I feel less comfortable using other peoples’ bathrooms than sleeping in other peoples’ beds. Other peoples’ bathrooms are like a big inside joke directed at you, other peoples’ bathrooms always work against you. Other peoples’ bathrooms scare me.
During my time in Washington DC I sublet a room in a Columbia Heights condominium. Columbia Heights, I am told, was a warzone four years ago, but has since been licked by gentrification and filled with dainty French bakeries.
My flight got in late and by the time I arrived it was after midnight. The apartment’s owner, Nemo, a grad student from Serbia was there to greet me. His place was tastefully appointed with random white modular furniture and lava lamps (yes, that’s a plural lava lamps). The only thing on the wall was that ubiquitous, black and white print of New York skyscraper construction workers having their lunch high above the city.
Abruptly, I asked him if I could use the toilet. “The shitter is in that way,” he said in his heavy Serbian accent, pointing down the hall. I tried to explain that I didn’t need to shit. He barely spoke English so I used that condescending pidgin version that native English speakers seem to think makes them more comprehendible. “Me no shit, me peepee.” I made the relevant gestures with my hands. He looked at me, slightly confused. “Why you say me this?”
I entered the little bathroom, fumbled for the light switch and looked around. The sink was half full of turbid soapy water; a blue piece of fabric floating in it. The shelves above it had lots of Serbian hair and skincare products with names like “Sprji”, Szke” and “Sprkszj” I had a feeling they all worked by burning the skin.
I turned to the toilet, lowered my pants and lifted the seat. It immediately fell shut again. I lifted the seat. It fell shut. I kept at it for a while until I realized it was not going to cooperate. I had four choices: I could not go and just pretend I had gone, I could go with the seat down, I could go sitting down or I could get creative. I took the fourth option.
I stood on one leg, using the other to prop the seat up and hold it there. I took aim and opened fire. Then the door opened.
I lurched over to push it shut. But Nemo had already poked his head in. I stood helplessly with one leg raised, foot pushing up the toilet seat my other hand outstretched trying to close the door. It all happened so quickly.
“Don’t look at me!” Was, for some reason, the first thing I yelled. “Get out, please get out!” He withdrew his head. Through the door he said, “Please no let the water out from sink, I am cleaning t-shirt.”
“Okay, I won’t,” I called back, distressed. Why hadn’t he asked through the door in the first place? Was this a Serbian thing or was he just a maniac?
“Are you still there?” I called, “I can’t go if I think you’re still there.” No reply, I resumed fire, with some coordination troubles.
I went to wash my hands but the sink was half full of murky detergent and Nemo’s t-shirt. He had asked me not to empty the water. What would I do? Wash my hands over the t-shirt? That would be wrong, no? The toilet? No, that’s just stupid. Could I go to the kitchen sink and do it there? No, that would be weird. I looked at the bathtub.
It had three taps, all poorly marked. I leaned in and examined them, two were labeled Hot and Cold and one was unmarked. I looked up at the showerhead and guessed the unmarked tap’s role was to switch the stream between the faucet and the showerhead. But which way was which? There were no markings on it. I’d have to guess. After trying to work out a complicated formula about whether people prefer showers or baths, I turned it clockwise. I bent over, put my hands beneath the faucet, said a little prayer, and twisted the cold tap.
Water poured onto my hands. Water poured onto my head. Water poured down my back. The shower drenched almost my entire upper body in cold water. Fuck, fuck, fuck. I scrambled with the tap, trying to turn it off.
Using one of Nemo’s towels I patted myself dry as best I could but it didn’t help much. I tried to dry by spinning on the spot for a while. Then I just stood there, hoping that maybe Nemo would go to bed and I could pretend nothing had happened. There is, however, only so long you can spend in a stranger’s bathroom before it goes from being normal to being suspicious. I took a deep breath and went back into the living room.
Nemo was sitting on the couch leafing through a magazine called “Djzkod”, which looked to be a Serbian version of Maxim. I did my best to act like I wasn’t sodden; I edged along the wall as casually as possible trying not to draw attention to myself.
He looked up at me and I froze, his eyes widened a bit and he dropped his magazine on his lap. He searched for words, and he went to say something.
Before he could speak I preempted him, pointing at my damp clothes and repeating, “This no peepee. No peepee.”