By Evan Shumka
One man learns how to stop holding things in.
I should’ve peed before I left. I was guzzling water all morning, taking a sip every time I felt inferior among the assembly of effortlessly successful family members. All of them were married with kids and careers by the time they were my age. Now they’ve all got big houses in West Van. I left early. Couldn’t stay any longer facing all the questions from aunts and uncles and first-cousins-once-removed about what I’m doing with my life. Holding in pee, that’s what I’m doing.
I crouched by the door and laced up my infantile runners. My aunt stood over me, the muscles of her arms toned from hauling a cello all over the world to Vienna, Budapest, and countless other places I’ve never been, to play in the best international orchestras. I can’t even remember how to play the recorder.
“Do you need to go to the washroom before you leave?” she asked, like I’m five.
“No, I’m good,” I said, thinking that sounded grown-up. I could’ve gone, though I wasn’t yet desperate. I considered going. And then my great-uncle, a renowned architect who made a fortune designing seaside glass mansions, strolled into the foyer.
“You’ve got a good bladder like me,” he said. “I never have to pee.”
There was no way I could go after that. It was the only positive reflection of me that I’d gotten from anyone all weekend. So I let him believe we were kindred bladder-spirits and I drove to the ferry.
Now I really gotta go. But the ferry’s off-loading and the line of cars will start crawling aboard any minute. I got in line a half-hour ago and spent all that time debating in my head whether it was too late to leave the car and run to the washroom and now it really is too late.
Just breathe. Soon I’ll be onboard and I can get to a washroom.
I throw a cursory glance over my cluttered car for a plastic bottle to piss into—just in case. But there’s nothing, and even if there was, I haven’t completely abandoned my dignity. I’m not gonna be the guy who drives around with a bottle of his own warm piss in the cupholder next to his coffee. Not for another few decades at least. Or minutes. I take another look around, shoving the clutter out of the way. The car’s littered with fast food packaging and clothes and other rubbish. Nothing that could hold liquid.
Come on, bladder, work with me here. Just gotta think about something else.
As a kid I was always pissing my pants. That doesn’t make me special or anything. All kids piss their pants. I was convinced that the moment I ducked off to the washroom something fucking extraordinary would happen and I didn’t want to miss out. An alien spaceship would appear like a goddamn ice-cream truck or my friend’s sister would want to say hi to me. This one time on a camping trip my brother claimed he spotted a Sasquatch while I was peeing in a bush. He was probably lying. Stupid thing is, part of me still believes him.
Odds are I didn’t miss seeing Sasquatch as a kid, but I did miss something pivotal: the secret to life as an adult. I don’t know when or where everyone else figured it out but I was probably in the can when it happened. How else does life just happen for people? How did everyone I know suddenly find careers, boyfriends, girlfriends, marriages?
Okay, now we’re moving. Focus on the cars. Be a good driver. Ignore the waves of desperation tingling though your legs, the rising anxiety. Don’t piss yourself, whatever you do. Won’t be long now. Start, stop. Start, stop. Here we go. Come on. Keep it moving. That’s it. The other drivers look indifferent to my suffering. The car in front of me stops for no reason. I honk at them. Don’t they know what I’m enduring here? Ten minutes wriggle by at an excruciating pace. Turns out I can drive pretty well with my legs crossed.
As soon as I’m parked, I get out and make a dash for the stairs, pushing past the other infuriatingly sedate ferry-goers to get to the passenger deck. Childhood memories tingle at the back of my mind as I take in the blue linoleum floor, the warm-brown panel walls, the bow-facing seats equipped with armrests so you can’t lie down. Everyone else heads for the Coastal Café. I walk briskly in the opposite direction, searching for the overhead signs for the men’s washroom. I end up doing a full circuit of the deck before finding it.
Fuck, I’m about ready to burst.
I push open the heavy door and hustle to the urinals. There’s a big puddle of piss right under each one. I take the one on the far left with the smallest puddle, assuming a wide stance to avoid stepping in it. I unbutton my jeans and wrestle with the zipper. Damn thing’s always getting stuck. Oh man, I gotta go. I’m gonna piss myself. I can feel my bladder expanding. I get the fly unstuck and unzipped, pull my pants down and aim my—you know—in the right direction. Deep breath out. Give it a sec. Come on. Nothing. Really? I expected it to be like a fucking fire hose.
