It’s almost midnight when I notice the hummock of wet tissue resting in the bottom of the hotel toilet.
Two quick thoughts careen through my brain: “Where did all the water go?” and “Why would the Michelin Man come here to die?”
My brain isn’t functioning at its peak; twenty minutes ago, I took a half-dose of a sleep aid, hoping it would help me nod off before my usual 2 a.m. bedtime. I need to get up in the morning, push past my hatred of speaking words out of my mouth before noon, and interact with colleagues. The faculty union is holding its annual delegate assembly, and if I have any hope of tracking the amendments to the amendments to the resolutions tomorrow, I need my brain to reboot overnight.
Achieving a turned-off brain while staying in a hotel is remarkably difficult, in truth. A chronic night owl, I am also someone who doesn’t have cable, someone who loses her mind when she sounds out the letters H-G-T-V because H-G-T-V stands for “Somebody with a limited budget wants to buy a tiny home!”
Even more, my brain is zinging because I’ve had dinner with friends from the college where I used to teach. I’ve had a steak avec pommes frites. I’ve had a couple of drinks. I’ve had my friend Kirsten hanging out in my room for late-night snacks and giggles.
Even even more as I rattle restlessly around my room, natural nocturnal energy pushing against dissolving sleep aid, I’ve discovered a new program on the Discovery Channel, and every time I think I’m going to shut down and try to zzzzz, a new episode starts.
You guys. Guys. You. Guys. Hey, guy. YOU. Have you ever heard of a show called Naked and Afraid? Have you?
HAVE YOU HEARD OF NAKED AND AFRAID, IN WHICH TWO STRANGERS — A MALE AND A FEMALE, RESOLUTELY DEVOID OF FLUID GENDER IDENTIFICATION — ARE DRIVEN TO A REMOTE LOCATION thinkaridMadacascar WHERE THEY DISROBE BEFORE THEIR FIRST MEETING AND SUBSEQUENTLY SURRENDER TO A PRIMITIVE SURVIVAL CHALLENGE FOR 21 DAYS, SUFFERING FROM A STATE OF NO SKITTLES, PELLEGRINO, SPF 70, SWEATPANTS, OR 1000-COUNT BED SHEETS?
Comforts stripped, the modern-day ratings-driven Adam and Eve are each allowed one thing: a woven bag, ostensibly to hold the video cameras they will need for filming daily grubby, gaunt-faced confessionals in front of sandstone backdrops, but more to cover their genitalia so that the entire show isn’t merely an extended shot of blurred-out testicles. Additionally, each competitor may bring along a single helpful item, usually a knife, a fire starter, or a pair of Fluevogs. But outside of those things — oh, and the accompanying crew of individuals filming the show and calling in the EMTs in case of radical dehydration or heart failure — our Adam and Eve are entirely on their own, left to swat mosquitoes for three weeks while tossing covert glances at each other’s taint.
The premise is seductive; the reality is stomach-growling tedium edited to interest. There in my hotel room, enjoying a previously unrealized opportunity to watch naked people crab at each other and poke sticks into the mud while alligators lurk in the murk, I. am. riveted. To my detriment, every time one episode ends, a new one begins. On the clock with commercial breaks, I tear into the bathroom, empty my bladder, and rush back to press my face against the massive screen.
Essentially a toddler, I am easily overstimulated. By this point in the evening, what with food and friends and tv shows, my brain has grabbed a handful of markers and started scrawling all over the white walls, one hand tucked into the back of its Pull-Up.
Ideally, my actual body should be wearing a Pull-Up. That way, I could urinate in front of the television, alleviating the bathroom race, a slapdash trip that keeps me from noticing — until the third back-to-back episode starts — that there is very little water in the toilet yet a goodly amount of toilet paper. Huh.
Perhaps, in my haste, I’ve been hitting the flusher too quickly? Maybe it needs a holding.
Crikey. That water level sure gets high when I hold down the handle.
