“Freedom from Freedom” by Kevin Tosca
Jonathan had gone three times before leaving the house. Three times should be enough. It wasn’t. He realized so in the métro, far from any friendly toilet.
Where are they? he thought. The toilets?
He had other things to do and think about, but this is what it came down to, thinking about toilets as his train puttered along.
BHV, the superstore across the river, had a good one, a big and clean one, but it was on the fifth floor and too far away. Boulevard St. Germain had one of those free gray bunker toilets planted on it, close to the métro’s exit. He had seen it, registered it, as he has learned to do.
He went. Hors de service. Out of order. Typical. And because it was typical, he hadn’t let down the vigilance, hadn’t prepared for release. Like a prude’s thighs, he had kept the insides puckered shut.
He considered the cafés, the abundance of modern and ancient toilets gloriously unoccupied, but he was shy, his French was poor, his accent atrocious, and it was only ten o’clock in the morning, not exactly the best of times to make inconspicuous dashes for the little boy’s room.
He could order a coffee, but believed he shouldn’t have to pay for this. Plus he only had a fifty-euro bill in his wallet, and the French make an issue of making change for the un-rich.
Doing a little dance on the sidewalk, he considered his options. He knew of another public toilet on the way to Montparnasse. A fifteen minute walk. What choice did he have?
He hustled and tried to disregard the strolling faces. If he looked, he tried to hide the envy and contempt. No, that’s not true. He hid nothing. Couldn’t. He whimpered, he scowled, he let self-pity and anger fuel his furious legs.
Halfway through the gardens, he cursed himself. Should’ve just bought a sandwich and a beer. He wasn’t hungry or thirsty and he hated that kind of waste, too, but that was what he should’ve done—paid the price—gotten it over with.
What if something happens? What if he lets go?
He imagined that lumpy, wet weight and remembered when he was a boy on a baseball field, the day he soiled his pants. He couldn’t remember why that had happened, but it had, and he remembered the coach’s sympathetic face as he led him to his car, the disgraceful and disgusting wait for his mother. Fast forward five years. He was twelve and his family was driving from Florida to Boston for the holidays. In a Virginia rest stop a black man, underwear around ankles and sad, desperate look on face, stood in front of the brown buckshot splattered in his stall. Jonathan couldn’t help that man, but he has never forgotten him. Continue forward to when Jonathan was twenty and sick and woke up next to his girlfriend in his parents’ house and smelled what she would soon discover, what he had painted her with. It wasn’t the last time he would make that humiliating dash to a washer, the sheets carefully balled.
Jonathan walked and squeezed and used mind magic to keep his bowels in check. He kept everything solid, kept thinking about stride and goal, tried not to think about stomach and gastrointestinal history and shame and loathing. Eventually, he thought about slaves and masters, but not for long.
As he neared the odd shelter he saw them, a line of them, Japanese girls chatting and giggling and having a fine time. Happy tourists about to see where Hemingway drank and Baudelaire is buried. Not one of their faces twisted like his.
After each session these toilets clean themselves. It is not a quick process, so Jonathan gave up. He went into the nearest café and ordered a Camembert sandwich and a small Kronenbourg beer. He controlled his voice and shimmied his thighs and asked the barman in the cheap black vest where the toilets were. In the basement, the man said. The French knew where shit belonged.
Jonathan wound his way down the spiral, wooden staircase. He had lost, wasted eight euros.
He opened the door and saw one of the old Turkish toilets with the ogre’s serrated foot stands and the hole. He squatted and evacuated. Felt unbridled relief.
He stood up, made himself pee, too. You never know.
As he walked back up the stairs toward his unnecessary snack, he thought about the waste and how it was all worth it. Something benevolent and expansive happens after such release, not unlike the Zen calm that comes after vomiting or the false high after attending funeral.
Then he thought about all the things he still had to do, all the things he had been thinking about doing before being so heinously interrupted, and as he was on his way back to the suburbs after having done them, back to the house where the friend he was staying with lived, he saw a man across the tracks in the Nation métro station. Two trains were coming but they were coming in slow, so he had time to see the man squatting against the wall, his sweatpants around his knees.
He was near the stairs, this man, in plain view of everyone. It was three o’clock in the afternoon.
People passed and didn’t look. If they looked, they quickly looked away. Jonathan stared. He was dumbfounded, riveted. He could clearly see what was happening, the little sculpture taking shape below the man’s hairy, rounded flesh.
Then the man stood and turned. He was facing the wall now. Urinating. This man was a revelation. Jonathan felt shocked and awed, felt that this man must feel this, must feel his eyes if not his interest, and it was true, for the man turned toward him. He hadn’t finished urinating, but Jonathan could see his stubbly beard, his too big and stained polo shirt, the paleness of his skin. He could see the man’s penis in his right hand and the arc of sparkling water.
The man’s face?
He was staring at Jonathan. The man was grinning, staring, free.
This, by God, Jonathan thought, is a man!
The trains stopped. Jonathan entered a compartment and sat down, and as his train pulled away he thought he finally knew something, something about freedom, something he would never, ever, want.
Kevin Tosca’s stories have been published in Spork, Cleaver, Full of Crow, Bartleby Snopes, Vine Leaves Literary Journal and elsewhere. He lives in Paris. He and his work can be found at www.kevintosca.com and on Facebook.