By Jessica Bern of bernthis.com
I’m in Corpus Christi, Texas. The year is nineteen ninety-six. I’m inside a stall in a bathroom off the lobby. Two women walk in and start talking. “She was horrible,” one of them says. “Yeah, she was bad, not funny at all,” her friend replies. I knew that “she” was me. It had to be. There were only two people on the show that night and the headliner was a guy, a white guy. It was always a white guy. White men ruled the universe and in the world of comedy, it was no different.
I had just gotten off stage. I was the opener and had tanked. Odds were in my favor that of the 150 or so people in the audience that night, my set would likely be forgotten the moment everyone turned out the lights and went to bed. There was no internet at that time, no huge platforms to post photos or videos, where millions of people could air their feelings, leaving me open to the criticism of those who hide behind their screens delving out cruelty like heaping portions of stuffing at Thanksgiving dinner. No, it was my semi-private humiliation, and as I sit here and write this, I am suddenly eternally grateful that I am the age I am.
Since that night, the story I have molded over time is to tell people how my heart started pounding and I slowed my breathing so as not to let the women know I was sitting right there, listening to every horrible thing they had to say. I remember cutting myself off mid-pee until they each went into the stall, only then allowing myself to continue relieving myself in unison with them so as not to attract their attention. They were silent long enough to do their business, and when we were all done, I quietly got up, zipped my pants, and then sat back down on the toilet seat.
Yes, I had to go back out and close the show, and yes, a majority of the audience members stayed in the hotel along with the comedians, and yes, inevitably we’d all end up on the lobby floor, waiting for the elevators to take us up to our rooms while the headliner basked in their praise and I stood idly by, staring at the floor like it was the first time I’d ever seen one. But no, I would not be paid unless I fulfilled all the terms of my contract.
I’ve been told by many a trained therapist that I am a disaster planner of master proportions, and let me say I was in fine form that evening. I think I’d even go as far as to say if there were a neurotic Olympics happening in that women’s restroom, I’d have gone home with the gold, the silver, and the bronze medal.
I began thinking about how I would have to build a life in that stall because there was no way I could ever face these women again. I thought about how much money I could save not having to pay rent or utilities, and even if the Marriott wanted to charge me, it was likely minimal given I would have to endure the sounds of people walking in and out all day, toilets flushing, water running from the sink, people bitching about there not being enough soap or asking me to share my stash of toilet paper. I would save on a gym membership. I could do push-ups with my hands resting on top of the toilet paper I would use to line the seat, followed by some step-ups.
Then I started wondering how the hell I could raise a kid in there, which then led to an internal debate of did I even want a kid because that could possibly mean extra time having sex with my husband, which “reminded” me that I no longer loved him and should file for divorce, the result of which would mean I was alone, which is exactly why I hadn’t filed for divorce, which triggered some real abandonment issues, something I realized I needed to deal with ASAP but couldn’t because I was pretty sure no GOOD therapist makes house calls to bathrooms, so I quickly switched and began to channel my mother, deciding then and there that I would do my laundry using the toilet water and then hang my bras out to dry on the handle and my delicate cotton underwear over the door.
Yes, that was it. I would create a life as close to normal as one can when residing in a hotel bathroom stall.
While the women were drying their hands, they picked up their conversation where they had let off. “I felt kind of sorry for her,” one said. “Yeah, I was cringing by the end and her outfit…” her friend replied. “It was like something Brian wears to his office.” Momentarily insulted, I looked down at my pleated dress pants and wingtip shoes, and while brushing back my Mika Brzezinski haircut I had to smile because if I didn’t look like her husband, I at least looked like somebody’s.
But what neither of these women could have understood was the reason why.
This was my suit of armor, this outfit was carefully put together so as to make everyone in the audience forget I was female in the hope they would to listen to my words, take me seriously enough to laugh at what I had to say. And yet it did nothing in that moment to protect me from the pain of their words and the shame at coming to grips with knowing it was not a job well done despite my greatest efforts.
As has been said before, comedy is just the flip side of tragedy; it’s a coping mechanism, a way for some to heal the wounds of their past or to escape them. For others, it’s a way to discover what really matters, be it on stage or while sitting quietly on a toilet inside a Marriott hotel.
Finally, the women were gone. I waited about a minute more just to make sure they would not return and then unlocked the stall door and ventured out. As I made my way back to the nightclub, I undid the second and third buttons of my blouse. “The show is almost over,” I said to myself. As I pulled both sides of the collar to the right and left, I looked down at my chest to make sure I wasn’t going overboard.
Which was when I saw that underneath my blouse, was a white, crewcut, Fruit of the Loom undershirt, just like Brian.
About the Author
Jessica Bern is a staff editor at Honeysuckle Magazine. Her most recent essay was published in an anthology entitled, “Hey Mama: Solo Mom Stories of Strength” by She Writes Press along with pieces by Anne Lamott and Amy Poehler. Her work has also appeared in “The Girlfriend” and “Honeysuckle Magazine”. For side bucks, she is also a voice-over artist and scriptwriter. Most importantly, she is surviving parenting a teen with only superficial wounds to the mind and heart. You can see her work at bernthis.com.