Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Toilet Trauma

So I realize I’ve talked a lot about our travels, which is an excellent benefit to being stationed where we are; but I’ve said very little about the rest of life with the military and marriage. Both of these things have the extreme potential to put you in the loony bin or drive you to murder if you take them too seriously. The trick, in my opinion, is humor. It’s the only way to survive – especially if you’re dealing with both of these afflictions (marriage and mustard gas). Sometimes you may have to really search for the humor in something, other times it just happens naturally.

Today, it was a natural occurrence for me.

I went in for a long overdue trim of the hair hesitant of every step. Since we moved here, my hair cutting experiences have always left me with a sore scalp. I often feel as though I'll have no hair left to cut by the time they finish brushing it. In the States, it can feel as though you’ve gone in for a head massage and makeover rather than to trim off some split ends. In Deutschland, it can feel like you've accidentally signed up for torture survival training!

Today, however, I was relieved to find someone who treated my scalp as if it were actually attached to a living thing. She spoke English, as well, so we got to chat a bit. Normally I’m quiet when I’m in the chair – a combination of my introverted tendencies and not wanting to distract the person holding sharp scissors close to my face. But with the pleasant surprise of comfort, I found myself fairly conversational.

The normal questions came up, of course – How long have you lived here? Do you plan to travel? Do you live nearby? So it wasn’t long before we discovered that we’re actually neighbors! She lives in the building across from mine, so we empathized over the things we like and dislike about stairwell living. (For those of you who have never lived in overseas military family housing, ‘stairwells’ is the common term for the apartment-like structures we often live in. A stairwell is exactly what it sounds like – an indoor flight of stairs. In this case, however, it also refers to the group of apartments that reside off that particular stairwell, and sometimes the families that live there. It might sound silly – but most of us are just glad it isn’t an acronym!) Our most emphatic sympathies came over the subject of all the noise in the stairwells: dogs, people talking, children, soccer games, doors slamming, etc.

To properly understand the noise issue, you have to understand our stairwells. First of all, you can hear just about everything that happens in the stairwell itself because of the echo created by the concrete walls that enclose it. When someone enters, assuming it’s a quiet afternoon, you can usually hear every step they take on the way to their apartment. Secondly, the closer they get to your front door, the louder their steps are.

The next thing you must understand is the layout of our particular apartments, most notably the proximity of the bathroom to the front door. Not all units are created equally, so I’ve drawn a diagram of our own unit:

The funny thing about the sound issue is that if you’re in the bathroom, you can’t hear it if someone is shouting to you from the doggie tap dancing arena (also known as the living room); but you can hear conversations being held in the stairwell crystal clear.

This, of course, opens you up to a myriad of concerns stemming from the main question: If I can hear them... can they hear me?

For most of us, the bathroom is a private place. When we go in and close the door, we like to imagine that all sounds are blocked to outside ears, all smells are contained, and pretty much that what happens in the bathroom… stays in the bathroom. We may know better, but that doesn't stop us from pretending. Even if someone hears something, smells something... whatever. It's family! 

But with this setup, who knows?! 

Could someone walking by hear that occasionally audible ‘plunk’ as you drop the kids off at the pool? Do your neighbors get to boogie to your morning shower tunes? Exactly how many listened last fall as you lost your fest food and sang your praises to the porcelain throne after that one last pint of ale?

For some this could be more embarrassing than others.

But the one fear that I thought I was alone on, until confiding in my oh-so-gentle hair tamer, was the one I get when I’m on the toilet and can hear someone coming up the stairs...

They’re coming for me!

…well. Not exactly for me, but it’s more the idea that they’re going to accidentally walk in my door thinking it’s their own.

This thought is equally adrenaline-inducing whether you pee with your door open or shut, we agreed. Why? Because many of us have the desire to use the facilities as soon as we get home, and it’s all the more convenient when the front door leads right to the bathroom door! There wouldn’t be enough scenery between the two to indicate to someone ‘wrong house!’ before things were seen that could not be unseen.

Even if someone came in and it wasn’t their first instinct to use the restroom, I think it would still be awkward knowing that some stranger was in your home while you were taking care of business.

Now, I’m sure many of you are thinking, ‘Don’t you lock your door?

Well the answer is yes! Yes, I do. But our locks are funny and outdated. They have three modes, dependent upon how far you turn your key:

        (1) Death Trap – the door is locked and you must use a key to get in or out of your own home.  
             (Very reassuring with how often our fire alarms go off, I must say.)
        (2) Hotel House – the door is locked to the outside. You can open it from the inside, no problem;
             but if it shuts behind you? You need the key to get back in.
        (3) Free for All! – the door can be opened from the inside or outside, no key necessary; it is
             simply unlocked.

That’s right. One click to the left too many and the community is free to roam your quarters! We don’t have a convenient little turny-knob on the inside that we can easily twist to lock the door after letting ourselves in. Others do, but for some reason our building does not. We have to use the key again. Now, after lugging up a few armfuls of groceries, you might well imagine how one might forget to re-lock the door.

When broaching this fear to my combed companion, I was hoping she wouldn’t think I was entirely crazy. I certainly never expected her to share this toilet trauma. So when she did, I think we both died laughing out of relief! Someone else shares my irrational fear! It was truly a bonding experience.

My husband thinks I’m crazy!’ she strained between bouts of giggles, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye. But we knew better.

When I got home, I realized that I’d had a survival moment. Marriage can be stressful and infuriating at times. The military tends to make a habit out of pissing you off. Surviving the combination of these two things means you’re more rare than a millionaire but receive much less comfort and stability. It can be hard to laugh sometimes… but it’s so essential.

And sometimes, you just have to laugh about the things that literally scare the crap out of you!

(To those grammar-sensitive individuals out there, I fully realize that 'more rare' should probably be 'rarer'. It's driving me nuts, too! But it just doesn't have the same ring, does it?)