Love song to the changing room: a hidden haven at Barton Springs
Places where people can take off their clothes and be comfortable together are rare in our country. Europe has nude beaches, where the smooth, oiled bodies of the young mingle with the large, mottled bodies of the elderly, who are stationed like tortoises under umbrellas. Turkey has segregated women's bathhouses where matrons in jumpsuits offer therapeutic beatings with wet towels and wonderfully bruising massages, and groups of friends go to rejuvenate for a day or a lunch hour. Japan's steaming sunken sento baths heated by wood fires are a daily ritual for many, the source of intrigue and neighborhood news. The paintings of Rubens and Degas portray women with far more flesh than our culture currently admits to enjoying, lounging and combing one another's hair. In Austin, we have the women's changing room at Barton Springs, and I believe it rivals the best of them.
Tile walls the color of peach sorbet are dappled with light in the morning. The brick and concrete floor is uneven, with patches of weeds sprouting in the cracks. The outdoor courtyard is set up in a big T: Tall walls, concrete shower cubicles, lockers, and wooden benches are arranged around three rectangles of grass. The room is shaded by massive pecan trees and clouds shifting over the sun. Women's voices chime steadily, along with the slapping of wet feet and the squawking of grackles. You can smell the water of the springs close by.
A certain relaxation and companionship exist here like nowhere else. It's a little like the locker room of a gym, but the sensibility is reversed: Rather than judge your own body and the bodies of others, you can't help but be humbled, a little awed, by the sheer variety. A small girl gets scrubbed down in the next shower by her grandmother, whose skin is a map of changes for the child to remember as she ages. Someone has awkwardly dug up a patch of dirt and planted two rosebushes. A Rasta woman strips off her skirted suit and wrings her long hair into a towel, humming a tune.
The day's weather passes with great clarity in the changing room. By noon on weekends, a handful of teen girls in bikinis stand under the steel shower fountain in the center, adjusting its spritz and gossiping about the boys on the diving board. Occasionally, a small card table comes out and four women sit on camp chairs in their towels, playing cards. On the patch of grass between the two lines of showers, oil-glazed sunbathers read novels or sleep unself-consciously. Delicious laziness prevails. A round woman who has birthed five children paints her toenails before getting dressed.
At nightfall, the lights come on, buzzing and green, giving the room an underwater feel much like swimming in the springs with goggles on. The solar shower is still very hot; after a baptism in the cold, rushing water below, it makes the brain spin. I lean against the wall. A woman who has undergone a radical mastectomy walks by and smiles.
The women's room at Barton Springs is a beach of its own, a place to relax and come home to. Contemporary concepts of beauty? Toss them in the trash cans at the entrance. Time is a nebulous idea here. The walls are high. The body is free. Rest a while, and feel the wind caress your skin.
Abe Louise Young is a poet who frequently swims in the springs after dark.