The day Usha got locked in the bathroom, she registered with an online dating website. Until then, she’d shrugged off suggestions strewn her way by her best friend, her daughter and her co-workers. They all told her the same thing as if in collusion: three years is enough time to mourn a death, you’re too young to stay single, you need companionship, living alone is fraught with difficulty. Her daughter, 25-year-old Veena, shocked her by offering to screen applicants --as if this was a job they were applying for -- if she registered on a dating website. Veena’s involvement was inevitable, Usha rationalized; an ironic role reversal.
Usha locked herself in the bathroom on a late Sunday afternoon in early July, right after trimming a rose-bush. She hadn’t watered the plant yet when a dust storm whipped up from nowhere. Monsoon season had arrived in Arizona. Particles whipped around, stung her eyes. In pain, she rushed into the house, leaving the patio door wide open. She made for the powder room, the closest bathroom on the lower floor. Rinsing with cool water brought some relief. She patted herself dry with one of the fluffy towels on the rack, took a close look at her red-rimmed eyes, turned the button to unlock the bathroom door. Pulled on the door knob.
The door did not open.
That was odd. She locked and unlocked the door again. Twisted the door knob. The door remained stubborn, closed. She shook her head, shut the toilet lid, sat on it, waited. Perhaps the door would become more cooperative if she allowed it time to sulk. She washed and dried her eyes again. Tried opening the door twice more. It would not budge.
She cursed and rattled the door knob. Such foolishness. Sweat soaked her underarms. There’d been no need to lock the door. She lived alone. Old habits, clearly, were self-propelled.
She pulled at the door knob until her fingers hurt. Pushed the door harder; perhaps it was misaligned. Panic struck.
The blue bathroom, despite the comforting painting and the cheerful flower arrangement, closed in on her. There was no window in this little bathroom located next to the living room; guests used it to wash their hands. The only sound she heard, the sound of her labored breath. She made a feeble attempt, “Help!” Waited. No one heard her.
This house was set on a third of an acre. The neighbor on the right was away in Flagstaff for the summer. The ones on the left owned a boat they took to Lake Pleasant each weekend. They would not return until late. She banged on the door with her fists. “Someone, anyone, hear this.” So many walls to dampen sound. “Someone, anyone, hear this!”
“Sell the house and move,” Veena said to her again two days ago.
Usha muttered, “I don’t want to,” without meeting her daughter’s eyes.
“Why?” Veena could be relentless. “It’s plain lethargy, I think. And your comfort with the familiar. Are you afraid of change? Is that it?”
Usha didn’t tell her at 48, embracing change was difficult. Besides, she didn’t like her daughter telling her what to do. Instead, she told Veena, “Please leave me alone. Stop directing my life.” While Veena’s suggestions might sprout from concern, Usha hated to think she was an unfinished task for her daughter to complete.
Her daughter appeared solemn as promised to leave her alone. She said, “I’m just a phone call away if you need me.” For the moment, at least, she took off her lawyer’s hat, dropped the argument.
She felt a sudden, fierce anger toward her husband, Raja, banged a fist on the door again. Wished she could have expressed this anger while he was alive. He had no business dying at the age of 52, leaving her alone. If her husband were in the house, he would have heard her shouts. Of course, instead of supporting her, he’d have been short with her, expressed irritation at her ineptitude, asked why she got into such situations. He demanded excellence, from himself and from his family. It got him nowhere in the end.
She looked up at the ceiling. Here she was, alone, in a tiny bathroom inside her own house. She’d felt this constant sense of aloneness descend on her, envelop her like a cloak, since Raja’s death three years ago. Not trapped like this, but alone nonetheless. Thoughtless, selfish and irresponsible of him to leave her like this.
They were married twenty-six years ago, in a traditional Hindu wedding ceremony in India. He’d made unfulfilled promises. “We shall be of one mind”, the vows said as they took the saptapadi, the seven steps, around the sacred fire, “We shall remain together -- inseparable.”
