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brenda rankin




by Brenda Rankin

      There is a website where, for about four dollars on a Visa or MasterCard, you can purchase a sixteen-second digital recording of a man urinating into a public toilet. I spent the last thirty minutes clicking through this sound-effects website, which contains among other, more traditionally pleasant sounds like birds chirping and coffeemakers percolating, an assortment of “Bathroom Sounds,” wherein can be found said male pee stream. The fun doesn’t stop there, though, because hot tracks like vomiting, gas-passing, and toilet-flushing are also available. Upon purchase, track names, like “Very long public toilet flushing followed by the slam and click of a public bathroom stall door,” will help you keep this assortment of purchased bathroom sounds organized in your private digital music library.

      I am generally viewed as a squeamish person; if you and I were casually discussing this website, I would be embarrassed and frantically try to distance myself from the topic with a snarky, “Gross. Who does that?” But here’s the truth: Alone with my laptop, I clicked on a few of the low-quality mp3 sample versions of those bathroom tracks, which instantly stream right from the website to assist you in finding just what you’re looking for. Okay, full disclosure: I clicked on every one. And every time I positioned my cursor atop a new play button, my shoulders inched towards my ears, my eyes narrowed to slits, my head turned itself away. It was like being twelve, instinctively making the requisite hands-covering-eyes gesture, and knowing you shouldn’t but watching the R-rated sex scene through the gaps between your fingers anyway.
      I wish I could say I’m involved in computer animation and I’m making a segment about a cartoon man with extraordinarily loud bodily functions. This would be a very good excuse for browsing through bathroom sounds available in the digital public domain. But I didn’t get to this website as part of animation research; I originally began my online search surrounding “bathroom sounds” as a first attempt to see what people have said, online, about being embarrassed to use the bathroom when other people can hear you or—worse—loom beside you in their own bathroom stall. The sound effects site popped up right away in response to my concerns, perhaps to flaunt its shameless demonstration—for money, no less—of the very bodily sounds of which I was debilitatingly ashamed. Unhelpful as it was, I let myself get sucked into the website’s cacophony, both fascinated and trying to avoid thinking about the person who sat there and tried, time and again, to get these sounds “just right” before committing them to the online database.
      I’ve spent years assuring myself that the lengths to which I have gone, in my dating and sharing spaces with others, to create the illusion that not even the tiniest peep emerges from the restroom when it’s my turn to go, is evidence that I have “class.” Bodily functions are, generally, viewed as impolite in this society and it has always seemed preferable to avoid acknowledging that they occur. I am delighted to comply with this social norm, but I’ll admit bladders and digestive systems don’t always comply. Occasional relieving of oneself in the presence—not visual, please God, but certainly aural—of others is unavoidable. The thing is, if I had the choice, I’d rather pee in a public restroom full of strangers than with a friend or two waiting outside the stall.
      I realize how odd this sounds; maybe I should be shyer with strangers than I am with friends or family. But in a visit to a truly anonymous collection of public restroom stalls I have the luxury of pretending none of it is happening, avoiding small talk with anyone while waiting in line or washing my hands and then being able to leave; this type of experience would be classified as a “good” restroom trip. Public restrooms also come with access to those tissue-paper toilet-seat covers meant to act as a barrier between you and the billions of microbes that lurk on toilet. The thing is, I don’t lay the toilet-seat cover primly over the top of the toilet seat, because it’s not about microbe-avoidance for me. Some years ago, a much more ingenious use for them occurred to me—I’ve stuffed them inside the toilet bowl as soon as I lock the stall door behind me ever since. Toilet-seat cover as bathroom-sounds-muffler is by far one of the best developments I have made in my attempts to make public restrooms good places to be and, believe me, I have cultivated several tricks to help nudge bathroom trips into more highly tolerable categories.
      I consider it an “excellent” restroom trip if I can make it in and out without coming face to face with any other patrons, and I’ve been known to slow down or accelerate my own actions to increase the likelihood that my trip will be an excellent one. If a woman three stalls down seems to be close to finishing up, for example, I’ll open and shut the little metal trashcan that hangs on the stall wall in women’s restrooms, even when I have nothing to put inside, just so it sounds like I am a normal girl in the middle of some complex tampon-wrapper-removal-situation rather than a strange one willing to touch a dirty trash can multiple times just so she can pee in an empty public restroom.
      On rare occasions, small children run loose and begin to creep around, peeking under stalls that never seem to stretch low enough to render the height of a toddler too great to steal glances of women’s toilet-time. They always manage to giggle at the poor soul they’ve interrupted before their moms scoop them up with a halfhearted scold. These instances are labeled “Very Bad” and will probably follow me into a psychologist’s office one day, but thankfully they don’t happen too often.
      It’s when I’m out in public with the sort of wild, no-boundaries friend who actually wants to carry on a conversation while we sit in side-by-side stalls in a public restroom that the sacred anonymity that makes public restrooms so acceptable to me is shattered and I’m obligated to hastily reevaluate our friendship to be sure this person is worth keeping around after making such a grave mistake.

