Translated by Samantha Schnee
Art by Anna Ortiz
I once met the Mexican witch who reads the present and the future based on the urine sprinkled on toilet seats—the Interpreter of Toilets, the inspector of water closets. I saw her look around. The seer didn’t ask the toilet seat why urochrome gives urine its essential yellow color or why urobilin provides its brown tint, she didn’t even note the color or its smell, its clarity or cloudiness or density. She didn’t conduct a glucose analysis, she didn’t check whether it smelled of fruit or decay, and she didn’t even use litmus paper to see if it was acidic, alkaline, or amphoteric. She didn’t wonder whether the pee sprinkled there might or might not transmit disease or if it might reveal an illness, she wasn’t conducting urinalysis for signs of infection in the kidneys.
“I’m the toilet-reader,” she said when she noticed me watching her. “I don’t recall exactly when I became obsessed with the idea of reading the signs of our times in the urine that ladies sprinkle all over our toilet seats. Some try to understand the past, the present and the future by reading shells tossed to the ground, or the blood pouring forth from a rooster mid-ceremony, or the progress of stars or the movement of waves, or the arrangement of playing cards or the way smoke rises to the sky. I read the wet seats of public toilets and the edges of toilet bowls sprinkled with urine.”
I thought I must have heard her wrong.
“I’m the witch Uringa, or so I call myself, though I’m named for St. Oringa.” She approached to wash her hands, as I was doing, and looked at me in the mirror as she spoke. “Uringa because it sounds like urine, Uringa for the saint who denied the world her body and consecrated her spirit to heaven. She founded a convent in the fourteenth century. If you don’t mind me saying so, it’s her nefarious spirit that causes well brought up ladies to make a spectacular mess of toilets. In the name of blessed Oringa, in the name of the Virgin whom she faithfully emulated, and in the name of chastity and virtue, we Mexican women shamelessly and thoughtlessly sprinkle our golden liquid, crouching awkwardly to avoid touching the toilet instead of sitting to empty their bladders comfortably.”
Uringa didn’t seem like a witch. She looked like an enterprising, determined, middle-class woman, who was trying to hide the untrendiness of her pantsuit with a bright scarf. I had finished washing my hands, so I picked up my purse and took two steps toward the door of the bathroom without uttering a word.
“I, Uringa, know that upon these toilet seats the public and the private collide. On these horseshoe shapes the nature of the relationship between the two becomes clear. The horse that set foot here—the horse of tradition, of our history—left its mark as it passed, condemning us …”
I stopped cold. I didn’t open the door leading back into the restaurant where I had just finished my meal; instead, I turned to look directly at Uringa (without the intermediary of the mirror) for the first time.
“Will you buy me a glass of wine?” she asked.
I didn’t answer. I pushed the door open and let Uringa lead me back to my table. My dinner companions, who were deep in conversation, paused when they saw us approach. Uringa had great legs, and two considerable protuberances beneath her coarse scarf.
“This is Uringa,” I said, to introduce her.
“Pleased to meet you, I’m Uringa, after the saint of the same name, and because Uringa sounds like urine.”
Fortunately, I don’t think anyone even heard her. When Uringa sat down next to me the others had already picked up the conversation where they had left off, far more interested in that than our newcomer’s legs.
“Tell me,” Uringa said. “How was the toilet you just used? Was there pee on the seat?”
“Yes. But the first time I went there wasn’t.”
“The first time you went the bathroom attendant was there. A cleaning woman consigned to the ladies room, wiping down the toilet seats after each woman covers the previously dry seat with urine. Did you leave her a tip?”
“Yes, I did.”
“That’s the price of a clean seat. If you don’t pay you get to urinate in waste and filth, like the rest of our communal spaces. That’s how screwed up our dear Mexico has become.”
“Do you remember the novel Clochemerle? The women in the village banded together to prevent a pissoir from being installed in the village because they thought it was indecent.”
