After stitching the incision, the dermatologist told me I wouldn’t be able to bathe for two weeks. I might have declined the procedure if I had known beforehand. The cyst was high on the back of my thigh, not visible in most situations, and the physician said there was little danger of malignancy. How could being rid of a lump compensate for not being able to practice my love of bathing?

Many years ago, my friend Anne sent me a large postcard of a version of Pierre Bonnard’s impressionistic painting, “Nude in a Bath and a Small Dog.” I was a teenage mother at the time (or maybe in my early twenties by then) and Anne was out in the world. I carried that postcard with me through many moves, from one rental to another, posting it on the refrigerator and on walls and cork boards above desks. I studied it often. The colors interested me. Primarily a palette of lavender and blue, even the bathtub, itself, appeared a milky periwinkle. The lady (Bonnard’s wife) in the tub lounged fully submerged except for her head. The tiny dog seemed to float on the bath mat just outside the tub. The room—the fat wall tiles, the small floor tiles, the very tub—seemed to swirl around her as if everything was swimming. Later when I was out in the world myself, I tossed the postcard, thinking it false to display postcards of art one had not actually seen with her own eyes (I have always held myself back with my self-imposed goofy rules). Anne is dead now. I wish I had saved the postcard so I could see what she wrote. I have seen the Bonnard painting in real life by now—or one from that series—so ownership would even pass my silly test. But I don’t remember actually seeing the painting. I only remember the dog-eared postcard.

In Chicago, sometimes all I need for an excuse to bathe is the cold. When it drops below zero outside, I find it more comforting to sink into a tub of hot (not scalding, not warm) water, lean back and close my eyes, than to start a blaze in the fireplace.

My tub in the house from which I’ve recently moved was deep and black. I would not have chosen the color but I came to appreciate how the darkness created a sense of depth. I have always felt a surge of pleasure when looking into seemingly bottomless waters. As a small child, I insisted on riding the boat at Kiddie Land over and over, not because I enjoyed the ride but because from my seat in the little boat—as it circled the pole connected by a spoke, along with three other little boats—I could look over the edge into the shadowy waters more closely than sitting or standing next to water permitted, almost as if I were one with the water. Watching the lapping ripples created by the movement of the boats felt aesthetically pleasing.

In a bath, I am one with the water. My body feels the water’s presence, its minute ripples, more fully than it feels air or fabric. Water enters my pores. Dipping, reclining, sinking and, then, floating millimeters above the ceramic floor, surrounded in shoulder-deep water. If freezing outside, I cannot stand in the crackling fire; it can’t reach all sides of my body.

I have always been fascinated by Jacques-Louis David’s painting “The Death of Marat.” I am intrigued by the subject, Jean-Paul Marat’s murder and the revolutionary politics, but more by the image: Marat’s muscular upper body slumped halfway out of the tub. I’m envious of the great setup Marat had in his bath before his execution. What could be better than to sit in a tub with a board placed across it, desk-style, so one could write while soaking? My two favorite activities to immerse myself in—writing and water. That said, I realized early on in my bathing career that reading in the bath was difficult. No matter how carefully I tried, the pages became spotted with watery gray fingerprints. A desk (sort of a TV tray for bathing) would solve that. Of course, establishing Marat’s set-up for me would be a bit difficult. First, how would I keep the water hot if the board prevented me from lifting my foot so my toes could turn the faucet to add more hot water? Marat kept a small table beside the bath for his ink well; today, so many more supplies and electronics are needed. It wasn’t until I had seen the image of Marat many times that I learned he wasn’t experiencing the ecstasy I envisioned. His tub was filled with oatmeal, intended to soothe his painful eczema. He had no choice.

In the end, I’ve determined there is no reason to do anything in a bath besides think and soak, enveloped in water. One of the reasons I quit smoking was the dilemma having a smoke in the bath created.

Both of my family’s childhood bathtubs were white (not two in one house, one in the first house and another in the second), both built-ins (no claw feet like in the Bonnard), and probably a little shallow, though they seemed deep enough to me when I was a girl. When we were very young, my sister and I sometimes took baths together—a time to play. There was a shower (rigged with a hose) that my parents used. I always took baths. All three of us children bathed every school night. Since our hot water tank in both homes was small, the order in which one took a nightly bath was crucial. My brother wanted to put off his as long as possible so my sister and I were the only ones vying for first place. Usually she won. But even if I prevailed, there were arguments about how long one could run the bath, how hot one could make it, and how long one could remain inside it. My mother’s admonishment still rings in my ears.

Don’t use up all the hot water!

I remember one evening when I got to the tub first, turned on the faucet and went to my room while it filled. I was drawing my bath, as they say in books and movies. Our parents weren’t home so I could make it as deep as I wanted with no one to intervene. When I returned, my sister was standing in the room, holding a pair of her used underwear. She grinned and tossed the panties in the tub. The sight of them floating on the surface of my perfect bath was crushing. Yet the whole thing was too stupid not to laugh. We both burst into hysteria. She had out-maneuvered me. I was not about to get into a tub with her panties; she, of course, didn’t mind the presence of her own panties so was able to count the tub among her spoils.

