Sunday, October 26, 2008

Public Bathrooms: One Child's Silent Fear

I've always been anxiety-ridden, but especially as a child, I feared so many things. Dogs, for one, since most of them were bigger than me until I was about twelve. E.T., the extraterrestrial, had me crapping my pants until I had sufficiently desensitized myself to the film by age eight. But nothing came close to my all-consuming fear of being trapped alone in a public bathroom. I swore to myself that I would never wind up in a situation rendering me unable to escape the foul smelling, unsanitary dungeon that was the bathroom at my preschool.

I was four years old when it happened. The bathroom was unisex at Temple Beth Emet Preschool (and probably only unsanitary in my neurotic little mind). While I don't remember the exact number of stalls, there were probably around seven or eight. Several times a day we had scheduled bathroom breaks, since some of us (not me, of course) were too lame at the time to notify an adult before the stream of urine began to evacuate from our respective genitalia. My parents told me to use preschool bathroom time to pee even if I didn't think I had to go. I, seeking the eternal admiration of my parents, did as I was told.

But this meant that three times a day I experienced the deep and lingering fear of being accidentally abandoned in the bathroom. So every time (and I do mean every time) I went into a stall and sat down on the toilet, I would listen to my fellow classmates as they peed and washed their hands, and when it began to sound as though I might be running out of time, I would call out from the toilet "Don't forget me! I'm still in here!" The teacher would usually call back, "Don't worry, Samantha. We don't leave without everybody."

Bullshit, Mrs. Rubenstein. Bullshit.

One day I decided that perhaps I was being too paranoid about the preschool bathroom. So on the second bathroom break of the day, I chose not to call out from the stall. It was the most carefree urination of my life. After wiping, flushing, and zipping up, I unlatched the lock and stepped out of the stall just in time to see the massive bathroom door slam shut behind what had been the remainder of my group. Today, I had been forgotten.

I ran to the door, knowing full well it was too late, and began to pry at the tiny space between the door and the wall. It was no use. All thoughts of washing my hands were lost, as I maniacally jumped up and down while sobbing hysterically. I was trying to grab hold of the door handle, which my classmates could reach with little to no difficulty. My parents always told me I could do anything I put my mind to, but that goddamned door handle begged to differ. And now I would never see my parents again. I fell to the floor, too upset to think about all the germs my parents warned me about, and continued to cry. Alone.

I don't know how long I sat crying before the door burst open and the teacher pulled me from the floor, clutching me to her bosom and rocking me in her arms. It was clear to me she was disturbed at her error and she said "I thought I counted twelve heads, but when we got back to the classroom, you weren't there!" I told her (between sobs) that I couldn't reach the door handle, but even if I could I thought it was too heavy to pull. She promised she'd never forget me again, but the damage had been done. I would call out for her not to forget me until my graduation day in 1988.

You'd think it would end here. But kindergarten had something more in store for me.

At the school I went to for kindergarten, when you had to "go" during class, you took a bathroom pass (a block of wood that read "Bathroom Pass") and you went... by yourself. This was a whole new world altogether and I was pretty sure this "unaccompanied" thing wasn't for me. So I made it a point to take care of my business and take care of it fast. And I managed to get through half the school year without finding myself in a bad situation. I'd already been left alone in the bathroom. But I'd never been alone in a bathroom... with a stranger.

Until one day when I downed a little too much water from the fountain after recess. I got permission, grabbed the pass, and hightailed it for the bathroom closest to the classroom. It should be noted, the elementary school bathroom was much worse than anything I had known in preschool. It was dirtier, smellier, and stickier. Washing your hands, typically a cleansing activity, was now something to be avoided entirely, as the liquid soap looked (and smelled) like urine, and the bar soap had a lot of hair on it. Hair that was not mine. And even if it was mine -- ewww.

Once I was in the stall I didn't even bother to apply toilet paper to the seat. More than my butt cheeks were at stake here. As I was peeing I heard the door creak open. Someone else was now in the bathroom. My hands shook as I wiped and flushed. I took a deep breath before opening the door to the stall.

She stood before me, her hands on her hips, an evil glare in her eyes.

"Not going to wash your hands?"

Oh my Christ.

I told her I had to get back to class. I tried to move past her for the door, but her third grader frame blocked my puny ass with little effort. I thought to myself, maybe she'll let you go if you just wash your hands. I walked to the sink and applied the urine-soap to my metacarpals, scrubbing thoroughly, and rinsing vigorously. She eyed the paper towel machine and I pulled a few down (thank god I could reach!) and dried off my hands. I walked back toward her, finding the balls to ask her to move so that I could go back to class.

"You're not going anywhere," the sick and twisted bitch said to me.

"Please, school is almost over. My mommy is going to be waiting for me."

She smiled. "You're never going to see your mommy ever again."

I started to cry. I begged her to let me go. I told her there were other people to think about, like my baby sister who loved me and needed me to play with her. Like my other sister, who I was teaching how to read. My family will miss me, I pled. She laughed. Told me they had probably already forgotten about me. I might've expected this kind of shit from a fifth grader, but this "thirdy" was really whack. After spending what she probably considered a sufficient amount of time watching me beg at her feet, she told me she was going to let me go, but that if I told anyone -- she'd kill my family. Then she walked out. Simple as that.

I wiped the tears from my eyes and caught my breath before making my way back to class, where -- for the sake of my family -- I kept quiet about the incident. I was grateful to be alive, to have my family, to no longer be stuck in the bathroom with that batshit insane third grader.

And I swear, a few days later she found me on the playground. I said nothing from my spot in the sandbox. She was interrupting my archeological dig for dinosaur bones. Plus, I didn't want to piss her off since there was major homicidal potential and she had brought my family into the equation. Today, however, this seemingly harmless third grader apologized for "that time in the bathroom" -- as if it had happened thirty years ago. She requested my friendship and promised she would never again scare me or threaten my family. And since I was such a fucking pussy, I played with the bitch at recess for the rest of the school year. And I held my pee at school until the second grade.

Among my few regrets in life, a major one is not having remembered the full name of the nutjob who screwed with my head in the A.C. Perry Elementary School crapper that fateful day. I would have loved to conduct a Google search to see if she ever ended up killing someone's family.

I still don't like public bathrooms, but because I can reach most door handles now, I certainly fear them less.

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