The Door

So this is it, I thought. This is how I’m going to die.

A few years ago, I was working on a project that involved visits to several earthquake engineering labs across the country. Earthquake engineering labs are dangerous places – huge, cavernous rooms with specially-reinforced floors and walls, where tremendously strong, often violent forces are applied to specimens constructed from thousands of pounds of concrete and steel. But I wasn’t facing near-certain death because I was trapped beneath a pile of rubble in an engineering lab; in fact, I wasn’t in a lab at all. I was at home.

I’d just gotten back from a series of meetings at various sites on the east coast. I was exhausted, but I’d been traveling pretty frequently for work, so I fell into my standard routine when I arrived home. I left my rolling carry-on bag by the front door, dropped my backpack on the dining-room table, hugged the cats, fed the cats, called the cat-sitter to let her know I was home, and took a shower. After washing away the lingering scent of stale airline air and cheap hotel shampoo, I stepped out of the shower, wrapped a towel around myself, and started to walk out of the bathroom. But the door wouldn’t open. The door had exactly two functions – opening and closing – and in the literally thousands of times I’d been in this bathroom before, it had always performed both of those functions admirably. But not this time.

The door opens outwards onto an alcove just a few inches wider than the door. There’s a set of fairly wobbly built-in drawers on the side of the alcove; it’s impossible to open or close the door while one of the drawers is open, because the open drawer would block the door’s path.

Left: the door opens out onto an alcove with built-in drawers. Right: an open drawer blocks the door.

In preparation for my shower, I’d taken a towel out of one of the drawers and then pushed the drawer almost, but not quite, all the way shut. The drawer was shut far enough to allow me to close the bathroom door, but at some point during my shower, the drawer had somehow (possibly due to an intervention by one of my cats) tilted back, so that it was now preventing the door from opening more than about an inch.

So this is it, I thought. This is how I’m going to die. Alone. In the bathroom. Because of a stupid mistake. I took a deep breath and took stock of the situation. It was Saturday. On Monday, I’d be expected at an all-day meeting at work and then a family dinner in the evening – people would notice that I was missing from both. They’d probably send email or call right away and then start to worry when they didn’t hear from me by Tuesday night. My brother, who lived 20 minutes away and had a key to my house, would probably come over on Wednesday. That was four days away, and I had access to all the water I could possibly want, so I wouldn’t actually die (and, as a bonus, I’d be well-groomed, if not well-dressed, when I was rescued). I started thinking about my options.

Option 1: Do nothing. Advantages: requires little effort, probably won’t result in death. Disadvantages: the cats would run out of food after about a day and be left with nothing to eat for three days, which is probably long enough for them to develop that liver condition that cats get when they don’t eat for several days. Also, I’d be stuck in the bathroom for four days, with nothing to eat or read. This option was better than certain death, but not much better, so I decided to look for some alternatives. I closed my eyes and thought about what resources were available to me. The door was in front of me. The litter boxes were behind me, in the corner. The sink was to my right, with an assortment of toiletries and my toothbrush. My toothbrush!

Option 2: Use my toothbrush as a crowbar to open the bathroom door. Advantage: gets me out of the bathroom! Disadvantage: toothbrushes, it turns out, make lousy crowbars. I was able to get the end of the handle to reach the drawer, but I couldn’t get the drawer to budge. This option was great in theory, but bitterly disappointing in practice. As I was returning the toothbrush to its holder, I noticed the window. Of course, I thought, I can climb out the window.

Option 3: Climb out the window. Advantage: gets me out of the bathroom immediately. Disadvantage: the window is fairly high, so I’d have to jump down a bit onto the bush directly under the window. I’m not the most coordinated person in the world (I once broke my toe answering the phone), so there’s a good chance I’d break my ankle. Or possibly my neck. And I’d be locked out of the house (although that shouldn’t be a major consideration, since I’d probably need to go to the hospital first anyway). Depending on the extent of the actual injuries sustained, this might be better than the two previous options, but it still wasn’t very appealing. The window faced my neighbors’ driveway, and it occurred to me that I could try to get someone’s attention and ask to borrow their phone.

