The Stained Mouse-Mattress

The Yom Kippur service had just ended, the shrieking of the shofar still ringing in our ears. Our Day of Atonement obligation was over. Steve and I stood on the synagogue steps in our bar mitzvah suits—both of us had recently experienced that right of passage for 13-year-old Jewish boys, that religious transition from child to man—and we were saying goodbye to our parents as we set off on a walk downtown. It was Fall 1961.

We had told our parents we wanted to check out the new cars in the dealerships along the way; back then, all makes introduced their new models in September. But we weren’t taking this hike to look at new cars. We had lied. That was our cover-story. We had another reason, one we could not share with our parents.

We arrived downtown, focused on our secret purpose, scanned several tall office buildings, and decided on a decades-old, narrow, gray one. We entered, looking like junior junior junior executives in our suits…Steve’s was a standard brown, mine a greenish brown described as the color of “baby diarrhea” by a young female bar mitzvah attendee…and took an elevator to an upper floor. We crept out, cased the joint, and saw the door we were looking for at the end of the hall. We tip-toed to it without speaking.

“You go in,” I mouthed to Steve.

“No. You do it,” he whispered, quieter than a closing elevator door. “It was your idea.”

“I’m not going in there,” I murmured with determination. “You can do it faster. You’re good at this sort of stuff. If I do it, we’ll get caught.”

“OK.” Steve groaned and reached for the brass doorknob.

Months before we stood in front of that mysterious mahogany door, long before Yom Kippur, I was with another friend and his parents being driven home after a weekend at their house an hour away from mine. “I really have to go the bathroom,” I announced about midway through the drive. “Can we stop at a gas station?”

Within seconds we pulled alongside a Shell station with its bold yellow logo…its color so ironic and inducing…and parked near the bathrooms. I bolted out of the car and dashed to the restroom, unzipping my fly as I ran. I exited the bathroom 47 seconds later and jumped back into the sedan to a cacophony of cackling laughter.

“You know that was the women’s bathroom, don’t you?” Donny’s dad said, between snorts.

“No, it wasn’t!” I argued. Then I noticed the skirted form on the door-side sign. “Well, I really had to go and no one was in there and it doesn’t even matter anyway,” I blathered a defensive stream-of-consciousness justification.

“No, it doesn’t matter, Thomasina,” Donny’s dad replied, triggering another fit of laughter. But as we drove away, synapses in my brain crackled and I blurted, “Oh, that’s what that machine on the wall was for.” Parental chuckles followed. Donny looked at me with pre-pubescent naiveté, question marks darting from his eyes.

And that is when I got the idea. That is why Steve and I stood in front of that office building’s out-of-the-way women’s restroom on Yom Kippur. We were going to buy a sanitary napkin.

Steve pushed the wooden door open and stepped into the ladies’ room. I stared at the elevator, then my eyes flitted from office door to office door along the hall. I held my breath, but, seconds later, he charged out of the bathroom holding a small package, an individually wrapped Kotex.

“Let’s get out of here!” he whispered with urgency. We ran to the elevator, Steve struggling to cram the blue-and-white packaged product inside his suit coat’s small inside pocket. I pressed the down button. It took what seemed like a menstrual cycle to arrive. Once inside the elevator, we snickered and snorted with glee over the success of our mission until the elevator stopped on the third floor delaying our getaway, and a businesslike woman with several red folders under her arm got in. When the door opened on the first floor, Steve and I spilled out like the blood of a sudden nosebleed, rudely pushing past the woman. We raced out of the building and onto the sidewalk, then rushed away from the entrance and turned toward the building’s concrete facade, shielding our treasure with our torsos.

“Let me see,” I pleaded.

“No. I got it. I get to look at it first.” Steve pulled the soft package from his suit coat. Even though Steve had dibsed first look, we stared at it together, reading as fast as we could, puzzled by phrases and instructions more foreign to us than the hooks on the back of a bra.

Then Steve ripped the Kotex from its wrapping and we examined it with curious eyes and cautious fingers. “Oh, I get it,” I breathed.

“Get what?”

“Why Annie calls it a mouse mattress.”

“Mouse mattress,” Steve snorted and doubled-over with laughter, banging his head into the concrete wall, causing him to drop the crumpled blue-and-white packaging. I picked it up a nanosecond after it landed on the sidewalk and crammed it in my pants pocket.

“Shit. Someone could see what we have,” I said with panic.  We looked at each other as smiles mixed with amusement, satisfaction, and an anti-climactic letdown tickled our faces. I then noticed Steve’s forehead. Its collision with the wall had scraped the skin causing a trickle of blood. Logically, but perhaps not appropriately, I took the Kotex from Steve and dabbed his injury with it. We looked at the slight bloody smear against the white pad, giggled for a moment at the ironic sight, and then gazed up and then down the street.

A breath later, my partner asked, “OK. Now what?“

“Throw it away!”

There was a pause. “No,” he said. “I have a better idea. Start walking to the bus.”

My accomplice attempted to hide the Kotex in his not-yet-man-sized hands as we strode away. But I could see he also was studying the women coming toward us. “Her,” he whispered as a tottering elderly woman with a royal blue cloth coat and a matching veiled pillbox hat neared us. “You dropped this,” he spewed, as he shoved the Kotex at the gray-faced, gray-haired woman. Startled, she blocked the hand-off with her forearm. The bloodied female hygiene product, recognizable to all around, fell to the sidewalk.

We raced to a bus stop, not the nearest one as we wanted to distance ourselves from the scene of our prank. We laughed, tears included, at what we thought had been an embarrassing moment for the woman while we waited for our bus, never realizing that she probably had not needed a sanitary napkin for 30, maybe 40 years.

When it arrived, we boarded the bus, strode to the long rear seat, and sat. We smugly eyed other, so mature-looking in our suits, unaware how childish and typically-thirteen we had behaved.

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