One morning, E. and I decided that we were going to skip class. For the most part we didn't do things like that. E. was pretty serious about her marks, which was a change from her usual apathetic response to everything. We spent most of the morning at my house (my parents were away on their second honeymoon at the time, so I guess this was in '97), watching really stupid infomercials and re-runs of game shows, and talking about all sorts of things. I didn't really hang out with E. much, she was more of D.'s friend, I guess. But I wanted to ask her about her parents. In the end I didn't. I felt a little embarrassed.
It was already noon or so when we decided to leave the house and find somewhere to get lunch, first E. changed out of her uniform at my place, I gave her some clothes, they weren't exactly her style, as you can imagine, but she was okay with them. We drove down to the little Chinese place at [____] St., the one behind the Miranda there. [Note: Miranda is a widespread supermarket chain here.] The food sucked, by the way, and after that E. had to go to the bathroom so we went into the Miranda and I waited outside, looking at some magazines.
So I was waiting for her outside of the ladies' room (I'm not the kind of girl who does the "oh let's all go to the bathroom together" thing) and suddenly I heard this sound like she was trying to pry something off the wall. I started to wonder what the hell she was doing in there but kept quiet, you know, because E. was a pretty private person. And suddenly she comes out of there, she's practically hyperventilating and can hardly manage to form words. She says something like, oh my God, you won't believe what I found in there, come in, come in right now, take a look for yourself, and from the look on her face it was like she had found fucking Santa Claus in the ladies' room, so I obliged.
First thing I noticed was this plastic thing lying on the floor. It was this big roll of toilet paper, you know, they put them in these plastic casings and you push a lever and pull out some of the paper to dry your hands with, you know what I'm talking about, right? It was hanging on the back wall of the bathroom. Anyway, where it used to be hanging there was a hole. Apparently E. had heard some sort of scratching or shuffling behind it, and, in a moment of poor judgment decided, to pry it off the wall. Behind it was a hole in the wall through which you could see the insulation and other crap, I figured that they had made it accidentally or found it there and decided to cover it up as conveniently as possible. There was something else in there, of course. It was a cassette tape labeled "EXCHANGE".
Back then everyone here was still using and buying cassettes for everything, which was very convenient for us because, as we would find out later, they were one of our safe mediums. Not anymore, of course. Now we're reduced to vinyl and handwriting. Pretty pathetic.
Anyway it was your pretty standard cassette which you can buy in bulk, it had a label on it saying "EXCHANGE", written crudely in marker. E. was like, what is that? Who do you think left it there? I didn't really know what to tell her. Needless to say it was pretty weird. I think that at some point some other girl came into the bathroom, saw us peering at the hole in the wall, turned on her heel and walked right back out. We're pretty lucky none of the staff caught us tearing their bathroom down.
We couldn't play the tape there, as we had no way of doing so. I was ambivalent about taking it, this wasn't my first experience with "Weird Shit", and, although this wasn't particularly weird, I had a very potent feeling that it could become so. But E. was determined to take it and find out what was in it, for some reason. The cassette was unmarked other than the label. So we took it, tried to get the paper roll back on the wall, sort-of succeeded (it was hanging, lopsided), and drove back to my house.
Back at my place, which was empty those days, I didn't have a radio or anything with a cassette player for some reason. I dug out my Walkman but I didn't have batteries and I doubt it would have worked either way. So we ended up having to climb into my Dad's car to use the built-in cassette player. It was a pretty funny scene, the two of us sitting there in anxious expectation.
So we sat there and listened to most of it. It was really bad quality, you might not remember that tape hiss was already pretty annoying but on top of that it sounded like it had been recorded from a distance or something, like it was a recording of a recording of a recording. Anyway, there isn't anything particularly weird about that tape. It's just a mixtape of sixties psychedelia. There some stuff from Kaleidoscope on there, mainly Tangerine Dream, and there's some Beatles, obviously, and there's other stuff, but E. and I weren't really into that genre so we didn't listen to it all the way. Later on, on my own, I would listen through the whole thing out of curiosity, but as I said, beyond the quality of the recording, there's nothing special about it.