Little wonder that I now find long hot baths so luxurious. They never feel wasteful to me, even on the rare winter days when I take two. After all, I live in the Midwest where there is no shortage of water.

I read an interview with a television/movie star who said she brushed her teeth in the shower to conserve water. Really, I wanted to ask her. Really? What did she think of that ginormous pool in her backyard that she couldn’t use too much since she was so often in Cabo or New York or London? And what about all the plastic bottles discarded by drinkers of Smartwater for which she served as the spokeswoman? Really? Perhaps if she is truly a devoted environmentalist, she could wash her dishes in her sparkling swimming pool? Paddle around carrying some plates and glasses, some silverware in her teeth. No, my occasional two-bath day is not over the top.

I traveled to Mexico regularly for many years in a row before the drug trade became prevalent. Not all of the houses I rented in San Miguel Allende, the town where I usually stayed, had tubs. And unlike where I live in Chicago, there is a water shortage in San Miguel (as there is in California where the resourceful actress lives). Some of the houses I rented had drinking water piped in, but generally I stayed in places where I needed to purify the water with drops of iodine before I rinsed vegetables or made tea. I kept my lips sealed during showers. Once my friend, Sara, and I took a day trip with a young couple (strangers) with a baby to Guadalajara. As our van flew over dusty roads, the young wife explained how she only bathed her daughter in Evian water. She didn’t want to risk a drop of tainted Mexican water reaching her baby’s lips. I kept glancing at the driver, hoping he didn’t understand English well enough to realize what she was saying. Such a story would surely add to our image as ugly spoiled tourists. Still, I could understand wanting to protect one’s baby.

Next to enjoying my own baths—both the aesthetic and physical pleasures—there are few things as delightful as watching or giving a baby a bath. All that firm skin slick with soap. Of Mary Cassatt’s portraits, I most like the “The Child’s Bath,” the painting where the woman is soaking a toddler’s feet. The girl leans back into the protective lap and arms of the woman, her small feet barely submerged in a large white bowl. A china pitcher sits next to the bowl on an Oriental rug. I like thinking of the woman pouring the pitcher, reheating the water. I like that both the girl and the woman are looking down at the girl’s feet, almost as if there is something magical about the fact that the girl’s ankles are surrounded by air while her feet are underwater. I remember, as a very small child, standing on the shore of Lake Michigan beside my own mother, watching the water lap our feet, my mother telling me to stay still, to see what the water could do, watching the water wash over our toes until they were buried in sodden sand.

I suppose this is the point where I should arrive at the Freudian realization that the bathtub provides me with the security of being in embryo, of being secure in pre-birth fluids. I’m sure there is truth in that. But if anything, water is taking me forward, not backwards. Enjoying being surrounded by water was a child-thing that evolved into an adult-thing. Being immersed allows my mind to travel. It is sensual, almost sexual—though not quite. Sex in a tub is a bit of a bother. Still, there is little more sexy and intimate for young lovers than bathing with each other, running a bar of soap over each other’s skin. And nothing is closer to flying than swimming naked in the dark. The few times I’ve done it, I felt on the edge, at risk, barely suspended as I moved through nothingness.

In the way that sex can be mysterious and perilous, so can a bath. Long ago in my early adulthood, bathtubs held a sinister allure, as if deadly sirens swam up from the drains, up from the sewers, drawn in from the distant seas. At these rare times, in late teens or early twenties, when I still considered suicide a romantic end, the bathtub was my weapon of choice. Sometimes I imagined taking pills before slipping into a hot bath. More often I pictured slitting my wrists—the blade gliding across my skin the way an oar slices water. I envisioned slipping slowly into the tub. Then I imagined lowering my arms—palms up, fingers spread—under the water on either side of my hips, so that I could watch the thread-like blood curl up from beneath the surface and blossom, gradually turning the water pink, then red. I imagined the way my life would slowly and sensually seep out of me, travel to a new more restful place.

I wonder now how I ever imagined that slicing my own skin would be as painless as an oar gliding through water?

When the stitches were removed from the procedure for the cyst on my thigh, the pain felt less searing than it had a day or two after the procedure, yet it still stung. Surely self-induced slashed wrists would have burned more than a physician’s incision. But that is in the past; life is not so threatening now and death far less romantic. To be having those thoughts at all—to confuse the idea of dying with the relaxation of bathing—I must have been at least slightly crazy at that time, my craving symbolic of the long history connecting bathing and the mentally ill.

