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Short Story: The Bathhouse
My family had rented a cabin near the beach that summer. I was allowed to bring a friend with me, for company and to keep me out of my parent's hair. My friend, Becka, was the kind of kid you that you get in trouble with, but parents don't really mind all that much, since it was usually the fun-loving sort of trouble, and not the delinquent kind.
The day was rainy and wet, a bit chilly, but not too cold for shorts and bike riding. Our fun-loving, trouble-seeking selves pedaled the ten minutes down to the beach. We were looking for some kind of amusement that didn’t involve sitting around the cabin, and the deserted beach seemed like our own private playground. But after a little while, the sky opened up on us, and we decided to take shelter in the bathhouse while we waited for the storm to blow through.
The deserted bathhouse was fun at first, but quickly grew old. It was, after all, the place at the beach where we spent the least time, always in a hurry to get to the hot sand outside. In our boredom, we came up with the novel idea of running through the men's bathroom. We were lured in by the strange porcelain apparatus that shone like a beacon to our curious, but timid, eyes peering in from the doorway. Apprehension soon gave way to the rejoicing that accompanies a foray into forbidden realms.
We ran from one room to another, balancing our prepubescent limbs like young circus performers on the long bench that ran from one end of the locker room to the other. Upon the eventual realization that there was really little difference from our own side of the bathhouse; ceramic sinks, metal lockers, and concrete floors, right down to the musty beach smell accented by a faint wisp of chlorine, we prepared to leave.
Suddenly, a bang, and the sound of male voices sent us scurrying for the only hiding place we could think of, the toilet stalls. "Just stay here," Becka whispered, always the clever one. "They'll think we're boys." We huddled in the tiny stalls, camouflaged by our unshaven legs, shaking with fear down to our scuffed tennis shoes.
Something wasn’t right. We recognized that, even in unfamiliar territory. The men we heard were not interested in anything as simple as the relief of bodily functions, but were shouting, cursing. They shook the stalls and pounded on them. The Formica rattled in tandem with my chattering teeth, while the pounding against the doors went right through my body in shockwaves.. A bottle flew past our feet and crashed against the wall behind us. We’d been found out. We were frozen, and silent, the stench of booze pervading our small hideaway while the men pounded on the door.
"Come out little boys," they shouted at us, while we prayed the flimsy locks would hold. "We won't hurt you." This lasted several minutes, or maybe just one. We silently made pacts with God and our parents to never again ignore the blue and white signs that signaled right from wrong, and told you where and where not to pee.
One of the boys, or men, I never got a good enough look through the keyhole to figure out just how old they were, crouched down on the floor and tried to peer into the stall. His hand reached under, disembodied. It searched for my feet, which were now scooted back in the space between the side of the stall and the toilet. When he realized he wouldn’t be able to reach me, he got up. He was jumping, trying to see over the top. I heard his heavy footfalls ring against the tile. The other guy ran around the bathroom, I heard the banging of fist or foot on metal, doors slamming. I could hardly understand what they were saying, but could make out words I wasn’t allowed to say but knew the meaning of. Finally, something got through, “They’re not gonna come out. Give up.” And the reply: “Let’s get out of here.”
They left, also tired of the excitement a deserted mens bathroom holds, I suppose. I didn’t know where they were going, didn’t care. I stood there, petrified and frozen, listening to the sound of their shouting growing fainter. I didn’t realize I had been holding my breath until I finally exhaled, and heard a noise by my feet. I looked down to see Becka’s face peering up at me. She was stuck crawling under the divider between the stalls, her head cocked to the side and her limbs askew. With a wiggling of knees and elbows she scooted under, jumped up and hugged me. Too scared still to open the locks, we stood there like that for a minute, squeezing each others bony arms, waiting until we had the courage to make a run for the cabin and safety.
Once we were outside, it felt like an entire day had passed. The rain was fading to a drizzle, and the clouds had lightened, but even beyond that, everything looked different. My legs were still shaking as we collected our bikes. The deserted beach looked surreal in a way, small and unexciting. It felt weird to me that when the sun came back out all the families with their boisterous shouting children would be back, sunning themselves and picnicking, no idea what had happened there in the rain while they stayed safe in their cabins playing Scrabble and Monopoly.
Climbing onto our bikes, Becka looked at me with wide eyes and a serious face and said, "You know, we could have been raped." It was a word that, though I knew the meaning, was almost as foreign to me as the mens bathhouse had been half and hour previously. It seemed to sum up a fear that had taken hold in there, that there were bad things that maybe could have happened besides getting hit by a bottle.... that there was a reason we had pretended to be boys besides the fact that it would give us an excuse for being in there...
As I rode home in the lingering damp that happens when a storm is blowing away, but not quite ready to relinquish its hold, I contemplated the way my small breasts had just started to chafe against my cotton T-shirt. Too small for a bra, they were still sore enough to know something was there. I thought about how I’d probably be shaving my legs soon, looking different, wearing bras and other such things. I hadn’t really thought about that stuff before. I knew it would happen sometime in the distant future, but I wasn’t in much of a rush to start putting on lipstick every day.
I felt strange, like I was balanced on the edge of something Bigger than just my purple bike with sparkly clips attached to the spokes. It was something different from fear, we’d gotten away, safe, though my legs trembled and I felt kind of shaky riding. I felt changed; like we’d been in that bathhouse longer than just the fifteen minutes it had been. It was like we’d rolled a summer full of afternoon bike trips into just that one. As I pedaled with rubbery legs up the hill, through the trees, in the mist, the air smelled fresh and good. I was glad that for that summer, at least, I could still enjoy being a kid.