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Private Bath

By Fleda Brown

For example, when we were at that chic old B&B in Kensington, I had to wrap my slippery thin traveling robe around me and head down the hall past the half-dozen other rooms, hoping to God no one was in the bathroom during my morning window of personal opportunity. If we happened not to leave the area during the day, Iíd come back and try again, ears tuned before I got all the way up to the landing for the ominous sound of water running. Whether we were in Kensington palace, or at a coffee shop on the corner, I would remain alert for an obscure bathroom, one on a lower level, with poor lighting, one that could be easily overlooked, that I might have to myself. I grew up in a family of six with one bathroom. I always, still, sincerely wish to beat everyone out, and to have them go away. Conscience troubles, but doesnít deter me.

At the lake, too, itís always been pretty much the same. I dearly love the outhouse, with its high window so that the other world is nothing but the tops of trees. I love the rich smell of accumulation, mixed with earth, everything changing back into itself. But if someone knocks at the outhouse door, even if they politely drift down the hill pretending not to wait, Iím trapped by time. No longer is time open-ended, no longer are all things possible. I have an assignmentóto finish my business, to be a member of the give-and-take of human society.

Imagine, Grandfather built the outhouse with three holes and a dial on the outside of the door that points toóor used to before the letters fadedóWomen or Men, as if several would like to use it at the same time!

This is not a problem of my body. Out there is the out there: the angry and crying parents, the prostitution rings, the former husbands. In here is in here. Thomas Merton said that as soon as youíre alone, youíre with God. Something there is that does like a wall, that resolutely stacks up the stones. I acknowledge the evils: the old-stone-savage rancor of patriotism, the slamming door of privilege, the imperious altar screens of religion. But at home in my own bathroom, Iím Rodinís Thinker under the glorious sun of the heat lamp, bending over Doonesbury, Dilbert, Boondocks, the glassy ease of Metropolitan Home, the Tao Te Ching, with its speechless Chinese calligraphy edging the pages like laceóthe world at last manageable size, sparsely furnished with chrome toilet paper holder, carefully folded green towels, butcher-block countertop. I balance on the edge of the seat, between feeling and action, between intimacy and the revelation of nature.

When my friend Joan went to Russia several years ago, she reported that in the public bathrooms, people squatted over open holes in the floor. All over the world people crouch in gullies, in plain view, nothing to wipe with. Understand, Iím not shy with my body. Iím not shy about letting my bare breasts flop around in the locker room at the gym. I can walk and talk as if out there were my world. As if the world behind the bathroom door is only a product of a mind embarrassingly helpless to control the very creation that supports it. I donít need quiet out there, I need quiet in my soul. I need time and space, the brief illusion of eternity. To sit on the cliff of the toilet, disenchantment only a door away. No one wants eternity for an eternity. Just to feel it, to touch its walls with some regularity is enough. Also, lots of times when I am at a party, I stand with my wine glass among the quite interesting people and their interesting stories, and my soul sits down inside the small cloister of my body, watching the door.


Fleda Brownís essays have appeared in the Iowa Review, The Journal, Arts & Letters, Prairie Schooner, and other journals. Her sixth collection of poems, Reunion, won the Felix Pollak Prize and will be published by University of Wisconsin Press in 2007.

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