I study the integrity of the pink urinal cake—why do they have to call them cakes? It’s disgusting. There shouldn’t even be a name for them. A chewed-up piece of gum sits lodged between the slats of the drain. A few squiggly pubes stick to the white porcelain. Sometimes I worry that some government orderly in a hazmat suit goes around collecting my pubes for cloning purposes—and that the pube clone version of me would be better at living my life than I am.
I bet my pube clone would’ve just gone pee back at the house and not given a shit about whether his bladder’s functions were aligned with his millionaire great-uncle’s or not. He would’ve just left the car in the lineup and gone to the washroom and let the other cars drive past if they needed to. Pube Clone would go out and look for opportunities. Pube Clone would seize those opportunities. He’d tell people how he felt about them. He wouldn’t keep everything bottled up inside because he would understand that you can only hold something in so long before it kills you. Pube Clone would know how to style his hair and dress like a grownup. He’d know how to carry himself in a dignified manner. When asked what he was doing with his life and all the opportunities he’d been given, all Pube Clone would have to say is, “I’m doing enough.” Pube Clone would make better use of my DNA. He would be worthy of the genes passed down across a million generations and evolutionary iterations who didn’t have flush toilets.
God, just let me pee!
The door opens up and I hear shoes squeaking on the wet floor as another guy ambles in. Heavy gait. Plenty of space for us both. I keep my eyes down.
The dude’s arm brushes against mine as he steps up to the urinal right next to me. My stomach clenches at the broken taboo. All the space in the world—so many others to choose from and he has to get all up in my personal bubble. I have to step in the piss puddle to avoid him. He’s a big guy. I swear this dude’s got his own gravitational pull. I wish I’d taken a different urinal. Now I can’t move over. He’s trapped me against the wall. If I can just pee, I can get out of here. Oh man, it hurts. Come on, pee, go free!
I turn. He’s staring down at me. He is big. Man looks like a small planet. Big brown cheeks and a jovial look on his face. He’s wearing a striped rugby shirt and one of those newsboy caps that would make me look like a child but somehow makes him look respectable.
“Hey,” I say. You’re not really supposed to talk at urinals. It’s not a hard rule or anything. It happens. There was no convention of men who pee standing up that decided on the official rules of engagement. It’s not allowed until it is.
I hear his stream of piss come out strong and steady and I’m jealous. He heaves a relieved sigh, leaning his head back and closing his eyes. It’s fucking torture. I wonder how long this can go on before I burst at the seams. Why can’t I just—
“You okay, champ?”
“Only I don’t hear you going,” he says.
“I just need a minute.”
“Hey, you’re safe. Just relax.”
I try to ignore him, but his stream is so loud. It mocks me.
“You got something on your mind?” he asks.
What’s with this guy?
“Just—trying to piss.”
He chuckles in a good-humoured sort of way. Like we’re sharing small talk at the bar over a couple beers, a basketball game playing in the background. “Yeah, I been there,” he says.
I focus on my breath. In and out. His stream is steady, like he’s out watering the petunias.
“That’s it. In through the nose, out through the mouth,” the big man says. “You know, sometimes I can’t pee when something’s troubling me. If I’ve bottled things up, y’know? We gotta let stuff out. God didn’t make us to keep everything in. Why do you think we have openings?”
“I just can’t pee when I’m being watched.”
“Nah, champ. You weren’t peeing before I came in either.”
“Hey, look, can you just give me some space?”
“It’s not space you need. What’s troubling you? You can tell me.”
How the fuck is he still peeing? He’s not letting up at all.
“What’s troubling me is I’m going to fucking explode here and you’re not helping.”
“You’re holding something in. Keeping it all inside. Gotta move it out, I’m telling you. Time to let it go.”
“You got this.”
Man’s one-handing it now. The other hand nudges the brim of his cap back, then comes to rest on my shoulder. I flinch, but his touch is reassuring. I think of my dad and I can feel tears coming. I resent the water coming out of my eyes instead of my—
The door bursts open again and a bunch of men lumber inside, taking their places at the other urinals. A litany of jingling belt buckles and zippers are followed by the taunting dribble of collective urination. My buddy beside me has clammed up, thankfully. Now’s my chance. Come on. Just relax. Oh—there it is. I can feel it. Almost there.
“Hey, can you please hurry up?” I hear a prepubescent voice say from behind me. I look over my shoulder at a kid in a Caesar’s cut and a striped shirt like Ernie on Sesame Street. He’s shifting his weight from side to side in an I-have-to-pee dance.
