I remember the contents of Tom’s small, mini-bar sized fridge because I took a photo.
Everything was moldy except for the bread, Thai leftovers and condiments.
“Tea and toast,” he said when we arrived at his apartment, and presented me with a slice of toast with too much butter and a lukewarm cup of tea. It had cooled when he left to bring me up to the apartment. We sat on the couch smiling at each other for twenty minutes. I had barely slept on the plane and was now feeling cold and tired. Tom had to go back to work.
“Nap,” he said, “We’ll meet up later tonight.”
I thought about his apartment’s soaking tub, something my New York studio lacked. “I’ll take a bath first,” I said.
“Go for it,” Tom waved magnanimously towards his gleaming bathroom, kept spotless by a cleaning woman of Eastern European descent whom Tom called, on rotation, “Olga,” “Svetlana” or “Helga.” “You’ll be the first person to do so since I started living here.”
He left again for work and I unpacked while running a bath. The water was disappointingly tepid, but I got in anyway. When the water began to feel colder than the apartment air, I got out and turned the knob below the faucet, which was meant to raise the stopper. It was stuck. I turned it the other way. It moaned, as though I was causing it great pain, then became stuck again. I tried to turn it back, but it wouldn’t budge. I twisted, pulled and pushed. My skin was beginning to dry and the steam to evaporate but the bath remained quite full, and now, filled with my filth. There was no handle or chain on the stopper for me to pull it up manually, nor was there a plunger about for me to suck it up. It appeared that within thirty minutes of setting foot in Tom’s apartment, I had broken the bathtub and left it filled with dirty water.
I dressed and paced around the apartment wondering what to do. It was still early-ish Friday morning. I could wait until Tom came home to fix the issue, though I doubted his plumbing fixing abilities. And what if he wanted to take a shower right after work and he couldn’t without standing in my filth? That was sad. I couldn’t do that to someone, especially not Tom, to whom I wanted to appear clean and ladylike for as long as possible. And, even if I did wait for Tom, it was nearing the end of the workweek and where would we find a plumber? Our weekend would be pretty gross if neither of us could shower.
I reasoned that as it was a rental, there was probably in one of the kitchen drawers, a list of numbers to call in the event a foreigner came and stopped up one’s bathtub. I was correct. I dialed the maintenance number to his complex from an old apartment maintenance notice, which Tom had stuffed in the drawer beneath the microwave.
“Hi! So.” I said, when a friendly sounding young woman finally picked up, “I’m staying with a friend but he’s at work and I took a bath and the stopper won’t come up, so now the bathtub is filled with dirty water and I’d like to have the problem fixed as soon as possible so my friend doesn’t come home and find his bathtub filled with dirty water.”
“Oh, right,” said the young woman on the other end, “Completely understandable.”
She made a few calls while I waited on the edge of the sofa, from which I could see into the bathroom. I hoped that the drain might change its mind during the length of my call. After a few minutes, the young woman came back on and told me she had dispatched someone to Curtain Road to right the issue.
“They’re just down the street fixing a similar issue at another unit, and should be here soon,” the woman said.
An hour later -soon by any standard for appointments like this – the buzzer rang. In keeping with my narrow ideas of who should take care of things like plumbing, I expected a man’s voice, but it was certainly a woman and by the time I had buzzed her in and opened the front door, it saw that she was not just any woman. She was of-all-trades, a Romanian McGuyver, robust and matronly with vibrant red, curly hair tucked into a handkerchief (a handkerchief!) and ruddy cheeks. Heavyset and huffing from hurrying down the street in cold air, she wore a thick down jacket, beneath which a flower print skirt billowed around ribbed tights and Adidas sneakers. She looked like someone’s Aunt Olga who might have, just five minutes before, been undercover selling root vegetables at a Borough Market before being summoned via some secret exchange to take care of business. In this case, Tom’s bathtub. She carried no toolbox (she wouldn’t be the best at her job if she needed a toolbox) and held just a plunger, wrapped politely in a plastic Sainsbury bag.
“I here to fix tub,” she said in a thick Romanian accent.
I let her in and she got to work immediately. She unwrapped the plunger with a flourish, plopped it into the water and after five or six emphatic plunges, the stopper was out.
She stood triumphantly at the edge of the tub as we watched my American filth drain into the Thames, or wherever the bathwater in London goes.
“Easy,” she said, “But I have them come fix the drain anyway, later next week.”
I wondered if “them” were more Romanian ladies like herself. As thanks before she left, I offered her cookies, which I’d baked and brought from America and which Tom would comment tasted like bland granola bars.
“Ho, no, no,” she smiled, shook her head, and patted her down-covered waistline, “I’m on diet. I need to lose so many pounds.”
“You are so fit.”
I smiled thanks. Not to brag, but I get that a lot.
She shook her head regretfully, “If I did not work these hours I could go to gym. You go to gym?”
I didn’t and I don’t, but I wondered what she might think of me. Did she think I was some young, idle housewife who had nothing to do all day but take baths and bake cookies? I wondered if she saw my suitcases in Tom’s bedroom. What would she think of those? I felt a sudden urge to explain the situation. I was visiting my significant other! I was a student, not an idle housewife! I stayed “fit” by her standards by walking a lot around the city where gym memberships sometimes seemed to cost as much as rent. But I was getting tired – I had yet to nap. Oh god, I thought, a very idle thing to do. I took the easy way out. I lied.
“Yes,” I said, with as understanding an expression I could muster, “I go to the gym, but I completely understand what you mean, it’s very hard to find the time with work and such.”
She seemed satisfied with my answer. Ah, her expression seemed to say, a not-so -idle young housewife who also works, who can relate. She wrapped the plunger back into the Sainsbury bag and turned to leave.
“I tell them come early next week to fix drain,” she emphasized with a helpful smile. I had the feeling she was doing me a favor.
I smiled thanks and thanks and good-bye and happy holidays, then closed the door and napped.