Love in the Time of Hand Sanitizer
Jeff sat in the overstuffed couch, feeling a little uncomfortable. The couch was so overstuffed in fact that he felt like he was being consumed by it — forced back through its gullet toward its insatiable stomach. He expected to find other people living in the couch’s gut – all with anxiety disorders and all waiting for a rescue that wouldn’t come until the couch was reupholstered a few years down the road. Aside from the ravenous couch, the rest of the psychologist’s office seemed familiar: bookshelves, clocks, pictures, and warm, friendly colors. The usual.
As long as he could remember, Jeff had been afraid of germs. And it was a particularly frustrating phobia because he couldn’t see the enemy, but he knew they were there: breeding, growing, flying through the air, loitering on surfaces, invading his body through every orifice; making him sick, making him tense, whispering their dirty little thoughts in his ears…
“Jeff, your toothbrush is in the bathroom 24 hours a day,” a germ would say. “Seems a little unsanitary to me.”
“Jeff, that chicken’s been in the refrigerator for three days. It looks a little green.”
“Jeff, I saw the chef earlier and it looked liked he had a runny nose.”
By taking as many precautions as he could, Jeff was able to lead a relatively normal life. He washed his hands constantly, kept alcohol-based hand-sanitizer around for emergencies, avoided public restrooms, tried not to touch doorknobs, kept far away from sick people, ran for cover whenever someone sneezed or coughed and cooked his food very carefully, making sure all meat was well-done and all vegetables were triple-washed. Of course, he made certain necessary allowances. For example, he could kiss his wife and make love to her, even though he knew it was a pretty germy process and he could kiss and hug his three-year-old daughter Sarah even though she was in daycare and, therefore, a remorseless germ-spreading machine. But he couldn’t take care of her when she was sick and he was tense and difficult to live with until she was better again. His wife took care of both of them. Jeff was getting by, but it was ruining his marriage and his life.
He had seen many professionals for his condition but never with any success. The diagnoses varied. Some claimed he had obsessive-compulsive disorder and some called it a specific phobia but no one could cure him. He was prescribed Prozac, Celexa, Effexor, and various other anti-anxiety drugs in an attempt to combat his condition, but none of them worked. So his therapists had taken different approach by giving him little tasks to do to redirect his thought processes. The therapists referred to them as “tools” in his mental “toolbox.” They mostly involved relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, exposure techniques, and aversion therapy. The worst one he had encountered involved wrapping a rubber band around his wrist and snapping it every time obsessive thoughts entered his mind. Not only did it not help, but he also felt stupid walking around with a rubber band on his wrist. He was running out of patience and hope. But he was giving it one more shot and he hoped that Dr. Wilson would be the one who could lead him to a breakthrough.
“Jeff, germ phobias are not uncommon. As much as fifteen percent of the population has them. I, myself, have treated many people with this problem,” said Dr. Wilson.
“You know, it seems very natural to me. I can’t understand why everyone isn’t like this,” said Jeff. “I mean, I was at the office the other day and I went in to use the bathroom – which is not something I like to do by the way. As I was washing my hands, I watched another guy come in. He walked over to the urinal, unzipped his pants, took it out, peed, zipped up, flushed the toilet and then opened the door and left the bathroom. He didn’t even look at the sink. So, he’s picked up germs from the handle on the bathroom door, his junk, the handle on the toilet and the door handle when leaving the bathroom. And I know he walked right down to his cubicle and ate a nice big bag of potato chips – licking the salty goodness off of his fingers when he was done. How can anyone do that?”
“That’s an extreme case, but most people don’t give germs much thought,” said Dr. Wilson.
“I want to be like that! Well, not exactly like that. I want to wash my hands after I use the bathroom.”
“I hope I can help you get to that point.”
“I hope so too.”
“Excellent. Now, what we need to do is give you some ‘tools” to put in your mental ‘toolbox’ to help arm you against unwanted fears.”
Jeff sank lower into the couch. He could feel its tonsils rubbing against his backside.
