Calling Mister Yuk

The tricky thing about it was, I felt completely fine — until I left the bathroom. I had been scrubbing the shower for maybe half an hour, going into the grout with Soft Scrub and then bleach, letting it sit while I wiped down the sink and toilet, then scrubbing again. The cats had tried to jump into the tub, so I’d closed the door to lock them out. Everything was becoming sparkling and white. The air smelled like lemon zest and chlorine. I had bright rubber gloves on my hands, the sunlight streamed in, I was unstoppable. “Never use straight bleach,” the bottle read. “Always dilute.” Pssht, I thought, you don’t know my problems, and poured the bottle over the rim of the tub. That’s what I’m talkin’ about.

I don’t remember what I needed outside of the bathroom. Paper towels, Windex? I forgot as soon as I opened the door; it was like being hit by a truck.

There was something about the air.

It smelled like burning . . . something. Wood? It felt thick and prickly, it stabbed into my lungs and eyes and sinuses. “What is happening?” I wondered, stumbling around my apartment. My limbs felt disconnected, rubbery. I flung open a window and inhaled deeply — oh no, it was much worse outside! Something must be on fire, something toxic, I just needed to know where it was coming from so I could go the other way.

But outside, birds were chirping. A couple strolled casually beneath my window, holding hands.

Maybe it was my living room. I ran into the bedroom, same thing. Kitchen, burning, burning, hallway, study — I flung open the door to the bathroom and stepped inside.

Lemon zest and chlorine. Sweet relief. I took a deep breath. Is something . . . wrong with me? It’s . . . crazy out there. Maybe I’m about to get a bloody nose. Why can’t . . . why can’t I think? Is something wrong . . . with me?

Inside the tub, a white-foamed blue pool slowly eked down the drain.

* * *

Interestingly, inhaling Soft Scrub and bleach cocktail for half an hour will produce physical effects stunningly similar to a panic attack: dizziness, increased heart rate, nausea, a sensation of floating over your body and having no control over it. So I reacted as have taught myself to react to these sensations over the past eight years. I sat down. I labeled the ridiculous aspects of the situation and laughed at myself. I repeated: settle down. This is all in your head. Settle down. Everything is fine.

Another direct result of anxiety-training is that my first, always priority in a situation of duress (and whether it’s in my best interest or not) is to try and react as if nothing is happening. I read the backs of the bottles in their entirety, and realized that I could probably call poison control. The situation might warrant that. But this did not seem chill at all. So I sat down in front of an open window while the horrific fresh air poured in, and called my dad.

“Ah, yes, does Soft Scrub have ammonia in it? That and bleach will make a poisonous gas,” my dad said casually, to my immense relief. (Poison! But hey, no biggie!) “Yeah, I did that once, before I knew you weren’t supposed to combine them: nearly passed out in the bathroom before I figured out something was wrong. Do you have all the windows open? You’ll want to do that, maybe get some fans going, and then, leave your apartment for a while. Just let it air out.”

It was just under freezing outside. I opened all of our windows — the working ones, the broken ones, the ones that just plummet open the minute you unfasten the latch. I locked the kitties in the bedroom where the windows weren’t broken, I pulled on a sweatshirt and wool socks and my ugly hat and I threw myself out the door, into a world that burned to breathe, a dream-world of slow motion and empty, meaningless thoughts. Every step was a startling landing onto pavement, the sky was a hurtful blue.

I just had to make it to tonight, and then I could sleep this off, awaken myself again. I would stand at the bus stop, my breath making icy clouds: I would sip a hot coffee, press my head against the window. I would lean over the worktable and sew silk petal pink and magenta threads into the spine of my first round-spine book, I would count the centimeters, cut the linen tapes. Everything would be back to normal with newness and possibility. It was just a matter of time now.

You may also like


  1. Oh, so now would probably be a good time to mention — there isn’t actually any ammonia in Soft Scrub, so it probably wasn’t as deadly as all that. Just really, incredibly unpleasant.

  2. Though you probably searched for and got info on mixing ammonia and bleach already, here’s a BBC link that makes it sound like one could get a job creating WMDs for Saddam using a little Windex and a bottle of household ammonia.

    Glad you got out of there with most of your brain cells intact. Those who say cleanliness is next to godliness are more accurate than they know. Don’t go to the light.

  3. My friend got chlorine gas poisoning once doing electrical work in the pump room at a water park, and he wound up in the hospital. So congrats on dodging that bullet!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *