We were on our way to a family party. We had been driving all morning. The girls were about 4 and 6 and it was just the three of us. Somewhere along Interstate 77 in rural West Virginia, the alarm call came from the back seat of the minivan.
"Mama! I have to go potty!" the four year old announced.
"Bad like you can wait a little while or bad like you need to go right now?" I asked, checking her face in the rear view mirror.
"Bad like really soon."
I scanned the road ahead. We had just passed Parkersburg, and it would be a while until we reached the next populated area with fast-food restaurants and more-likely-than-not clean restrooms.
"Okay, honey. I'll find a place to stop."
A few minutes passed.
"Mama, I really need to go."
I spotted an exit sign that boasted a lone gas station logo. Off the ramp, it was several miles of winding road before we came to it. I pulled in and unbuckled.
"Okay, girls. This one might be a little dirty, so hold my hands."
As we entered, I caught the eye of the girl behind the counter. I didn't even have to ask; she pointed to the far corner. One lavatory, unisex. Ugh.
I opened the door to a spacious, if grubby, restroom, with a formerly white tile floor and a big condom dispenser on the wall, alongside a tampon machine.
"Do not touch ANYTHING," I told my girls. "If you need something, I'll take care of it."
As I was settling my younger daughter onto the toilet, lined with paper to protect her little tuchus, the other began to make use of her budding reading skills.
"Fem, fem-i-nine, fem-eye-nine sup, sup-please? Is that what it says?"
"Feminine supplies. That's what it says."
"What is that?"
"The machine has supplies in it that keep underwear clean."
"Why would you need supplies to keep your underwear clean?"
"It's for teenagers and grown up ladies, not for little girls."
"Are teenagers and grown up ladies dirty?"
"No, honey, not at all. Bodies can get a little messy sometimes when they get older. How about we talk about it when we get home? I can explain it better then."
"Okay, Mama. What's this one? Rib-bed for please-yoor? What does that mean?"
Pretending not to hear her, I ask my little one if she's done.
"Almost, Mama. I really had to go."
"Hurry up, please," I request, as daughter number one continues sounding out words.
"What is this Mama? Rib-bed for please-yoor? Lay-text? What IS this?"
"They are supplies to keep people from getting pregnant, from having babies."
"Why are they in the BATHROOM?"
"That's a very good question, honey. I'll have to think about that."
"Can we buy one? I want to see it."
"Sorry, sweetie, I don't have any change."
"Yes you do. I saw it in your purse."
"We don't need those today, so the answer is no. Do you need to use the toilet while we are here?"
A relieved sigh escaped my lungs.
"Let's get going, then!"
Hands washed, I opened the door, propping it with my foot as the girls stepped out ahead of me.
Another patron stood just outside waiting to enter.
"I'm sorry if we kept you waiting," I said. "Sometimes we take a while."
"No problem at all," she said with a smile, in a surprisingly deep voice. I returned her smile just as a little voice popped up.
"Mama? That lady talks like a man."
"Yep. She does."
"She was nice, though."
"Yep. She was."
"I liked her dress."
"Me, too, Mama. It had polka dots."
For a mother with small children, there are far scarier things in restrooms than a male in a dress.