I hate public restrooms.
Who doesn't, right? They're filthy. They're smelly. They're covered in graffiti. They're in horrible condition. Or at least they used to be. Back in the 80's, it was actually a big joke that public restrooms were always, without fail, one of the most disgusting things people willingly interacted with. Today, most public restrooms are in pristine condition, possibly due to an activist group pushing for legislation that helped them not feel like they could contract a venereal disease just because they were at a gas station and the call of nature had to be answered.
During the 80's, roadside affairs like gas stations, public parks and rest areas did not give a shit, no pun intended, if their restrooms looked like a permanent hang-out for meth addicts with skin conditions. The floors were always covered in brown grime you hoped like crazy was merely mud, the entire place smelled like fresh urine, as if nobody who used them knew how to aim, and god forbid you had to, if you'll pardon the expression, back the bus out of the garage. The only thing worse than smelling the toilets in those stalls was actually sitting on them.
But I hated them for another reason, one I'm sure several of you can relate to. When I was a kid, I was absolutely mortified at the thought of another person hearing me poop, or even so much as fart. Well, outside of immediate family, I suppose. My parents had both changed my diapers and as for my kid brother, well, I heard him poop too, so it was only fair. But strangers? A chill would run down my spine at the mere thought. And let's not even talk about trying to use one of the urinals with another person at the one next to me.
So, you can imagine how uncomfortable I already was when, during a long vacation with my family at age fifteen, I found myself at a rest area with a dire need to bury some cable.
I can't remember what state we were in. We were somewhere in the midwest. Flyover country, I believe politicians call it. Fields for miles around, no skyline of any kind, unless you count the odd billboard. It was hot, my brother and I were getting on each other's nerves, and we all needed to stretch our legs. So, when we saw a sign advertising a rest area up ahead, we all breathed a sigh of tentative relief in anticipation of escaping the increasingly sardine-can-esque station wagon for a few minutes.
We hadn't even hardly pulled into the parking lot when my back end let me know in no uncertain terms that something needed to pull out of me. I was so eager to make it to the john that I didn't even notice the look of the place. My parents must have, but apparently it didn't bother them.
"We're going to go look at the pond," my father told my retreating form as I booked it for the restroom. There was a small pond across a wide, grassy area, perfect for picnicking, or it would have been if the rest of the place had been in any condition to be picnicked in. I might have shouted something like "okay" over my shoulder, but I don't recall. I wasn't even thinking about where my family would be. I also wasn't thinking about how few others were here, or that there were only three other cars in the parking lot.
I sometimes think back to those other cars, and how my initial impression of them, if impression was even made, was that all but one other seemed to just be sitting there. No one was inside them, or around them. The only other car that seemed to belong to anybody was a little Ford minivan where a harried young mother was changing an infant's diaper while a toddler squalled in the car seat beside her. Her husband was checking a map in the front seat. The other cars...nothing. I saw no other people around but my family and the young couple in the minivan. I wouldn't get a good look at them until later.
I hurriedly opened the door to the men's room...and halted in my tracks.
It was the filthiest I'd seen yet. The requisite brown grime was everywhere. Puddles stood in places where the floor had sunk in a bit. Used paper towels and toilet paper were strewn everywhere. The stalls were all flaking, chipped paint and rust. And graffiti. Well, hardly a surface didn't have some. Mostly drawn on with a magic marker. We weren't talking anything artistic, like you might see on a bridge in inner city New York. Just a bunch of dumb shit written by dumb people, like that ancient poem, "here I sit, all broken heart, tried to shit but only farted", which I think I've seen in just about every restroom that anyone ever drew on.
But the worst part was that there were only three stalls. A pair of red boots were quite visible occupying one of them. The middle one. Of course. Now I had no choice but to sit down and try to void my bowels with a complete stranger right next to me.
When you're the age I was, and had the kind of phobia I did, you never think about the idea that the guy sitting next to you is doing exactly the same thing that you are and in fact probably isn't even concerned with anything you're doing in your own stall. I was faced with the unthinkable; laying cement while someone sat right beside me, listening to every grunt and push.