“One way to do this is through aversion therapy,” said Dr. Wilson as Jeff stared up at the ceiling, which seemed to be getting farther away as he continued to sink. “Here, take this rubber band and put it around your wrist and I’ll show you a nifty technique for ridding yourself of these unwanted thoughts.” He tossed a rubber band over Jeff’s knees and into his lap. Jeff picked up the rubber band, hooked it over his thumb, pulled the other end back, took aim and shot. The rubber band hit Dr. Wilson on the forehead and landed on the carpet. Dr. Wilson just looked at him. With great effort, Jeff climbed out of the couch.
“Sorry, but I’m tired of wasting time. Thanks anyway.” Jeff walked up to the door, pulled his hand up into his sleeve, used the sleeve to turn the doorknob and walked out.
Jeff got in his car and headed home. As he drove, he tried to decide how to tell Marie that he had failed with another therapist. He knew she would not be happy. Jeff had married Marie when they were both 30. She knew about his problem but loved him anyway. Sarah was born a year later, and Jeff did the best he could to cope. Things were good for a few years, but gradually Marie grew to resent Jeff’s problem. She was tired of being the only one to look after Sarah when she was ill and always being on the lookout for situations that would make Jeff’s germ phobia flare up. Their relationship deteriorated until they could barely stand to be around each other. They began by picking at each other’s insecurities and before long became openly hostile to each other. Jeff was seeing therapists about his problem because he hoped to save his marriage.
“I’m home,” said Jeff as he entered the house.
“How did it go?” He could hear Marie’s voice coming from the kitchen. Jeff walked into the kitchen and plopped down at the table.
“Not well,” he said. “I won’t be going back.”
“Why not?” She was angry.
“He tried to touch my special area.”
Marie looked up from the newspaper with a look of contempt. “This isn’t a joke, Jeff!”
“I know. But he was just like all the others. He couldn’t help me.”
“I’ve really had it with this,” she said.
Jeff felt like it would be a good idea to change the subject. “I picked up the mail. There’s a letter from your mother the new-age psychopath.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” she asked. Her icy stare had become harder.
“I just think that anyone who believes in the power of crystals, has their chakras cleansed, and dowses for advice from the cosmos is inherently unstable,” said Jeff.
Metaphorical daggers were shooting from Marie’s eyes, circling his head and stabbing him in the neck at irregular intervals. Then she went for the ears.
“At least she overcame her alcoholism with her new-age beliefs! Maybe you could learn something from her!” Marie didn’t shout much, but when she did, the plates rattled.
Deep down, Jeff knew he should take her advice and shut up. But one of his other problems was that he always seemed to need to have the last word (according to Marie, anyway.) “I’m telling you, the woman’s a chakra-holic.”
It turns out that, in this argument, Marie had the last word. That word was “you.” It came shortly after the word “fuck.” And it was followed closely by a bagel flying across the table and hitting Jeff in the forehead. He looked up and watched her stomp out of the room.
Soon after that, she left him for another man who, presumably, did not have a germ phobia.
After his marriage ended, Jeff did the normal things that a man does when his wife leaves him. He cried, washed his hands, blamed his wife, drank, washed his hands, watched TV, ate carefully prepared meals after he washed his hands, blamed himself and cried some more. He also washed his hands. He constantly tortured himself with thoughts of his wife having sex with another man. He couldn’t quite picture it because he had never met her new boyfriend. So, in a little piece of passive-aggressive revenge, he pictured her with Hitler. Gradually, though, he started to pull himself together and decided to try to get his life going again.
He had agreed to share custody of Sarah, and part of that responsibility involved taking her to daycare two days a week. This had always filled Jeff with dread, but he had no choice. The first obstacle was always the front door. He usually imagined that the last person to go through the door was some snotty little boy, wiping his nose with his hand and then reaching up to pull the door open. On this particular day, like he did every day, he reached into his pocket and opened the door through the material in his jacket.