“That was a different issue, I’m not talking about resisting something foreign to our culture, and I’m not criticizing people who don’t know how to use toilets because they come from places where they haven’t been introduced yet, where there’s no running water. Let me tell you about the first time I interpreted the urine on a toilet seat. I went for my annual checkup at the gynecologist, which costs me almost half the minimum monthly wage, Pap-smear included (and that’s for a twenty-minute appointment, about which I won’t say anything further because we’d end up on a completely different topic, which is that so few of us have access to decent medical care). The girl who took me to the dressing room where the examination would be performed pointed to a door:
“‘If you want to use the bathroom’”—it was an order—“‘I’ll be right back.’”
“I entered the bathroom and was greeted by a quantity of pee that was not in its rightful place. The seat had been liberally sprinkled, covered in urine that apparently belonged to the previous patient, because apart from this tiny detail the bathroom was sparkling clean.
“I remembered the woman who was leaving the office when I arrived; she was approximately my age, a professional from a family of means with a nice haircut, whose appearance was hard to square with the disastrous state of the toilet. It was the first time I asked myself, Why not use the damn device the way it was intended? Why did the woman before me, apparently well-educated enough to have completed university, a woman who has traveled and who has enough income to pay for this expensive gynecologist (or perhaps even buy the office), leave the plastic seat covered in urine after crouching over it to pee? Was the bathroom not clean before she used it? What repulsed her? Just sitting where someone else had put their naked butt? How is it possible—I asked myself—to have such lack of respect for other women, peeing all over the place, instead of peeing the sensible and civilized way, which is sitting on the seat as intended? Who taught her to pee like that—so fearful and dehumanized, like an animal?
“Why pee where someone else is going to sit? Why are all Mexican ladies’ rooms covered in pee, as if it were a point of national pride? I have passed through thousands of bathrooms in airports—I’m a travel agent—and none are as bad as the ones next to the gates where my flights home depart. Viva Mexico! I tell myself every time I shut the stall door and see pee sprinkled all over the place. Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe!”
Uringa paused and I seized the moment to ask a question. “Could it be that they’re marking their territory like dogs?”
“I don’t think so. But suppose you were correct, it would have political implications. Why would a woman mark her territory in a public toilet? That would be declaring public property as her own. It doesn’t make any sense. But I see something else in the urine splattered in bathrooms: when I pee on the seat I’m taking the place of other women’s bodies, women who would come and sit where they no longer can, because my pee, people, my pee prevents them from sitting on toilet seats. It’s like saying For me you don’t exist. And there´s something else…”
“What’s that, Uringa?”
“Not long after that visit to the gynecologist I had to see the urologist, nothing serious, just the usual: a bladder infection. For the price of a small fortune, the doctor told me that from an early age Mexican women learn not to use public restrooms. It’s bad manners to pee outside the home—“the bathrooms are always filthy”—and that’s why some of us suffer from renal ailments all our lives. We’ve lost awareness of the physical urge that lets us know when we need to pee; we simply don’t feel the need to go. Over the course of many years we learn to ignore the signs. Myself included.”
“So, what’s your theory, your interpretation of this phenomenon of peeing all over the place, outside the bowl? What does peeing have to do with the aforementioned horse?
Guillermo interrupted. “Are you talking about urinals? There’s a Greek comedy called Margites, named after a famous fool who was extraordinarily rich and equally stupid; he couldn’t even count to five, and had no idea whether it was his mother or his father who had given birth to him, so he hardly ever suffered. One night, Margites needed to empty his bladder, so he reached for a chamber pot with his clumsy hand. But he soon found himself in a predicament: he had stuck his hand in the chamber pot and couldn’t get it out. He peed quickly and then an idea came to him. He jumped out of his warm bed, opened the doors, which had been shut fast, and ran out into the street. He wandered throughout that dark night, trying to find a way to free his hand. He didn’t have so much as an oil lamp with him. Eventually he came across a man sitting in the street, but in the dark he mistook his head for a rock, so he banged the chamber pot against the man’s head with his clumsy hand, shattering it in tiny pieces.”
His story finished, Guillermo rejoined the others’ conversation, leaving us alone once again.
