by Carly West
Muriel entrenched herself in the bathroom one Wednesday afternoon. Her foot was undeniably and firmly lodged in the toilet’s drain. She perched atop the rim behind a closed metal door, fifth stall from the right. The stall behind the corner. The secret stall. Her anklebone had found a miraculously comfortable resting position in the drain hole, her surely broken pinky toe drifting across the porcelain tunnel leading to the siphon and the pipes beyond. Yet she was surprisingly pain-free. So Muriel hovered, her supporting leg shaking under her frame, the muscle in her hip flexor numb from the strain of singular weight.
She had thickened since she started working in The Building, gaining at least thirty-five pounds since her first interview with Joe Hapless. His surname might have struck Muriel as comical if Joe hadn’t struck her as malevolent in his ambition to advance. In that interview, he had asked Muriel questions from a pre-arranged list, then asked her to fill out a worksheet noting her strengths, weaknesses, and hobbies. She gave much consideration to the “hobbies” category and eventually penned the answer “being an ingénue,” deciding this summed up her public persona, being the word she felt Steven Soderbergh would use to describe her. Muriel subsequently found her survey in Joe’s office, the only paper in a file marked “Muriel Bell.” Beside her file was one labeled “Norman Mac.” Norman was Joe’s manager, and Joe wanted to be Norman in a tangible way, a quality Muriel thought she could smell in Joe’s hair when he stood too close to her desk, leaning over her keyboard to correct her typos. Muriel found and read Joe’s mid-year performance review from this file; Norman had encouraged Joe to “adopt a more assertive role in his management style and demonstrate initiative in professional and technical growth.” Muriel guessed this was why Joe disliked her typos so much. They illustrated Joe’s failure to demonstrate assertiveness and growth, ineptitude in the form of squiggled red lines beneath marred words.
Muriel was now 178 pounds on a five foot-one inch frame, and with each pound she gained, it seemed her straight blonde hair grew another inch. She hadn’t cut it for two years. She continued to buy brightly hued elastic bands to pull strands back from her face instead. Today she donned a fuchsia band. It matched her skin, a side effect of her light blonde hair and tendency toward Rosacea. From her crown, one could see through to her pink scalp. She sometimes caught people staring at the top of her head. Sometimes Joe tried to be sneaky about it, and Muriel wished he would just ask: May I please stare at your pink scalp? I’m trying to figure out whether or not you’re an albino. But your eyes aren’t red, and I’ve heard their eyes are red.
Muriel stood with her foot in the toilet for what she guessed to be an hour, perched in flamingo fashion, skirt fluttering under the steady fan intent upon circulating the important bathroom air. Ventilation was key in restrooms, underscored in depth by Building Management throughout the renovation two years ago, in which every floor had received a facelift, the bathrooms receiving a complete overhaul. The new bathrooms boasted many features, but none had been so crucial as the upgraded ventilation system. Air circulated with N.A.S.A. precision, expunging foul odors and leaving behind the non-fragrance so coveted in bathroom science. Building Management had emphasized the space between the walls. They had increased the space. This, they said, was key.
Muriel began to think of how she might explain herself. There would have to be some sort of revelation, a tell-all of her motivation, the thing that led her to do this thing. Her solitude had already gone on longer than expected. She entered the bathroom five minutes before the 10:00 a.m. Closure Meeting. It was a meeting aimed at gaining closure on a weekly basis. She supposed the meeting was still progressing, that closure had not yet been reached, so it was likely not 11:00 yet.
Then a sound. Hollow padding on the carpet in the hallway, then the first of two metal doors swinging. Building Management had detailed the benefits of double doors, an inner door to seal the restroom, an outer door to protect its sanctity. The innermost door swished open, and Muriel wrenched her muscles, crouching lower, her fingers sliding down the smooth metal of the stall’s enclosure. She had the strangest sensation that her anklebone had slipped, and perhaps two more inches of clear toilet water now covered her shin.