Upon entering, it was always the same. The walls started to close in around him. The shouts and cries and laughs of dozens of children rang in his ears. He felt like he could actually see the germs writhing and squirming on every surface. He walked Sarah into the depths of the building to her classroom. Then something strange happened. The din of the children died down a little bit. He didn’t notice the germs multiplying rapidly all around him. A little girl sneezed on him as she ran by and he didn’t even notice. His attention was drawn to the new preschool teacher. She was, by his reckoning, one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. He stared and surveyed, mapping every inch of her, like some twisted cartographer. Everything about her seemed perfect to him. She wasn’t what most men would think of as beautiful. She wasn’t a blonde bombshell who looked like she had been computer-generated and surgically enhanced. Instead she was a natural beauty. She had medium length brown hair, that wasn’t styled in any particular way. She had a pretty face with big green eyes and comforting smile. One of her front teeth looked different than the others – maybe it was a crown – but it didn’t matter, her whole face came alive when she smiled and the unusual tooth looked perfectly at home. She had a nice figure. Not skinny, not fat – just inviting. He thought about what it would feel like to be tangled up with her on the couch, watching movies, and thinking about nothing. He hadn’t thought about nothing in a long time. She was wearing men’s Levis, which was a perfect touch. The fact that they were designed for a man’s body, seemed to show off hers, making the distinctions clear. She had obviously gotten them at a thrift store because one of the back pockets had a chew-can shaped ring on it. Or they could have been a boyfriend or husband’s pants. Or she chewed. Jeff tried to put all of those thoughts out of his mind.
He hoped she wouldn’t talk to him, because he didn’t think he would be able to say anything. So, he kissed his daughter goodbye and headed for the door.
“Hi there. You must be Sarah’s daddy. I’m Kate.” She had caught him just before he got to the door. She held out her hand for a handshake. He was rattled, but pulled himself together enough to shake her hand. Surprisingly, he didn’t think about the germs that could be on that hand. Instead he hoped his own hand wasn’t too clammy.
“Hi. Yes, I am. I have to go. Because of a thing,” he said and backed out of the door. He left the daycare, using the doorknob to open the front door without his usual care.
Jeff sat in his car for a while thinking about this new preschool teacher. He had seen plenty of attractive women in his time, but had never been affected like he was this time. Maybe it was some sort of chemical reaction. Or a love potion. Or a brain tumor. It didn’t really matter to him, what mattered was that he wanted to be with her. He felt sure that she wasn’t married – he hadn’t seen a ring after all – but he couldn’t be sure if she was otherwise involved. However, there was a bigger problem. She worked in a daycare. Of all the professions he could think of that would be problematic for a girlfriend of his to have, daycare teacher was the second worst – just after pediatric nurse. He needed advice. Unfortunately, there was only one place to get it.
Jeff and Marie had stayed on speaking terms since their marriage broke up. Jeff thought it was important for Sarah to see her mother and father getting along. For her part, Marie harbored a lot of guilt. She had cheated on Jeff and left him for another man. She knew that she had hurt him very badly and felt terrible about it, even though she was convinced she had no choice. Jeff knew all of this, of course, and exploited her guilt in his reentry into the dating world. Marie had set him up with three of her friends, but things hadn’t worked out – mostly because they already knew about his problem.
“What is it, Jeff?” Marie didn’t even bother to say hello. She had seen his number on the caller ID.
“Hi, Marie. I need your help with something. I think I’m in love with Emily’s new preschool teacher,” said Jeff.
“You mean Kate?”
“Yes. I know ‘love’ is kind of a strong word considering I just met her. But I haven’t felt this way since I met you. Actually I didn’t feel like this then either.”
“Well, that was a long time ago. Maybe I did feel this way.”
“I doubt it,” said Marie. “If you’re so crazy about her why don’t you ask her out?”
“She works in a daycare, Marie! A total cesspool of germs. She might as well be cleaning the bathrooms at the bus station with her tongue! Can you imagine what she must bring home?”
“You realize that she has five kids of her own,” said Marie.
“Oh, Shit.” There was a long pause. Jeff, still in the parking lot at the daycare, stared out the window, a little numb.
“Look, Jeff, you were afraid to have one child, right? When I got pregnant you were scared to death to have a child because you were afraid of the germs. But you’ve not only survived fatherhood, you’ve thrived.”
“You love Sarah, and you’ve found a way to adapt. Yeah, she’s given you plenty of colds and stuff, but she’s been worth it, right?”
“I’m no psychiatrist, but you have a decision to make. You can wrap yourself up in a cocoon and guard against germs and keep people at arms length. You’ll be able to avoid the germs, but you’ll also avoid love and happiness. There are always trade-offs in life. Do you really want to spend the rest of your life avoiding rather than embracing?”
Jeff thought about this for a moment. The still bitter, jilted husband part of him wanted to argue. But the man who had to somehow face the rest of his life knew she was right. “Thanks, Marie. That’s good advice,” he said. “Wait! What if she likes me?”
