Whenever I use a public restroom, I go for the handicap bathroom stall. When I’m in there, I like to imagine how I’d remodel it if I were forced to live there.
Like if the entire building were taken hostage while I was in the restroom, and they hostage-takers said, “You have to stay in there for an indefinite amount of time as we make our point or until our demands are met.”
This is not a fear. This is a fantasy.
I would do one of those home remodeling makeovers where everything would be a clever reconfiguration and you wouldn’t even recognize that it had been a handicap bathroom stall. A bed would fold down from the wall, yet when it was up and cleverly disguised as part of the wall some of my favorite art pieces would be featured on it. There would be slide out storage boxes that doubled as extra seating, with decorative pillows atop. The toilet would have a wooden unit over it that made it into a desk or work area, like a giant, yet functional, seat cozy. Along the other wall would be floor to ceiling bookcases with baskets and drawers to keep various items out of sight, including a little compartment with a door on it for my dog Seymour’s food and water, who is with me because my captors, while terrible, are still human and have permitted me my dog along with internet access to order what I need to remodel this bathroom stall. They also allow me subscriptions to Real Simple and This Old House, which they slide to me under the stall door.
I have lived in efficiency or studio apartments most of my adult life, the largest of which was maybe 700 square feet. I always had very few possessions in the event that I decided to join the Peace Corps and had to leave the next day. Or if, by caprice, to hop a freight train although, admittedly, as a person of size I would need a ladder and/or an elaborate pulley system and/or several hefty fellows to assist the “hopping.” But aboard a freight train I’d be able to see the world. None of these possibilities ever came to be, but I always liked the idea of being able to walk away from my material life, walk out of that skin like a lizard, divesting myself of everything but a good lipstick, a good book, a notebook, and several Bic ballpoints.
One of my real moves was out of a small one bedroom apartment in Minneapolis to Austin, TX to live with my boyfriend, a native Texan. Then we got married we bought the first house I’d ever owned. It was about 1700 square feet, one level, more space than I’d ever had in my life. Space, I’d heard, was greatly desired. It made me uneasy. We didn’t have a lot of stuff and all this territory without stuff in it, it baffled people. They’d say, “Is all your stuff in storage?” Or: “Are you moving out?” Or they’d intimate in some way that we must be quite poor.
In Texas you don’t have to put your car in the garage, like you do in Minnesota. These garages, with the automatic doors gaping open like jaws, looked like they were about to vomit junk onto their driveways. And I’d get that choking feeling I get when I’m around too many possessions just looking at the open garage doors.
Still, I loved the house and had such grand hopes for putting in hardwood floors, ceiling beams, a new patio. It was the house where my parents had visited us within weeks of moving in, alighting upon us as if we’d just had a baby and it needed to know its grandparents. We were still standing among unpacked boxes and I can still see my mother was standing by the kitchen sink, demonstrating that the faucet spigot had a sprayer. The spigot was kind of a streamline modern design and you couldn’t tell right away that there was a spraying function. I was totally disgusted that we had just paid that kind of money for a house with no sprayer at the kitchen sink. My mom didn’t know that I didn’t know that it didn’t have a sprayer. But, knowing me and my unfamiliarity with most things domestic, asked, “Did you know you had a sprayer?” I looked at her dumbfounded, and she laughed at me.
We’d been there almost four years when she was diagnosed with cancer. I was walking through Target when my phone rang and I saw it was my Dad. He couldn’t get the words out and he started crying. “Your mother…”
Not “my wife. “Your mother… ”
He couldn’t finish. “What? What?” I yelled into the phone in the middle of women’s hosiery. In the background I heard my mother say, with exasperation, “Oh, for crying out, just give me the phone Jerry.” Then, matter of factly to me: “They found a spot on my lung.”
In the days that followed, the Texas house became strange to me.It isn’t quite accurate to say that I thought about my mother constantly after she got sick. It was more insidious and less formed than thoughts. It was a low grade fever of distress that inhabited my cells, my breath, my bones. I was aimless in our suddenly foreign house. I wandered back and forth in the one hallway, perhaps ten feet long, and in and out of its three small bedrooms, the big living area that blended the kitchen, dining and living room. The house made no sense anymore. What was to be done? What was I doing here?
