I grew up in a family of five children. For many years in our perpetually under-construction house, the bathroom was the only room with a working door lock. Thus, it was the only place one could — briefly — be alone.
We children were instructed not to lock the door when we were in the bathroom. Our parents never gave a reason for their rule, but the impression I got was that bad things went on in bathrooms with the door locked.
I remember vividly the summer when my oldest brother, who was about thirteen at the time, became interested in sex and fascinated with everyone’s private parts. He initiated doctor games — or some variation that involved getting naked — with my sister and one of my brothers and me. There was never any hint of coercion, intimidation, or force. I recall being just as interested in seeing the others’ genitals as they were in seeing my penis, and I was always curious and ready to find someplace to get naked — not only with my siblings, but with neighborhood kids, as well. As much fun as this was, however, I also knew that it was wrong, because we had to take such elaborate care to avoid being discovered.
Somehow, my mother must have caught my oldest brother in the act, because one afternoon, she took each of us in turn into the bathroom with her, locked the door, and asked if we had been “fooling around” with our brother. We did not lie to our parents. We each answered yes. “Don’t do that anymore,” she said. We didn’t. This helped instill in me the idea that being naked and having any interest in private parts was unspeakably bad.
In time, my understanding about sex and love and intimacy changed dramatically for the better. But on some level, even today, I have a sense that unwholesome things happen in the bathroom. The first thing I do upon entering a bathroom is check to see whether the door locks. I cannot shake the feeling that it is shameful to be “caught” doing something in there.
I have danced naked in public, had sex under the stars, seen and touched naked humans of all ages and sexes, changed babies’ diapers, held drunken pals while they threw up into the toilet, bathed dying friends, emptied pee bottles for the bedridden, and cleaned up sickroom accidents without flinching. But when I go to the bathroom, I still lock the door.
Mark A. Hetts
San Francisco, California
My six-by-nine-foot prison cell serves as bedroom, living room, storage room, kitchen, and, of course, bathroom. There is little privacy when using the toilet here, especially if my roommate is home.
Because we are women and many of the guards here are male, we are allowed to cover temporarily the plexiglass window in our cell door when dressing or using the toilet. I have learned through experience, however, that nothing draws a guard’s attention faster than a covered window. And nothing prevents him from rapping once sharply and then yanking the door wide open. I have yet to hear a guard apologize upon discovering that the window was covered for an appropriate purpose. Usually he just scowls and closes the door again.
In the building where I work forty hours a week as clerk, receptionist, gofer, and sometimes janitor, there is a nice private bathroom. Although I am occasionally asked to clean it, I am not permitted to use it. I have to go outside to the outhouse — a smelly fiberglass box. The outhouse door does not stay closed, and you have to keep a tight grip on it with one hand. It is wise to bring your own toilet paper, as there is seldom any inside. It is not wise to make contact with the toilet. (There is no seat, just a hole.) Because most women don’t feel comfortable using the cell toilet in front of their roommate, the outhouse is usually overfull. It’s also evident that a significant number of us in here deal with stress and poor self-image through bulimia, and that all of us bleed. Add to this the hundred-degree desert heat, and using the outhouse becomes almost unbearable.
It also can be downright dangerous. The other day, upon standing up, I looked behind me and saw a fat black widow busily stringing her web across the underside of the hole, barely an inch from where I had just been.
The downstairs bathroom of my childhood home was tiny: just a toilet, a sink, and a window facing the staircase to the basement. My father liked to peer through that window when my sister or I was in there. When I saw him, I’d scream, and he’d laugh. I imagined he laughed this same way while drinking at the bar with his friends.
Upstairs, there was a large bathroom with a claw-foot tub. The door to that room had a keyhole, and my father would peek through it when my sister and I took baths. If we hung something over the keyhole or locked the door, he’d become enraged and shout, “You don’t trust me, do you?”
Of course we didn’t.
It was through that same bathroom keyhole that I watched my mother stand in front of the mirror and weep as she looked at the scar where her breast had been. Though I was only six, on some level I understood her loss.
