Melissa Wiley




Star Bath

There is a bathtub big enough for all of us, when the world fills with water. Our tubs, though, are our only respites from each other, while I am asking us to all crawl in naked together. I have suggested it on occasion and watched discomfort arise during the course of conversation. I have heard friends voice concern regarding fluids that might leak into the bathwater.
     And I have seen my father stand naked in the tub as he wiped a towel across his shoulders. I was no more than six or seven when I walked inside a bathroom that had only a tub and never a shower. I watched him dry himself a moment while he stood there smiling if equally embarrassed, though not of his nakedness, I have since reflected.
     He bathed himself there each night after done with his day's labor, yet somehow I still doubt it. Decades later and I still wonder whether he really lathered soap there diurnally all over his surface. Because he was so large, our tub so small, and I cannot imagine him and the water there together. I cannot picture him bathing in the same tub I did only an hour earlier without flooding our bathroom until our house floated down a river and we all sank and died together, which did not happen. He did not bend easily either, so I have difficulty believing he folded his legs against his stomach inside a tub made for those much shorter.
     I never saw him washing himself in the tub for the record. I only once interrupted the drying that came afterward, meaning he may have bathed elsewhere all along while we never suspected. As we lay languid on a sofa, we had little idea how deep down in the planet he may have descended.
     For years, he may have scrubbed himself below the plants' root systems, luxuriating awash in the earth's magma, then dried himself in our bathroom afterward for the sake of appearances should we walk in on him by accident. Yet I have no conception how he traveled to the underworld so often. The heat alone should have burnt him past all recognition. Only somehow it didn't.
     So many trips likely shortened his lifespan, however. Yes, this must have been what did it. The damage, I see now when it can make no difference, was latent but cumulative.
     Willing to take the same risk for whatever pleasures it offered him, I've searched hundreds of times for an opening to where he bathed himself beneath the earth's crust and in a warmer softness, as the center of a pie always feels compared to the pastry covering over it. Yet long as I've looked for an entrance, I can neither find nor fathom how he slipped through it. Because he was as big as a hippopotamus and our bathtub drain had such a small circumference. Because I've tried to squeeze through cracks in the sand and sediment yet still can't force one wide enough.
     I too want to bathe in unrepentance, but as it is I'm stranded.


Star Flotation

Everyone knows we are star stuff condensed into something less radiant, if only because Carl Sagan told us. We are made from the gases of supernovas atrophied into bone and tendon. All stars eventually become trapped in skin, when they have to take baths or showers as a consequence.
     Galileo Galilei looked through the eye of a telescope to ogle stars' imperfections. He was only gazing out upon future humans yet violating Catholic doctrine. Back in the late Middle Ages, the church refused Galileo's eyes permission to rise toward the heavens but allowed him to study rival nations' ships to monitor their direction. Religious authority later flew into paroxysms when he glimpsed craters in the moon and spots defacing the sun's brightness. Cardinals and bishops sniggered once he lost his vision.
     Only before God blinded him by way of penance, in 1612 Galileo published Discourse on Bodies in Water, though even here he proved truculent. He refuted Aristotle's explanation for objects' flotation, saying their flatness or roundness was irrelevant. The only thing that mattered, he claimed while flouting logic long accepted, was the weight of the object in relation to the displaced liquid. He stated the obvious that at the time wasn't.
     So my father sank, we thought without really thinking about it, to the bottom of the tub just as Galileo had predicted. He sank because of the heft of him in relation to the shortage of liquid. He sank against a white womb stained yellow beneath the drain in the shape of a serpent. Only the fact is he didn't.
     And even were he really bathing beside the toilet like we thought while we watched television, he would still have been floating in the firmament as are we all on this planet, as is every star busy burning in this liquid that keeps all heavenly bodies buoyant. Galileo's theory was correct yet still relative. If every planet and every star floats without plummeting to its death, then each planet and star is also displacing some fluid with equal weight to it.
     No one star or planet either is a heaven according to scientific evidence. No one orb floats at a height more celestial than those bobbing in the bathwater around it. Some stars only burn at higher temperatures than those next to them, while some planets are more warmed by stars than those orbiting at a greater distance. The underworld lies, though, at the center of all of them. All heavenly bodies, in other words, contain their own demons.
     Through a telescope, the hottest stars look the bluest, astronomers tell us, and I have no reason to disagree with them. Sapphire stars to my mind are also the prettiest, but I've never looked through a telescope strong enough to see the difference. The brightest, hottest stars also die the quickest. White stars' heat is considered medium with a longevity to match it, while red stars simmer the coolest. No stars are, though, what you call chilly places. My father's eyes were amber, but a blue ring circled his iris.


