It’s 10 years ago. I’m on a road trip to Germany with my then boyfriend.
I’m pretty useless as a travel companion as I can’t drive and I can’t speak German, so my boyfriend is doing both. We cross from the border from Switzerland then stop at a small town near Stuttgart.
Our first day is a sunny Saturday morning in July. We decide to visit the town’s “spa baths,” which is a glamorous name for a municipal pool with a sauna/steam room. Like many places in Europe, swimsuits must be worn in the pool, but you have to enter the sauna au naturel.
We paddle in the pool for an hour, and then I agree to meet my boyfriend in the cafe. I get undressed, grab a small face towel and head off in search of the sauna.
I follow the smell of cedar to a dark door. Opening it, I blink into the gloom to see the distinct shape of naked, middle-aged German men. Someone shouts something cheerful at me, and I reel out of there and down the corridor towards two unmarked doors.
It stands to reason, surely, that opposite the men’s sauna one would find the women’s sauna. On a whim, I pick the left-hand one and it slams behind me.
It’s not the sauna. It is the fire escape.
I am trapped, naked, inside the fire escape.
Nobody knows where I am
It’s two stories high, and dark and dusty. Above me, huge fans built into the wall are rumbling at airplane-engine volume. I yell for help, pounding on the door until I get bruises on my wrist. There is nothing so pathetically vulnerable about hearing your own, suddenly very naked-sounding voice, yelling “Help!” into the abyss.
Crying, I run down the metal stairs, trying to work out what part of me I should cover with this tiny towel — my face maybe? I bang on the doors of the floor below for another 10 minutes. Nothing.
I realize that nobody knows where I am. I have visions of my boyfriend calling the police, a nationwide search, my graduation photograph on the news, and then, months later, my nude body being found in a fire escape, a washcloth modestly covering my face.
On the ground floor, I spot a chink of light and I’m overcome with relief — this must be the way out!
But no, it’s an industrial machine room, a cacophony of whirring pumps, and inexplicable, monstrous engines with cages around them. Everything has an “electrocution” sign on it.
Sobbing, I scamper nakedly around the industrial machine room, clutching the little towel. There is no way out. There is, however, a service elevator. Out of sheer panic, I run into the elevator.
Primal shame superpower
In the elevator, I mash all the buttons, hoping for I don’t even know what. I take a few pointless joyrides up and down the fire escape. Then, I spot in the top left corner, the bulb of a security camera.
A horrible thought occurs to me — I really need someone to witness this, my greatest moment of embarrassment, because then they’ll come to my rescue. I switch the little towel around strategic areas while waving at the security camera.
After a while, there is a German loudspeaker announcement, and I just know, through some primal shame superpower, that this announcement is about me –that someone is giving me instructions.
But they don’t know I can’t speak German. And how do I communicate that to a security camera? I make “I’m stupid” motions while crying louder and waving at the camera.
Eventually, the elevator settles on the ground floor, and the doors open. A spa employee is standing there. He is, at most, 19. A child. No one has ever been more successfully wearing clothes than he is at that moment. He says something to me, and I cry. He sighs, his profound disappointment somehow even more mortifying to me in that moment.
He unlocks a door in the wall, and I realize, to my horror, that it opens onto the street. The only way out of the fire escape, apparently, is to fully leave the building, and re-enter the spa reception. I cower behind the door, hysterical. Down the street, people are lining up out of the reception doors, onto the pavement and into the parking lot.
At this point, I experience shame transcendence. I travel fully through embarrassment and out the other side. My whole body goes numb. I put my head up, pull my shoulders back, drop the washcloth, and follow this man along the pavement. Families are parking their cars. Children point. I cannot see them. I can taste the universe.
Saved by a lobster
Reception is packed with queuing people, and my chaperone has to call out so I can get through the crowd. The spa-goers turn around, tutting, looking for the culprit that is skipping the queue, and finding me.
The spa employee pushes through the throng to talk to the receptionist. Meanwhile, I am forced to stand there. Waiting. Next to me, an elderly lady wearing a be-flowered swimming bonnet offers me her pool float. It is shaped like a lobster. The claws become my makeshift bra.
The receptionist finally says something to me, and my generous, lobster-loving neighbour interprets. “She wants your ID.”
I am wearing only a lobster.
Where, oh where, would I be keeping my ID?
Despite the language barrier, I guess that the receptionist has no trouble interpreting my expression, because she lets me through the turnstiles. They are, however, quite narrow, and after a few false starts bouncing off the rails, I admit defeat, and hand back the lobster to my savior in the bonnet.
Dashing up to the changing room, I have a 10-minute shame-shower with the compulsory scrub-and-sob, throw myself into my clothes and run to find my boyfriend in the cafe.
And after all that, he has the audacity to be grumpy, because he’s been waiting for an hour.