Option 4: Flag down a neighbor. Advantage: gets me out of the bathroom without my having to climb out the window. Disadvantage: I’d have to wait for someone to show up. My neighbors at the time were a retired couple, Henry and Mary. Henry was nosy and intrusive; I was always uncomfortable interacting with him, in part because I was never sure whether he was suffering from some sort of dementia or whether this was his actual personality. Once, he rang my doorbell and presented me with a bill for new sprinkler heads, which for some reason he’d bought and installed in my front yard. And I’d heard him shout obscenities at Mary. She was nice enough, and back then, things hadn’t yet become awkward between us. A year or two later, it would occur to me one day that I hadn’t seen Henry in a while, but at that point I wouldn’t know what to say to Mary – “so, is your husband dead, or did you come to your senses and kick him out, or what?” didn’t seem quite right. So I didn’t say anything, and that lack of acknowledgement made things awkward. But none of that had happened yet, so things were fine between Mary and me. This option seemed workable. I could set up time limits – I could wait, say, half an hour or an hour anyone but Henry to show up, and then maybe another hour or two to see if anyone at all showed up, and if not, I could always fall back on climbing out the window.

Oh. Right. I could just walk out the other door.

As I waited, I looked around for the first time since I’d discovered I was locked in, and I realized I’d forgotten something important: this bathroom has two doors. The second door leads to a hallway, but I’d kept it closed for three years because it opens inwards, and the litter boxes are in its path.

Option 5: Walk out the second door. Advantage: gets me out of the bathroom and into the non-bathroom areas of the house immediately. Disadvantages: none. I made my escape by moving the litter boxes, opening the door, and walking out.

The great thing about this story is it this never would have happened in an unfamiliar place. It’s only in my own home that I’d find myself locked in a room, searching desperately for a way to escape, and not even bother to glance over to my left.

29 thoughts on “The Door

  1. Holy cow.

    What a story.

    I felt sooo claustrophobic, locked in that bathroom with you… well, in my (hyperactive) imagination. Thank God you remembered the second door!

    In our house, if I was locked into ANY room, I’d never be able to get out, cos we have nice and solid burglar bars to prevent the Nasties from getting IN… and erm,… the Good People from getting out.

    Phew… I need a cup of tea to settle my nerves after reading this.

    1. The whole thing took less than a minute, so you probably spent more time reading about it than I spent living it. But I really did panic during that time.

      1. Perhaps it would be a good idea to put a sign on the second door, saying “This Way Out”? Just in case you have a visitor, you know, getting locked in by your cats, or something, because s/he didn’t give them tuna or chicken or herings, or whatever they like best.

        Actually, I’m wondering whether your cats might have had a paw in that open-drawer incident…. You know how Cats don’t like Long Absences….

        1. I’m not worried about visitors being locked in — unlike me, most of my friends are intelligent enough to actually look around before they decide they’re hopelessly trapped.

  2. Ha! Funny story, and a remarkably true observation. Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it does tend to change us from seeing the thing, to seeing our own personal meaning of the thing.

    For many decades I wavered between having a beard and being clean shaven, and every time I’d shave a beard of some two or three years standing, it would take my wife anywhere from several hours to a couple of days to notice. The same thing can happen with our own names. My real name is “Christopher.” but I’d known of the actor Christopher Walken for about three years before it dawned on me that we had the same first name. And a fellow I used to work with was named Rob Kennedy. One day in my office I said to him, “Hey, I just realised your name is Robert Kennedy!” He looked at me like I was crazy for a moment, and then said, “Holy crap! You’re right. I never made the connection before.”

    Great post, and I’m happy you escaped starvation, sick cats, and an unpleasant trip to the hospital.

