Lionel wondered when exactly he had started positioning himself closer to people, to strangers, on purpose. On the city bus he would feel letdown if there was an open double-seat waiting for him because he’d have to take it, out of social expectations, and then he wouldn’t be sitting next to anyone. He started riding the bus only during rush hour. Even if he had no place to be. Just to be forced to sit closely.
This was why Lionel started viewing films again in the theaters. He and Ethel would go when they were younger, but then she stopped wanting to go out, and then she grew sick and sicker.
He picked opening nights to see new films. And if the foot or leg or hand of a person sitting next to him accidentally grazed his, he would remain frozen in the exact position, hoping it would happen again—the hairs on his hand or leg or arm (whichever had been grazed) left standing at attention. He felt the proximity of each individual hair—the electricity there. He found himself paying closer attention to the space between him and everyone.
When Lionel wasn’t riding buses or in crowded theaters (or at home alone with the ceramic angel collection that Ethel had loved so much, the kissing angels especially) he found small cafes or shared-table sushi restaurants or waiting rooms in county-run facilities to occupy. Whether he had an appointment at the facility or not, he would walk into the lobby and sit down. He liked listening to the turning of pages, the hushed conversations. When he did have an appointment he liked the dentist’s chair. He liked the hygienist’s shoulder or arm or breast grazing his head. Not that the breast was any better than the shoulder or the arm. It really wasn’t. It wasn’t a sickness. He wasn’t sick. If anything he was only lonely. And there was nothing morally wrong with loneliness. He considered putting an ad out for a roommate, but wasn’t convinced he should. He didn’t know if he’d like that. There might be undesired dialogue involved. Even if there wasn’t, he might imagine that there should be, and was certain he wouldn’t know what to say. Lionel was much more of a conversational voyeur. He liked to listen, not participate. The only person he still enjoyed conversation with was Ethel, at the cemetery on Holgate. And there, Ethel was always the voyeur. She couldn’t help but be.
It wasn’t until Lionel found himself using the middle of three urinals, in the bathroom of a downtown bookstore, that he wondered if he’d purposely put himself in this compromising position. And why?
When Lionel had first entered the restroom all the urinals had been unoccupied, the entire bathroom had been unoccupied, and he’d told himself that he just happened to walk to the middle urinal—that his actions were absent-minded. But Lionel had known, and practiced, correct urinal etiquette for his entire life, even after his proximity affliction. He deeply understood that you should try to put as much porcelain and hanging metal half-walls between piss streams as possible. And for some reason, he hadn’t done that this time.
Sitting next to someone on the bus or in the theater was one thing, it was innocent, but pissing next to them was certainly another.
If someone walked in, with him peeing in the middle urinal, and wanted to pee as well (without having to aim into a toilet) that person would be forced to piss in one of the urinals directly on either side of him.
Lionel told himself that the giant bookstore wasn’t very busy, that he’d be okay. But what if someone did come in? He couldn’t just wrap it up all quick and nifty like the prostate of his younger years. And wouldn’t that person suspect him of being a “close pisser,” of being guilty of purposely positioning himself at the fulcrum urinal? What if they thought he was the kind of person that wanted to turn his head and speak directly into their ear, or glance down to see what they were “working with,” or comment on the quality of the stream they were producing?
When Lionel was a child, his father had been a voracious bathroom commentator and Lionel had hated him for it.
“Look at you! You’re pissing a rope, son!” his father would proudly proclaim to a restroom full of patrons at Fanny’s Chicken Shack, or the ball game, or whatever public bathroom they happened to be in together. And it was true—Lionel had pissed ropes back then, but he’d always known it was strange for his father to comment on it. He’d try to hold it until they got home, but he was never able to. His father would tell him that that was the curse of having a man’s urethra coupled with the bladder of a Girl Scout.
A Girl Scout, he’d said that.
Lionel wondered if he shouldn’t just scoot over to the next urinal—what his father would have called “switching lanes”— just in case somebody did come in from the bookstore. But he was already going, and it didn’t seem worth it, or necessary, to pinch off and reposition now. Plus, he was pretty sure nobody really cared what old people did. Nobody had cared what Ethel did toward the end. That she stopped smiling or making any sense. Only him.
Lionel was still staring at the wall in front of him, still thinking about switching lanes, when the bathroom door behind him opened and closed, and a bearded man—wearing a black T-shirt and green scarf—walked in. Lionel turned his head momentarily, gave a little nod, and immediately questioned this action. He didn’t want to stand out. There were secret codes he didn’t want to transmit. Maybe he shouldn’t have done that. He wasn’t his father. He wasn’t passé about urinal pissing.
The bearded man paused for a second, then walked to the urinal to Lionel’s right. The man smelled like mild sweat and sweet tobacco—like the thin cigars the neighborhood kids smoked. He had a wallet-chain jangling from his back pocket that connected to a belt loop at the front of his jeans. He kind of bounced when he unzipped, and it sounded like a high school janitor laden heavy with keys echoing down the hallways. The man put his right hand on his hip and his left hand on the wall, creating a fleshy barrier between himself and Lionel with his upper arm. Lionel wondered if this was a defense mechanism—some kind of genius deterrent to prevent conversations in moments like this. It was a smart move.
The man wore brown work boots with the boot toes purposely worn away. There was dulling metal beneath the brown suede. Lionel guessed the man’s feet were probably shoulder width apart. Lionel looked down at the black and white checkered tiles below his running shoes. They were comfortable, but stained. Maybe too comfortable. He’d need a new pair.