For a moment, she thought it would be The Love Interest. It would have been a bold move to breech the Ladies’ Room, but Muriel knew he was crazy about her and would have would have wanted to check on her if he saw her fleeing from Joe Hapless. The Love Interest delivered packages to her desk, as was his job as the mail clerk, and though he never looked at Muriel, she knew it was shyness that kept his gaze on his clipboard. His brown curls spun closely to his head but hung long on the sides, obscuring his face in just the right places. Muriel longed to twirl her pinky finger through one of those curls, finally letting that same pinky rest in the divot behind his earlobe. She had almost done it once, but he looked up too soon, and she had poked him in the forehead instead. Muriel tracked him, as she imagined he would find it flattering, that though she had a soft, complex inside and a pink scalp and fat legs, he would appreciate her enthusiastic attention. She had followed him into many places. She knew the sweaters he liked at the Gap (argyle), the Thai food he liked (noodles mostly), the bus he rode at 5:35 p.m. She once followed him into Joe’s Drip after watching him leave with a steaming cup one day and asked the barista what he’d ordered, so she would know how he took his coffee. It would be important to know the morning after they had sex, once they had consummated. Muriel liked to be prepared.
Now she watched through the space between the stall’s door and its metal frame. Spying was a benefit of the secret stall, the stall she had thankfully chosen. Its special angle around one corner made it a forgotten stall, one that allowed for viewing through the crack that could not be seen in the reflection of the mirror above the sinks. Heavily soled feet ushered in Judith Eggert.
Judith surveyed the bathroom for inhabitants before going to work. She set a yellow legal pad, a pen, and an agenda on the countertop. Then she stood before the mirror and began to practice tenderness. It looked painful for Judith. Muriel thought Judith would be hard to cast in a movie. She was boring, but not in an appealing way. She appeared to think a great deal, but likely only about her daily encounters, and those were uninteresting. Muriel eyed the agenda on the countertop, creased and uncreased down the middle, a horizontal bend through the typo Muriel had made when creating it for Joe Hapless. It commanded all attendees to meet in the BOOKER CONFERENCE ROAM. Joe noticed it only after Muriel had placed fifteen hot copies in his hands. He’d opened his mouth to say something, his lips forming over the word ROAM, but Muriel could hear nothing in her flight to the bathroom. She had made sure to run loudly.
The clopping of heels approached the bathroom’s double door – announcing the impending arrival of another occupant – and Judith shifted her large hips in time to avoid the second door, swinging open to reveal Jasmine Shimamoto.
Jasmine’s hair still moved from her propulsion. She did everything fast.
“Christ, you scared me!” said Jasmine, fingers pressing her heart.
Judith stopped practicing tenderness and allowed Jasmine to pass, giving her as little room as possible to get by.
Jasmine paused beside her, assessing Judith’s pants, then moved to the stall for disabled persons.
“You look pretty today,” Jasmine said from behind the door of the stall.
“You should really use the other one,” Judith said in return.
Judith did not care for Jasmine. Office talk surmised it was because Jasmine was skinny and pants fit her. Judith was not skinny, and she therefore had to make do with the pants that were made with elastic waistbands. Muriel had begun to notice this prevalence of brightly colored pants in the larger sizes. It was an embrace of the fat, a statement to the world – to The Building – that fat was the new thin, but with more confidence and fewer restrictions. Muriel had begun purchasing these bright pants for herself and matching them to her bright hair bands.
“Hmm?” Jasmine asked, and Muriel almost answered for Judith but remembered she was in hiding.
“The stall, you should use the one that isn’t handicapped,” Judith said, and Muriel could hear interruptions in Jasmine’s stream. Jasmine hovered when she peed, which sometimes made her hit the seat.
“Tell you what, Judith,” Jasmine said, tugging at the roll of toilet paper. “If Rita rolls in, I’ll pick up stakes and move over.”
Muriel listened to the interaction from her secret stall, her stomach clenching. She would hear about it later from Jasmine, would ask Muriel if she had seen Judith’s pants that day. Then Jasmine’s eyes would drift to Muriel’s pants, and from there, Muriel would hear the rest of the exchange from the bathroom, pretending she had not already heard it.
