Alexandra Dietz and I show up for the second time to the restaurant I’m interviewing her at around 7:30 pm. I won’t name the restaurant because last year I had wanted to shoot a project in their bathroom and had visited multiple times to try and get permission. They didn’t deny my requests, they ignored them. So now I will take what I want and they will get nothing from me.
It’s the second time we’re sat at a table because the first, an hour and half earlier, as I pulled all my gadgets out of my satchel and loaded up my film I realized the flash for my camera didn’t fit. And as the film photography of her in this bathroom of my adolescent barbie wet dream is one side of this 2$ bill, we leave, loop back and retrace our steps like we’re breaking the curse of deja vu. I murmer something about how “I’m a professional.”
We don’t exactly blend into this steakhouse in the suburbs of Detroit. We order tea and I set up the recorder on the tripod. We order tea and no food, even though I lie and tell the waiter we’ll order food later.
There’s a group of men behind me I won't notice until later when of course they make me notice them. My eyes are on Alexandra, or Ali as I call her if you ever listen to the tapes, which you might not want to because there is so much bar noise the audio purist will surely turn their pretention up at it. But I like the noise, it reflects the trashy nature of what we’re about to do, which is, of course, talk about bathrooms and the unspoken ladylike nature of them.
It is here that I want to lay a disclaimer: Personally I’ve dropped the words “women” and “ladies” almost exclusively out of my vocabulary. They’re terms that don’t encompass the vastness of the femmes in this world, and in fact, by design, exclude them. But for those of you I’m afraid will get lost, I will call it the Women’s Restroom here. However in the future I do advocate for Femme Lounge, or any other creative moniker’s we can come up with.
I asked Ali to be the first femme I interview for this series for two reasons; one, because I don’t know anyone at any age that has lived as many lives as she, and two, because when she recants stories about those lives they drip with a decadence, yet fall naturally out of her mouth. And, well, I find her an enigma.
I ask her, “What’s the weirdest bathroom she’s ever been in?” She stares back at me and I can tell she’s shuffling through the stories she came prepared to talk about. I didn’t necessarily give her a list of questions I was going to ask, but she knew the context of the interview. Throughout the interview I’ll have her hunch down to the recorder or hold it up to her mouth because my worst fear is losing this audio. Well, that and the film coming back corrupted because of course she currently lives in Barcelona and there will be no do-overs.
“More than weird I’ve been in impressive bathrooms,” she says. “But not in a materialistic way, in a sheer ‘how was this bathroom manufactured’ type of way. For example I was photographing indigenous women of the Kuna culture in Panama City, and you go out to the San Blas Islands” an independent community separate from Panama, “and what’s really special about the San Blas Islands is that because of climate change, they’re not going to be here probably in like the next 25- 50 years, and because of rising sea levels these buildings that are built all of natural elements… from the island, are all gonna be washed away. But right now they’re there, and their built on stilts in the water and there woven together, and the entire structure of the homes are these bamboo sticks that have been treated… and one of the most spectacular bathrooms I’ve been in this year was made of these bamboo sticks… and it was just so organic and so gorgeous.”
I ask “where do you do the business?”
“You do the business.. In a hole… above water… and you don’t use toilet paper, same as when I was in India, and this is actually really embarrassing, but when I was in India I got really used to just using bucket water because my entire year that I spent in India there was no toilet paper anywhere, you had a bucket of water… and you would pour the water over yourself and that's how you would clean yourself”
I say, like a manual bidet, and she agrees.
“Also, when I was in Thailand, I would pump the water out from the river… and I would have a bucket beside me and a smaller little cup and wash myself with that all the time and it actually felt a lot more refreshing than, you know, rubbing your own shit across your body with like a piece of paper… but my mother was horrified because after I came back from a year in India and Thailand I didn’t see the point of buying toilet paper, like it didn’t seem like a dire necessity, and she felt like she had failed as a mother.”
And it makes sense why her mother would feel this way, similar to how I’m assuming my own mother would feel when their sanitary way of life is challenged and deconstructed in such a punk stand against the Industrial Toilet Paper complex. Pandemic memories, anyone?
Once back in the states Ali says she lived that way in the Florida Keys for about a year, until she was shamed out of it by friends that called her out and felt like she was neglecting herself. They didn’t know how to operate in her world of soap and water. It was “People pleasing and pandering” that got her back on toilet paper. “I’m still not convinced.”
