Story by Thomas Dillon
Illustration by Tim Ernst
Elsie sloshed through the thigh-deep bath, drawing water with her hands to wet her harms, shoulders, breasts and belly. She arched her neck to the hazy ceiling high above.
“Ahhh. The perfect temperature. Just right.”
Twenty feet away, Linda scooted a plastic stool and squatted before a pair of ankle-high spigots, the mirror before her reflecting cleanly her rust-red hair and spray of light freckles. For with the heat of the tub switched off, the remaining steam had floated to the top of the bathhouse where it hung in a sleepy fog. The mirrors still perspired—as did the blue-tiled wall between the sexes—but the images rebounded true and the air showed clear, with only a faint bite of mists.
“You’re not supposed to do that, you know,” called Linda. “Plop about in the bath like that. And you’re supposed to wash off first.”
“Oh, fiddle…” Elsie scooped her hands and flung a plume of water.
“Aaagh! It’s cold!”
Now Linda pressed the spigot. The pipes belched and the water gushed.
“At least it’s hot here!” She placed down a round, plastic basin, flamingo pink to match the stool, and alternated… First pumping in hot water, then cold.
“And,” she yelled back to Elsie. “You’re supposed to carry one of these.” She thrust up a hand towel the size of a dinner tray. “Without it, you look indecent.”
“Linda!” Elsie sank to the water, stretching her arms behind her like a hood ornament.
“Well, what if someone were to come in?”
“Linda, I swear you have been in this country too long.”
Yet—in but two months more—they would both be out of it. At least that is what Linda had announced. Despite her other option.
“Well, what if they do? We’re supposed to follow their customs. Not prance around like we own the place.”
“Linda, it’s three a.m. No one’s coming in.”
With that, they caught the swoosh of a sliding door and the clunk and clatter of someone stumbling about the dressing room—on the other side of the wall. Which at the very top lay open three feet.
From her tiny stool Linda whispered, “See! What did I tell you!”
“See! See! What did I tell you!” Elsie palmed her hands together and squeezed water at her bathmate.
“Stop it!” Linda commanded, her teacher’s voice low and sharp.
“Oh, who cares. He’s a guy. He’s not gonna come waddling in here. And look around.” She motioned to the bathhouse walls. “Not many others, are there?”
Yet, but five hours before the entire room had been writhing with naked girls. As had the other half with naked boys. School children, aged 13, scores of them. The main reason the two women had postponed their bath till later.
“That’s all I need,” Elsie had quipped. “A bathhouse of my students discovering I’m not a natural blonde.”
Of course, they could have just showered in their 8th-floor hotel room. A choice Linda preferred, but Elsie had talked down.
“You can take all the showers you want back in Chicago, but not omens. If you’re really going home, this might be your last chance.”
So they chewed dried squid and sipped beer with the other faculty in Takashi’s room until everybody else was too tuckered to continue. No doubt, some of the three floors of students were still up, giggling into their pillows, but a midnight patrol of teachers had quieted most. Besides, it had been a tiring day, beginning with the Great Buddha at Nara, followed by a quick leap to Kyoto for the Kiyomizu Temple and then further skips to both the Gold and Silver Pavilions. With wake-up for tomorrow’s bullet train to Hiroshima set for 5:30, everyone was bushed.
Everyone, that is, but the two Americans. There was no need for them to get all harried and fraught and whip the uniformed boys and girls onto buses and trains. All Elsie and Linda had to do was to enjoy.
A juicy benefit for having fulfilled two-year contracts to teach English Conversation. Before leaving for home, they got to tag along with the annual class trip, all expenses paid. To tour some of the cultural sights of Japan for free, as a “thank you” for having donated a sliver of their lives to the Land of the Rising English Lesson.
Though Linda now had a chance to donate much longer.
Elsie ascended from the bath, water cascading from her skin. She stepped over the tiled retaining wall, bent to reach her own plastic stool and then edged in beside her friend.
