As usual, I feel the burning creep in around one thirty, halfway through third period. It’s computer class and the lab is lined with boxy beige machines, their screens blinking blue light onto the faces of my classmates in the semi-darkness. Mr. Marsden has switched off the overhead lights in the room. I’m not sure why he always does this, but I’m grateful for the illusion of anonymity it grants me while my body begins its warm-up for the habitual tango of pain that will soon contort my guts.
Computer class is a blessing because it comes right after lunch and provides the perfect cover. All considered, I couldn’t ask for a more merciful benediction. A random, useless assignment is administered during the first five minutes, and the rest of the hour is mostly “independent exploration” of some lame educational website or a flash animation typing game. Yesterday Mr. Marsden made us take an online quiz that consisted of a long questionnaire about our interests and skills. There were two answers to choose from for each question. At the end, the website told each of us our ideal career path. The quiz asked things like “Are you an artistic person?” and “Do you like working with animals?” “Are you an introvert or an extrovert?” It took twenty minutes to determine that I was destined to be a taxidermist.
The other students wait for Mr. Marsden to settle in behind his desk with the paperback he keeps covertly tucked into the spine of a textbook. Then they open second tabs on their internet browsers and search for dirty words. They Ask Jeeves if he’s a boob man or an ass man, and if he likes to get wasted on the weekend. The room is blanketed in the rain patter of clacking keys and clicks, the muffled snorts and snickers of horny teenagers, the high-pitched electronic squeal that it seems only I can hear. There’s no reason for anyone to notice me leaning forward and back, kneading my abdomen, forcing air through my teeth in a quavering attempt at control. Nobody can tell I’m teetering, eyes closed, clenching my anus as hard as I can. That I’m counting in my head, waiting for the next wave of swelling pain to undulate through me like a police searchlight scanning in slow motion. I hold my breath and press my stomach in as far behind my ribcage as I can, transmuting the threat of flatulence into physical agony, subsuming the gas. Then it calms, and for a few blissful minutes I feel alleviation, return to my screen, wonder tentatively if I’ve conquered it for good this time.
A moment later, the sadistic lighthouse beam comes sweeping back over my heaving, roiling innards. I’ve held on as long as I can. It’s time to make my move. As soon as I’ve gathered a little strength, I strain my muscles to feign nonchalance as I slide my chair out and approach Mr. Marsden to ask permission to go to the bathroom. He checks the clock– far enough into class that it’s plausible for my bladder to have filled, still enough time left that making me wait would be cruel. He nods and I slip out to the hall.
The first hurdle cleared, I face the second trial. I walk as quickly as I can without running– unless someone passes, in which case I have to slow to a normal pace and exude an appropriate amount of nihilism. Act like I’m sneaking out to get high in the alley behind home ec, and I don’t believe in anything. In reality, I’m praying and bargaining with a god whose existence I only acknowledge in secret desperation during these moments of hot, horrifying torment. I pray that my body will be delivered by angels to the empty girls’ washroom. But the alternative always looms like a thick, voracious stormfront. I will be good, I promise– I will do extra volunteer hours, I will pick up all the dog poop in the yard all winter, I will never say a mean thing to my brother again. I will never read my friend Sam’s diary when she leaves it lying around at sleepovers. I will swear eternal religious chastity if you please, please just let me shit in isolation, o Lord.
I find the bathroom empty and praise Jesus, Muhammad, Shiva, Buddha, Osiris, Zeus. Zeus, who was so inexplicably mean, he punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock and sending an eagle to tear out his liver every day until the end of time. Nobody talks about that part of the story.
I dive into the first stall, which, my mother says, is statistically the least frequently selected. (When it comes to any choice in life, nobody wants to feel like they’re settling.) It also happens to be the most convenient for making a quick escape should circumstances require it. I barely have enough time to lay ribbons of one-ply on the seat and fumble down my hip-huggers before the deluge breaks and I’m engulfed in sweet, burning relief. I double over and wait for my body to divorce itself from my lunch and all its nutrients. I will be here for an indeterminate length of time, during which I will twice more reach what I’ve long since learned is a false sense of security, only to feel the Empire strike back just when I’m about to let my guard down and zip my jeans back up.