After her mastectomy, she didn’t want me to wash her back, as I often had. I missed drawing soap patterns on her skin and telling her stories. As my father did to me, I’d peek in when my mother bathed and watch her tears falling into the tub.
One day, tired of feeling useless, I walked in on her. My mother threw the washcloth over her missing breast and yelled for me to get out.
“I’ve already seen it, Ma,” I said. “It’s not that bad.”
Then I took the washcloth from her and scrubbed her back, relieved to see my mother returning, little by little.
On each visit to my therapist’s office, I could never bring myself to enter the consultation room unless I had visited the bathroom in the waiting area first. I didn’t need to use the facilities. I went there to wash my hands, comb my hair, lick my lips, and touch up my makeup. It was very important to me that I look proper and pleasant to my therapist, as if he were a prospective employer. I never mentioned my bathroom ritual to him.
After some time, I began to question what I was doing. Was I too eager to please? What difference did it make if my hair was windblown and my eyeliner smeared? Yet I could not break the habit. If another patient was in the bathroom when I arrived, I nearly panicked: what if I got called in for my appointment before I was “ready”? I began arriving fifteen minutes early so that there would be no chance of this happening.
I also began spending more and more time in the bathroom; I’d even bring along a magazine or two and sit on the closed toilet seat, flipping absently through the pages until I heard the doctor looking for me. Then I would flush, run the tap, and emerge smiling and well-groomed, ready to begin.
Before long, I was visiting the bathroom after my sessions, as well. I would not only check myself in the mirror, but also check to be sure the toilet-paper roll was properly hung and the paper-towel dispenser wasn’t jammed. I brought cleanser with me to spruce up the sink, a seventy-five-watt bulb to replace the sixty-watt (because I could not see myself properly in such dim light), and an air freshener to plug into the socket. I even considered buying an artificial plant for the back of the toilet to make the room more pleasant, but I thought better of it.
When I finally told my therapist of my obsession, he just shrugged. “A lot of my patients do something like that,” he said. “It’s just nervousness — harmless, really, unless you find it problematic.”
He prescribed a higher dose of antidepressant, and I never entered his bathroom again.
Thirty years ago, my mother got up the courage to leave your father, and I never saw you again. But sometimes, late at night, I can still hear your high-pitched screams bouncing off the walls of that tiny bathroom, and I wonder where you are and how you are doing and whether you survived.
I was eleven, but you were only six, so you probably didn’t understand what was going on when your father stripped you down to your panties and put you in the tub of freezing-cold water, leaving only your terrified little face above the surface. He held your shivering body beneath the icy water night after night as my mother looked on and your cries for mercy echoed through our house: “P-p-please, Daddy, I’ll be good! I p-p-promise!” They thought they were “cleansing” you, ridding your tiny body of the spooks that possessed it and caused you to do all those terrible things, like speaking before you were spoken to.
We first met at the commune in Iowa in the late sixties, where children who learned to follow the rules were allowed special privileges, like eating. We girls slept in one dorm and the boys in another. Our parents were out “on tour,” spreading the word about what a wonderful life we all lived. At some point on the road, my mom married your dad, and when they came back, they packed up the five kids they had between them and moved to Louisiana.
We ended up in Baton Rouge in a little unfinished house with windows that didn’t close and walls covered with tar paper. My sister and I shared a double bed while you slept on a door laid across cement blocks in our bedroom. After they had “cleansed” you in the tub, you would lie on that door with your teeth chattering so loud I thought they might break.
One time, I actually worked up the courage to go into the bathroom. My plan was to make them let you go, but one look at you struggling under your daddy’s big hands, your body covered with goose bumps, your quivering blue lips taking tiny breaths of air to avoid gulping water, and I froze with fear. Your daddy never looked up from his task, but I caught a sidelong glimpse of his eyes. They were devoid of human soul.
Every chance we got, we older kids walked to the dump to rummage through the piles left by the big trucks that cleaned up the building sites nearby. You never came with us. I guess you were too scared to leave the house.
