(Un)Changing Room

(Un)Changing Room

by Jim Baker

I shoulder open the door of Rosemont Middle School’s boys’ locker room for the first time in seventeen years. It swings inward with an oxidizing metal-on-metal screech. By now someone has probably replaced the ancient hinges that used to make that noise, but that sound is indelibly etched in my memory. I can’t imagine opening this door silently.

The room is all in shades of mud-brown. The floor is cracking tile and cheap, porous grout; the walls are chipping plaster; the lockers dented steel; the toilet stalls graffitied aluminum alloy, each frescoed with phalluses and posteriors rendered in Wite-Out®, or etched with performative allegations (queer, faggot, cocksucker, pussy) in sharp-edged rectangular letters gleaming an accusing silver. The ceiling is at least twelve feet high and shrouded in shadows so deep they could conceal a catwalk and observation deck among the exposed ducts and fire sprinklers. The lanes of lockers are lit by flickering fluorescents whose glow only seems to intensify the ceiling’s mystery. Natural light comes in through privacy windows in the wall above the showers, but even on a bright day, its beams don’t pierce far through the steam and misogyny, and they never angle up.

The place reeks of bodies. The floor, with its pervasive and stinging odor of sweaty feet, would make a potent substitute for tear gas if it could be melted down and aerosolized. The lockers smell like the clothes that are kept in them: salty, musty, occasionally drenched in vomit and/or aftershave. The sinks along the backwall smell like the hand soap, which looks like Pepto-Bismol and smells like the inside of your religious aunt’s purse.

That potpourri choked me the first time I entered the room. I was carrying my new gym clothes to my new locker on the first day of school. I stepped into my aisle of lockers and suddenly my eyes welled with tears and I couldn’t get air into my lungs. I had to sit on the bench between the rows of lockers until I could breathe again. The gym teacher saw me gasping and chuckled. “Get used to the smell, kids,” he called, kindly pointing out my distress to the entire class. “This is what it smells like to be a man.”

I remember thinking, if this is what it smells like to be a man, where do I sign up to be literally anything else?

I also remember knowing, for the rest of the school year, I could not trust my gym teacher.

The only part of the locker room that doesn’t violate olfactory propriety is the showers; their offenses are tactile. They are never dry. We could open both doors and all the windows, point industrial fans into each stall, leave them there over summer vacation, and come back to find the walls still slick with dew, the floor still strung with beaded droplets. Residues of soap and shampoo have collected in a thin film along every surface, keeping the walls, the floor, and the temperature control knobs all slick as a politician. Forget about holding your soap; it’s a struggle just to stand upright.

Several boys lost that struggle over the course of my seventh-grade year, but the one that sticks in my memory is Ryan. He was showering with his buddies in one of the corner stalls—primo real estate, since a corner stall meant no one had any reason to walk past and gaze at you—when he lost his footing. I was showering alone in the centermost stall, where everyone had to walk past me just to access the showers. I heard Ryan yelp in surprise and then pain. Most slips in the showers weren’t anything to write home about, but Ryan’s fall carried him out of the stall. His head clipped the partition wall on the way down before hitting the muddy tile with a dull thwack. I peeked out and saw him sprawled naked across the floor, his eyes rolled back into his skull, his vibrant golden curls slicked across his face, soap suds running slowly out of his tiny patch of pubic hair.

My first instinct was to run to help him, but to my lasting shame, I didn’t move. I felt paralyzed. I was naked, soaking wet, with shampoo lathered into my hair. I was all too aware of how it would look if I rushed to the side of another naked boy in a show of compassion. Even if I put a towel around my waist before I moved to help, I would still be moving toward a vulnerable male body. I froze. So, evidently, did Ryan’s friends. No one took a single step closer to him until the gym teacher came huffing through the showers and covered Ryan’s midsection with a towel. Even then, rather than offering aid, we all skirted Ryan as though his sudden affinity for the floor might be contagious. Thankfully, he had a hard head. He escaped with a concussion, and spent the rest of the day in the nurse’s office. I spent the rest of the day reliving memories of the sight (the terror, the allure) of Ryan’s fallen body.

I wanted to join him in the nurse’s office. There, things that are meant to be soft are actually—pillows, blankets, towels, tissues, spare clothes, bandages. In the locker room, even the supposedly-soft things aren’t. The toilet paper is supplied by a roofing company—scraps of old shingle too small to protect anyone’s home—and the paper towels are either already damp and useless, or stiffer than the spontaneous adolescent erections half the room’s population sports at any given moment, and (as) useless.

Adolescent males have a hard time with their bodies, metaphorically speaking. All the imagery we use to talk about ideal male bodies echoes the language of erections: bulging muscle, rock-hard abs, rigidity, uprightness; it’s testosterous. Erections themselves are signs of virility and power, but only if they’re triggered by something feminine. If you get an erection because of some random biological impulse, the need to urinate, or a glimpse of another male body, it is a sign of poor control, a lack of mastery over your own body, or a twisted attraction to other boys—all of which are reasons for ridicule.

The first time I popped wood in the showers was also the first time I got the courage to shower with someone else (it wasn’t courage; there weren’t any open showers). I was mortified, and spent the entire time facing the wall, waiting for him to turn away so I could rinse without him seeing. What if he saw? Would he get mad? Would he laugh at me? Would he think it happened because I saw him?

Would he be right?

(So what?)

