A Secret Place
by Leslie VanExel
The first time Justin found himself in the bathroom, he thought he was going to throw up. That woman had been all over him, busting his ass and even though his anxiety had him hanging over the bowl dry heaving, he couldn’t help but think of her nipples peeking through the shag sweater she was wearing.
His body was acclimating to the bowl, or vice versa, and the soothing coolness of the porcelain was losing strength. The warm toilet bowl was revitalizing his nausea, and as he convulsed in rhythm to the gagging noises he was making, he tried to focus on the nipples. They were pointy, huge to be protruding through such a thick weave, and so very pink. The whole sweater was pink. It seemed to glow from all the sweater lint fuzzy all over it, but through all that wool, and probably a bra and T-shirt, those things were staring him down.
That was the saddest part. If you had seen the scenario in a movie, you’d be laughing, but he was so pathetic in real life that you’d almost shake your head and look away, just so you don’t embarrass him. He isn’t the tallest drink of water, and her big titty, Harley magazine, amazon height and body, in addition to the heels, had her towering over him. Or at least her head was. He was lined up eye level with her chest, and with nothing more embarrassing than a boy trying to be a man but having to look up at a woman, he tried to just look blankly somewhere between her chest and eyes. He just stared as coolly as possible, at her chin and neck.
“Did you hear me?! I asked you if you had these in a size six!”
His third day on the job, but he still knew there was no way she could fit in a six. Since he didn’t dare look down, he had no idea what her waist looked like, for all he knew, she wasn’t wearing anything but that sweater. Her shoulders were broad enough that the rest of her had to be larger than a six. Probably an eight. Maybe an eight. He was rather proud of that. His knowledge of clothing sizing came quickly. He often admired himself for that.
“Have you listened to a word I’ve said!”
She was leaning over him now, and he had to lean back slightly to keep the lemon garlic of her breath from knocking him off his feet.
“Ugh, well, I mean... this... this... isn’t really my department, and--”
“I don’t care what department you’re in. You do work in this store at least. Don’t you!”
“You’re standing on the second floor, women’s casual clothing right?!”
“Um.”, he had to look around at all the mannequins, “Yeah.”
“Then you’re working and in this department. I don’t have all day and if you don’t find me a size six in this skirt, I’m going to find the manager of this department, as well as all the departments, and get your ignorant little ass fired.
He was frozen. Ice down his shorts, stark naked outside at night during a snowstorm in Wyoming, brainfrozen frozen. He had just been hired for Christmas help and was hoping to make his first job last, but now, every image of scolding, punishment, and ridicule came into his mind. Beating him down, his imagination whipped him stupid. He just sat with his lips slightly parted.
“Did you hear me?”
He just kind of stared ahead at her chin, watching the muscles in her jaw and neck tighten and relax. Seeing the tendons stand out from her neck going into her shoulders. He could see the faint hump of her bra strap through the sweater. She’s wearing a bra and they’re still poking out there. Their shape was really very well defined and Justin was both frightened and a little impressed.
“I can’t believe they allow such incompetence here. You, you little shit!”
The profanity snapped him away from the slight thrust of her breasts each time she stressed the tone in her voice. That was when he realized something was wrong.
He looked up at her face, stunned. The puzzled look sent her into another tirade and that was when he caught the movement at the edge of his visual range. He imagined (as he embraced the toilet with his cheek) that his pupils must have dilated like a startled cat. When his eyes focused is when it hit him.
Girls don’t have Adam’s apples.
That was when the nausea swept him and he instantly felt the cold chill of the pumping air conditioner.
She (he didn’t know she was really a she) looked at his face, then at herself. She assumed he was staring at her breasts at the same time Justin assumed this transvestite was about to cold cock him.
The thought of having his jaw broken by a freakish cross-dresser made his knees buckle under him and he crumpled down on the store’s pseudo carpet. Her wide eyes scared him to a frenzy, and he scuttled and ran, blindly, tripping over customers and clothing alike, bolting straight for the warehouse and the bathroom. With the single bathroom locked, he had time to recover from what was to date the most horrifying experience he had had in life.