We gathered scraps of lumber and laid them out to mark off the rooms of our imaginary dream house. We arranged bits of shag carpeting like puzzle pieces to make our living room, where we pretended to have a TV, like the other kids at school. We spread pieces of linoleum in every color for our kitchen, where we pretended there was enough food for everyone to eat as much as they wanted. My favorite part was the bathroom that we built of pretty tiles we picked from the rubbish. We designed mosaics with the smooth, colorful squares and found an old bucket for our toilet.
In this magic house, we never had to listen to your daddy’s belt hitting your brother’s bottom until he screamed. No one ever had to bleed or wet their pants in terror. And the bathroom had a tub with hot water running straight from the faucet.
I remember well the last time your daddy cleansed you before my mother and my siblings and I moved away. You spoke out of turn while we were driving down the road by a lake, and your daddy pulled the car over, yanked you out of the back seat, and hauled you by one arm down to the lake, where he held you under with all your clothes on. It was dark, and all I could see from the car was the outline of your little white dress bobbing on the surface.
When you were sufficiently purified of your evilness, he plunked you on the seat beside me. The muddy water ran from the hem of your ruined dress down your skinny legs and off the end of your sandals. Everyone sat in complete silence, listening to your teeth chatter, pretending we were just a normal family driving home on a normal day.
In my family, we each had our special place. My father had his office. I had the spot behind the high school where I smoked dope with my friends. My mother had the bathroom.
While I ironed my hair, grew my bangs to hide my face, and painted my lips a deathly white, my mother languished in her steamy, perfumed tub, shaving her legs and listening to the radio. When I came home from school, I’d sit on the counter and talk to her, though the conversation was just a cover so I could stare at her curly black pubic hair and dark nipples and large breasts lying on her tan belly. Mother was never pale; at the first hint of sunshine, she stripped, rubbed mineral oil on her skin, and planted herself in the chaise longue on the patio.
Mother was legs, perfume, fingernails, and a long, smooth back, cool as her menthol cigarettes. Mother was a foreign country, an artist, misplaced royalty, and I was her plebeian subject. The bathroom was where she held court and broadcast her sage advice, feigning comprehension of my teenage angst. She was a fertility symbol, a voluptuous, larger-than-life painting. She was the living incarnation of the Venus de Milo bath-oil bottle that stood on a corner of the pink enamel tub.
Mother had her demons, too, and she battled them with Roman Meal bread, bluish skim milk, Valium, one-calorie Tab, and vodka martinis — dry, with a twist. In response, the demons cluttered the cookie jar with embarrassing telltale crumbs. Each morning, she stood barefoot on the white shag carpeting and, holding her breath, stepped onto the bathroom scale.
Sometimes I stared into the round bulbs surrounding the bathroom mirror and then squeezed my eyes shut and pretended the orbiting orange moons were spotlights and I was a movie star or a famous author. Someday I would write books that made people howl at the moon. Someday I would climb a pyramid and ride an ostrich. Someday I would be more beautiful than my mother.
My brother had disappeared without a word and been gone for months. The last we’d heard, he was involved in a check-cashing scheme. My parents were frantic and feared the worst.
Rather than sit at home and wait for the telephone to ring, my mother and father took a few days off from work and drove to some of my brother’s favorite haunts, hoping to find out what had happened to him. While they were gone, my sisters and I tried to think of ways to cheer up our mother. We decided to paint the walls and hang new curtains in the bathroom. It was the dingiest room of our apartment, and our mother was always talking about sprucing it up. My sisters and I chose a cheerful yellow paint and crisp curtains with a pattern of red and yellow flowers. We couldn’t wait to show our mother.
When our parents finally came home — without any news of my brother — we met them at the door. “We have a big surprise for you!” we yelled excitedly. Taking my mother by the hand, I pulled her down the hallway toward the bathroom. When we turned on the light, her face crumpled in disappointment. Instead of my missing brother, she was looking at a new set of bathroom curtains.
My acting career was going nowhere. Growing desperate, I decided to try Feng Shui, the Chinese art of promoting harmony through the placement of objects in the home. Maybe something in my living space was “blocking the flow of chi” (energy).
