It is morning in Edinburgh.
I’m in my flat.
It’s 6:45 am
The sun’s been up since 3:30 am.
What’s up with that?
Is this the land of the midnight fucking sun?
I have to pee.
I get out of bed.
The bathroom door is closed.
The bathroom door has a door knob.
As most doors do.
Unless it’s one of those doors with levers.
It is not one of those doors with levers.
Both sides are knobbed.
That sounds unimportant.
That is important.
Stay with me.
Backstory: I had started a two week stay Edinburgh for a post grad writing workshop from my MFA alma mater, the University of New Orleans. Unless any part of this nonfiction essay, I was there to work on my novel. Also–and maybe even more to the point–I like being around writers. So when I had the chance to come to Scotland, a place I’d never been but always wanted to visit, , and had the chance to write at the same time, it sounded perfect. In Pennsylvania, I’m a lawyer who wants to write. But for two weeks, I was a writer with a law practice in Pennsylvania. All my hearings back home were taken care of. I had nothing to worry about. All I had to do was write.
The outside doorknob had always been loose .
The day I arrived it fell off in my hand.
I tried to put it back on the door.
It fell off again.
I tried again.
It fell off again.
I asked Oskar to fix it.
Oskar lives across the hall.
Oskar is from Latvia.
Oskar fixes things in all the flats in this building
Oskar lives with his girlfriend Ilona.
I haven’t seen Ilona yet.
Oskar previously showed me how to flush the toilet.
Let go gently.
I had to ask him how to do it twice.
I said I am a stupid American.
I ask him to fix the doorknob
He says he will fix it.
This is foreshadowing.
Stupid American. Let’s unpack that phrase, all the baggage it carries. Break it apart. Because I am definitely an American, and I am definitely stupid. Stupid not in how to write a sentence, or draft a legal pleading, but stupid in other ways. The survival ways. The how to handle a crisis when it involves physicality, or dexterity, or even just basic patience. Client’s former spouse is threatening to take kids to a country in the EU where former spouse is a citizen, and client is not? Sure, let me at that one. That’s a crisis, a real one, but it falls into that sweet spot of crises that I own, that I can make mine, than I can beat down or caress as necessary.
Tuesday went by.
Oskar did not fix the doorknob.
Oskar did not fix the doorknob.
Sometimes the doorknob worked.
Some days it did not.
Oskar will fix it.
I cannot be bothered with this.
I am here to write.
This is more foreshadowing.
This may, in fact, be a bit too much foreshadowing
But this is nonfiction.
I am stuck with the foreshadowing that is already in place.
Possible Themes: It is hard to know where being merely incompetent with things physical merges with the outright fear that goes along with trying to do them. Maybe it’s the fear that produces the inability, or maybe, as I suspect, it’s the other way around. I don’t know. What I do know is that I can live a life that doesn’t require the things I’m not good at. This is not second grade. It is not choosing teams at whatever sport they are playing in gym class and it’s come down to you and the kid who has some sort of palsy-like something and you pray you at least get picked before him, and it’s even up you’ll lose that bet. A friend once told me, “It’s a good thing you’re a damn good lawyer because otherwise you’d fucking starve.” He was kidding precisely because he wasn’t kidding. But I know that frailty, and I plan for it. I hire people to do stuff. I paid someone to put my IKEA furniture together because I damn well could.
Back to the Scene:
This is Edinburgh.
It is old.
Doors are heavy.
Lights for the room you want to enter are on the outside wall.
The door closes.
I pee in the dark.
I’m a guy.
I pee in the dark.
I never turn on the light.
Don’t forget that.
The door closes.
I forget that.
I am done peeing.
The door is closed.
I reach for the doorknob
The doorknob comes off.
I stare into my right hand.
I cannot see the doorknob.
It is dark.
I did not turn on the light.
I forgot that.
It is dark.
Shit, it’s dark.
I try to push the inside doorknob onto something.
I don’t know what I’m doing.
Clink is the outside doorknob.
The outside doorknob is on the floor.
It is on the outside floor. .
Remember Second Grade?
Remember Second Grade.
Other possible themes: Some things that routinely cause fear in others don’t produce any fear in me. That’s not because I’m anyone’s kind of brave. It’s just a consequence of what I do. Let’s take cops. The average person sees flashing lights coming up hard on them, and their reaction is fear. It may hold large blotches of anger, too, but fear is the primer paint. Even if you’ve done nothing worse than speed, even if you’re not hiding a bong and a Glock under the driver’s seat, fear is the first by-product of a police stop.
