Prose

IN THE BATHROOM WITH BARBARA WALTERS

When I heard Barbara Walters say she was terrified of being locked in a bathroom, I naturally turned to Aristotle, master of the syllogism: All men are mortals. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is a mortal. It inspired my own deductive reasoning: Barbara Walters maintained her dignity even while confessing she is terrified of being locked in a bathroom. I am terrified of being locked in a bathroom. Therefore, my dignity will be intact, should I confess this fear.  Of course, if I had handed this in to my old philosophy professor, he would have pointed out that it was a syllogism fallacy. A false argument. Or more to the point, a lot of crap.

Nevertheless, having watched Barbara out herself on The View made me feel better about my own quirky BTS, bathroom terror syndrome. I couldn’t wait for my husband to get home.

“Guess whaaat?” I said, sounding like I’d won the lottery. “Barbara Walters is afraid of being locked in the bathroom!”

“Isn’t that something,” he said, looking a bit confused.

It’s the kind of thing I’d be embarrassed to broach with just anyone, but seeing Barbara Walters share it with the entire universe, puts it in the I’m OK You’re OK, cool twitter buzz feed realm.  Unlike those situations where someone has been harboring a personal shame, and they unload it while referring to someone else. “So listen, I have this friend who’s afraid of­­____” (fill in the blank).

Because anticipation often breeds self-fulfilling prophecy, the fear is amplified. For example, I have this friend from Michigan whose husband Lou, when they were first dating, invited her to New York for Christmas to meet his family. They stayed at his father’s house on Staten Island. Of course, she wanted to make a good impression and things were going well until she could not escape the shower the next morning. The sliding glass enclosure would not budge and as she stood in the mint green tub on the rubber suction-cup mat, the white tiled wall and textured frosty glass door took on the ambience of mental institution décor. Her heart began palpitating; her palms more sweaty than wet.  Feeling like a trapped otter, she attempted a restrained call to Lou, who was downstairs enjoying a cup of coffee with Lou Sr.  When he didn’t hear her, the panic escalated.  “Help! Someone help me goddamit!” she yelled, pounding on the steamy tempered glass.

After Lou’s failed attempts, Lou, Sr. had to be recruited to release the secured door. There she stood like Botticelli’s Venus Rising, only this was Venus Falling—off the seashell and into a latrine.  Not exactly the first impression I, rather she, was going for.

Walters also elaborated on her own self-fulfilling prophecy, telling viewers that she no longer locks the door because she’s gotten trapped more than once. When she confessed that she once had to slither across the floor to squeeze through the narrow gap below the bathroom stall door, all while impeccably dressed, I was ready to high-five Aristotle.

“I did that too!” I said, talking to the TV screen.

With a little time to kill before meeting friends for dinner, I decided to browse Jacobson’s Department Store in Birmingham one evening. Before leaving, I found the restroom in the far corner of the store—a quiet corner. The lock on the stall jammed. I pushed, and jimmied and shook it.  When my knocking and pounding elicited about as much response as that apocryphal tree that falls in the forest, I panicked. Dressed in a skirt, and frantic, I slid under the door, resembling a swimmer doing a combination breast stroke, and someone having a stroke.

So Barbara and I, we tight. And I mean that literally. A bathroom stall is roughly 30 x 60 inches.  And there is nothing on my hills and valleys less than 18 inches high, the height of the stall opening at the bottom. If you were to find yourself in this position, you’d literally have to displace your body fat in ways that seem anatomically impossible, in order to squeeze through. In addition, you come out looking derelict. The dirt path running down the front of your clothing combined with a desperate attempt to act natural reads, crazy person.

I can’t help but wonder how Barbara developed her fear. Psychologists claim it can be attributed to a variety of factors: the size of the amygdala, (the part of the brain that handles fear and flight or fight response), genetic predisposition, or classical conditioning.  Was she trapped in a tiny elevator during one of the New York blackouts? Or perhaps it was late-onset BTS, having interviewed criminals and despots in the confines of a prison cell.

In prison, solitary cells measure 7 x 10 feet, bigger than a bathroom stall. But not by much. A parking space is larger at 8’ x 16’ feet. A man who’d been in solitary for nine years wrote, “Isolation gnaws at the brain. Imagine yourself in your own windowless bathroom, day after day, with no human touch or able to see the sun, much less feel it. I am keenly aware of every single minute. Time weighs heavy.”

That’s enough for me to want to curtail my criminal activities. Not that solitary holds any comparison to transient lavatory incarceration, but if I were to go insane and, say, knock off a bank, screw dignity: I’d blame it on my own mother to avoid the box.

As for me, my childhood may have set me up for my fear. My grandmother locked me in a dark closet for extended periods as punishment—an exercise in Neanderthal behavior modification. It was a strategy she concocted before Skinner’s Box and his theory of radical behaviorism. Perhaps if she’d read his monographs on stimulus and response she might have realized there was something missing from her horror chamber of operant conditioning. Positive reinforcement? Hello?

But it was the Quakers in Philadelphia in the early 19th century who came up with the notion that solitude would bring penitence—thus the term “penitentiary.” They used isolation and total silence as a means to control, punish, and rehabilitate inmates. Today we know that very few prisoners, or allegedly wayward little girls, are rehabilitated this way.

When Charles Dickens visited Eastern State Penitentiary to get a look at this new social reform, he wrote, “I believe it…to be cruel and wrong…I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”

In my case, I wasn’t afraid of my grandmother before she locked me in the closet, and then I was. The worst thing would have been to be locked in the closet with her.

Later, in my early twenties, I was in a serious auto accident. I hit an 18-wheeler hauling steel, head on. The impact was so great that the steel went through the front cab and landed on top of the new Adriatic blue Pontiac Le Mans I was test driving. The car was crushed from every angle and had to be pried open using the Jaws of Life. Fortunately for the truck driver, the force of the crash caused him to lunge forward and under the dash so that his injuries were limited to his knees, leaving his head intact. It was the most mangled vehicle the junkyard owner had ever seen. I don’t remember it, and had amnesia for several days afterward. But I imagine that somewhere on a cellular level, my mitochondria were shouting, get me the hell out of here! And they haven’t forgotten.

So since I’ve come clean about the bathroom thing, I’m reminded of how I’d never told anyone that I enjoy slurping the unctuous marrow of a beefy bone topped with a little sea salt until chef Anthony Bourdain said he’d choose the buttery delicacy for his last meal. Now it’s fashionable to like food that could clog your arteries and end your life prematurely. And realizing that celebrities can make embarrassing situations cool, I’m wondering if there is one who shares my other fear, Nomophobia, the fear of being out of cell phone contact. Or worse being locked in a bathroom with no cell phone. Syllogism: Celebrities make embarrassing fears cool. I have embarrassing fears. Therefore I am cool, or embarrassed, or both.

Published Winter 2015/Reunion: The Dallas Review