Muriel’s supporting hand slid slowly down the metal of the stall’s wall, and her foot turned inside the toilet’s drain. She could feel the water level rise to her shin, and her initial panic subsided in place of awe. She let her mind drift to the space in the walls that Building Management promised was there. How lovely to be in that space. Muriel imagined herself there, a place she could run to when she needed to see The Love Interest. They would rendezvous behind the walls, between the pipes. They would tell each other that they’d had the worst day, and Muriel would tell him about her latest screenplay, the one Ron Howard was reading, and for which he could see only her playing the lead role.
Jasmine emerged from the stall and began washing her hands beside Judith, flicking the remaining water from her fingers after making a half-hearted attempt at drying them on the brittle towels dispensed from the box on the wall. Droplets attached themselves to the polyester of Judith’s pants, and Jasmine stared at the sprinkles of water for a moment before moving toward the door.
She glanced at the notebook beside Judith, who was now completely blocking the door.
“Well,” she said too loudly, agitating Judith out of her way, “see you at the meeting?”
“Hmm?” Judith asked, suddenly noticing shimmering drops of water flashing from her lilac pants. She began smoothing them away. As Judith looked up from her grooming, she saw Jasmine’s hand leaving the memo atop her notebook just behind the agenda with Judith’s typo, a damp thumbprint left in its wake.
“The meet-Ting,” Jasmine repeated louder.
Judith looked down at the agenda, its bold Arial Black font announcing the Mandatory Team Meeting – BOOKER CONFERENCE ROAM.
“Yes, I’ll be there. Please be sure Rita got the memo. She’s been having trouble with her email lately. Muriel was supposed to be helping with that.”
“Good luck with that. I went to her desk yesterday to get the keys to the supply room. All she did was stare at me and sing some song I’ve never heard of. Now it’s stuck in my head, and I can’t get it out. Never did get those keys, either.” Jasmine put her finger to her temple. “She’s off her nut.”
Muriel felt the drain pull her two more inches down. She fought the urge to hum the tune to which Jasmine was referring. It was from the soundtrack of her movie, a song she herself composed. She called it Empty You, Empty Me. The chorus, she knew, was quite compelling. It had made an impression on Jasmine, after all. It was the bridge she was still struggling with.
Jasmine picked up Judith’s copy of the agenda as she reached for the door handle.
“Mind if I take this one?” Jasmine asked. “You already know about it. You don’t need this.”
Jasmine snapped the paper flat in the air and walked out, slender heels tapping on the tile, then muffling under the carpeting of the hallway outside the bathroom door. Judith practiced a few more smile variations before leaving the bathroom, rubbing her cheeks.
Muriel checked her new height against the wall of the stall. She leaned her cheek against its cool surface, peering down at her enclosed foot. She searched for the drain and found it just below her knee. She was most certainly sinking. Muriel pressed her ear against the metal wall and listened. She heard a faint humming, the cool sounds of pipes working in the adequate space.
Muriel looked down at the shoes she was holding; her hands had become talons as she clutched the shoes by their heels. She moved them to the metal flushing rod protruding from the toilet’s base. There was no longer a need to crouch. Her groin, however, was beginning to exhibit strain under the pressure of keeping one foot planted on the toilet seat while the other sunk. In an effort to relieve the pressure, Muriel placed her other foot in the bottom of the basin, and that foot was taken by the drain as well. She quickly grew accustomed to the feel of the pipe, and that leg achieved numbness like the other, her thighs pressed together primly. She could no longer feel her rogue toe, so far down the drain was her foot. Muriel began to sing another song from her soundtrack. It would work well for underscoring a montage, faded images of her slowly sinking to the bottom of The Building’s plumbing system. She would look sad and beautiful, a woman with a soul for a face.
Hollow footsteps approached the bathroom door once more, and Muriel’s heart fluttered in expectation of the breach of her quiet room, her montage breaking into black and white melancholy pieces. The sound of these heels was familiar to her.
