The night before the Women’s March on Washington Jan. 21, I sat with my mother and sister in our living room making picket signs for the occasion. My mom – the better artist – was putting the finishing touches on the globe she had drawn on my poster, which declared my reason for marching: Because I’m scared for our planet!
“They’re estimating that 200,000 people will show up,” I said as I watched her handiwork. “But I think there are going to be way more.”
As soon as we ascended the steps of the Farragut North Metro station in D.C. the following morning, my prediction was confirmed. The procession of protesters moving down 3rd street toward the pre-march rally was massive. But this sight didn’t inspire excitement or pride for our cause – instead I was filled with dread. I desperately had to piss.
The bus we took to D.C. with other women from the Baltimore area had stopped for a restroom break on the way, but the coffee I had been chugging since 5:30 a.m. was taking its toll. To my dismay, the first set of portable toilets we passed had a line that stretched out of sight, and as we traveled toward the stage where the speakers were leading chants, foot traffic slowed to a stop. In a matter of seconds, it seemed, the crowd had thickened to suffocating levels. The amusing signs around us (Viva La Vulva! and Keep your tiny hands off my human rights!) were no longer distraction enough from my …predicament.
“This is huge,” I heard a reporter say to her cameraman outside of a news van. “Bigger than anyone expected.” No shit, lady, I thought as we shuffled toward the Smithsonian Air and Space museum. A woman in the crowd told us the restrooms inside were open to the public, and lines weren’t too long. Looking out at the sheer mass of the pink-clad mob around me, I was skeptical.
As my friend Julia attempted to forge a path through, my panic swelled. At this rate, it would be hours until I could reach a bathroom. It’s one thing to withstand an achingly full bladder for that long, but another to be squished and shoved by strangers at the same time. I had only fainted one other time in my life, but as my heart pounded and my breath came in shallow bursts, I was certain that these “nasty women” around me were about to witness an encore. My only comfort was that if I wet myself on the way down, at least I wouldn’t be conscious for it.
Julia looked back at me as we were jostled along. INCOMING: ANXIETY ATTACK must have been written all over my face, because she suddenly grabbed my wrist, raised her other arm and yelled: “We have a bathroom emergency! Her bladder is about to explode!” The crowd parted, but not quietly. Shouts of, “Bullshit!” and “We all have to pee!” erupted from all sides, and my sister Kayla responded with some choice words as she ushered me onward from the rear. Female solidarity, it seems, only extends so far.
As our own personal march hurtled on, I caught glimpses of the miserable faces around me. I was struck by the irony that this demonstration was so popular and powerful that it came back to bite us all in the ass. It was a forest fire.
We came to a screeching halt as we reached the museum’s doors: the entrance was clogged.
“What’s taking so long?” my mom asked a woman to our left. She explained that they were continuing their usual security measures, including metal detectors and bag searches. It would be take forever to get through the doors, let alone to the bathroom.
“Why don’t you go in a cup, honey?” the woman asked me.
I stared at her, wide-eyed. “There’re so many people around! That’s not legal, is it?”
She shrugged. “We’ve all done it at some point. You have to do what you have to do.”
I looked around at my group, expecting them to laugh it off, but their expressions were grim. Let’s get this over with, they seemed to say.
There were no cups in sight, so a benevolent stranger handed me an empty plastic gallon bag. I was ushered over to the corner between the doorway and the windows next to it, where there was a gap from the crowd. Two women with matching silver hair and pink “pussy hats” had chosen the space to wait out the madness until the march, and when they realized what was about to happen, volunteered to help form a human wall. It all happened so fast that I didn’t grasp the situation until I was clutching the bag, looking around at the crowd pressed up against our little bubble. I gulped.
“It’s alright, sweetie,” my mom said with her back to me. “No one will see.” Knowing full well that this was one of those white lies moms like to tell, I yanked my pants down, squatted, and did what I had to do.
When I stood back up, my protectors turned around to cheer and laugh.
“Good god,” Julia said we she caught sight of the half-full bag I was attempting to conceal. “No wonder you were freaking out.”
“I would never have been able to do that,” Kayla said, shaking her head.
“How do you feel?” my mom asked.
“Humiliated. Traumatized,” I answered. She laughed and pulled me in for a hug.
We didn’t get to do much marching that day. After we hid my fluids in a discarded grocery bag and abandoned it on the ground, we were stuck in that corner outside the Air and Space Museum for three hours, occasionally chanting along with the speakers we could hear up on the stage, watching as the people attempted to get inside the building. Occasionally, there were shouts of “She needs medical assistance!” or “Child coming through,” and the crowd parted (much more graciously than for me, I might add). At one point, a woman staggered over to our corner in tears. “Claustrophobia,” her friend said to us as she rubbed her back.
There were whispers from passing protesters that, because of the unexpected turnout, the march may not happen. The relief I felt after, um, relieving myself was soon replaced by new anxieties: that the crowd would close in on us, that we would be stuck in the city for a day, that I would have to go to the bathroom again and this time it would be a number 2. By the time they announced that they would, in fact, be marching, it was two hours behind schedule. Before we made our escape, I looked back for the bag on the ground, and it was crumpled and empty: someone had stepped on it and leaked its contents.
We only had time to watch the marchers from a grassy bank above the street, pointing out our favorite signs, before we had to head back to catch our bus. The day certainly wasn’t what I had in mind, but how could I complain about the crowds when it meant that our anti-Trump, pro-equality cause had such overwhelming support? Or when civil rights protesters faced much worse than claustrophobia and a shortage of portable toilets?
On the Metro ride back to our bus, a woman nearby looked down at her three daughters standing in the aisle and said, “This is what democracy is. It isn’t always fun. It’s messy.”
Peeing in a bag was worth the feeling that, even if only briefly, I made my dissent heard. I know I left my mark on the nation’s capital – but I think it has sunk into the sidewalk by now.