Once the first snowfall of winter stuck, my grandfather took to sleeping in the bathtub until the spring thaw. The bathroom was the warmest room in our apartment, a two-bedroom filled with rusted accordion steam heaters that clanked and whistled throughout the night. The bathroom heater incessantly squeaked, emitting a similar noise to the El at an abrupt stop, so each cold season grandpa silenced it by wrapping a coffee filter around the release valve with a twist-tie from a loaf of bread. Nothing could be done about the clanking.
No one much minded him slumbering in there. My younger brother Francis and I shared a small bedroom with bunk beds. Our parents shared the master. Spring through fall grandpa slept on the sofa – most evenings with the muted television flashing across his face. During winter, he lugged a cocoon of blankets and pillows back and forth from the sofa to the bathroom each day, so that we could still shower. He routinely woke up earlier than everyone else and made cheap coffee from a seasoned French press, along with standard breakfasts for each of us: oatmeal doused with brown sugar for himself and my father, wheat toast spread with apple jam for my mom, and cereal with a splash of milk for my brother and me.
The only time grandpa’s bathtub bed became a hindrance was when someone woke up in the middle of the night and had to use the bathroom. As to not startle him, I always kept the light off and urinated in the dark. He kept the shower curtain closed for privacy, and his hearing was so-so anyway, but it felt like a mutual intrusion. Being the only woman in the house, my mother wouldn’t tolerate such an arrangement, so she never drank anything after dinner during the cold season.
One December day, when it was especially frigid, so cold in fact we had a snow day, three gunshots echoed outside the window. Grandpa was watching us while my parents were at work. He shuffled us into the bathtub and we knelt on the icy porcelain. He muttered some curse in Polish and said we should make a game of being quiet. We didn’t move for a long time. Grandpa never talked much about Poland or the war. We weren’t old enough to know what to ask him anyway. My mom said he was pretty young at the time. Occasionally, he mumbled little quips to her in his mother tongue, but she unfailingly responded in English.
By the time grandpa died, I had moved north to attend school in Wisconsin, but Francis was still a junior in high school. He came back a little stoned one autumn night, well past curfew from a date at Navy Pier, and found our grandfather on the couch not breathing. Later that week, I took a train home from Madison and missed my first collegiate Halloween. We all cried at the funeral. Francis and I comforted one another in our mutual vulnerability and sadness, but I remember also resenting my grandfather in that moment. I should’ve been hoisting the bare thigh of some costumed coed doing a keg-stand. Sexy Where’s Waldo? was popular that year. It rained that day and we all caught colds. I couldn’t shake the sniffles for the rest of the semester.
Years later, after I moved to Boston to write spammy internet content for a marketing firm, I bathed in that tub while I was home for Christmas. My brother was stuck in Minneapolis with his in-laws, and my parents were across the hall for baklava and brandy with the Chagoyans, a young Armenian couple who had moved in over the summer. I wandered into the bathroom, a sweating tallboy of Old Style in hand. Sigur Ros howled from my smartphone. Steam curled off the water. It was my third beer of the night and I was drowsy. As I soaked, I drifted in and out of sleep. I dreamt I wrestled a Hitler impersonator. He looked impeccable in his Nazi uniform, his mustache was well kempt, but he was too gaunt and bug-eyed to be the real deal. Eventually, I got him pinned down beneath me and started throwing wild haymakers at his cheeks. The problem was my arms moved in slow motion, like they were held back by gigantic rubber bands. My fists folded inward at the wrist when they connected. With each swing I weakened, until my arms had the gummy consistency of a Stretch Armstrong action figure. Finally my fists bent all the way back to my elbows. The creases tore, leaking yellowish oil across fake Hitler’s mustache and lips, as if he’d smeared his mouth with uncooked eggs. I woke up sputtering water out my nose and coughed back into consciousness. I pulled the rubber plug from the basin and the water wooshed down the pipes. I stood there naked until the tub emptied. Soapy circles descended down my ankles like foam webbing the side of a pint glass. I turned on the shower and rinsed off.
After I was dry, I threw on old flannel pajamas and faux-leather slippers, then lumbered across the hall to meet the new neighbors. The five of us sipped brandy and chatted until after midnight. The couple sent us on our way with ball jars full of pickled cauliflower and carrots. Each lid was carefully tied with a thin red ribbon in a bow. I wondered if my parents gave them anything in return, but didn’t ask. Two days later I returned to Boston and celebrated the New Year at a dive bar with some coworkers. We gorged ourselves on flutes of flat champagne and cold bruschetta.
The plane ride home was memorable. Shortly after we boarded, a woman went on a tirade against some neighboring passengers, because she didn’t have enough overhead space for her luggage. She shrieked on and on about the incoming president and we sat on the tarmac for an hour until they could remove her. I guess she felt entitled to superior treatment. We cheered as the air marshal sent her packing. I filmed the whole thing on my phone.
“What an awful woman,” my seatmate said as we shifted to find our seatbelts. She looked like a fresh college grad, relaxed and still untainted by the perpetual boredom of adulthood, and I thought I’d lucked out, because shared transportation rarely provides the grace of an amicable companion. She was wearing colorful leggings patterned like one of my grandpa’s favorite sweaters. “Now we can finally go home and be done with this horrid year!” she continued.
“I guess so,” I said. I wasn’t sure what else to say. She removed a magazine from her purse. We didn’t talk for the rest of the flight, but about an hour in we hit a bad stretch of turbulence. During the first jolt, she reflexively latched onto my forearm and held her grip there until we steadied. I thought it was peculiar that this insignificant gesture provided comfort, when really holding onto anything, reacting any which way during a plane crash, didn’t matter. Clinging to anything was useless. You can only do so much in a disaster.
Aram Mrjoian is a contributor at Book Riot and the Chicago Review of Books. His reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in many other publications, including TriQuarterly, Necessary Fiction, The Adroit Journal blog, and The Masters Review. His stories are published or forthcoming in Tahoma Literary Review, Gigantic Sequins, Limestone, The Great Lakes Book Project, and others. He is currently working toward his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University, where he is a fiction editor at TriQuarterly.