The bathroom I died in was green.
The cool creamy jade eased itself onto the stall doors to seep down prettily, kissing the smooth minty tiles like melting ice cream. Stubby sinks squatted to the left of the door, a darker shade of oriental jade, like ancient relics. It was the lost Tsang dynasty of women’s restrooms.
I remember it clearly. Partly, because colors had always fascinated me; but, more importantly, I had sought out this bathroom many times as a girl, cloistering myself away in the mellow green cave. It had witnessed me shift from girl into some “thing” resembling a woman, nevermind how hard I had fought the metamorphasis.
It was vaguely poetic that I met my maker in this place once considered a safe port. I’d pondered life, love and despair in its expansive far corner stall. The rickety floor lamp in the corner of the bathroom, out of place but necessary since the bottom floor of the entire building had limited artificial lighting, was always standing watch like some haughty madam in her Depression-era boudoir, not at all concerned with its shade perched cockeyed over the tired bulb, forever coated in a shawl of dust. It was forgotten, stuck in a corner for eternity, and I always felt guilty leaving it behind, often offering it many apologetic last looks before exiting. When still small and too vertically-challenged to reach the top, I dreamt of sluicing my finger through the fuzzy gray landscape of filth coating the slopes of the lamp shade. The ethereal light seeping from it had never failed to calm me, a child with nerves already showing signs of wear.
I should explain.
This bathroom was in the basement of a bookstore my aunt frequented. She was a school teacher regularly in need of obscure classics for her eleventh grade A.P. English course, back when teachers actually got to teach what they wanted. I was her precocious yet skittish six-year old neice born with a predilection for the fictitious.
I inhaled books with a speed that should have warned adults that I was lacking something else more vital, some human element. Other children mistrusted me and my “gift.” I would read aloud at the behest of my teacher Ms. Cathy, while she bore an expression of rapture that this pupil (me) might actually care about "The Red Pony." I saw visions of Yale dancing in her eyes when she watched me.
Soon I was being ushered to a different classroom with boys and girls twice my size. From then on I would spend reading period with seventh graders rather than my first grade class, Ms. Cathy had explained, her breath dry and light, like stale potato chips. Days later, my aunt took great interest in my newfound status; I knew then that I was finally good at something, which was foreign to me since neither kickball nor climbing the rope in gym class, or any activities involving round objects sailing toward my face had offered anything but ridicule for my sloppy coordination and the ugly knee socks my mother insisted I wear. My parents hadn’t the money or the time to enroll me in any fancy classes. No tap or ballet or piano lessons for me.
I often wondered if my talent for reading and analytics was something organic, or just my subconscious grabbing at was left on the shelf after all the cool things were taken. Reading was free of charge and required no leotards or pricey tennis shoes.
The day my aunt announced we would be stopping by her favorite bookstore, my 60 lbs. frame had quivered with joy. Bending down to look me primly in the face, she gripped my elbow, the pressure pushing through the bulk of my heavy Woolrich coat.
“Now, Wren,” she had fixed bold navy eyes on me that looked frighteningly like my father's, “if you promise to behave, you may stay downstairs and look at the children’s books while I’m upstairs.” She spoke as she would to an adult and I wondered why my mother never spoke to me this way. I could be very grown-up when the behavior was facilitated by my elders. I would not cause trouble or wander; I was not adventurous. Even at my tender age, life had taught me great apprehension.
“My friend works in the children’s section. She’ll keep a close eye on you,” she fixed me with a stern look, as if I were a student in her class, her tone switching back to that of my elder. I would have a baby-sitter while she searched for her books on an upper-level of the store.
So, while my aunt wandered upstairs amongst Ibsen and Voltaire, I navigated the glorious lower level, its carpet like moist moss, rows of bookshelves beaming at me like brazen nerds, their wooden teeth full of exotic titles.
L’engle, Blume, Verne, Twain, and Kipling.
It was “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” that I found first. Standing on my tip-toes, I strained in my thrift store sneakers, latching my fingers on the spine of a book and pulling, like a mechanical claw grabbing for a stuffed animal. I sat down and began reading, finding a strange familiarity in the young girl alone on an island with only her wolf dog for company. I’m not sure how long I sat there, but eventually I could no longer hold my pee. Mrs. Dash, attendant for the children’s section and espionage extraordinaire, was watching me curiously. I wondered if she had a walkie-talkie hidden in the pocket of her skirt so as to call up to my aunt should I attempt anything foolish.
