The Double-Sink Bathroom
Shannon Nakai talks about the separations of literary and graduate classes by bathroom sinks.
My 19-year-old student, Kris, is in my office again, drinking the last of my tea and elaborating on his newfound college woes. Slinky hair to his shoulders, ankles shooting out a mile past his jeans cuffs, he has to hunch in his chair so as not to bump his head against my hardcover Flannery O’Connors and Salman Rushdies providentially watching us from their stoop. I furnish Kris with all the leftover cookies that I swiped from graduate student meetings, forgetting in my hospitality that those were intended to be my dinner. Kris is a good kid, if not a bit energetic. Following his train of thought is like trying to walk a herd of poodles who have just spotted a squirrel. He began telling me about his Robin Coste Lewis paper, then switched to his latest Netflix addictions, which have become a nightly necessity. Brushing Milano crumbs off the down on his upper lip, he is describing last night’s hockey movie, which his mother had unceremoniously interrupted.
“She was painting the cabinets in my bathroom,” he says, “when she messed up — ”
“Sorry,” I interrupt. “I just — did you just say your bathroom?”
“Your bathroom? Solely yours? Not the family bathroom?”
“Yes,” he says, in a tone that denotes the frustrated shame of a let-slip he must have hoped had gone under my radar.
The fact is, bathrooms don’t get personal pronouns. They’re not like toothbrushes or condoms, in which case you’d hope to each their own. It’s a reasonable assumption that family members don’t have their own bathrooms, just as they don’t eat their own turkeys on Thanksgiving or lay claim to their own neighborhood fire hydrants. This suggested a level of extravagance I had never before considered in the skinny kid sitting by my desk and polishing off the last of my loose-leaf Earl Grey. At one point he had alluded with that same embarrassed resignation that his family is rich, but I’d just assumed he meant richer than I am. Which, as a graduate teaching assistant, isn’t saying much. There are Cub Scouts that make more money than I do. The head of our department runs from us and hides under his desk each payday. My father, in attempts to save me from a life of poverty, had dissuaded me from studying the violin in school, and I listened to him. I’m now earning a Master of Fine Arts in poetry. It’s pretty shameless how easily I coerce my students to follow suit, convincing them how fun it is to write and read in grad school, painting attractive pictures of sipping tea and gorging on the latest groundbreaking publications, for which I scrape and collect crusty pennies from the floor of my car in order to purchase. It’s still a fun and — metaphorically speaking — enriching life, and I’m happy, or else I wouldn’t be doing it; they see this and infallibly line up. Richie Rich is no exception. He talks about Holden Caulfield as if in a bromance and joins me in snarling over infringements like the threat of defunding the NEA or the close call with graduate tuition waivers getting taxed. Kris is only a freshman, but so determined is he to be one of us. But then there’s this bathroom of his.
“It gets worse,” he confesses. “There are two sinks.”
I cannot imagine why a 19-year-old would need two sinks in his bathroom. “Is one for washing and one for spitting?” He doesn’t give me a real answer. “Are you sleeping in the master bedroom?” Surely the sinks were designated as His and Hers, and perhaps he had appropriated his parents’ room, like Mean Girls’ Regina George: “I made them trade me.”
“No,” he says, explaining matter-of-factly that his parents sleep in the master bedroom with their own bathroom, and he sleeps in his bedroom with his own bathroom. With two sinks. Add to that his sister with a private bathroom adjoined to her room, and the family poodle, Kylo Ren, Jr., with his own turf toilet in a humidified corner decked out in color-coordinated dog and Jedi motifs, and you get a decent idea of this family dynamic. My student tries to resuscitate this now-long-forgotten story: “So my mom got upset because there was a section in the paneling she couldn’t paint, and — ”
“Sorry, sorry, again, I just need to clarify — how many bathrooms total are in your house?”
It turns out there are a lot. There are hotels with fewer bathrooms. He spends an alarming amount of time calculating his answer. This is not a question that should warrant actual time to count. It’s not like being asked how many outlets are in your house or when was the last time you cleaned your lettuce crisper. The house where I grew up had two: downstairs where we kept our cat on account of my mother’s venomous allergies, and where my father gave said cat back-rubs to French cabaret music; and the upstairs bathroom, stocked with all my mother’s crossword puzzles, mystery novels, and theology books, until the place resembled a private library with a funny-looking easy chair. I challenged her on the theology books being placed so indecorously next to the toilet-paper stand. It seemed too profane a place to engage in the more consecrated study of God and the gospels, until she pointed out that Martin Luther himself found the commode a holy site for humbling himself before the Almighty. In her loose translation, “What do I have to hide from Him?” Apparently nothing.
