In the land of never-ending po’ boys, goopy gumbo and high-octane cocktails, a woman with irritable bowel syndrome searches for a soul mate—and the closest possible toilet.
Have you ever waited in line for the bathroom behind six drag queens, two unicorns, a seahorse princess and an evil monkey on stilts after downing a bowl of spicy hot gumbo? Have you ever tried to remove a fake fur coat, leotard and tights in a tiny dirty bar stall even when you’re not on mushrooms? Have you ever fantasized about installing a flatscreen TV in your bathroom? I have IBS—Irritable Bowel Syndrome—and my home, New Orleans, is not kind to me.
The saddest day of my life occurred at the cheese shop where I worked, when a subcontractor knocked down the wall to our employee bathroom with a large mallet and pulled my beloved toilet up from the floor like a radish in a Super Mario game.
“We need more room for storage,” my boss informed me.
“But, Richard,” I said. “I can’t use the customers’ bathroom.”
“Why can’t you use the customers’ bathroom?”
“Well, I just had Smoothie King, for one thing.”
On certain days, I’ve had to run home to relieve myself where nobody is around to witness such atrocities, except my cat, who turns all ‘Nam on the rug beneath my feet, writhing around as if doused in napalm.
When you feel the need to shit uncontrollably, dating is tough. Like your mind, your whole existence is in the toilet, has been for years, and you certainly can’t expect to drag someone down there with you. One poor guy, Michael, contacted me after I hadn’t spoken to him in two years. He’d just moved back to New Orleans after a brief bout of grad school and veganism and wanted to know if anything cool and cheap was happening on Saturday night. We met up in Mimi’s, where most of these horror stories begin. It’s a popular bar in the Marigny that has great tapas and nightmarish bathrooms. The ladies room has two toilets that practically face each other and no stalls. There’s always the chance some crazy bitch will follow you in and lock the door, drop trou and sit down on the pee pee drops, looking at you like, “What, you pee shy or something?” Sucks for you.
Michael was a writer. He had the sort of skinny-fat body that seems to accompany moderate depression: the first sprouting of man boob and chin-gobbler. He had on a faded black shirt, tight jeans and cowboy boots, an outfit meant for somewhere else—Austin or New York City. Most guys around here wear unbuttoned shirts, clunky man sandals and swim trunks in the summer, in hopes of finding a nearby pool and babes too drunk to care about man sandals. Michael went around saying “brutal” a lot, which made him sound like some sort of surfer dude, except he’d just moved from Tuscaloosa and owned more western shirts than a Louvin Brother. At the bar we fought as disgruntled writers often do, with the intention of sending the other home to cry in a bathtub.
“Realism in literature is so played out,” he said.
“No,” I disagreed. “Annoying stories about talking dogs and magical cans of soup are.”
Mysterious activities occur in New Orleans all the time and nobody really cares: High Lifes appear and disappear seconds later, hours pass in minutes, cars are driven home by dogs who piss all over your furniture and want to be let out first thing in morning. Michael and I originally met upstairs at Mimi’s on a Saturday night long ago, dancing at DJ Soul Sister’s Hustle party, but now the party just seemed like a hot heavy mess threatening to break through the floor. There would be no dancing for us. We sat uncomfortably, debating the imminent demise of American prose, while jabbing at goat cheese croquettes and getting the stink eye from a gutter punk with scary face tattoos at the other end of the bar. Then, as most drunk writers are known to do, Michael started whining.
“I can’t find a job,” he said. “I’m so poor.”
He had some part-time thing at a record store on Bourbon street, which probably involved a lot of eye-rolling and trying to get drunken bikers to stop touching the Lucinda Williams poster.
“Look at me,” I said. “I handle cheese all day. Do you think I want to smell like this?”
“I’d rather smell than have no money.”
“You think I have money? Ha. Hahahahahaha.”