Consulting a book, I was distressed to discover that my bathroom was located in the “fame and reputation” area of my apartment. This was not good. I had been flushing my fame down the toilet.
I bought a crystal to hang from the ceiling (for good chi) and firecrackers to hang by the window (not prescribed, but they looked as if they would work). I also sponged the walls red (the color of success) and put up pictures of things I wanted to see happen in my career. On the toilet, I placed my best-supporting actress award from high school.
It’s been several months, and the only part I’ve gotten is a couple of lines in a canceled TV show. Now the shower curtain is ripping, and the cat has taken to peeing on the bathroom rug. None of this can be very good for my chi.
Los Angeles, California
My husband and I have moved twelve times, and my number-one priority for each new house has always been the bathroom. It makes no difference if the kitchen has been remodeled or the house is priced well under market value. If the bathroom does not meet my requirements, we won’t buy it.
It’s not so much the bathroom as the tub. I must have the old-fashioned kind with the sloping back so that I can relax and steep like a tea bag. I do not like the new safety bathtubs with the straight backs so that bathers don’t get too comfortable and drown. Many tubs also have a feature that limits the temperature of the water. As if this isn’t enough, they can’t be filled almost to overflowing. I applaud the motives of whoever is responsible for these safety innovations, but my tub must have a sloping back, extra-hot water, and the capacity to be filled to the very top.
When my dad died, my husband and I stayed at his condo the week of the funeral. After the service, I needed the comfort of a hot bath more than ever. I came back to Dad’s condo, peeled off my black mourning clothes, and lowered myself into the water. There I sat, crying, my back straight and legs folded Indian-style, in a shallow pool of lukewarm water.
Jeryl Anderson Rosavage
Virginia Beach, Virginia
For five years, I knew every public bathroom on the east side of Manhattan, from the Bowery to Harlem: every McDonald’s or Starbucks that didn’t require a purchase before you could use the facilities; every Indian, Polish, Chinese, Italian, Vietnamese, Russian, Irish, and all-American restaurant on First and Second Avenues; every library, museum, office lobby, department store, health club, medical clinic, vintage-clothing boutique, tattoo shop, record store, and gas station that had a restroom. And don’t be fooled by their rehearsed denials: they all have one. It’s just a matter of whether they can be convinced that you’re not going to use it to shoot drugs into your veins — which, I should confess, was precisely my intention.
“I’m very sorry to bother you, sir,” I’d say, “but could I possibly use your bathroom?” all the while trying to mask the shaking, the stomach cramps, the beads of sweat on my brow. “I promise I’ll be quick.” And that was usually all it took — that and being white, I guess.
Sometime in the dead of winter, just a few months before admitting myself into my last detox-and-rehab program, I discovered the ideal junkie hangout: the waiting rooms of public hospitals. They all had clean bathrooms with locks on the stalls and twenty-four-hour access. And there were doctors and nurses a mere shouting distance away — which, when you’re mainlining heroin and cocaine, can be quite comforting. Once you were through, you could stagger into the waiting room and nod for hours on a couch without so much as an inquisitive glance from the security guard. For a finishing touch, there were always two or three cable-fed television sets that never went off.
There was a hospital in every neighborhood, too: Beth Israel, Metropolitan, Harlem Hospital — each just a short stroll from a place to cop. With the exception of maybe a steady flow of cooked heroin from the bathroom spigot, or a continual supply of five-dollar bills from the toilet-paper roll, a homeless junkie really couldn’t have asked for much more. I only wished I had thought of it sooner.
It’s been five years since I’ve shot up or asked for quarters or roamed the streets in search of a bathroom where I hadn’t yet worn out my welcome. But sometimes when I’m back in New York, I’ll stop by Metropolitan Hospital and hunker down on one of the couches with a bag of chips and a soda, maybe take in a TV show and make use of my favorite stall before I head out of town. For old times’ sake.
