The real battle was not in the arena
It was Pamplona, July 14, 2022. The Running of the Bulls. My first bullfight.
The stadium was alive with a crowd anxious for action. A sea of white and red shimmered above the sand pit below where an elegant dance of cruelty awaited. My friends were excited. Chatty. None of us had ever been to a bullfight, but we were all there as attendees of one epic bachelor party.
My mind was elsewhere.
I’d goaded my own intestinal bull for weeks leading up to this party. Two weeks in France, wining and dining like a 17th-century noble striving for gout. Days of champagne, foie gras, escargot; nights of red wine, steak, and creme brulee. I’d lived beyond my means and loved it.
By the time I was in Pamplona, the bull was hot and I was tired. I felt like a walking gasbag. A chemical waste depot. A strange puckered hairy thing Ren might pick out of his nose on Ren and Stimpy. The matador was not supposed to lose, but I was in its sights now. The horns were down.
I was sweating, and it wasn’t because of the heat. My mind couldn’t focus. The first bullfight began, and all I could think was to stay calm, lightly clench, and hold steady.
My thoughts remained positive. “Don’t worry,” my inner voice kept repeating. “This gurgling belly shall soon pass.”
My friend asked if I’d read Hemingway. I did not answer and he kept talking. He might as well have been speaking Spanish.
It suddenly dawned upon me, without a doubt in my now spinning mind, that I was going to spray vomit all over my unsuspecting northern Spanish neighbors or release my bowels in my seat.
I stood up. “I must go,” I said. My friend looked at me like I’d just lifted a “The End is Nigh” sign. In a way I had. I walked away, the sweat now pouring down my face.
There was no bathroom on the second floor, so I hustled to the first. I prayed it’d be empty. Clean. My mind turned to the filthy public restrooms in America and my hackles raised, but there was no time. Surely, I thought, Spain would be more civilized.
The bathroom was mercifully near. Was it full? Didn’t matter. I stormed inside under the cool gaze of a nearby security guard, standing watch over a side entrance to the stadium. An innocent bystander soon to bear witness to the horrors of one American’s upset tummy.
The bathroom seemed empty. I kicked open the nearest stall. My first impression was of the old toilet seat. Then I noticed the dirty walls and dirty floor. In reality, we deserved each other. The spew came right away. Whoosh. But not a clean whooshing spew, rather something more violent and primal. I unloaded like a flamethrower.
My somewhat relieved mind convinced my brain that I thought I could find a better stall. So I left…
…kicked in the next one, puked all over that. Still not good enough…
…and on down the line, kicking, standing, puking. The arena was cheering for the matador or maybe the bull. I was just hoping to find some slice of heaven. I would have even settled for purgatory as long as purgatory was without a putrid bathroom.
In my search for a clean stall, I cringed in horror as my conscious mind caught up with my senses. All the stalls were without toilet paper. I thought about asking the security guard, but then I can only imagine what that simple man heard from his post outside.
The eldritch horror of Lovecraftian sounds that echoed from inside that bathroom, punctuated by vicious kicks of stall doors. I was in a different state. Survival mode. Adrenaline rush. One thing at a time.
By the penultimate stall, I surrendered. There would be no more running. No more dodging. My bowels would have their due. I sat on the seat.
When the delirium cleared, I took stock of my situation. I was in Spain, in a bathroom, inside of a bullfighting stadium… without toilet paper.
In that moment, I was truly alone. Sure, there was the security guard outside, but it was more likely he was in a daze, haunted by my guttural shrieks, than in a position to help me.
My mind reverted back to the central worry. How long until the first fight ended and the crowd stampeded in? Also, how in the hell did a stadium not have toilet paper?
I peeked out of my stall. The coast was clear. I made sure to avoid the open entrance to the bathroom, holding my shorts loose around my waist as I scurried around hunting for any paper product. Anything. Spaniards don’t appreciate paper towels either, apparently.
Desperation struck, almost as bad as the aftershocks of my insides. I was running out of time. I had no options. There had to be paper somewhere…
And then I saw it. The blue and white plaque on a wall right across from the entrance. The universal symbol for a handicapped, sure-to-be private, bathroom. The only problem: it was in clear sight of the guard outside.
I approached with caution and poked my head out. The guard was looking away. Perhaps he was crying. I didn’t wait to find out. I walked to the door, praying it would be unlocked, and tried the handle. It gave! I pulled it open…
And saw what could’ve been the bathroom equivalent of a Saw movie. It was pure torture porn. Viscera on the floor, even the walls. Hollywood couldn’t have dressed it up to look worse.
But there, right on the seat, glowing white like a giant pearl lay, an almost used-up roll of toilet paper.
I snatched it in hand, careful to avoid touching anything else, my guilt at stealing paper from the handicapped bathroom vanishing as quickly as it came, like an imaginary particle.
I remember cackling as I left. I was euphoric and empty of excrement. Probably in shock. My friends looked surprised to see me return. “I thought you didn’t like the match,” the bachelor said after I’d sat back down.
“I just had my own bull to fight,” I replied.
I wish I could say my lesson from this was to avoid living like that. In reality, my takeaway is, “Don’t go to a foreign stadium unprepared.”
Especially if that stadium is in Spain.