Since he was a year younger than me, I told him what to expect when he turned twenty-eight. The last bit of dreamy youth would finally escape him. His skin would get zittier than a middle-school dance, and his legs would pain him and emerge overnight with hideous blue veins like jellyfish trapped beneath the surface of skin. He’d have to break down and purchase service clogs to keep his back from giving out. He thought that was ridiculous, brutal even. I concurred, realizing that these things only happen to women in their twenties, so I apologized, and left to cry in my bathtub.
He’d probably be fine. He was a dude, and dudes are always fine, even if they only own a sheetless mattress, hairless dog and saggy old beanbag chair like my last boyfriend, who survived off American Spirits and the free wine handed out at gallery openings. And since Michael didn’t know my dating history—or that in the past few months I’d accidentally crapped my pants four times—he called again, wanting to hang out.
* * *
Most of my pants-soiling seems to happen at twilight, when the mosquitoes cloak your dewy skin like chain mail and the sun goes downhill fast, slitting the sky’s throat on its merry way. That’s when I usually go running up the streetcar line to Audubon Park.
I’ve lost two pairs of shorts, four undies and one pair of New Balances in the past few long runs alone. Some call it the runner’s trots, this overwhelming feeling of cannon ball blasting through poop deck. I call it painful, the initial intestinal cramping. It’s embarrassing, since you never know when you’re going to lose it. One time my iPod was blasting Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It” when the bottom dropped out, so it’s possible my body was simply following direction. Sometimes I lose it within feet of my front door, my body so excited about the proximity of a toilet that it can no longer contain itself. Other times I’m miles away from home, and I must stop and cross my legs behind a small spiky shrub. There’s always a small spiky shrub. You can hope people don’t notice you, but imagine a soda can being shook up for an hour before you open it. People always notice. Then there’s the Charlie Chaplin-style walk of shame back home afterward, the britches fully contaminated and weeping.
Even when I was growing up in Florida, I always had a blow-out before cross country and track events. There’s not a mom in the godawful state who hasn’t knocked on the stall or port-o-let door, asking, “Honey, you okay in there?” It got so bad I had to see a doctor when my mother suspected I might have an ulcer at seventeen years of age. I didn’t. I just had severe gas. It never stopped. When I lived in North Carolina during graduate school, my then-boyfriend would laugh hysterically when I returned home twenty minutes into a run to fumigate the slugs from the walls.
“Geez, babe,” he’d say. “Maybe you should go see a doctor.”
I suggested the same for his Star Wars Galaxies online role-playing addiction. Instead he started up a long-distance relationship with some droid in Mos Eisley, and I ran for New Orleans, where my sister lived and where I knew I could embrace my inner freak show in the land of gut bombs: coffee and chicory, deep-fried everything, Sazeracs, boudin, crab boil, shrimp remoulade. I can’t refuse any of it: Popeyes chicken, Zara’s po boys, raw oysters at Cooter Brown’s and duck fat fries at Delachaise. A year in somebody played a cruel joke on me and gave me a monthly restaurant review column for a local magazine, so I now get paid to be bloated and in pain.
But to get rid of most enablers on my list of shit-ticks would be to deny myself any enjoyment in the indulgent world of who dats and where yats. In other cities across the world I’m sure people find lots of fun things to do besides eating and drinking, but in New Orleans, that’s not an option. Show up at a bar for one drink and you’re suddenly wrangled into a night of free crawfish or red beans. Show up to race a 10k and they feed you free beer at ten in the morning.
Anyways, food isn’t the only issue. Other things set me off too: nervousness, menstruation, life in general. I’ve kept a shitter’s journal. I’ve done the “Dear Diarrhea.” I’ve studied my sporadic corporal disorders quite intensely, and all I can say is my body doesn’t want me to exercise, date or ever feel sexy.
* * *
This Michael—he was a decent guy. He never stood a chance. He invited me over to hang out at his apartment in the Marigny, showed me the books he was reading and gave me some stories he wanted me to look at.
“I’m really into fairy tales right now,” he said. “Brothers Grimm.”
