The Ladies Room


by Clay Waters


Patricia Roman read the aquamarine banner strung along the ceiling of the Cocoa Beach Airport concourse: FLORIDA – THE STATE OF EXCITEMENT! Patricia had barely left Florida in her 34 years. Good thing she had all the excitement she needed right where she was.

Little Laura tugged at her waist, slowing her down, while Michelle her eldest strode as far ahead as possible while still being inside the terminal. Fine. At least Michelle would be wearing an inoffensive tangerine tunic onto the plane. Patricia had won that skirmish – at the cost of 10 minutes and a 30-foot separation.

“Vacation?” The security guy’s gaze lingered over her tanned legs as the three of them passed into the gate area.

“For me, anyway.” Why are you smiling? Stop smiling. He’s not even cute. She resisted the urge to tug down on her cut-offs, realizing she was tactically underdressed compared to her eldest daughter. In under an hour, thank Goddess, they would both be out of her hair for two weeks.

 

Laura skittered ahead trying to catch her sister. “Laura! You dropped your bunny ears. Don’t lose them, honey, no one on the plane wants to hear you screaming the whole way to California.” Patricia groaned as she bent to the floor to pick up Laura’s bunny ears. 32 and I’m already creaking.

A tall older woman in long black tulle gave Patricia a head-to-toe sniffing surmise as they plopped down on hard plastic seats in front of Gate 7 — the far end of the concourse, naturally. Patricia smiled big right back in her sour face; the other woman drew back, putting a protective hand to her interesting loaf of hair. Bitter and husbandless. Her in 20 years, probably. (Did someone say ten?)

She heard him before she saw him: The airport homeless guy, rattling his change cup. Somehow she knew his name: Morris. Like the cool cat in the commercial. He made his quarters returning used luggage carts for the deposits.

Accidentally she made eye contact as Morris cheerfully trashed a McDonald’s bag donated by some goody-goody. He grinned her way, showing his purple gums. “I’m not touching this shit. I like to eat good, just like you guys!” he said, jabbing a thumb at the Lucky Steer steakhouse welded on the tail end of the airport.

Yeah, rice and beans three nights a week, it’s like Julia Child’s staying in the spare room. On her last trip the cops had rousted Morris from his snooze under the airport’s ficus trees that stood on the airport’s artificial island. He had displaced the resident flamingo, which was left to wander in wan confusion down the concourse, stiff-walking on clipped wings.

Patricia took out her compact, inspected the summer’s damage. Her cheeks were dirty with freckles. Steve had called them little constellations.

“Dad doesn’t have dress code at his place,” Michelle snapped. “It’s not like school.”

“Says the girl who’s been sent home twice already.” Patricia snapped her compact shut. “Can’t wait to get away from me, can you?”

A pause. “We just don’t see Dad much.”

Patricia softened. “That’s all right. I love your father too.” She had absorbed enough from her theater classes to recognize the roles. Steve was comic relief. She was the straight one that had to carry the story — the boring bits that made the fun stuff possible. She’d written an essay along those lines for her Psych class, even before she’d had children. Her piggy prof had given her an A- and told her she was smarter than she looked, but that she was flighty and couldn’t stick to anything. For three nights she’d laid awake thinking of piercing comebacks. And then she’d dropped out of college to marry Steve.

Steve would come winging back to Florida to see his son. Or daughter. But it would be a boy, she felt it. Good. Boys were straightforward. Patricia wouldn’t have to worry about tank tops on airplanes, anyway (though the way the world was going, who knew?)

Michelle was thumbing a magazine as Laura leaned in, looking at the pictures. “A bunny! Let me see the bunny.”

“Entertain yourself, Laura!”

Laura snatched at the page as Michelle was turning it, ripping the page. “Momma, Michelle kicked me!”

“Michelle, don’t kick your sister,” Patricia said, pro forma.

Laura pointed to a phantom bruise on her thigh. “Look Mom! Loooook!”

“Scram, hellion!” Michelle threw down the magazine and stalked away.

“Here Lala, you can look at the bunny now.”

“I don’t want to look at the bunny anymore!” Laura’s eyes were glossing with emerging tears.

“What do you want then, Laura?”

“I want to go potty.”

“Follow Michelle then, Laura, she’s going potty too!” Michelle threw back a look of horrified embarrassment before quickly disappearing around the corner into The Ladies Room.

A Northerner was talking too loud at the coffee counter: This isn’t Regular. Regular means cream and sugar — Crissy, come out of there already, they’re boarding!

She kneaded her brow. “OK Laura, we’ll go potty together and then you can get on the plane and see Daddy.”

