A Writer Writes

    No Shortage of Toilet Paper Here

    by Heather Carroll (Russia 2000–01)

    SOME OF US VOLUNTEERS lived in what the Russians liked to refer to as dorms. They were really set up like the Soviet communal apartments I had seen in the foreign film I watched fervently before I left for Russia. They were dank and small and located in odd places. The dorm where I lived was on the first floor of the Yaroslavl State University medical building.
         There were two apartments in my dorm. To the left of the entrance a door led to an abandoned apartment. I caught a glance inside once or twice and it looked gutted. I never saw anyone go in or out of it. The door that led to my apartment was to the right of the entrance. Inside there were three bedrooms lining a long, narrow corridor that was absent of light most of the time. At the end of the corridor there was, as was standard in Russian apartments, a room with a toilet and a sink, a separate room with a bath, and a small kitchen. I lived in the bedroom closest to the toilet. Amy, a British student learning Russian at Yaroslavl State, lived in the next bedroom while the third bedroom was vacant most of the time. Occasionally people came from Moscow or elsewhere in Russia for university business. Unlike Amy and I, who lived there more or less permanently, they usually stayed for only a day or two.
         The woman and her daughter who had spent the last three nights left without saying goodbye but I guess I never expected them to. They were friendly and I had enjoyed their company while they were in town but we shared little more than sips of vodka, a refrigerator and a toilet.
         Amy was the first one to use the toilet after they left. Afterward, she walked into my room sheepishly. “The blue bin in the bathroom is full of soiled tissue.” She announced standing in the center of the room with one hand on her slender hip and the other at her side.
         I was sitting at my table reading my Russian textbook. I had one hand on my dictionary and the other on the text, my index finger marking the unknown word. I turned my whole body to look at her, “You’re kidding?” I said unable to fully process what she was saying.
         “Yeah. The bin is full of it. What are we meant to do with all of it?” I could tell she was exasperated.
         The women who had left the toilet paper there were well educated, well groomed women. There had to have been something we didn’t know. There were always small waste baskets in bathrooms but I had never seen anything in them so I never used them, except at public squat toilets where there were always full bins. At most places, and always in the dorm, however, I flushed my toilet paper down the toilet and never had a problem.
         Maybe these women from Moscow thought that our humble Yaroslavl dorm was no different than a public toilet or maybe our humble dorm wasn’t as humble as we thought — maybe our toilet was more powerful than theirs. Either way they had filled the empty waste basket and Amy and I had to do something about it.
         “I don’t know what we are supposed to do with it. Let’s just throw it in the dumpster in back.” I suggested.
         “There is a box of matches on the lid. Maybe we are meant to burn it.” She said.
         “Do you think?”
         I got up to go look at the waste basket, the toilet paper and the matches. Amy followed me. When we arrived in front of the toilet, we both stood there in silence not sure what to say or do. We looked at it for a good long while. The blue, metal bin was laced with amoeba-shaped rust spots as if it had sat out in the rain. If the basket would have been plastic I doubt we would have even considered burning the toilet paper. But since it was metal, at least in theory, you could easily burn toilet paper in it.
         Finally I leaned over and picked up the matches. “Do you really think we should burn it? Maybe we should just throw it away.” I said.
         “I’m not touching it. There is no bag in the bin.” Amy was adamant.
         “OK. I don’t want to touch it either. Maybe they left the matches there on purpose.”
         “Why else would someone put matches on top of the bin in the toilet?”
         “Yeah. Where should we do it? In the bathtub?” I asked.
         “Right. I’ll go put on the rubber gloves and take it over there. You bring the matches.”
         And with that Amy disappeared into the kitchen and returned wearing yellow dishwashing gloves that reached nearly to her elbows. She walked over to the wastebasket, let out a deep breath, lifted the basket and held it an arm’s length away from her body all the way to the tub where she set it down quickly and gently. It didn’t take but half a minute to move the thing but she swore in her demure British cuss words the whole way. She let out one last, “bollox” when she reached down to open the lid.
         Amy looked at me with a pained look on her face. I’m sure she saw the same look staring back at her. I looked down at the box of matches in my hand. It was maroon with white letters. It simply said “matches,” no advertisements like matchbooks from restaurants and bars back home. We had a whole pile of match boxes in the kitchen next to the stove. We didn’t know for certain that the women left the matches on top of the basket as some sort of subtle code, “Please burn our shitty toilet paper. We simply didn’t have the time to do it before we left.” We, however, didn’t know that they hadn’t meant to leave that message either. We risked looking ridiculous either way and for whatever reason we choose to look ridiculous this way.
         I opened the box, took out a match and closed it with my thumb. I tapped the match on the top of the box to get a better grip and then lit it. Before the crack of the fire starting even hit my ears the match was sailing through the air toward the toilet paper.
         Amy and I stood and watched without saying a word. Toilet paper burns fast and makes a lot of smoke. There were no smoke detectors or fire alarms in our dorm. When you stand in the midst of it you don’t even notice the accumulation of smoke until you can’t see past it or breathe through it.
         I suggested that we open a window and we both turned to look at the tiny window high above the tub. Then we turned to look at the basket. The flames were licking the inside of it like a hungry child rushing to eat an ice cream cone before it melts. I climbed up onto the ledge between the tub and the wall and reached to open the window. My nose couldn’t breathe in the cool air fast enough. I could smell cigarettes being made by the afternoon shift at the tobacco plant down the street. Even that was easier to breathe in than the smoke of burning toilet paper.
         In less than a minute, the flame sunk deep into the basket and had shrunk to a low whisper.
         “I think we should put it out now.” Amy said.
         “I think it is done.” I agreed and turned on the water.
         Amy, still rubber gloved, put her arms out slightly to keep her balance and pushed the basket under the running water with the tip of her tennis shoe. The fire was out in seconds. When Amy turned off the water, we had a mess. The toilet paper was gone but there were tampons and other objects we couldn’t and didn’t want to identify. I didn’t know what to do with it now and I could see in Amy’s face and posture that she didn’t either.
         “We have to just throw it away.” I said.
         “I’m not touching it and I’m not walking outside with it. If that cow of a woman upstairs sees us with the bin she will raise holy hell.” Amy said referring to the Commandant in charge of the dorm. She had never been friendly with her foreign guests.
         “Let her. I’m throwing it away. I’m going to put the whole thing in the dumpster. That way the next person that comes will just have to put the toilet paper in the toilet. It can handle it for God’s sake.”
         Amy nodded in agreement. There was no need to tell her.
         I bent over to touch the bin and it was hot like a seatbelt in August. I flinched when I touched it. Without saying another word I went to get a pair of hot pads from the kitchen. If my friends had known that the hot pads they sent from home at Christmas were going to be used to pick up used toilet paper bins they might not have picked out such pretty ones. I returned to the bath with the lilac hot pads, picked up the basket, walked out of the dorm, threw it in the dumpster, came back in and washed my hands.
         “Let’s go get a milkshake.” Amy suggested. And we did.

    Heather Carroll was a TEFL instructor as a Volunteer. She is currently pursuing her graduate degree in education with a focus in TESOL. She lives in Rochester, NY with her husband and baby daughter. This story comes from Heather’s book-in-progress on her experience as a PCV in Russia.