Tales of Strange Bathrooms: The One We Shared in the Hall
When I graduated from college, I knew that I wanted to live alone. It wasn’t the wisest financial decision — I had accepted one of those resume-building editorial assistant jobs that pay a borderline living wage — but after living with roommates for four years, I had had it with other people. I wanted to come home at the end of the day to an apartment that looked exactly the same as it had when I’d left. Given my budget, and the fact that I was planning on living in Brooklyn, that apartment was bound to be a studio.
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I looked at your typical array of dilapidated, poorly lit, and unfortunately situated one-room apartments before I found one that seemed almost perfect: It was bright and relatively spacious, with impossibly high ceilings and windows that looked out on a small garden. It was in a safe neighborhood with decent restaurants, bars, and grocery stores within walking distance. It was less than one block from the subway. The rent was $850 a month, utilities included, which, even in 2009, seemed like a steal.
There was only one catch: It didn’t have a private bathroom. The broker showed me a small, windowless bathroom in the hallway and explained that I would be sharing it with my next-door neighbor, a longtime tenant whose apartment mirrored mine.
It wasn’t ideal, but I decided it was the best I could hope for given the constraints of my budget, and I figured I could live with it for a year or two. I signed the lease as soon as I could.
I swear to you that I went in with the best of intentions for clear, direct communication. I would knock on my neighbor’s door after I moved in, introduce myself, and ask how he wanted to split cleaning duties, whether he had any particular scheduling quirks I should know about. I might curry his favor by bringing over a loaf of banana bread or a batch of cookies. Over time, we would develop a cordial relationship that would, given our mutual knowledge of each other’s bathroom habits, contain an unusual degree of intimacy for next-door neighbors.
But when the time came to go knock on his door, I … didn’t. I had passed him once in the hallway while I was hauling my new IKEA furniture into the building — he was a dapper man who appeared to be in his forties. He had smiled and nodded but didn’t seem to be particularly interested in chatting, which made me wonder whether he would welcome a direct overture. After a few days had passed — days I’d spent preoccupied with furniture assembly and grocery acquisition — it suddenly seemed much too late for introductions. After all, we were already sharing the bathroom. I heard every time he flushed the toilet and felt the steam settle on my skin whenever I had to pee right after he’d taken a shower. Introducing myself to someone who had smelled my bowel movements, and whose bowel movements I had smelled, seemed ludicrous. I convinced myself that maybe it was best to follow his lead, not to learn too much about each other, lest that knowledge start to make this unorthodox situation start to feel intolerable.
To be clear, I am not saying that you should not introduce yourself to people you are sharing a bathroom with. You should definitely introduce yourself to people you are sharing a bathroom with. I’m just trying to explain how it happened that I ended up never having a conversation with the man I shared a bathroom with for more than five years. I never even learned his name. I know that might be hard to believe, but — as you probably know from having shared bathrooms with family members, roommates, coworkers, romantic partners — sharing a bathroom is a process of strategic avoidance. Ideally, bathroom co-users learn each other’s schedules and find ways to make them mesh, so that no one is pounding on the door with a full bladder while the other person is brushing her teeth. Even when you know and love the other person, you’re aiming for a situation where you’re having as little explicit conversation about bathroom matters as possible. My neighbor and I managed to make our schedules mesh with no conversation whatsoever.
For the most part, it was fine. Neither of us left our belongings in the bathroom — I carried my shampoo and body wash and back and forth in a shower caddy saved from my dorm room days. I bought four-packs of toilet paper and left them on top of the toilet tank lid, but I don’t know if he used them or if he toted his own toilet paper back and forth. He was relatively neat: He didn’t leave urine on the seat or blobs of toothpaste on the side of the sink. He did sometimes track mud onto the tiled floor, and every now and then I’d find a short, dark hair stuck to the shower wall, which annoyed me. But I’m sure I unwittingly left traces of myself that annoyed him, too.
The biggest source of tension — and when I refer to tension, I of course am only referring to tension within myself, because I have no idea what he was thinking or feeling — was cleaning. He didn’t clean, as far as I could tell, or if he did it was in small, subtle gestures. Every few weeks or months, I would start to find the smudges on the floor unbearable, and I would sweep and Swiffer and spray and scrub the room to the best of my ability, all the while resenting the fact that my neighbor was benefiting from my unpaid labor. After a few years, I was making a little more money, and I started paying a man my landlord had recommended $60 to come clean the bathroom once a month. That made my resentment feel a little less personal — and a little less gendered — but over time I found myself getting irritated by some evidence of my neighbor’s presence almost every time I used the bathroom. The problem wasn’t who I was sharing the bathroom with, it was that I was sharing the bathroom with anyone at all.
So I moved. I now live in a studio apartment that has lower ceilings and is a longer walk from the subway, in a less cool area of Brooklyn — but it has its own bathroom. Now, whenever I walk into my bathroom it looks exactly the same as it did the last time I left it. Having shared a bathroom for half a decade makes a private bathroom feel like a luxury, which I appreciate. But I don’t have many regrets about the whole shared-bathroom phase of my life. That apartment was really great, overall, and I almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to afford it if it had had a private bathroom. If I were doing it all over again today, I like to think I’d have the courage to knock on his door at the beginning, no matter how awkward it was. But when I think about my neighbor, whatever his name was, the only thing I really wish I’d told him was goodbye.
L.V. Anderson is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn.