by Fred Colton
“The bus isn’t going to stop,” my friend whispered.
“I know,” I said, grinding my teeth into powder.
The setting: A rainy Chinese highway outside the city of Kunming, on a midnight in autumn. Our transport: A sleeper bus bombing down said rainy highway, a sleeper bus that I’d have bet my teacher’s salary had been both constructed and last inspected during the Nixon Administration. The driver, a ruby-red little smokestack of a man with a witch cackle for a voice, drove like an F-16 was chasing us, treating the speed limit as a sarcastic suggestion. “Forward” is the really the only direction you want to be going while on a highway, but we were doing a distressing amount of left/right skidding as the bus’s bald tires hit puddles.
Safety, though, wasn’t our problem. What we had going on right now wasn’t even a problem. You’d need a different word to define it. You’d need the word “crisis.”
“I’ve never had to piss this goddamn bad,” said the friend. “This is an emergency, man. They have to stop and give us a break. Right?!”
The crisis: There was no bathroom on this bus. We did not know this prior to boarding. We were now three hours into a nine-hour trek and the driver was apparently aiming to set a new land speed record, and therefore was going to do the whole sojourn in one shot. We did not know there would be zero stops on the ride. The only thing in the world we really did know is that we liked beer, and so we’d been crushing some cans of Tsingtao before the bus rolled out.
So now, beholden to the unbreakable law of cause and effect, we were doused with that particular kind of agony that comes from a swollen bladder being overloaded and stretched to previously-unknown limits.
We had never even considered the possibility of such an inconvenience befalling us. We were soft first-worlders, pampered millenials, young princes who got Little League participation ribbons. We saw the world as nothing but comfort and Good Things. With such limited perspective and lack of imagination we couldn’t fathom this bus trip being anything different from a Greyhound jaunt to New York. I’m sure I probably expected a screening of Iron Man 2 on the ride.
But this was Asia. And Asia was going to twist us and break us and laugh in our faces as it did.
Nine hours, no bathroom, no stops. What do you do?
To set the stage, we must wind the clock back a few years to my first tour of duty in the Asian ESL trenches. I was teaching in China and traveling during a mass migration quite similar to Korea’s now-concluded Chuseok, in which the country turns itself inside out as families saddle up in their Kias to make the ritual hometown pilgrimage/check their parents for a pulse. The Middle Kingdom takes a similar time-out during the first week of October for their National Day and I used it to take a quick hiking trip on the Tibetan border with some other young expats.
“It’s nine hours on a sleeper bus,” someone said. One overnight ride would shuttle us to the base of our hike up Tiger Leaping Gorge, which gives you a view of some of the lesser Himalayas at the summit.
We were in the southwestern provincial capital of Kunming, just one of the hundred Chinese cities featuring a population north of one million. The deep chill of fall was here and gray dust caked a world that already gray to begin with. The sun fell over the courtyard in front of the bus terminal. The courtyard was an endless thing, a mini Tiananmen Square, that could have doubled as a Soviet-style parade deck that dictators use to show off columns of soldiers and tanks on state television. Toddlers in split-bottom pants squatted on the concrete slabs to go potty, because diapers are a luxury in some places. Long-range loogies launched and exploded like ICBMs and motorcycles with dead pigs strapped to the back threaded through knots of pedestrians.
In the middle of this crush of humanity seven of us circled the wagons and drank. We drank because we waited, we drank to make ourselves funnier, we drank because we were still in awe of the lack of open container laws on this continent. Mostly we drank because we were twenty-two, and when you’re twenty-two you’re playing a perpetual game where if you stop moving for some reason, you drink. Most times, this can be good fun. Other times, there are jarring consequences. This story is about those jarring consequences.
Someone passed me another green can of Tsingtao as we bitched and jeered about our teaching jobs. Each time this memory unspools I want to intervene. It’s like watching the choppy footage of JFK in that open-top car as he makes the final turn to ride past the Book Depository. I want to hit pause, jump into the scene and warn myself to stop drinking. The younger me: the loud American shithead who assumes the rest of the planet exists for the sole purpose of being sarcastically derided, the fresh-off-the-boat expat wholly unaware he’s about to be humbled by great pain.
The sun melted away, the buzz rolled over us, and soon it was time. Let’s go, guys. Life is good. We’re traveling, Seeing The World and taking pictures of it and already mentally drafting the captions for the Facebook upload.
We boarded the sleeper bus, which I imagine was designed with sailor berths from old tyme warships in mind. The vehicle had three rows of bunks stacked three high, and of course they were compact, matchbox-sized bunks, fit more for Gimli than Gandalf.
I dropped my bag on my little mattress and as the bus rolled out of the sprawl of Kunming I noted there was no bathroom on the vehicle.
That’s cool, I’ll just hit the bathroom at the next stop.
