Tears from the Women's Bathroom

By Peter Stenson

I sat on the toilet of the second floor bathroom of the library playing Tetris on my phone. The bathroom was small, a single stall, a urinal, a heater like an 80's Buick. I heard something other than the banging of pipes and the soft eight-bit videogame music and I stopped playing because it sounded like cries. Sobs. Full-on, oh-my-god-it-hurts and it came from behind me, through the wall.

I tried not to breathe.

I was my dog, his head cocked, his pointed ears strained.

It was most definitely somebody crying. Somebody breaking down. The women's bathroom was behind me and I realized that our backs were touching through green tile and sheetrock and water pipes and this felt intimate. Every few seconds another sob permeated through the wall. It reminded me of a tornado siren—the deafening wail, its decrescendo, its crescendo.

I tried to picture who was directly behind me, the source of these tears. For some reason, I envisioned some college girl with blonde hair and her front-left incisor was crowded and she'd always been aware of this, resentful that her parents couldn't afford braces, and she smiled with the edges of her lips, maybe just one side, a curl, letting her eyes do most of the work. And maybe she had a test to study for, philosophy. Maybe Descartes and Plato were becoming a tangled ball of will and virtues and she knew she was going to fail. Maybe it was a boyfriend—Jared, a boy she met on her floor, a boy who paid her attention and was decent looking with strong shoulders and these reminded her of her father and one night it was drunken kisses and they woke up and she wasn't sure if the act was consummated but then she was, her being a little sore, later staring at the wide nostrils of Jared from down the hall. And maybe it'd been good and maybe she'd called back home and told her mother that she loved college, that her classes were great, the weekends the best, and maybe her mother had smiled into the receiver because she knew her little girl was in love. And then it ended. Maybe just a minute ago. Maybe this girl had walked into the library and had seen the frayed brim of Jared's hat and she'd quickened her pace and then she stopped because Jared had his arm around another girl, both of their eyes trained on a textbook, and this girl was ten pounds lighter, her teeth perfectly straight.

The girl in the women's bathroom seemed to be calming. She gave one of those inhales with audible catches along the way.

And maybe it was something worse and maybe it was her mother's cancer, that lump removed two winter's ago, and maybe it was back, metastasized, inoperable. Or it was her father and he'd called to tell her that he'd been laid off again and that he was sorry—I'm so sorry, baby, but this has to be your last semester.

I heard the toilet flush. I felt the pressure of water moving against my back.

And maybe it was a plus sign on a pissed-on stick. A rumor spread about her one night of promiscuity. A grandfather passing. An older brother locked-up, felony with intent to distribute.

Part of me needed to find out. Like that's all I wanted. To see this girl. To ask her why. Ask her if she was okay. If she was hurt. Who did this to you? What can I do?

I hurried and washed my hands and I would walk out and offer her some sort of solace and I'd be her knight in shining fucking armor and it wouldn't be sexual and it wouldn't be predatory and I would restore her belief that things were okay, the world not so cruel, and I would ease the fuck-my-life out of her swollen eyes just by saying hello.

I left the bathroom.

The door opened to my right. A girl walked out and her hair was red and her clothes a stylish form-fitting cute and she wore boots and we met eyes and she'd gone heavy on the eyeliner and it held sleep-like clumps, probably from the moisture of her tears. She kept my gaze for the briefest of moments. I wondered if she knew I'd heard. I wondered if she was embarrassed and I wondered if she wanted me to say something and I wanted to follow, to call out, to stop her between the shelves of architecture texts. I'd tell her that she was doing her best and people would one day recognize that and whatever she felt, it would pass, always did. And I wanted to tell her that we are good people and these things happen. That our mother's cancer comes back. That our fathers lose their jobs. That it's a disease and our brothers can't help it. That it's not our wife's fault, we can always adopt. And I wanted to tell her that we all do it, retreat to the seclusion of a single lockable stall, some of us crying, some of us playing a game on our phones meant for children, all of us wanting to be alone, all of us wishing somebody would hear.


Peter Stenson has stories and essays published or forthcoming in Blue Mesa Review, Crate, Gulf Stream, Passages North, Post Road, REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, The Pinch, and Upstreet, among others. He is currently working on his MFA in fiction at Colorado State University. He can be reached through Petercstenson.com.

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