“It’s a bad idea, Piper. No, a terrible idea.”
I looked around the swampy, football field–sized hut where we stood—inside the world-famous Shanghai Fabric Market. Fabric bolts, stacked in giant, colorful, Jenga-like towers, surrounded us, blocking any clear view of a restroom. I heard a man hock a loogie behind me, and I stiffened, willing away the exclamation that appeared like a cartoon thought bubble from my head: Tuberculosis! My eyes burned from the thick curtain of tobacco smoke; I felt like I was swimming open-eyed through ashtray water.
“The bathroom won’t be very nice here; I bet you’ll have to squat over a hole. I only need ten more minutes,” I pleaded. “Come on, you’re four years old, Piper—a big girl! I’ll buy you an ice cream in ten minutes if you can just hold on.”
“But I need to go now now now now now, Mommy!” Her lip quivered. As she clutched her crotch with one hand and her butt with the other, her seven-month-old baby sister, Lila, woke up in her stroller, observed Piper’s distress, and dissolved into tears. Lila hated feeling left out.
I paused to problem-solve. Four months earlier, my American family, complete with husband, two kids, and myself, had relocated to Shanghai, a city famous for, among other things, its fabric markets. We had moved to “the Paris of the Orient,” which had sounded potentially glamorous but so far had proven to be anything but. However, there was a possible upside: I’d overheard two expat women talking about an amazing market, even giving clear directions on how to find it. According to them, a person could purchase a new wardrobe at said market for the cost of a closet full of clothes from the Goodwill. Except made to order! After being measured by a professional tailor from top to toe! Finished in twenty-four to forty-eight hours! I had never given much thought to my wardrobe, but this sounded like something I couldn’t afford to miss. Plus, I needed a win.
I had chosen one shirt for myself, and I had already found the tailor to make it for me. She had measured every part of my thorax and was madly scribbling diagrams and notes in characters I couldn’t read on her tiny pad of see-through paper. I already had picked the fabric, too—a simple black linen. The shirt was going to cost me six bucks. If I walked away now, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to navi
gate my way back through the harlequin, sauna-like maze—packed with people hollering at each other in close proximity—to this unmarked stall. It didn’t help that I was directionally challenged.
Piper could just pee her pants. Wouldn’t be the first time, or the last. I thought these things, I admit it. I was not in contention for Mother of the Year.
I looked at my girls. Four large blue leaking eyes blinked back at me.
“Number one or number two?” I asked.
“Two!” she cried.
I sighed. “Okay then, let’s go find the bathroom.” I turned and smiled at the tailor. “Deng yi xia.” Wait a minute. It was one of the few Mandarin phrases I knew. I pointed at Piper, crossed my legs and then pointed at my crotch. She nodded. My Mandarin was poor, but I was fluent at charades.
I pushed the stroller down the aisle and held Piper’s hand as both girls whimpered. I turned right at the end of the row the tailor had vaguely gestured toward. In the far corner was a door-sized hole in the wall that looked like it had been knocked out with a sledgehammer. I knew I had found the bathroom—I could smell it from ten fabric stalls away.
It was worse than a roadside Porta-John in Arizona in July, the kind that hadn’t been cleaned or emptied since the Village People were in the Top 40. A rectangular lean-to, about thirty yards long and with filthy plywood walls, each section green and slimy around the edges, had been scabbed onto the building. The “roof” was a patchwork of rusted tin siding. The space between the roof and the walls provided the only light. No bathroom stalls, no sinks, of course no toilet paper. There was only a long, deep cement trench jutting up about a foot out of the ground. The trench sat three feet in from the back wall and stretched the entire length of the room.
A short, dirty hose protruded from the shorter wall to the left of the trench at about knee height. Two women were squatting over the trench near the right wall, about ten feet apart. Without their unknowing demonstration and the ungodly smell, I would not have known the trench was a toilet.
The women stared at us as they squatted and chatted. I under stood nothing but the smell.
I turned away and blinked, forcing myself to breathe through my mouth, eyes watering.
“Now do you think you can wait, Piper?” I quacked. She shook her head and whimpered.
“Alright then.” I sucked in air over my teeth. “Do you see what those two women are doing? Squatting over the trench like that? That’s what you need to do. I’ll stand up there with you and hold your hands. We’ll do it together, okay?”
Lila turned up her scream as I stepped onto the lip of the trench. I didn’t look at her; I knew that would just make it worse. I turned to pull Piper up. We faced each other, straddling the gully of stool. “Wait, wait, wait a sec,” I said, stepping down. “Let’s take those pants off first and get them out of the way.”
Piper stepped down next to me. “Should I take my shoes off too, Mommy?”