He rolled over on the floor to lay crumpled, back up against the toilet with one arm propped on the seat with a slightly debonair look of a withdrawal sick James Bond. He looked around the room, now bright from his eyes having adjusted to the light. The room was still dull; non confrontational beige walls stood bored, with the low drone of the fan competing to put to sleep anyone who dared pay attention for too long. He sat glassy-eyed, breathing heavy enough to overpower the fan’s drone, staring at the walls.
With the average bathroom decor: sink, throne, the white stainless towel paper dispenser and matching pyramid trash can, Justin could feel at ease even though this was his first time there. He sat, listening to his breathing slow, reassuring himself that he was calm; the slow dying oscillations comforting him, slowing the pulsing in his ears. Giving out an audible exhale, he brushed his hands over his hair, one following the other, wiping away the sweaty residue of his experience. He blinked hard, regaining the clarity in his life when he noticed something slightly out of place.
Wiping a bit of spittle from his jaw, he lurched up, holding onto the seat to maintain his balance. Blindly wiping with some toilet paper, he sat down, wadding and kneading it into an ever smaller ball, trying to figure out what oddity was disturbing him. He was pressing hard with both hands, unable to compact it any further, when he noticed the other chair.
It was a wicker backed chair. A chrome tube sectioned frame, not too uncommon to just about every home furnished in the early eighties; like all houses also modeled to eradicate every trace of disco influence, it was average. The frame was bent in a shape that resembled the number “5”. One continuous piece, starting and ending at the top on either side of the wicker back, linoleum friendly smooth on the bottom.
A couple of his friends had chairs just like it, encircling the dining table used for normal meals. He looked through the holes in the wicker at the wall coated with a simple beige paint, barely able to make out the slight stains on the wall.
“Why do they have this chair here.” He said it aloud, listening to his own voice echo through the small room; he felt as though he were on stage. He stared at the chair, noticing every groove and stain, staring blankly, but secretly poring over every detail, trying to decipher a meaning by examination. The cloth cushion had a few small stains, barely noticeable through the rust brown fabric, but the wicker itself was in great condition, bright and crisp looking, hardly even worn.
He tried to imagine the type of person that would sit in that chair. It was next to the trash can, which might give an explanation as to use. He figured it could be used to rest on, like he was doing on the toilet, gathering his nerves, but why would it have been brought in just for that. As far as he knew, no one came into the bathroom on a regular enough basis to warrant bringing in furniture. He sat with his chin resting on both hands, staring intently. You’d think he had a constipation problem, or just in need of a newspaper to complete the job in perfect stereotypical male style, but he just sat there, with a stern look penetrating the faint beige glow of the lights. The jiggling of the handle snapped him out of his stupor, and he wiped his brow, stood up to smooth out his clothing and composure, and walked to the door with a collected look and a determination to return.
Justin found himself in the bathroom a lot after that experience. A kind of epiphany had flowed through him, and he discovered that the bathroom was a docile place where he could change himself. The stress of stocking and restocking women’s clothes had him in a constant state of agitation that only a long trip to the bathroom could resolve. His constant trips to the restroom made him infamous at the cosmetics counter; the painted women displaying their wares on blemish free skin had him constantly aware of himself. His sojourns through the fragrant land of womanly arts were constantly accompanied by the looks and subsequent whispers of those painted faces. They were blank and unrealistic with the strong scent of a dozen intermingled perfumes staring through darkened eyes at the stock boy that spent entirely too much time in the bathroom. They all knew each his name and vice versa, but that was only to prevent the awkward silences that would occur if they ever had to be in the same place at the same time.
Justin felt a lack of concern and almost pride with knowing the staring masks. Their looks fueled his fire of indifference and made him even more resolved to be in the bathroom as much as possible. Through the door and the click of the lock he was freed from care and concern. Exhaling a deep sigh he plopped down on the seat, beginning the ritual that consummated his relationship with the chair.
His mind would wander, partially exasperated with the chair’s stubborn attitude and totally denying the failure to interpret its existence. Throughout the days that followed, that chair would encroach upon his thoughts regularly. Instead of making him lackadaisical and unmotivated, it energized him. He could hardly wait for his breaks to be able to once again join it in the shared solitude of the humming fan.
