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On bridges and in bathrooms

Updated: Apr 27, 2019

Some of our deepest and most brilliant ideas go off like bath bombs when we're in the shower. I feel especially keen to revisit moments of heated dispute, coming up with the absolute best “should-have-saids” to things that miffed me in the moment.

…That lady at the airline counter would’ve never known what hit her.

But can the same inspiration strike when we’re trapped in the bathroom?

Like, literally trapped?

Human nature and the call of the void

There’s something recent studies have dubbed the “high-place phenomenon.” On the edge of bridges, from skyscraper observation decks and especially off cliffs, most of us have experienced this strange, often frightening urge to jump.

I personally wouldn’t describe it as an “urge” so much as a “what if,” a single “hmm” moment as I consider what would happen.

And on this “high-places” business, I call shenanigans. I’ve had the same sensation driving down the interstate, looking at the guard rails and wondering if I should take a hard turn on the wheel. I’ve even had many moments in the bathroom where, cellphone in hand, I think, “oh boy, it’d be awful if I dropped my cellphone in the toilet.”

Most of us don’t actually want to jump off bridges. We don’t want to drive off the road, and we certainly don’t want to drop our cellphones in the toilet. But for some reason, this “call of the void” is a ubiquitous experience. We feel that trickle of fear down the back of our necks or the world drop out from under us. Then we squeeze the railing, the wheel or the phone a little tighter, and we move on.

How the hell I got trapped in the bathroom

My boyfriend David had just left for the store, and his kiss as he “too-da-looed” out the door distracted me just long enough that I realized I had a full bladder. A few moments after David closed the front door, I got up to use the bathroom by the office.

As I turned inside the 5 x 5 powder room and flipped on the light, I pulled the handle of the door in behind me. The knob was lightly turned, the latch bolt pulled in as I quietly closed the door and let the handle go with a strange clunk. Something was different. The bolt popped in but it felt louder than usual, something about the sound just wasn’t right.

The call of the void rumbling behind me, I thought for a moment, “oh boy, wouldn’t it be something if I were trapped in the bathroom?”

Two minutes later, I was drying my hands and reaching for the light switch. I have this tick where I have to turn the light off right as I open the door to exit, and with my right hand reaching for the knob my left hand found the plastic switch and the room went dark.

But, turning the knob, the door didn’t open.

The void crept in around me. The world where I always jump off that bridge, always drive off the road, and always drop my cellphone in the toilet came oozing out of the doorknob and expanded over me in the dark space.

It took me a solid second before I realized I was not trapped in the dark, at least, and could in fact turn the light back on. And as soon as I did, I was surprised how normal everything felt again. I was back in my universe. My universe just included a busted doorknob.

Of course, I tried what I could. I calmly looked around for anything I could use to shove between the door and the frame. I then looked for anything I could use to unscrew the knob. I examined the knob again and again, looking for some access to the mechanism.

But this bathroom wasn’t the master bath. I didn’t have tweezers and nail files at my disposal. Instead, I had access only to toilet paper and David’s many jars of pomade.

What to do when you’re literally trapped in the bathroom?

I decided to chill. I didn’t have my cellphone on me (it was a quick bathroom visit during the work day, after all), but surely David would be back in 10, 15 minutes. We only lived two blocks from the grocery store.

Without my phone or any clock on my person, I wasn’t sure how many minutes had passed. I was growing restless, and something inside me said it had been at least 30 minutes.

That’s when, without warning, panic rose up in me like bile.

From inside and out, the wave of alarm broke over me. I felt my shoulders tingle. I felt pins and needles down my legs and arms. The bathroom grew smaller as my eyes swelled with tears.

I grabbed the knob and started to yank on it, shake it, crying but without saying a word. Within minutes the exterior knob came flying off, and somehow I cut my finger as I flew backwards. But the mechanism of the knob was still in-tact, and there was still no hole to access the inner mechanisms locking me in.

It was about five minutes later that David finally arrived home. Through tears, I called, "David, I'm trapped!" He was at the door in less than a second, and we began working the problem from both sides. He used a sauce pan as a hammer (recently moved, we didn't have a real hammer or any other tools). He even tried a couple Ethan Hunt moves to get the door open. He insisted I stay calm, but I could hear him getting frustrated on the other side as I sniffled, working diligently to stall my tears as I waited to see what would happen next.

Finally, David’s hammering paid off, and the whole doorknob—minus the bolt still locking the door—came flying off. Through the hole I saw an eye looking in at me. I asked it to bring me a pair of tweezers, and from inside the tiny bathroom I pulled the exposed piece of metal that operated the latch.

I was out.

I had to be careful not to hug David with my left hand, which now had blood oozing down my arm from a surprisingly deep cut. We laughed, and my tears flowed freely.

How profound am I, really, in the bathroom?

I’m not one to believe in The Secret. But there was an inevitable sense of life’s salty satire in the air, as though someone somewhere was having fun giving me precisely what I had imagined into existence.

The void may still call, and my knees might shake on observation decks. But what’s to stop us, really, from derailing those strange thoughts when they occur? The next time an image of yanking the wheel and flying off the interstate pops into my mind, or the next time I squeeze my phone a little tighter for fear of imagining it in the toilet, I’ll choose another thought instead. Maybe what I had for lunch?

Or maybe I’ll even bite the head off those negative thoughts with something more direct. I can spoil the void’s derision. “How dramatic,” I can say with an eye-roll. Or I can deny the thought any attention at all and start singing my favorite song.

It’s a goal. The next best idea will surely occur to me in the shower. The call of the void is a strange but universal experience, so I’m ready to ask others what hyperbolic “what ifs” have crossed their minds, too. And I’d love to start with you. Leave a comment and let me know how this strange phenomenon has hit you.

You know, just like geometry and all those hyperboles you had to study.

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