It wasn’t long before she crouched down beside me, her white dress with its itty-bitty red flower pattern reminding me of a Barbie birthday cake my mother had once made me.
I blinked at her, used to being forgotten about and not at all accustomed to having an adult come down to my level. Literally.
“I see you’ve found one of my favorites!” her voice tinkled like a charm bracelet. She kneeled so close to me her breath puffed at my eyelashes. “Have you ever read this?” she nodded toward my lap.
I shook my head sideways, wary of her attention, unsure if I’d done something wrong without realizing it.
“This is an excellent choice,” she winked. I was pleased she thought so. Books replaced brothers and sisters that I would never have, friends that would never visit because of how far from town I lived, tucked away on the edge of a cornfield in the countryside with my over-worked parents.
“Does the dog die?” I’d questioned her, embarrassed by the anxiety shivering in my young vocal cords. I didn’t like it when the animals in books died. It left me downtrodden for days. If this was one of those books I wasn't too sure I cared to read it.
I saw a flicker of something in her eyes. Her demeanor with me changed.
“I can’t tell you what happens, Wren, but the sad parts of stories are what make them so special,” she smiled awkwardly as if she suddenly didn’t want to be near me. In that instant I knew the dog probably died.
She dropped a root beer candy into my lap as consolation, the little barrel shape rolling to the middle of my red corduroy skirt. As quickly as she had stopped she stood straight up and floated away to check on the other children, two boys off in the distance fighting over some book about trains, their voices growing louder and making me nervous.
Tucking the book under my arm, I pushed myself up, yanking on my thick white tights, my skirt askew as I made my way toward the illuminated restroom sign. Pushing on the cold door with its chipped paint, I entered the green colors and hazy light like sun hiding behind pine trees. It smelled stringent, of bleach and lemons. I would become accustomed over the years to sitting in there until Mrs. Dash would poke her head in, alarm in her voice the first couple of times I disappeared on her. She soon came to know if she no longer saw me while making her way around the store that I was in my regular hiding spot. I don’t think she ever told my aunt of my odd habit.
Mrs. Dash attended my high school graduation; a thinner, stooped version of the woman from my younger days, her strawberry blond pixie cut a synthetic shade of red, but still my Mrs. Dash. She’d been relentless in her introductions to books over the years, quickly taking me from Tolkien to Bradbury, Rand and Steinbeck. The day I’d told her my English class was reading Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” she had rolled her eyes and sighed.
“That may be fine for most tenth-graders, Wren,” she had shook her head at me, the smell of Jean Nate puffing out from her collar, “but not for you. For you, only ‘The Sun Also Rises,’ will do.”
During the Goth days of my junior year, she humored my black nail polish and tattered fish net stockings, putting Emily Dickinson and Poe in my backpack. Margaret Fuller. The Bronte sisters and for fun, Anne Rice and her Lothario vampire Lestat to fuel my dark romanticism. She never acknowledged my constantly-changing clothing or identity.
I called my aunt incessantly if it had been too long since we’d visited the bookstore, begging her to drive me there even if she didn’t need to go, which she was happy to do if it meant me being amidst dusty bookshelves instead of at high school parties giving blow jobs to boys like other girls my age. My parents, exhausted in the way only blue collar folks can be, were grateful for the times my aunt whisked me away.
I read a lot of books in that bathroom.
That day of my graduation, my present from Mrs. Dash, wrapped in red tissue paper with a yellow ribbon, was by a Greek author, the title not one I had heard of. The back cover mentioned a woman named Phaedra.
“I’ve always likened you to the tragic Greek heroine,” she smiled wistfully at me as I flipped through the pages. "Nothing mundane for you," she walked away, leaving me with her enigmatic words trailing off like the scarf flickering behind her like a silky red tongue as it loosened from her neck in the wind. I took the book and her comment as the best gift anyone had given me that day, even over the set of keys for a dilapidated used car that would transport me back home from school when I felt the need to visit. Despite a bad outbreak of rust spots and lack of a working radio, the car symbolized freedom for me, and I knew my mother had saved from her paycheck for the last few years to make the purchase possible. Still, I knew that Mrs. Dash had put just as much thought and care into finding just the right book to signify my new journey.
