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Fresh Mountain Air by Maria Elena

You are four thousand feet above sea level and climbing, and breathing in light, mountain air far removed from that thick, gelatinous air of the South Texas coast you have drowned in every day this summer. You have craved this crisp, cool air. You’ve needed it, have dreamt about it every time you’ve stepped outside at home and the humidity sucked to your skin, your nostrils, your open mouth like cling wrap.

Now, here you are, high in the Cascade Mountains, drinking in scenery straight out of a Disney fairy tale. On the winding Mount Baker Highway, you stop to let a black bear and her two cubs cross the road; you stop at sparkling Picture Lake to sit with the wildflowers, gaze in wonder at Mount Shuksan, and yes, take a picture, or five; you stop at a safe spot after a hairpin turn to smoke a joint. The highway leads you to the Heather Meadows Visitor Center, where you park and grab your camel pack.

Standing outside the visitor center surrounded by mountain hemlock, heather and huckleberry meadows, and glistening snow-covered peaks, you feel alive, you feel rejuvenated, you feel the intense urge to pee. Your bladder has been quietly protesting for the last hour, and now it has lost its patience. The drive up the scenic state highway was a long one with not many places to stop, and the steady trickle of cars also on their way up the mountain made it impossible for you to discreetly pee on the side of the road.

You enter the visitor center to find the bathroom, but the small building sitting on a rock ledge only provides you with historical information and insights on weather and trail conditions. You let out a tiny whimper as your bladder pulses with displeasure. You scurry to the park ranger stationed at this outpost and make it through pleasantries while shifting from one foot to the other, one foot to the other, until she tells you the bathrooms are located in the permanent outhouse just across the parking lot from here.

You beeline for the exit and rush to the even smaller building that houses your salvation. “Don’t worry, we’re almost there,” you mutter to your bladder, along with other encouraging platitudes like “I believe in you,” “You can make it,” and “You better fucking hold it, you bitch.”

But as you round the corner to the entrance, you are forced to come to an abrupt stop. Two people wait in line ahead of you, and you did not plan for this. Cold rushes through your body, causing goosebumps to pepper your flesh. A dollop of pee comes out before you’re able to squeeze your urethra shut.

You grimace and cinch your thighs together, but then the woman at the front of the line turns and gestures for you to come here. You feel a lilt of hope in your chest that a good Samaritan has taken mercy on you and is letting you cut in front of her. As you lift a foot to step toward your angel, a girl, who is half a head shorter than you, breezes by.

“Wait in line with me so you can use the bathroom before we leave,” the woman, who is now the opposite of an angel, says to the girl.

Betrayed by this devil woman, you are now the fourth person in line. The lilt of hope turns into an anvil and drops from your chest and onto your poor, bloated bladder. Why would you think she was looking at you, you think, and add an Idiot at the end for good measure.

“I don’t have to pee,” the girl says with all the attitude of a middle school mean girl, and you pause your grimace to send a small atta-girl grin her way.

“Well, you’re gonna try,” the woman says evenly. The girl sulks, you resume your pee dance, and everyone waits in silence for an agonizing minute before someone finally comes out of the bathroom.

The woman goes in, leaving the girl in line, and after what feels like less than a minute, the woman comes out with a sickly tint to her skin. She grabs the girl by the arm, says “You can hold it,” and hauls her away.

One step closer to relief.

You don’t have to wait long before the bathroom door bangs open again, and the woman who was in front of you in line emerges, moving with a purpose. As she passes, she says, “Good luck,” making you briefly forget how badly you have to pee. You turn and watch her hustle away. Strangers don’t usually wish you luck in times like these.

You feel the control on your bladder slip ever so slightly, causing you to lurch toward the door. You pull it open, and as you cross the threshold your face is engulfed in warm, putrid air not even a vulture could love. This bathroom is a hot, stuffy box of shit decomposing in piss.

You can barely breathe—not that you even want to—and what you do breathe in are the particles of this special blend from hell. They attach to your nose receptors, making you gag, making you gulp in the foul air.

The taste of rotten eggs balloons in your mouth.

You gag again.

But this time you clamp your hand over your mouth and hold your breath long enough to cover your nose with your shirt. Sweat immediately blooms on your upper lip. You breathe as shallowly as possible, but it does little to help.

On top of the smell, little pools of mysterious wetness litter the cement floor. This minefield of unidentifiable liquid stands between you and a pit toilet that reaches so high from the ground you’re not sure you’ll be able to hover.

Not a fucking pit toilet, you think, but you came to hike in a national forest and should have known. You consider peeing your pants instead, but the bathroom door has shut you in.

You have already come this far, have endured so much to make it to this point, so you surge forth, sending thoughts and prayers to your shoes as you make your way on tiptoes around mystery puddles of various size.

When you get to the toilet, you shut your eyes tight and turn your back to it. You refuse to see what kind of human-waste demon lives down that black hole, waiting to hook its gangrenous, shit-caked fingers up your asshole to suck you down to hell with it.

You leave your backpack on and pull your pants down the absolute minimum required. Thankfully, you are just tall enough on tiptoes to hover and won’t have to dirty your precious cheeks. Your calves and thighs burn in protest, but you finally release all control and simultaneously feel blessed relief and dread at what is festering underneath your full moon.

You don’t allow your relief to last long, though, because you have to get the fuck out of here. Emptying half your bladder is enough to make it to a cleaner bathroom. You contract your pelvic floor muscles and attempt to stop midstream, but your Kegel game is weak and it takes one, two, three tries to come to a full stop.

You yank up your pants without bothering to wipe. There is no toilet paper in this hellhole, and even if there were, the low quality would probably give you papercuts.

Your brain doesn’t register the presence or absence of a sink or hand sanitizer station attached to the gray walls, but cleaning your hands doesn’t cross your mind as you take two giant leaps across the small room. You swear you can feel the feces monster staring with yellow eyes from the lip of the toilet at your retreating back.

Don’t look back.

Do not look back.

You shove the door open and suck in the biggest breath of glorious, clean air. But you don’t stop moving. You have to get to your car.

Your heart pound, Pound, POUNDS against your chest as you scan the parking lot. You can’t see it amongst the sea of shimmering steel, and if you can’t find your car, you will be trapped on this mountain with whatever lives in that dank, grey box behind you.

The fine hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention, and your shoulders scrunch to your ears.

Don’t look back don’t look back don’t look back.

You aim for the middle of the lot, desperately hoping you guessed the location of your vehicle correctly, and you are in luck. You catch a glimpse of the midnight blue paint of your car right before the sun reflecting off its windshield blinds you.

You work through blotchy vision to make it to the driver’s side door but not without fumbling for your keys in the bottom of your pack. Finally, though, your shaky fingers gain purchase on the key fob, and you are able to get safely inside.

You lock the doors and grab the hand sanitizer from the console. You spread copious amounts on your hands, on your arms, on your face, your neck. When you’re done, you still feel unclean.

Perhaps you will feel forever unclean.

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