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When I was a kid I spent a lot of time in the bathroom. There were two I favored. Coming in second, the fancy en suite connected to my parents bedroom. I preferred this one for the reading material; the day’s comics, or a dog-eared copy of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out Of Carolina.
It might have been first in my affections had it not been for the two possible modes of entry. Privacy was paramount to me, and, even with locks on the doors, I felt my attention constantly redirected, anticipating a jostling of the handle that would make every muscle in my body clench.
That’s why the third floor bathroom was true boo. Because my father was the rector of a sprawling Anglican church in the center of Providence, Rhode Island, we lived in a rectory. It wasn’t attached to the church, but about a mile from it, opposite the athletic training fields of Brown University.
Ten years later we would live in another house five minutes' walk from this one. It was small and cramped and in perpetual disrepair. It was much more like us. But I grew up in this place, owned by father’s bosses, a historic 18th century mansion. The front staircase was so formal us kids couldn’t use it. None of the furniture was ours. We had pancakes for dinner often. Our big financial indulgences as kids were pets (things like snakes that were quickly killed after accidentally plummeting down the dumb-waiter) and dime store candy. We purchased both with pennies and nickels we scavenged from the floor of our parents’ closet.
My sister and I slept on the third floor. These were the former “servants” quarters. My sister’s room was on one side and mine on the other, connected by a playroom. In each of our rooms there were small doors, about three feet high. They locked from the outside. This is where the misbehaving “servants” were kept.
I would ball my fists under my stomach on my bed and hold my breath when the wind made that small door shake. The wind: Not the ghosts of “servants.”
We also shared a bathroom. It was brand new when we moved in, a restored clawfoot tub, two sinks, a toilet, and a small window that looked out onto our back yard. When I think about this room now it is always two o'clock on a Sunday afternoon in the fall. There is thin, soft light streaming into the window. There is a knot of dread in my stomach beginning to form about school the next day. There is me at the window looking to see if “the church car” -- my dad’s car -- had pulled up the driveway yet. Wondering, if he was home, what kind of mood he was in, what kind of me I had to be to balance that mood.
This bathroom had a very satisfying lock. The knob was old and rather than replace it with something practical, a vertically sliding brass hook and notch had been installed. I would spend hours inside. I was either on the toilet or in the bathtub.
The tub was the only place where I didn’t feel fat and ugly. Mostly submerged, I read books. I stained each corner with a sticky red cinnamon thumbprint, courtesy of the Atomic Fireballs I ate there. No matter how careful I was, the books would hit the water. I dried them on the radiator. Something about their ruffled bloated pages made them feel more like they belonged to me anyway.
In the tub, with my books and my candy, I wasn’t Rebecca. I hated Rebecca. She noticed stretch marks on her inner thighs, and, not knowing what they were, panicked. She showed the angry red punctuation marks to her mother. She melted into a puddle when she learned it was because “you are eating too many calories.” She was made to understand that because of something she had done wrong, her body was punishing her with more ugliness.
Rebecca was the one who, as a senior in high school, would blush and want to die when her mother told her that the birth control pills prescribed for her acne weren’t a “license to screw around.” Rebecca didn’t figure out masturbation until she was nineteen. How could she have? What was there to touch or explore or love about Rebecca’s body?
The tub wasn’t magical, it was simple. I made the water as hot as I could stand and I read and dreamed and felt weightless.I told myself stories, my ears just below the surface, attuned to every noise outside and inside: My father yelling, the clicking of my own throat.
The toilet was something else. I was anxious even then. This had physical symptoms. My lips were red and cracked and peeling all the time. My stomach was always roiling. I got sweaty a lot, about to shit my pants or throw up or both. I would wait there quietly for it to happen but nothing ever did.
I let my anxious fantasies play out there: I was straining too hard, I was going to shit out my intestines like Elvis. My fourth grade teacher was right -- I had given myself an ulcer! I got my period early, the start of fifth grade, and though I hid this fact from my mother, it ushered in a new set of symptoms to worry over. Was it normal for it to hurt this much? Was it normal for there to be this much? Am I dying? I was pretty sure there were bugs in my vagina. My insides were rotting, I thought.
I stopped turning my light out when it was time for bed. I bit the insides of my cheeks to keep myself awake and alive. When sleep insisted, I’d panic and wail and shake it off until I couldn’t. I would bolt upright out of the lightest sleep, heart racing, screaming.
There were no bugs. There was nothing, in night. It was all just me. You can’t get away from yourself, not ever. And you certainly can’t fathom the thought of it even, not when you’re nine, ten. It’s funny, that as the oldest of four kids, so much of what I remember from my childhood is being alone. I think mostly because I chose to be. I did not think I deserved to be seen. I sequestered myself, in places like the bathroom. I hid away where my pathos could be managed, where a slap-dash grab at comfort could be found, my ugliness indulged.
I remember the feet of the tub like you might the scar on a lover’s forehead: As well as you know yourself, and with an ache.
I think of that lock every time I pull a bathroom door closed behind me. I see my hand going to secure the knob and the dulled piece of brass in my mind clicks into place. I do it every time. Even when I am all alone. I probably always will.
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