In 1985, I trained midwives in a Sudanese refugee camp: a sea of tents stretched over three square kilometers of parched, barren landscape bordered by a lazy river. At first, there were no latrines for the hundred thousand hungry, thirsty, exhausted Ethiopians who had walked for weeks to escape war and famine. Instead, an area at the edge of the camp was designated the “defecation zone,” and women were restricted to using it before dawn and after dusk.
When an aid agency built pit latrines in the camp, it soon became apparent that refugees from the most rural parts of Ethiopia were unfamiliar with even such rudimentary facilities. People used the latrine but avoided the hole in the ground, perhaps afraid that a child might fall in, or that some danger lurked there. This, of course, entirely defeated the sanitation purpose of the latrines.
I planned a lesson in latrine use for my midwives. Being afflicted with intestinal parasites at the time, I was well equipped for the task. A small group of women, many with wide-eyed babies strapped to their backs, crowded into the latrine while the translator patiently explained, and I demonstrated, the purpose and safety of the hole in the center. At first, the women stared at me solemnly, perhaps wondering if a tropical fever had driven me out of my mind. After a few moments, however, as the lesson sank in, they cried out with delight and gave me a hearty round of applause.
For a transsexual, a public restroom is ground zero in the gender wars. If you look too masculine in the ladies’ room or too feminine in the men’s, you are in for anything from a weird glance to a trip to the police department to death by stabbing or beating.
For me, the bathroom has long been a place of fear and shame. Since I was ten or eleven, women would shriek at me to leave because I didn’t fit their notion of feminine. I didn’t think I belonged there either, but I knew I’d be treated worse in the men’s.
During my transition from female to male, I was unable to use public restrooms at all. I didn’t match society’s definition of either gender. My first trip to the men’s room after I’d begun to pass as male was fraught with fear. I was almost physically ill. Would some muscleman try to crush me? Would someone notice that I was sitting down to pee? Would someone open the door of my stall and see I had no penis?
Now I look just like any other man on the outside, and nobody has challenged me in the bathroom, but public restrooms still make me nervous. I guess I’ll always have this fear.
Columbia Falls, Montana
I became pregnant in 1967, at the age of seventeen. Abortion was illegal, and a visibly pregnant girl couldn’t remain in school. She was sent away to have the baby and give it up for adoption. When a girl didn’t return for the new school year, rumors would fly. No one believed the stories about a last-minute decision to go to private school.
There was another option. When my best friend had gotten pregnant a few months before, her father had taken her on an island “vacation.” She’d returned with a tan — and a cleaned-out uterus. But telling my parents I was pregnant would have been unthinkable. Besides, they wouldn’t have opted for a “vacation,” and I wasn’t about to have my college aspirations derailed. I reasoned that, if I was adult enough to have sex, I was adult enough to deal with the consequences myself.
Terrified, I telephoned a number rumored to be an underground abortion-referral service, and a clipped voice gave me a phone number and a secret code word. Another call, another cold voice: this one barked out a date and time and told me to bring three hundred dollars in cash.
My boyfriend came along to keep me calm, but when we arrived, the doctor insisted that I return that night alone. Later, in the empty building, he counted the money and told me the procedure would take fifteen minutes.
The pain was unimaginably intense. I lay with my feet up in stirrups, head tilted back, and watched the wall clock’s minute hand progress at a snail’s pace. The doctor worked in a frenzy, scraping my uterus and flinging one bloody instrument after another into the sink, where scalding water ran full force, spattering blood everywhere. He cranked up the radio to drown out my screams and threatened to halt the procedure if I didn’t shut up.
As he worked, he stuck needle after needle into my thigh and, to my amazement, didn’t bother to remove them. I looked back and forth from the clock to the syringes protruding from my leg. When the procedure was over, the doctor slapped me repeatedly and shouted, “This is what you get for having unprotected sex!”
I have never regretted having the abortion. Once the cramping subsided and my parents had accepted my excuse for coming home late, I sighed in relief and went on with my life. If I felt anything, it was a lingering pride that I had taken responsibility for the consequences of my actions. The experience was like a rite of passage for me.
