The middle of the upstairs hall in the house on Carlisle Avenue was the kids’ bathroom where a bathtub paralleled one wall and a toilet filled the remaining small boxlike space. A beige Formica counter ran the length of the entire opposite wall with muddy blue double sinks planted in the long flat surface. And then there was the small window at the end of the bathroom with a plastic marble coating diffusing an outsider’s view – and an insider’s. The window remained open to a varying degrees to allow a clear view to slide through the narrow opening. The outside, a mix of sounds and smells and fragmented sights, was my connection to the outside as I experienced life’s growth in the bathroom.
When I was preteen, Mom hauled a tape player, cocooned for years, out from the upstairs closet. “Tell me who you think is talking,” she said. I waited as she laced the skinny brown tape from the plastic wheel though the track and picked up the end by a slot in another plastic wheel on the opposite side. She pressed a small lever and the wheels started to move in sync. A tiny voice sang from the machine and then incomprehensible chatter followed while the four year old was bathing. I was in my world then, content and safe in the confines of my tub in the kids’ bathroom. I didn’t realize an outlook to the world was behind the dim view of the closed window.
When I became a student of kindergarten, and growing into a big girl, I could sit on the counter while Ann, my older half-sister, would cut the bangs of my short pixie-haircut. Mom would crack the window to ease my insecurity and nervousness while I sat underneath the slippery Formica as Ann came at me with a pair of pointed scissors. Mom reasoned that the procedure would be effortless and speedy when fresh air from the outside mingled with the warm air inside.
Commensurate with my growing years, I grew my hair. And the bathroom window was raised from just a crack. I would situate my little body in the middle of the counter and hang my head over my sink – the one closest to the window – so Mom could wash my hair with Johnson’s baby shampoo. The counter was hard and unforgiving, but not as much as the curve of the porcelain under my neck. I strained to keep my head from falling too far back, giving my neck an ache and a crick. The noise of kids’ laughter and screams outside traveled through the window and comforted me as I looked through the openness, wanting to be out there. After I was towel-dried and combed out, I hopped on my green Schwinn and let the breeze take my honey colored waves, turning my head from side to side, to smell the cleanliness tickle my nose, engaging in freedom with my 3-speed. I had joined the outside.
Sometimes I would look in the mirror to adjust my uneven placement of pigtails, tilting my head to correct the imperfection and hoping the mirror would fix their crookedness. I gave up trying to right the wrongness and believed the bundles would work themselves out. The sneaky breeze through the open window nudged me to hurry up and join the other kids. I knew my friends were out there as I could see their busy legs through the window’s open gap.
Through the years, my image changed as reflected in the gold-framed mirror. I didn’t want the outside to know I was in the bathroom doing private things so I lowered the window enough to allow a draft of air. When I was in sixth grade, daily images of my wide mouth, pried open with tarnished silver braces, showed my struggle to paste tiny squares of wax on the sharp points of the teeth straighteners. And in junior high, applications of make-up, the silent smoothing of blush on my already warmed pink cheeks and the delicate strokes of black mascara, transformed a cute girl to a pretty lady. But then I was back to the hair drama where maybe pigtails weren’t the thing to do so I let the bundled hair pair loose. I thought to enhance my locks and sprayed “Sunlight” on my wet head to bring “natural” highlights to the honey-colored, already sun-bleached hair. I never let the spritz stay on long enough to see the effects because I was afraid my hair would turn orange. Growing to maturity, I propped a leg up on the sink curve to shave my legs for the first time, lightly stroking the razor up my shin, creating a racing stripe of silken flesh in the thick white foam. The newly tender skin on my legs made me stand no longer as a girl but as a teenager.
I stayed plugged in to the outside where the world kept moving at a pace I tried to keep up with in the bathroom. From my first few years in life and a closed window to connecting to the outside through the raised window, the bathroom witnessed my identity develop. The kids’ bathroom was a private place where it was just me, the mirror and the outside.