The Carwash

We were in the men’s bathroom at a small Mexican restaurant, crowded into one of the gray stalls. Ada was in my arms, crying innocently, but vigorously. Her uninhibited sobs echoed off the white tile as Pema sat on the toilet, eyeing us uncomfortably.

 

Moments ago we were standing in the parking lot, where our carpool had met earlier that morning. It was now late afternoon and the sun was full and hot. The pavement had that familiar smell. Silke and an SUV full of kids had just dropped us off after a long day at Farmer Ron’s, where we had taken a long walk along the acequia, stumbled upon a horse being trained, and dug weeds out of the corn beds. We ended the day with an Easter egg hunt in the garden, surrounded by lilacs, tulips, and a majestic flowering peach tree.

 

It had been a lovely day, and the three of us, Pema, Ada and I, now stood alone in the emptyish parking lot, cheerfully anticipating the next few hours. As I took the keys out of my backpack, my mind started to drift. I had about ten minutes to meet Ada’s mother on the north side of Taos. The girls would stay with her, while I tried to shift gears and get a couple hours of work in at the library. I knew I’d be a late, but there was no rush.

 

I unlocked the front door and, after reaching around to unlock the back, began stuffing our things inside. My car, somewhat purposefully, is a tangle of sticks and dirt, wrappers, moss, old craft fairies and plastic forks. The outside is covered in mud and dust from the dirt roads we travel. I never wash it. Why would I, when it will only get dirty again? Besides, I like to recall these things, these moments, even when they’re crushed underfoot. Pushing aside the flotsam of past adventures, I shouted, “Go ahead and climb in, girls,” and set my bag on the floor. Making little pockets between our backpacks, I placed our three hand-sized Easter baskets, each containing a bed of wheat grass, two colorful chicken eggs, a kumquat and a hand-made bunny (fashioned by Silke) snuggly between them. The cookies had been eaten.

 

As I closed the door, I found Pema still standing beside me, looking a bit sheepish. The back door was open and through the window I could see Ada beaming contentedly. “I did it, Joe-Joe,” Ada shouted, indicating with a motion of her hand that her seat belt was buckled. She was ready to go. Pema, looking at the ground, dragged her foot softly along the pavement, and then said, “I need to poop.” She’s so smart. She knew I would respond with something less then patience, and so here she was, a basic bodily need at hand, trying her best not to let me down.

 

I love moments like this. I love that I have plans to follow, and that something as simple and obvious as poop gets in the way. I love the way my mind tracks my patience, while simultaneously strategizing and making subtle adjustments in my mood and muscle tone. And I love children, and tiny Easter baskets made of wicker and tin. I love parking lots and hot cars in the full sun. I like that it’s all happening at the same time. I like the mere fact that I perceive something to be good or bad, and how rapidly that changes. But still, Pema was right. “Can you wait till we get to the library?” I asked, an unmistakable note of disappointment creeping into my voice. I was starting to wonder if I could pawn this off on Ada’s mom.

 

“No,” Pema answered, looking up with a bit of a frown to read my body language. Children are so brilliant. I gave up.

 

Keys jangling safely in my pocket, we walked toward the restaurant, hand in hand. “My dad lets me walk by myself,” Ada informed me, who had apparently been to this restaurant before. “Yeah, well,” I answered, as if I needed to justify myself, “let’s get through the parking lot.” Up ahead, a long maroon Oldsmobile began slowly crawling down the lane. “Then you can run.”

 

We passed a small shop, which looked to be an old house with a wooden porch. “Aztec Hair Salon Open” read the hand-painted sign, which had been fashioned to the roof. It looked decidedly closed. Past the salon, we entered a long covered patio full of empty tables. “Okay,” I said, letting go of the girls’ hands, “you can run now.”