But this is grade nine. I’m in high school now, and I know this sad routine as intimately as that sassy titan did in his ninth year of de-livering. Who wore it best- me or Prometheus? Prometheus was punished for bringing fire to humanity. He was a martyr. A fucking rebel. I have no idea what I did to end up shackled to this porcelain Judas chair every day. The doctors who fed cameras down my throat and up my ass to snake through my intestines didn’t figure it out either. IBS is still shrouded in medical mystery. What I do know is I can’t even utter the words that that dark acronym implies, let alone contemplate the unthinkably sinister prospect of discovery by my peers. I also know the brilliant irony of this mortifying affliction- that the more I worry about it, the worse it gets. It used to only hit me on track and field days, or before an oral presentation or a popular kid’s birthday party. But the oily, sweaty, shameful blight of puberty has urged my anxiety and my treacherous digestive system into overdrive. I can’t imagine going to a restaurant with other kids anymore, let alone hanging out one-on-one with a boy for an hour. Not that the latter is very likely right now anyway. In addition to petulant bowels, Zeus has also smited me with the classic must-have accessories for every season in Tartarus- braces and acne.
In my sequestration, I contemplate the palimpsest of Sharpie scribbles and engraved runes on the back of the stall door. Britney P sucks cock. Aisha C is a dike. U R bootiful. SHITHEAD. Just one word and a period, etched at eye level. I wonder how the poet knew my name. I twist and stretch in place. It’s an exercise that, while sharply painful, helps to expedite the process. On my third rep, I hear the girls’ bathroom door creak open and the percussive sprinkling of heel-taps across the vinyl tile. I feel the low, heavy surge of primordial fear and instinctively retract my feet like a defensive turtle. Someone could always identify me later by my red Chucks.
It doesn’t matter. The girl has bee-lined for the stall at the opposite end. I’m sure she’s putting as much distance as possible between herself and the blooming soup of fecal aroma that betrays my accursed purpose. I’m immune to the brew, but I’ve spent enough cumulative hours hunched in shameful confinement while cliques of girls laughed and gagged and shouted accusations outside my stall to be aware of how bad it must be. My only strategy in such situations is to hermit crab myself to protect my identity and wait for them to leave, at the risk of abusing my bathroom privileges and missing half a class.
I’m pondering taking a daring chance and dashing out while the other girl is still in her stall. Then I hear a gagging noise, followed by the heaving rush of expelled liquid. Then a cough. Another disgorgement. I can tell from the pattern and frequency that it’s deliberate, forced. A gag, a retch, an animal elucidation. Suddenly, I’m overtaken with one last involuntary volley of my own while the other girl is vomiting. The concurrent torrents of trauma are wrung from both our bodies in a sick crescendo of synchronicity.
Unbearably pregnant silence descends on the washroom. Then, somehow, we flush simultaneously. I’m the first to exit the stall. I approach the sinks and turn on a faucet. I hear the metallic latch slide, and in the mirror’s smeared fluorescence, I watch her emerge from her stall.
I recognize her from the halls, but we’ve never met. She looks about a head shorter than me, and amply fills what I’m guessing are C or D cups. Her shoes are strappy high-heeled sandals and her bracelets are made of that silvery iridescent plastic stuff that’s satisfying to scratch. Her highlighted hair is twisted into a banana clip and her nails are painted a chipped neon lime. Mine are naked and chewed down. We both reach for the soap dispenser and pump our portions of pink cherry-scented goo, eyes down. We lather our hands, glancing at each other solely via reflection. No words are required. We understand implicitly the principle of mutually assured destruction. She looks at me and envies my bony figure. I envy the dominion she wields over her own bodily functions. I know how perverse and unfair that is even as I think it. But nothing is fair. Control is an illusion. That’s just the way we’re wired. We’ve been programmed to compare, to covet, to mistrust. Our adolescence is a binary language of zeros and ones.
For a second, she looks like she might smile. Instead, she scowls. Then she just looks terrified. She hurries out of the bathroom, and I know not to follow too closely. I keep looking in the mirror. I look discolored and out of alignment, like the holes in my skin don’t quite match up with the corresponding orifices. Someone did a half-assed job when they stretched the human hide over my mounting armature. I feel the back of my head, comb a tangle out of my hair with my fingers. I smooth it down, and for some reason, I grin at myself. I grin until I look insane. Until I look cool. The seams are so well hidden.
Miranda Morris is a writer, illustrator, and multi-instrumentalist currently based in Hamilton, Ontario. Pre-Covid, she played trombone in the New Orleans-based funk band TV Pole Shine. Her non-fiction has been published in Critical Read and The Rush Magazine. She was a finalist in the 2020 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge and was recently shortlisted for the 2021 CBC Literary Prize for Short Fiction.