      In searching for the roots of this problem, I can’t really blame my upbringing for this, since although my mother has always appreciated the fact that she and I are both very private people in some respects (the idea, for example, of having a personal essayist for a daughter has taken years to seem reasonable to her), she is also very practical and not at all shy: “If you gotta go you go,” she laughed when I finally broached the subject to her after I began this research process. “I have gone on the side of the road,” she continued, “in men’s restrooms—when they’re empty—or I think they are anyway, whenever the urge strikes. I can’t say I'm proud of those moments, but the job got done.”
      When she asked me why I was thinking about this, I informed her in my best approximation of detached therapist-speak that I was trying to “work through” this “odd fixation” I seem to have had for a long time but had only recently realized was unusual. To be honest, I said, I used to think everyone felt like I did about these things. I had been hoping that my mom would say something that would give me a clear reason behind my restroom-induced struggle: a traumatic bathroom-centered experience I’d blocked out from my childhood, perhaps, or a firm declaration that she and my father had raised me to behave like a lady and this is just how ladies behave. Instead, it was clear she had no idea why I was so inhibited, and felt a bit sorry for me. She gave me a quizzical look, shook her head slowly, and said, “It’s good to have manners but it really can’t be healthy to just hold it in because you’re too shy or polite. Like I said, if you have to go, you go. You’re just too timid. I don’t know what else to tell you.”
      This appears to go way beyond politeness or timidity, though. This is a symptom of feeling unceasingly apologetic for my physical presence in a room, multiplied to extreme levels when bodily functions are involved. I can’t remember ever being unaware of the awkward feelings I have about other people and bathroom sounds. Even when I was a kid, if my mom were waiting for me in the public bathroom of a mall or grocery store, I made it a point to time my “business” with the flush from the person in the stall next to me or the whir of the electric hand-dryers.
      As far as I can remember, though, it never occurred to me to apply this concern at home. Growing up, the main bathroom in my parents’ house was right between the living room, the front door, and everyone’s bedrooms. I was sixteen the first time Matt, my now-boyfriend, excused himself to use that restroom while my mom and I sat in the living room. I remember this because it was the first time I realized that anyone in the living room definitely heard anyone in the restroom peeing (or worse), loud and clear. At sixteen, I was appalled to have spent so many years of without this information. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with the awkwardness of listening to someone use the restroom. I had always known I didn’t want to be heard, but I had never really noticed what it’s like to be the one listening. I was shocked to realize that the sound of the act immediately triggered thoughts of the act, which then created a hazy visual image that had no business in anyone’s mind in the first place. I immediately felt like an enormous pervert, and still struggle to decide whether it’s worse to think that everyone’s aural-visual trigger works this way, or that I am alone in my perversion. I decided not to tell Matt that day. After all, he couldn’t have helped it and, if it were me, I’d be mortified. (A couple of years, and numerous peeing experiences, into our relationship, I finally broke the news of that day to him. He thought it was hilarious—well, he thought the difficulty I had in telling him about the situation was hilarious. The actual my-family-hearing-him-pee thing was no big deal to him.)
      After that, if I had to use the restroom and we had guests, I would quickly mutter some shoddy excuse before scurrying to the bathroom attached to my parents’ bedroom, in the furthest corner of the house. In the years since I moved out, I’ve noticed I retreat to the other side of the house to use the restroom not only when guests are present but when any member of my family is home as well. In spite of how close I am to my family in many ways, I have not been able to achieve the level of comfort with them where I can reconcile our relationship and bathroom sounds.

