Much has been said about public restrooms and the social laws obeyed ("every other urinal, bro!") and transgressed (“quit looking at my junk, homeboy!”) within them. I've never been comfortable in public restrooms. Never understood bringing a newspaper or magazine into a restroom stall, because I've never understood the decision to spend some quality alone time in a space zoned for ass explosions. When I was younger, I was so afraid of public restrooms that I avoided them completely, and on long road trips would spend hours straining against my body's almost-involuntary functions until I returned home.
I'm much better about this now. I've been in cramped single-stall bar bathrooms, including one with a missing stall door. (I stretched out a leg and braced my foot against the outer bathroom door—which did not lock, of course—to McGyver myself some privacy.) I've been in highway rest stop bathrooms where an entire row of six or seven stalls was occupied around me, producing a symphony of deep grunts, timpani splashes, scrapes, booming flushes, and the light tinkling chimes of belt buckles. I've been plenty of places where I first had to prep my workspace by grabbing some toilet tissue and wiping down the previous occupant's (occupants'?) or, worst case scenario, employing some elbow grease to scratch away someone else's dry-brushed fecal 'tracers' from the rear of the seat, like some kind of crime scene cleaning professional. (What kind of animal lets his ass get so messy it leaves a trail on every surface?) I've used porta-johns without too much emotional scarring, and once or twice have peed in one of those degrading group urinal troughs. But today, I think God might have been testing me because I found myself in the narrowest row of bathroom stalls I've ever occupied. It was like a sarcophagus, where you could hear the guy in the next coffin moving his bowels.
I don't think I understood how harrowing this experience would be until I was actually inside, and could see the shoes of the person occupying the stall next to mine. Not the bottoms of his shoes, which is typical and excusable, but the tops of his shoes and most of the pants bunched up around his ankles. The walls on either side of each stall started about 18 inches from the floor, creating the illusion that you're sharing your stall with your neighbor. In fact, my neighbor had a wide stance (political humor!) and his left foot was practically inside my stall. I could have tied our shoes together, if I wanted to let him know we were bathroom-married.
Because of the great distance between the walls and the floor, and the tight distance between the walls and my ears, using the bathroom became a visceral experience. Kind of like defecating in IMAX. We were so close it was as if all my senses were heightened--I could literally hear my neighbor's anus stretch and relax. Suddenly, I found myself with terrible performance anxiety. At first I thought I would wait out the other guy, but he remained in the stall for a very long time, eerily silent, and I decided if I also remained in eerily silent he would think I had just come there to unwind, and enjoy the hauntingly beautiful sound of another man shitting.
I made a bargain to fight through my fear by psyching myself up with bathroom confidence. You are an animal, I told myself. You are a filthy animal just like this animal sitting next to you. You're here to do what animals do, without shame, and without restraint. OK, a little restraint. Finally, I mustered up enough courage to be an adult and do what, as an infant, I regularly used to do without question, provocation, or even concern for loved ones and public health. But first, I reached my hand under the wall and told my co-pilot, "Grab my hand, Goose. Let's do this together." And then we got inverted.