I don’t feel that fear, not even when I’ve been pulled over. And it isn’t just because I know my rights better than the average commuter. I know cops. I started out my legal career as an assistant public defender in Suburban Philadelphia. It is a job that forces you to lose all fear of law enforcement. More than that, it requires you to attack law enforcement, to expose the lacunae in their recollections, to occasionally call them liars. Fear inhibits the acquisition of that skill set.
Unfortunately, the world is made up of all flavors of fear.
I’m in a dark bathroom with a heavy door and only one doorknob.
I do not have my cell phone.
Of course I do not have my cell phone.
Who takes their cell phone to the bathroom?
More times than you want to know.
I did not take it to the bathroom today.
I am trapped in the bathroom.
I am trapped in a bathroom in a flat in Edinburgh
I am trapped in a bathroom in a flat in Edinburgh at 6:45 in the morning and it is dark and I do not have a cell phone and Oskar and Ilona are fast asleep across the hall.
I think to myself, “How do I get out of here. What the fuck am I, McGyver?”
I think to myself, “Did I actually just think, ‘What the fuck am I, McGyver? “
I may as well look.
I may as well look since I’ve already brought up McGyver.
Backstory of a More Character-Based Nature: My parents were epic panickers. I still remember driving in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC. I was 9 or 10. My mother had to go to the bathroom. Right there, right then. She started chanting, “I have to go, I have to go, I’m diabetic, I have to go.” We’d pass one exit, then another, because my father wanted to get wherever it was we were going and he wanted to get there then. But the panic was spreading to him. I didn’t have to guess about my mother’s panic, because her fear spilled out like a volcano with an unusual ability to target the flow of its lava. My father’s panic had a few steps to go before reaching its peak. But the first step on the journey was a hand to the head. He’d start rubbing his forehand, harder and harder as if he could just pull the panic out of his brain and throw it out on the roadside. It would only be a few minutes before they were screaming at each other, my mother needing a bathroom, and my father looking for one, both with them shouting to the other. A panicky pas-de-deux.
I find a comb.
I jam the comb between door and doorpost.
I know it won’t do anything.
I do it anyway.
It does nothing.
Little comb teeth rub against door hardware.
It changes nothing
Did I mention there are no windows?
I didn’t mention it has no windows.
Ten minutes ago I didn’t care that it had no windows
I start pounding on the door.
I don’t know what that will do.
I do it anyway.
I want to scream.
I hold off screaming.
I still have some choice whether I scream or not.
I still have some choice.
One of my very first clients when I was an assistant public defender in suburban Philadelphia was a guy I’ll call Dominic. It was 1984 and Dominic was a Vietnam vet suffering from all manner of mental illnesses. He was in jail having been kicked out of a VA hospital after bashing a security guard with a statue of the Virgin Mary. I first met Dominic in lock-up. He was wearing handcuffs, an orange jumpsuit, and sported about 0.2% body fat. The door was locked behind us, and there were no doorknobs or levers or anything at all on the inside, but all I had to do is to bang the door once and a constable would open it. I had nothing to fear.
Except I did. I watched Dominic strain against the handcuffs, his wrists testing the metal as he raged. Raged against the security guard. Raged against the cops who dragged him from his hospital bed. Raged against whatever he had tried to leave in Vietnam that had followed him back to suburban Philadelphia.
I hadn’t yet developed my skill set. I showed fear. I stared at those wrists, that metal. I became absolutely convinced he was going to snap those handcuffs as if they were made of pretzel material and choke me. I thought I’d just tap lightly on the door, “Oh, Constable? Constable? Kind Sir Mister Constable Sir? We have a small problem here? No, nothing yet, but please, please, could you get me out of here before I pee myself? Thank you.” I didn’t, of course. Partly because I knew it was irrational, but mostly because the constable was, after all, right there.
I pound more.
I hope pounding will be enough.
I don’t want to have to scream.
Oskar is across the hall.
Oskar will hear.
I stop pounding.
I look around the room.
I lean on a metal and glass rack
It gives way.
I think, that’s good, I can play McGyver again.
I am thinking about McGyver unironically now.
I try to pry something long and straight from the rack.
I can’t separate anything from anything
I try to shove the entire rack between the door and door jamb.
It does nothing.
I knew that.
I knew that and I did it anyway.
I am a stupid American.
I am a stupid, screaming American
Did I mention that I am screaming?
I am screaming.
No, I am not a stupid screaming American.
I am a stupid, screaming baby.
I am filled with fear.