“Trying,” I say, turning back to the urinal. Pretty bold of that kid, honestly. I’m an adult and I can barely talk to strangers.
“I really need to go,” says the kid.
Don’t we all.
“I don’t think I can hold it much longer.”
“Neither did I, but life is full of surprises.”
The big man chortles to himself. One of the other guys shakes off and pulls up his pants. He heads for the sinks.
“There you go,” I say. “Use that one.”
“It’s too high up.”
I realize I’m standing at the low urinal for kids and shorties.
“Look, just wait your turn, kid.”
“Dude, just let him use it,” says the guy washing his hands in the sink. “Move over to that one.”
I turn to the big man next to me, expecting him to come to my defence. We’ve already been through a lot together and he’s the only potential ally I’ve got. He’s still going strong, leisurely reading some vandalism on the wall above him. He pays me no mind. Fuck’s sake. Now he decides to mind his own business.
“Fine!” I say, pulling up my pants and waddling sideways like a crab towards the other urinal. Another guy enters the bathroom and moves like a fucking jungle cat to reach it before me. I turn to retreat but the kid has already seized his opportunity to take over my urinal. I’m caught in no-man’s land with my pants unzipped and I can feel the piss in my bladder building up like a flood about to break through a dam.
“Hey! That was my urinal!” My voice comes out much louder and higher than intended. Jungle Cat doesn’t turn around. He’s wearing sunglasses backwards on his bald head. He says nothing. His glasses stare smugly at me, the crease of skin on the back of his neck forming a smirk.
For a moment I wonder what I might be capable of in this state of desperation. I look at all the occupied urinals, I look to the sinks—could do in a pinch. Then I remember the stalls behind me. Why did I consider pissing in the sink before using the stall? I run for it, ready to bowl over anyone who might try to stop me. The toilet seat in the first stall is covered in piss so I dash to the next one, which is speckled with only a few drops. I wipe it off with some toilet paper and sit down. My heart’s pounding and my bladder is on fire. I breathe out slowly. Come on. I’ve finally got some privacy, there’s nothing holding me back now.
Still no piss.
I might die here. I might actually die like this—bursting like a water balloon, splattering the stall with my essential fluids. All those assholes out there with their functional excretory systems will hear a massive tidal-wave splash and maybe a last feeble cry of anguish. They’ll turn to each other, deciding whether or not to check on me or let one of the crew members discover my deflated, rubbery remains dangling from the toilet seat. The next sailing will be delayed and all the people in line will grumble ’cause they have places to be and maybe a few of them have to pee too. Eventually they’ll hear what happened: twenty-five-year-old man dies horribly from exploded bladder. I’ll become a cautionary tale that parents tell their kids—or more likely I’ll become a punchline. I wonder if my family will tell any jokes about it at the funeral as ice-breakers before the eulogy.
I hear the sinks outside go on and off as the other occupants wash their hands and leave one by one, back to their functional lives, free of any urinary constraints.
The nostalgic three-toned chime of the announcement sounds over the speakers and a familiar recording says, Welcome aboard BC Ferries.
Maybe all this pain is in my head. Maybe I don’t actually have to pee at all but something’s gone all haywire in my brain and I’ll spend the rest of my days in anguish, perpetually feeling like I have to pee.
There’s a knock on the stall door.
“Hey, you okay in there?” I recognize the big man’s voice.
“No,” I say. I’m actually scared. I don’t know where to go from here. Nothing’s working like it should. My body can’t even perform the most basic function. There isn’t a shred of dignity left in me. I’m just a bag of piss.
“The others are gone. Just you and me in here, champ.”
That shouldn’t make me feel any better but somehow it does.
“Listen, buddy. We’re gonna get through this together, okay? Breathe with your belly.”
I can’t breathe through my belly. I’m breathing quicker and quicker. My hands shake. I let out a whimper. I’m a kid trapped in a dysfunctional man’s body, at the mercy of his bladder.
“Okay, I’m coming in,” the big man says. “Unlock the door.”
Some distant part of me thinks I’m not opening the door, what’s your problem? But that me is long gone. It’s just an echo, the words ringing false. I haven’t got the luxury of shame. I reach forward and unlock the door. It swings open. The big man fills the space of the doorway. He is a celestial body. He looks me in the eye and crouches down like a coach before his team.
“I’m right here with you, champ,” he says.
“Feel your belly, breathe out your feet.”
