Once, when I accompanied my daughter and her 3rd grade class on a school field trip, one of the other fathers shit his pants. I’m not sure when it occurred, but by the time we reached the second destination, his white shorts had a brown stain on the back. He was wearing closed-toe sandals and pulled-high dress socks with a polo shirt, and all I could think was whether the shirt was tucked in far enough it might get some shit on it too.
We left the school that morning in a big Greyhound bus. Before that, the parents chaperoning the trip had stood in little groups drinking coffee in to-go cups. Most of them were mothers. The guy who shit his pants, whose name I’ve forgotten in the ten years since, was the only other father, so we gravitated together. He asked about my work. I wanted to ask about his hair style, which looked like combed cotton candy.
He was a nice enough guy, but a bit too talkative, and I tend to withdraw in such situations. I was already wondering who to sit by on the bus. My daughter had made it abundantly clear I was not to sit by her and her friends. She didn’t ignore me as much as you would, say, a person who had shit their pants, but rather I was like a tree in the front yard—you never notice it until it offers shade, or the leaves change colors in the fall.
When we boarded the bus, I snagged a seat next to a woman I knew from school functions and birthday parties. Her daughter and my daughter were friends, which meant we had something to talk about, but the conversation would quickly taper off into silence after we had covered a few basics. This was what I wanted, but immediately after saying it was ok for me to sit there, she opened a book and began reading, which was even better. Behind us, our daughters were laughing in the way only third-graders can laugh, so I settled in to entertain myself by deciding which of the mothers would survive a zombie apocalypse, and whether the bus driver was named James or Jeeves or something bus-drivery.
We went first to an old Indian village, where we wandered into the dug-outs and stood by the fire even though the temperature was around 170 degrees that day. One of the docents shot a bow and arrow. Another threw a spear, and by noon we had climbed back on the bus. There was, at this point, no shit stain, I am sure.
The second destination was a transportation museum. I noticed the stain as we de-boarded. I was behind him, and as he descended the steps, I saw it, right where a stain would be if he had shit himself. I thought maybe he sat in chocolate, but then I remembered a memo about where and when snacks would be served, so unless he had brought his own chocolate and then immediately sat on it, the stain was fecal matter.
And maybe because being around children reminded me of when I was a child, I remembered the time a kid shit his pants in Kindergarten. His mother had to bring him a new pair, and though the teacher tried to be discreet about the whole thing, we all knew what he had done. We made fun of him for years. I don’t remember if we called him “Old Shit-Pants” or something like that, but none of us could look at him without remembering the day he’d soiled himself. Forty years later I wonder where he is. I think he moved away, and now, much older and hopefully a little kinder, I hope the story didn’t follow him. Imagine going all your life with that story following you around like a stain on your shorts.
“There’s the kid who shit himself in Kindergarten,” someone might say on the subway while you’re going to work, and forever after your confidence is wrecked. Sales go down. The boss asks about your performance, and you are forced to tell him that you once shit your pants in Kindergarten and it’s been difficult to recover.
I also worried about the guy’s daughter. I can’t remember her name, but she had big blond curls and a way of looking down when addressing adults, as if she had to avert her eyes. I wondered if she was averting her eyes from the stain on her dad’s shorts, and suddenly I was worried about all the ways I might embarrass my daughters as they grew older, all the ways a father can fuck up his children, either with some accident or insensitivity, some way being a man doesn’t let us fully understand what it means to be a young woman.
But I didn’t know what to say to the guy—let’s call him Mark—who shit his pants. I couldn’t think of a way to tell him.
“Excuse me, Mark, did you shit yourself?”
“Do you smell something? Oh, it’s you!”
“Tough break, buddy. Now let’s get you all cleaned up.”
“Raise your hand if you’ve ever shit your pants on a school field trip. Anyone? Oh, no one here has ever shit their pants?”
None of these seemed appropriate. And because I would rather avoid confrontation, even if it means watching someone walk around all day with a shit stain on his shorts, I said nothing.
In retrospect, I should have done something. I don’t mean that us men have to stick together, but since there were only two of us among twenty mothers, I wanted us to represent men well. I always want to represent men well, because most of us do such a horrible job of representing ourselves. This guy walked around most of the afternoon with a giant shit-stain on his shorts and never knew, nor did any of us tell him, not me or Jeeves the bus driver or any other man along the way. Surely everyone saw, I thought. Surely everyone sees it right now.
But most of us would rather ignore the problems around us. We rarely call out other men for their messes because we’d rather avoid the confrontation, which means we let other men continue walking around with all kinds of stains, whether they know it or not.
This makes me wonder if Mark knew, wandering there among the old cars and train engines at the transportation museum. Surely he must have. There must have been some moment when what he thought was gas came out a little differently. I bet he said “Oh No” silently to himself, a sinking feeling in his stomach, then began to wonder how best to deal with it, before deciding all he could do was ignore it, and hope no one noticed.