In the early 1990’s, when I was married, I used to take my wife to a neurologist at Temple University in Philadelphia. The hospital, like the campus, is located in North Philly. My father would say, “Aren’t you scared to be North Philly.” He would never say, “Aren’t you afraid to be a white guy in North Philly?” And I would say no, both to what he said, and what he didn’t say, and I meant it. Except the day we came out of the hospital, got in my old Toyota, drove about three blocks and the engine started heating up. We parked. I put the hood up. I looked underneath. I had no idea what I was looking for, but I felt I had to look at something, even though that was persuading neither my wife or myself.
I was at the intersection of fears. A busted car in a bad neighborhood. I had no pleadings to file, no words to write. And no cell phone, this being the early ‘90s and while cell phones existed, they were not in every pocket.
I stood in front of the car with the hood up, both engine and driver exposed to the world as unable to function. As I was doing that, an African-American man approached us carrying one of those brick like cell phones. “Here,” he said, “Do you need to call Triple A? This isn’t a neighborhood to be stuck in after dark.”
I have not screamed for a minute or two.
I say to myself I will size up the situation.
I’m trapped in my bathroom.
That about sizes it up.
I start pounding again.
My right hand hits a towel hook
The towel hook hits my right hand.
I don’t care.
Pain is the least important problem I have.
I think I should write REDRUM in blood.
Really, I do.
I need to stop thinking in pop culture clichés.
Then I stop thinking in cultural clichés.
I give in.
I let fear win.
I beg for Oskar.
I hear Oskar’s door open.
I hear Oskar.
More importantly, Oskar hears me.
He opens the front door.
He tells me to find the doorknob on my side.
He tells me to look for the little metal piece.
I tell him it’s dark.
I tell him I will look.
I grope. I grasp. I hunt like a blind man shopping for carpet.
I fumble on my side.
He fumbles on his.
He opens the door.
I thank him.
I thank him.
I thank him.
He sees me bleeding.
He asks me if I want a plaster, and I have no idea that means bandage; I think he’s talking about the damage I did to the wall and the towel rack.
I thank him again.
I turn on the light.
I see the broken rack, and blood everywhere.
I like the blood. It’s a badge. I don’t clean up the blood.
A few minutes later, Oskar comes by again, this time with his girlfriend, Ilona. She has impossibly big, kind eyes, fair skin, and just slightly too much protruding hip bones visible above her low cut jeans. She asks me again if I want a plaster, and this time I’ve figured out what it means, since she’s carrying gauze and bandages. She takes my right hand, with all the nurturing I can handle and then some, and after I assure her I washed it, puts the gauze on the puncture wound, then anchors it with four tiny bandages. She asks if she can get me anything. So does Oskar. They have already given me plasters and freedom, so there’s not much else I need. They leave me to my bathroom, with that door and every door in the flat propped open.
I clean up the blood.
I don’t clean it up right away.
I don’t clean all of it up.
I leave some of it behind.
I am not the best cleaner in the world, but that’s not why I leave some of it behind.
Character Change and Development: Do I look at unfamiliar bathrooms a little more carefully, sizing up light fixtures and windows and door thicknesses? Yes, but that’s not the kind of subtle yet important character revelation on which to end a creative non-fiction essay. But what am I to do here? I already knew my little fear-based weaknesses before this happened. If I know them with a bit more clarity, that’s not really knowing all that much. The stubbornly unbending bottom line is that my father waded onto Utah Beach on D-Day when he was 22. I got stuck in a bathroom in the UK for 40 minutes when I was 53. Even if I had PTSD, I’d be too embarrassed to tell you anyway.
Unless it’s the telling itself. Unless it’s the fact that telling this story is the catalyst to talk about my fears, my weaknesses. Every story I’ve told here, every bullet pointed staccato sentence about getting stuck in the bathroom, every more conventionally written backstory placed interstitially between the staccato sections I’ve told before. But I’ve told them as anecdotal islands, not as a connected, thematic narrative. And now I’ve connected them. I’ve connected my fears, however loosely, and bundled them together and put them all in one place.
I don’t know if that has intrinsic value. I think it does. I hope it does. I hope it has more value than merely knowing to check a bathroom for knobs, lights and windows. I hope it has value that I can draw on someday when I fail badly at something, or when I’m sitting in a doctor’s office as I’m about to be told test results. But I won’t know until those things happen.
Someday a door will close behind me again.
Someday I’ll again be trapped in darkness, scared and alone.
Someday I’ll cry out for help. Again.
***This was previously published in the Franklin and Marshall Alumni Arts Review, 2013 edition, and has been posted with their permission.***