I Hate Bathrooms
On average, the scariest room in any given building is the bathroom.
You can keep your basements, your attics, your cobwebby secret rooms hidden in the walls - every building, commercial or residential, has a bathroom, and you can't avoid it. You're going to have to pee eventually.
A bathroom is made of hard, slippery surfaces and sharp edges and glass and bits of hardware sticking out of the walls. Ever slipped and fallen while taking a shower? I have. Nearly brained myself on the toilet. Bought a set of white sandpaper flowers to stick on the bottom the next day.
Many of the surfaces are shiny, reflective, and sometimes fragile. Mirrors are creepy, sure, but have you ever watched your distorted reflection in the doorknob or faucet? Did you see the colors of your flesh, your clothing, your hair swim around in the stainless steel like oil floating in pasta water? Ever see your eyes looking back at you, pushed out of your face by the curve of the chrome?
These hard surfaces change the sound of things. The very sound of your own voice can resonate in a bathroom, echo off the walls, making you sound bigger than you are, big and hollow. It's hard to feel like you're alone in a bathroom when your own voice doesn't sound like it belongs to you.
The bathroom is full of chemicals - cosmetics, skin care, medications, soaps, deodorizers, cleansers of varying strengths for cleaning the actual room itself. Why are there cleansers in there? Because a bathroom is also full of germs, waste, and disease. This is the room where we evacuate our waste, our unwanted bodily fluids - saliva, vomit, feces, urine, pus, blood - and we wipe and wash it off and send it down the drains.
The drains. The bathroom is connected to a network of pipes that runs under your neighborhood. Some bring in clean water, the rest take away our dishwasher, gutter water, waste water. We trust that they aren't connected. The pipes come all the way from sources in the wild and connect to our homes, other people's homes, offices, factories, laboratories, treatment plants, cemetery sprinkler systems, sewers, morgues…
We like our water to come in clean, at our chosen temperature. As long as it comes out clear, we don't question it, but there can be so much of it in a bathroom. People slip and fall on wet floors. IS that actually water on the floor, or is it some other fluid? Children drown in tubs. People get scalded by water that comes out too hot. And there are electrical outlets right next to the sink, where we plug in things that buzz and blow and burn.
"What about outhouses?" you ask. "Those don't have water or pipes." No, they don't. You have to leave the safety of your home to use an outhouse. Fine, during the day, in good weather. But it could be raining or snowing or storming. You could get caught in there in a tornado - goodbye to you. You might need to pee in the middle of the night, and have to creep through the yard in the dark, dressed in your pajamas (if you even wear any). And then, once you get there, you put your naked butt over a dark, gaping hole full of piss and shit and used tampons and possible dead animals (or possibly live animals?) or anything else the hidden corners of your lizard-brain invents when you're half-asleep and it's trying to save your life.
Yeah, you have to get naked in a bathroom. You get naked and vulnerable in a room full of hard slippery surfaces and breakable reflective surfaces and water and electricity and echoes and sometimes really sketchy lighting that flickers or is too bright or forms odd shadows behind the toilets.
You are naked, and you are alone. The bathroom is isolated, both physically and socially. It's not on the way to anywhere. Nobody goes in unless they need to use it or clean it. And we don't talk about it: potty talk is not polite. It's not a part of the stories we tell in public. It's a private area where we lock the door and do private things.
You are naked, and you are alone - or you aren't. A public bathroom has strangers in it, other people you've never met also coming into the strangely-lit echoing room to get naked and do private business. Or maybe not. Maybe they are in there for you. Maybe they are just hanging out in that stall, waiting for you to let down your guard, to turn your back to the rest of the room and wash your hands (because you're a good person, of course YOU wash your hands), and are you paying attention to what is going on behind you, reflected in the mirror? Or are you trying to get the motion-sensor faucet to work so you can rinse the industrial soap off your hands?
The scariest room in any given building IS the bathroom.