I keep going, and I ask what was the first memory that entered her mind when I asked her to sit down and talk with me about her experiences in public bathrooms.
“I just immediately rolodexed, it was like a rapid fire clip book of erotic memories that went through my head of hook ups in bathrooms, specifically because I have a friend who is also an alcoholic and in recovery and she was saying to me recently… talking about her shame… as it applied to bathroom hookups, and I was listening to her whip herself into lamenting about how trashy she had been, what a little slut she had been having hookups in bars in bathrooms… and she was cringing as she recounted telling the story hooking up with men and I just thought about how out of all the things that I had to make amends for, fucking in a bathroom was not one them. Very very low on my list, doesn’t make the richter scale at all. And I don’t regret any of it, not a single one. "
“But then it was much deeper than that for me, it’s not about all the erotic hookups that came to mind when you asked me, it was more about the etymology of why I enjoyed these, because I don’t enjoy typically casual sex or anonymous sex, I’m very demisexual. A lot of that lack of accessibility… has a lot to do with the spaces in which that would happen .. and so when I really thought about it, and I fell down the rabbit hole very quickly. My mind went to, well, I lost my virginity to sexual assault when I was 18… from a person who I trusted and was in an intimate relationship with and it was in his room in his space in a room that should have been safe in a bedroom which is typically a space for making love or hooking up or having sex, it's a territory for intimacy. And I really had to own in my clarity in the last several years that I have visceral discomfort when it comes to bedrooms, like there is something about the lack of escape… and not that I necessarily want to escape the people or person that I am being intimate with… but I want the option. And so these public arenas like a bathroom, I not only get super turned on by the idea that all I have to do is unlatch a latch, and I’m once again integrating into a public, but I feel secure knowing that I can just unhook and be done… and the way my mind works is I don’t have to have a conversation about why I’m stopping.”
I press, “have you ever had to escape, have you ever had to pull the proverbial latch in a bathroom?”
“I think I like to pull the latch on people because I’m a tease.”
And from personal experience I believe it.
“So… tell us something from the Rolodex?”
“So I dated this girl… years ago… and we were incompatible in every way… cerebrally, spiritually and emotionally, but chemistry wise, it was magnetic… to paint a picture for you she was this lesbian auto mechanic that wore cowboy boots and had a crocodile tattoo that wrapped around her entire body and [she] had CUNTOLOGIST tattooed from one hip bone to the other, which is quite the statement, and if you have someone that has CUNTOLOGIST tattooed on them it peaks one's curiosity, you know, can they live up to that sort of permanency that’s on their body? And her and I went to this drag show, and I historically am not one for raffles… but at this drag show we won this lesbian designed vegan dildo, you know all the environmentally safe, kind of phallus … and we won the raffle and immediately… she was like ‘ok I’m gonna pack, right now’ which meant she was gonna slip it into her panties and meet me in the bathroom. And so we went into this queer bar, into the bathroom and I think it's especially fun when you're already in these queer safe spaces because the tension, the sexual tension is already a vibe, outside of the bathroom, let alone in the bathroom… and so she had sex with me, and it wasn’t about like the orgasm, it was about 'we won’… and needing to try out the prize. And the bathroom was pretty gritty… with a giant red flaming heart, or something contrived, with wings like one of those rings you would wear in high school where if you turned it one way it meant you were in a relationship… and writing all over the stalls…… but I remember when we got out of the bathroom we were very casually washing our hands and a girl came in was like ‘oh my god you're the couple that just won, omg I wanted that dildo so badly…. Can I see it?’ And we were like 'well, ahhhh’…. And we sort of had to reveal ourselves… ‘it’s just been used.’”
We joke about showing it to the girl anyway, still dripping and warm, even though I don’t think she did. I think of Dan Savage and how he always says it’s not about the orgasm, or at least I think he says that. I think of how women are trained to fake it if they can’t cum to prioritize the male ego, not their own pleasure. And here we don’t even have a breakdown of that, it goes out the window completely. It isn’t about cumming, it's about play and getting away with something, which in the end they don’t even get away with. But when they do reveal themselves, nothing actually happens. It stays between the three of them, the four if you count the bathroom itself, until you read these words and recall your own bathroom encounters or missed opportunities. How many times have you won that raffle?