Star Debauchery

Beneath a microscope, some blood looks white in comparison to that which runs scarlet. Or this is what I imagine, if only because some blood funnels so many white blood cells to the heart it makes a person luminous. My father had so many they looked like stars beside the red they bathed in. Some of us, it seems, make more white blood cells in our bones than those sitting next to us, the more with the lesser power to fight off diseases. A genetic mutation, the doctors told us.
     His white blood cells bred freely as pollen yet never developed strength enough to fight infection. Weakened from their late-night recreation, they crowded out his hemoglobin. Still, they shone for several years like stars combusting with helium, an orgiastic tumult running throughout his circulatory system. White rage and joy and drunkenness and tearful appreciation of any presents we gave him. Everything you would expect of a person becoming a star garden.
     Of course later we would call it leukemia. Later we would learn of his white blood cells' antic proliferation. The star heat inside him warmed his red blood to whiteness.
     He bathed in the underworld each night, then, because the great red heat of the earth, cool as it was compared to a star emitting blue radiation, was the only place big enough to accommodate all the rage and joy within him. Otherwise, he would have exploded so much sooner, I now feel certain.
     People consider those in the underworld sinners according to conventional wisdom, because when they emerge they always have some embers stuck to their hairs' ends unraveling like ribbon. Call it sin if you want, this fire shooting off of them, but I consider it being more star than person. My father longed to return to a place of elemental collision, for which I hardly blame him. He neglected, though, to take us with him.
     And I could allow some doctor to count the stars growing in my blood to determine whether my white cells are outshining the red, because I have a genetic predisposition. Only I'm not curious. Of all the things I'm afraid of—snakes, too many balloons popping in unison, and life become loveless—death isn't among them. I could not be less afraid of sinking into the underworld with my father and everyone else who bathes there with him. Nothing either could change the fact I'm now a star wrapped in skin. No disease in future can relieve the burning at present.


Star Isolation

At the age of 36, Galileo met Marina Gamba, who gave birth to his three children. After several amorous encounters in Venice, she moved with Galileo to Padua, though they never married for unknown reasons. His son, Vincenzio, was later legitimated through political legerdemain, but his daughters remained bastards and were placed in a convent. Marina then married another man, with whom Galileo kept cordial relations. He saw far more of the stars of Andromeda than he ever did of his children.
     His eldest daughter, originally Virginia then Sister Maria Celeste, served as the convent apothecary and frequently sent her father herbal remedies for his maladies, none of them serious, because Galileo lived to be 78 at a time when most people counted themselves lucky to grow any gray hairs to begin with. While Sister Maria Celeste helped others recover from their illnesses, she herself progressively weakened and died of dysentery at 33, the same age as Jesus upon his crucifixion.
     Dysentery was then all too common a killer, as common now as is cancer. Most cases arise from bacterial infections resulting from poor hygiene, and the bathrooms at the convent were likely dirty. The nuns too may have neglected to wash their hands after relieving themselves in vast, rusted basins.
     Or did she not wash her hands on purpose? Perhaps she grew tired of a lifetime of nothing except holiness while her father took another mistress. A nun since prior to menstruation, she had no chance to sin then practice repentance. She had no reason to observe good hygiene to prolong such an uneventful existence. She likely took some comfort too in a death so well timed with that of Jesus. Perhaps, though, this is only transference. Flush with sin as I am to Sister Maria Celeste in comparison, I still often find my life too hermetic for my purposes. I pray to no one for salvation.
     So apart from seeing my father again, the underworld affords other attractions. I can bathe there with those who have sinned past the point of redemption, and this is the only place I know roomy enough for all of them. I have been no nun, but compared to all the sin for which I've lacked courage, I've been closer to one than I've had ambition. I'm willing to live ten or fifteen years less for the sake of what only looks like evil on the surface. Otherwise, there's just too much loneliness. You dirty yourself then come clean again with no more love than you started with.
     In my more honest moments, I'm aware this search for the underworld amounts to desire for annihilation. It's a death wish in sheep's clothing without much flocculence. If I never find a bathtub big enough to satisfy all my erotic urges but die looking for it, then at least there is an end to them, I tell myself over and over again.