“Well, what if she wants to have sex?”
“I need to lose some weight! She’s so beautiful and I’ve started to get chubby…”
“It just wouldn’t be right. It would be like a sea lion humping the Little Mermaid!”
“Jeff! Calm down. You look fine.”
“You’re welcome. Now get to it, you idiot.”
“Thanks. By the way, how’s Adolph?”
“Never mind. Goodbye.” Jeff hung up the phone and drove out of the parking lot, ready to face his biggest challenge.
The next day, Jeff brought Sarah to the daycare a little early and lingered in the preschool room a bit until he got a chance to talk to Kate. Finally she walked up to him carrying a sad looking little boy in her arms.
“Good morning! Sorry I had to run out yesterday,” said Jeff.
“That’s okay. How was your…er…thing?”
“Great! It went fine. Thanks.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” She chuckled lightly and looked at the boy to see if he was feeling better.”
“So, what’s wrong with this young man?” Asked Jeff.
“Fell down and hurt his knee. I think he’s feeling better now. Aren’t you?”
“No,” said the boy.
“Hmm. I’ve been holding him for about 20 minutes. You’d think he would be feeling better by now,” said Kate.
“Maybe he just likes to be held.” Jeff and Kate exchanged smiles as a crying fit erupted across the room.
“Uh-oh, it looks like Ava dropped her pacifier again,” said Kate. “I’d better go pick it up for her.”
“I’ll get it,” said Jeff, temporarily forgetting where pacifiers usually reside.
“You don’t have to do that…”
“I’d like to help.” Jeff walked over to Ava’s playpen. She had dropped her pacifier on the floor and she was wailing like she was on fire.
“No need to cry, Ava. I’ll get your passy.” Jeff bent down to pick up the lost pacifier and just as he was about to grab it he paused. He noticed that it was soaked in saliva. Suddenly, he could see the germs swarming. He wanted to walk away. Or run. But he was on a mission. He swallowed hard and grabbed the pacifier. He stood up and handed it to Ava, who was most grateful to get it.
Kate walked over to Jeff, the little boy still in her arms. “Thanks, Jeff. That was very nice of you.”
“Oh, no problem.” Jeff was already feeling hand-sanitizer withdrawal. He needed a hit badly. But he suppressed the urge to grab the bottle of Purell that he had in his pocket. Then he had a sudden attack of bravery.
“It looks like you get pretty busy around here,” he said.
“Yes, it does. It’s like running a zoo without cages”
“I was thinking maybe I could volunteer a few hours a week – maybe help you out a little bit,” said Jeff. He was having a little trouble believing he had just said that.
“That would be great!” said Kate. “When can you start?”
“Well, I have another hour before I need to go to work.”
“Terrific. Do you want to set up the supplies for art time or help Billy with his runny nose?”
“The art thing.”
“Great! The paper and markers are in the cupboard.”
Over the next few weeks, he worked hard to make small talk with Kate whenever he volunteered at the daycare. He grew more comfortable with her and felt like she even kind of liked him. And, gradually, he started to feel less and less terrified by the germs around him.
One morning, when the kids in the class were taking their naps, he decided to take his chance.
“Kate, there’s something I wanted to ask you about. I’ve really enjoyed chatting with you while I’ve been volunteering here,” he said.
“I’ve enjoyed it too.” She smiled broadly.
“I was wondering if you would like to go out to dinner with me sometime. It might be a good chance to chat some more without having a dozen screaming kids around us the whole time,” said Jeff.
“Unless we went to Chuck E. Cheese’s or something like that!”
Jeff laughed. He really liked her. “No, I thought someplace a little more adult-oriented would be in order. Does this mean you’ll go?”
“I’d love to. But I have one question for you first,” said Kate.
“How come you’ve been wearing a rubber band around your wrist the last few weeks?”
“Are you saying I don’t accessorize well?”
She laughed. “No. It just seems a little…unusual.”
“I wear it to remind myself of what’s really important,” said Jeff. “So, how about Friday?”
“If I can find a babysitter.”
“Well, if you can’t then bring the kids and we will go to Chuck E. Cheese’s,”
“It’s a date,” she said.
The germs were whispering in Jeff’s ear again. But he couldn’t make out what they were saying.