I was seventeen when I started to hate bathrooms. We went on a family trip to visit my mom's cousins in Newfoundland. (That's pronounced noo-fin-LAND, underSTAND rubberBAND?) The whole trip was amazing, I mean, that place is BEAUTIFUL, especially in the late summer: all colorful little fishing villages and rocky beaches and lighthouses. It was like vacationing in one of those jigsaw puzzles your aunt likes to put together.
Behind my great-uncle's house was a little wood, all spindly old trees that diffused the sunlight into a dappled green haze over the mossy ground. Tiny, and mean TINY, little flowers were everywhere in the grasses. Yeah, I was seventeen, but I always had an active imagination and it wasn't hard to believe there were fairies living there. If you follow the path through the woods, it continues through shrubby fields of wild blueberries (we picked BUCKETS, and grocery store berries will never be the same) to an honest-to-goodness swimming hole in a stony little creek.
I wish this story was about a fairy-infested woods in a foreign country very far from where I live.
Instead, it's about the bathroom in the basement of my mom's cousin's house, where we were staying.
Most of the house was charming. My favorite part was the breakfast nook just off the kitchen. It was like a little greenhouse, walls and ceiling all made of glass, and there was a record player and a collection of Beatles albums (which I was ridiculously into at the time. Greenday who?). The food was amazing; brook trout with blueberry muffins, moose sausage, pickled mussels, fish and brewis, actual literal peas porridge in a pot (not 9 days old, though).
The basement was furnished with comfy couches, and it was full of movies to watch and musical instruments we weren't supposed to touch. The walls were wood paneling, and sunlight came in diagonally through the glass in the sunken back door. I was given one of the bedrooms down there for the stay: a little double bed, more wood paneling, and a built-in desk next to the closet. No window. I thought it was cozy, a warm little cave to retreat to when I'd had my fill of sunshine and blueberries.
Nothing happened on the first night. I can't think why anything should have happened at all, of course. I had no reason to expect anything other than a nice stay with some distant family in a beautiful new place. But then, we'd just arrived. We hadn't been anywhere except the airport and in the car since our arrival in Newfoundland.
The next day we explored the woods and the swimming hole, of course, and I was in love with everything. I spent most of my childhood in West L.A. and had always romanticized things I'd only seen on TV or read about in books, like swimming holes and eating berries right off bushes and little wooded areas that weren't fenced off or kept tidy by a park's department.
The second night, after a supper of salmon and potatoes and blueberry duff with caramel sauce, I went to bed in my little cave room, happily reliving the storybook day I'd had. I tucked myself in, turned off the bedside lamp, and fell asleep fairly quickly.
I'm an introvert, and sometimes my bad dreams follow that theme: I'm surrounded by people and can't get away for a quiet moment to myself. The setting of this dream, appropriately, was a family reunion of some kind, where there were lots of people and we were all staying in one cousin's home. Sound familiar? In the dream, of course, it was a different home and different people, but it felt like a Familiar Place and people I knew.
In the dream, I had to get changed - I have no recollection of the reason or the details of what I was already wearing, but getting changed from pajamas into day clothes fits the situation. I gathered my day clothes and went into a bathroom to get changed.
I want to make it clear that my dream-self interpreted this bathroom as Normal, at least while I was dreaming, but you'll see when I describe it that things that are Normal in dreams are sometimes the weirdest things to the waking mind.
The bathroom had a fairly standard layout. As I entered, the bathtub complete with shower curtain was on my left, then at the end of that was the toilet, which faced my right. The sink and mirror were at the end, facing the door. The floor had no little rugs or mats, but was covered in about an inch or so of some yellow chemical liquid (my dream-self just somehow knew it wasn't urine) but it didn't bother me because my feet stepped right through it like it was a hologram. Hanging all over the room - from the towel racks, the shower curtain rod, the light fixtures, nailed to the wall - were pieces of dead iguanas, tied up neatly with red thread.
Dream brain said this was all Normal, so, unbothered, I locked the door and stepped over to the counter to set down my pile of clothes, ready to begin changing.