The only time I ever thought about the abortion was when I was sitting on the toilet. Sometimes I’d look down at my thigh, and the image of syringes sticking from it would pop into my mind. Thirty-three years later, it still does.
Until I was twelve, I never thought of the bathroom as a place to hide from the outside world. Then I started to lock the door. There was something comforting about looking through the crack of the door and seeing the deadbolt slide into its little slot. I felt secure.
I began going to the bathroom just to be by myself. I would sit on the dark blue rug and try to think about my life, my feelings, my loneliness. I’d go in there and turn that deadbolt as an alternative to lying about how I felt with smiles and carefree words.
I’d lock the door to keep others out, but also to keep myself in. Sometimes I thought about how easy it would be to walk out the front door and down the street and just keep going. Sometimes I’d think about it so hard, I’d twitch: a single, sudden movement toward the outside world.
Now that I am thirteen, I still go in the bathroom and think. And I still like to hear the satisfying click of the deadbolt as it slides into place.
One bright, sunny morning in June, I went to work as usual at a nonprofit environmental organization in Washington, D.C. Before I had even reached my cubicle, my mentor, a well-respected and prolific writer, pulled me aside and told me she had just been fired. Apparently, she had strayed too far from the party line set down by our micro-managing boss.
While I sat at my desk wondering about my own future with the organization, a young editor knocked on my door and handed back a draft of an article I’d recently finished. He’d scrawled several insulting comments in red ink on the last page, including the suggestion that I consider writing for an encyclopedia instead of a magazine. That afternoon, not one but two ex-girlfriends called me at the office to tell me, essentially, that I was a horrible person.
By 5 P.M., the heat and humidity outside had grown oppressive. During my long walk home — uphill the whole way — I prayed for a thunderstorm, but the air just seemed to get stickier. About halfway up Massachusetts Avenue, I stepped off a curb and felt a sharp, shooting pain in my ankle: an old, chronic joint problem that had not flared up for several months.
Having been raised on Woody Allen movies, I knew well the fine line between despair and humor. As I limped the rest of the way home, I decided that I’d had an amazingly funny day, and my problems were nothing a shower couldn’t fix.
As soon as I got to my apartment, I peeled off my clothes, grabbed a fresh towel, and opened the bathroom door. There was rubble everywhere. Over the course of the day, most of the ceiling had collapsed.
New Haven, Connecticut
My parents divorced when I was ten, and my mother, my little brother, and I moved in with my maternal grandparents. My grandmother was a strict and demanding matriarch who scared me sometimes, but I was always fond of her.
A nerdy, shy, nervous kid, I had trouble adjusting to my new school — particularly the bathrooms, where the stalls had no doors. Terrified of being seen naked from the waist down, I never used them. Consequently, on the two-mile walk home through the woods, I sometimes ended up shitting in my pants. (Anybody else would have gone in the woods, but even there, I was afraid of being seen.) When I got home, I changed my underwear in the bathroom and flushed the evidence, ashamed and panic-stricken that somebody would find out.
It wasn’t long before my grandmother realized that my underwear supply was running low. When she confronted me, I confessed to shitting myself on the way home from school. Determined to break me of the habit, she began a series of daily afternoon inspections in her bedroom, during which she made me drop my underpants to prove I was clean.
Now the pressure was even worse than before, and when the need arose on the way home, I hid in the woods and gripped a tree, fighting the urge until the pain subsided and I could go on. Sometimes, though, I wasn’t able to hold it, and when I got home, my grandmother found my underpants dirty. Furious, she made me take them off, and then she wiped my face with them. I was too ashamed to know that what she did was wrong.
Religion has never been part of my life, but during the Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization, a church bathroom became my sanctuary. The women’s restroom was packed with bodies: wet, cold, injured. Some women were spitting into the garbage can or sitting doubled over and coughing in the corner. Disoriented and exhausted, we stood in line at the sink, waiting to feel the rush of cold water into our open eyes and throats, cleansing the pepper spray and tear gas from our faces.