      Months after my initial attempts to find stories similar to my own in the anonymous forum of the internet, another jaunt into the murky world of bathroom noise information happened upon a digital brochure covered with multicolored versions of the featureless male and female symbols most often found on the doors of public restrooms. “TOILET PHOBIA,” the brochure wailed in a bold-lettered hot pink: “Breaking the Silence.” A ribbon of hope, like those associated with breast cancer and heart disease, hovered above the slogan and had been doctored to resemble a faceless person crossing their hands over their privates. With a shame-filled wince, I downloaded the brochure onto my computer.
      Recently, it seems the UK’s registered national anxiety disorders charities Anxiety UK and the National Phobics Society have begun researching complaints of anxiety while dealing with socially taboo activities. The organizations say they receive many calls related to what they are calling Toilet Phobia, a blanket term for the many facets of bathroom-related anxiety. According to symptoms listed on the project website, the particular aspect of Toilet Phobia that has plagued me falls within the “Social Phobia” realm, which they describe as “commonly involving worries that people are aware of you using the toilet, people are noticing you using the toilet or that people may hear you using the toilet.” The other conditions listed, including OCD and agoraphobia, don’t seem to apply to me—with all the stress I’ve felt around toilet usage, I’ve never been preoccupied with a restroom’s cleanliness (or lack of it), oddly enough. Anxiety UK, on their website, is proud to be a part of raising awareness about such conditions, as they note that while it has been helpful for sufferers to hear stories similar to their own, these are difficult testimonies to share as “there is a double stigma in that they are not only experiencing anxiety which can be difficult to discuss, but that it also relates to the taboo subject of anxiety around toilets.”
      Before finding the Toilet Phobia Project, I lacked context for these little inhibitions (some may say, “debilitating neuroses”) of mine. Now that I know this can be considered a mild social phobia, I’ve started to connect it to other aspects of my personality (an aversion to public speaking, a distaste for crowds and frequent social engagements, a constant battle with the social necessity of eating in public places), and wonder if maybe I do have a real social disorder of some kind.
      As I enter my twenties and have more bathroom-going years behind me, it is beginning to dawn on me that I have tried for years to convince myself that this restroom shyness of mine doesn’t interfere with my life. I was forced to confront this delusion of normalcy with particular intensity on a week-long trip, to a teaching conference in San Francisco. To save money, Matt and I had agreed to share a cheap Super 8 “suite” with another couple we know. Upon arrival, the suite we had requested on the travel website turned out to be two queen-sized beds separated only by a wall-mounted nightstand roughly the size of a box of tampons. More devastating, though, was the bathroom: No fan, thundering acoustics, membrane-thin walls pressed up right beside the beds. I spent our first night in the city lying awake, in bed with a soundtrack called, “Live Performance: Bathroom Concerto, Suite-mate No. 3.” I could have used this situation as an opportunity to push myself outside my comfort zone. Instead, true to form, I began to obsess over the idea of being listened to like that, and found ways not to need to go the bathroom unless I could use a public restroom somewhere else.
      This system worked just fine for me until the last night of our trip, as our group headed back to our hotel after an early dinner. I decided to be stealthy and sneak into the lobby bathroom in the Hilton to avoid the need to relieve myself in our Super 8 suite later on. I furtively informed Matt that I had to use the restroom “right away” and, without explanation, waved my suite-mates onward while dashing inside the Hilton lobby so I could pee in peace.