I would miss her and the store and the bathroom. It would be almost ten years before I would make it back, not realizing then that it would be the first and last time I would see it again.
The irony was not lost on me when I opened the bathroom door that day, a grown woman, not to sit on the soothing green tiles in my favorite old stall to read C.S. Lewis, but to actually take a piss and get a drink, and I instead startled a meth-addled girl short on healthy nerves. I seemed to have severed her last remaining one, without meaning to.
I guess I could blame it on drugs. I had needed a slurp from the faucet to take my Xanax. Or, if we’re getting technical, I might blame it on the guy that had triggered my old reliance on anxiety med’s that I chewed on more ferociously than any watermelon or butterscotch hard candies Ms. Dash had tossed me as a child, her skirt a pinata dropping rainbow-colored confections.
If I hadn’t needed to swallow that pale peach pill, I never would have stumbled upon the stringy-haired addict snorting her own powdery crutch off the back of the toilet; my toilet, in my stall, in my bathroom.
What a pair we were.
I had looked like someone with money, I know. Once dead, I watched her open my purse, finding about fifteen bucks and one credit card all but maxed out, offering her only a few hundred dollars worth of gas before being declined at Conoco’s and BP’s along Highway 80 as she fled the state border.
It was an accident. I forgave her even as it was happening. The tragic fear in her eyes, fear that I understood very well broke through the soupy fog of her high when she realized that my slip on the floor, in the hilariously small puddle of water pooling there from the melting snow on her ratty Dr. Marten boots, was going to land me backward, my skull connecting with the robust corner of that gorgeous old sturdy emerald green sink. The cracking sound she heard not from the porcelain chipping, but from the splintering of my bone.
She hadn’t hesitated and in this I was proud of her. Run, my former self breathed in her dirty ear. Her heart thundering in her thin chest, the skin stretched across her bumpy ribs and collarbone like slimy naked chicken skin, wings for her arms and elbows, she snatched up my purse now spotted with my red blood, much like the flowered dress Mrs. Dash used to wear. She gave me one last look before leaving and even from my unfortunate place on the floor I could tell she was once a startlingly pretty girl. Not that long ago.
"I'm so sorry," she whispered, her lip quivering like a newborn's.
She left the cool green safety of my bathroom and I wished her well.
She left me for dead and I obliged her within a few minutes.
I once went to a funeral for a colleague of mine a couple years prior. His wife, once a leggy creature with skin that black women have that is so luminous, so flawless that I felt like a walking clogged pore, had died unexpectedly. No one knew how she had passed, so of course, like anything kept under wraps, there had been buzz circulating around the office that it was some dastardly deed, potentially a suicide. Having met her before at a variety of company parties, this had struck me as unlikely.
Then again, I was no one to be determining normalcy.
I didn’t know Veronica that well; I had known Kenneth in only a superficial capacity. He was a co-worker, nothing more. It was a funeral, just like any other funeral, yet my imagination fidgeted in some restless place near morbid, seduced by the rumors skulking in the break room; hushed voices over the buzz of the microwave.
“I heard he was getting ready to file for a divorce.”
“She was having an affair.”
“Supposedly, mental illness ran in her family.”
After the email had gone out to notify us of the details of when and where the services were being held, I glared sanctimoniously at those in sight whenever I heard snippets of speculation as if they were horrible people for speaking of a dead woman so suspiciously. What they didn’t know was I didn’t need their help in conjuring images of empty orange pill bottles tipped over next to bottles of Vodka and journals with last entries hastily scribbled.
The day came when we donned black, the sun panting hotly over all of us in our dresses and suits, glaring off the polished mahogany of the coffin with a grotesque sense of entitlement. If the July heat could have humped our legs in its sweaty horniness, it would have.
I was angry. Sunny funerals are harder than gloomy, rainy funerals. It advertised our unimportance, the day still groaning on its axis despite our losses.
While lingering on this strange juxtaposition of sunlight on her coffin, Kenneth had his confession with me. Well, he hadn’t really confessed as much as I so happened to be the last one remaining, staring off stupidly at the dirt now covering the hole, mounded up and smelling of cooked earthworms and asphalt.