The inner door swung open on its hinge, and Muriel saw Jasmine Shimamoto once again enter the bathroom, choosing the handicap stall after a slight hesitation. Muriel breathed through her mouth as she listened to the fierce stream Jasmine released. In her two years working in The Building, Muriel had ordered approximately 400 boxes of tea for her. Jasmine used the bathroom often. Muriel then heard a different sound in the hallway announcing the arrival of another occupant. It sounded like dragging along the carpet, like something arduous. The door moaned on its hinges in the hallway, then stopped short on its second swing. Muriel knew that to be the sound of Rita Graves in her wheelchair, catching the door on its way back, rescuing her face from the handle. The motion repeated itself for the inner door.
After a flushing, Muriel heard Jasmine swing the door open and watched as she and Rita came to an unlevel meeting in the middle of the bathroom.
“Hello, Jasmine.” Rita rolled into her stall, the sound of unraveling toilet paper preceding the sound of the need for it. Rita was housekeeping.
Jasmine moved to the sink and began to wash briskly, her eyes squinting against something. Most people disliked Rita, not because she was in a wheelchair. It was because she was annoying and because she was in a wheelchair. Most cited reasons for finding Rita unfavorable, but Jasmine provided no reasons. Rita was handicapped, but she was also annoying often enough to justify dislike.
Muriel slipped a few more inches through the drain as she anticipated the coming interaction.
“Jasmine, those are nice shoes,” Rita said from the stall, grunting as she moved herself from her wheelchair to the toilet seat, apparently having cleaned it to her satisfaction after Jasmine’s use. Rita believed strongly in her communication skills, a talent about which she often boasted. She had a technique that started with a compliment, continued with a long sigh, moved to an entirely new topic of conversation, and broached that topic as though it was the most natural kind of progression. Most often, it was a topic that began with the assignment of fault, and ended in the ultimate denigration of Rita’s already unfortunate position. Rita was a paraplegic, the half-working result of having been mowed over in her front yard when she was nine years old by the neighborhood garbage man. A rumor surfaced that Rita’s settlement from the government had been so huge, she probably didn’t even need to work. That rumor became fact, and it visibly pained Jasmine upon each public reiteration. Rita did not need a paycheck, and yet she insisted on rolling into work every day, disability accessories at the ready, imploring the company to supply her with such tools for doing her job better, the job she didn’t need to do better because it was a job she didn’t need to do at all. Jasmine had hospice payments to make for her mother. Jasmine had to work, as everyone in The Building knew.
“So I went to the grocery store the other day …” Rita started, drifting off before finishing. Muriel watched Jasmine rub her hands together with force under the faucet.
“Can you believe that someone was actually parked in the handicapped spot without a sticker? Nothing on the license plate. Nothing. Can you believe it?”
Rita’s tone contained only the slightest sign of effort toward nonchalance. Jasmine heard the message the way it was intended to be heard. There were rules for parking, and therefore rules for peeing. That stall was not for Jasmine.
Jasmine interrupted: “Judith wanted me to remind you about the staff meeting today.”
“I mean, don’t they know why those spots are there? It’s not like whatever they’re in a hurry about justifies taking that spot,” Rita persisted.
Jasmine flicked the remaining water from her hands and rubbed the back of her neck, tugging at the muscles below her ears.
“Yeah, really. The meeting, did you get that email?”
“I haven’t been getting my email. Muriel was supposed to be working on that. I left a note on her desk, but she just wrote down a few, what’re those things called? Zen sayings or whatever? Anyway, she stuck a few of those to my monitor while I was at lunch. It was definitely her writing. Why does she use all capitals? It’s like she’s screaming all the time.”
Muriel mouthed the question: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” while she felt the drain move to her waist, the hem of her skirt tugging upward, exposing her legs. They felt feminine in the water.
“Yeah, I know. I asked her to schedule the big conference room, too, and she put us in that tiny one on the eighth floor. Then she put a sign on the window and called it the Eighth Floor Sweat Lodge, like she’s trying to piss us off or something. Anyway, Judith wanted me to tell you that lunch will be provided. The memo’s on the countertop.”
Jasmine dropped the memo beside the sink and took a long step forward, pulling the door open, scarcely missing her forehead.
“Yeah, okay, I’ll be there,” Rita said after Jasmine had already left.