Hammering the spigots and shooting their basins full of water, the two women washed themselves, side by side. They lathered up, scrubbed and rinsed off, tipping full basins of water across their backs, shoulders, chests and heads.
Elsie shook like a wet dog. “See. Isn’t this better than a shower?”
“Now, sure. But we’re gonna be dead later.”
“So? We’ll sleep on the train. And we’ll look fabulous. Don’t think Takashi won’t notice.”
Linda squirted shampoo onto her hand from the dispenser above the spigots. She massaged it into her ruddy hair.
“So?” she said to the mirror. “Who cares?”
Elsie lathered her own hair, blonde ever since landing in Japan. For a second neither girl spoke as their heads transformed into white clouds of suds.
“He’s just,” said Linda with her eyes scrunched shut, “so serious. So formal. Everything by the rules.”
“He’s a math teacher, for goodness sake. That’s what math teachers are like. Numbers, theorems, balanced equations. All answers to the fifth decimal point.”
“But that’s not me. I want someone more free. More… spontaneous.”
Elsie reached out with her eyes closed, feeling for the shower hose latched into the frame between the mirrors.
She showered off the shampoo then turned the water on Linda. Who yelped.
“It’s too cold!” “But you want spontaneity!” “Elsie!”
Now they applied rinse and Elsie threw Linda her best pitch.
“Well, there’s what I think.”
“I know what you think.”
“He’s as steady as they come,” she lectured. “He’s hard-working and respected by others. He’s gentle. The kids all love him. His English is pretty good. And…he’s cute. Plus one more thing.”
Linda had her head down. Water drove the rinse from her hair.
“He’s in love with you.” Elsie spoke as pointedly as she could. “Together that adds up to quite a deal.”
They stood, all rinsed off. Linda draped her towel over her middle.
“But, he’s just so… predictable. Besides, you think I want to live in Japan my entire life?”
“Of course not. That would be too spontaneous.”
“You’re not being fair. You don’t want to live here yourself.” They dipped to the edge of the bath.
“I don’t have someone wanting to marry me.”
One leg at a time, they stepped inside.
“Brrr. You call this just right?”
“It is just right. You’re too used to being boiled like the Japanese.”
They lowered themselves into the water. Linda mopped her neck with her towel.
“Anyhow. It’s already settled. I told him ‘No’.”
They sat in silence. On the other side they could hear the male bather, sliding his stool.
Elsie ducked her shoulder, rolled about and pushed off the wall. Like a speed swimmer, she shot across the bathing pool.
“Elsie! You’re not supposed to do that!”
Elsie reached the far wall and brushed back her dripping hair. She spun about, grinned at her friend, then ducked her head under the water.
“You’re not supposed to do that either!”
The surface rimmed as Elsie shoved off from the far side and arrowed back, this time underwater.
She splashed to the surface right by Linda’s side, water running down her face, her green eyes glimmering.
“Honestly, Elsie, you’re acting like a child!”
Elsie raised her eyebrows…then spat a jet of water into Linda’s face.
“Elsie!” Linda covered up with her towel. Elsie gasped for air and pushed away.
“Live it up, Linda! This is the last of these baths we’ll ever take.”
“Do you know how many germs are in this water? How many people put their naked bodies in here!?”
Elsie skimmed one flat hand and splashed Linda across the face. In a second the two girls were kicking water at each other and howling with laughter.
“Shh!” Elsie stopped splashing and put up her hand. “Listen!”
On the other side, the male bather had started to sing. Some bay-hound folk song that neither girl could follow. But they could catch enough wiggle in the warble to figure out one thing: the man was fairly drunk.
“OK,” Elsie set her teeth. “Here’s what we do. We’re gonna out-sing him.” “No, we’re not.”
“Sure. C’mon.” And in a bold alto, Elsie crooned:
“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore!”
The bathhouse boomed with the echo.
“Elsie! That’s too loud!”
“No, it’s not. Now stand up and turn around, so you’ll inspire me!”
Linda splashed her. Elsie changed songs.