I don’t know what “breathe out your feet” means but I do it anyway. My breath slows and evens out.
“Good. Just like that. Now, locate yourself in space and time.”
“Right here. Right now. You’re on a ferry. A vessel. Surrounded by water. Feel your feet on the floor. Feel the waves.”
I close my eyes and feel the rumble of the engine through the floor, and the subtle sway of the ferry, like a cradle. I think of the waves outside. For all I know there could be a pod of orcas out there, or a humpback. People see those sometimes, on the ferry, though I never do.
“That’s good. Yeah, the humpback. Focus on that.”
Is this guy reading my mind? I really don’t care at this point. I just want to pee.
“You know, humpback whales don’t breathe automatically like we do,” the man says. “They can hold their breath for a long time. They have to remember to breathe. It’s gotta be voluntary.”
I think of the massive humpback whale plowing through the water. So much water. It swims up to the surface for air. It’s been holding its breath so long it can’t wait.
I wasn’t ready for adulthood. I needed more time to learn how to function as a proper person, but my body went and grew up and I lagged behind. I could’ve done so much better if I’d just had more time to prepare.
“Whales breathe through their blowholes. They go up to the surface and expel air, which pushes out the water in a fine mist. And buddy, you’ll have to believe me when I tell you this but my hand to God, I’ve seen a humpback make a rainbow doing that.”
I see the humpback break through the surface and eject a majestic geyser out its blowhole. All that buildup released in a colossal pillar of mist and yes, there’s a rainbow. It’s beautiful. And all that water vapour goes up into the atmosphere and comes back down as rain over the mountains, trickles down in rivers and waterfalls.
“I’m a failure,” I say, and I’m sobbing, and then—like the rushing current of river rapids in springtime—I’m peeing.
The relief is overwhelming. I feel like I’m going to float. Everything I’d been holding in pours out of me. I laugh from the sheer joy of it, tears streaming down my face. The man claps me on the shoulder and laughs with me, celebrating like I’ve just scored a huge goal. I pee for a straight minute before it tapers off and then I’m human again.
“Hey, look at me,” the man says. He clasps the back of my neck and presses his forehead against mine. “You’re not a failure, okay? You did it, champ. I’m proud of you.”
“Thank you,” I say through my tears.
He pats me once more on the shoulder and gets up. I hear the door open and shut and I’m alone in the washroom. I stand, pull up my pants, and flush the toilet. Everything feels calm now, slow. I take my time lathering the pink liquid soap over my hands and I don’t even feel impatient when the automatic sink keeps shutting off. I dry my hands with the Dyson Airblade and leave the washroom. Some dude in a hazmat suit is coming in and I hold the door open for him. He salutes me with the tweezers in his latex-gloved hand.
I wander out into the open and see all the passengers crowded around pressing their noses against the starboard windows, peering out. Someone says there’s a humpback out there. I see the kid from earlier, trying to get a view past the obscuring wall of grownups. I recognize the guy who made me give up my urinal earlier, but he doesn’t see me. The big man is nowhere in sight.
I leave them to their whale watching and do a couple circuits of the deck, looking for my piss doula, curious about who he is outside the confines of the men’s washroom. I meander past the café, the arcade, the overpriced gift shop, the “Kidz Zone”—why do they always deploy bad spelling when marketing things for kids? I can’t find the man anywhere. I head up to the sun deck where the wind blows loud in my ears. I fill my lungs with the reinvigorating ocean air. Doesn’t take long before I’m shivering but the discomfort is nothing next to what I’ve just been through and there is a serenity in this realization.
Perhaps it’s best that I don’t run into the big man again. Some interactions can only occur in a single, narrow space and time, where cracks form in the concrete of social protocol.
I lean against the railing and look out over the blue water, the forested islands drifting by. Already, my plight feels distant and I chuckle over how quickly things can change. Not too far out I see the spray of a blowhole and catch a glimpse of the humpback’s stubby dorsal fin before it dips back under the waves.
On the horizon I spot a rainbow. It reflects in the water and forms a circle. It didn’t come from the blowhole, but I decide that it’s a parting gift from the whale, and the stranger who helped me piss. I’ll make sure to visit the washroom again before we dock.
Evan Shumka is a writer, actor, and artist from the Cowichan Valley, though frequently sighted in Nanaimo. The meaning of his last name is disputed. Different sources have claimed a variety of translations, including: “whirlwind,” “spatula,” “cured ham,” and “noise.” Some of these words describe him better than others.