Sometimes an essayist reaches into an experience so common, so plainly right before our eyes, I canʼt believe I havenʼt examined it more closely. My teaching brain reformulates a writing prompt while Iʼm reading, curious how I might answer the question of that particular activity, what mystery it has to reveal.
In “Approximately Thirty-Six Toilets,” Rebecca Evanhoe gathers thirteen titled sections that contemplate the prettiest toilets she ever cleaned, the residence hall toilets she brushed in rotation, the toilets of a divorced couple she scrubbed during her first job in high school. That porcelain lens of human intimacy—so overlooked and sanitized and downright grotesque—is such a good idea for considering how we relate to each other and our bodies, my mind spins off in a reading experience so creative that before I know it, Iʼve got stories spilling from it onto a new page.
My parents invested in rental property over the years. Some tenants leave the sinks pristine and the hallways swept. But more often, they require them to haul truckloads of garbage and flood the tubs with bleach. In high school and during the summer after college, I helped them with my rubber gloves and Vanish, thinking about nastiness and distance, class and squalor. I recognized that some people lived in filth and wondered how they let things get this bad. I came to appreciate the speed with which it happens even as I judged them for wasting the opportunity of moving into a sparkling house a year before. Our familyʼs weekly cleaning ritual took on greater significance, distancing us as it did from their alien lives by mere weeks of regular brushing. One had to stay ahead of that third law of thermodynamics that threatened to overtake order.
It was the toilet bowl cleaner that got me on my first shopping trip in college. Spending the allowance my parents sent with a tuition check to buy household products was not in the cards I planned to play out. It was some stalwart remnant of a life I thought I escaped for one of joy and glory. It meant I was still fundamentally the same. Toilets were a harsher equalizer at seventeen than death.
Evanhoe uses these toilet bowl meditations to carry her to the pubic-hair-and-hemorrhoid-side of grace. On her knees with a toothbrush and cotton swabs, she contemplates her need to be needed, the degradation and transcendence of our desires and work. A woman, she recognizes a gender platform gets leveled and crossed in a familyʼs bathroom. A writer, she knows how often the cycle of work needs to be repeated. A human, she knows the potential shame in the gestures we make in an effort to please the ones we love, and that those rewards will never be done.
Amy Wright is the Nonfiction Editor of Zone 3 Press and Zone 3 journal, as well as the author of three chapbooks—Farm, There Are No New Ways To Kill A Man, and The Garden Will Give You A Fat Lip. She was a 2012 fellow at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and writes regularly for The Writer's Life, the blog component of Her Circle magazine.