So I’m standing at the third of eight urinals kind of just spacing out, not breathing too deep, not making any face like I’m over-enjoying myself here, eyes straight-straight ahead, when a guy’s chin is suddenly on my shoulder, his whiskers rasping against the fabric of my jacket, his voice tunneling down my ear, rollercoastering into my head, splashing behind my eyes: “This is the only place we can talk, man. ”
I flinch forward, remember there’s only the slick pee of a thousand strangers to fall into, so then have to lean back. Into the chest of my new worst friend.
My hands are occupied, too, of course, so I can’t even really push him off without making a mess of myself.
I’ve always half-feared getting stabbed in the kidney while peeing, or maybe kicked in the back of the head.
Not whispered to. Not told a secret.
It’s worse, somehow. More intimate.
And of course we’re all alone in here. There’s no one for me to appeal to with a look. Nobody who can confirm the obvious lunacy of this situation.
All I can do, finally, is step over to the next urinal, kind of drawing a wet line on the tile wall between.
“Yeah, yeah, forgot,” the guy says, stepping up to my urinal and unzipping far too loudly. “Appearances.”
What I don’t do here is look over at him.
Also, what I can’t help but do is sneak a glance.
He could be anybody. He is anybody. Another version of me, even: just a dude off the street. Regular everyday normal clothes. No crazy beard. Eyes not particularly strained. No easy facial tics to recognize his kind by. No scars from past encounters in less forgiving bathrooms.
I wrap things up, hunch my shoulders to zip and turn away earlier than usual, to make my big getaway.
I should have waited to hear him start, though. That would have been a liquid tether, keeping him there.
He was just standing there for appearances, though.
Before I can get to the double sink, his hand is on my shoulder, his eyes boring into mine.
“Whoah, whoah,” I say, smiling just enough so he maybe won’t take offense but not enough that he’ll get any ideas.
“Hands, right,” he says, pushing his sleeves up for the sink. Which is precisely where I could have left. Precisely where I should have left.
Except he made me backsplash some onto my fingers.
So. We stand there with different waters running.
I shake my head and smile into my sink, already trying to compartmentalize this whole scene up, to tell Molly about later.
“You can feel them out there too, can’t you?” he says, talking down into his own sink so that, to anybody behind us—still no one—we’ll be strangers, he’ll be talking to himself, just another crazy mutterer in a city of them.
“Yep,” I tell him. Not without hesitation, but because, of the two options—three, counting no reply at all, I guess, but that’s already failed me—it seems the one less likely to send him into some big explanation, the story of his life, his theories about the universe, why he likes skim milk more than abstract paintings of flowers, that whole deathtrap whirlpool.
But of course it happens anyway.
“I’m not saying I’m from the future or anything,” he says, the white foam swelling and crackling in his hands, his voice low again like I’m in his confidence. His eyes kind of wowing out to show what he thinks of those other people always claiming to be from 2099 or 4212.
“Me neither,” I say, measuring my words more carefully now, my water already uncomfortably hot. My clothes suddenly too tight as well. This men’s room just way too small, way too buried, way too remote.
“They’ve still got television shows, though,” he says, definitely thrilled with his discovery.
“Television,” I parrot, a countdown already going in my head: my launch sequence. How long until I’m back on the street, not in this guy’s particular sphere of crazy.
“It’s even bigger then,” he says. “Like, everybody’s glued to it, man. Night and day. I mean, all the big problems, hungers, war, disease, oil, math, that’s all been solved by then. Like, generations ago. Seriously.”
I catch on math but don’t say anything.
“Not saying it still looks the same, either, but, you know. It’s the same dynamic. People sitting around in their own personal luxury, tuning in to a broadcast. The technology involved would melt our primitive brains, of course, would revolutionize our world—or, I guess it did, it revolutionized our world into theirs. But you get what I’m saying.”
“Exactly. I knew you could tell. The way you were watching this door, how you kind of snuck up on it, then darted in before their cameras could pick you up. I thought you were a shoplifter, at first. But then I recognized myself in you. You have to sneak in, right? If you make an announcement of it, everybody in the future, on their couches, they all get ready to place their bets.”
I swallow just to stall, I think, and try to think back to my approach.
At one time I was a shoplifter, that’s the thing. Maybe old habits, lurky old ways of moving, they don’t go away unless you make them go away?
“Listen, I’ve got to—” I start.
“You think that when you choose X or Y,” he goes on, oblivious, “that when you go down this hall or that other one, when they both lead to the same place, are the same length—I know that doesn’t make sense, but go with me—you think that’s all your decision. But their shows, man. How they work. It’s genius. And, understand that they’re past money, of course. Their currency, how they gauge social status, it’s all about influence. That’s the big thing then. There.”