“I can go potty all by myself!” Her daughter shrieked.

Patricia sighed deeply. “Go on then, little girl. Momma’s done fooling with you.”

For a second her youngest stood stock still, the angry red draining from her face, before she tore off her bunny ears and ran off into The Ladies Room.

Patricia glumly retrieved the ears. At least she had bought herself a few minutes of peace, without someone clawing all over her for attention. She’d buy Lala some candy when she got back.

Crissy! Come out of there! The plane’s about to leave

Life would be just peachy if it weren’t for other people.

A grease-spotted, sharply creased copy of the Cocoa Tribune teetered on the edge of the trash bin; she scissored it between two fingers and gingerly flipped it open. A bomb had gone off at Northwestern University. A serious article, “Mars Mission Mooted,” lay adjacent to “The Moon Will Need Women,” which she hoped was a gag. An ad for “fat burning” pills that she pretended to ignore.

Michelle returned from The Ladies Room one item lighter.

“You’re not getting on the plane like that.”

Michelle tugged up on her spaghetti strap, then folded the tangerine top and stuffed it into her tote-bag. “You’re sitting in an airport dressed like that.”

“I’m an adult.”

“Are you?”

“Melanie Roman–”

–Patricia Roman, I’m not going back in there. The lights were like x-rays. I could see my bones in the mirror.”

Everyone can see your bones now.”

Michelle’s brow crinkled. “Mom, where’s Laura?”

“She followed you into The Ladies Room. So? You didn’t care about her when you unclothed just to spite me.”

Unclothed,” Michelle giggled, and Patricia was stifling her own guilty laugh when she noticed The Ladies Room had become a center of attention; a small crowd was now listening to the ranting Northerner: “Look, damn you! It won’t let me in!”

“What’s his thing?” Michelle wrinkled her brow.

A slick slither of fear had curled up in Patricia’s stomach. “Stay here, Michelle.” She approached the entrance. “What’s happening?”

“This is. My girl hasn’t come out of the restroom and I can’t get in. See?” He made a half-kick into The Ladies Room, as if his wingtip couldn’t penetrate the air past the point where the tile changed from tan to green.

She stepped forward; he threw an arm out. “I wouldn’t go in there if I were you. No one’s come out for ages. Not even women take that long.”

“My little one’s in there.” She stepped across the threshold; a lungful of breath escaped her chest as she was knocked back. Too shocked for fear, she stepped back, surveyed the square entrance; the repeating tiles made her dizzy. Pressing her eyeball against the invisible barrier, she glimpsed a silent firework of colors. When she drew back and the entrance was an ordinary block of air again. She pressed her palms to the impossible barrier, imagining it made of glass, even examining the edge where the pane should have slotted into place.

“Are you lesbian?” The Yankee said behind her.

“What?”

“You’re the only woman that hasn’t gotten in. I’m Dennis.”

“Patricia.” Unwillingly she shook hands. The guy’s crazy, that’s all, and it was infecting her…So where was her daughter? Fear, temporarily narcotized by novelty, leapt to the front.

A flustered-looking gal in business attire pressed toward the entrance. “Excuse me? I have to use the restroom.”

“I wouldn’t if I were you,” Dennis warned.

“Buzz off.” Patricia recognized the type: Sighing heavily in line at Burger Chef, chewing out someone else’s noisy child on an airplane.

“I mean it, lady.”

“Do I need to call a cop?”

Dennis pointed. “Cop’s coming, lady, see him?” An officer was strolling nonchalantly down the concourse. And I really wouldn’t go in there.”

“Is everyone in this state mentally retarded?”

Dennis’s eyes seemed to flicker out, though his smile remained stamped across his features. “Be my guest,” he said, with an exaggerated bow.

For a short eternity the only noise on the concourse was the choleric woman’s stubby heels as she huffed into The Ladies Room — which abruptly ceased as she rounded the corner, to a sharp intake of breath from the thickening crowd.

Dennis tapped once more on the barrier, as if all in a day’s work.

“You are a horrible person,” Patricia said.

“I didn’t see you weighing in. It’s quieter now, anyway. We can think now.”

The cop finally arrived, name-tagged Ferrell. Dennis began speaking. “My girlfriend’s inside. No women have come out in forever, and see?” silently striking at the barrier, “No man can get in, and only Patricia here — never mind,” lowering his finger after Patricia shot a glare his way.

The officer repeated Dennis’s action. “I’ll be damned. Do we know how many women were inside when this happened?”

“Maybe a dozen,” Michelle said. “And my little sister Laura is still inside.”