She’d learned to live on her own in the last three years, cooking smaller meals, paying bills for the first time, taking her car in for an oil change. She’d learned about investments, financial matters. He hadn’t told her many things.
Tears pricked her eyes. Calm down, breathe deeply, she told herself. Think carefully, focus on how to get out of this bathroom. Were there tools in this bathroom? She couldn’t remember. Lately, she seemed to live in a fog. It could be the sleeplessness. The doctor told her it would take time to recover, adjust to life’s new reality, besides there were hormonal fluctuations. It had to be more than that. At times she drove to work, pulled up into the parking spot with no memory of how she arrived.
She examined the little shelves in the wall unit. Nothing there except some soap, a travel-sized tube of toothpaste and a new toothbrush. No tools anywhere. She washed her face one more time. Took a few more deep breaths. She could call 911 if she had a phone, which she did not have.
She looked at her wrist as she remembered a television advertisement for a medical alert bracelet. The ad showed images of women who’d fallen in bathrooms. If she had the bracelet, she could have pressed a button and help would have arrived. All the women in the advertisement were much older, though. She was in good health, in no danger of falling or slipping.
Veena reminded her she needed to live with other people like herself. Usha couldn’t imagine moving into a retirement community, certainly not yet. In happier times, Raja and she had talked about moving into a gated retirement community. He’d play golf and she’d join a book club. But that was before. Well before he died, before startling truths revealed themselves, showing how those dreams would never become reality. Tears flowed from her eyes. The damn door.
Her heart leapt when a phone rang in the house. It was the landline. Would the caller try again, wonder why she didn’t answer? Probably not. Could be Marcy, her best friend, who would expect her to be home on a Sunday. Later, she might call her cell phone if it was urgent, leave a message.
Many families had dispensed with the landline; everyone had a cell phone now. Usha kept their old number and landline; they’d had the same number for two decades. Her cell phone, she could never find. She liked things tethered. The cell phone had no home and although she tried to make her purse its home, it tended to get displaced often. She couldn’t remember when she used her cell phone last or where she placed it.
She heard the house phone trilling through the empty rooms again. “Please wonder why I am not answering, rescue me,” she begged the unknown caller
Her breath came in rapid gasps, as if attempting to grab more oxygen. Veena was away at a weekend conference in Tucson. How long before she decided to call, how long before she came by? She might not call until she got home later this evening. Over and over Usha had reminded her not to call or look at her text messages while driving.
And the last time they’d talked, Usha specifically told her to stay away, give her some breathing room. By the time her daughter decided to investigate Usha’s extended silence, she might be dead.
Usha turned the faucet on, let it run for a while. She wouldn’t die. There was plenty of water. No food. But certainly water. Think of Gandhi, she told herself. He fasted for many, many days to further his cause and lived. She might go mad in this bathroom, but she wouldn’t die.
She examined the door. The lock on the door was definitely jammed. The only other connections the door had were the hinges. If she managed to unscrew them, the door might
open. She tried twisting the screw with her fingers. In desperation, she put pressure, grunted, tried to move the screw. Her fingers became bloody, but the hinge remained intact. If only she had tools. She washed the blood off her hands with cool water, placed one of the towels against the cuts to stem the flow. A nurse, long ago, told her to remember three things –clean, compress, disinfect. There was no medication in this bathroom.
There was only one thing she could do, wait for Veena to come by. This would give Veena ammunition, but she wouldn’t rub it in. That was not her style. She was an efficient multi-tasker, business-like, an organizer. She pestered her mother to move on, to simplify, and reorganize her life. When conditions changed, people must change too.
The phone rang in the house a third time. It didn’t ring much on week days when she was at work, rang occasionally on weekends. The world was replete with couples and families, their lives busy and active, the weekends especially so. Three calls in a row, unusual. Usha sat on the toilet seat. Could be one of her local friends, perhaps a dinner invitation, although they’d dwindled since Raja died.
