ve, if I were letting him win. He repeated the command and I threw out scissors to his rock. He smiled and unbuttoned his pants, shimmied out until they hit the floor and stepped out, kicking them across the room. I bit my lip and stared him down, and though it was hard to read his expression in the candlelight, I was almost sure he would go paper. I would go paper to, so I would have more time.

“Shoot!” he said and I threw my hand out, seeing in an instant that he had won. I felt his two fingers close on my flattened hand.

“Put that paper away,” he said, pulling his shirt over his head, “you don’t want it to get wet.” His smile faded as I stood there with my arms crossed.

“Comon” he said gently, pushing my hat from my head.

“I’ll hold your hand the whole time,” he continued, now working on my coat buttons. I let him undress me, feeling the cool air hit my skin. Standing in my socks, I put my hand to my forehead. Every sense in my body was completely heightened, like a wild animal was chasing me; even Rorey’s gaze seemed like that of a predator.

“It’s just that…” I began and he looked at me, unable the hide the look of pride on his face. He took my hand and led me to the edge, glancing at my socks. I stepped on the end of one sock and pulled my leg up, and then I did the other. I was beginning to shiver.

“One foot at a time,” he said, already leg deep, the water lapping up against him. I had no choice now. I knew I wouldn’t have to stay in long; I could just put my feet in and jump out, run out of the room. He couldn’t catch me. I took a deep breath and lifted a leg up, dunked a toe. The water was the perfect temperature, and, upon submerging my foot, I could remember being a child and relishing in the silky feel of the soap, the coolness of the tendrils of hair on my back. My other senses began to quiet.

“Now the other leg,” Rorey said, leaning on the edge to take my other hand. When I was standing next to him, I smiled and watched him sink down and stretch out.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asked.

“It’s just that, when I was younger…” I began, but then stopped. It occurred to me, right then, that it didn’t really matter anymore. Within the hour, I was sitting next to Rorey, bathwater up to my shoulders.

Read More By Liz Varley

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