Rita and her chair emerged from the stall and paused to examine the closed door of the bathroom before lifting her arms high overhead, then lowering them to eye level, fully extended. With this newly achieved length, she was able to reach the lower of the two sinks just enough to wash her fingers, which she did vigorously. Building Management had gone to great lengths during the renovation to point out the sufficient height of the lowest sink. Rita wiped her hands on the single paper towel she tugged from the dispenser and waved her fingers in the air after disposing of the towel, drying the last patches of wetness. She sat before the place one might stand before the mirror. The mirror only reflected the top of her red puffed hair, a rusted Brillo pad. She looked down at her feet in their footrests. Then, feeling the high countertop for the memo, she found it in a small puddle by the edge of the sink. Rita pulled the innermost door open with her patented two-pull method, then rolled to the outermost door to repeat the process. The carpet pulled at her wheels as she moved in the direction of her desk.
The drain was up to Muriel’s ears now, and she could hear the hum of the plumbing. She considered how plain the basin of the toilet smelled. She had expected chemicals if it was clean, something horrible if it was not. But the basin smelled like nothing at all, and the thought of sinking was like that of slipping into space without the launching and the pain of leaving the atmosphere behind. It was a calm absorption.
Muriel immersed, her hair spreading on the bottom of the toilet as piping pushed against the follicles and tightened over her scalp before the drain took her down its channel. It was a simple fit, if not a little tight near her thighs, but the tight spots swaddled her, held her closely, before taking her the rest of the way down the pipe. She disappeared into the plumbing, the space around her giving no indication of her location from inside The Building. Then Muriel reemerged someplace on the eighteenth floor. She was behind the wall, and she could see through it as though it were a dirty window. It appeared that no one could see her. She was an undead ghost, ear pressed to the cool pipes running between the plaster. Breathing came surprisingly easily.
She listened to the plumbing, putting her hands around the cool metal. She held herself in place, watching the office go by on the other side of the wall. She watched them run, heels snagging on needy carpet. She watched them meander, expressions set in concentration, lips moving to imaginary conversations, conversations that required practice. A day went by, and Muriel did not see a single person she knew. Loneliness set in by the end of the day, and the passers-by in Dockers and woven shirts dwindled, giving way to those in coveralls and rubber gloves. Muriel began to wonder how she would leave the wall.
She had until then been content to watch, to enjoy her place out of sight, her fate mysterious. Now she waited for another action to move her, and it was at that precise moment that The Love Interest rounded the corner and lingered in the hallway, his face sagging. She had not seen him look that way before. His ringlets appeared to have unraveled slightly, and they hung by his dimpled earlobes like frayed rope. He came to a stop in the middle of the hallway, directly in front of Muriel, and closed his eyes. He leaned his forehead to the wall and pressed hard, the impression of his skin smoothing before Muriel, the lines of his brow now one slick surface. Muriel leaned forward and pressed her head to the wall in the same place where his was, and she closed her eyes in time with his. They swayed together, only Muriel understanding they were dancing. She stayed in that position for some time, content now to stay in the wall forever. But when she opened her eyes, The Love Interest was gone, and Muriel was on the other side of the wall, perfectly dry, her bare feet on the carpet in the hallway, her pinky toe throbbing with postponed injury.
The Building was dark. Only the security lights remained illuminated. Muriel looked behind her at the wall that had held her for the afternoon. She put her hand to where The Love Interest had leaned, where their heads had joined. From her angle, she could see the sheen of oil his skin had left, a temporary impression of contact. She reached her hand out to touch it, to take it away with her. But as her fingers neared the surface of the wall, Muriel stopped short, and she closed her hand and brought it back down to her side. Instead, she looked beside her and located a bulletin board a few feet away. Pulling a brightly colored flier from the board that announced the approach of National Administrative Professionals Day, Muriel reapplied the flier to the living piece of wall before her. For just that night, maybe more, she thought it might be protected that way.
Works by CARLY ANNE WEST have appeared in Watchword, The SoMa Literary Review, and Switchback. She holds an MFA in English & Writing from Mills College and is currently at work on her second novel. Carly resides in Oakland, California with her husband, Matt.