The First Toilet
I grew up in a house with four toilets—two upstairs, two down—but as a young girl, I cleaned only one. My sister and I took turns with the toilet we shared. My mother cleaned the toilet she shared with my father. My brothers cleaned their toilet in turns. Typical of his nature, gracious to everyone who entered our home, my father cleaned the toilet in the guest bathroom.
The Toilets of a Best Friend
Sarah Smith had the kind of ponytail every sixth-grader wanted: straight with curls at the end, honey-brown with natural blond highlights, so thick that it made a sound as she brushed it. I felt the need to continually renew and affirm her affection for me, to ensure that I would be the person she went rollerblading with around the neighborhood. I wanted her parents to like me so they would let us go rollerblading. I wanted us to be seen together. Sarah’s parents gave her more chores than my parents gave me, and they were strict about manners of all kinds. After school on Fridays, before her parents returned from work, Sarah would drag the vacuum around her house, and I would clean all the toilets: upstairs, the guest toilet, her older sister’s toilet, the auxiliary toilet downstairs, her parents’ toilet. This is where I learned how to clean a toilet fast but good. This is where I learned about a drunk man’s toilet: dried drips of pee under the seat and sometimes down the front of the bowl. Once a month we laundered the four terry-cloth seat covers.
The Toilets of a Young Family
As a freshman in high school, my first job was to clean three toilets in a house which belonged to a young family. There were two parents with three babies whose ages spaced out neatly in year intervals: three, two, one. I felt it my duty to pretend I was not embarrassed for the parents as I wiped pubic hairs from their toilet seat and ignored the tub of Tucks suppositories sitting on the tank. (At the time, I believed that they were the father’s, but now I understand they were the mother’s, the hemorrhoids from childbirth.) One after the other, all three children toilet-trained. I dumped and rinsed a red plastic potty hundreds of times, first for Jack, then for Joel, then for Julie, the baby.
The Divorced Toilets
After I spent three years working for the young family, the parents divorced in a sudden and dramatic fashion. Over the course of a few difficult months, the mother exhibited a string of strange behaviors. She maxed out credit cards to buy expensive towels that she returned a day later. In the winter, she left on a walk without a jacket and wandered into the woods. Hours later, nearly frozen, her husband frantic at home, she stumbled onto a highway and flagged down a passing car. The truth of it all eludes me: the father’s demand that she take certain medications, her refusal, claims on both ends. She left or she was forced out, and I kept cleaning the toilets that now belonged to the father alone. The mother found an apartment across town, and I visited her a few times because I’d grown close to her, and because she was sad, and because she wasn’t allowed, for a brief time, to see her children. And so I would tell her about them, about what Jack drew or Joel said or how Julie laughed and laughed at Pinocchio. I never cleaned the mother’s toilet, but I would’ve liked to have cleaned it, to show how sorry I was that she couldn’t live with her children. I didn’t know how else to tell her.
The Toilets of a College Residence Hall
I lived among forty-nine other women in an old-fashioned hall with four stories, built in the 1920s by a benefactress. Because I was quick to smile and crack jokes, I made friends fast and easy, but I took very seriously my responsibilities to the Hall, the Group. The women who lived there performed chores, each according to her ability, arranged by schedule. There were two toilets per story (exception: the basement had a single toilet). You’d expect that being assigned the bathroom cleaning was a badge of dishonor, a punishment, but in fact these duties were coveted. One campaigned for a year’s worth of the responsibility—to be assigned to bathroom detail was a point of pride (to me). It meant you were dependable (I was, I was). If you proved yourself, if you earned bathroom duty, if it were your turn, sometimes your roommate would come in there to keep you company, sitting on the countertop between the sinks, her ankles bumping against the cabinets as she swung her legs. I loved the company because I wanted these women to understand that, with my help, things could run smoothly.