“Oh my God, NO!” I blurted and saw the panic light up her eyes. I paused. I needed to make this no big deal. “I mean, I think we should just leave your shoes on, because, you know, it’s a little dirty in here, which is fine. Let’s just get those pants and undies off. Then we’ll step back up on that trench.”
I crammed Piper’s bottoms into the storage basket under the stroller and squeezed Lila’s chubby hand. “I’ll be right back, baby girl,” I said in my soothing voice. She shrieked louder.
“Okay, Piper, let’s do this!” I said, switching to my peppy voice. We remounted the trench and resumed our straddle. “Now squat down and get your bottom close to the trench. I’ll hold your hands.” “Okay, Mommy.”
“And when you’re done, we’ll stand up together and step down. I’ll grab the wet wipes and hand sanitizer and clean you up. That should work.”
“See? You can do this.”
She stared at my face as she did her business. I smiled at her, projecting calm. Then I made a fateful error—I glanced down. Why? Why did I look? For the same reason people rubberneck at car accidents, I guess, but I will always wonder. I knew what I would see. Best-case scenario (BCS), it would be foul and atrocious. But, of course, it was not BCS, it was WCS. There were layers of generations of excrement. A surrounding swamp. An overpowering smell. I felt my gag reflex kick in. I turned my head away from Piper so we wouldn’t be face to face as I imitated a cat ejecting a furball. And then it happened. We were both sweating. Her hand slipped. “NO!” I screamed. I grabbed her other hand with both of mine and pulled it straight up as hard as I could. Too late. Her foot sank into the mire as she lost her balance and swung her arm out. In her panic, she kicked and splashed a wave of sludge onto her other leg and my jeans.
“Oh my GOD!” I yelled. I picked her up and tossed her from the swamp to the ground in front of the trench. She rolled twice and then screamed, “Mommy!”
I spotted the cracked hose by the far wall. “Come here, Piper, hurry!”
I ran and she waddled toward the hose. I cranked open the spigot and doused her as she moved toward me, hard, like I was putting out a fire. “Turn to the side, honey!” I yelled over the hose. I sprayed her everywhere—her shirt, her head. “Close your mouth!” I yelled, but she couldn’t—she was crying too hard.
Once I was sure I had removed every speck of poo from Piper, I turned the hose on myself.
I sprayed my pants with as much pressure as I could make with my sweaty, shaking thumb.
It was only when I felt I was as poop-free as I could get that I noticed the crowd of local women that had formed in the center of the bathroom. They were staring at me and my girls, smiling. Some were hollering and pointing. Everyone seemed to have an opinion about the ridiculous foreigners and their very bad day. I didn’t want their opinions. I wanted their help, and I really wanted to cry, but my kids . . . I dropped the hose and looked up at the rusted roof, swallowing the massive knot in my throat. It immediately bobbed back up again. I heard a woman laugh.
My eyes narrowed. In washed the fury. I looked back at the crowd and inhaled to full height. At five foot seven, I felt giant. I thought about my life in the US and how ready I’d been to walk away from it. How I had dropped everything—my booming career, beautiful home, great friends, cuddly cat—and left it all in the dust to move here and start from scratch. I had crossed the globe to build a life where I could be better at everything, a life where I could spend time with my kids without mentally writing emails, resuscitate my marriage (if that was even possible), and finally find myself, becoming the person I was put on Earth to be. I’d walked away from that life and every creature comfort I had worked so hard to provide for my family and myself, for this.
“What the heck are you looking at, you—” I hesitated, glanced at Piper, and then looked back at them. “YOU STUPID PEOPLE!” No one responded, most likely because they didn’t speak English. “Mom!” Piper protested, sniffling, hose water still trickling down her face. “They don’t understand you. And also, you shouldn’t say stupid, it’s mean.”
I looked at Piper, so sweet, so unjaded, so wet. I looked at Lila, eyes like saucers, too shocked to continue crying. I took a ragged inhale, looked back at the women, and squeezed Piper’s hand. I wanted to stop myself, but for the life of me, I couldn’t.
“You know what, sweetie? You’re exactly right. Stupid is a mean word, but more importantly, in this situation, it’s the wrong word.” I took a step forward. “Hey ladies! Never mind what I said before. You people aren’t stupid, you’re ASSHOLES! Well how do you like this, you assholes?” I reached down, grabbed the hose, and pointed it at the women closest to me. I spun that spigot hard to the left until it would twist no more and then I stood there with my two hands holding a hose that for some reason had lost pressure and could barely spray far enough to lightly mist the front row.
The women saw my intent. As I frantically tried to create pres sure, grabbing the water line and bending it in my hand, they ran from the room, all in a fuss.
When the room was empty of bystanders, I dropped the hose. I looked at the dirt floor and then the tin ceiling, and I laughed. I laughed and laughed, loud and crazy-like.
And then I cried.