“No one cross this line, understand? Not a man, not a woman. Not until we figure out what we’re dealing with. Sir, I would advise–” Patricia glanced back just in time to see a man hurl a suitcase into The Ladies Room; it hit the back wall, slid down, spilled open. Everyone stared after it expectantly, but no one from inside emerged to investigate. That brute reality abruptly moved Patricia to pound on the barrier, shrieking her daughter’s name.

“Ma’am–”

“My daughter’s in there!”

“Ma’am, we’re doing all we can.”

Stop that!” came a hiss in her ear — the old bat who had disapproved of her cutoffs. “Unless you want everyone to wonder why you’re the only woman who can’t get in.”

Officer Ferrell was staring sidelong at Patricia with dawning comprehension, on the edge of speech — before his walkie-talkie crackled. He answered, then announced to the throng, “Police backup and fire trucks are on the way.”

“Perhaps you should call your husband,” the old bat said in a low, almost conniving voice. “I have a dime.”

“He’s in California,” Patricia sniffed. “It’s long distance.”

The old bat sniffed, as if that were no surprise. “It’s The Time.”

“Every day is The Time for some bunch.”

“It’s not every day the President flies away in a helicopter. Perhaps it’s Judgment.”

“And what did my four-year old do to deserve Judgment? Not put away her toys?” Patricia was shouting but couldn’t help it.

“We’re all sinners,” she said with adamantine assurance.

“I think you better stand over there,” Patricia said, looking not at the woman but her own trembling hands.

Surprisingly, the O.B. obeyed.

Michelle was balling her fists, looking to her mother for something she couldn’t provide.

Mom’s done fooling with you. The last words she had said to her youngest.

Keep it together, Patricia. For your family. Now think! What was that you had, for a second? Some stray dust-mote of fact from one of those warm dead afternoons in 12th grade physics — something Mr. Noble had said, intriguing enough to survive even his monotone. Come on, Patricia….

“What’s funny?” Michelle looked accusingly at her grinning mother.

Patricia shook her head. “Guess I should have paid more attention.”

Morris wandered up. “What’s the ruckus?”

“No one can get into The Ladies Room,” Dennis answered. “And no one is coming out.”

Morris cocked his feathered hat back. “I see it’s started then. Mars needs women.”

“Quit jiving, man,” Dennis said.

“Hey, I read it in The Tribune.”

A colorful gathering had massed. Besides the police and firemen, knots of stewardesses in various colored uniforms had drifted from other gates, forming a twitchy outer circle around the square portal. “So where do we go tinkle?” One whispered to another, pulling her short skirt toward her knee-high boots. Men came out of boarding lines to pitch soda cans and souvenir t-shirts inside; the detritus accumulated along the back wall of the entrance as all the while announcements over the speaker, obliviously bland, requested passengers Please Board the Plane to Guarantee On-Time Departure.

Ferrell’s cop’s walkie-talkie crackled. “Speaking. Repeat? But sir, it’s not letting in–oh. Roger that.”

A carrot-topped police-woman came huffing down the concourse, bulging out of a uniform a size too small.

Dennis rolled his eyes. “Affirmative action.”

“She’s female.”

“Is she?” But his heart wasn’t in it.

Ferrell took the girl aside; her skin was of a mushroom shade foreign to the Florida sun, but she went even paler after a few words and gestures by Sergeant Farrell toward The Ladies Room.

“How long have you been a cop?” Patricia asked her gently when she’d stepped away.

“This is my second week on the street.”

“What’s your name?”

The cop stated her name.

“Sergeant, are you ready?” Ferrell had requisitioned a fire hose. “Just hang on to this and report back, ok?” They exchanged tight nods, and the female officer framed herself against the entrance of The Ladies Room.

Patricia thought about the flamingo, trapped in its own strange, sad world, and wanted to cry — for Laura, for the pale police-girl, for herself, everyone. “Good luck,” she said, trying to smile for real, to lift her face up against the world’s freshly poisoned atmosphere.

The older woman came forward. “Take this, my child.” She handed the officer a pocket-sized silver cross.

The officer smiled faintly and tucked the offering into a shirt pocket before stepping over the line, holding the hose taut as she passed around the corner.

Channel 5’s crew was racing down the concourse in a tangle of wire, almost tripping the heels of the local news-vixen. Camera ready!’ she shrieked. “She’s in!”

“You there, Sergeant?” Ferrell asked in a loud, tight voice.

“Still here.” Fainter, echoey.

“You’re doing great. Keep talking, Sergeant. Describe what you see.”

