(Author's note: Depictions of abuse that may not be suitable for all readers.)
I see two doors. Same two I'm faced with every morning hours before sunrise. I wish the green and gold uniform reflected how I really feel about my job. But I realized a long time ago there is no job that's free from interaction with the other gender.
My gloved hand curls into a fist. One which I often daydream of using for something besides knocking. I have to control myself. I have to look golden, like these ridiculous stripes, eight hours a day, five days a week.
Seethe or sigh? These wee hours of the morning, before the bells of machines adds noise pollution to the heavy smog of cigarettes and vape pens, is my only chance to express anything other than routine scripted lines I'm paid to fake.
Good morning, Sir!
How are you?
Having any luck?
I'm so sorry! If you'll just give me one second, I'll be right out of your way!
This morning, I choose "seethe". My nostrils flare and my eyes, dulled by nights of shallow sleep, twist toward each other as I rap that fist just below the word "Men's" three times. The first is a warm-up; the second makes the door crack open briefly before thwacking shut again; the third makes my knuckles sting.
Any time I hear one of those deep grumbles followed by the boom of Someone in here! I quake with fear of losing control. I've never understood why they can't afford to hire a male to clean the Men's restrooms. Nope, it's all on me. All three of them, three times per shift (not counting the emergencies that never fail to happen in-between: clogged commodes, hangover vomit, whatever).
Normally, I start with the Men's to get them out of the way, before all the cocktail-loaded bladders and horrible diets of the day turn the place into Grand Central Station. But today, I can't.
Though the font, size, and color are identical on both doors, there's always been something about the two simple letters prefixing men's on the other that's given me a sense of security.
I stare to the point of tunnel vision at the letter W. I noticed this a long time ago: It's an M turned upside down. I wish erasing the past could be as easy as turning one letter upside down. Always felt cozy about the O too. It's a complete, locked circle, and within it, I have nothing to fear. It's a bubble which can't be shattered; where the unchained rage of these hulking animals can't threaten me.
The frayed broom and warped dust pan lean against the wall, much like I feel doing for the rest of the day, as I reach behind me for the "CLOSED FOR CLEANING" sign I keep on the cart. They make these signs two words too long as far as I'm concerned.
I back away for a moment. Two doors. It's always a mystery what will be behind the one lacking the two extra letters on any given day. What will it be this time? Another cute little poem full of "F" bombs in the handicap stall? A pair of crap-stained briefs lovingly staring back at me from the interior of a bowl? A urinal plastered with shards of tobacco still glistening with saliva?
I retreat into my mind, begging for a way out of this. Go home sick? Yes! That's what I'll do. First, I'll clean the Women's. By then, it will have been an hour since I ate those scrambled eggs in the lounge. People were commenting that they smelled iffy.
The lingering scents of mixed perfumes guide me from stall to stall, searching for debris to sweep. The broom seems light as a feather now that I'm safe. I'm almost dancing with it by the time I reach the back of the restroom.
I should've known this was going to be the second worst day of my life. We stare at each other, for what must seem to him like decades. If my blood were pumping any harder, it would be seeping through my skin like lava. Is this a memory or a hallucination?
We're both shaking. His tears are streaming and cold. Mine are hot and mixed with sweat.
Who did this to you?
My throat itches from words I realize I just virtually screamed. The boy runs one half step backward, pressing himself against the toilet paper dispenser.
Your dad? I pry vocally with all my might for an answer.
Was it a stranger? Can you please tell me what he looked like?
I'm not helping anything with this tone, I know. It's just, if there's one thing I will not tolerate, it's...
He's silent and pale as death, but those swollen, throbbing eyes above his soft cheeks speak all that needs to be said for him. The poor thing probably ran in here to hide from that monster. My walkie is already unhooked from my belt, but I'm praying that sorry son of a bitch returns to the scene of the crime. I'll make him hurt like he's never hurt before, with no need for the assistance of Security!
These deadbeat fathers are all the same! I yell in thought. They come here to gamble and get drunk, and leave their helpless kids all alone with nothing to do but wander around waiting to be abducted. Which is bad enough, but this...this here...
I lower my outstretched hand to my side and take a deep breath. With emotions swirling, I ease toward the child.
Oh, honey. Everything's going to be all right now.
I'm hugging him before I realize it, and to my surprise, he lets me. I already know we're kindred spirits, both with the same childhood experience in common. But I'm going to see to it that this one grows up to be a wonderful gentleman, successful beyond his wildest dreams. I don't know how with the meager income I make, but I'm going to see to it! If I can't adopt him, I'll do whatever it takes to make sure he gets the care of a guardian who doesn't view children as tear-apart stress dolls!
I run the tips of my fingers across my own eye sockets. I can still feel the pain even though they healed thirty years ago. The psychosomatics of it all makes me so mad.
A spanking sound of footsteps approaching on concrete slices the silence. The boy shivers, wrapping himself around my right leg, burying his face into the fabric covering my thigh.
She's coming back! he stutters.
I sense the amplifying flutter of his tiny heartbeat, as well as my own as every muscle in me tenses up for action.
She? I attempt to ask through lips too far apart from each other to get the word out.
Who's she? I beg, struggling to keep my voice low.
The restroom door cracks open, with a withered young face and a shadowy, toothless mouth still venting a stream of vape smoke as a woman peeks through.
The boy doesn't have to endure the torture of peeking to know who she is. I can tell by the tone of his jittering voice as he tightens his grip on me. Mommy.
For a fleeting second, I pretend that skinny, meth-happy hag is just some evil stranger, and I'm the real Mommy. Protecting. Nurturing. Supporting this sweet, adorable little guy who has the right to spend these days playing and learning, rather than fearing for his life.
The door smacks shut and the sound of footsteps resumes in reverse, quickly diminishing as she flees. I jerk the walkie to my lips and shove the button in while sprinting after her.
Security to the front lobby, immediately!