But this is when we realized that, since the tape was labeled "EXCHANGE", maybe we were supposed to leave something in return. You know, leave something in the hole in the bathroom, for whoever it was that left this there. The idea struck us as silly. But by that time school wasn't over yet, and we didn't have anything better to do, so, armed with one of my many mixtapes, which are sort of a hobby of mine, we drove back to Miranda.
We talked to each other on the way back there and speculated on what kind of person might be leaving these tapes, and whether she (we assumed it was a she, since it was the ladies' room after all) really expected someone to find them in that hiding spot. We wondered if it was some college student's social experiment; actually, that's what I thought for the most part. E. had her own theory. She thought it was some desperate woman, living a lonely life imposed upon her by her family, who had no form of expressing herself, and, in this desperation, reached out to strangers by leaving cassettes tapes hidden in public places throughout the city, checking back every week, hoping that some equally lonely soul had found one of them and given something back in return. I'm pretty sure she was projecting.
We got back to the supermarket and, happily, none of the people working there seemed to recognize us, Miranda is usually pretty busy at that time of day. We both walked into the ladies' room again. Luckily, the canister or toilet paper holder or whatever you wanna call it was still hanging on, albeit only slightly. We picked it up with care and put my mixtape, which, now that I think about it, was mostly grunge (God, that's embarrassing), in the hole. We figured that maybe we should leave a message. So we ripped off a piece of toilet paper and scribbled onto it, "THANK YOU", quite crudely, and we left it in there along with the tape. We put the canister back in its place—we had sort of gotten the hang of getting it to stay there—and left, mostly laughing about the whole thing. Later that day we met up with the rest, but didn't tell them anything, figuring it would be more fun for now if it was our secret.
The next day E. and I debated over whether we should go back to Miranda and check if there was a new tape. I mostly wanted to forget about the whole thing, because frankly I didn't think anyone was actually checking that hole to see if someone had responded. I figured it was a fluke, or something that had been left there years ago, and whoever had done it had forgotten it about it. E. didn't buy it, though. She was certain that whoever had left that tape was actively checking back. I managed to convince her that we should go back next weekend, because even if her theory was true, I doubted that our hypothetical swap partner was checking the Miranda bathrooms every day. Then again what do I know. Maybe he was some pervert looking to get in touch with schoolgirls via public bathrooms.
The rest of the week went by rather slowly, A. was fully into whatever he was doing back then, I think it was Muay Thai or Valetudo or whatever it's called, it was some kind of martial arts thing, so we didn't see much of him. B. and F. were off doing their own thing, and anyway we didn't want to tell anyone about it. So we just hung out at home (I think we ended up skipping three out of those five days of school, it was terrible), watching movies and talking.
I actually ended up learning a lot of stuff about E. back then (much to F.'s pleasure, who was totally crazy for her at the time), but she kept her mouth shut about her parents for the most part. On Friday we drove back to Miranda upon E.'s bequest and went in there again. Sure enough, our mysterious correspondent had been very busy.
The mixtape we left had been taken alright. In its stead a new cassette had been left, the exact same model as the previous one. This one had a label that was really long and badly-written, and inside that dingy bathroom we couldn't read it for shit, so we went back to the car. This time around we had taken my Dad's car in anticipation, since that way we could play it immediately on the way back home. We got in the car and rolled down the windows, E. took the opportunity to light a cigarette. She put the tape in and read the label out loud, not without some effort:
"Soundtrack to a Manic Night of Preparation Before an Important Challenge"
She looked at me, shrugged, and I pushed play. This time the tape was a combination of New Wave stuff, I especially remember "Bizarre Love Triangle" because, although I probably wouldn't admit it to anyone, I love that song, and then there was also really quiet folk. It went something like this: Bombastic New Wave --> Folk --> Silence --> Folk --> New Wave again, and so on. All in all it lasted about 25 minutes per side. We finished listening to it at my place and were mostly unimpressed.
