The feeling was common, but mysterious still. About midway through class, I sensed what we modestly refer to as “nature calling.” I promptly answered and made my way to the restroom down the hall from the lab I had been working in. Upon entering the sacred privacy of the men’s room, I assessed the situation. Of the two available urinals, only one was unoccupied. With no dividing element present to safeguard us from whatever it is that we fear, the viability of the other urinal was undone by the presence of another man, who admittedly would have been much too close to my left. His head tilted when I entered, but neither of us would dare make eye-contact. But with his collared white shirt, a vest of earth-tones, and the inconspicuous shoes of a man who takes himself seriously, he was likely a professor. I realized that I’d seen him before – he was an anomaly; a professor of mathematics. This qualified him as a wizard in my book, of course, as he dealt with arcane runes, language, and theorems the like of which were beyond my meager comprehension.
To avoid a grave breach of decorum, I housed myself in a stall, the first stall next to the occupied urinal. Strangely, it occurred to me that I was probably standing even closer to the wizard than if I were to have claimed the other urinal, but with the dull blue divider between us, providing all the comfort that a half-inch thick piece of steel could. I was at peace, like a blindfolded horse – unconcerned with the troubles of the outside world. From the position of his shadow on the restroom floor, I gauged that he still held dominion over his chosen urinal, but I could discern no auditory proof that he was expressing himself. Perhaps, I wondered, I might have made the wizard nervous and inadvertently ruined his private undertaking. Feeling guilty, but ready, I took it upon myself to lead the charge and thus began my business. Maybe this would break the ice as a rally cry of sorts and he would be encouraged to follow suit. Sadly, I couldn’t verify the effectiveness of my leadership over the din of my own fountain and finished what I had sought to achieve.
Satisfied with the results, my eyes darted to the flush handle and I debated the merits of flushing versus not-flushing in my head. I’d already ruined a good 1.6 gallons of water or so, depending on the design of the toilet, and it didn’t feel right that the sole purpose of this water should be so limited. Perhaps it had dreams of returning to a river one day or, at the least, serving more than the purposes of one man. Having cats at home, I was already in the habit of letting each flush be all-it-can-be while disposing of their flushable litter. In this way, water has been saved and each flush has been given greater purpose – ultimately saving the world, I imagine. Zipping up, I exited the stall, feeling oddly heroic, and checked myself in the mirror for flaws.
The wizard finished his business at a close second. But, rather than celebrate his victory, he made a heavy, exasperated sigh. To my dismay, he donned a grimace of disappointment and proceeded to enter the stall in which I had just saved the world. And then… I heard the toilet flush. Having only just left the stall, my ties to the experience hadn’t completely severed and so I felt angry and violated, as if someone had slapped me and taken my trophy away. Just like that, my heroic act was swallowed into the depths of the greater plumbing below. Did this Sage of Numbers believe that I was just another inconsiderate student? After all I’d done to embolden him in his endeavors? After all the thought I’d put into the non-action of “If it’s yellow, let it mellow?” This was an outrage. He avoided my gaze as he went to the far sink to wash his hands of what I imagined he thought of clearly as brave work.
Being both someone raised by a father who works as a custodian and someone who despairs to be misunderstood, I decided to confront the wizard. After all, he was out of his element; I have janitor’s blood coursing through my veins. This uppity little wizard might have held sway in the classroom, but I’m royalty in the bathroom. With home-field advantage, I waited for him to turn off the faucet so I could clear the air. As he dried his hands and turned toward the door, we faced each other.
“I didn’t flush that toilet on purpose,” I insisted, somewhat hesitantly. He responded with a look of surprise mixed with nervous amusement. Expecting a response but finding none, I went on: “I wasn’t being lazy – I purposefully did that to save water.” Aha! The upper-hand was mine and I pulled out the trump card. “My dad is a career janitor and he said that it’s fine,” I stated, daring him to defy my expertise. I can’t be sure if my father ever said exactly that, but it was close enough to the truth, and served well in the moment. Sure, he had his complaints, but I don’t recall him explicitly complaining of students not flushing the lesser of two evils. His frustrations were largely trying to figure out how stuffing all the rolls of toilet paper into a single toilet, consequently clogging the pipes, could be considered fun for some students. Never mind the wayward aim of elementary boys in general.
The professor offered no apology, but I felt I’d made my point when he responded by saying, “Thank you for explaining that to me,” with a surprisingly serene face and smiling eyes. It wasn’t a smarmy look of condescension. This had to be a rare experience for both of us and perhaps he found it pleasingly odd. He certainly didn’t have that “What’s wrong with the youth today?” aura about him anymore and, in that sense, I felt balance had been restored. He nodded politely as I moved out of his path and we parted. Certainly I’d been upset that someone so obviously a wizard could misconstrue my gallantry, but my frustration subsided when I remembered how he could have used his magic to transform me into a urinal cake at any moment, leaving me with an eternity to contemplate the virtue of an unflushed toilet.