As a nursing student, you are required to give bed baths. It is a form of initiation, a method of forcing you past the squeamishness of touching people, past insecurities of what is appropriate, and into the negotiation of boundaries between you and your patient.
It is easier to bathe the elderly, the contours of their bodies are so far distant from your own. You divorce yourself from the act you are performing; they are not you, they are not human or real in a way you understand, they are some place beyond which you may someday encounter, but not now.
Friends tell you about bathing parents who have fallen ill, and you think this must be how they do it – distance themselves by necessity, acquaint themselves with the parts of parents they were not supposed to see, oddly examine bodies by the same standards which govern their own.
It is harder to bathe someone your own age, to look at them watching you invade their personal space, unable to stop what is happening. There is a mutual awkwardness – they are afraid of being judged, you are afraid of showing judgment. This person more directly resembles you, and it is hard to see yourself vulnerable. You have learned to be ashamed of being naked, and empathize with the strangers forced to reveal themselves to you in their most unprepared forms. Mostly, you are afraid because you have not quite figured out how to wash a 22-year old penis without causing an erection.
Yet bathing people becomes easier with practice; sometimes it is even enjoyable. Few things affect newborns like their first baths. It lets them know there are experiences to be had in this world that equal the profound comfort of the place from which they came.
You remember the first time you washed and shrouded the dead. You expected to feel honor entering into the realm of people who perform sacred acts. The only object of ritual or religion in the room was the crucifix suspended from a chain around the neck of a Puerto Rican nurse’s aid, which protruded beneath the layers of his uniform. The pendant, along with the black ink across his chest, became visible when he leaned over the deceased, another white, emaciated, do-not-resuscitate female, who passed in the company of herself. You remember the sound of penetrating laughter. You remember how he, in one breath, yelled past the curtain partition to the hall, “Hey, can we get some quiet? Can we get some respect?” and in the next breath, “help me turn her over to check if she shit.”
You remember the first time you showered with someone you were sleeping with, the strangeness of performing individual rituals with someone else, how easy it was to find things to tease and laugh about, and how important it was to hide the shaming fact that you urinate.
You think of the baths you take on your own, the hurried showers before work, the languid ones when time permits. You think of being behind the comfort of a locked door, in a space where you can cry or masturbate on your own. The next time you bathe, you take it slow, stretch your time, expect to reach some sort of revelation, but do not. Instead you fall asleep, wake up and laugh at almost drowning. You scrape the callous from your feet while reenacting scenes from the Herbal Essence commercial where you toss your head from side to side and fake an orgasm. You decide, if just for this moment, to be good to yourself.