 

I hate going into restaurants and shops, basically anyplace where things are for sale. It’s not really anything against them, it’s just me. I’m awkward, and, if I know that I’m not going to buy anything, I feel as if I’m lying. Then I think everyone, the owners and staff, and even the other customers, are deeply aware of my duplicity and, even while seeming to act nonchalantly, are actually passing eternal judgement on me. You can see that I’m a little self-involved. To escape my anxiety, I prefer to sneak around, as if the full height of my adult frame, with two giggling children in tow, could somehow be inconspicuous. So when the first door I encountered had a paper sign, taped slightly askew, that read, “Please Use Main Entrance,” I was disheartened. And yet, I was subtly pleased at the strategy of my opponent. He was on to me. I’d have to be at my best.

 

Casually we walked through the glass door. Two women, in antiquated diner’s uniforms, complete with hairnets and pointed paper caps, relaxed idly by the ordering counter. Three cooks, visible through the open counter, were chatting amongst the stoves and stainless steel. The dining room, with a sprawling mural of a Mexican promenade, was empty except for one small table in the back, where two people lingered over a meal long gone. I walked determinedly, as if I knew exactly what I was doing, all the while scanning for signs of a bathroom. Keep walking - that’s my modus operandi. It’s like a running back in football. If your legs are moving, it makes you harder to tackle. Stop, and someone’s liable to talk to you. Plus, it helps to have kids, to whom I can turn at any given moment and feed instructions like, “this way, guys,” which makes me seem important and busy.

 

There was no clear exit from the dining room, save the door I had just walked in, so I turned immediately to my right, keeping the counter and the two wait staff in paper hats at a safe distance to my left. Straight ahead was a long hallway that looked promising. As I headed that way, Pema and Ada were occupied with a song we had sung that day, replacing the final word of each stanza with, “poop,”, followed by a satisfying giggle. Passing by a long table on my right with condiments - lemons, napkins, pickled jalapenos - I was a few steps ahead of the girls, who were not as keen on this strategy, when I heard a decisive bonk, followed by a gasp from one of the women in paper hats.

 

I spun around quickly to find Ada, now half a step behind the table, already forming the words, “I’m okay.” Pema looked aghast. Both had their sunhats on, as did I. Occupied with their laughter and song, Ada had evidently missed the table in her periphery. She looked directly at me, shaking her head slightly, mouthing, “I’m not…” but she was. I knew, just as the women nearby, who in all likelihood had children of their own, that the volume of that bonk could not possibly mean she was okay. This would require a decisive shift in strategy.

 

I scooped Ada into my arms, as the revelation dawned on her consciousness that she had, indeed, been quite hurt. Her face started to peel into tortuous anguish, and her right hand cupped her ear. Finally, she emitted an unmistakable wail and we had everyone’s attention. Just weeks ago, Ada had taken a bad fall at home and received stitches on her forehead. We’ve been talking about it ever since. She didn’t hit the same spot, thank goodness, but I’m sure it recalled that incident. Now in my arms, having had the mental processing time to record her immediate pain, the past trauma, the gasp of the woman and the fearful expression on Pema’s face, she fell to crying with full abandon.

 

Pema still had to poop. So as I cradled Ada in my arms, searching for signs of blood or major injury, I turned and continued down the hallway. Pema could wait, but I’ve learned it’s best to get kids out of a public setting when an injury happens. Otherwise, well-meaning adults and children come in to express sympathy, which generally just feeds the discomfort. What’s needed is a warm, secure nest, not a public sympathy bath. I looked for my exit. It was a good bonk, but I could already see that we just needed time to see it through.

 

Halfway down the hall, which was surprisingly long, I saw an ambiguous sign that indicated bathrooms toward the back. As we exited the hall we came into a second large dining room, considerably more private than the first, but with plain white walls devoid of windows that made it feel like a cave. Two tables were occupied, which, in the relative emptiness, made it feel as if we stumbled upon their living room. Ada’s powerful cries drew everyone’s attention, and I felt trapped. I continued humming softly in Ada’s ear, “kshshshssh…”, my go to remedy, looking for a way out.