Star Irritation

There were admittedly times growing up when I wanted him dead so I could have some silence. I wanted him dead only as a way of making him keep quiet, because otherwise he wouldn't. This was, however, well before his diagnosis. At times nevertheless I wanted him to leave my mother our sole parent. I wanted the house to consist of only three women, all of us soft spoken. It is the same instinct, I suppose, as makes me long by August for autumn.
     My mother too at times tried to hush him while I corrected his grammar, making him feel stupid. Little wonder he left us for a place where he could lather himself among thieves and adulterers without attracting attention. Such are the joys of logs crackling in a furnace. The screams sound so constant each one goes unnoticed.
     When his tempered flared one morning before I went to kindergarten, he threw water all around our kitchen. He attempted to flood it for what will remain unknown reasons. He was yelling at my mother regarding nothing of consequence, because those were the kinds of things that provoked him. One by one, he filled our saucepans with water then hurtled that inside them against the ceiling and windows, soaking all of them. He was using our faucet as a weapon. When I started crying, he threw all the water filling another saucepan on top of me standing beside the refrigerator. I don't hold it, though, against him. Owing to ongoing nuclear fusion, most stars have a temperature of at least 6,000 Kelvin.
      Because stars appear to float high in the heavens, clerics in Galileo's day reasoned, they are celestial objects, meaning they should have no acne scarring their complexions. Holy things were by law attractive, and the sunspots to which Galileo alerted the Vatican made him a heretic. Yet the spots, which he didn't know then, are ephemera. They are not even solid, only areas of cooler temperatures manifesting as darkness compared to the star's heat surrounding them.
     There is no larger difference in the universe, I've decided, than between seeing a star as a cosmic revelation through a telescope with weak lenses and witnessing its actual dimensions. Worshiping something, after all, is perhaps the most effective way of preserving your ignorance. Of all the things I might change regarding my relationship with my father had I only the option, holding him in more awe isn't among them.