“Buffalo gals, won’tcha come out tonight! Come out tonight, come out tonight! Buffalo gals won’tcha come out tonight—Stand up, Linda!—And dance by the light of the mooooooon!”
The sliding door swished again, this time on their side. Both girls turned to look. All they could see was a shadow in the changing room. The murky glass in between not allowing anything more.
“Buffalo gals, won’tcha come out tonight….” Elsie’s voice slid to a halt. On the other side, their drunken bath buddy looped along, yet unaware of the competition.
“Be quiet,” Linda hushed. “Someone’s coming.”
They watched the shadow creep back and forth across the girl’s dressing room. “Now you’ll have to act respectable.”
Any second they expected the door to slide open and some wrinkled hotel guest to join them, maybe one of the grandma-types from the tour group on the 5th floor.
But the shadow did not enter. In a moment, the outside door swished again and the would-be bather left.
“Well,” said Elsie with a loopy smile, “I guess that means the concert’s still on!”
Linda stood. “I’m getting out. The water’s too cool and it’s already 3:30.”
But before leaving, they both parked before separate shower nozzles and relaxed under streams of hot water. Breathing through their mouths with their eyes shut, as the water soothed their gangly foreign bodies in their fair-skinned, sharp-nosed heads.
Elsie got up first and danced off into the dressing room, leaving a trail of water behind. Linda wrung out her tiny towel and hollered after her, “See! That’s why you need one of these.”
She wiped down her body carefully, squeegy-ing off as much of the water as she could, and eased toward the dressing room entrance.
Elsie called back. Her voice matter-of-fact, yet tense.
“Linda… our clothes are gone.”
“What?” Linda burst into the keen lights of the dressing room. Elsie stood naked by the wall of square lockers where they’d stacked their things. Their locker stood open and empty.
Linda’s eyes ballooned. She rushed to the lockers. ” There must be some mistake!”
“Mistake? Whoever that was a moment ago lifted all our stuff. Our underwear and bath robes. And bath towels. We don’t have a thing.”
“Wha…We…Who…” Linda gulped and eyed about the room, her body starting to goosebump. “Well…did you try the other lockers?”
They split into two and worked from both ends toward the center. Flinging open every door, reaching their hands into the upper lockers, where they couldn’t see.
Linda begged Elsie with her eyes. “Nothing?” she sought.
“Nope.” Elsie scanned the room. “I bet it was a student.”
Linda breathed in spurts. She put a hand to her freckled bosom.
“What are we going to do? We don’t have a thing. And our rooms are on the eighth floor!”
There were hand-held hair dryers by the mirrored wall. “Well, at least you have that little towel. Me, I’m gonna blow-dry myself.”
So saying, Elsie stepped to the dryers. Linda followed.
“We’re buck naked, Elsie! And there is no way out!”
“Shush.” Elsie flipped on two dryers and gripping them like six-guns, trained the air on her body.
Linda dropped down onto a cane lounge chair. She crumpled her towel to her face.
“Oh, what are we going to do?” A question she kept moaning till Elsie cut the surge of air.
“We wait, of course,” Elsie answered. “Sooner or later someone will come.”
Linda shook her head. “But you know we can’t wait!” She pointed at the clock. “It’s already four. The teachers’ll start waking the students in just an hour and a half. If we’re not there, what will happen?”
“They’ll look for us.”
“But the bus to the station is set. The train time can’t be changed either. Even breakfast will be rushed, box meals on the train.”
“They’ll find us in time.”
Linda glared at her friend. “Will they? We’re in the basement! And who is gonna guess we took a bath at 3 a.m.!”
“Take it easy. Someone will come.”
“Oh, I should never have listened to you!”
Linda put her face in her hands. “I am so humiliated. So humiliated!” she sobbed.
A door hissed open. On the men’s side, the drunk singer was getting out.
“See!” chirped Elsie. “What did I tell you! All we have to do is ask for help.”
Linda lifted her head. Elsie scrambled next to the wall. On the other side the man was still strangling the same folk song.
“Sumimasen!” she shouted in bright Japanese. “Can you help us!”
The man kept singing.