I figured I had to move back to Minnesota. My husband, a native Texan, did not want to move. I did, I was going to, I didn’t care. For almost a year, as my mother underwent treatment, when travelled back and forth from Texas to Minnesota. In Minnesota I looked at houses, figuring that once my husband saw I was serious he would relent. He did not. I started looking at apartments in Minnesota for just myself, not sure how we’d handle a mortgage, rent, and living apart, but I was sort of just flailingly trusting the universe, you know, the same universewhere my mom got cancer.
In the middle of all the back and forth, she died. Suddenly, not suddenly, you always think you have more time, you always think you’re turning a corner but when it is a 79 year old woman with a heart condition and high blood pressure who then gets cancer, sometimes when you turn a corner you run right into a gunman.
I became even more crazed. That was not going to happen with my father. He was active, healthy, sharp as a tack but I .was.going.to.be.there.for.him.goddamn.it. Whether he wanted it or not, no matter what it took. As if I could rewind the clock, close the barn door and “do over,”grab my mother’s ankle as she was floating off and heave her back down to me.
After the funeral, it was more trips to Minnesota. I’d text photos of houses to my husband, and he wouldn’t acknowledge them. I trudged on. I must have looked at at least forty houses with a chipper, unflappable realtor named Jeannie who had sturdy calves and long poofy brown hair streaked blond. Forty different spaces with all sorts of different rooms and all kinds of stuff, all telling the story of the occupants. Big houses, small houses, ugly houses, weird houses, houses, houses, houses.
I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for I just wanted to be in proximity to where my Mom once existed. Jeannie talked and talked and talked. At one house she opened a closet door, waved her hand around it, and told me, “This would be a good place to store things!” Like I didn’t know how closets worked. I always wanted to know how the house came to be for sale; what heartbreak the occupants might be leaving behind, what hope they might be moving to. I began to feel like a forensic house hunter. One small house was virtually empty except for a metal leg brace, a shoe still in it, and a pile of baseball cards.
I’d begun packing up my things in Austin. I sorted and I tossed and I packed and brought endless bags of stuff to Goodwill or put in the trash or to the hazardous waste center. So this is what we do with their lives, all this time spent managing our space, managing our stuff, buying stuff for our stuff. Not until you want to leave this place, to get back to your mother who is no longer there that you realize all that you have, and all that you have forgotten about, and all that you do not want.
The Texas house was mostly packed even though we had no house, no plan. The husband relented.
We sold the house. We bought another. We moved about 1189.13 miles north to a house about the same size in the Twin Cities.
The moving van left after disgorging all our belongings, and just like that the new garage was filled to gills with unpacked boxes and bins. All the items must have been terribly important, else why would we have paid to move all of it? As I was unpacking, I came across a couple of paper grocery bags that the movers had carefully wrapped in packing paper, in exactly the same manner they had with a crystal objet d’art my aunt had given me for my wedding.
You know when you see people on the news and their entire house has been burned down from wildfires or destroyed in a flood? And they’re really upset? I envy them so much.
I managed to scrounge out some towels and toothpaste to tide us over until we got situated with all our stuff. Coming from the garage into the house in the low, breathy light of a late autumn afternoon, I saw that my mother was not there. My moving back had not rewound it all. This new house, newly strange, would be the first place I’d live that she would not see, she would not appraise, she would not comment on the idiosyncrasies of the place. Did you know you have a sprayer?
Right now, I just want to live in a handicapped bathroom stall. Safe and small and contained and just me. The world is too big and too much for me right now. The sun hurts, the air hurts, space hurts, everything is too much. I want to bring the walls in around me, I want to bring the ceiling down, I want a lamp with a limited periphery of light on a nightstand next to me, and I want to put a nice rug under my feet and some great art on the tiny wall space and that would be enough, more than enough. All I need or want to do is lay on the bed (a cute daybed, with decorative pillows) and stare at the ceiling and remember and let all the blood pool into my ass. There’s a lot you can do with a limited space if you plan it right. Those handicap bathroom stalls have big doors, so when and if I ever got where I wanted to see the rest of the world, the door could swing open and I could leave, if my captors deemed it so.
Mary Jo Pehl has written for Austin Monthly, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Salon.com, Austin Chronicle, Minnesota Monthly, PBS and NPR’s All Things Considered, and her stories have been featured in several anthologies including Listen To Your Mother and Life’s A Stitch: The Best of Contemporary Women’s Humor. Pehl is also a former writer and actor on the TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000, and is the author of “Employee of the Month and Other Big Deals.”