Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms.
“It doesn’t matter that he has the biggest smile you’ve ever seen—if he smells like fennel and walks like fennel and you hate fennel, red flag.”
My friend Irene is giving me a pep talk at my favorite bar after work. I’ve just broken off a long-distance relationship and need support. I feel empty inside; not sad, necessarily, just empty. Like I’d become so used to carrying around a big heaviness in my stomach all the time, and what’s left now is a gaping hole. It’s a new sensation.
According to Irene, I did the right thing. Her food metaphor makes me laugh, but her point is that we as people ignore red flags all the time, especially for those we love. But paying attention is an important part of taking care of ourselves.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about that a lot: taking care of myself. What it means, and how to do it. It started when I left work early one night to see Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway. It’s my favorite musical in the world and, for me, one of the most honest, thoughtful contemporary representations of depression and anxiety.
The next day, I took myself out to lunch at a nearby Japanese restaurant—less because I was hungry, and more for a chance to step into the sun. The light felt good on my face.
And, most importantly, I started taking baths again.
When I first moved into my current apartment, I had a knot in my neck. I was utterly out of shape, and my bones and muscles ached from carrying a decade’s worth of heavy cardboard boxes 20 blocks. It didn’t help that I’d just started a new job and barely had time to make myself dinner, let alone unwind after work (i.e., snuggling with my dog in front of the television, big plate of risotto in hand).
The bathtub in this brand-new apartment building was the deepest I’d ever seen in New York City. Perfect for long hot soaks. As if I needed another push to take a bath every night, I didn’t own a shower curtain. It took me four months to buy one, which meant I "had to" take a bath for 120 days straight.
What began as a situation born of necessity (the need to not smell like dirty socks at work) turned into a restorative reprieve from long days at the office. I looked forward to coming home to hot water, a glass of wine, and my thoughts.
Suddenly, the knot in my neck loosened; my muscles stopped aching.
But then I started to feel guilty about it. Was I wasting time? Was I wasting water? I’d bring my computer into the bathroom and set it on a stool a few feet away from the tub so I could watch TV and bathe at the same time.
Surely nothing that feels this good is without negatives, I thought. Right?
Curious to know if anyone else out there felt the great comfort I’d found in baths, I started grilling my friends on the internet. I got every kind of answer, from people who light candles and put on music to those who read books and listen to podcasts and talk to God. One person even told me they sometimes like to eat their dinner in the water. Strangers reached out and walked me through their rituals: epsom salts, coconut oils, oatmeal soaks.
I quickly realized that my bath habit wasn’t that strange; if anything, it was the norm. Even more, knowing that so many other people in the world were taking time out of their nights for themselves made me feel somehow less alone in my indulgence.
But like most of my newfound “good” habits, of course, my nightly ritual petered out.
One night, I found myself skipping my bath so I’d have time to call my mom before she went to bed. At some point, I bought a shower curtain. Another evening, I jumped into the shower before bolting out the door to meet a friend for drinks. Before I knew it, I was taking showers again, and eventually forgot entirely about the long, slow baths that had helped me through those stressful nights.
It took another setback (my breakup) for me to seek out some semblance of that old relief. Before I realized what I was doing, I found myself walking to my bathtub, turning on the faucet, and holding my hand under the water until it turned scalding. I plugged the drain and let it fill. It was like muscle memory, my body feeding itself what it needed.
In Dear Evan Hansen, there’s an important line at the end of the show. Evan is writing a letter to himself, a daily assignment from his therapist to help him through his depression:
Dear Evan Hansen,
Today is going to be a good day. And here’s why: Because today? Today at least you’re you, and that’s enough.
There’s great relief in finding yourself suddenly alone and realizing not only that you’ve somehow survived your solitude, but that you may have even found solace in it, as well. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The one way to ever truly know that you’re okay is if you’re able to be alone and happy alone.
In many ways, my nightly hot baths—the ones I took when I first moved in, and the slower, more meditative ones I take now—center me and make me feel in control of my life for a change. Like writing a letter to oneself, taking a bath is a clear, deliberate action I can do every day, to ease my mind and calm my heart, and to set the tone for the next morning.
My baths have also given me the headspace to recognize the difference between this breakup and past ones, and that the gaping hole I’d been feeling all these weeks wasn’t a gaping hole at all: It was relief.
A close friend recently gifted me bath bombs, little orbs made of baking soda, soap, and essential oils. When you toss them into hot water, they effervesce, producing a surge of natural pigment and emanating a floral scent.
My nighttime ritual has since turned into a colorful fantasy: pinks, teals, ceruleans, and vermilions. I can choose my own color adventure based on my mood for the night. Angry? Chile-pepper red. Sad? Melancholic indigo. Calm and collected and blank? Vanilla-sugar white. Each is a manifestation of my emotions, an acknowledgement of them rather than an avoidance.
With each bath I take, I’m leaning into any and all feelings of distress, sadness, or joy I may be experiencing in the moment, with intention—and quite literally, stewing in my feelings (don’t worry, the irony isn’t lost on me).
At the bar, Irene raises her martini glass to cheers my newfound singledom, shouting for all to hear: “YOUR CACHET IS ONLY RISING."
Everyone is looking at us now. I laugh and nod, pay for my drink, and head home for another long, hot soak.