1992 was, by all accounts, an eventful year. Kristi Yamaguchi won the Olympic gold medal in figure skating; Sinead O’Connor shredded the Pope’s portrait on Saturday Night Live; and Bill Clinton won the presidential election against President Bush who, eleven months earlier, had unceremoniously vomited on the Japanese prime minister’s lap. Perhaps it is this final informational nugget that particularly strikes a chord in this ’90s child’s heart, and not only because I’ve never figure skated or desecrated a portrait of a major religious figure. What I recognize in and, dare I say, pity about President Bush’s unfortunate regurgitation situation is my own woeful penchant for embarrassing personal moments. In grammar school, I was pretty much known as the kid who would vomit at least once a year (usually twice), and I rarely made it to a trashcan. This was a result of two colliding factors: a weak stomach and a painful reluctance to speak up or ask questions of anyone in authority at the risk of being ridiculed. Thus, rather than ask to go to the bathroom like a normal human, I would sit at my desk and just hope against hope that this time wouldn’t be as bad.
It usually was.
My most embarrassing grammar school moment, however, doesn’t involve vomiting (which likely relieves you, dear reader, because how many times can you read the word “vomit” in one essay? See, I keep doing it). It isn’t even when I, first of all my female classmates, received my special friend in sixth grade and suddenly started carrying a bulky purse on my shoulder, resulting in everyone automatically knowing exactly what I didn’t want them to know. That was pretty bad, but the worst—the absolute worst—was when I peed myself during Mrs. G’s fourth grade social studies class. Like, straight up peed. We’re talking puddle.
Picture it: St. Andrew the Apostle School, spring of 1992. We had just returned from recess, and as soon as I walked into our social studies classroom, I knew that I had to use the restroom. I’d been so busy lounging coolly near the swing sets, snapping my hot pink scrunchie against my wrist and eyeing Christopher Cox as he catapulted himself from the top of the slide that I’d completely neglected my own bodily functions. Can you blame me? Christopher Cox was the quintessential crush of every girl at SAS. He had Jonathan Taylor Thomas hair and Jonathan Brandis eyes. Even when you’d moved on to a Michael or a Jack, you always had Christopher Cox in the periphery, your dependable and reliable default crush. And when he jumped off the slide, well, my heart leapt through my red cardigan and right in the puddle of mud he always nearly landed on but never did.
So, you see how I would have forgotten something as simple as using the restroom.
Mrs. G was not the friendliest person to the fourth grade class. Looking back on it, I completely understand her position. Fourth graders are, as a general rule, pretty snotty and annoying and difficult to wrangle. But on that day, when she walked in and, sternly peering over her glasses, barked at us that not one person should ask to use the bathroom because we all had the entirety of recess to do so, so we’d better just hold it, I started to shake in my little black school shoes. The urge to go was real, and I knew myself well enough to know that this could potentially end poorly. And yet, I took out my textbook, opened it to the page she instructed us to, and started reading.
Ironically, that day’s reading focused on deserts. I looked at the pictures in my book, read a little about rattlesnakes, and wiggled my foot under the desk. I looked around the room and saw that everyone else was just quietly reading. Next to me, Christopher Cox bent his head over his book and traced the words with his pen. Studious and attractive. Marry me, Christopher Cox. Mrs. G looked up, saw me looking around, and eyed me over her glasses. I stared back at the textbook, the wiggling of my foot now a full on shake. And here, I think, is where I made my fatal mistake: I believed that if I maybe just peed a little bit—like, just a small drop or too—it might relieve the growing pain in my bladder and I could escape from the situation relatively unscathed, and no one would ever need to know that I’d sort-of-kind-of peed my pants in class. A daring move, yes, but one that I felt relatively confident in successfully pulling off. And what were my other options? I couldn’t raise my hand and ask to leave. She’d yell at me and I’d look like an idiot in front of Christopher Cox and God and everyone. No. I needed to just combat this. Mind over matter.
The funny thing about peeing is that you can’t really stop once you start. As soon as the warm trickle hit my leg, I knew I’d flown too close to the sun. Immediately, my face was a furnace, and I prayed to God and Mary and all the saints that no one else could hear the drip, tinkle, drip hitting the floor beneath my feet. My plaid school skirt and the red PE shorts underneath it were quickly drenched, and I was afraid to move my feet. How much did I drink? I started to replay all my beverages through my head, and I soon realized that I hadn’t used the bathroom since that morning. And then, a final, desperate thought: maybe no one will notice. A few classmates started to sniff the air, crinkling their noses in disgusted confusion, and so I started to, too. Whatever could that smell be, we all asked each other silently.
“Oh my God!” Christopher Cox pointed beneath my desk, his face contorted in a way that you never want to see the face of the boy you love contort. “Casey peed herself!”
