by Jerald Walker
As Robert Atwan notes . . . on the website Essay Daily, “The essayist is restricted by a criterion of truthfulness and verisimilitude that is not demanded of the more ‘imaginative’ writers. This criterion is relatively new; it did not apply to Addison and Steele—who invented an entire club of personalities and situations—or to Samuel Johnson and the many other periodical essayists of previous centuries.”
You are on Amtrak’s regional from New York to Boston editing a student’s essay when your pencil slips from your hand, lands on the adjacent seat, and rolls under its passenger’s right buttock. Only the eraser remains visible, and not all of it at that, just a millimeter or so, though that’s enough, you think, to be pinched free. Give the consequences of a mishap serious consideration, however, for the passenger is female, and white no less. She’s in her twenties, thin, blonde, and has large blue eyes, but you are speculating about her eyes because they are closed, as the woman is asleep. Her head rests on a bunched-up sweater pressed against the window, her body angled away from yours, which is why her ass is partially airborne and you are envisioning a scenario whereby it descends, suddenly, onto your forefinger and thumb.
In this scenario, the woman, upon feeling something beneath her, wakes to see you snatch back your hand, and screams. Passengers rise from their seats to look your way, including the three members of your family. Your first thought is if you’d sat with one of them this wouldn’t be happening, but when you entered the car it was already crowded with only scattered seats remaining. Your fifteen-year-old is directly in front of you, your seventeen-year-old is directly in front of him, and your wife is further down the car. When she pinpoints the source of the scream she weaves through the dozen passengers now gathered in the aisle, reaching your side as the woman accuses you of groping her.
Swear you are no groper. Say you are an honorable man traveling with your wife and sons, and then, as evidence of your good character, mention you’re returning from seeing three Broadway musicals in three days, but given the cost of Broadway musicals some passengers will be as skeptical of this as you were when your wife said the tickets were on sale. One of these skeptics calls for security, a member of which just happens to have entered the car, and who, like you, just happens to be black. Rather than take comfort in his race, however, be put-off by his comportment—his upturned chin, for instance, and his pompous sneer—and decide that in the olden days he would have been a house slave, the kind who despised his brethren in the field, where you undoubtedly would have been. After you explain to this Uncle Tom what happened, he lowers his chin and says, “So let me make sure I’m understanding you correctly. You lost control of your pencil, it fell down, and then landed up under this lady’s rear end?”
Here your fifteen-year-old, who of late has made a habit of contradicting you, says, “Wouldn’t that defy the laws of gravity?”
The security guard nods at him. “So you see where I’m going with this?”
“My husband isn’t some pervert,” your wife interjects, at last rising to your defense. “He’s just a klutz and goofball.”
Your seventeen-year-old agrees and offers proof. “That’s why when we were in the airport last year,” he explains, “he went into the ladies’ restroom.”
Take issue with his choice of verb; went implies a deliberate act with forethought and, in this instance, malicious intent. He should have used wandered, which allows for someone to have been reading a text instead of the bathroom’s gender designation. By the time you looked up, you were standing alone before a row of stalls with nary a urinal in sight, but instead of recognizing this clue for what it was and abruptly turning on your heels, you proceeded to do your business, rejoicing at the thought that finally someone had designed a men’s room with an eye toward discretion. Having a full bladder, in your estimation, is insufficient reason for men to hold their penises in public spaces mere inches from other men holding their penises without a substantial partition between them, especially since, should one of these men wink at you while stepping back from the urinal, there would be an unobstructed view of a penis in service of something other than a bladder. The man who did this to you, you’d wager, had not arrived at the urinal next to yours by wandering.
“I wandered into the ladies’ restroom,” you say, “while looking down at my phone.”
“At yet,” your fifteen-year-old responds, “you stayed, even though there were no urinals.”
“But there were no women either,” counters your seventeen-year-old. “Not like there were that time last month in the ladies’ restroom at his college.”
Technically speaking, there were no women there either, but rather a woman, a close friend of yours, thank goodness, for who knows what would have happened had a stranger exited a stall to see you at the sink washing your hands. After saying hello, your friend strolled to the sink next to yours and turned on the faucet. “You do realize,” she said, pumping the soap dispenser, “that this restroom is for women?”
“So I’ve gathered,” you replied.
“Then why, if you don’t mind my asking, are you in here?”
“I’ve obviously made a mistake.”
