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.
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.
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.