By Christy O'Callaghan
I love peeing in public. Not public urination – I crave privacy. I adore using a bathroom that isn’t in my house. This includes dropping trou on the trail when I’m hiking or snowshoeing. Peeing with the wind touching your butt cheeks is a freeing sensation. It didn’t surprise me when people bought so much toilet paper when the pandemic started. We have no idea how much we use, and we don’t like to discuss such things. Six weeks into lockdown, I used a different bathroom from my own and realized how much the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting me.
Public bathrooms are a fascination and an adventure. Last summer, I spent two weeks in Lisbon for a writing workshop, and giddiness overtook me with every new commode I tried. Each one decorated to match the décor and theme of the establishment. Some had spots for graffiti where I left my mark, many featured artwork, and some were even co-ed.
I went to Italy for summer school while I was in college. Before I left, my grandmother imparted some wisdom. First, she loaded me up with hand wipes and sandwich bags. Then she told me to travel as much as I could, but to always bring a sandwich bag filled with toilet paper. In the cities, I didn’t need my TP stash, but by the seashore and in the countryside, public toilets were often holes in the ground, similar to an outhouse, and I had to purchase tissues from vendors. My adventure buddies and I were always relieved about my TP baggies. I sent my grandmother a postcard from the Vatican, declaring her a travel genius.
I spent ten days on Sao Miguel in the Azores two summers ago, and they had the most amazing public restroom in Ponta Delgado made from an old shipping crate. It was clean, right on the waterfront, and had several stalls. There were few other public johns around the city. The island was trying to expand such conveniences to meet the needs of tourists.
Fun bathrooms make me giggle. Gross ones fill me with disappointment. I tolerate boring. Unusual ones give me a kick. In the United States, we aim for utilitarian and the illusion of sterility. When I encounter something different, I get a thrill. Mohegan Island off the coast of Maine is small and rustic. There is one public bathroom, and they request you drop some money down a pipe to help pay for the freshwater they haul in to supply your flush and hand wash. I’m always happy to drop a few rolled-up dollars in support.
Bathrooms are a hub because everybody pees. I’ve seen fights, puking, wounds, crying, people having sex, laughing, fantastic graffiti, horrifying graffiti, a ton of coke dust, so many drugs, and feces splattered in locations I can’t comprehend how it reached. In college, I watched my hallmate brew beer in our bathroom. I couldn’t bring myself to try it. Public toilets embody intimacy and exposure.
For too many years, I didn’t travel or hike much at all. I had horrifying periods that caused daily hemorrhaging. A map of the bathrooms on every route I drove was branded inside my brain: if they were clean, what were their hours, did their locks work, did they have warm water to wash my hands. I covered four counties of Upstate New York for work, drove to Western Massachusetts to visit family, and journeyed to upper Mid-Coast Maine to caretake my family’s property. I knew how long to the next comfort station and how many steps from my car to the stall. After fifteen years, I had surgery that fixed my health issue and started planning adventures and using unfamiliar WCs again.
I’ve only had a few years of freedom since that surgery and was thrilled to be in the big beautiful world again. For the most part, in transitioning to stay-at-home orders under COVID-19, I’ve found joy in working from home. It suits me. I’m immunocompromised, so I’m careful, but I need this virus figured out. I’m trying to exercise patience, keeping my outings to hikes in the woods, even social distancing on the trail. But after six weeks of lockdown, I went to the grocery store and used their bathroom while I was there.
It wasn’t canceling my trip to South Carolina when I was supposed to visit my mom and see the Smokey Mountains for the first time. It wasn’t the shutdown of summer writing programs, or the concerts that aren’t happening, the movies, the dinners out, hanging with friends. It was the click of the lock sliding closed on that stall door that welled up my grief and punched the inside of my chest. After I got in my car, I pulled off my purple butterfly mask and cried. In that month and a half, I’d downshifted back to a familiar hibernation I’d mastered while I was sick.
Anger cut at me because I’d earned my return to the world, and it’s gone. I’m back to being just me, my kitties, and my husband. All of whom I love, but I’d worked hard to open myself up to this big, terrifying, wondrous world. Too easily, the lockdown brought back the muscle memory of fear, smallness, and isolation from my years of illness. I forgot to get pissed off or mourn the loss. My brain accepted the situation and backslid into my quiet, numb, homebound routine. I need the end of COVID-19 to feel safe, but my heart and soul are still antsy to make up for the fifteen years lost to illness. I’m not ready to give up exploring for an unknown amount of time again. And yet, time is required. It’s the world’s turn to heal, not mine. For now, I’m grieving, getting mad, and daydreaming of new lands. That shiny silver slide on that brown bathroom door reminded me of what I’m missing, and I can’t wait to get back.
Christy O'Callaghan lives in Amsterdam, NY. Her favorite pastimes include hiking, gardening, swimming, snowshoeing, and collecting sea glass—anything in the fresh air.