“No I didn’t!” A feeble attempt, yes, but I had to go down fighting. This proved useless, however, because the entire room quickly erupted into chaos. Mrs. G walked briskly to my desk, appraised the situation, and sharply instructed me to go to the bathroom. It’s a little late for that, I thought.
“Carefully,” she added, as I started to walk away. I obviously wanted to leave the room as quickly as possible, but the problem with that plan was the obvious pee trail I would be leaving behind from my shoes. I started to tip toe, but the sounds of my classmates’ laughter and shrieks persuaded me not to care anymore, and I ran out of the room as quickly as possible. As soon as I reached the bathroom, I locked myself inside the ageless refuge of most school outcasts—the bathroom stall—and sobbed.
It’s one of the more unfortunate facts of life that a person cannot, after a particularly embarrassing moment, just start a new life in a bathroom stall. Despite the irony of wanting to live in a bathroom when I’d recently resisted one in a time of need, I considered the options. Food wouldn’t be a problem; I didn’t think I’d ever be hungry again, and if I did get hungry I could sneak into the cafeteria after school for provisions. As for water, I had, like, five sinks at my disposal. The fluorescent lights above allow enough illumination for me to read books that I could pilfer from the library after school had closed. I was just thinking about how I could craft a nice nest out of the school’s military grade toilet paper when I heard the bathroom door open.
“Casey?” My best friend’s voice called to me from the front of the bathroom. “Casey, are you okay? Mrs. G wants you to go to the office.”
So not only was I not allowed to simply start a new colony in the bathroom—a colony, I might add, that would have welcomed any young man or woman with incontinence, temporary or otherwise—I had to make a careful, duck-like walk of shame, in my wet skirt and shorts, to the school office, where a secretary handed me a dry pair of school shorts and a Halloween UNICEF bag in which to place my soiled garments of shame. “Everyone will think you have a trick-or-treat in there,” the secretary offered with a wink, and even in my weary state I replied with a wan smile. Some trick-or-treat I wanted to say, and yet I still had a strange sense that it might be kinder to let her think she was being helpful. At 10, I was just starting to recognize that adults had feelings, too.
By the time I returned to the classroom, I’d missed the entire rest of the afternoon. Later, my friends told me that the class had been moved outside while the janitors cleaned up my little mess. Which, judging from the legend that followed the next day, wasn’t little at all. And yet, in one of those surprising twists of elementary school fate, no one really talked about it after a few days. Sure, I was The Girl Who Peed, and I’m sure jokes circulated among classmates, but it didn’t completely wreck my reputation or (as it threatened in my head) my life. My friends didn’t desert me. Mrs. G didn’t hold it against me for the rest of the year or treat me like I was a giant baby. Christopher Cox still talked to me, giving me butterflies until I was in seventh grade and had moved on to the boy who asked me to loan him red pens in math class. I passed my SATs, earned a Master’s degree, didn’t die. All good things.
When we’re young, we think that every little mistake we make will indelibly mark us as something wrong or damaged. And, if you and I are being totally honest with ourselves, we do that all the time, no matter the age.
At 12, it might be reading a book while walking up to your science class and getting your hair stuck in Javier Sanchez’s book bag zipper when he stops short, resulting in you having to follow him to his class, where the teacher cuts your hair out of the zipper and says, “Well, that’s one way to meet a boy,” and you think to yourself that, yes, this is the way you will die.
At 17, it might be teaching your class a cheer for the biggest spirit assembly of the year and saying, in the least cool way possible, “Where are they at” instead of “Where dey at,” eliciting laughs from the entire junior class and making you wonder how they ever elected you class president if you’re such a freaking loser.
At 22, it might be using your hands to mix brownie batter in a bowl because the boy you like, the one whose words you always misinterpret anyway, tells you he mixes by hand instead of using a hand mixer, and the fact that he means a spoon is absolutely lost on you until you see him staring at you, horrified, as you’re elbow-deep in batter.
At 27, it could be bursting into a room full of eighth graders in your first year of teaching, twenty minutes late, and enduring the humiliation of their raucous laughter at the fact that your shirt is complete inside out, which goes well with the cat hair plastered on your black pants because you couldn’t find the lint roller and, damn it, when did you become someone who needed to wear nice work pants and dependably show up somewhere at 7:15 am every day?
And, at 10, it might be peeing on yourself in the middle of class while the love of your young life watches, horrified, when all he really wanted to do was read about some rattlesnakes and wait for the bell to ring so he could play some Nintendo.
These things happen to everyone, all the time, every day. The one thing I may have learned—I hope—is that no one really remembers these hiccups for long after they’ve happened, and not in any real way. And that’s exactly what they are: hiccups, just tiny blocks in the otherwise peaceful and happy lives we can all have if we stop worrying so much about humiliating ourselves. After all, President Bush isn’t only known as the president who vomited on a world leader. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, you have to admit that he kind of got over that.
That said, gentle reader, I recommend you use the bathroom when the urge strikes, and always, always in the proper receptacle. Don’t tempt fate.