      I had just eased myself into a shiny luxury-hotel lobby stall, noting with pleasure that the restroom seemed empty, when I realized the sounds I’d thought were coming from a broken vent were, in fact, coming from the stall next to mine. Before I could even unzip, all my attention shifted to the series of grunts and chortles emanating from a person in the stall. It sounded like someone reenacting a riveting episode of “Wild Kingdom” rather than attempting to relieve themselves, and it was unlike any set of bathroom sounds I’d ever encountered, even in the most unpleasant situations.
      When the stall walls started to rattle and heavy-soled shoes clomped down against the floor, I knew the woman beside me was not just paying the consequences of some cheap city seafood buffet. Perhaps she was not aware anyone else had entered the restroom. Seated on my toilet, I lost concern for the five glasses of restaurant water coursing through me, and tried to work up the nerve to ask her if she was all right. Generally, I try to be a nice, caring person. If this were happening anywhere but a bathroom—on an airplane, or in the hallway of my apartment building—I hope I would have spent less time fretting and more time trying to help this woman, so obviously in some distress. Was she crying, I wondered? Maybe she just received some terrible news. Or maybe she was she feeling ill beyond the assistance of a hotel’s public bathroom.
      Suddenly, the restroom’s heavy door jolted open and I was relieved of any obligation to offer the woman help. A flurry of anxious footsteps and unsociable voices belonging to, I quickly deduced, at least three separate persons, took over the restroom. Instinctively, I pulled my feet up from the floor, and attempted to shove both of my legs on top of the toilet beneath me without making a sound. Thus balanced on the toilet seat, fingers clutching the microbe-encrusted seat that most other public bathroom patrons recoil from, I narrowed my eyes, concentrated on not making any noise, and braced myself for whatever was about to go down.
      “IS ANYONE IN HERE?” A booming voice, male and pulsating with authority, echoed off the tiled walls and vanity mirrors.
      Clearly, this was the time to make my presence known, but I was frozen, so confused by the events overwhelming the little lobby bathroom. I shook my head, no, no one’s in here, to the walls of my bathroom stall.
      The group of faceless visitors grew silent for a moment. I imagined them conferring with one another through nods and knowing glances exchanged in the bathroom mirrors.
      “Rrrrrrobin?” A new voice, soothing, low-pitched but definitely female, wormed through the cracks of the stall hinges. The person in the stall beside me stirred.
      “Robin? Is that yooooou?” The voice came again, honey-drenched as a self-help book on tape. I just knew it was Robin, in that stall next to me. My bathroom-analysis paranoia also led me to imagine that the people on the other side of the stall doors were in uniforms and possibly had guns waiting in their side pockets, or walkie-talkies connected to even more menacing characters who might be listening from outside. I frantically tried to figure out why Robin might be wanted by these people. Could she be an escaped prisoner? A member of a secret mafia holding meetings in San Francisco’s seedy Tenderloin district? A dangerous killer bursting with distraught sounds because she knew she was caught? Just what might Robin be capable of?
      “Robin, everyone’s waiting for you. We were all ready for the party to start, Robin. But then, Robin, you left. You have to come back, Robin, because everyone miiiiiiiisses you.” The female voice grew closer, and I observed as the tiles darkened outside the stall where the figure was approaching, perhaps preparing to reach in and grab Robin by force if necessary. It occurred to me that this woman might have noticed my figure in between the cracks of the stall, just like many women do when trying to determine which stalls are empty and thus available for use in a crowded restroom. I pictured the voice’s owner busting open my stall door, mistaking me for the woman she was there to retrieve.
      Just then a sneaker, dirty and worn, eased its way over the invisible wall that continues past where the real stall barrier ends. Everyone knows that space is sacred, and is not to be crossed except by friendly hands that have been invited to “please pass some toilet paper” because your roll is empty. I shot up from my contortionist pose on top of the toilet seat and scrambled to unlock the stall door. Without glancing at the figures in the bathroom or explaining my continued presence in that place even when I should have left, I scuttled out of the restroom.
      In the lobby, I searched for Matt but couldn’t find him in the whirl of faces sipping lattés and bonding over conference programs. Feeling vulnerable, I sank down inside one of the leather armchairs and allowed my anxiety to escalate into a near-debilitating frenzy: It seemed unlikely that there really was a party upstairs in the Hilton, a drunk Robin had wandered out too early, and such a shifty search party had been sent after her. Perhaps I was a witness now? But what had I witnessed? Some dangerous operation? And I still had to pee.
      Suddenly, the door to the ladies’ room whipped open and a tight cluster of people bounded out: A small woman of indeterminate age, swaddled in shabby running shoes, jeans and the top half of a jogging suit, was surrounded by the grabbing hands of two expressionless policemen and a very tall woman with a bob, slacks, spotless Reeboks and a walkie-talkie at her mouth. Without a glance to anyone in the place, they hauled Robin through the lobby, breaking across impatient lines for the Hilton’s in-house Starbucks, and out the doors into a small white van with a swirling psychiactric-center logo plastered across its side.

      Back in the bathroom I had been avoiding all week, I attempted to reconcile the fiasco I had gotten myself into by trying to get out of doing something I was afraid of. And it’s not even like I have a legitimate phobia like spiders or heights, I scolded myself. What’s the big deal, why do I let myself obsess over things like this? It’s not like I’m incapable of using this restroom. I could always flush the toilet before I even start to pee—that’ll cover the sound—or I could run the faucet, or say I just have to take a shower after such a crazy day and turn the shower head on.
      These regressive contemplations were interrupted by the sounds of my suite-mates’ laughter, ringing crystal clear through the bathroom walls, in the motel room, and I knew that if there was a lesson in that stall beside Robin, I hadn’t learned it yet. To me, the experience in the Hilton, which could easily be categorized “Worst Bathroom Trip of All Time,” had been worth all the trouble, because using this community bathroom with my friends right outside still seemed much worse. This was the first time I realized my feelings about bathroom usage might be highly irregular. Maybe I should look into this when I get back home, I thought, as I prepared to use the restroom by flushing the toilet and cranking the sink faucet up to full blast.

Brenda Rankin is a recent graduate of the MFA program at CSU Fresno, where she worked for The Normal School. She teaches composition at a local college, and her essays have appeared in Puerto Del Sol, fwriction : review, and Knee-Jerk Magazine.

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