Hydrotherapy was once considered therapy for the insane. I have read about it most recently in Emily Holmes Coleman’s A Shutter of Snow: the laughing or crying crazy women, the sturdy practical nurses. One only needs to google “bathing for the insane” to find images of rows of bathtubs with heads popping out of holes in white tub covers. The covers work more or less like tablecloths strapped in place over the tubs (a less sturdy, more encompassing version of Marat’s desk). Like human storage rooms or, more precisely, human cocoons. Were the tarps to keep the occupants’ water warm, for consideration of their privacy, or intended to function like loose-fitting straight-jackets? Probably all three. But that is not the type of bath I would find soothing. As much as I usually like to keep my arms floating gently by my sides I would want the freedom to remove them to scratch my nose or push away a stray hair. The covers would have made me feel trapped, claustrophobic. Not the perfect treatment for the mentally unstable. Yet all that white must have been calming. Everything white. The tubs, the tile floors, the nurses’ uniforms. The agitated women swathed in white until the day they could burst forth from their white cocoons as reasonable butterflies.

I don’t know if bathing is still used as therapy for the mentally ill, but it is definitely an elective treatment that the wealthy have enjoyed as far back as the Roman baths, probably even predating them. Public “bathing” is usually connected with hot springs or mineral water, and sometimes almost as akin to swimming as it is to bathing and vice-versa (hence the interchangeability between the names bathing suits and swimsuits.) I have been to hot springs in Colorado, where the water is piped into mammoth-sized pools and smells of sulfur. In Honduras, we rode up the mountain in the painfully bouncy bed of a pickup truck to reach hot spring pools embedded among the tiered slopes. My favorite hot spring is a place called La Gruta near San Miguel Allende. The series of man-made pools with stone walls, collecting spring water ranging from warm to hot, are surrounded by gardens. A lovely setting, but the best part is how one can swim from an outside pool down a long stone tunnel until it opens into a dome-enclosed pool. One does not even need to have heard of Freud to envision the birth canal (granted, an extremely long one) and the uterus. I have heard that people have performed rebirthing ceremonies there. That is a bit too new-agey, too primal for me. I like to think the tunnel is taking me forward to an enchanted cavern, a place with ancient connections but also a place with ties to the future, to death and beyond, a place that I cannot reach by air or land.

Back in the days when the tub held a potentially fatal attraction, I think a part of me believed that the water would carry me away, pull me deeper than the tub’s bottom, farther from its walls, so that I could float painlessly to a new life. Think of Ned, in “The Swimmer,” the pool water washing over him in a way that prevented him from seeing what was real, what ruin he had wrought. Or the Twilight Zone episode where the children swam from the fancy in-ground pool to a magical land, away from their quarreling parents.

Oddly, the one way in which bathing is not transformative is in the process for which it is most known: cleaning. I remember a man—notice how males are more prone to showers than baths?—telling me that no one could really become clean in a bath, since bathers were sitting in their own sluiced off dirt and skin. He had a point, which I quickly dismissed. I do take showers for washing. What he didn’t understand is that cleansing is the least important aspect of bathing. This might be why Kohler Spa in nearby Wisconsin had less appeal for me during my one trip there than the grittier La Gruta. Connected to Kohler Bathroom and Kitchen Products, the place seemed more focused on sparkling fixtures and shiny enamel than magic and mystery. Fulsome men and women in white terrycloth robes strutted about. However, I do have to give Kohler credit. According to Wikipedia, Austrian immigrant John Michael Kohler invented the first bathtub in 1883 by applying enamel to a cast iron horse trough and setting it on ornamental feet. Later in the century, someone at Kohler invented the “bubbler,” better known today as the drinking fountain.

To be transformative, baths need to be somewhat solitary. Yes, I can float in a public pool or a hot spring or spa if people seem somewhat encased in their own experiences. And I could look for hours at David Hockney’s images of water in public places—the way the reflections twist and entwine, shadow and light, rain drops hitting a surface, sprinklers twirling. The images excite me, but I cannot enter them.

My own bathing, entering water, can almost border on the spiritual. Most religions I’m aware of have bath rituals. Sacred rights. The online Etymology Dictionary asserts that the word “bath” in English comes from the German word, baed, originally meaning to surround in heat. As if one can burn away evil. But most important is the pleasure.

Enveloping, luxurious heat.

I don’t think I’m completely alone here. Baths are associated with comfort and luxury. Bubble baths. Bath oils. Bath beads.

Post 1990, housing developers wouldn’t think of building a new home with only one bathroom. Expensive homes come with three or more. Sometimes sunken tubs. Jacuzzis. I have even seen advertisements for hanging hammock-shaped tubs! In a recent search for a new home, I quite naturally looked carefully at the tubs. The tubs in the vintage apartment my husband and I finally bid on were quite ordinary. Neither vintage charm (claw feet or extra length), nor contemporary upgrades (depth or jets). The plain white troughs resembled the bathtubs of my childhood. I was disappointed, but also wondered how it was possible that we were making the biggest investment of our lives—hundreds of thousands of dollars—yet the real estate agent looked shocked when I said that before we finalized the purchase, I wished I could take just one short test bath.