“And, I’m not just supersure of the tech for this, but I think it’s probably like microphones. What they do is they choose hall X or hall Y for you, right? Just, arbitrarily, complete guesswork, or maybe they’ve been watching you, think they know your habits, can really predict. But then they try to make it come true. By yelling into their little microphones, louder and louder, like really ragging their throats out, going for blood, who cares about tomorrow, that kind of yelling. That voice you hear in the back of your head, telling you no no no no? That’s them, man. That’s thousands of them reaching back through time, that’s millions of them all chanting together, all desperate for you to go this way instead of that way. When neither way really matters at all. But that’s all they’ve got anymore, right? That’s all they’ve got left to do.”
I rattle my paper towel from the dispenser, bunch it between my hands.
“It’s like that,” he goes on, pinching the words from the air, “it’s like that magic kind of thinking you had when you were a kid, where you just know that if you twist that doorknob a second time, then that’s making some kind of secret difference. But it does, see? To them. It’s like we’re puppets. Like the past is a play to them. One they can’t keep their fingers out of.”
“But bathrooms,” I say, balling my paper towel up, arcing it into the black hole between the sinks.
He does the same, like that makes us brothers, comrades, fellow prisoners.
“Censors,” he says, flashing his eyes all around the empty men’s room.
I take another paper towel. Just because I don’t know what to do with my hands anymore.
He takes one too.
“Censors, decency,” he says, too close to me again. “They can follow you shopping, at work, in transit, at home, at family reunions—wherever there’s decisions to be made. But, when you picked that third urinal, it was all you, wasn’t it? You didn’t hear any voices trying to get you to go all the way to the end, right? Of course you didn’t. Their cameras, they can’t look into our bathrooms, man. Because this is network for them. It’s supposed to be safe for the kiddies, the grandmas. Something you can watch while eating dinner.”
Just to keep him from seeing my eyes—it makes sense, a show not going into the bathroom with the character—I track over to that third urinal.
It’s still there. Waiting for me. Calling to me.
“So this is the only place we’re really us anymore, man,” he says, so earnest now. So desperate for me to see what he’s saying. Then he’s even quieter for the next part: “The only time they’re not in our heads, controlling us. ”
I bite my lip in, nod in what I hope’s not a superior way.
We’re finally to the tinfoil helmet part of the afternoon.
“Um,” I say, palming my wallet like an apology, “I got a dollar, I guess.”
He looks down to my hand then tracks back up to my face, these sad parentheses around his eyes, his lips somehow shaped like the worst question mark.
“They’re out there, man,” he says. “You’re a star in their world, don’t you see? We all are. Every little moment of the day. Every turn, every decision, every choice. Their whole world hangs on it. You can feel it, right? Hear it? Kind of—?” and he touches the back of his head, to show.
I leave him standing there, marooned in the men’s room for however long this episode is going to last. I try to wish some good meds back to him, or for a sister or a dad to find him, reel him back in. But it’s not going to be me. Sorry, bub. Wrong dude, wrong bathroom. I walk out not really smiling, but definitely relieved, my hands clean, the day bright, my dollar back in my wallet, my bladder sagging in on itself so that I have to picture it like a raisin, spent.
The first obstacle I have to step around is just a normal, beat-up table.
I fake left, go right at the last moment.
Next is a woman a blue pantsuit, her heels clacky.
We dance left, we dance right, and finally she smiles and commits to her left, leaving me to go to my left, completely randomly, the two us grinning to each other about the stupid complexity of it all. Just the simple mechanics of navigating a sidewalk.
After her is a planter seeded with cigarette butts.
To show I’m my own person, I step up onto its front ledge, take neither the X way around nor the Y way, but, when I come down all true Z, my hands still pocketed, my face ready to be pleasant, my whole body leaning into the future, I feel something like a sigh in the back my head. Like one person out of a hundred million made a longshot pie-in-the-sky gamble that just came true. Like all their whispers into their microphone finally made it through. To me. Here.
I keep my hands in my pockets but am pushing them in deeper now. I breathe in, trying to fill this new hollowness in my chest.
If I looked back, would the guy be watching me from the doorway of the bathroom?
If I looked back, would a cigarette tree be unfurling itself from the planter, in celebration?
Yes. No. Maybe.
I purse my lips, swallow the smile I don’t really mean.
Dear Molly, I say in my head, wincing. I think we’re live.
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