“For heaven’s sake, it’s not stupidity that makes Mexican women pee in the wrong place! Although being forced to sit on a wet toilet seat isn’t too different from having someone break their chamber pot on you. Or perhaps like sitting on a park bench where people have left trash behind, depositing their detritus on the ground, the grass, the bushes. I think it’s related to a mistaken concept of cleanliness. Just like a woman who won’t put her bottom on the toilet seat because it’s dirty, even if it has no pee on it. People who leave their trash behind don’t do so because they’re dirty, they do it because they’re clean. Hypocritically clean, like white-washed tombs.”
“Now I’m confused. Do we get grossed out by sitting on toilet seats because the women who sat there before us are clean, or dirty?”
“Both. It´s not the kind of obsessive cleanliness that seems to be a response to the idea that everything is dirty and needs to be cleaned. If that were the case, a dry toilet seat would be fine. I’m talking about cleanliness of the body. A body can’t touch a place where another naked body has been, because that is dirty. The body is itself dirt. That’s where I think it all begins.”
“But we’re talking about ladies’ rooms.”
“Yes. And women’s bodies are the dirtiest—their bodies. Look, Christ is always depicted as half naked and he´s beautiful and pure, each muscle sculpted to perfection. Statues of Virgins, on the other hand, are swathed in fabric, and in fact they seldom have bodies; their beautiful faces sit atop frames covered in cloth to make it seem like there’s a body underneath. Am I not right? When have you ever seen a Virgin with legs, or tits, outside a Fellini film? Christ-figures are all body, usually unclothed. Wounded, but naked. They ought to be somewhat covered up, though to be honest depicting a naked body with all those wounds seems much more erotic to me, quite carnal really, although it’s a bit of overkill.”
“And what does that have to do with toilets, Uringa?”
“In the act of peeing outside the bowl to avoid putting our naked bodies where someone else’s has been, we Mexican women are showing our respect for traditions that have been passed down for centuries and that have harmed our community. Starting with a woman’s lot. Solomon himself said,
I myself also am a mortal man, like to all,
and the offspring of him that was first made of the earth,
And in my mother's womb was fashioned to be flesh
in the time of ten months, being compacted in blood,
of the seed of man, and the pleasure that came with sleep.
Never mind his reference to ten months, but the idea that his mother begat him without another body—that he was conceived in “the pleasure that came with sleep” and not the pleasure of consensual intercourse—makes me sick. It’s a sin for which we’re paying the price to this day. It’s written on every toilet seat covered in pee. Since we don’t have bodies, we must avoid any scientific proof that we do have them, in other words, we can’t touch anything another body has touched. Mexican women pee in public bathrooms the same way they enter a confessional—mortified of their own flesh, don’t you think? Fear and disgust and repulsion, a repulsion that is perfected with regard to the female body, which is more revolting, more ‘sinful’ than the male body…. But that’s not the main thing I see in this urine.”
“People who leave their trash behind don’t do so because they’re dirty, they do it because they’re clean. Hypocritically clean, like white-washed tombs.”
Uringa beckoned to the waiter.
“A glass of wine, please.” She turned to me and continued. “Now I’m going to tell you what I see most often. But I reserve the right to make other interpretations. A human being urinates 1,500 cubic centimeters a day, see, from which about 60 grams of solid matter can be extracted. In other words, there’s something more solid in my readings.”
“What if the act of peeing outside the toilet is a kind of fetish? Perhaps intended as some sort of spell, to ward off demons?”
“No, it’s the opposite of fetishistic. A woman who thinks like that would take care to deposit every last drop of her urine in the water, putting it where no one could take it and use it to do her harm. Absolutely not, that makes no sense, it’s got the hallmark of an idiotic custom with no rational basis.”
“What about the ancient Mexicans?”
“The only thing I remember is that inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico didn’t dispose of their urine, they saved it to extract a fixative that made dye colorfast. There were people whose job it was to collect urine and ferry it to the outskirts of Tenochtitlan, where the artisans who knew how to make dye used it. I promise you, the custom of splashing urine all over the place to the detriment of the next person to use the toilet has no origins in any kind of ritual. And you don’t need to be the witch Uringa to know that.”
“Are you sure?”
“Could it be that sprinkling your pee all over the place is like going to confession? I’m worthless garbage, worthless garbage. In Fiji the people who have the “privilege” of scratching the chief’s back or touching his body in other ways are called something like benu nei iliuliu which means I am the chief’s garbage.”
