The Great Ikea Pee Contest

Photos by James BunoanI regret never writing the greatest story never told in OC: how Ikea made people hold their urine for six excruciating hours to win a few hundred dollars in gift certificates. And, oh, it was pretty good: it started out cute and funny, with a nice mishmash of lovable stock characters—a perky college girl who'd “never won anything in [her] life,” a hopeful young couple holding hands on the bed they hoped to win, the snotty boho high-school art girl, the dazed bro, and the fortysomething mother who'd brought two girlfriends for backup, and the best: the event emcee, a slim cockatiel-haired PR lady who didn't even stop smiling when I asked her about the upper capacity of the human bladder before it burst (“Oh, you know? I don't know!”).

The rules were simple: a bottle of water every half-hour; last one to break gets the prize. But the execution was inspired because (probably to underscore the arctic brutality behind the Ikea philosophy) every half-hour, after drinking their water, all the contestants had to play a sitting-in-Ikea-trying-not-to-pee-themed game. These started gently; early on, the contestants were instructed to “draw what you'd like to buy if you win!” Then people started massaging their bellies and looking at the lights for a long time and the contests became things like “Get up and do jumping jacks for 30 seconds!” Honestly, you could feel the ambient humidity spike up on that one. So, already pretty good, right? Well, I'm no believer in the grace and dignity of humanity, but about 40 or 50 ounces in, an angel flapped its wings, and the Ikea pee contest became the Great Ikea Pee Contest.

What a testament to the human spirit: after the first few dropped out (the bro who'd unknowingly had coffee (a diuretic!) that very morning, the art girl when she got bored, the young couple when they realized the suffering wasn't worth a crummy bed)—after all that, it came down to two vicious women. One was a darling CSULB undergrad (who—now it can be told—had hedged her bets with a hidden diaper) and one was the mom, directly across the aisle from her, their eyes locked as they downed their next bottles. Not peeing for hours when you're already full hurts—did Ikea forget that? Because by noon it wasn't cute anymore: our CSULB girl was weeping, crumpling her blankets, panting, pawing the red out of her eyes when our photographer made her pose for the cover shot that would run with my story, the story I never wrote, and our mom just staring, resolute with the perspective that comes from several childbirths.

And did I mention this was on the display floor? A lot of yuppies looking for end tables took a wrong turn and found their own most animal nature bawling as it bounced on a $600 bed during a set of forced calisthenics.

But neither would crack—the gift certificates had evaporated, and this was about nothing more than victory. Ridiculous victory—Champion Didn't-Pee-er!—but God, they wanted it. They were turning red, they cared so much. Hunter-instinct parts of their brains were waking up, maybe for the first time, and even though the CSULB girl looked about to crack—even though she dialed her cell phone to call her mom, sobbing not to worry about her—she still popped open her next water bottle, took it down fast, and pinched her fingers into her palms as she watched the clock.

I honestly think they would have died there, just to prove a point. Just to win, or die trying. Of not peeing, like Tycho Brahe, in an Ikea bed. It was one of the most insane and beautiful things I ever saw, a very American miscalculation of human nature that turned a department store floor into some sort of Stone Age warrior-mother fight to the death; it was the greatest and realest thing I ever saw happen in Orange County.

And how did it end? The worried Ikea lady came over and said they had considered the competitors and declared a tie (and they could split the prize money, which would amount to, like, a chair and a CD rack), and the women shrieked—some kind of ur-reflex civilized out of most of us by preschool—and bolted for the bathroom, a waddle-half-gallop that hurt just to look at, and after a tense 10 minutes, came floating beaming back to accept their prizes. They were smiling like saints on stained glass, and they hugged each other before they left. I went out to the parking lot and sat in my car with no working headlights and thought, “Why am I alive?”

* * *

And I never wrote it. How could I? I came to realize this was the story I was born to witness and recount, that knocking it out in three hours (as I do everything else; now it can be told) would not do it justice; that I was not yet ready to write it; that I would have to grow toward the Great Ikea Pee Story. It was intimidating. And annoying, because everyone at the Weekly asked me about it, over and over, possibly because so many of our stories are so lame, and this one was obviously the closest thing to Day of the LocustOrange County would ever get. “Ikea pee story,” they'd say in jailhouse mutters—during uncomfortable silences in pitch meetings, at the point in the intern orientation when they tell you what not to do.

But I still never wrote it—in fact, I think it will be the last thing I ever write, when I do write it, and then I'll feel the same relief those women did, kicking open the restroom door and knowing they won. Tension and release: that's all life ever is.

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