In that bathroom, strangers became sisters as we held each other’s hair back and passed around water bottles and shared food from our pockets. After using the sink and perhaps the toilet (we might not see another for hours), we’d trickle out the door and sit to rest for a few minutes before heading back out on the streets.
My lover was in the bathroom when I arrived. His wife, my best friend, had already left for the beach, where we were to meet her shortly. I slipped my arms around his neck and let him hold me, feeling his breath on my neck.
We took advantage of the opportunity to be alone together, but the truth is, by this point, I desperately needed to be out of the affair. Constantly lying to my husband and my best friend was taking its toll. I’d wake up in the morning with splitting headaches from grinding my teeth all night long. I was anxious, paranoid, and profoundly unhappy. But I was also addicted to the passion and intensity, and terrified of hurting my lover.
Our embrace led to kissing, and his hands came up under my shirt. Then he was slipping off my jeans and lifting my T-shirt over my shoulders. I undid his belt and yanked his trousers down around his knees.
When he entered me, all of the conflicting emotions — ecstasy, guilt, desire, disgust, passion — rose to the surface, and tears slid down my cheeks. My lover didn’t notice, and I didn’t bring it to his attention. We continued to make love standing up, our bodies pressed between the wall and the sink. Trying to obliterate my husband’s face from my mind’s eye, I noticed a cloud of black mold on the ceiling of my lover’s bathroom.
A few days later, my lover told me in an e-mail that he liked having sex in the bathroom, because he could watch me in the mirror. He commented on how often we ended up making love in odd places: the kitchen, the bathroom, the garage. He wondered why I always chose these somewhat strange locations. I didn’t tell him the truth: that I was avoiding betraying his wife even further by sleeping with him in their own bed. At the time, it seemed like an important distinction.
Every time I heard the whir of the fan and the whoosh of the flush, it brought a sinking feeling in my gut: my husband, Michael, was making another hourly trip to the bathroom. This continued for about a month before he finally contacted a doctor, who told us Michael had a chronic, incurable bowel disease. At first we were glad it wasn’t cancer. Then we began our interminable journey through illness.
Michael was treated with massive doses of steroids and other outrageously expensive, yet relatively useless, prescription drugs. Nothing could quell the storm in his intestines. His bathroom trips grew in number. He bled. He became bloated. He developed side effects, both from the illness and from the medications: a lump on his neck; dark, ruddy skin; an insatiable appetite; enormous girth.
At night, when Michael was able to snatch a few minutes of precious sleep, he snored like a locomotive. Between his snoring, his tossing, and his ceaseless sojourns to the bathroom, I was forced to move out of our bed and onto a roll-out mattress on the floor of a room down the hall. But then I worried that I wouldn’t hear him if he stopped breathing or became violently ill. So we persevered: Michael with his pain and illness; me with my feelings of helplessness and sleep deprivation.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for me was dealing with Michael’s personality changes. The steroids turned this quiet, gentle, loving spirit into someone who could burst into a rage at a moment’s notice. I was unprepared to contend with such a dramatic transformation on top of coping with his illness. It wasn’t fair! Who takes care of the caregiver? Who would nurture me? We got no support — not from family, nor friends. No one even wanted to discuss the subject. It was too personal, too explicit, too gross, too real.
Away from home, our lives revolved around public restrooms. We mapped out the city’s toilet facilities and never left home without a plan. At Michael’s hydroponic-farming job, the bathroom was little more than an outhouse. He began to cart around his own supply of toilet paper and extra underwear and slacks, in case of an accident. They came in handy on more than one occasion.
After many years of fighting a losing battle, Michael submitted to life-altering surgery — an ileostomy, the removal of the entire large intestine — which cured his disease but left a gaping hole in his body. Everyone expected us to be immediately back to normal, but at that point we had no idea what “normal” was. Michael’s employer cut off his health insurance while he was in the hospital, and with many months — and then years — of healing ahead, he was unable to keep his physically demanding job.