As he dug through the pile of disordered skirts and blouses outside the dressing rooms, he could picture the chair, exacting with the lighting and shadows that played off the chair’s legs, the distorted reflections would flicker and pulse with the light bulb’s functionality. He could picture this effortlessly in his mind’s eye and just before his curiosity would peak to a frenzy of questions, he would concentrate on the clothes in front of him. Shaking the hungry lint off of a yellow ribbed top, he wondered how this junior misses item got into the women’s fashions. Not only was it a different department, but a different floor as well. He knew it had to be one of those women, small enough where they could get away with trying it on, but too old and embarrassed to do it where all the little hardbodied girls were. He knew the type, they went out and about in high class sweatsuits, always boldly displaying their designer labels: Guess, Bebe, DKNY. Proud to have spent so much of their husband’s money on an eight dollar piece of sewn cloth with an eighty dollar label.
He scanned over the floor, turning as he shook out a skirt, scanning over the crowd of women and men, girls and boys, all packed and meandering through the network of clothes. Shirts and pants. The booming fashions and dying trends that drift from department to department, person to person. Fashion never really evolved, just changed and rotated through a cycle, slowly coming full circle. He knew he would see all this crap again, it might be twenty or thirty years from now, but he know they would return. He scratched his earlobe above the rings, the itch of healing made him glad he got all his earrings at once.
That was another one that would die then make a comeback. Earrings, noserings, and all those other piercings. As he wiped the pleats out of a pair of skorts he figured it took a few hundred years or so, but piercings finally made a comeback. He could see that cycle spiraling ever tighter, returning in fifty or sixty years. He’d be an old fart by then, sporting earrings while the grommets believed they were wild and rebellious. No piercings for me. Too damn trendy. Every loser and their mid-life crisis mom has one of those. He felt smug, holding up a mini skirt with hanger in hand. All these people and none of them have a clue. His knowledge impressed even himself.
As he looked over the people again, his smile died and he stared through the cute girls gabbing over the cutoffs, past the painted faces at the cosmetic counter, through walls transparent, for his gaze to the flickering light of the bathroom and the padded, wicker backed chair. The chair had its own purposes and reasons. It sat heavy in the bathroom. Mingling with the air freshener, dancing on the tiles, slick to its step. It wavered in his mind, and scorned him through a hundred wickered eyes.
He could only see the chair through his mind’s eye, oblivious to his real surroundings.
“Excuse me, sir?”
When he snapped out of it and turned to whoever was calling him, Justin almost fainted at the sight of what had to be the most beautiful creature he had ever seen in his seventeen years of life.
“Y- yes?!”, he winced from the slight crack of his own voice.
He watched her eyes watch him, and then to her mouth as she spoke.
“Can I leave these with you?”
He had no idea what she was asking about, he just watched every curve and quiver of her lip. Seeing the creation of every sound with boyhood wonder, watching the light dance off of her moist lips. “Uh, yeah.”
“Thanks.” She walked back into the throng of shoppers, rejoining her friends in conversation. He watched her wave her arms slowly, then quickly, in perfect opposition to the speed of her speech. She jabbered and flapped much like the others of her flock. The beauty and her birdlike companions looked like the type that were nearly inseparable. Talking, gabbing, and gossiping together. Loud enough to be perceived as either comfortable recklessness, or attention seeking egotistics. These girls roamed in packs, tittering and squabbling, standing in circles facing one another holding several conversations at once. He watched them hover closely, engaged in themselves, and he could almost hear the ring of quail shot, all turning and scattering, laughing aloud and doubled over, then returning to their circle to continue the cycle. He watched their laughter control them like riptide, casting them off, then dragging them back. To him, she was still perfect enough to blast every stereotype he could ever conceive; she was perfection animated, the way she looked at any random object made him lightheaded.
He watched her now, drunk on his epiphany, thrilled by the total separation of their conversation and his own thoughts. He watched her jaw line flex and relax with precision, muscles tense and strong. Her eyes kept glancing in his direction. Her pauses revealed her cheeks, lean and shaped, devised and functioning solely for the precision of articulated speech at speed; her words were never slurred or recanted. He loved the perfection of her parts; symmetry, composition, an inspired beauty of function. Her body defined her person and that knowledge had him delirious. He could see her sidelong glances in his direction and checked around himself to make sure there could be no other object. With this confirmation, he looked back to make eye contact. She turned away with a smile, and he knew that she had to be talking about him.