As with the previous tape, this one had a terrible recording quality. Again, it was like a recording of a recording of a recording. We could recognize most of the songs, and for the ones we couldn't, we usually knew the artist. Later I asked B. about some of them, without directly telling him about the whole cassette exchange thing, and he confirmed most, I think. The most interesting parts were the silent ones.
In between folk songs there were these tracks which were mostly silence and tape hiss, but you could hear some shuffling and moving things around as well, and in one of them you can hear a voice. It's really faint, but I'm pretty sure it's female. And there are these hints of musicality to them, like very softly you'll hear a sax in the distance play for just like ten seconds and then it's gone. I'm not sure if those were live recordings or more recordings-of-recordings. And then in another "silent track", if you listen really closely, you can hear someone talking steadily in the background, I'd say it's an older man, he sounds like he's answering questions, but the quality is too bad for me to make out a word.
E. was really excited about the whole thing regardless; just the fact that the person had actually responded was great to her. Admittedly I was surprised by that as well. E. said that the exchange was still going, and we should leave something else for the person the next time we went there. We decided that "next time" would be tomorrow.
This time we put a lot of thought into what kind of tape we were going to leave in return. We speculated about whether leaving different kinds of music resulted in getting different things in exchange. Whoever was doing this was putting so much effort into it, we figured, that surely she(?) must be listening to our stuff as well. I found a bootleg of a band I used to like, they never got big, so it's not like the tape was worth anything, and its sentimental value to me was gone after a certain incident. So I decided we would do that. We weren't very creative, and we didn't consider the tape to be a "Soundtrack" to anything, so we just wrote "Here's another one" on the label. Nice, I know.
We drove back there, it was a Saturday morning and again we went in Dad's car, though I'm not sure why. We went into the bathroom, took the canister out, and in the middle of doing this, some girl walked out of one of the bathroom stalls. We were incredibly embarrassed. She gave us a weird look, washed her hands and walked out. She looked a bit older than us, probably a college student, wearing jeans and a black shirt. She gave us kind of a dirty look, really. But as soon as she left we got right back to business. We left the tape, drove back, and talked some more.
I guess I should leave for the record—although I don't really want to—that by this point E. sort of opened up to me and told me some stuff about her parents. Apparently her Dad owed a lot (a lot) of money to some group. According to her, her Dad had done nothing illegal, he had simply parted with what rightfully belonged to him, but the other members were angry and his entire family had been sucked into a slow-moving legal mess that had been going on for years. E. was really shocked about what had happened to X before, though, because she never thought things would come down to violence. F.'s theory at the time was that E.'s dad was with the mob, which I don't think is true. Whatever it was, her dad was in deep shit, and I guess that's at least part of why she left so suddenly only a couple years later.
E. and I went back like three days later and we found another tape. This one was labeled "Soundtrack to a Night of Peaceful Dreams". It had a lot of Sinatra in it, which I thought was nice, but not really a guy you fall asleep to. The recording quality was the same, though, which gave the songs a distant quality, kind of nostalgic, and that felt different. Again there were also "silent tracks", and again you heard moving and shuffling, and in one you could hear a dog barking. By now we were getting a little bored of the whole thing an decided we'd leave one more tape.
We kind of wondered what would happen if we left something of our own creation for our correspondent to enjoy. Not that E. or I knew how to play instruments. We just imagined we would leave a small greeting or something. But we had nothing to record stuff with, it was still all at F.'s place at the time, he had needed it once he started hearing that shit in D.'s garden, but that's another thing, anyway. So I looked and finally came across an old tape which is a combination of songs my Dad liked in the eighties and recorded on tape, and, on side two, me, as a young kid, reading out some story. I guess he thought it would be cute and then forgot all about it and taped over it or something. We decided we would leave this, with the label "Something different", and we drove there.