“Oh, your pronunciation is hopeless!” Linda rocked up from the chair, the marks of the cane imprinted across her backside. Now she shouted, too.
“Excuse me! We have a problem!”
“That’s right,” joined Elsie. “Can you help us?”
“Wait,” Linda put a hand on Elsie’s arm. “What’s the word for ‘steal’?”
“I dunno. How about ‘toru’? That means ‘take’.”
“Right!” She squealed up at the opening, a twisted, frantic sentence about taking clothes and being nude.
“Listen to yourself. You just told this drunk we are stark naked.”
“I told him our clothes were taken!”
“No… I think you told him to take our clothes.”
On the other side, the man stopped singing. The two girls stared at each other. They heard the exit for the men’s dressing room slide open.
“Oh, my gosh!”
They tried to hide behind one another, Linda peeking down behind Elsie and Elsie then pivoting and crouching behind Linda, who spun and ducked behind Elsie. Elsie pushed her away. The two slapped at each other with their hands.
Outside they heard the man’s slippers patter across the carpet.
“Ooh, he’s coming in!”
“Quick! Back into the water.”
But from outside, the man began to sing again. They realized then he was only waiting for the elevator. They heard him stagger on and leave.
Linda exhaled and ran her fingers through her hair. “Nothing registered. He’s too drunk.”
“And your Japanese sounds more like Spanish.”
“Shut up, Elsie.”
“Listen. Maybe if we slip our heads out of the door and cry for help, someone will hear us”
They tip-toed to the door, pulled back the curtain and stepped down from the raised floor to the carpeted entrance. Linda with her hand towel pressed against her breasts.
“At least,” she noted, “we have our slippers.”
“Slippers? You’re as nude as a newborn and you’re worried someone will see your feet?”
They nudged the door open, just wide enough to poke their heads out. First Elsie, then, above her, Linda.
The hall was not long. It ran briefly to the left to a stairwell and back the other way to the men’s bath and the elevator. Nobody in either direction.
Elsie cleared her throat. “Help,” she peeped.
“Help,” added Linda.
“It’s no use,” said Elsie. She wrenched her head to see the elevator door. Linda’s lips wrinkled down, a strand of hair pasted against her cheek.
“Won’t someone help us, pleeeease!” a plea on the verge of tears.
Elsie pulled her back from the door. “Linda… Listen. I’ve got an idea.”
“What?” she sniffled.
She stretched a thin smile. “Why don’t we…just take the elevator?”
“Look… It’s just ten strides away. We get on. And take it straight to the eighth floor. Then we dash down the hall to our room. We have our key.” She paused and swallowed. “No problem.”
Linda paused, too, before shouting, “Are you nuts!”
“No, it’s 4:30 in the morning. Who’s gonna be around to see?”
“You are nuts.” Linda put her head back to the sliding door. “HELP! HELP!”
“Linda. It’s the only way.”
“I’m not gonna waltz through the halls naked! Omura-sensei’s on patrol.”
She spoke of the fat PE teacher who used to wrestle sumo in college. Tonight was his turn to rattle doors and make sure the kids were sleeping. He was supposed to pad around once every half hour.
“You know that blubberball’s snoring into his pillow.”
“And you have your towel.”
“This? I’ve seen tissue paper with more material than this!”
“Besides, we can just stick our heads out the elevator door. If we see Omura, we can zip off to another floor.”
“Then, what are we gonna do, huh? We have less than an hour.”
Linda seethed. She put her face only inches from Elsie’s. The two girls stood flat-footed on the carpet of the entrance-way, the soft spots of their bodies almost touching.
“Elsie Bailey! So help me! I am not doing this!”
Elsie pursed her lips and inhaled through her nose. “All right…stay here then. I’m going alone.”
Dangling the room key from her hand, she shouldered past her freckled friend.
Elsie inched back the door and again stuck her head out—slowly, though she knew no one was there. Next, she hooked one well-shaved leg out into the hallway. Then the other.
“Elsie…” Linda’s voice sunk to a whisper.