    But … whatever did happen to Henry?

    1. I have the same problem as your wife. Once I thought one of the guys I worked with grew a moustache overnight, but of course that was impossible. It took me several minutes to figure out that the change wasn’t growing the moustache; it was shaving off the rest of his beard.

      I still don’t know for sure what happened to Henry. It’s been at least 5 years.

  3. Ha!
    They just don’t make toothbrushes like they used to. Even McGyver would have been in trouble (baring the whole second door surprise ending)! I’ve tried using a crowbar as a toothbrush (just in case), but believe it or not, that’s not terribly effective, either.

  4. That’s hilarious. That’s even better than when I spent a full minute trying to lock my house with the key fob to my car. Or when it was raining and my key fob shorted out – I was soaked before I realized my KEY still opens the door.

  5. I’m so pleased that you remembered you had that second door, Laura, otherwise you may still be there now. If I was locked in my bathroom, I would really be stuck. No window to climb out of. One door. And the switch to the air vent is outside the bathroom.
    Great tale, by the way!

  6. So, I was reading this, thinking to myself, “My, she’s got herself into quite a pickle! How will she get out of this situation?” because, unless you took your laptop into the bathroom, you’re obviously alive and out of danger to blog about it. I was on the edge of my seat, I tell you!

    Imagine my giggles when you mentioned the 2nd door. That is so classic. Perfection! Glad you “escaped” and your kitties will be fed!

    1. I’m really glad I didn’t have a laptop or phone with me at the time — if I did, I would have called for help immediately and then had to suffer the embarrassment of either being rescued or having to call back and say “never mind”.

  7. Laura, you crack me up. totally. I got locked in a deceased patient’s empty room (9th floor) at work two weeks ago, rang all three emergency buzzers but no staff responded. There was a disconnected phone in the room so I was able to ring the police to come get me out. When I asked the staff on duty why no one had responded, they said they thought it was the ghost of the deceased patient!!!!

    Never, ever book yourself in to the gimcrack

    1. Wow, the Gimcrack staff are really irresponsible. What if the ghost had had a legitimate emergency?

      I’m glad you made it out alive. I realize now that my situation could have been a lot worse — but fortunately, I never store dead bodies in my bathroom.

  8. This is why you should always have rockets on you! Either to signal people, or to blow up things like errant doors. Luckily you had a second door option, but still you should always be prepared.

    1. When I visualize this, the car is blocking the door, and it becomes just one more obstacle I have to climb over in my quest for freedom. I’d be a terrible game show contestant.

  9. So glad you got out and loved your train of thought in the process lol

    When you were talking about jumping out the window I was wondering if you were going to be clothed or not I was truly worried for you at that point.

    Always very handy to have a 2nd door :)

    1. That was definitely a concern — I didn’t have any clothes in the bathroom. I was wrapped in a towel, but it’s highly unlikely it would have stayed perfectly in place while I was climbing out the window. Plus, I’m not really on knock-on-your-door-wearing-only-a-towel terms with any of my neighbors.

  10. I bet the neighbours would have decided to be on better terms with you after that ” come as you are anytime” terms lol :P

    I always take my phone to loo… It’s the only time I get to text. :)

  11. Interesting but for the sake of closure I would like to know:

    1. what would you have ended up doing if option 5 had not been there?

    2. what condition do cats get if they don’t eat for 3 days?

    3. how does one break a toe answering a phone?

  12. 1. If #5 hadn’t been available, I would have reverted to #4. And if that hadn’t worked, I would have gone with #3. So, basically, #5 was Plan A, #4 was Plan B, and so on.

    2. Hepatic lipidosis.

    3. It’s easy! Just run to answer the phone, stub your toe on the leg of the coffee table (so that the table leg winds up between your little toe and the toe next to it), and, instead of stopping to pull your foot back, just continue going in the same direction so that your toe winds up at a 90 degree angle to the rest of your foot.

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