He looked confident, this man that stood with his shoulders leaned back and his hips pushed slightly forward. The first word that came to Lionel’s mind was, Regal. It was a strange word to use to describe urinal technique, but it seemed fitting, here. More than fitting.
Lionel was positive that this was the way kings of the past had pissed—in an open, yet un-sloppy, stance. He wished he’d pissed that way more often as a young man. He wondered if he could start now, if it was too late for him to change everything.
Then there was the quality of the bearded man’s stream. It sounded thick. Hearty. Masculine. If Lionel had been a urinal talker he would have had to comment on it. If this man had been his son he’d be damned proud of him. Plus, the sliver of water he glimpsed at the base of the man’s urinal wasn’t the least bit yellow. He probably made a good point to stay hydrated. Probably ate foods that were good for his prostate, and plenty of greens. It seemed as if this man could piss, would piss, forever. There was no way that he got up multiple times a night to urinate. No way there were piss sprinkles left in his underwear after he’d tucked himself back in.
It wasn’t until the man had stopped pissing, and shook off, and zipped up, and turned to face Lionel, that Lionel realized what close attention he’d been giving this guy—realized he’d been peeking between the man’s arm and the metal divider for too long.
Not that he was looking at anything in particular—he couldn’t have seen that if he’d wanted to—he was just evaluating flow pressures from more than just an auditory standpoint, just appreciating this man’s urethral vitality. And, that stance was powerful. But only Lionel’s father would understand that kind of reasoning. And Lionel’s father was strange by most standards and dead by years now. And suddenly he wasn’t looking under the bearded man’s arm, but at the bearded man’s chest and face and beard, his eyes continuing upward. He stopped as the man’s thick eyebrows arched over his piercing, blue eyes.
But this wasn’t a man. It was a boy with a man’s height and width, and facial hair, and lead pipes for arms, and tattooed veins. He couldn’t have been more than thirty, tops. A child really.
He had hoop earrings in both of his earlobes. Not big hoops, but small hoops.
What did that mean, exactly?
Lionel couldn’t remember.
Two small hoops? It was code for something that Lionel didn’t understand.
Then just as quickly as he’d taken this all in, Lionel shook his head back towards the wall in front of him, his uncircumcised penis still in his right hand, and this bearded stranger standing next to him. The man continued to stare at him. Breathing on him. Lionel knew how guilty his turning away looked. An innocent man doesn’t turn away like that, not while using the middle urinal.
Lionel wanted nothing more than to put his shriveled penis back in his pants. But he couldn’t, because first, he had to shake. And a proper shaking was an endeavor at his age. He didn’t want the man-boy to think he was finishing himself off or something. How many shakes were considered masturbation nowadays? What constituted a shake over a jiggle over a felony offense? What kind of message was he sending by looking, or not looking, at this man right now? Was it better to say something or remain silent? Didn’t a senator play footsy with someone in the stall next to him once? How many earrings did that man have? Were they big or small? Whatever became of that?
Lionel refused to turn from the wall. His pride wouldn’t allow it. He willed himself to pass through the wall and into wherever.
This wasn’t anything like the other positions he’d recently put himself in.This was uncharted and unwanted territory. He wished there was some way to go back in time and choose the cemetery over the bookstore. He felt beads of sweat sprout all over his body. The man-boy next to him shook his head and blew one last, long, hot breath through his nostrils like some dragon on that HBO TV show everybody couldn’t get enough of. The dragon-man-boy hunched his shoulders then turned and slowly walked to the sink; his wallet-chain jangling at his side like a tiny broken shackle. Lionel heard the water running behind him, the gushing stream being broken by hands, the knob squealing shut. A paper towel dispensed and was torn and was crumpled. The water turned on again. The metal lid of the garbage can slapped hard enough to keep it swinging on its hinge.
Lionel jumped and screamed (a polytonal high pitch scream, rising and falling quickly, becoming a whimpering, sputtering out) as he felt the splat and ooze of a wet and crumpled something hit and slop down the back of his head. Felt it slide off. Heard it splat on the linoleum.
Instantly, he felt stupid, knew that he hadn’t been hurt, only scared. Not scared, but humiliated by this bearded dragon-man-boy throwing a wetted paper towel at him. Still, just to make sure he wasn’t hurt, Lionel reached his fingers back to where the balding was taking over. His hand felt wetness too cold to be blood. This was his penance for using the middle urinal, for seeking seats next to people on buses, for wanting a hand to accidentally graze his in the theater, for going to the grave and telling Ethel all about it.
Lionel stood there now, at the bookstore bathroom’s middle urinal. Not turning. Wishing the towel had stuck to his head so he could focus on the point of pressure and not the spot of shame.
“What the fuck’s wrong with you, old man?” the dragon-man-boy said. “What the fuck?”
Lionel nodded to himself. He deserved it. He closed his eyes around it and waited for whatever was coming next.
Eventually the door to the bathroom slammed into the rubber grommet on the tile wall and squealed shut again.
Bathrooms are always tiled. Urinals are always porcelain. Grommets are always rubber.
It was a long time before Lionel stopped shaking. A longer time before he opened his eyes. But no matter how long he stood there, before zipping up, he knew there would be piss sprinkles in his underwear after tucking in.
And that’s when he started to cry. ∞
Jason Arias lives and works in Portland, OR. His debut short story collection, Momentary Illumination of Objects In Motion, is scheduled to be published by the end of 2018 through Black Bomb Books. To read (or listen to) more stories by Jason visit jasonariasauthor.com.