No one came to the house, unless it was by appointment. She grew up in India, where the milkman came by at six each morning, followed by the newspaper boy, the maid, the man who picked up the trash, and even the odd neighbor who’d need a cup of sugar urgently. So much human contact in the first few hours of the day. Here, days could go by with no human contact. If it wasn’t for her job, she wouldn’t see another soul for quite a while.
A chime. A phone’s chime. Her cell phone. It seemed to be close. But where? Couldn’t remember where she’d put it after the last call. In fact, she couldn’t remember the last call. She yanked open the door to the tiny wall unit. A bar of soap, a tube of toothpaste and a new toothbrush in its plastic cover stared back at her. There was nothing on the vanity except for the flower arrangement and some liquid soap. After four rings, the phone stopped ringing. She screamed, “No, no , no, don’t hang up.”
As if in answer to her supplication, the caller tried again. The ring was definitely close. Where in this tiny bathroom could the phone be? Not on the floor, not in the wall unit, not on the vanity. She parted the flowers in the arrangement, sobbed when she didn’t see the phone there. So close and yet so maddeningly far.
She thumped her fist on the vanity, heard something jump in the cabinet beneath.
Could it be? She only kept the toilet brush and some cleaning supplies there.
There it was, her cell phone, right by the bleach. As if on dramatic cue, the phone stopped ringing. She must have left it here yesterday when she cleaned the bathroom, finished the call and the cleaning at the same time. A peculiar, serendipitous place to leave a cell phone.
Those numbered buttons seemed small as she tried to press 911. Tried three times, her fingers shook so. “Let there be enough power in the battery for just this one call,” she prayed. Finally, when the call went through, the professional, impassive voice of help overwhelmed her.
“911, what’s your emergency?” he asked.
“I could hug you,” she told the operator, sniffled.
“How can I help?” he asked, deflected the flow of affection.
“I’m locked in my bathroom and can’t get out.”
“Help is on the way. It’ll only be a few minutes. Your address, ma’am?”
She gave her address, told them the patio door in the back was open, they wouldn’t need to break down any doors. The phone in her hand served as timekeeper. In seven minutes she heard voices outside the bathroom. “Stand back, ma’am.”
They did their magic; the big, handsome guys, got her out. In a surge of fondness, she offered them home-made chocolate chip cookies or mango ice-cream, even coffee, tea or juice, all of which they declined.
Along again, she sat at her kitchen table, with a mug of tea. She doodled on a writing pad as she sipped her tea. Couldn’t remember what she was going to write. Mentally, she felt exhausted. Her injured fingers bled, reminded her. She wrote a note to herself: Never lock a bathroom door again. Opening the kitchen cabinet where she kept her medications, she found a couple of non-stick bandages, placed them on her fingers.
The house phone rang. Usha picked it up. “Mother, are you okay? I called so many times. You didn’t answer. You weren’t home. Where were you?”
“Hi, Veena! I’m fine,” she smiled, hoped Veena would hear the smile in her voice. “I was out shopping.”
“What did you buy?”Her daughter wasn’t letting that go.
“Nothing. Didn’t like anything enough to buy. I was just browsing. So, are you driving? How many times have I told you not to call when you’re driving?”
Veena ignored her question, asked one instead. “Everything okay, though?”
“Sure. Everything’s fine. Can I talk to you tomorrow? I need to shower and eat.”
She didn’t shower. She didn’t eat. Instead, she powered up her laptop. A little voice inside her head chirped and chirped. She silenced the voice with rapid typing on her keyboard, asked Google a question. The good people there seemed to have all the answers. She typed: Is it possible to find companionship after a loss?
It took only a few seconds for her to get an answer.
Sudha Balagopal's short fiction has appeared in Superstition Review, Gemini Magazine, Muse India, The Writing Disorder and Chiron Review among other journals. She is the author of the short story collection There are Seven Notes published by Roman Books in 2011. Her second collection of short stores entitled Missing and Other Stories was released in 2013. Currently, she is working on a novel. 'Aloneness' is an excerpt from the novel.