Three and a half hours after drinking three beers, I had set a new record. I’d never held it this long. So at least I had that going on for me.
The bus screamed down unlit mountain passes and we grimaced and writhed as the pressure steadily increased, with no possibility of release or relief. Every rut the bus hit amplified the pressure and pain building up inside me. I wondered if I had already died and was now living out my punishment.
Surely at some point we’ll have to stop for fuel? Or for the driver to get smokes?
Everyone on the planet has a bladder-burster story; the only variation being how long you were required to hold it at the time. Those are harsh, evil moments in your life. Time itself slows to a drip and mocks you and every decision you’ve ever made. You stitch your eyes shut and your thoughts grow darker than any suicide note could ever be. You are jealous of everyone else in the universe who is not you and soon your jealousy for those other people—including those lucky Chinese toddlers who got to piss all over the courtyard back in Kunming—devolves into hatred. You wonder how long you can hold physically hold it, you ponder things like kidney failure, you wonder if people can die from this—if bladders can explode like grenades, and if they can? Holy shit, let’s just get it over with.
Nine hours, no bathroom, no stops. What do you do?
We’d already mimed an emergency request to the hunched little bastard in the smoke cloud that was driving the bus, but didn’t know enough Mandarin yet to decipher his response. Though I didn’t need to know any Mandarin to know what he said was probably/definitely “Fuck off and go sit back down!”
“I don’t have a bottle,” I told my friend. “Do you?”
“No. And it wouldn’t matter if I did because I could probably fill two right now.”
“Get out the dictionary. Let’s figure out how tell the driver we’ll piss on him if he doesn’t stop.”
Somehow—and I’m still amazed at this—my friend soon managed to momentarily escape our predicament by slipping into the refuge of sleep. Him and all the other passengers were slack and unconscious, lolling loose like corpses being ferried straight to Hell by our demonic driver.
I alone was still awake, blinking rapidly as I sought options, answers, solutions. Abstract, trippy visions came to me, including one of a Situation Room somewhere in my head where a president was being briefed on the crisis:
“Sir, we can try having him pee his own pants and deal with the embarrassment later, or relieve himself on someone else’s bunk and blame them for it. Or he can force a window open and piss out into the rain, and then of course there’s the nuclear option of urinating onto the driver’s person—all options are on the table.”
Then I started getting philosophical. There was almost a beautiful simplicity to the desperation, a purity to the desire. You have one specific need to fulfill and you achieve a sort of superhuman laser-focused view on the prize. Perhaps every innovator and conqueror and titan in history achieved what they did because they wanted success as bad as I at that moment wanted to piss.
Asia had me on the ropes, but I would win this one. I would find a way. I slid a hand into my bag and scrounged for tools I might be able to use, see if there was some sort of crude device I could improvise, some way to cheat my way out of this bind.
Nine hours, no bathroom, no stops. What do you do?
Four hours into the ride, I figured it out.
I needed room. I slid off my bunk and tip-toed a few steps up the aisle of this mobile mortuary. I had to silently navigate a human minefield on my way to brace myself against the aluminum wall. Chinese bus and rail companies don’t just sell out all the seats, they sell the floor space too, at a discount. Every square inch of a train or bus is monetized. Profit first, comfort and humanity a distant second. And in a country of 1.4 billion people, there’s always someone who will pay to get to Beijing by dawn, even if it means they’ll be straddling the tailpipe for the whole trip.
I managed to balance in a precarious crouch, having found a few toeholds between the faces of those snoring softly on the dirt-crusted carpet. In my left hand was a plastic bag I’d just emptied of all my food I’d bought for the hike. In my right hand was my towel. The driver wouldn’t see me in his mirror; he never once looked back. We were just cargo, dead weight that was slowing him down. My hands trembled as I lined the bag with the towel—to muffle the noise, you see—and then unzipped.
It was over. This was relief, satisfaction, and ultimate payoff. The tendrils of pleasure reached up and gave my brain a warm squeeze as an explosion of dopamine rocked me. I shuddered and almost dropped the bag. I imagine there’s a fetish devoted to this feeling. I think said fetishizers may be on to something. I opened my eyes and observed the plastic bag sinking lower, distending and distorting as it filled up. It was now swinging like a pendulum, scraping over a sleeping Chinese man’s nostrils. I pivoted a bit, twisting my torso and stretching away as I finished my mission.
And then I was just a jackass standing in a bus aisle, holding a bag of my own urine like it was a goddamn Lombardi Trophy. This right here, this was grit, brains, and victory. Nice try, Asia. I was The Greatest and I belonged in a Pantheon with Ali, MJ, and the geeks that got the Apollo 13 astronauts home safe.
OK, so now what to do about the bag?
Epilogue: We stopped at a highway rest area twenty minutes later.