It was 2 am, and the light was on in the dorm men’s room. I figured one of the students had just left it on, blazing through the night; at that hour, I expected that the bathroom would be empty. I did not expect to see a young man with his foot in the sink.
Okay. First, let me explain what I was doing in the dorms in the first place. Though I was a teacher, I was also a volunteer, which meant that I had no money and had to live at the mercy of my university. So, I stayed in the student dorm, and as such, shared facilities—restroom, kitchen, shower and laundry—with the students, which was always an adventure, to say the least. I won’t say that the things I saw in the Ukrainian student dorms were unique to Ukraine—I think students all over the world are probably pretty disgusting in their living habits from time to time. As a person who had finally escaped dorm living several years earlier (for good, I thought), it was just strange to be living among students again, this time with the outsider perspective that comes with age. But, regardless, there were so many times that I would have to brace myself before walking into one of the shared areas—a common question: what will I find in the sink today? At points during my two years in the dorms, I often found completely and utterly molded bread, vomit, blood, mud, underwear and snot. But only on one occasion was there a foot in the sink.
I froze in the bathroom doorway for only a moment before hurrying into the stall to do my business. The boy had also stopped briefly in doing whatever he was in the process of doing when I had opened the door—he stood there motionless with one wet, bare foot on the ground and the other stretched up to rest inside the waist-high sink—but finding that I was not the front desk lady (the one in charge of maintaining the security and order of the dorm that night), he continued his acrobatic task.
Washing my hands a few moments later, I took the opportunity to have a closer look, though only peripherally, of course—I am after all an American with a strong sense of privacy and propriety, modesty even, and I didn’t want to draw attention to my own uncomfortable self in what surely might be an uncomfortable moment for the student. But he seemed entirely at ease with his foot perched up near his belly button.
I don’t know what I had thought he was doing in my initial confusion—images of some new kind of calisthenic exercise flashed into my mind—but he was, of course, washing his feet. The shower room was locked for the night, so in his mind, I guess he was simply using the next best available option. It’s completely understandable to want to clean yourself up before bed time. In a country where it is not only polite but required to take your shoes off at the door to any dwelling, one’s feet can get a bit dusty and dirty—though not as much, I would imagine, as walking around barefoot in a place where other people were walking around in shoes—still, who wants to drag any amount of floor grit into bed? To wash your feet in the sink, however, requires some serious commitment (and flexibility).
I wondered if this was a common occurrence in the middle of the night when I was usually asleep. I wondered how disturbingly dirty my feet would have to be before I considered this method of cleaning. I wondered if I could lift my foot that high. And as I stood there wondering, with water running over my hands, the door opened again.
This time, it was in fact the front desk lady. She looked in at me and then to the boy and yelled something that made him pull his foot out of the sink, shut off the faucet and squish-squeak out of the bathroom and down the hall (which seemed to defeat the entire purpose of what he had just accomplished). Though I didn’t understand exactly what she was saying, the lady’s tone was not the expected what-the-hell-am-I-looking-at-right-now kind of yelling, more like a I’m-tired-and-I-want-these-kids-to-stop-running-the-faucet kind of yelling.
After the boy had walked by her, the lady looked back at me and closed the door hard, without a word, leaving me looking down at my feet.
Nothing’s gonna change my world. Nothing’s gonna change my world…