Scary late-night noises in a hotel hallway force Nina Sharma to question her ability to sleep through fear — and the frequent, raging urge to relieve herself.
he first night of our vacation, I wake up in the middle of the night needing to pee. I’m tired, nestled in the hotel bed, and I debate getting up or not. I have a love-hate relationship with my bladder. I hate how much I have to pee; it feels as if upon the hour sometimes. “Ugh, it’s at it again,” I often groan to my husband, Quincy. “But Nina, it’s your body,” he’ll say. In the rivalry between team Nina and team Nina’s bladder, he always sides with the bladder.
Lately, even if I wake up feeling like a dangerously over-filled waterbed has sprouted up inside of me, I can avoid the half-awake march to the bathroom and fall back to sleep. When I wake up a few hours later, my thought almost always is, “I won.” It’s a relief to know that should the apocalypse require me holding my bladder for an extended period of time, I can do it.
As I contemplate listening to my bladder this time or not, I hear commotion in the hallway. A man yells, “Get down on the ground! Now!” He is yelling this in a voice so certain and sturdy it feels like the scariest part of the whole thing.
A woman chimes in. “Why would you do that!” she screams. I try to imagine what “that” is but I can’t get past my body, which I realize is shaking now, head to toe, a shudder I would otherwise think is reserved for cartoons but it’s real and upstaging my bladder. I draw myself close to Quincy, who pulls me into his arms tightly.
“You ok?” he asks.
“I just want to be very quiet,” I say. I notice there is some part of me that wants to “shush” him, as if he’s talking through a movie, not expressing concern during what could be a shooter, a firefight, who knows. I know he doesn’t warrant this kind of treatment. And I am surprised that the urge to engage in marital bickering remains in me even amid what is happening. The urge runs in me strong like some invisible bladder.
“Run! Run now!” we hear the same man scream, again so sturdily. The woman’s question is never answered and “that” still remains a mystery to me. Quincy pulls me even closer, until we hear nothing, not even a ding of an elevator or thud of a closed door, just the woosh of the steady hotel a.c. and my still-shaking body rustling up their something-thread count sheets.
I decide I won’t tell Quincy that I need to pee. He will worry over it and I will worry over his worry, and then feel forced to walk a kind of pee plank. I want to stay put. I want to stay in bed. Not go to the bathroom close to the door. Close to the commotion.
It’s 4:45 a.m. and I think I can live life in 15-minute increments until around 6 o’clock. The sunrise, I decide, will be the all-clear for me to get up from our king-size lockdown. This is as much logic as I can muster on a full bladder.
Quincy turns to his side for a moment and even that feels like too much.
“What are you doing?” I ask him. I feel that bickering impulse rise up in me again.
“Turning off my phone,” he says.
It’s a smart move. Quincy has multiple alarms set on his phone depending on when he has to get up for one of his several teaching gigs, all set in the tone of a loud dog bark. They often go off unexpectedly if he forgets to turn off the alarm for one gig or another. This is our more familiar middle of the night ruckus. When this happens, I usually groan and jostle the sheets dramatically. “Sorry, sorry,” he says over and over again as he unlatches himself from our cozy spoon to silence the robo-dog. Sometimes I’m so mad I don’t let him resume the spoon. When not barking, his phone also beeps out calendar alerts. Many of them concern me: “Have you asked Nina about her writing?” “Made Nina dinner?” I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a reminder to ask me if I need to pee.
It’s 4:50 and I want to cry. Bladder Standard Time moves slowly, backward it feels like, sometimes. It’s not a clock hand striking forward but a lava lamp sliding back and forth, in slow, honey-like undulations. Usually if we are in bed and I feel I need some comfort or calming, I take Quincy’s hand and guide it down to my lower abdomen, around where I think the bladder might be. I started to do this when I would debate middle-of-the-night bathroom trips but then I began to do it all the time. The feeling instantly puts me at ease. Sometimes his fingers start to slip down lower, sometimes with success, other times I pull his hand back up. Our Equator of Horniness. Either way, I think it’s a win—get some or keep dreaming. Sometimes his hand on my abdomen reminds me of how people put a hand over the heart to steady the heartbeat and it makes me wonder if my bladder is more my heart than my heart is.
I often hear that no matter how awful a relationship is, sex can save it. Lots of sex. I think it’s so true, not only for the obvious getting-off-feels-great reasons but because our bodies are always talking to each other, forging intimacies beyond what our intellect can fathom. Sex is only the logical consequence of all that talk. I don’t know what they are talking about but I know Quincy’s hand and my abdomen engage in something, crisis management perhaps. As much as I want to slip his hand there right now, I know it would be too much. What remains of my better senses at 5:02 a.m. would leave me and I would tell him I need to, have been needing to, pee.