 

Scanning the room, I spied an old metal door in the far corner that, again quite vaguely, indicated bathrooms. “Is that a bathroom?” I thought. It looked like the door to a walk-in refrigerator. But what choice did I have? It was the only exit, save for the way we had already come. I walked toward it, Pema following dutifully, and pulled the heavy door open. Suddenly, I found myself mid-length within the long corridor of an automatic carwash - the old style, where you drive your car to the front, get out, and watch it slowly process through a series of sloppy rollers and foamy suds. There was no one there, and the carwash, which appeared functional, sat idle. What a strange turn of events. My mind recalled watching the huge vents, elbowed at the proper locations, as a child when my mother would stop at such a place. I loved getting out and watching each step along the way, particularly the loud blasts of air that chased the scurrying drops of water all over the contoured surface of the now clean car. Like enormous herds of sheep, they ran this way, then that, as the opposing vents gave chase.

 

My feet were moving. There, down the hall to our right, toward the entrance of the carwash, stood the bathrooms. The maroon Oldsmobile we had spied out front was slowly drawing up outside. Gleaming in the sunlight, it appeared immaculate to my eyes. Now I understood the vagueness of the signs inside the restaurant. It shares a bathroom with, of all places, a carwash. I smiled as I looked at the two gray doors to my right, identical except for the small rectangular sign hung in the center of each. “Men’s!” Pema shouted, and I pushed the door open. Ada’s cries had settled into deep, sniffling sobs, the kind that stutter-stop, a sign that her lungs, diaphragm and nervous system were beginning to regulate themselves. Magic. “Kshshshsshshsh…”

 

“Let’s do the big one,” Pema said, as we sized up the bathroom. There were two urinals and two stalls, the big one being the handicap stall. I don’t know much about women’s bathrooms, but I like to think they’re cleaner than the men’s. Maybe I’m wrong. Do teenage girls scrawl vulgar notes on the doors and in the tile grout? Anyway, I can’t help but feel a bit awkward taking two young girls into the men’s bathroom. But I do all the time, so I’m used to it. We go for the big one.

 

Pema hurriedly pulled her pants down and, using the handicap bar for support, climbed onto the seat. It was modestly clean, though stained and scratched here and there. “Yeah!” she said, “It’s not automatic!” Pema’s little body doesn’t block the laser of an automatic toilet well enough as she pivots on the seat. The result is a sometimes raucous flush that comes quite suddenly while she’s still seated on the toilet. Understandably, she hates this, so I’ve taken to putting my hand in front of the little black sensor till she’s done. Airports, with their busy bathrooms, each stall flushing boisterously, one after the other, are hell. Luckily, we had no such trouble this time.

 

I held my hand softly against Ada’s temple. She had stopped crying. Her body had relaxed, but she still sobbed softly against my shoulder. I swayed gently in the cramped stall, happy to have a moment of peaceful respite. I was still a bit disappointed at the fact that we’d be late, now later still, but we were finally in a place where we could just be us. I took off Ada’s hat and rubbed her head softly. “Well that sure was a bonk,” I said, testing the waters a bit. Ada remained silent, but she didn’t refuse. I looked down at Pema, who looked up at me with healthy annoyance. Once delighted to have me in the bathroom with her, she’s now old enough to want a modicum of privacy when doing her business. Who doesn’t? At home, Pema runs in and out of the bathroom when I’m pooping, sometimes sticking a foot under the door. “Do you see a foot?” she asks. “Yes,” I answer, all the while thinking “I wish I didn’t.”

 

Suddenly, a great motion of noise turned on. The floor startled to rumble and shake. Pema looked at me with wide eyes, a sign of fear and curiosity. Ada picked up her head, her breathing absolutely still. For a second I was stunned, then I remembered. “The carwash,” I said, nodding my head pleasantly, “the carwash.”