I had taken too many happy pills that morning, my brain and limbs moving doggedly. I should have carpooled with the others to the nearby pub for some booze to take the edge off of the day. Instead I had waved them off, saying I’d be there shortly. I was embarrassed really, afraid if I went with them rather than hanging out a half hour or so until I could feel my fingers again, hoping I could shake off my pharmaceutical haze, that I would end up passing out in someone’s car.
It was this that had me stuck there, my heels planted into the soft earth like tent stakes, my shoulders slumped over unattractively. At least I looked mournful, I had thought. Stupid Xanax. I was still worrying in my own way, about drool and tripping in the grass. Pills couldn’t calm my neurons. Nope, they were like Viking berserkers pillaging my brain.
I hadn’t noticed Kenneth hovering to my right. I was absorbed in the oxymoron of attending a sunny funeral and how supremely fucked the entire thing was.
Soon, I felt him next to me, but my lethargic movements had my neck swiveling to look at him in a slow, underwater motion. I hoped he was too bereft to notice I was swaying on my feet. I would hate for him to realize I was high at his dead wife’s funeral.
God, I was a bloody awful person. I blamed my parents for having only one child and leaving me no choice but to cater wholeheartedly to myself.
Then again, if there was any truth to the rumors, (which didn’t they always say there was?), then perhaps ‘ole Kenny boy didn’t deserve my sympathy because either he had snuffed Veronica out or drove her to do it herself.
No. Kenneth was a nice man. He had loved his wife. She was dead and I was two seconds away from searching for the on-call gravedigger to come gouge out a spot for me crawl into. I was tired and hot and there was no place cooler than six feet under.
Kenneth stirred. “It was a popcorn kernel,” he muttered.
Blasted pills. I thought I heard him say something about a popcorn kernel.
“Pardon?” I responded, relieved I sounded properly coherent.
“She died from choking on a popcorn kernel,” he stared at me serenely. “How do you tell people that?” He closed his eyes. I saw the feathery purple veins in his eyelids. I didn’t want to be standing this close to him. I think he felt very cold despite the beads of sweat on his upper lip. My stomach juices roiled and I thought heat stroke was imminent. He was telling me Veronica of the latte skin, his wife, with her doctorate from Stanford, the mother of his supernaturally attractive offspring, had died from choking on a goddamn popcorn kernel?
“Are you joking?” I accused, irritated for the second it took me to realize he was not kidding. I again regretted my brain was sludgy from the pills.
Kenneth stood firmly in the grass. For as stationary as he was, I was a veritable weeble-wobble, my knees threatening to buckle, my black linen dress absorbing the moisture seeping out from my armpits like paper towel. I could feel his sadness, more unrelenting than the heat or my muddy mind, and I knew that he would have to deal with this same insensitive reaction for the rest of his life.
“I’m sorry, I--,” I fumbled with the words to make up for my blunder.
“No, you have every right to react that way,” he smiled at me pathetically and I could decide whether to hug him or punch him in the face for unloading this information on me. Couldn’t he see that I was high for Pete’s sake? “We’re taught that death has to be ceremonious and meaningful; this grand finale,” he pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket and dabbed at his forehead.
“The truth is: it doesn’t. It’s not always about a long struggle with illness or a gruesome accident. It can end with no witness, no cry of denial from a loved one. A baby left in a dumpster to rot with yesterdays banana peels; a forgotten grandmother dying in an outline of her own shit and piss; a drunken man falling off a silent pier,” he finished quietly. “It doesn’t need to be dignified.”
Before I could speak he walked away from me across the lawn toward the black Lincoln several yards away. I never saw him again. He never came back to work. People continued to talk about his resignation and what would force him to quit his job unless the rumors had been true. I pretended to be engrossed in work whenever they gnashed their gossiping teeth in my presence, yet nor did I correct them.
Kenneth had come to my funeral. I don’t kid myself into thinking it was from obligation, as if we had been great friends, or out of his appreciation for me attending Veronica’s burial. No, he came because I was the only person other than some random paramedic or county coroner who knew how his wife had died.
I was content that he came for this reason and not because he was sad that I, like his wife, had left this world without explanation, and a bit earlier than expected.