“Is fishes?” She arched an eyebrow and cocked her head to the opposite side. The other restless passengers bristled past us to the baggage carousel like water flowing around a rock.
“I’m sorry, is what fishes?” I said, hoisting an attaché strap over my shoulder and contorting my neck to look behind her.
“For when you go bathroom. Is fishes?”
I saw my bag emerge from the yawning mouth of the conveyor chute and motioned toward it. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.” I twisted away to make my escape, but her raised hand stopped me.
“I ask how you say this word in English. Is fishes? For when you go bathroom.”
I couldn’t imagine what feature of my travel-haggard face suggested I should be singled out for an impromptu pronunciation interrogation amidst the sea of dizzying commotion. I sighed, more noticeably than I’d meant to. “I’m very sorry, but I don’t know what you’re asking. Bathroom? Like the bathroom itself?” I snapped my fingers. “Oh, do you mean faucet? Like the part of the sink — ”
She grabbed hold of my lapels and shook them urgently. “No no no, when go bathroom. Is fishes? Is this how you say?” She scanned my lips as if anticipating some physical sign of the clarifying words which would bubble up from the depths of my throat. She leaned in close; I flinched and buried my nose in my shirt collar, my residual plane-cabin musk preferable to her fetid mingling of astringent perfume and stale breakfast pastry.
“Is what…” I coughed. “I mean what is… What kind of go bathroom do you mean?” I shuddered and hastily glanced around, worried a passerby might construe the bizarre exchange as something skeevy on my part. “You’re asking for a word that means ‘go to the bathroom’ in English. Is that right?”
“Yes yes, that is correct. Is fishes? Is one of these words fishes?”
I stole a peek at my bag as it rounded the carousel’s horseshoe and fell on its side, just outside my reach. I took a sly step backward to reposition my stance for a sudden fast break. “I don’t see how… It doesn’t sound like… I mean, I have no idea what word you could mean.”
She held fast to my suit jacket and clawed at my collarbone. “No no, you do. Trust me. It is a word in English. I’m asking how you say fishes. I believe it is fishes. No?”
“Like for peeing?” I teetered dopily and clutched the back of my neck; still she held on. “Do you mean… peepee?” I said, quieter this time.
“Urine? Ah, no, it is not that, but the other thing. From the other side, you know. Like when a man sits, yes?”
I closed my eyes and rubbed my face, helplessly picturing someone perched atop a fishbowl, pants down, lumpy brown fish curling around the edges of the glass. I nodded and grimaced. “Yes, of course. But… Fishes… I can’t imagine what — ”
“You can’t imagine fishes? No, everyone go fishes. Believe me. But you say is not fishes? You spell F-E-C-E-S. You say is not fishes?”
“What?” I howled. “You mean FEE-SEES?”
“FEE-SEES?” She finally let go and threw her hands up, pitching back like I’d sneezed in her face. “That is so strange. I don’t understand. You are sure that is how you say?”
“Well, yeah, it’s technically correct, but it’s not a word people normally use for the bathroom.”
“I know, it is for to make bathroom,” she barked over her shoulder and turned away, the steady click of her heels echoing insistently as she strutted across the claim area past a grid of half-zombies slumped over in rigid chairs.
An unamused custodian leaned on a long-handled mop outside the bathroom door. He wrinkled his lips in a dramatic sigh and stretched nonchalantly as the woman approached. She constricted her brow and pointed at the door. “My daughter in there go make FEE-SEES. You understand now?”
The custodian grunted and slammed the mop into a wheeled bucket. He shoved off behind it like a seaman with a harpoon fastened to a fleeing whale. The woman cleared her throat to get my attention and thrust her chin toward the custodian, rolling her eyes. I returned a half smile and pivoted away just in time to catch a glimpse of my bag disappearing into the exit cavern of the baggage carousel.