It was nighttime on this occasion, in fact Miranda was almost closing down for the day, and we sneaked into the bathroom. The lights were off, E. tried them several times but apparently they weren't working, so we had to grope around in the dark to find the canister. E. removed it carefully and I felt my way around, left the tape, and we got out of there quickly.
Now that I think about it, I think I saw that girl, the one who caught us in the act last time, the one with glasses, browsing one of the aisles close to the bathroom as we walked out. I looked at her but I don't think she saw us, or pretended not to. We just left. The next morning we would return to find the final message from our mysterious correspondent.
The last time we visited Miranda for our cassette exchange was on a school day, which we also decided to skip. This had become an alarming habit of ours at the time and our friends had started to wonder about what we were doing. I guess we got a little obsessed with the whole thing, even though we didn't realize it.
We walked in, Miranda had only been open for an hour or so, the cashiers looked at us expectantly. We just went right past them and into the ladies' room, which must have looked weird. We opened the door and went right for the canister, but not before checking the stalls to make sure there was no one else in there, just in case.
E. wanted to do the honors for this one—we had already decided that we wouldn't continue with the exchange anymore—, and so she grabbed the canister by both sides and lifted it up, and out came this wave of insects.
The hole in the wall was just crawling with spiders and bugs and a few cockroaches. A bunch of them fell onto the floor, along with a cassette, and there were dozens more of them squirming around inside. E. and I both had to grab on to each other to avoid screaming. We took three giant steps back, E. still holding on to the canister. I whisper-yelled at her that we should just get the fuck out. She stared at the cassette, and, after arming herself with courage for a few seconds, grabbed it and we ran out, not even bothering to put the canister back in its place.
On our way out the other people looked at us weird, probably because they had heard sounds coming from the bathroom, we didn't even bother to act like we cared and speed-walked straight out of that place, into my dad's car, and back home. E. was grabbing the cassette by its edges, covering her hands with her sweater sleeves. I started to wondering how the hell had that hole filled up with vermin practically overnight, although now that I think about it there are several possible explanations for that. She struggled to read the label on the tape. Frankly it is practically illegible, so to this day, we're not sure of what it says, but our best guess is:
"Soundtrack for a Cancer Cell as it is Born in the Center of Your Brain"
For a few moments we were silent. Then I joked that she must not have liked our last tape. E. asked if she should play it. I said no, it had been covered in bugs, after all, although in reality I didn't want to hear it anyway, the label had given me a bit of a chill.
That was the end of the Miranda cassette exchange. We never went back in that bathroom to check if someone was still leaving new tapes in the hole. According to A.'s brother, who stopped by that supermarket for entirely unrelated reasons some days later, both bathrooms had been closed for sanitary reasons, and apparently the whole place was due for fumigation soon. So I'm not sure of what became of that.
If you're wondering about the three tapes we got out of the exchange, well, sometimes I play the first one, the one about preparing for a challenge. I kind of figured I would play it while studying for exams, I tried it out during midterms a couple years later. It's kinda nice! Or at least I think so. Helps you get in the zone. I ended up giving the second tape to a friend who had trouble sleeping, without telling her about its origins. She said it helped a lot, weird as it was.
I personally never listened to the third and final tape. E. took it home on that day. Many weeks later, after we had put the whole thing behind us, I happened to ask her if she ever worked up the courage to listen to it. She said yes. She said it was just "thirty minutes of noise", and that it "kind of sounded like being inside a sewer".
She took the tape with her when she left.
There is certainly a Miranda supermarket located where this incident took place. I don't know if it was ever scheduled for fumigation, and I've never heard any rumors or stories about the bathrooms, other than that they are used for casual sexual encounters. That kind of goes for every public bathroom in certain districts of the city, though.