In my mind, the locker room is quiet. It must be summer, or maybe Spring Break; they’d only allow me back onto the campus if the students weren’t around. Los Angeles-area school districts are twitchy about letting unauthorized visitors onto school campuses. My footsteps ring off the surfaces of the lockers and echo off the far wall. My shoes are nicer now than any I ever wore then, but even dressed to the nines and alone in the room, I feel the gazes of all the boys I knew crawling across my body from the observation decks of my past. I glance up into the impenetrable shadows and wonder why I feel so observed, when the only entity in the room that could possibly observe is me.

I walk into the maze of lockers, my footsteps loud on the tile no matter how softly I step. I wonder, as I sit on the bench in the spot where my locker used to be, whether I will spontaneously develop half an erection, or be erect for approximately half my time in here, just for consistency’s sake.

The lockers have changed. Everything is smaller, more compact; no one has as much storage space as we used to. Great idea: force adolescents, in all their cruelty, into even closer proximity with one another. No way this could possibly go wrong.

I stand and walk to the far door, to the spot where I was once shoved down, beaten, and laughed at. I can see red-brown spots on the red-brown tile where my face bled seventeen years ago. They cleaned that up long ago, but I can’t erase the memory.

It was December, I think. Cold, or at least southern California cold: high forties, low fifties. Our gym uniforms didn’t have sweat pants, only shorts, so I wore big baggy sweaters, big enough that in any moment where I could sit down, I could tuck my legs up to my chest and pull the sweater over them to keep them warm. My sweater that day was purple, and featured the logo of the Phoenix Suns on the front. I have no idea where the sweater came from, or why we had it—my father was a die-hard UCLA Bruin, and my mother was almost as apathetic about sports ball as me—but I liked its color and its soft squishy bulk.

I got to the locker room late and changed in a hurry, then bolted for the door, only to trip over a suddenly-extended leg and nose-dive into the floor. I bit my tongue and split my lip in the impact. It tasted like getting kicked in the face by athlete’s foot.

Frankie stepped out from where he’d been hiding behind a row of lockers. “Hey, Jimmy,” he said, smiling like a snake. “What’s the rush?”

Frankie and I had two classes together, our History homeroom and second-period PE. He sat directly behind me in homeroom and spent most of our class periods poking various sharp objects into my spine. Usually I was safe in PE, since the gym teacher’s office had windows that looked directly into the locker room and Frankie was careful never to do anything where the teachers could see, but since the gym teacher was already outside and the locker room was empty, I was hosed.

“Leave me alone, Frankie,” I said, feeling my lip pulse in agony with each consonant. I put my hand to my mouth. It came away red. “I just want to get to class.”

“Is that any way to talk to your friend?” he asked. “Come on, let me help you up.” He extended a hand to me.

I ignored his hand and tried to get to my feet. He grabbed my shoulder when I was about halfway up and pulled me sharply forward, directly into a knee aimed at my gut. I coughed, and blood dripped from my chin, scattering droplets across my clothes.

Frankie laughed and ambled to the door. “Hey, nice sweater,” he said as he stepped across the threshold. “It really brings out your tits.”

I didn’t go to gym that day. I spent the period sitting on the countertop next to the sink, sobbing quietly and trying to get blood out of my sweater with nothing but paper towels and water. When my classmates started filing back into the locker room, I hid in the gym teacher’s office. He found me curled up behind his door, red-eyed and snot-nosed, my sweater spattered with blood, tears, and sink-water, littered with shreds of limp, damp paper towel. He yelled at me for not coming to class, for bleeding all over the locker room and on his carpet, and for not going to the nurse, then sent me to the nurse. The nurse called my mother and helped me clean up. By the time my mother arrived, I didn’t look like I’d been a sobbing wreck for most of my morning, and I hid the sweater so she wouldn’t associate its bloodstains with the (fourth) day (that month) that the nurse called her and told her I wasn’t feeling well.

Middle school was one of the first times independence got played up as a value in my family. Over the summer before my first day at Rosemont, my parents stressed that from seventh grade on, I would need to be able to resolve my issues with other students without going to the teachers. (They were more right than they knew.) I tried telling Frankie to leave me alone, but that just egged him on. I knew that reporting Frankie to my gym teacher wouldn’t help; he’d punish Frankie, and then Frankie would take it out on me when the gym teacher wasn’t looking. I tried talking to the school counselor, but he was even less help than the gym teacher: “Well, what did you do to make Frankie so mad at you?”

I didn’t want to break the rules (I wanted to punch my counselor). I couldn’t fight; Frankie was taller, stronger, bigger, and meaner. With my parents and the school authorities unwilling to support me, the only thing I felt I could do was try to never encounter Frankie without an adult looking on (how do you seek justice when the system does not acknowledge that you are being treated unjustly?).

In my mind, I open the door, but pause and reach into my pocket. I pull out a Zippo, which is weird, because I never carry lighters. This one gleams silver, except for where a single word is etched muddy red in graceful, curving script across its face: feminist. I flip it open, and flick it to life. I watch the flame for a moment, then touch it to the ground. The soap and cleaning chemicals layered there catch instantly, burning like the world’s worst scented candle: ammonia and feet and blood and sweat and tears and smoke. I pocket my new lighter and let the door creak closed behind me, flames still dancing in my eyes.

(Let the motherfucker burn.)

 

Jim Baker  is a Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies and English and Creative Writing double-major, currently in his senior year at the University of Iowa. When not writing, he is usually gaming in some fashion, either online or in person at a D&D table. He enjoys queer storytelling and wants to do everything he can to subvert and collapse heterosexist narrative tropes, up to and including burning them down.