But also, out in the other room the Mormon guy who has promised his new wife he won’t hook up with the naked lady with whom he is starving for 21 days is about to start his morning prayer, which goes something like, “Dear Father, I have done no cuddling, so please help me kill a snake today. But first, may your bounty allow us to find the right kindling to make sparks.”
A toddler-woman can hardly be expected to stand in front of the toilet, idling away the minutes watching water levels, when there’s Mormon prayer for snake happening in the next room.
Thus begins a late-night session of interval training. Every twelve minutes, I bang into the bathroom, notice the water level has subsided while all the toilet paper remains, and flush again, my heart as full of hope as a Latter Day Saint snatching at the back leg of a scampering lizard.
To be honest, the toilet holds me in thrall as much as Naked and Afraid does; it’s a game of chance, isn’t it, repeatedly tempting a cranky toilet to overflow and then watching it fail? Persisting through six or seven flush cycles, the natatory toilet paper is mesmerizing: like Tibetan prayer flags lining the trail of an Everest ascent. Every flush is a gamble, a heart-rate elevating pull of the lever. Because I am both simple and an optimist, part of me believes that enough flushes will clear the obstruction, and Adam, Eve, and Jocelyn will live to begat another day.
It’s almost 1 a.m. when actual reality and not just reality-show reality floods my sleep-aided consciousness. Finally feeling like I can turn in, having had a firm talk with myself about how Big Girls turn off the television sometimes, I head once again into the bathroom. As I brush my teeth and apply ineffective anti-aging night cream, I admire the red wine stain rorschaching across the front of my green shirt and contemplate 21 grim days without wine or shirts. NAH.
Naturally, as my last act of the evening, I visit the toilet. Over my tinkling, I hear words: Mormon Adam is shocked by how fully yoga-loving peacenik Eve has committed to burning a colony of black widow eggs in the cave where they have been sleeping. Frantically wiping, I slam a quick flush and torpedo back to the screen, vowing I’ll turn the thing off the second all spiders are confirmed dead.
Within five seconds, I am confused. If I’m still watching tv, how come I can hear the babbling brook sound that I stream from a white noise app on my phone when sleeping in hotels?
Casting about for my phone — because I do not need the brook to babble until the spiders die — I look towards the bathroom.
Eventually, every gambler loses, and my hand has gone bust. Water is streaming over the top of the toilet, waterfalling from all sides. Momentarily, I consider recording the sound because I’m pretty sure I can sell the recording to White Noise App, Inc. and rake in a hot $4 over the course of the next few years. In the next moment, however, I realize I’d best step into some shoes and hustle my underwear-free, wine-stained self down to the front desk — which, fortunately, is mere feet away.
Breathlessly, I reach the front desk. In short order, the clerk tells me the problem can’t be fixed until morning, as there is no engineer on duty over night, and then he issues a key to a new room and asks if I could turn off the valve on the wall, should the toilet still be running.
It’s 1 a.m. My boobs set to flappin’ as I truck down the corridor. The sleep aid has fully kicked in. I am not looking forward to packing up the random explosions of crap that populate my room. But, hell, it’s not like I’m naked or afraid, just bra-less and woozy.
Suddenly, though, I am very afraid. Ten feet from the door of my room, I become afraid like a peacenik yoga lover who hears a rustling in the back of the cave, and it ain’t Brigham Young skinning a snake.
I become afraid because there’s a two-foot semi-circle of water-stained carpet outside the door of my hotel room.
Which means probably that. Uh. If that much water is outside my hotel room door. Um. Do I really want to open that door?
However, although I play the toddler when it comes to tv, I have my Big Girl Pull-Ups on, so I can do anything Big Girls do.
Like open a door, behind which might be black widow spiders, Tibetan flags, or,
as it turns out,
a biblical flood.
Slogging across swampy carpet, I wade into the inch of water standing on the bathroom floor; I turn off the valve; I swim into the bedroom; I slop across the bog of a floor; I catch my breath when I see that the water has seeped under the first bed, leeched out the other side, and made way towards the second bed. Briskly, I grab the remote and turn off the television (let’s presume Adam and Eve make it out alive, and humanity prospers) before I start hefting my clothes and bags off the floor, packing in a wild-yet-efficient scramble.