“The disturbing stuff? Dancing in lead shoes?”
You ever stare at somebody, anticipating mouth to mouth, and instead they pat the bed for you to sit down, saying, “So this is my CD collection”? We went to Verti Marte and got fried catfish and mounds of macaroni and cheese in Styrofoam boxes as sweaty as the night itself. We sat close to each other on his leather couch and ate food nobody has ever before eaten sober, staring at his roommate’s bizarre giraffe statue and listening to nasty cats preparing for sex in the street.
He said, “It’s so great to have an actual, like, real friend here. You know? You’re my first good friend in New Orleans.”
We tapped beers. It would have been the perfect time to tap something else, but detecting something unsavory, Michael bolted from the couch. “Would you like to hear some songs I recorded back in Alabama?” he asked. “Some folk songs?”
“Folk songs. The girl I sang with is really good.” They were folk songs based on fairy tales. Even the cats outside the door let out a long-winded “ew.”
“So,” he said, fetching a new beer and cracking it open. “My ex-girlfriend and I are playing on the same kickball team, and it’s really weird.”
Usually before the bottom drops out, you start to sweat, fever overtakes you—these wretched, sweaty hot flashes and that all too familiar rumble, little waves lapping at the shore before the big ones come and erode the soil.
“I’m so sorry to do this,” I said, showing myself to the door, “But I better get going.”
“Oh. It’s not because I brought up my ex is it?”
In every single man there is, and will always be, an ex-girlfriend kickball team, and you will never, ever defeat them, turdy butt, so don’t even try to play that game.
“No,” I said and hurried down the street to my truck. “Not at all.”
* * *
I’ve researched IBS extensively on the Internet. IBS does have a Facebook page, but it’s not really something you’d want to be friends with. WebMD suggests that IBS may have to do with that weird white sauce on your nachos, sure, but also with emotional stress. Like living paycheck to paycheck, having unmanageable bills and student loan debt bigger than a small island, accumulating endless rejection and the inability to find meaningful relationships—basically, your late twenties and early thirties.
Symptoms include bloating, abdominal pain, lots of diarrhea and, big surprise here: depression. Most treatment advice is to exercise and cut back on stress—as if stress is just some little piece of fat on a pork chop you can easily pare down with a butter knife. As if exercise never caused anybody to superfluously soil herself in public. No more dating broke artists who wear velveteen pajama bottoms in public, or talking on the phone with Mother about her compulsive hair pulling. Best to stop waking up, even—because they recommend cutting back on coffee too. As if you could rise from your lonely, cat hair-covered bed while the construction workers rebuild the house across the street, and the downstairs Chihuahua shrieks like a crazed Selena fan club member, and face another ten-hour day of asking people if they want chips or salad with their gruyere sandwich without twelve cups of dark roast and a nice scream in the bathroom mirror first.
Michael had never seen my search history. He still wanted to hang out. He rode his bike thirty minutes across town wearing jeans in July to see my band, The Green Demons—a psychedelic surf punk group consisting of me and four middle-aged dudes—play our first show at a French bistro at four in the afternoon. He stood in the back while we played. He sweated uncomfortably, watching as my friend put on roller skates and cracked her head open on the tile floor.
“All the people in there look like a bunch of ’70s porn stars,” he said afterward, probably because all the middle-aged folks had on little shorts and tank tops; their hair, if any, in stringy ponytails.
“Those are my friends,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized. For what, I was unsure.
Still, he wanted to join my writing group. He wanted to read my stories. He wanted to drink beer, talk politics, share inside jokes. He called me every day and texted silly little nothings, and bestowed upon me the kind of attention that generally accompanies the demise of platonic friendship. Where was this all leading? What were his intentions? Why was he calling me after he’d already made plans to come to my house on a Saturday night to drink some beers, spouting nonsense like, “My roommate is going to come along too”? When men cock block themselves, that is never a good sign.
