“It’s not so difficult to die,” the voice–placid, confirming, feminine–said from behind the faded sea-green divider separating my toilet from hers. Startled, I shifted my gaze from the empty space before me–I had been contemplating either the indefinable smear below the coat-hook or skipping out of work early, both seem plausible–to the blank wall to my right, as if she had torn down the barrier with her bare hands. In a way she had: the silence of a restroom occupied by strangers is its own self-contained world, one with distinct laws and regulations by which we all irrevocably abide. Like in an elevator, we might smile, say hello, or otherwise acknowledge one another on our way in, but as soon as the doors shut, the room must remain quiet until the trip is complete. As she spoke, I became nervous like I was eyewitness to a crime, as if a mortal sin had been committed before me: a pair of anonymous hands splitting open the throat of the air. I began to unroll a few sheets of toilet paper, intent on busying myself so that she might realize her mistake in speaking when I was so obviously occupied.
“You see, we all do it everyday–dying, that is,” she continued, oblivious to my loud fumbling with the toilet paper dispenser.
“It’s a natural process, a ticking forward of the clock.” She spoke as if a smile, wide and inviting, was permanently stitched into the fabric of her face. As I continued to unroll the paper, my eyes drifted below the divider to the floor, where I could see her light pink lace panties resting in a heap, forgotten, across her feet–small feet, naked in ballet flats, stylish. Embarrassed at seeing her intimates, I became conscious of my own utilitarian cotton undergarments and shifted them higher up on my legs, as if removing them from her line of sight would make me disappear. Of course, this was fantasy, as my legs–long, thick at the ankles, ending in smaller feet than one might expect for calves of their width–remained on the floor where they had been for the entirety of this encounter, and as long as they remained there, she too could lean forward, peek through the opening below the divider, and confirm my existence. I debated with myself: should I hurry out without washing my hands in hopes that she would remain in her own stall until I jogged out of the room, or should I let her finish whatever it was she was doing so that she might leave before me, allowing me time to internalize all that had happened? On instinct, I remained seated. Given the choice, I will always wait for another person to finish her business and exit first, regardless of whether or not it’s practical to do so. Restroom encounters make me anxious–always have. There’s just something about speaking with someone after they’ve heard you defecating into an institutionalized porcelain hole that feels unnecessarily vulgar.
She seemed to be chewing on something–and by the sound of the strange smacking noises emanating from her stall, she was truly enjoying whatever it was she ate. In a way I was transfixed, rooted to the trunk of porcelain below me. I wanted to reply to her strange, philosophical meandering, but I couldn’t find the right words to say. Haven’t we all felt that way sometimes, I yearned to ask, that we’ve died time and time again, only to be reborn into the same untrained, unknowable shell? But I remained silent, always the law-abiding citizen, listening through a few long minutes of her eating something I couldn’t smell. Finally she stopped, and sighed. I imagined that she had licked the last of an ice cream with that sigh, then wiped the slick sweet residue off with the back of her hand. At last she spoke again.
“I can sense it in you, too, you know. That’s why I’m talking with you right now, like this.” I flushed, noting with a sense of pride her decision to say with you instead of to you. “It gets lonely sometimes, when you think that you’re only surrounded by people who are content with their lives as they are: pulling long hours at an unexceptional job, raising unexceptional children. Fearing the end. Fearing dying. Themselves dying, their kids dying, their spouses and parents dying. They don’t even realize that they’re doing it every day, that they’ve done it as many times as breaths they’ve taken. Slipping out of themselves to dream, to read a book, to watch a movie. It’s just as easy to die as it is to eat a delicious batch of cookies.”
That’s what it was, then: cookies. Either sugar or chocolate chip, I decided. “You just have to have the courage.”
I nodded. I had the sensation that we were together in the same room, having a conversation as easy and as regular as two childhood friends exchanging pleasantries about the weather. I nodded and I felt her nod, too; I felt her agreeing with me in our blindly connected way. Abruptly I could hear her stand, her ballet flats slipping across the floor as she shifted her weight upward. As if on command, I stood as well, finally ripping the long strip of toilet paper off of the roll, wiping myself clean, and buttoning my slacks without even thinking to flush. Unlocking the door, I stepped out into the harsh light of the restroom. In the floor-length mirror I could see my reflection, and I noticed for the first time that my pants were too long. I was so self-conscious that I felt nauseous. During our few moments together, I had begun to think of her like an extension of my self, as natural as my arms and legs: here was someone prepared to know me, to know me better than I knew myself–and I wanted to make as lasting an impression on her as she had already made on me. Turning away from the mirror, I tugged out the creases that had formed on my blouse during my time seated, and allowed a slight smile to alight on my lips–slight, so as not to seem too over-eager. But she hadn’t yet flushed her toilet. Without a word I remained standing in front of the row of green stalls, expecting her at any second to emerge. The time passed fitfully as I stood there, foolishly, believing that she might at any moment come out and invite me to sit with her down in the cafeteria. Finally I gave up, realizing that I had been expected to report back to my desk at least fifteen minutes previously.
As I walked through the door like a rejected lover, I heard the blast of the gun.