“But I’d like to change the saying slightly. When a woman vacates her bladder on the toilet seat it’s as if she’s confessing, I'm worthless garbage, and you’re worthless garbage, too.
“Never mind the chief.”
“Yes, of course, never mind the chief, I don’t want to lose you. When a woman pees where other women need to sit, she ‘remembers that they were but flesh; a wind that passeth away, and cometh not again’—I’m quoting the Psalms. This place where we live, this Valley—not of tears, but of pollution, of inequality and injustice—is populated with ghosts, bodyless beings that assume our rights and our customs and traditions, making us traitors to ourselves. We didn’t create this place we inhabit. We plunder it, we piss on it, we fill it with garbage, because we are all ‘a wind that passeth away and cometh not again.’ When someone covers a toilet seat with urine, she’s making a point: the body and its waste must be made equal, must be treated the same way. Replacing filth with filth. Putting things where they belong. A woman who pees on a toilet seat, splashing her bodily fluids around, is simply following what she was taught: the body is dirty therefore I’ll make this place where others put their bodies dirty.”
“You think making a mess of toilet seats is a political issue?”
“You may think I’m wasting my time, but when I see public toilet seats covered in pee I think that we have to make it a cause like reproductive rights. I don’t think it will be a herculean challenge to make a change, we won’t have to yoke two bulls with bronze hooves that breathe fire, plow a field and sow it with the teeth of a terrible dragon which will grow into warriors. All we have to do is pee without being disgusted by the bodies that came before us or the ones that will come after us—it’s not so much to ask—and teach our bodies to understand that those other bodies are citizens too. This catholic repudiation of the body presumes we women are not citizens.”
The waitress reappeared and put a glass of wine in front of Uringa.
“Do you remember what I said about the Virgins and the Christ figures in churches? There’s one huge difference in the way they’re treated on both sides of the ocean. Here the coffins that hold Christ figures don’t leave the feet of Christ exposed so that the faithful can take pleasure in touching them. Christ’s naked body can be seen but not touched. Now consider how in Spanish churches the coffin of the prostrate body leaves the feet exposed so women can caress them at their very breasts. It’s not all bodies that are bad… The faithful come close, wearing those feet down, fondling them, caressing them. But on this side of the ocean we’re left with bodyless Virgins, and without feet to caress, and then we can’t figure out why our toilet seats are covered in urine and our parks are full of trash, why our public spaces give the impression that we’re just passing through and we’re nothing but shadows, ‘wind that passeth away and cometh not again.’ If we were to take up the cause of our corporeality and celebrate our bodies as instruments of joy, of pleasure, worthy of caressing and being caressed, it would have the effect of instantaneously cleaning up our bathrooms. And nothing else will, I tell you, nothing else…”
Fall / Winter 2023
Carmen Boullosa is the author of twenty books, including most recently The Book of Eve (Deep Vellum Press; translated by Samantha Schnee), poetry collections, plays, and essays. She is the recipient of many literary awards including the Jorge Ibargüengoitia Prize and the Casa de América Poesía Americana Prize. She is a Distinguished Lecturer at Macaulay Honors College at CUNY. She splits her time between Coyoacán in Mexico City and Brooklyn.
Samantha Schnee is the founding editor of Words Without Borders. She is the translator of Carmen Boullosa’s latest book, The Book of Eve. Her translation of Boullosa’s Texas: The Great Theft was shortlisted for the PEN America Translation Prize. She currently serves as secretary of the American Literary Translators Association.
Anna Ortiz is a Mexican-American painter living in Brooklyn. She spent much of her childhood visiting family in Guadalajara where she studied art with her grandfather and her aunt. Her surrealist landscapes reflect the cultural divide felt by many second-generation Americans. Ortiz studied in Rome and Paris with Temple and Tufts University study-abroad programs, and holds an MFA from Tyler School of Art. She has had solo exhibitions at Adelphi University’s Swirbul Gallery, Dinner Gallery, and Proto Gomez (all in NY). Her forthcoming solo show will be held in January 2024 at Deanna Evans Projects, NY.