Suddenly, there was a noise from behind me: the soft plasticky rustle and sliding shinkshinkshink of a shower curtain being pulled back. I looked up into the mirror, horrified that I'd intruded on somebody's shower time (they really should have locked the door though), and saw someone in a shower cap peeking out at me.
They had no face.
I spun around to apologize and leave, but there was nobody there. I was TERRIFIED. Yellow floor liquid? Iguana bits? No face? Fine, normal, all good. Person in mirror but not in the room? EEK. I ran from the bathroom straight into waking up.
So here's the part where the chilling mixes with the hilarious for a bit: I woke up in a strange pitch-dark bedroom, from a nightmare about a BATHROOM, every nerve on edge and my bloodstream full of adrenaline - and I had to PEE.
Go ahead and laugh. It was not funny at the time.
I couldn't even MOVE yet, and my bladder was screaming at me. Some remnant of logic broke through the panic and told me that it was JUST a dream, and I should probably do what I could to avoid wetting my mom's cousin's guest bed, but my panicked lizard-brain was convinced that the covers were keeping me safe from the mutilating horrors that surely awaited me in the darkness. I HAD to get a light on, or I'd never safely get out of the bed.
The bedside lamp was closest. Slowly, carefully, I slid my right hand under the covers toward the edge of the bed and my only chance of survival. I steeled myself, then quickly darted my hand out, turned on the lamp, then pulled my hand back under the covers to safety as the little yellow bulb chased the shadows into the corners of the room.
So far so good.
My next task was to turn on the overhead light, which as much brighter, and make the room completely safe. I coiled my muscles, focused on my target, then quickly sat up and reached for the lightswitch on the wall. Success! The light flooded on, and while I dove back under the covers just in case, the light chased the rest of the shadows away.
With the room safe, I could now strategize how to get to the bathroom - the LAST PLACE ON EARTH I WANTED TO GO - safely.
I remembered the switch for the hall light was just outside my bedroom door, so I stood by the door, one hand on the knob, the other ready to zip through the crack and turn on the light out there. 1, 2, 3, OPEN! SWITCH! RETREAT! SLAM!
I was still safe, the shadows in the hall were retreating, and I somehow didn't wake anybody up.
I peeked out the door. The hallway was deserted. I slid out of the room and plastered my back to the wall. They can't sneak up on you if your back is to the wall. I inched down the hall, starting to laugh a little (a VERY little) at how cartoony I must have looked. Parts of the hall opened up into the main room in the basement, but it was getting easier to ignore the shadows. That room wasn't the scary one, after all. The scary room was the one I was heading toward: the bathroom.
This bathroom was smaller than the one in my dream. The little boxy shower with a floral curtain that faced the door was next to the toilet, which faced the sink and mirror. A fuzzy mint green mat and more wood paneling clashed a bit with the black tile on the floor. On the toilet tank, a frizzy-haired little doll, one plastic arm raised in greeting, concealed a fresh toilet paper roll beneath her frilly crocheted skirts. The counter was bare except for a glass dish that cradled several decoratively molded soaps, so dusty it was hard to tell one pastel shade from the next.
Not that I looked closely. I had my eyes on that green mat and the black tiles. I turned on the light, waited another bladder-torturing moment, then entered the bathroom. I did not look at the shower. I did not look at the toilet paper doll. I looked nowhere NEAR the mirror. I kept my eyes on the lights reflected in the shiny black tiles like so many stars and did my business - the RELIEF!! - as quickly as I could. I stood, flushed, then blindly washed my hands. I felt the mirror and the shower curtain, as if they were watching me, daring me to look, just a glance, just once.
I slipped back into the hall, turning off the bathroom light just before closing the door.
With my poor bladder finally empty, and my adrenaline finally fading, I inched back down the hallway, now definitely laughing at myself at how cartoony I looked.
It really had only been a dream. My bladder was empty, the bed was still dry, and I had a ridiculous story to tell my siblings in the morning.
Just as I reached for the bedroom doorknob, from down the hall, behind the closed bathroom door, I heard a soft, plasticky rustle and the sliding shinkshinkshink of a shower curtain being pulled back.