When we ate lunch on the benches outside, I contemplated getting a chocolate bar from the snack shop and placing it strategically near Mark so he might have an excuse, but no one seemed to notice the stain except me, or they were doing a better job than I was of ignoring it.
This also makes me wonder now, in my middle-age, my daughters grown and moved off to their own lives, how many times I’ll be walking around some ancient museum and realize something I should have done long ago. A way I messed up. Some thing I didn’t know I did wrong, and carried around with me, for years maybe, staining everything I touched. When my daughters were little I was impatient, and too often angry, it seems now. I sometimes drank too much. Some late nights at the bar with my friends translated to mornings in which I was too tired to embrace the gift of time spent with my children. Some days I thought the games of hide and seek were endless because my daughters wanted to play over and over, me too stupid to understand how easily everything ends.
So what I want to say now is that it happens to everyone. You shit your pants a little, or sit in something. Spill coffee on yourself. Walk around with eye-boogers until someone says, “Hey buddy, you got an eye-booger there.”
And I want to say as parents we have to forgive ourselves for the mistakes we make. I’ve forgiven my parents long ago for the fights they had, the eventual divorce. I know now how tired they must have been, steering children through a world they couldn’t control, broke most of the time, trying to make ends meet when there weren’t even ends to begin with. I’m trying to forgive myself the times I walked around stained with anger. It’s as if I didn’t know. Too dumb to look behind me and see where I’d been. Too oblivious to the way others looked at me.
Sometime late in the afternoon Mark must have seen the stain. Or maybe someone told him. He disappeared into the bathroom and when he came out I could see he had tried to clean it. His shorts were wet. The stain was less noticeable. But it was still there, and I began to worry it would always be there.
I still do. I still worry the things we’ve done will always be with us. But on the way home, my daughter sat with me. She curled up on my arm like she’d always love me, and went to sleep. I stroked her hair like I had when she was an infant, those times I remembered what was most important. In the back of the bus I heard Mark saying, loudly enough for everyone to hear, that he should have checked the bench before he sat down, and who would leave a chocolate bar on a bench anyway? It was wrong, just to leave it there, where someone—him—could accidentally sit on it.
I’d like to believe that’s what happened, that he sat on a chocolate bar. I even thought of it myself. But my sometimes cynical heart won’t let me. Or, rather, it likes to point out, with a sadistic glee, that we’re all one accident away from utter embarrassment, one mistake away from ruining everyone around us. I know this isn’t true. That those who love us are far more forgiving than we are of ourselves. And that those we love, we love so hard we remember all our angers, all our faults, which may be why we’re constantly being borne back into the past, like boats, or a turd bobbing in a toilet.
Which brings me to this story:
Later that same year I went on another field trip, this time to the zoo. There were no other fathers there. Just me and nine mothers. Mark wasn’t there. I had heard from my daughter that he and his wife had separated, and I wondered if it was because he came home with soiled pants, because that’s how my mind works.
The mothers were great at herding the kids through the different parts of the zoo: the big open field where the elephants and zebras and giraffes ran free. The caged enclosures where lion and tiger prowled back and forth, as if they’d rip apart anyone who came close. I stayed in the back, watching my daughter and her friends, ready to spring into action if a bear got loose, or a snake slipped from its cage.
When we came to the rhinoceros enclosure there were two baby rhinos, each about the size of a Shetland pony. One of the boys said he’d like to ride them. One of the girls said the little ones were cute, but I was looking at the male rhino. He looked like a house, maybe one of those tiny ones on TV all the time now. His shoulders stood higher than my head. His skin looked like iron, and I thought that there was a creature that had no cares in the world. He didn’t even look at us as he stood there, as the baby rhinos romped around like children. A patriarch, he was. A proud father standing there, king of his world.
Then he sort of shifted sideways, and a great gout of shit shot out of his ass. It hit the wall behind him and splattered everywhere. At that point it occurred to me there was literally shit everywhere at the zoo. The hippos flicked their tails when they shit so the shit flew around like a sprinkler. One of them shit in the water and a great brown bloom swelled out behind it. On the African fields were great big piles like termite mounds, or the molehills we make mountains out of.
The mothers were mortified. The girls squealed and the boys jumped up and down with pleasure, and I thought they would remember this moment forever, but the truth is they probably didn’t. My daughter has forgotten. The great thing about humanity is that we have both short and long memories. We can remember yesterday, and we can remember our mother’s warm hand on our forehead, her calm voice soothing us to sleep. My father blowing smoke in my ear the night I woke with an ear ache. My tiny daughters crawling into my bed late at night when they couldn’t sleep, when the world outside the window seemed so utterly dark and alone.
Some days, I remember it all. And what I remember most is this: the rhinoceros stomping its feet after it finished, as if it had done a great good deed. I remember the way the baby rhinos ran up to the father and rubbed their heads against its belly in what could only be called love, as if it didn’t still have bits of shit clinging to its backside, or as if they knew and didn’t care, because they loved it, even with all its faults. And I remember how we came home from the zoo that day and my daughter ran into the house saying, “Mom, the rhinocerous pooped, and it went everywhere.”