Exasperatingly, as I hit my flow, there’s a knock on the door. Arghghgh. I pause packing, snap on my snorkel, and dive across the ocean of carpet. It helps that the scruffy-faced, concerned hotel employee standing outside my room could well have been an extra on EastEnders. His accent buys him a full cup of patience.
Yes, I realize the carpet outside my room is wet.
Yes, I have turned off the valve so that the toilet stopped spewing buckets of water for which a certain thirsty Mormon in Madagascar would thank his Heavenly Father.
Yes, I am vacating the room.
Yes, this is a problem that must be tended to tonight even though there is no engineer on duty.
Yes. Thank you. Yes.
Letting the door slam on his departing figure, I sidestroke across the room towards my belongings. Just as I am zipping the fifth bag, there is another knock.
Being stranded in arid Madagascar isn’t looking so bad right now. JEEZUS. Give a Big Girl five minutes, wouldya?
It’s the same extra from EastEnders, and this time he’s brought a friend. Hi. Yes. Still wet. Still packing. Out in three minutes. Yes, water under one of the beds. Yes, water across half the room. Yes, so much water in the bathroom that it’s running into the bedroom.
They are wonderfully solicitous, but it turns out I rather like to be left alone when preparing a hasty exit from somebody else’s problem. Dudes. My dudes. THREE MINUTES AND A LITTLE SPACE, and then you can throw down all the towels. Still, they are kind. EastEnder asks, “Can we help you move your bags to your new room?”
Without thinking, I shuck off their offer, announcing, “Thanks anyhow. I’m good. I have very few gifts in life, but I’m a born mule.”
As soon as the words are out, the three of us are suspended in one of those bizarre life moments when individual brains derail simultaneously, in the same direction, yet, because we are strangers, no one can acknowledge it.
No, I don’t mean I am gifted when it comes to swallowing condoms bulging with heroin.
But we all thought it.
A literal three minutes after the lads depart, I am mulish with bags, ready to splash and trudge to my new room.
It is 1 a.m. I am hauling wine and unworn bras and a laptop and Starburst gummies and a bottle of sleeping pills. As I plod, I smile.
There is a lesson imparted by Naked and Afraid. It has something to do with how people react to stress, how we change when our circumstances control our behaviors, how we push past irritations into the grace of acceptance. It has something to do with tender mercies.
For ratings-driven Adam and Eve, that process means they are first awkward, then resentful, ultimately grateful.
As it turns out, even though I am wearing a wine-stained t-shirt and have seven pounds of snacks tugging at my scapulae, I too am experiencing tender mercies.
I don’t have to deal with the aftermath of a clogged toilet.
I am walking towards a room that is clean and welcoming.
I am safe, warm, well fed, embarrassingly coddled. My smallest needs are indulged.
As I leave behind one mess before creating the next, as I watch kind hotel workers scurry around my now-empty room, as I watch fans blow both inside and outside it for the next two days, as I witness a harried, defeated-looking manager with a clipboard enter standing in the doorway, as I wave brightly at the clerks behind the front desk,
I am living the tenderest of mercies:
when that toilet overflowed, it vomited only toilet paper and urine.
But for a world of tender mercies, it could have been worse.
I could have been a drug mule who’d just used the porcelain for offloading.
Or I could have been a regular English teacher lady at a union meeting, merely needing to void her bowels before bedtime.
All I can think as I walk down the hall at 1 a.m., as I feel bags thumping against my buttocks, their drape saving my show from being nothing more than blurred-out genitalia, is that I should get up early to pray outside the cave (Room 103) and thank The Goddess for lack of public feces.
Indeed, life at its best is a series of back-to-back episodes of tender mercies — strung together, one rolling into the next, each reminding us to keep our noses pressed against the screen.
Of course, I already knew that, even before the toilet overflowed, so my sunrise prayer will be brief. A few doors down from my original room, dropping to my knees on the faintly moist carpet outside Room 103, I will murmur — with gratitude in my heart — two short, heartfelt words: