By Jon Bishop
I’m at the mall with some friends and we’re sitting at the food court eating sandwiches from that chicken place everyone seems to enjoy. We laugh and sip soft drinks merrily, joining in the white noise of a ruckus that abounds around us. But then a rumble inside my stomach forces me to get up and head for the public restroom.
My friends, all holding shopping bags from various variations on a clothing store theme, are like, “Tom! Where you off to?” A giant advertisement for Iron Man 2 looms behind us.
I’m like, “The bathroom. I’ll be back in a few, okay?”
They’re like, “Wow. You need a new gut.”
I walk away and ignore that. I get it, okay? I need to lose weight. I’ve gained continuously for over a year and, consequently, stopped caring about how I look. My parents died and I won’t get into it—nothing further than that.
Sweat pants and uncombed hair are my norm. But, you know what? I’ll get over it—someday.
The free samples tempt me but I say no because if I have them I’ll only feel sicker. The grumble increases. I tell it to quiet down. I clutch my stomach as I pass by payphones and a janitor mopping up the linoleum floor. I push open the Men’s Room door and final clean stall—they’re hard to find these days; seriously, did everyone stop listening to their parents at some point?—and enter. Once I’m done, I feel better. I take a peek at the graffiti etched onto the fading beige walls. Interesting stuff—lost of the ‘blank’ was here and ‘call so-and-so for a good time’, plus other crude jokes, riddles. It amuses me that people would take the time to write such things. I wonder if they desire something—but what? It’s strange to want to be remembered forever on the walls of some dingy restroom.
I flush and get ready to leave. Or I try to—the door jams as I try to push it. I shake it, violently. It stays stuck. I’m angry. Of all the places to be trapped I get stuck with the restroom. Whatever. I sit back down because I figure that, hopefully, I can kick the door open.
But then I hear the creak of the restroom door. Two guys enter. I’m embarrassed so I stop moving around. I’ll wait until they leave before I try again. And hey, why not creep on their conversation, too? It could prove interesting.
I can’t see them but I can describe them by vocal pitch. A deep-voiced guy starts the conversation.
He’s like, “Hey man, you see that woman in the CVS?”
The other guy’s—who’s got a higher-pitched voice—like, “Which one?”
“You know. That one.” I can sense the emphasis in ‘that.’
“Oh.” Something cheeky or knowing in the language.
I’m sure I’d see smiles if I could see them through the door. But I can’t. I can only make out fuzzy shapes and grays.
“Yeah. She was really old. I’m surprised she made it outside without, you know, one of those vans.”
They laugh and I can hear them wash their hands—thank God!—and leave. But at least they’re gone—I can try to get out of this stall. The heating vent I saw when I came in doesn’t look new and I’m sure it’s pumping asbestos into the air I’m breathing. I’m probably going to get lung cancer. Or something.
The door opens again. And in walks another man. I hear the clip clop of loafers and the slow, deliberate pace of a business executive. I hear heavy breathing and it sounds of nerves. The man moves toward the mirror and I hear the squeak of a faucet. Water flows freely and he splashes it on his face.
A clearing of the throat.
A sigh—deep and loud and heavy.
I make my presence known.
“Oh, uh. Wow. I thought I was alone.”
“Maybe I can help?”
“Who the hell are you?”
Silence. The awkwardness hurts. I question whether I should have said anything.
“You know what, why not?” Well, Tom—faceless Tom that I’ll never see—I’m thinking of leaving my wife.”
I didn’t expect that. Wow. Heavy stuff.
“Well, what can I say? Why?”
“Because she’s holding me back. There are things I’ve wanted to do and now I can’t do them. For example: traveling. She hates trips. I like them. I want to take them. But she’s yelled at me for wasting money and only thinking of me. Me? Is she a lunatic? We can both go. If we had a family, we all could go. I’m shocked I just revealed that to you.”
I am, too. My first thought is how much of a jerk the guy is, but then I pull back and consider the situation more. Honestly, what would I do? If someone didn’t let me do what I needed to do, I’d be mad, too. So I see where the dude’s coming from.
I’m like, “Look. You need to be upfront with her. It feels right to me. Like, when I’m questioning whether I should get the double cheeseburger. Once I do, though, I’m usually pleased.”
He’s like, “Uh. Okay? I think I see it.”
I’m like, “Sorry. That’s the best thing I could think of.”
He pauses. I wait. I’ve never really given advice like this, and I’m not one of those types who’d be good—at least I don’t think! But, come on, look at me!—at dispensing advice. I don’t know. We’ll see.
I don’t hear anything so I’m assuming that he’s considering it.
Then, he’s like, “Tom, I think you’re right, in a strange way.” He laughs and leaves the restroom without saying goodbye, without thanks. I don’t mind. I’m hopeful that I helped him, and even if I didn’t, it was still interesting to do. I felt good. And it felt nice to feel good. I haven’t had any kind of emotional uplift in a long, long time. And I’m serious.
Now, I’m not so eager to leave the stall. Sure, I could still be trapped, but I may not be. There’s something interesting, honestly, about seeing people at their most vulnerable. And for some reason, in this dingy, smelly, semi-clean mall restroom, it’s here. One would think that in a mall people are at their happiest. After all, there are all the stores and the restaurants and the food court. I like to distinguish the food court from restaurants because restaurants, in my opinion, serve food too slowly. I prefer the quick pace of the Food Court. And I love the free samples. They compel.
I look up at the vent that eyes me from above. I wonder if anyone had ever thought of escaping through it, and seriously. I wonder if anyone had ever considered standing up o one of the toilets and pulling the vent down and climbing through, hopeful that they can claw and crawl themselves further and farther away from whatever pained them. Or, more positively, toward what they wanted. Surely I’ve let it cross my mind I thought of it all the time in Middle School, in fact. Now, I’d probably get stuck.
A somewhat silence. None enter, and the only noises come from the heating vent and water swishing through the pipes. I’m content to rest in the enveloping quiet. It’s nice and somewhat tranquil: One wouldn’t expect it in an environment such as this, but it is.
You know what? I’m trying it.
I climb up onto the toilet and grab the vent and pull. It easily comes down. I jump up and the vent seemingly sucks me in. I sneeze—inside it’s dusty as hell. I crawl further through the vent, making a clang. Then, I see something in the shadows. It sneezes and approaches. Oh my.
It’s my old stuffed penguin from when I was a kid.
“What do you mean ‘um’?”
“Have some more confidence, friend! I’d expect me to be a bit surer.”
“Yeah. We’re the same person. I decided to show up as the penguin because I thought if I came as us, it’d be too weird.”
“This isn’t weird?”
“Trust me. It’s not as weird as it could be.”
“Dude, you need to grow up.”
“With all the wallowing, you’re looking like an idiot. See, here’s all the potential you’re wasting. Come to the other side of this vent.”
He leads me over and pulls open the cover. I see me—looking thin—with two kids in tow. I’m wearing a suit. I look good. Really good, in fact.
“This is my potential.”
“Yes, this is our potential.”
He waddled over and placed a stuffed wing on my shoulder. He smiled. And then he waddled away, fading into nothingness.
I paused and rested—I considered this. Then something came over me. I left the vent and stepped back onto the toilet. I broke out of the stall—I made sure to wash my hands of course!—and left the bathroom.
My friends waited for me outside the door.
Almost in unison: “Where were you?”
I said nothing.
“Let’s go, man.”
I paused. A silence filled the gaps.
“Hey, any of you want to hit up the gym soon? Plus, I need a haircut.” A shower, too, but I didn’t want to say that.
We left the mall and the sun seemed brighter. The cars in the parking lot glistened like smiling teeth.