Elbows at her sides, arms raised, Elsie scampered down the hall. She halted at the elevator and jabbed the button.
Linda watched from the doorway. Her friend standing nude before the elevator doors.
Elsie raised her brows. “Feels kind of chilly.”
“Elsie! Get back here.”
She peered at the elevator dial. “Fifth floor, coming down.”
Then, silence. Elsie before the door. Linda with only her head in the hall. But her heart in her hands.
Both girls jumped. The elevator had arrived.
The doors bounced open. Lights from inside cut into the hall. Linda saw Elsie’s eyes spread with surprise. She crisscrossed her breasts and twisted her head back to Linda. Who covered her mouth with her towel.
“It’s…empty!” Elsie rasped. Then hooted with laughter.
Linda exhaled. “Elsie Bailey! So help me…”
Elsie held the door. She beckoned to her friend with a nod of the head. “Linda? What do you say? C’mon!”
Linda clenched her fists and wrenched her face. “Oh! Oh! Oh!” was the only words that would come.
“A fast elevator ride and a quick streak! You can do it, Linda!”
A heartbeat passed. In which the two girls read each other’s faces. Then…
Linda set her jaw, closed her eyes and darted into the hall after her friend. She slap-footed her way into the elevator and backed into the wall, drinking air in gulps.
Elsie stepped in and pressed “8.” The doors wobbled shut. The elevator rose.
Linda held her towel in both hands. “Oh, please! Oh, please!” she prayed. “Please don’t let anybody catch us naked in the elevator!”
Up one level, then to the lobby floor. Then, floor two, floor three.
“We’re gonna make it! We’re gonna make it!” Elsie grinned. Linda tried to smile.
Floor four. The elevator began to slow.
“We’re stopping! Someone’s getting on!”
“AAAARGH!” Linda screamed. She brought the towel up to her breasts, then dipped it low to her loins, then yanked it up again. Then dove behind Elsie, who went through the same movements without the towel.
“Just.. .try to act natural.”
Five! The elevator stopped! Both girls ceased their jitters and tried to stand at ease, gnawing away at their lips. The door sprung open.
There before them stood a round, old lady in a cotton bathrobe and eyewear as thick as beer mugs. She was a half step on before she even noticed the two naked foreigners. Both ten inches taller than her.
The women froze. Her lips popped apart.
“Good morning,” greeted Elsie in Japanese. She wriggled her fingers in a wave. “Morning,” said Linda, over her friend’s shoulder.
The Japanese woman backed off and kept going until she smacked into the opposite wall.
Elsie shoved the button. The doors rolled together, their last view of the woman being with her mouth agape and her tongue protruding like a leaf.
Again the elevator rose.
Floor six. Floor Seven.
“If I ever catch the little jerk who took our clothes, I’m going to rip his hair out!”
And then…the eighth floor.
The doors opened and they jutted their heads into the hallway. No one down the hall to the right. They both swiveled at the same time. No one down the hall to the left.
So… They broke into the passageway, galloping. Breasts bouncing and heels kicking high above their bottoms.
Elsie made the door first and aimed the key. Linda arrived, rammed into Elsie and the key flew to the end of the hall.
“Waaa!” Elsie skipped after it. Linda hunched down on the floor.
She snatched the key and hopped back to the door. They both gaped wide-eyed down the hallway. There was nothing. It was dead silent.
The lock cranked, the handle turned. Elsie shouldered open the door and the two girls fell inside. Elsie flicked shut the lock.
They sat in the dark on the raised lip of the room entranceway, panting. Linda put her head on Elsie’s shoulder. After a moment, she began to cry.
“We made it! We made it!” Her voice squeaked. Both girls heaved out all their breath.
“I’m sweating so hard…” huffed Elsie. “I could use another bath!”
Linda lifted her tear-lined face and whapped Elsie with her towel. But a smile formed behind her tears. She knew it then like she had never known anything in her life: Elsie Bailey was her best friend ever. She got up without the towel, holding one hand to her diaphragm.
“Well, it’s time we finally got dressed.”
