I have some irrational fears, though probably no more than the average person. For example, I am so afraid of locking myself out of my house that I cannot lock the door on my way out unless I am actually touching my keys. It’s not enough to know they’re in pocket because I know I just put them there; I must actually be feeling them with my fingers at the time the door is closed.
You might think, “Eric must have locked himself out of the house at one point, hence his obsession with not letting it happen again.” But you are wrong, buckaroo. I’ve never locked myself out of the house. And why haven’t I? Because I never lock the door unless I’m touching my keys while I do it, that’s why. Call it excessive, call it paranoid. Just don’t call me from your cell phone when you’re locked out of YOUR house because you neglected to feel your keys with your fingers before you left!
My other fear is of entering the wrong public restroom. For example, the one for ladies. To prevent this, anytime I use a public facility, I always double-check the sign on the door, usually going so far as to stare at the sign as I enter the room. Why keep staring at it? Why not just look at the sign once and then confidently enter the room? Because after I look at the sign, I might get distracted or disoriented and walk into the wrong room anyway. YOU NEVER KNOW.
Which leads me to a story. Last week I was at Portland’s downtown public library when the need to use the facilities came upon me suddenly and with considerable force. It was not an urge so much as a demand. So I located the restrooms, down a short corridor from the main lobby, and as I was about to walk in, I noticed the bulletin board covered with fliers and announcements. My mind wandered briefly as I considered what sort of event a person sponsors for which advertising at the library is most effective. The Portland library, like all downtown big-city libraries, is populated mostly with stinky people and layabouts. For what activity is this your target audience? A job fair? A big ol’ public bath?
While I was thinking about this, I entered the bathroom. But as I did so, I thought, in the back of my mind, “Wait, I neglected to double-double-check the door.” It was OK, though: I could just check for the presence of urinals to confirm I was in the right place.
It was a small bathroom, with one large stall that was occupied and another, smaller stall next to it that I assumed would contain a urinal. It did not, however. It was a regular stall with a toilet and a door. But by now my half-formed sub-conscious thought process had changed. It was OK that it wasn’t a urinal because I didn’t NEED a urinal. I needed the full complement of restroom facilities. I closed the door, cleaned off the seat (even though it didn’t need it, which also struck me as odd), and proceeded to conduct my affairs.
The person in the stall next to me left about then, and two new people entered the bathroom together, chatting. They had women’s voices. I thought, “Dear me, what have I done?!” I realized that at that very moment, I was voiding my bowels in feminine territory.
The shock of this realization was so great that it was a good thing I was sitting down, and on a toilet, if you know what I mean. It would be one thing to mistakenly enter the women’s restroom, immediately realize your error, beg the pardon of any ladies present, and withdraw. It seemed quite another to already be in the act when the error was discovered. To leave now would suggest to the bathroom’s occupants either that I had used this restroom on purpose, or that I was so stupid I had entered by mistake and not realized it until I was finished.
I weighed my options. I came up with four.
OPTION 1: Casually exit the stall as if nothing were amiss and feign shock when I saw women there. “Wha–?! What are you doing in–?! Oh, dear, is this the ladies’ room? Oh, my. I seem to have made a grave error. A thousand apologies, ladies.” And I would quickly leave, tipping my hat as I did so.
OPTION 2: Remain in the stall until the library closed and then sneak out.
OPTION 3: From within the stall, make the following announcement: “Excuse me, ladies. I’m afraid I’ve just realized that I entered the women’s bathroom by mistake. Please do not be alarmed. I assure you the act was unintentional, and I will vacate the premises at once, just as soon as I have zipped up, flushed, and washed my hands. And dried my hands, obviously. Is it paper towels, or one of those air dryers? Either way. Actually, you know what, I can just wash my hands in the men’s room. Not a big deal. So yeah, I’ll leave this bathroom immediately — I’m almost finished here — and then I’ll go. I’m very sorry. Does anyone have a magazine or something? It’s a library, I should have thought to bring something in. Anyway, yeah, sorry.”
OPTION 4: Wait until I was alone in the bathroom, and then escape.
I decided that No. 4 was the most feasible and the least embarrassing and wouldn’t require me to be wearing a hat, which I wasn’t. I considered the shock that a woman would experience if a man suddenly emerged from a stall in her bathroom, and I also considered the calling of security that would surely ensue, no matter how much I protested that it had been an honest mistake. I did not want to be one of those people you hear about who get banned from libraries. I mean, a LIBRARY. It’s not like it’s an exclusive place. ANYONE can go there. All they ask is that you don’t look up porn on the Internet when librarians are watching, and don’t spy on women in the bathroom.
So I concluded my business and then just sat there, waiting for a window of opportunity. I was wearing shorts, so I tried to keep my bare legs hidden from view, lest someone see my hairy shins and conclude that I was a man. Of course, this being Portland, they could have seen my hairy shins and still concluded I was a woman, but still.
The problem with my plan was that I was never alone long enough to dash out. As soon as someone would leave, someone else would enter. I considered using my cell phone to call in a bomb threat to evacuate the building, but of course the women in the bathroom would hear my voice. So I’d have to text-message someone and have them do it for me. I can think of a few friends who would probably do it if I asked them to, but I didn’t want to call in that sort of favor for something like this. Best to save that kind of thing for a real crisis.
A woman and her daughter, who sounded about 6, came in and used the other stall, both of them, at the same time. Is this what people do? What does the one do while the other is “going”? Just stand there and watch? Seems weird to me. Men won’t even stand at adjacent urinals if they can avoid it, let alone enter a stall together and make a tea-party of it.
At last the room fell silent as the last person exited. I cautiously poked my head out of the stall — and saw a woman standing at the mirror, fixing her hair. I quickly withdrew back into the stall and locked the door. Luckily, from her angle, she couldn’t see me in the mirror. I waited.
More women came and went, and I lost track of how many times the door had opened and closed. Plus, I didn’t know how many were entering or exiting each time it opened. Finally it was quiet again and everyone seemed to be gone. I peered out again, and that same woman was still standing there, playing with her hair.
This was wholly unacceptable. No one else was coming in! If it weren’t for the hair lady, I’d have had a clean getaway. I began to resent her and her high-maintenance ‘do, which from my brief glances I could tell was hardly worth all the effort she was putting into it. FINALLY she left, and no one came in after her, so I scurried from my stall and out the door. I had made my escape undetected.
I tell you this story as a caution. Some people may tell you that your fears are irrational, that you are overly paranoid on certain subjects. I’m here to tell you to keep worrying. Someday, you’ll be proven right.
Observant readers might point to "The Curious Incident of the Moron in the Night-time" as a time when I locked myself out of the house, but that is only partly true. Technically, what I did was lock myself out of my car, and my house key happened to be on the same key ring. Locking myself out of my car is an entirely different irrational fear, and not one that I have.
It was an acquaintance of mine, Slash (not the one from Guns 'n' Roses), who suggested framing this story in the context of irrational fears coming true. I was glad for the suggestion, as I had been unsure how to go about telling the story in a column. I knew it was a keeper, though, the moment it happened to me.