He watched her longer, looking for reassurance. He followed her eyes, from her friends to the clothes to him, he could tell she was smiling at him. As sure as anything he knew he was ready. He didn’t need to rally himself with that kind of hint. Even with all her friends guarding her, his victory was ensured. Their kinetic excitement level increased as he walked toward them, they were all giggling together and he knew they were just embarrassed.
“I was watching you from over there, and was just wondering if you want to go out some time?” He was confident.
“What, with you? Sorry, I can’t.” Her friends giggled under their breath and tried to look interested in the crop tops in front of them.
With one faltered step his perfection of knowledge took him down. He stood open mouthed and paralyzed with fear. He caved into himself and his body crumbled away. He seemed smaller, small enough that he could look up her skirt. Small enough where she could and did squash him and his fool pride underfoot. He could only watch himself disappear, looking up at this girl, bearing her look, sincere in not wanting to embarrass him too badly; a condescending look of pity, large and overpowering through sheer magnitude.
“I…uh…I gotta go!” He stammered and walked away. Weaving quickly through the racks of clothes, her look drowned him in the shuffle of customers. He stopped with wild eyes, unable to predict the quickest route. His mind now numb and detached, he continued somewhat unsure of his steps. Like walking on ice, each step taken with possible pain, every muscle joined in effort with no certainty, blind to the real world behind the ice; confined to ignorance. Bumping into racks, he paused, disoriented, but at least still standing; he leaned on the racks, disheveling clothes, catching up sleeves, mixing the plums and periwinkles, colors which repelled him. Sensory overload made him continue, needing to get to his destination, his sanctuary.
The bathroom was both his prison and his drug of choice. The calm drone of the fan, the neutral walls and fixtures cradled his mind. A place to suckle and nurse his wounds. He headed through the warehouse running his fingers along the cool, slick of the concrete wall, now with a calm even breathing. His mind slowly drained the conflict and uncertainty, reaching total serenity as he reached for the knob.
It took him a lot of rattling to figure out the door was locked.
Anxious, he let his head rest on the door with a slight knock. Placing his palms against the door he could feel the hum of the fan against the door. The whir seemed like he stood before a swarm of bees, confined behind this hollow plywood. Pressing his cheek on the door, the traitorous hum grew louder, groaning and hissing. His head pulsed, slower than that of the swarm, keeping the beat, a slow drummer’s rhythm, the beat of the execution. He felt the pounding in his brain, his neck, down through his chest, shaking his body, the cold throbs, pushed him back from the door. Back to slump against the wall, stupid and scared.
He sat down in the hallway, hot and chilled at the same time, he felt the nausea. The slow rise and fall in his throat like the ocean’s tide, he could smell the bitterness. Almost uncontrollable, he breathed deeply trying to keep everything down when the lock clicked and the door opened. Allison from the facial cream section emerged, staring at the shell of a boy.
She squatted down next to him. “Justin, are you alright. You’re pale as a sheet.”
He couldn’t respond.
“Maybe you should go home and get some rest.”
He didn’t need her feigned feminine concern. Now more than ever the scent of perfumes and creams revolted him and increased his nausea. She and the others were too much. Exhibiting all of the vices and faults he felt women could have, packaged appealingly to draw attention away from those very same faults. His recent rejection had him more disgusted by the scent of women and he attempted a response. “I’m okay”, he stammered, “ I just need to take a little break. I’ll be okay.”
She was sure he wasn’t, but accepted the boy’s attempt at self assurance. “If you want anything, just ask, okay.” She left, but he had never really seen her. Through a blank stare he had only watched the door. He could see it vibrate with the swarm, with a slow pulse as if it breathed, alive and angry. Feeling the moment arrive, built up to a peaking frenzy of desire, his mind drowning through a feverish storm, he felt the cold knob, hand grasped around, and the slow mechanized turning consistent with the clicking of the door’s internals. Detached from himself he floated within the room, feeling the slight warmth of temperature differential sweep over him, lightly tickling the hairs on his neck, cradling him in the security of home. The door closed behind him and he was surrounded in darkness and warmth. Everything felt fluid in the darkness of the room, all sloshed and swirled about him, pouring through the parted lips of his open smile, filling his body with the pleasure and wholeness he felt from arrival.
