I’ve always had an issue with open-door policies – at least insofar as they related to communal shower stalls.
It was shortly after I’d arrived at college that I realized I could no longer pretend I was “still clean from the long shower I took at home” and used the shared showers for the first time. I was immediately troubled by the sight of four stalls completely open, with only a fifth stall offering any sort of privacy from passersby. You can probably imagine my reaction when, upon entering the bathroom three weeks later, I found the door missing on the fifth stall.
It had been replaced, much to my surprise, by a wet, naked man who looked very unhappy that I was staring at him.
This may or may not be how most shared bathrooms are in college dorms. I don’t know. I’ve only ever lived on two different campuses, so I don’t have a huge frame of reference. Nor have I ever thought to ask random people about their showering experiences, for reasons I probably shouldn’t have to explain.
But this was a problem for me. As to why, well, that’s a bit of a long story.
* * *
Back in the hospital waiting room, the radiologist started. “What? Why in the world would that be a long story?”
I blinked. “Why are we back in the narrative framing device?”
“It’s really important you answer the question,” the technician said, folding his arms over his clipboard. “It’s reasonable to not want to shower in front of everyone. It’s so reasonable, in fact, that having a long story behind behind why you don’t like it fills me with dread and horror.”
“I don’t know. I think the audience needs the backstory from my childhood to fully understand where I’m coming from.”
The radiologist seemed to look right through me. Given his line of work, it was either ironic or just him being really, really good at his job. “What sort of story from your childhood? Is it something you’d be better off sharing with a therapist? A trusted member of the clergy?”
“That…might be awkward. It was sort of an incident from my church’s summer camp,” I said, realizing how it must have sounded once I said it aloud.
The man’s eyes widened in terror. “Oh, dear God…”
I sighed. “Just…hear me out, okay? It’s not what you think.”
It was, however, very nearly what he thought. I won’t belabor a very traumatizing childhood memory, but the short version is that I was punished by my counselors for not wanting to shower in front of other kids by being forced to shower in front of them. You know, totally sensible, non-perverted, non-scarring stuff.
(Writer’s Note: I wisely withheld the details of the full version of the story on account of it being unimaginably, inescapably depressing.)
“That’s…very nearly what I thought,” the technician agreed, shuddering. “I mean, it was a little less molest-y than I thought it might be…” As silver linings went, you really had to squint to see it.
* * *
That small adventure, combined with the general uncomfortably homoerotic nature of showering after gym in high school never endeared me to the idea of being naked in public. In fact, I wasn’t particularly fond of being naked in private. Or clothed in public.
My life is a vibrant tapestry.
In that moment in the bathroom, I wasn’t sure what to do. Skipping showers for the next five weeks didn’t seem to be a viable solution. And my experience in summer camp had taught me that there were inevitably worse outcomes to just such a situation.
Luckily, by this point, I’d taken the step of looking off in a random direction, at least mitigating the risk of being pummeled by an angry naked man. But it didn’t do much to help my problem of not wanting to show off my bits – naughty, regular and those somewhere in between – to any person wandering through the bathroom at the time. And sometimes the hallway, since they kept those doors open, too.
“I guess somebody scratched something offensive into the door, so they threw it out,” my RA explained to me when I asked him about it later. I hadn’t seen the marks, though if there were anything like the rest of the graffiti in the bathroom, they likely featured our RA and his viewpoint on penises very prominently.
“Wouldn’t a door with a few scratches in it still function better as a door than…nothing?” I argued. “When are we getting a replacement?”
He gave me a confused look. “Replacement? Why would they replace it?”
“Because…I don’t like people staring at me while I’m naked.”
“Oh, nobody’s going to stare at you while you’re naked,” he dismissed, in a passable imitation of my gym teachers in high school, though to his credit, he didn’t add, “Frankly, you’re not much to look at,” as they had.
“That’s great. But I’d rather they just not be able to,” I answered. When it comes to people walking behind me while I’m naked, defenseless and washing soap out of my eyes, I’d rather it not be on the honor system.
Not for the first time, my RA shrugged and admitted he was utterly useless to me.
I sighed. “I guess I could always use the showers on the other floors.”
“Actually, I don’t really want the guys from my floor wandering into random showers,” he said, not for the first time complicating a very simple problem.
“Then, as far as you know, I won’t be doing that,” I said, without putting much effort into lying convincingly.
His eyes narrowed, as though he suspected something, but I quickly saw I’d misread what he was suspicious about. “Do you know who keeps writing horrible stuff about me on the bathroom stalls? And walls?” He went through a short list of other surfaces. Only three weeks into the semester, comments alleging his insatiable appetite for dicks had appeared on more forms of media than the Hebrew Bible, and were considerably filthier than even the weird parts where people tricked people into having sex.
“To be totally honest, there’s a long list of suspects who would write something horrible about you,” I admitted.
He smiled, apparently thinking some sort of joke was happening. “Nah. They’re just messing with me. It’s tough love. I mean, you like me, right?”
I hesitated, not sure how to answer when, in reality, it would probably be the best thing for him to get some honesty on the subject as soon as possible. I aimed to soften the blow. “My dad used to say that if he didn’t have anything nice to say, he shouldn’t say anything at all.”
“See?” he said, as if he’d heard literally the opposite of what I’d said. “What’s not to like?”
Gazing out at his question like a hole with no bottom, I decided not to clarify. I hadn’t been speaking generally. I’d literally meant that when my dad had been dropping me off, he’d heavily implied that he specifically hadn’t liked my RA.
But the moment passed and he only shrugged it off. “Well, even if they don’t like me, I’ll just have to try harder,” he said, and slapped me on the shoulder again.
“That…is certainly an action you could take that would have…some result,” I noted. If anything, he probably could have stood trying a little less hard. Failing that, he could have stopped creating situations to entrap his fellow students in criminal acts in hopes of endearing himself to school administrators. But I had enough problems without having to be my RA’s life coach. “And please stop touching my arm. It sickens me,” I added.
“You got it, buddy,” he said, and raised his hand to slap my shoulder again.
“They’d never find your body,” I cautioned him. He lowered his hands and opted to go gun fingers instead.
These left me only mildly nauseated, so I allowed it.
I realize that a clean narrative arc insists that I offer some sort of conclusion here. And yet, given these very specific circumstances, it feels almost more fitting that you not know the exact details of my adventures in shower privacy. Suffice it to say, I showered at some point between the end of this story and the moment I’m telling it, and that’s about all I’m willing to divulge on the subject.
I figure the chances of you actually being four camp counselors reading this at the same time are pretty slim, but you never know…