May I use your bathroom?

Have you ever seen a grown man naked?

 

My phone constantly wonders this. I know because it asks, dryly, flatly, all day long. It's usually my own experience with naked men the phone is curious about, though not always. Sometimes it’s asked of the person sitting next to me as the ambulance bounces down the road. Or of the woman whose blood pressure I’m checking. The recently dead, of course, as I crunch their ribs one CPR compression at a time, are also queried. Somewhere on the far end of town my wife wants to know if I’ve remembered to call the cable company. Maybe my mother, shivering through a New York winter, wants to see how I’m doing. Or, knowing I am at work and quite possibly staring down a patient at this exact moment, perhaps it’s a friend calling just to fuck with me. 

 

Have you ever seen a grown man naked?

 

The voice belongs to Peter Graves, the actor who played the sex-offender-creepy-yet-somehow-hilarious pilot Clarence Oveur in the Airplane! movies. It’s one of the questions he asks little Billy in the cockpit. I’ve downloaded the soundbite and turned it into my ringtone. It’s pretty funny at home, when it’s quiet and my wife and I are reading or, better yet, when we’re drifting off to sleep and Oveur’s monotone innuendo calls out across the room. It’s even funnier in a bar when the guy sitting next to me hears it and slides his chair away from me. But here, at work, it hits on a whole other level. My partner is a chain-smoking lesbian with an out-sized personality who has no problem laying hands on a late-night drunk who takes a swing at us or spits at us or whose trash talk gets overly nasty. She’s been around a decade and a half, has burned out, been reborn and burned out again, and yet, every time my phone rings she giggles. Somehow this question, posed without a hint of self-consciousness or irony from inside my shirt pocket, is the funniest, most disturbing thing she’s ever heard. She laughed the first time she heard it, called me ten times in a row just so she could laugh some more and then, later that night, had to walk out of a patient’s house when my wife called because she simply couldn’t control herself.

 

My partner loves this ringer, loves me for having it and, more than anything, loves when someone calls me, unexpectedly, at work. In fact, it’s her calling me now.

 

Have you ever seen a grown man naked?

 

There are several forces at work right now, all conspiring against me, all turning this into one of the oddest, funniest, most humiliating moments of my life. Among them, perhaps chief among them, is full-blown diarrhea.

 

I have bronchitis. It’s rare I get sick anymore. As medics we are exposed to so many things, breathing them in, touching them—having them coughed and bled and flung onto us—that for something to take hold it almost has to be tropical. Ebola will kill me, obviously, but pneumonia and tuberculosis will find no purchase here. That’s why the bronchitis caught me by surprise. Still, here it is. So I went to the doctor, got an antibiotic and now I’m at work. I took my first pill about ten minutes after the shift started and my partner, the wild-ass lesbian who loves my ringtone, thought this was a horrible idea.

 

Diarrhea. Evidently that’s what antibiotics give a lot of people. Me, I’ve never had that problem. Until tonight. Before the pill had even wiggled all the way down my throat, my stomach gurgled and lurched and I told her to drive to the nearest bathroom. Naturally, as soon as she put the truck in gear we caught a call. Someone with congestive heart failure. An old fat woman having trouble breathing, having chest pain, whose feet were swollen, whose hands were swollen, whose overworked lungs were slowly filling with fluid and who needed us now. Right now. There will be no bathroom break.

 

I was sweating by the time we arrived. Shivering, clinching, cramping, almost unable to talk. My partner immediately set herself to the task at hand. Oxygen, little nitroglycerin tabs beneath the tongue, an IV, 12-lead, a potent diuretic. She wasworking hard. I nearly shit myself. When she realized I would be no help—that I couldn’t, wouldn’t function—she told me to do it.

 

Just go use the patient’s bathroom, she said.

 

I turned to our sick patient and—trying not to shit myself—asked to use her bathroom.

 

The patient—improved but not cured—motioned toward the hall. I limped away, afraid to walk too fast. I passed through the kitchen, hustled down the hall, moved beyond the bedrooms and finally, found the bathroom. It was situated off the dining room, not four feet from the table, which, as luck would have it, was occupied by our patient’s family. Four women. They saw me, saw my posture, my desperation, and nodded toward the door. 

 

That's where I am now, in this little room full of air fresheners and candles and potpourri, and it's in here that things take a strange turn.

 

You see—even though I closed the door—somehow it's come open and all four women are staring at me. My pants are down, I'm on the toilet, and I'm about to explode. This isn't ideal.

 

Turns out the door, the one I closed, doesn’t close. Oh, I try a few times but it always swings back open. Picture me—still clenching, still cramping, still not going—trying to get the latch to catch. But the house is old, maybe a hundred years, and it’s settled so deeply all the angles are wrong. Some of the doors, this one included, simply do not shut.

 

I try to hold it shut, leaning way off to the side, reaching over the sink, feet spread wide, free hand keeping me balanced. But I can’t reach. Not if I want to remain on the bowl. So I give up. I sit down, I pretend not to see them and, with the door open, I go. It is explosive. It is uncontrollable. It is audible. And somewhere, right in the middle of it all, my phone rings.

 

Have you ever seen a grown man naked?

 

It's my partner. She’s done everything she can do. She wants to know where I am, she wants to go, she wants my help. The women, who have been whispering—both embarrassed by and for me—are now absolutely silent.

 

Have you ever seen a grown man naked?

 

When I’m done the women lower their eyes, pretend they haven’t seen and heard everything we all know they have. My phone has stopped ringing but its question, suddenly more personal, more poignant, remains.

 

Yes, we’ve seen a grown man naked. Though, frankly, we wish we hadn’t.