Though it’s only just after 5 o’clock, the argument can be made that I’ve got this. It’s not the first time I have been trapped in a hotel room in the middle of the night needing to pee. Our honeymoon offered an initiation to the upper limits of my bladder. We were staying in an island resort called The Caves. It was our last night, and I thought this was going to be the night we tried to make a baby. I’d had my period all vacation and it had finally ended. I was wearing next to nothing, some skimpy slip. I was about to go do a pre-sex pee when all of a sudden we heard a quiet flap-flap and then saw it: a small bat swooping into our room and right into the mosquito netting that covered our bed, a netting that lurched closer and closer to us as the oscillating room fan passed by it. The bat eventually went up to the rafters but I refused to go to the bathroom until daylight. I found a mug and peed in it and then a glass on Quincy’s side and when I still wasn’t satisfied I went on the bed.
Quincy said nothing really except, “I’m so proud of you,” and later, “In the daylight, it really just looks like a mouse with wings.”
When I think about it now, I think how young we were. How naïve I was about not merely the uses and limits of my bladder but also what lies close by, the uterus and womb. We often tell this story as a dinner party anecdote. We talk about the mosquito netting, the rafters, but I never mention the pee, nor what I think is the true kicker of the story—that I believe the bat was my future child telling me to wait.
At 5:15 we hear a knock on another door, two quick raps and the door clicks open and shut. My mind goes wild. I wonder if the knocking is connected to the original disturbance or if some guest complained and it’s hotel management coming up. I wonder what is worth knowing and what about this might be a mouse in the daylight.
Then the wondering unfurls into all kinds of fears, all orbiting the mysterious “that” which the woman screamed, and then I can’t wonder any more; the lower half of me feels like a distillery, any articulate language dissipating into uric acid.
Just a few minutes later, I break. “Quincy, I have to pee,” I say.
“I think it’s safe to go, the worst is over,” he says.
“What makes you say that?”
“Because of the cop,” he says.
I wonder who he is talking about and then I realize it’s the loud and sure man.
“But what kind of cop, screams ‘run!’” I say.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I think you were more awake than I was.”
This doesn’t satisfy me. All I can think of now is Quincy’s mind went to cop, where mine did not.
I move to put my feet on the ground. I can’t see where they are. My feet are swallowed up in the pitch black and then feel stung by the freezing cement floor. I pause there for a moment.
“Want me to go with you?” he asks.
“Just let me get up on my own time, ok?” I say with more impatience than I want to. I quickly feel guilty. I think of the scene in that movie Titanic where the elderly couple held each other as the ship drowned and another from my favorite TV show Lostwhen stranded islanders Jin and Song held each other as what was to be their getaway boat filled with water—the thought of which of course makes me want to pee further. And I criticize myself for getting all aggravated with Quincy during what could be a dangerous, life or death time, or at least something that evokes such feelings. This is not how I would want to go I think, all full of pee and marital fury.
I saw my first gun up close just a few months ago. I was taking a community writing workshop at a café in Brooklyn. The class was called “Two Truths and a Lie,” a workshop in memoir and autobiographical fiction. It was early November. Diwali was underway, the Indian festival of lights. The teacher was South Asian and the student body was, largely, too. That evening we were discussing how celebrating Diwali would be a nice way to break up the long and rough stretch of New York City cold that had begun.
We were situated in the playroom section of the café. A small room, just big enough for a folding table and our bodies, but it was sweet and comforting with all the children’s toys, and it even had its own separate entrance for us to come and go as we pleased.
The night felt free and happy, like our own little Diwali party. We were laughing at something together, in fact, when the young man walked in and stood at the top of our table. He was there before we realized it, so deep we were in our laughter. The gun slipped out, not in a flashy way but more like an “ahem,” like, “I guess the ski mask didn’t make a dent, so let me make myself clearer.”
As it became clear that as long as we filled his bag with laptops we’d be fine, I began to wonder if that gun was real or not. It was large, shiny, and silver, bigger than the young man. He was a thin and scrawny boy, really. I remember the gun looking like it could have been a prop in a Western, but maybe that is just what the mind does when it needs to.
As scary as that moment was, I felt even more scared when the cops came. Three different sets— plainclothes, uniformed officers, and a detective. Each set asked the same round of questions, oftentimes misspelling the same set of Indian names we’d already given, and then, dragging two of my classmates into their squad car to go ID some suspects. When my classmates came back, they looked more shaken up than even during the robbery. They told us that “come with us to ID some suspects” was really code for: “Hop along as we stop-and-frisk some innocent black men.”
I worried then about Quincy, who would soon pick me up. I waited by the door, nearly running out to him so that the cops wouldn’t stop-and-frisk him.
I get up and back into bed three times and then finally around 5:30 plant my feet firmly on the cold floor.
“Will you go with me,” I say then.
“Of course,” he says.
I come up to the side of the bed and he takes my arm in the way that I know he might take my arm and lead me to the bathroom when we are old. We shuffle down, taking careful steps in that pitch dark.
Quincy stands at the door as I jump into the bathroom and pee a pee that seems to have operatic registers, soaring highs and lows, abrupt breaks and spirited staccatos. It all seems beautiful and majestic. And, just like good opera, even though I don’t understand the language of this song, it makes me want to cry. I don’t. I just pee some more, run out, and then we jump back into bed.
Just as I settle in I realize I’ve forgotten to flush. I tell Quincy and he says he can flush for me. It is no romantic holding-hands-as-a-ship-drowns, but the gesture makes me swoon nonetheless.