* * *
It was a full moon, steamier than a Vietnamese omelet. Michael was already a little tipsy upon arrival, but this still could not explain why he brought the roommate. To make matters worse, the cock block was distractingly hot, not the type of looks you’d expect from a poet.
“I’m from L.A,” the roommate explained on the way up the stairs. You could see how he’d been tainted from being forced to live in Alabama for a few years during school. He was wearing a gingham shirt and cowboy boots and had a slightly chipped tooth, but nothing about his outfit suggested he’d rather be anywhere else than right here, in my apartment, forever and ever. Michael stopped at an acceptance letter on my wall, my first publication, which the Star Wars boyfriend had framed for me one Christmas.
“Oh my god,” He guffawed. “Framed? Ew. Really?”
“It was a gift. My first publication.”
We had a beer on my balcony. Since they both had on cowboy boots, I put mine on too. We decided to go to St. Joe’s for another drink. As we went downstairs, I realized they’d left my door wide open.
“Did you guys not shut the door?” I asked Michael.
“Um, I don’t know,” he said.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” the poet said.
“What if my cat got out? Oh god. My cat,” I said. I ran back upstairs and called for her, but of course she was gone. I suppose this is every dude’s worst nightmare. Michael squatted in the alley and stuck his head under the house, calling for Kirby.
“Just go,” I told him. “I’ll come meet you at the bar. She’s not going to come out while you’re here. She hates people.”
“Yeah. Men especially.”
After they left, Kirby emerged from under the house, very content, her fur sparkling with dirt crystals in the moonlight. I got her inside and called Michael. I was that lonely. He came back to the house to pick me up and honked. He had one of those old hatchbacks that look like you can’t wash it anymore without the paint coming off.
“Where’s your roommate?” I asked, getting in.
“At the bar with his girlfriend.”
“Oh,” I said.
He touched my leg then, the part that wasn’t knee-deep in empty Redbull cans and Nestea bottles. “I’m sorry about letting the cat out. I thought there was going to be another door at the top of your stairs.”
“It’s fine,” I said. I couldn’t really blame him. For dudes, there usually is another door waiting at the top.
“Well, what should we do now?”
“We could go see Quintron.”
“I can’t afford to,” he said. “I’m completely broke.”
“Mod dance party?” I suggested. “It’s free.”
“I don’t like the mod dance party,” he said, but we wound up there anyway.
There were maybe a dozen or so people bopping around the icky floor in Saturn Bar. Practically empty, since it’s not the type of place anybody goes before midnight. Some crazy girl with her boobs hanging out of her tank top ran up to Michael and started hugging on him, screaming about how much Alabama sucked and how good it was to see him. He didn’t introduce me.
I found a seat at the bar and bummed cigarettes from some kids who worked at a sushi restaurant near my house. They were both in their black work clothes. High Lifes appeared and disappeared.
“This place is haunted,” one of them said. “You know that?”
“No,” I said.
“No, really. My friend was, like, waiting for the bathroom once behind a guy, and after fifteen minutes he finally busted open the door and the guy was gone. It was a ghost, man.”
“Man,” the other one said. “That ghost sounds like a dick.” He turned to me. “Hey, are you okay?”
It was happening. The monstrous beast was awakening from the bottom of the abyss. What had I eaten for dinner? Salmon, steamed brocolli, a sleeve of Ritz crackers and half a tub of Rouse’s Cajun krab dip…and some hazelnut Ritter Sport. Why, why, why?
“I need to talk to you,” Michael said, grabbing my arm as I rushed to the bathroom.
“Not right now,” I said.
Except somebody was in there taking her sweet time doing lord knows what. I waited. I waited and waited. Then two girls came up behind me.
“You in line?” a tall, skinny brunette asked me.
“Yeah,” I said. I felt really bad for this girl. Not only did she have on a tube top, the sausage casing of skanky fashions, but in a few minutes she would walk into the malodorous ramifications of my IBS—if a bathroom ghost didn’t kill her first.