“To be honest,” she said, “it’s not very obvious. Because assuming you didn’t see the image of the woman on the door, in a skirt—“
“—And I didn’t---”
“—okay, assuming you didn’t, it would be difficult for someone not to notice, once inside, that the room only has stalls.”
“Which was all I was looking for,” you said, resting a hand on your belly. “Bad sushi last night.”
Later that day, when you told your family what happened, your fifteen-year-old noted that he’d eaten the same sushi and felt fine, as he notes now in your imagined scenario. You would have done as well to say a group of women pulled you inside the restroom and held you captive, since that would have been just as unbelievable, even though something like that actually happened to you when you were nine. While zigzagging through the halls of your elementary school, your attention on the blue and white floor tiles as you pretended to be a human checker, you looked up to see a half-dozen teenaged girls bearing down on you. Two of them suddenly grabbed your arms and another cupped your mouth, their actions swift and coordinated enough to suggest the plan was long in the making, though you understood it not to have been after they’d ushered you into the girls’ bathroom and one of them said, “Now what?” No one had an answer. So they thought the matter through while grooming themselves in the mirror and smoking cigarettes. Meanwhile, you stood against the far wall trying not to cry, which made your wails all the more powerful when they finally erupted. Your captors rushed to your side, each taking turns giving you a hug and telling you that everything was okay, but you knew otherwise because if there were a greater evil than a boy being in a girls’ bathroom it had not been made known to you. And then it was made known to you; one of the girls, after escorting you to the door, kissed your cheek.
Perhaps it is the nature of fifteen-year-old boys in general, and not yours specifically, to challenge your view of things, for when you informed your older brother of that age what happened he told you to count your blessings. After that you felt less tormented by the incident. Indeed, when you reached puberty, you longed for its reenactment, though no amount of time spent loitering near the girls’ bathroom could bring it forth. So you settled for its memory, which often brought a smile to your face and occasionally, four-plus long decades later, still does. But you are not smiling now on the train because it has just occurred to you that perhaps, on some subconscious level, your recent excursions into the wrong bathrooms are linked to that incident. Maybe you are more than just a klutz and a goofball. Which would mean, by logical extension, that your pencil slipping from your hand to land where it landed was no accident. Do you see where you’re going with this?
You do. And you don’t like it. Get out of your head. Retrieve your pencil, as any honorable man would do, and continue editing your student’s essay. But first, as a matter of prudence, check to see if the woman is still asleep. She is, thankfully, and she remains so until your fingers are an inch from the eraser, which is to say an inch from her right buttock. Her eyes, as you’d speculated, are blue and large. As they grow larger, stammer, “I, um, I dropped my…um.” Point to the thing you are trying to say. The woman glances down, sees and picks up the pencil, then smiles as she hands it to you. Thank her. Now stare at your student’s paper but only pretend to be reading it because you are back inside your head again, imagining a scenario whereby your train has arrived in Boston. As you make your way through the car, a half-dozen women approach from the opposite direction. There is no one else in the car, only you and these women, and midway between them and you is a ladies’ room. Turn abruptly on your heels. Walk away. And do not, under any circumstances, look back.
I gave an interview once in which I spoke of my overactive imagination and how I must constantly guard against it less I violate the conventions of the essay—conventions, ironically, that fall outside the genre’s long tradition. As Robert Atwan notes in a brilliant article recently published on the website Essay Daily, “The essayist is restricted by a criterion of truthfulness and verisimilitude that is not demanded of the more ‘imaginative’ writers. This criterion is relatively new; it did not apply to Addison and Steele—who invented an entire club of personalities and situations—or to Samuel Johnson and the many other periodical essayists of previous centuries.” And so when Leila and Robin contacted me about their new venture I welcomed the chance to let my imagination have its say (which, not surprisingly, was quite a bit) in the manner of the forbearers. Half of what occurs in this piece does not occur outside of my mind, and yet an argument could be made—I am, in fact, making it—that no part of this essay is more true or real than another.
Jerald Walker is the author of The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult and Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption, recipient of the 2011 PEN New England Award for Nonfiction. He has published in magazines such as Creative Nonfiction, The Harvard Review, The Missouri Review, River Teeth, Mother Jones, The Iowa Review, and The Oxford American, and he has been widely anthologized, including four times in The Best American Essays. His next book, Once More the Ghetto and Other Essays, will be published in 2019. He teaches creative writing at Emerson College in Boston.