Star Transformation

Earlier this morning, I walked past a man sleeping on a park bench near my apartment. I bent at my waist and stared into his face to see if he would waken. Whatever his life's torments, at sleep they had left him. Yet still I was tempted to moisten his lips a moment, to lick the white crust off of them, to flutter my eyelids against where his nostrils closed and opened in rhythm with his body's flow of oxygen. I remained, however, motionless and silent, witnessing the peace bathing eyes still sunk within their dreams' diorama. They were dreams of flying, I was certain, of flying down into the earth's intestines. The place where all of us go to bathe with each other naked.
     The man on the bench hadn't bathed, though, in ages, I knew by the smell of urine sewn within his buttons. Yet still he was sinking, subject to the law of flotation. Something had closed his eyelids for him while he offered no resistance.
     Then I walked on, past a couple practicing Falun Gong, a meditation practice involving physical movement long outlawed by the Chinese government. Falun Gong works to release the soul from further reincarnation, and its exercises make its practitioners appear as if they are in slow motion while really they are reaching for transcendence. Since 1999, tens of thousands of followers have been imprisoned and executed. Their organs, though, are circulated widely via transplants crisscrossing continents, myriad news outlets have reported.
     Late summer afternoons, there are always a few people in the park practicing it. I have thought of joining them, but it would be impolite to pose an interruption, even more so to stand behind and imitate them, I've realized when the temptation has arisen.
     My father qualified for a bone marrow transplant, which the doctors predicted would save him. His immune system failed completely, however, before he had the operation. He never had the chance at having the bone marrow of a Chinese man or woman devoted to meditation grafted inside him, never had the opportunity to internalize so much Eastern wisdom. Had he done so, perhaps he could have bathed like the rest of us, running water all over him, cooling his body rather than heating it so his blood bubbled within him. Then he would have missed the fun of the escape to the underworld while we stayed no wiser lounging on the sofa above him.
     Several studies have shown Falun Gong benefits the immune system. These benefits only matter, however, if your immune system is not already broken by so many white blood cells born looking like balloons approaching deflation, stars already well on their way to dying and becoming a person. For keeping your blood's star heat at a minimum, a bone marrow transplant from someone whose stars burn only middling bright is the only solution. You're far too weak, however, to attempt Falun Gong in the interim.
     Even if he had the transplant, he would have had to take medication to suppress his immune system for all the time that remained to him. His lowered immunity—his continued and heightened risk of infection—would have only been a side effect of convincing his body not to fight someone else's cells inside him. For the rest of his life, his cure would have mimicked the disease progressing within him.
     How many stars can float in the sky until they fall to its bottom? Whatever the number, it isn't endless. I say this only because stars die, I assume, for a reason. Otherwise, outer space becomes congested. Irritation arises among the heavens. Stars transform themselves into humans as a way to control the skies' population.


Star Anxiety

Without a shower, we washed our hair in the sink, roughly every other evening. Our bathroom had two of them, so sometimes two of us would wash our hair together, and these are still some of my best memories of my father. The water, though, often took longer to drain than pleased him. He used the sink on the right and I the left, and he instructed me to clean my drain of hair fallen after I'd done making that still sticking to me a soapsuds beehive missing its bees but that stung my eyes regardless.
     And after I wrapped my hair with a towel and blinked the soap from my eyelashes, he pulled an iron tube from out a hole that itself might have led to the underworld for all I remained oblivious, showing me the hair that smothered the pipe and clogged the drain in the process. "Your hair chokes the plumbing," he said, "the same way ivy suffocates a house's siding." Because things that grow as fast as hair and plants like to asphyxiate, I was learning.
     Once the water began hesitating running down the drain just like he warned me, he grew angry. I had to pull my hair from the pipe each time I washed it, he said then shouted. "The dirt has to have somewhere to go," he said. "We can't just keep it."
     Aside from keeping the water from pooling in the sink basin, his exasperation may also have been intended as counseling for me not to travel down to the underworld with him. The star gases inside you had to begin exploding again for you to handle it, he as good as hinted. By the looks of me, I see now even in my reflection, I'm not prepared for it.
     When he was 24 years old, Galileo spoke at the Florentine Academy proposing his measurements of Dante's Inferno. At the time, this made for serious scholarship, and Galileo upended many existing dimensions posited by leading philosopher-scientists. Hell, Galileo clarified for the academy, does not extend all the way to the earth's surface. Its mouth is covered by a mound of dirt upon which sits Jerusalem. Hell itself also affects the force of gravitation, and Lucifer is gargantuan, 2,000 times the length of an average man's arm, according to his calculations. If Galileo was a good mathematician, he has me rethinking my plans to visit where my father bathed so often. The size alone of Lucifer's sexual organ.
     In practice, Falun Gong stretches and extends the body, making it more like liquid and less solid, so that you relax inside yourself as if taking a bath in your own bloodstream, carried languorously by its current. The exercise known as "the Buddha showing a thousand hands" opens all the body's channels of energy, unblocking that which is trapped and stimulating it so it begins racing.
     Read any Falun Gong literature and you quickly realize all its benefits point to an increase of energy. But what about someone who has so much already the star remnants inside him are combusting? And why is light always reaching? Knowing there are no answers to questions like these is sometimes enough to make me shut my eyes to everything. That or stare at the sun too closely and go blind out of curiosity.