Without any real choices available to me, and the need in me growing, I reluctantly went to the stall closest to the door, dropped trou and sat. Despite still having to go, everything in me had seized up. No part of me wanted to do this while Red Boots sat there, perhaps giggling at the noises my posterior was making or mock-gagging at the smell I was producing. As if any smell I made would be noticed in this already pungent place.
But the situation was about to get even more uncomfortable than it already was. Already the only thing I wanted was for Red Boots to finish his business and leave so that I could get some relief. But Red Boots did not leave. In fact, he seemed quite determined to stay. I told myself several times that he was probably mostly concerned with his own problems and not worried about me at all.
Unfortunately, I was very wrong. After several minutes of uncomfortable silence, several things came to me as events unfolded. First, I realized that Red Boots here was likely the driver of one of the two cars that sat empty in the parking lot...but both those cars, in my hasty glance at them, had seemed...I'm not sure how to describe it. Almost like they were a part of this place; that they'd been sitting there so long that they were part of the experience, so to speak. Second, not a sound had come from the stall beside me. No grunts, no farts, not even a puff of breath or clearing of throat. I wasn't even certain Red Boots's pants were pulled down. Whatever he was there for, it wasn't to see a man about a platypus. I thought of news stories I'd heard of sexual predators hiding out in gas station washrooms, or men who would go there to solicit sex by tapping their feet in a certain way, or something. Red Boots wasn't tapping, but I was becoming certain he was there for some other reason than to use the john.
Whatever doubt was left in my mind that Red Boots was there for nefarious purposes was removed by what he did within just a few seconds of my realizing all this. He stuck something under the stall.
It was a pen. An utterly ordinary ball-point pen with a clickable retracting tip. He had wrapped the end he was holding with a piece of toilet paper, as if unwilling to leave a fingerprint on it. He left it there, pointed out toward me, as if he expected me to take it.
Now, there are perhaps several reasons why a stranger in a random bathroom stall in the middle of nowhere might wait for someone to sit beside him so that he can offer them a toilet-paper-wrapped pen, but none of them are good. My immediate thought was drugs. I wasn't sure why he would randomly offer the pen to me, but as I sat there, inexplicably terrified by how the situation had escalated, I realized for the first time that his distinctive choice of footwear might not have been a mere fashion choice. Perhaps it was a signal of some kind.
"I'll be in the middle stall. You'll know it's me by the red cowboy boots I'll be wearing. I'll pass the stuff to you under the stall, and you pass me the cash. I'll wait until you're well gone before I leave. We'll never have to see each other's faces."
The illicit instructions were all too easy to picture in my head. But then, wouldn't his client also wear something distinctive to make sure Red Boots knew it was time to pass over the "stuff"? I was wearing a nondescript pair of tennis shoes and cutoff denim shorts; the same "uniform" almost every kid my age was wearing at that time of year. Perhaps he only thought I was his contact because I'd come to the restroom but had yet to actually do what one does in a restroom?
The tension was broken by the arrival of another person. They pushed open the door loudly, shouting behind them: "I'm only going to be two minutes, okay, Joanne?" He walked in, muttering to himself. "Geez, guy can't take a shit without getting the third degree from the old ball and chain..."
It was the husband from the young family in the other car. I hadn't heard him speak before, but I could hear the infant crying in the background when he'd opened the door. The pen disappeared from under the stall almost the moment the other person had entered. This was a welcome bit of normalcy, and for a moment I began to think it was over. Perhaps Red Boots would realize his contact wasn't here and would leave. The young husband went straight for the final stall, took a seat and let out some raunchy wet farts, utterly unconcerned with how he sounded. I felt a touch of envy; why couldn't I just do my business and get out, and leave behind this strange situation and these increasingly unsettling red boots?
Husband finished up and left, and once again I was alone with the boot-wearing silent phantom. Once again, the pen was offered.