Her friend, a portly Asian girl in a babydoll dress, smiled at me. Beyond her, the crazy boob girl danced her mess around, doing the camel walk and whatever else could be done in such tight jeans. Finally, an emaciated mod came out of the bathroom, fluffing her black bangs and not holding the door or making eye contact.
I entered, well aware of the task at hand. Best to keep all contact minimal unless you want to leave with staph, herpes, a wet purse or in need of a tetanus shot. You’re a shit sandwich, the wall informed me, along with a slew of grammatical errors only nerds like me would fuss over while attempting to defecate in a bar without sitting on a toilet seat. But there were lots of pleasantries on the wall too. Katie and Kirsten were here. Like, together, in this bathroom? Dear God. By the time I’d read all the way to FUCK YOU, TP NAZI, I’d flushed to the brink of an overflow, and washed my hands with water hot enough to scald a baby, holding the door for that poor girl on the way out.
Back at the bar, the dance floor had shed ninety-six tears and Michael was crumpled over a full High Life. I touched his back and he sort of jerked away. We sat uncomfortably for a few minutes.
“You’ve been acting really weird all night,” I said. “What is wrong with you?”
“Look. I have to tell you something. My ex-girlfriend is here.”
“That crazy booby girl on the dance floor?” I asked. She was now working her way behind the turntables, simultaneously dancing, massaging a DJ, smoking, texting and holding a drink in the crook of her elbow. She was Party Robot.
“God, no. That’s just this girl from Tuscaloosa.”
“I just feel bad because she’s probably been watching us.”
“Well, which one is she?”
“I don’t see her. Maybe she left.”
It was starting to get packed and heat-stroke humid, dozens of people filing in through the dingy protective plastic in the doorway. After a few minutes of staring at my beer, I saw her emerge from the crowd. She came up and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Hey,” she said.
It was her. The girl who walked into my shit scent.
* * *
The thing about Saturn bar is it can be dead empty, and you can check your phone, pick at your nails, then close your eyes and sigh, and the second you open them again it’s pulsing body to body and there’s a loose dog licking your boots. A few hours ago, they’d been white leather and covered in sticky energy drink residue. Now they were gray suede. Michael was deep in conversation with the ex, so I went and stood outside under the neon sign, called a cab, watched some crusties pick apart a tamale and disappeared into the night.
“Sorry I bailed,” I texted him. “Have fun.” And maybe he did. Maybe he held his girl in his arms. Maybe they talked about kickball, or jumped on the dance floor to do the low squat during “Twist and Shout,” or parted ways after a few minutes and never spoke again.
I’d like to think they went up to the balcony, sat close, held hands, let their legs dangle over the crowd of sweaty mods. Maybe she leaned in and snorted, “That girl you were with.”
“She did a number in the bathroom. Like really, really bad.”
And maybe it was, because I found myself back home on yet another Saturday night, completely alone, devouring the rest of the Cajun krab dip and actually thinking Michael might text me back. I played some Allen Toussaint on the greasy kitchen boombox and made myself a massive grilled cheese. By then the booze was wearing off. Reality was setting in. A look in the bathroom mirror revealed I did in fact look like a woman who’d just shat in a bar and left alone.
“Tonight was a horror show,” I told Kirby, drawing myself a bath as she shredded the rug below. I soaked beneath a thick layer of Mr. Bubble foam like the twelve-year-old I am and will always be. I went to bed, listening to the wind in the drapes, the Chihuahuas, cats and roaches skittering about in the night, but never the phone vibrating with a text message. Michael never contacted me again. His was just another name added to a long list of disappearing acts I’ve scared away somehow or another. I have no idea whatever happened to that dude, nor do I currently have more than two shits to give.
* * *
Gwendolyn Knapp is an essayist, freelancer, and the editor of Eater NOLA. Her first book of nonfiction is forthcoming from the Penguin Group.
Anna Haifisch was born in 1986 in Leipzig, Germany and draws comics, posters and animations.