Between the entrance way and the rest of the room stood a sliding paper door. Linda pushed it open, stepped into the room, reached for, found the light cord and yanked it on.
“Surprise!” yelled Takashi. He sat at the low table on the tatami floor. In his hand he held a Champagne bottle. Takashi stared at Linda and Linda stared at Takashi for two full seconds before they both screamed.
Ten years later, Elsie met Linda for lunch at an Italian restaurant in Chicago. It was their first meeting since Linda and Takashi’s wedding, two months after the school trip.
This time, not only did they wear clothes, but the best of clothes. Elsie’s pantsuit befitting a young executive and Linda’s jazzy one-piece, several cuts above her usual housewife’s wear. But this day she had left the kids at grandma’s.
The two made small talk, trying to get to know each other again. Though they had shared letters and phone calls, Elsie’s new job in Chicago had at last given them the opportunity to meet, Linda’s hometown being in the suburbs. As for Linda, it was her first trip back to the States since Elsie’s job change.
The conversation started and stalled, all the while Elsie sensing something was wrong. Finally. Linda came out with it.
“Elsie…do you remember the night we rode the elevator naked?”
Elsie wriggled her head, now dyed maroon. “Wow. Like, no, I’ve completely forgotten.”
“Well, of course I remember.”
With that, Linda’s face punched up and she reached into her floppy shoulder bag on the floor. From within she withdrew a brown paper wrapping.
Linda fought back tears. It’s your undergarments. Bra and panties. From that night.”
Elsie squinted at her.
“Remember, we thought it was a student? Well, it wasn’t. It was…Takashi. Three weeks ago I found them in a box of his things. Both your stuff and mine. My guess is he dropped the bathrobes and towels into the hotel wash.”
Elsie fingered the wrapping. “That sweetheart… He’d kept them all these years.”
“Sweetheart! Oh, Elsie, he swiped our clothes! Tricked me into posing naked! To where, with the whole school knowing, I felt almost compelled to marry him! And…and he saw you nude, too!”
“Almost. I had your towel.”
“Don’t you see? I’ve married a warped man! A hentai!”
“Linda, I know your Japanese is fabulous now, but mine’s not. Stick to English.”
“And he teaches school kids, too! Oh, I’m sure we’re headed for a scandal!”
“You know he’s not that kind of guy! How could you be married to him this long and say that?”
“Well, look!” she crinkled the wrapping of underwear. “Here’s the proof!”
“Which you haven’t confronted him with yet?”
“Oh, but I will! As soon as I sort out my options.”
“Elsie, this is very serious.” “No, it’s not.” “Yes, it is.”
“Listen, I’m convinced he didn’t expect us to rush in on him naked.”
“But he had our underwear.”
“Well…” she tapped the tabletop with her nails. “Maybe…Maybe someone, like…just gave him the underwear. Later, I mean. As a sort of odd wedding gift. A souvenir.”
Linda made a face. “That’s absurd.”
“Is it? You kept saying he wasn’t wild enough for you. Maybe he was desperate and only crawled into the bath to leave you a little note. Something romantic, to get your attention. Saying that we had left a key in his room at the teachers’ party, so he was preparing a Champagne surprise for us. That and nothing more.”
Linda trained her eyes. She took a breath.
“What are you trying to say?”
Elsie licked her lipstick. “Well…remember…You checked half the lockers and I checked the others. Maybe I just didn’t check my half well enough and our things were there all the time. Wadded out of sight to make them hard to see. Maybe I just missed them and went down to fetch them later. And maybe because you and the school were so furious that someone had taken our clothes, Takashi was too embarrassed to say he’d been there, too.”
Linda didn’t speak. But the smoke in her eyes showed she was about to erupt.
“OK, try this on…Maybe I found his note propped up in our locker and then hid the clothes myself. From that point on, I played it by ear.”
“ELSIE BAILEY!” The whole restaurant turned to look.
Elsie squirmed in her chair.
“Well…someone had to push you two lovebirds together. I did the best I could.”