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by Melissa Bartell
People say I'm too picky about public restrooms. I suppose they must be right because even as a small child going to lunch at the Officer's Club with my grandparents, I would have to inspect every stall, and find the cleanest one, and once I did, my grandmother would remind me, "Don't forget to put paper on the seat." This was before the tissue seat-liners were in common use.
My husband finds my bathroom squeamishness both endearing and annoying. At home, I have walked out of restaurants with my face turning green if the restrooms weren't clean enough, skipping postprandial shopping trips in exchange for the comfort of my gleaming porcelain throne at home. We are not at home, however, but in Baja California Sur, Mexico. When you're in a foreign country, you put up with restroom conditions you would run away from, screaming in terror, at home.
It is my grandmother's reminder about tissue that is ringing in my head as I approach the toothless old man guarding the cashbox in the parking lot where we've left my parents' old Jeep. His smile turns into a leer when he notices what I'm wearing. It is December, and though the thermometer in the car read 76 when we parked, the breeze off the water is cool enough to make me shiver in my touristy sundress. All the natives are in sweaters and jeans.
"Do you have a restroom?" I ask, in Spanish half-remembered from a high school class decades before, in which I spent more time flirting than actually paying attention. The department store restroom had one working stall, thirty women in line, and no toilet paper. The café where we had dessert didn't have working restrooms at all. I've had two mochas and a bottle of water and I am desperate.
He bobs his head and points toward a weathered door attached to the mud-splattered cement building. I open the door, and find myself in a dark cement closet with a dirt floor. Something scurries away from the light cast by the open door. To my left, there is a black nothingness, from which chittering sounds emanate; to my right is another weathered door, this one louvered. I think it must be the missing shutter from the bar down the street because it's painted the same green. Or it was once, anyway.
The toilet sits with the lid and seat both raised and a plunger in the back corner of the closet (it's too small to be a room). There is no light switch, but a bulb and cord dangle above my head. I return to the first doorway, and poke my head out to Sr. Toothless, for help with the light. A thought crosses my head and I ask for toilet paper as well.
He comes running over, moving faster than his bony frame would seem to allow, his scuffed work boots kicking dust into the rolled up cuffs of his chinos. He hands me the toilet paper roll and then reaches up to plug in the light. I almost wish he hadn't, because now I can see that the water in the toilet is brown. He leaves me there in the flickering light of the swaying bulb.
I use my foot to lower the seat, and skip the bit about wrapping it in tissue because I don't want to touch it. Instead, I squat over it, and do my business as quickly as possible, while trying not to look at the floor or the walls (Especially not the walls.) I tuck the toilet paper roll beneath my chin as I rearrange my underwear and skirt, flush, and escape into the fresh air and slanted afternoon sunshine.
My husband is waiting outside with my purse. "Are you okay, Love?" he asks, responding to the mixed signs of relief and disgust on my face.
I nod. "I'm alive," I say.
We leave the parking lot and return to the streets, walking through the alley to the waterfront. I know that on the ride home I will embellish the tale of the cement bathroom, make the creatures visible and dangerous. By the time I'm back in the States, the toothless parking attendant will be a muscular young man who flirts with me when my husband isn't looking.
People say I'm too picky about public restrooms.
Sometimes I'm not picky enough.