Three months after my wedding, my husband and I moved to Turkey, where I taught English on a Fulbright. Our apartment bathroom was one giant tiled shower stall with a toilet in the corner. In some places public toilets were little more than holes in the floor toward which you had to squat with your pants around your ankles, a problem for those with arthritic knees or balancing problems. Occasionally, the toilet paper was missing, and, on top of everything else, you were charged a Turkish lira to use the facilities. I can’t imagine the capital American service stations could raise if we charged a bathroom fee. People would no longer complain about the exorbitant prices for gasoline. Instead, they’d say, “Did you see that pissing is now up to two dollars a half-pint? And don’t even get me started on taking a dump!”
During the graduate-school years, between my husband and me, our meager funds necessitated the most modest of one-bedroom apartments. Each with one bathroom. In one place, we had to walk through the bedroom past the Murphy bed to get to what I first thought was a linen closet, until I saw the sink. The toilet was so close to the door I had to stand on the lid in order to wedge myself in, and closing the door meant drawing my knees up to my chin, an impractical position given what I was trying to do in there.
By the time we could afford renting a house, we had increased our space only by the number of bedrooms — a whopping two. Again with one bathroom. The door to this bathroom, like all the doors in this antiquated building, has a crystal knob that isn’t securely screwed in. You have to pry very carefully when closing the door behind you, or else the doorknob falls off completely and you get locked in from the inside. We’ve had to rescue every guest that ever used our bathroom. On the bright side, it’s a great exercise for building intimacy, being forced to have someone run to your aid while you’re sitting on the john. I tell myself the house has character, that this feature is endearing, like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life learning to love and even kiss the wooden handrail knob that always came off in his hand. Perhaps one day I’ll pucker up for that crystal doorknob that always falls with a clatter onto the hardwood floor, threatening someday to break someone’s toes.
The few times that I’ve taken an actual bath in the bathroom have been an equally interesting experience. We pay for normal Wichita city water, which comes out clear in all the faucets, but in the bathtub, it’s a pretty seashell blue. I tell myself it has to do with the soft lighting (code word for “The lights don’t always work”) and no cause for alarm or, say, a recent citywide boil advisory during which I watched my fellow Wichitans hoard more bottled water than the entire pandemic-stricken nation did with toilet paper the year prior. Our bathroom is adequate, but it’s not decorated and is by no means my favorite room in the house. I refrain from bringing my phone in there, let alone my entire library (sorry, Mom). My relationship with it is entirely perfunctory.
That said, my student’s double-sink bathroom has given me cause to rethink my attitude toward the bathroom as a landscape of luxury. After all, why not? We’ve turned living rooms into second bedrooms and second kitchens, with overstuffed recliners, home theaters, mini-bars, and mini-fridges, in case a nuclear holocaust ever wipes out the world and we are consigned to live there for the rest of our lives. We have libraries, yoga rooms, craft-supply rooms, music studios, and man-caves; we pay thousands of dollars and bring in professionals to repaint and retile a room that is seriously just meant for cooking. One of my girlfriends recently renovated her mudroom; we spent hours antiquing for decorations for a place called a mudroom. Foyers have couches; cars have multiple settings for seat warmers; and, at some local businesses that sell real estate, scrapbooking items, or chiropractic services, one can help oneself to a movie-theater-popcorn maker.
So why not lavish up the bathroom? Make it a personal statement, something that reflects who you are as a person. I like to think what the two sinks say about my 19-year-old friend. He is a young man who possesses the kind of fairytale opulence we graduate students can only dream of, and not the kind of hopeful dreaming that will one day materialize into reality, but a fabrication, like the stories we write, a character being born on the pages. This character will rise and look about the warm, golden atmosphere of his double-sink bathroom, the ballroom-expanse of heated Turkish ceramic tiles separating his well-lotioned feet from the fluted basins and clawfoot tub that stand beneath a teardrop Tiffany chandelier. He will reach for a silver tray bearing a pyramid of oranges and pomegranates and peruse his private library stacked on marble shelves over an onyx gold-rimmed toilet. So clear is the porcelain that he will see himself, his face. He will bend toward it with wonder and perfect bliss as the glittering bowl fills with distilled water from the Andes, an elixir of affluence so vivid that the impoverished writer fashioning her Pygmalion on the pages can actually see the magic water and sigh with him in the tiled haven of comfort and prosperity.