Shower power

The shower in my bathroom is tall and thin, like a tiled phone booth, with a crossword-puzzle floor in brown and beige. Dolphins jumping across the turquoise plastic curtain afford scarce color, along with the square-shouldered bottles of shampoo and conditioner, twin sentries in lime green and pale yellow. Mildew-rimmed tiles march down the thin walls to the floor. One of the tiles is shaped into a white ceramic soap dish, on which I occasionally hit my head.

My shower wasn't always like this; so box-like, so Spartan. I didn't always have to shave my legs by wedging my back against one wall and my foot against another. My original shower had room; I could walk back and forth the length of the bathtub. It had aquamarine tiles that shimmered glossy blue in the steam.

That shower, on the second floor of my parents' house and shared with two siblings, had no curtain. Instead it was shielded by mottled glass panels that slid back and forth on a metal frame. Being in that shower was like bathing in a greenhouse: The sunlight from the window filtered through the steamy glass with a sacred type of glow.

It wasn't until one summer in Maine, though, that I fully awoke to the magic of a shower. The turquoise tiles of home were all well and good, but at age 14 they went unnoticed, simply the backdrop for my getting clean. At our summer home on the Maine coast, I experienced the outdoor shower at the back of the house, my modesty protected by low wood-slatted walls and a sheet billowing on a clothesline. I was blissfully aware of every moment as I looked at the stone beaches across the water while shampooing my hair. I listened to the forlorn chugging of the lobster boats while closing my eyelids, the warm water cascading down my face.

The showers of my life since have been downhill from there, but my enjoyment of them has only increased as life has gotten more complicated. The two shower stalls I shared with an entire floor of freshmen during the first year of college closely resembled the boxlike arrangement I have now. Back then, however, I had to wait in my flip flops and robe, plastic basket of shower supplies in hand, for the person in there to finish.

A boy with steaming pectorals (they were coed showers, much to the abject horror of certain parents) would push aside the curtain after what seemed far too long, and the dim gray booth would be mine. Making sure the industrial white curtain was pulled taut, trying not to touch the suspiciously slimy walls, I would turn the knob to full-blast, eradicating the cheerlessness of my surroundings with a wall of fiery-hot water.

The shower was my refuge, my own private sanctuary of pleasure and privacy during a hectic and confusing year of college. When my roommate left her dirty tissues all over my desk or hoisted her feet, shoes and all, onto my bedspread, I would fight an urge to pick up my shower basket and head for the bathroom.

And it became clear how valuable that time in the shower was for collecting my thoughts when I suddenly didn't have it anymore. On my junior-year abroad in Nepal, my once-a-week shower consisted of a garden hose propped on a landing of the outside stairs, raining a stream of freezing well water down on my cringing head.

I was told I should be thankful - my host family had an electric pump that allowed for such a set-up while other people in the village washed at the water pipe popping out of a hillside in the nearby woods.

Showering in public, whether behind the outside stairs or out at the water pipe, meant wearing a garment called a lunghi, a cotton petticoat tied beneath the armpits. Getting clean in this situation took no small amount of ingenuity, and I spent four entire months in a state of grimy resignation.

But worse than the dirtiness was my inability to escape. The family I lived with didn't hold much truck with the concept of privacy, and though I had my own little room, I was considered rude if I went there too often. I longed for the showers of my past. How could one think without a shower? How could one make sense of the baffling perplexities of life in Nepal?

The perplexities of 20-something life in Boston, however, turn out to be no less baffling. My own shower in my own private bathroom is more important than ever, no matter its relative drabness.

Perhaps someday I'll move up in the world and get a shower just like the one I remember from my childhood. The walls will be shiny blue, the water will be abundant and hot, and the light from the window will be soft and clear.

But even if I never get this pleasure, I will always love my shower - not only for its ability to wash away dirt, but also for its ability to wash away, even for a moment, the perplexities of this baffling world.

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