Star Mutilation

In place of visiting my father in the underworld just below Jerusalem and bathing with the sinners who burn there always, practicing something along the lines of Falun Gong seems to be another option, something so serene and calming yet in China forbidden. The reason for the discipline's goal of ending the cycle of reincarnation is attaining enlightenment, meaning becoming more light than person. You realize the person is an illusion.
     You can free yourself of this misconception only if you become still enough in the course of your movements. Watch videos of people practicing Falun Gong on the Internet if you cannot find them in a nearby park at sunset and you'll see they look as if they are bathing together on land, it appears especially if filmed from a distance. The slow stretch of their arms turns the air viscous.
     Since the practice was banned by the government, several protestors have set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square, formerly the most popular gathering place for coming as close to bathing communally as you can in China of which I'm aware. In January 2001, five Falun Gong adherents, including a 12-year-old girl, opted for self-immolation. Barred from pursuing the discipline, which partakes of water, they considered fire the next natural element to immerse themselves in by way of ending all illusion.
     When I grew old enough to become self-conscious of my nakedness, I flipped through our photo album and tore apart all the pictures of myself in the tub playing with a rubber penguin. There were only a few of them, yet once I'd walked in on my father in the bathroom without knocking, I realized that our nakedness is something to be hidden. My mother only sighed and said she didn't have any negatives, that those were the best pictures of me as a baby she had taken. Regardless, I felt as if I'd accomplished something important.
     Not long afterward, my father gave me a telescope as a birthday present, something I never wanted. I'd asked him for a Barbie who played a plastic drum, but he said I had enough of them. My mother told me to play with it to make him feel better about buying it, so I sat on our front porch step and peered through its lens for a few minutes. I saw only blurriness, because odds are he didn't pay much money for it. But he wanted me to look at the stars, he said with some vehemence. He also bought me a book of constellations, though I had little interest. They were patterns difficult for me to discern with my growing myopic vision.
     One night he came outside when I was pretending to look through it and he asked me what I saw. "Stars, that's it," I told him, because I was tired of trying to find constellations. Then he asked me about the planets. Could I find any of them, maybe Venus? But of course I couldn't. Well couldn't I count whatever it was I was seeing? I couldn't do that either, I told him. "I hate counting," I added, when he nodded sadly. I realized, though, this wasn't true when I said it. I only hated that the number appeared infinite.


Star Healing

When he was close to dying and I asked him why he thought that this was happening, he only said, "It rains on the just and the unjust," while staring into the horizon. He said it matter of factly, as if rain and death were equivalent. As if dying were only a storm that would soon be finished.
     In light of his explanation, I accept that I am an unjust person. This doesn't bother me, though, because the person is only an illusion. I have not practiced Falun Gong—I have not grown half as many hands as the Buddha—but I still try to move slowly as if walking through water on occasion, if only because moving quickly is my only alternative.
     Some practitioners emphasize that self-healing arises from consistent meditation paired with its exercises. And I am in favor of this, healing however you can access it. The only question that for me arises is whether by healing yourself rather than succumbing to decay or illness you are not forgetting your origins, forgetting that there is more to us than remaining human.
     A narrow window filters sunlight into my apartment bathroom while I shower in the early mornings. The window is frosted so only the vague outline of my body is visible to onlookers in the opposite unit. My outline is blurred, I like to imagine, so starlight may as well be pulsing from my pores for all they know different, as it is truly.
     From a distance while doing what comes as close as I can to bathing in a tub too short to stretch my legs in, I look more and more as if I am my father's daughter. And I have lived past the age of both Jesus and Sister Maria Celeste, though this hardly matters. Because seen only from my window in the shower, I am ageless. I might as well live forever as half star, half woman while the soap sliding down my skin slips down the drain again. I bend to pick it up and disappear from the window a moment. A star has fallen.



I've long puzzled over how my very large father fit inside our very small farmhouse bathtub, and "Star Garden" began with my grappling with that conundrum. Then there's also the strange fact that, ten years gone, he still feels very present, so I'm grappling with that too as well as his continued and actual absence. I'm basically very busy grappling, dammit.