As he moved his hand spidery along the wall, feeling for the lights, his lips pursed and prepared for the epiphany that was sure to take place with this visit. The realization that all questions could be answered. That for him and his metal ability, no observation could be made foolishly, that he could make no real mistake, and that just more time to analyze could be all he would ever need. He needed to know the chair’s raison d’etre and could have no peace so long as there was no resolution. The chair was now the block that kept him from success. The reason for his mistake, failure, and subsequent embarrassment. He felt that once he solved the chair’s riddle, his life and confidence would return. His very character and personality depended on it.
He flipped on the light and stared at the blank space where the chair used to be.
The warmth drained instantly, and he was left standing idly in a bathroom staring at the floor. He almost fell in the toilet trying to sit down, not paying enough attention to realize that the seat was up. The shock of not just cold water, but cold toilet water cleared the slight haze and woke him up as if he had been splashing his face in it. Now he was frustrated and pissed and couldn’t keep his eyes from welling up hot. His stinging tears tore at his eyes, and he could taste their salty bitterness. The fact that he was crying made him even madder. He couldn’t rationalize anymore, and with no reason for starting or stopping, he cried. Freely, he let his tears fall, and as he huffed and bawled, he slipped back into the bowl. Resigned he continued, just sitting in the toilet, crying out all his frustration. His own noise and the humming of the fan kept him from hearing the knock on the door, so he was mildly shocked through deadened senses when Allison entered the bathroom.
She has never tried so hard to restrain a smile as she attempted a look of compassion for a boy bawling in a toilet. “Come on Justin.” She held out her hand to help him out of the toilet and ended up having to pick him up and out like a child. She easily pulled him out of the bowl and set him on his feet while he rubbed his eyes and sniffled, unaware of the boy mother scenario he had allowed himself into. He stood weeping into her bosom, blind to his actions and her blushes, as she stroked his hair in an attempt to soothe as well as wean him from her breast. As he rubbed his nose he thought about his position and took a step back.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be a bother.” He never noticed the slight synthetic feel of her breasts.
“Don’t worry about it. Are you sure you’re okay, for real this time.”
“Yeah, yeah. Thank you.” He was pretty transparent.
“Okay. I’ll leave you so you can clean up.”
Having escaped a potentially embarrassing situation Allison quickly left the bathroom, leaving Justin with puffy eyes and a wet ass. He turned on the water and stared at himself in the mirror. Watching his eyes with their quick jerky movement he forgot about washing his face. He looked at himself, and slowly, affirmation returned. He no longer thought about the chair, dismissing it for freak happenstance and illogical thinking on someone else’s part. By dissolving someone else’s faculties, he improved his own, and restored his belief in himself. The sound of running water reminded him of the passage of time and the need to pee.
Walking over to the toilet he unzipped and started, relieved that he didn’t need to lift the seat; a rule mandated by years of training by his mother. The sound drowned out all thought and he stared blankly at the beige walls, unaware of reality outside the bathroom walls. He finished, zipped up, and neglecting to put the seat back down, flushed then left.
The fluorescent hall lights were blinding in comparison to that of the bathroom, and he squinted momentarily. He walked down the hall, his vision returning, and with it, his clarity of life. Once again he could see everything and everyone with the cold eyes of his analysis and reality. He felt that no secret could be kept from him, and no analysis could be mistaken. With this knowledge, the fact that his pants were soaked on the backside didn’t matter. He walked proudly through the make-up section, defiant to everyone in his knowledge, on his leisurely way to change pants. When he walked by Allison’s section he nodded to her. I never knew she was so tall. He continued on his way, oblivious to the snickers of employee and customer alike. As he strode, tall and strong in his own mind, he knew that no question could balk, no answer could evade, and no knowledge could be hidden from his eyes.