She vanished around the corner.

A pause. “Sergeant. Sergeant?”

The hose clanked to the floor.

“Sergeant?” Ferrell pressed his face against the opening, vainly trying to peer around the corner.

“Oh my. Oh my. Oh my.” The Channel 5 girl had lost her self-possession. “From all we can tell, viewers, the female officer turned the corner into The Ladies Room and instantly vanished.”

“Wouldn’t a true Christian have gone in with her?” Pat asked the old lady. “Two sets of footprints on the beach and all that.”

“This is no time to discuss theology with scoffers.”

“Lucky for Jesus.” A pause, then Patricia asked, unwillingly, “Do you remember her name?”

She put her finger to her cheek. “It’s escaped me.” The old woman sounded genuinely regretful. She extended a hand. “My name is Myrna.”

“Patricia.” For a minute they both stared toward the entrance, although the view to the pile of tourist trinkets was blocked by police and firemen.

“Is that a glow around the corner?” Myrna asked.

“I think it’s always looked like that. We just never paid attention.”

The fire brigade was consulting a map held against the wall.

We can come in through the side here.

Nah, easier straight from the top, see?

An older man approached. “Have you fellows considered this might be a wormhole effect?”

Myrna shook her head. “Men, right?”

Michelle was fretting back and forth, clutching Laura’s bunny ears.

“What are you going to do with those, Michelle?”

“I was going to throw them inside. Maybe Laura will — I don’t know.”

With infinite gentleness, Patricia said, “No one came to get the suitcase, Mishy.”

“I just — I think maybe I made this happen, when I didn’t let her come with me. And then the mirrors–”

“Don’t think silly things,” she said, before thinking of the silliest thing of all. “Besides,” she continued in a stronger voice, “in a minute we can give them to her ourselves.”

“But we can’t get in.” Michelle sniffed hard.

“Leave it to me.” She patted her stomach, looking down the concourse for a familiar hat.

***

“You want me to do what?”

She told him again. “Here’s a $20. You can buy your own prime rib.” From the light in Morris’s eyes she knew he’d have done it for free. “Just try and not hurt the flamingo.”

***

“Why me?”

“Because you’re a man.”

Whether Dennis registered her irony can never be known. But when he raced back up the concourse toward The Ladies Room, shouting Fire! Fire! Patricia recognized the meager virtue of untrammeled confidence: The guy was totally convincing.

The smoke began billowing from beneath the ficus trees as the flamingo squawked in terror. Firemen began peeling off from the entrance to The Ladies Room, first reluctantly, than avidly, as if relieved to deal with something within their world-view. The red-and-blue phalanx around the entrance had thinned for the time being.

She hugged Michelle tightly to her waist, tight enough to crack a rib. Michelle trembled against her, the tremor passing to Patricia’s own frame, shaking the treasure tucked high in her abdomen.

It was a boy. That was why she couldn’t enter The Ladies Room — but also why she hadn’t been knocked straight back like the men had. Pressed against the invisible glass, she had sensed an intelligence, probing her, rejecting her. Well, she had some too.

She squeezed her daughter’s hand, tight enough to crush a knuckle. “Race right through, Mishy. No matter what you feel or hear, or what you see or think you see.”

Poised sharply upon eternity, she inhaled hard on the exhausted airport air, catching her own eyes in a shard of mirror, green and sharp as cut emeralds. The entrance widened and tilted as Patricia approached with her twin burdens, the repeating tiles recurring into infinity. How did people just walk up to things all the time?

We’re coming, Laura!

***

“Channel 5 is speaking with Mr. Kurt Marsden, who witnessed the mother and daughter that evaded police and fire officials to enter The Ladies Room, evidently in pursuit of a family member. Mr. Marsden, could you tell us what happened, from your perspective, as we watch this exclusive Channel 5 replay of the mother and daughter entering The Ladies Room.”

“Well, from my perspective, it seemed to me a kind of time dilation occurred.” Marsden’s drawl came off as ironic.

The well-paid forehead furrowed. “Could you explain that concept to our viewers? In a nutshell.”

A flamingo wandered about in the back of the shot as a fireman ineffectually tried to corral it. “Think of it–” a resigned sigh, “–as if they dripped through, in parts. Like molasses?”

“Mr. Marsden, I understand you caught a glimpse of the faces of the mother and daughter as they crossed the threshold. What can you tell us about that?”

“Well, the mother looked like she’d just ducked under a waterfall, and that the water was either very cold or very hot. But also that she was ready for it either way.” A smile cracked his leather-tanned face. “I liked her a lot.”