With no health insurance and no income, we were facing an even bleaker future than before. The surgery hadn’t even eliminated Michael’s bathroom problems: his bowel movements were still uncontrollable; they just emerged from a different hole. Ileostomies are definitely not for the squeamish. Countless times a day, Michael must empty and irrigate his prosthetic colon and directly handle his own feces.
Despite the success stories we have heard about people with ileostomies, there are many more untold tales of those who suffer in silence. This condition reminds you of its presence every moment. There is no way to escape the daily humiliation and disgust. Michael long ago stopped his medications and lost the lump on his neck and the excess weight, but the bathroom remains our intimate partner, a whooshing, flushing third wheel in our marriage.
When I was seven years old, Karl occasionally came over to our house with his mother while she cleaned and cooked for us. He was sixteen with wavy blond hair and a nice smile. He would sit on the couch and watch my sister and me play on the kitchen floor with our paper dolls and scissors. It seemed that whenever I looked up, Karl was smiling at me.
One afternoon while my mother was out shopping, Karl caught me alone in the bathroom. He let himself in, quietly shut the door, and put a finger to his lips. Then he knelt beside me on the brown carpet and unzipped his pants. His voice was kind but a little shaky as he hurriedly pulled out his erect penis. “I bet you’ve never seen one of these before,” he said with a broad smile.
I had never seen one that big, of course, but I had seen my brothers running naked through the house countless times. So, much to his surprise, I replied, “Yes, I have.” And I opened the door and walked out.
A prison cell isn’t exactly a bathroom, but it is roughly the same size, and the toilet is the most prominent fixture. The stainless-steel sink-toilet combinations in the newer prisons are models of utilitarian simplicity, easy to clean and maintain. We convicts keep them spotless. You have to when you sleep six feet away from it.
One female officer told me she was shocked the first time she saw an inmate doing laundry in his toilet. It works well, though. Throw in some socks and T-shirts, grab a bar of soap, and scrub away. Need a rinse? Push the button and swoosh, all clean. Some shampoo in the second cycle makes the clothes smell nice.
Need to make some wine? Your sink-toilet is the perfect place to ferment the juice. Use a piece of tape to seal the sink drain and grate fruit over it. Then line the toilet with a plastic trash bag and strain the fruit mash into it. Twist the bag closed and bail warm water into the toilet to heat the juice.
Showers aren’t always available in prison, but your stainless-steel toilet is. Put a piece of tape over the sink drain and fill the basin. Then get naked and straddle the toilet facing the sink. Using a cup, pour water over your head and soap up. Most of the excess water will drip right into the toilet. Some will get on the floor, but that’s OK, because then you have a reason to mop. Now you are clean, the toilet is clean, and the floor is clean. Everybody is happy.
Crescent City, California
On Friday evenings when I was a child, my father enjoyed a long, hot soak in the tub. It felt like he’d be in there forever, draining the warm water and adding more hot. When I had to use the bathroom, he would discreetly place a washcloth over his floating genitals before I came in.
Sitting on the toilet, I stole glances at Dad’s hairy chest and the descending trail of curls that disappeared under the washcloth. I wondered at his soft belly, the rosy pink of his skin, the gentle rise and fall of his chest. With his head tipped back, eyes closed, and elbows resting on the tub’s edges, he looked completely at ease.
Though I longed to look more, I repeatedly averted my curious eyes from Dad’s body — not because I was embarrassed by his nudity, but because he was displaying a part of himself that he never willingly revealed. My father was not a vulnerable man, yet there in the bath he seemed just that.
Dad died in the bathtub at eighty-one years of age. By that time, he had become quite a night owl, and it was typical for him to start a bath after Mom had gone to bed. I hate to think of my mother waking alone late at night and getting up to find him in the bath. I hate to think of her face, her voice, her words. The water must have been cold by then, his skin white. Did she struggle hopelessly with his body, soaking her nightdress, before calling for help?
Surely, when he died, the bath was still good and hot, his body flushed pink, and the air thick with steam. Surely his head was back and his eyes were closed, in that tranquil state I remember from my childhood.
Quathiaski Cove, British Columbia