We refill our tea, we talk about the elegance of powder rooms and the dinginess of others, “I would love to have sex in a powder room… but there is kind of a freedom in the humiliation of feeling a little bit trashy,” And I think that quote applies to being erotic in any social place with a toilet and a sink. Maybe any public place at all.
Ali leads the conversation, “If I was to be really honest, I really have a thing for airplane bathrooms, like specifically international flights, and I think as a photo journalist I’ve been on really long, long arduous flights, and there is something about being jet lagged and rendered completely depleted in the air and also like disoriented, that really turns me on, like I get very horny on international flights, and so I pay a lot of attention also aesthetically to what different bathrooms look like on planes…. I’ve noticed they’ve upgraded the bathrooms to full length mirrors and I’ve noticed this because I’ve had numerous, numerous erotic experiences in International flight bathrooms and now I can see myself, and potentially, my partner that I’m traveling with, in a full length mirror that is not only long with a full view, but it’s also illuminated as if it is a Victoria secret fitting room… it’s almost instagramable… and so now I’ve started up my own private collection of erotic selfies in international flight bathrooms…. I cum on almost every International flight that's more than 8 hours, guaranteed, for sure. And I document it.”
This seems on brand for a documentary photographer.
Now, I have not seen these photos, but I trust they exist. The way she describes the fatigue of travel, the erotism of being confined, it reminds me of how when I make long journeys in the car alone I make sure I wear a skirt. Once I hit the 6 or 7 hour mark I usually touch myself. I wonder if these are related, or if I just do it because my car is low and someone might see in, or that it keeps me awake for the rest of the journey.
I ask Ali a handful more questions, and we eventually get up to go to our run and gun photoshoot in this women’s restroom. I switch from a passive asker of questions to an active director. I get bossy, I tell her where I want her, what I want her to do. Since I’ve worked with her many times and know her comfort level, I ask her to flash me, for the photos. We lock ourselves into a stall and I love that no-one knows what we’re doing in here, or maybe even for a moment, that there is two of us in here, even though I’m just asking her to kneel by a toilet.
As we start to integrate back to the real world around us I’ll notice the nature of the things we’ve just talked about layered around. How there are two young girls taking pictures in the full length mirror when we walk in, and while their clothes are on, they will surly instagram these photos. How halfway through this shoot, a girl that works there walks in and goes into a stall, and then a moment later another worker comes in and watches us watch her. I tell her which stall is open because I’ve shut all the stall doors for the aesthetics of the pictures and feel bad for making it confusing, but she reaches for the door the first girl went in, yet, stops short, confused on what to do. She opens her phone and I think she texts someone. Moments later the first girl pops out and they both laugh and both leave, even though the second never used the bathroom. I feel, for a moment, like a cock block. But also, like I know their secret.
The most glaring life imitating interview moment is when the men behind me, one in particular, harass me. He does it a little when I get up, but a lot when I get back to the table. He won't let it go when I tell him it’s none of his business what I’m doing. I give him a fake name. I ask him to leave me alone. I’m waiting for Ali, who is taking selfies in the bathroom after our shoot for her records. He keeps demanding my attention and his friends do nothing. They don’t egg him on, or apologize. I feel cornered and like I should just put up with it, even though walking out of the restaurant I'm furious at myself for not saying anything more clever.
It reminds me of the last story Ali tells me. The story of a man that waits for her outside a bathroom in India. To leave this bathroom and get back to the world she has to slide by him in a tight corridor, and as she passes him he grabs her pussy. And “unfortunately for that man” at that point in her life she was feeling especially on guard and aggressive and maybe “ready for a fight,” so she grabs his balls and breaks his nose.
I wonder if that stopped him from doing it again, but it probably only changed the way he picked his victims.
The waiter doesn’t charge us for the teas, but I slide him a twenty for being a good host, and not minding we didn’t eat during their dinner rush. I can’t remember if we hugged but I think we did.
I won’t forget these vignettes of Ali’s life. Having listened to them over and over on the recordings somehow they feel like my memories now, even though I know they are not.
We leave the unnamed restaurant and go to Sakana in Ferndale for sushi.