My thoughts came in a rush. I didn't dare take the pen. I almost felt like even having seen it was enough to convict me of being an accessory. I didn't want even the chance that my fingerprints might be on it, plus I knew instinctively that this wasn't an offer of a free gift. It was a transaction, and I was not prepared for the other half of it. If I took it and gave him nothing, he'd be waiting for me when I left, demanding payment. So clearly taking it, even if only to flush it or toss it away, wouldn't end my torment.
But what would happen if I kept ignoring him? He didn't seem content to just leave me alone. He would occasionally take it away for a few seconds, each time making me hopeful that he'd given up, but it would always return less than thirty seconds later. He might have just been adjusting his grip. Could I simply keep ignoring him? What if he got angry? What if he left his stall the minute I got up from mine and accosted me, demanding that I pay him, or pissed that I'd seen his face? As the minutes stretched on (I'd only been in there for maybe seven or eight minutes but it felt like over an hour), that pen began to radiate more menace to me than if he'd been sticking a bloody knife under that stall.
Finally, nature took over. My paralysis broke and the plumbing began to work. I finished up as quickly as I could, washed up hastily (seriously, I wanted to leave, but in this restroom, there was no way I was leaving my hands unwashed after being in that putrid shithole) and left.. I was slightly surprised, and incredibly relieved, when Red Boots didn't follow me out.
Back outside, I finally took notice of the condition of the rest area. It was a macrocosm of the restrooms. The grass in the field was almost knee-high and yellow, brittle. In the corners of the walkways and the sunken areas in the rock gardens, trash from untold generations had piled up and been left to rot. Flies buzzed on nearly everything. The minivan was gone, but both of the other cars I had glimpsed were still there, and I now understood why they had felt so desolate. In both cases their driving days were behind them. One's passenger door was falling off, the other was missing an entire wheel and the tires were breaking down, exposing the decaying tubes underneath. Their bodies were 90% rust. I was somewhat surprised either would just get left here to rot rather than taken to a junkyard, but then, the entire area looked as if it had been forgotten. It was a miracle the plumbing worked.
My parents and brother were still hanging around by the pond across the field. I hurried to join them.
"About time," my kid brother said. "Decided to do some laundry while you were at it?"
"Oh, shut up," I said, trying to sound casual. Red Boots, whoever he may be, was still in the men's room. I wanted us to be gone before he got out. "Dad, can we go?"
"I suppose we'd best be on our way," he said. "This place is a dump. I can't believe they'd leave it so poorly maintained." The pond was a scummy little slough. I couldn't see the bottom for all the trash and pond scum. "Alright, gang, let's head back."
It was at that moment that the door to the men's room opened, and a figure appeared. He wore red boots.
He was of average height and build. In fact, he was about as ordinary as a person can look. His face was too far away to see clearly. His hair was a very unremarkable shade of light brown. He wore jeans and a blue chambray work shirt. And those crazy red boots. He was strolling toward the parking lot as if he didn't have a care in the world. I jogged down the little bank to the very edge of the pond, hoping against hope that he wouldn't see my shorts and shoes, and know it was me in the stall next to him. Somehow the idea of him seeing me felt like a very bad idea. I'd almost rather jump in the pond than let him see me.
"Son, we're going," called Dad. "I thought you were ready to leave."
"Just...just a second," I said, too quietly. "I, uh...thought I saw a fish."
"Fish couldn't live in that sludge," said my mother. "Now stop stalling and come on. Your brother's right, you took too long in the bathroom and now you're holding us up again."
I swallowed and turned to follow them. When I got far enough up the bank that I could see the parking lot, I was relieved to see that we seemed to be the only people there. That is, until I also realized that one of the cars was gone.
I bring all this up, because two weeks ago, I was again on a long trip, this time with my own family, and I once again ended up at a filthy, seemingly abandoned rest area. It wasn't the same one, but it did show similar signs of decay and disrepair.
I had to see the restroom. I didn't need to go, but something told me to check inside nonetheless.
The boots were there, as I knew they would be. I silently went to the neighboring stall, sat, and took the proffered pen.