Lately, I find myself on the road a lot. Sleeping in beds unfamiliar with the shape of me, feeling strange walls to find the light switch in the dark, waking up to wonder at a ceiling I’ve never seen before in the daylight of a different town.
Wearing the same pair of pants for a week and running my fingers over a calling card in my pocket when I miss my girlfriend.
Airports and a highway and little tiny soaps and MapQuest and gas stations. Always gas stations. Because no matter where you are, or how much time you have until you have to be somewhere else, you’re going to need gas, and someone always has to pee.
For me, the best gas station bathroom scenario is the single stall version with the sturdy locking door with a sign on it that says men/women and you don’t have to ask for the key first. These are the bathrooms most conducive to a stress-free urination experience for me, for a number of reasons.
First of all, you don’t need to ask for the key. The key for the gas station bathroom is usually for some reason slightly damp, which I find unsanitary and disturbing, and it is invariably tied or chained to a filthy germ-harbouring item which is hard to pocket or lose, such as a piece of hockey stick, a giant spoon, or a tire iron. You have to ask for the key from the either bored or harried-and always underpaid-guy behind the counter, and if there are two keys, one for the men’s and another for the women’s washroom.
Then the cashier has either no time if there’s a lineup, or all night if things are slow, to decide for himself which key he should give you. Keep in mind that the gas station attendant is probably feeling unfulfilled about the fact that he is ten times more likely to be robbed at gunpoint than he is to get a raise anytime in the near future, and that deciding which washroom he thinks I should be using is the most arbitrary power he’s been afforded by this job since he caught that twelve-year-old shoplifting condoms and decided not to call the cops because at least the kid was stealing responsibly.
So this is the guy who gets to decide where I get to pee. I have learned that asking for the key to a specific washroom will only increase the odds that he will notice that the washroom I wish to enter doesn’t match the hair or voice or footwear of the person he sees in front of him. Maybe he could give a fuck which bathroom I use, maybe his favourite sister is a dyke. But maybe his religion tells him I am damned, maybe him and his buddies almost killed a guy once for wearing a pink shirt, just in case he was a queer, just for fun.
Maybe he dreamt of kissing his best friend all the way through Grade 8 but never did, and he hates me because I remind him of how scared he is of his own insides. I cannot know his mind.
I am in a strange town, and something about me doesn’t fit. It is best if I let him decide, and don’t draw attention, or alert anyone in the lineup behind me to his conundrum.
Maybe you think I’m just paranoid, that I’m a drama queen, or that I exaggerate to make a point. I would say good for you, that your gender or skin colour or economic status have allowed you to feel safe enough that you still think the rest of us are making this stuff up.
You probably don’t even realize how lucky you are to be able to not believe me when I tell you that every time I take a pee in a public bathroom I also take a risk that someone will take issue with me being somewhere they take to be the wrong room, depending on who they mistook me to be, based solely on that first quick look they took.
I can pray for a wheelchair accessible stall, or one of the ungendered kind with a baby changing station in it, and then hope no one is waiting there when I slip out, able bodied and childless.
I can cross my fingers that the ladies room is empty, or bolt quietly for the closest empty stall if it is not. Unfortunately, women and children have many good reasons to fear what they think is a man in their washroom. I have learned to be more forgiving of their concern, and try not to take any hostility too personally. They only want the same thing I’m looking for: a safe place to pull down their pants and pee.
I can hold my nose and use the men’s room, and if I’m lucky there will be a seat on the toilet and the guy who comes in to use the urinal will not be the type who hates slightly effeminate men, or the type who likes them a little too much. In men’s rooms I squat and pee quickly, simultaneously relieved and terrified when I am alone.
Over the years I have learned a few techniques, like not drinking pop in theatres and holding my pee for probably unhealthy lengths of time. I do my best to be polite and non-confrontational, even when confronted or questioned rudely.
One of my favourite methods is to enter the women’s room with a preferably ladylike companion who has been previously instructed to ask me if I have a tampon in my purse. I answer her in the most demure and feminine tone I can muster that I left my purse in the car, or that I’m down to my last pantyliner, and dash for the first open door.
Just recently, I accidentally improvised the perfect line to deliver to the nice but confused lady that I often meet on my way out of the gas station bathroom. She was standing with her hand on the half-open door, looking first at me and then again at the sign that says “Women” on it. She was in her 60s, and I felt bad that I had startled her, or maybe made her feel, even for a moment, that she was lost in the men’s room where she might not be safe and that I had scared an old woman with a full bladder, again.
“It’s okay,” I smiled and said calmly. “It’s just me.”