Love lessons from a latrine
How falling into an outhouse pit in Brazil changed my view of marriage.
HANGING BY MY HAND S in the pit of an outhouse in rural Brazil, I ponder my impending marriage. I’m furious. Now 38 years old, I spent what felt like forever searching for a trustworthy partner. I found him, followed him here, fell into an outhouse, and where is he? Directing a clinic in another village. The nerve! He’s always helping somebody else! For a moment, I wish I’d never met him.
I traveled to this village on the Amazon because Peter, my fiance of two months, asked me to join him. He’s a doctor on an annual brigade, and I’ve come with him for the first time. Not being a medical professional, I’m trying to train as a pharmacy tech, which means dispensing medications to the villagers. I said “trying.” So far, I can’t find half of the medications in the supply bins, and I can’t pronounce the other half.
I fell into the outhouse while taking a break from working in the clinic, which we set up this morning in a church in the jungle. I entered the shack, undid my pants, and squatted on the crossed slats over the pit. They broke. When I grabbed at some loose boards on the sides of the shack, they tumbled down across the pit. I hung onto them. So now I’m dangling here, wondering how to escape. I yell, but I don’t know the Portuguese for “Help! I’m trapped in an outhouse!”
If I were single, I imagine, I’d be in my apartment right now, resting from a morning of kayaking before going out with friends for dinner. I wouldn’t have endured five rounds of immunization shots to sweat like a horse among deadly mosquitoes. I want to be single again almost as much as I want out of this latrine.
Knowing I won’t be rescued, I attempt an escape. Pants around my ankles, I swing my legs until I get a purchase on the side of the pit. I hoist myself up so my head pokes above the boards. I free one elbow, then the other, and finally flop out like a fish. I can’t believe I’ve made it. Except for the soles of my shoes, I’m surprisingly clean. I stand, pulling up my pants. Then I return to the clinic, surreptitiously wipe down with alcohol, and work all afternoon. I’m too embarrassed to tell anyone what happened.
At the end of the day, my colleagues and I pack everything back onto our boat and pick up our people at the other village. There’s the usual bustle of showers and dinner and watching the Amazon sunset. Only after dark can Peter and I finally talk alone. Before I say a word, he tells me his clinic evaluated a 6-year-old boy who will soon die of heart failure. He must have been waiting all day to tell me. “We couldn’t help him,” he says.
I take his hand.
“How was your day?” he asks.
I tell him. In the telling, it strikes me as funny.
“And you went back to work afterward!” he says, suppressing a laugh. “I knew you were tough, but — ”
Then we both laugh. When we’re done, we wipe our eyes and calculate that, even though neither of us felt helpful today, our clinics probably saw 200 patients each.
I feel better: not furious, not embarrassed. And that’s when I realize that our marriage will not be about rescuing each other. It will be about sharing our strength with each other. If we can do that, we’ll have more strength for helping others.
We sit together slapping mosquitoes, a little mournful, a little amused.
Tomorrow will be better: We’re assigned to work the same clinic.
I’ve already packed a change of clothes.
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