So...I am a germaphobe. In that one regrettable confession, I become a no-handshaking, no-public-bathroom-using, repetitive-hand-washing freak. I am bearded Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator, roping off germ-infected sections of his pee jar-filled room.
I can try to back out of this stereotype, stumbling over a whole ordeal about how I'm not weird about all germs, just the ones around my food, and how it's more of a "thing" than a phobia. But that explanation usually tapers off into the same awkward silence that spawned it.
If I had to blame somebody—and my understanding of psychology is that I do—I'd blame my mother, a microbiologist. From an early age, I knew all about germs. While other kids were out enjoying their five-second-rule delusions, I was inside, learning hard truths.
"Everything is covered in bacteria," my mother would say. "Everything. The three-second-rule is like Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and a happy marriage—a lie!"
She never said that. On some level, though, I wish she had. I wish it were that easy to explain away my neurosis at someone else's expense.
I wish that a smudge on the window of a restaurant were just a smudge, and not ground zero of a contagion left by some window licker to culture on this massive, vertical petri dish. I wish that I could see dust dancing in a stream of sunlight and *not* think about the millions of dead skin particles floating around, picturing the disgusting people they came from and feeling certain that a microscopic fleck of Mickey Rourke's scalp has landed on the square inch of lasagna at the end of my fork.
Mainly, I wish that every single neurosis that consumes me didn't have to be centered around what I love most—food. Staring down at my bare shoulder, looking at the infected skin my sick boss touched after sneezing into her hand, I have all of these wishes...and then, I remember that I chose to be a waitress, in spite of my food-focused mental maladies, and sigh.
Every day as a waitress is filled with tiny agonies. Small moments, accompanied by The Sound of Silence, in which I ponder my existence at the sight of a napkin that a man has used as a handkerchief and left on the table for me to pick up. When all you have is an apron, and all you want is a hazmat suit, this is the sound of silence.
Over time those tiny agonies have fused together, forming one, endless stream of despair.
My boss is a toucher. It's both how she shows affection and how she demonstrates what she wants me to do. Normally, I find this maternal gesture comforting. But when one of the hands she's using to give me a "good job" shoulder squeeze is holding a used tissue, I'm as uncomfortable as Howie Mandel at a meet and greet.
Throughout the course of a normal work day, my terror alert increases from casually-grossed-out orange to I-need-to-burn-off-the-first-layer-of-skin-to-get-to-the-pure-layer-beneath red. It's difficult to find the time, between sneaking away to wash my hands every three minutes and playing hide-and-seek with a human sack of germs, to actually do my actual job. This is what neuroses cost people.
Armed with a bottle of bleach solution and a clean rag, I am a silent hero to the patrons of my restaurant. The one they didn't ask for. The one they won't thank. The one they wish would refill their water instead of cleaning the cash register for the fourth time.
After six hours of running around on high alert, I usually throw my purse over my shoulder and glide for the door. "Wait," my boss says on this particular day. "Your check!"
I consider telling her to keep it and wait until my next pay day, but quickly remember that I am as poor as I am neurotic: I need that money. I walk back, keys in hand, ready to snatch the check and leave. She eyes the small bottle of pepper spray dangling from my keychain.
"What's that?" she asks.
Before I have a chance to demonstrate, she grabs it out of my hand. Her germ-ridden fingers then explore my pepper spray, my bottle opener, and every single one of my keys.
"Whyyyyyy?!" my eyes scream.
I was so close. I was at the door. I was gone. And now, my keys are soiled. She hands them back to me and wishes me a great weekend. I offer her the same as I excuse myself to the bathroom to go rub soap and water over my keys.
My father calls me on my way home and asks if I'd like to meet up for dinner. Having been reduced to an emotionally fetal state, some parental love sounds perfect. We meet up, eat, grab a drink, and decide to catch a midnight movie. Halfway through, I get up to use the restroom.
I don't bother to look as I stretch my hand behind me to trigger the automatic flusher. And I refuse to look when I feel my ring slip from my finger, followed by a distinct kerplop. I turn to see where my reality has sunk. There, in the shadowy back hole of the toilet bowl, is my favorite ring. It seems only fitting that I spend all day fretting about used tissues only to have to decide whether or not I want to immerse a considerable amount of forearm into a bowl of my own urine.
"It's only a $5 ring," I think, weighing my options. "On the other hand, it's my favorite."
Before I can finish listing my pros and cons, the click of the automatic flusher forces a reaction. My arm plunges into the depths of my own piss. I catch the ring just in time, and pull it out. Examining my pee drenched arm, I wonder, "What have I done?" And again, for what feels like the 90th time in 12 hours, I wash my hands.
My eyes have trouble adjusting to the dark as I walk back down the movie theater aisle toward my seat. I step in something, sort of slipping on it, and reach down to check if it's something I've dropped. My finger presses into the moist, squishy object only long enough for my nerve receptors to send the message, "It's gross! Abort 'Mission Touch!' Abort! Abort!" up to my brain.
A day scene illuminates the theater, casting a sheen on the mystery object; brown and log-shaped. My eyes, confused, accept the image, however out of place, and send their best guess up to my over-worked brain.
"Poop," they scream. "That is a healthy, fiber-infused, log of human excrement, and you just fucking touched it!"
A wave of calm falls over me, hushing my panicked mind.
"It's fine," I think. "I never liked this arm anyways."
I use my good arm to retrieve my phone from my back pocket, and look for the nearest retail provider selling machetes past midnight. As a last ditch effort to save my arm, I turn on my phone's flashlight to confirm what my eyes in dim light have asserted. Not poop, but two-thirds of a hot dog, sans bun, dropped and abandoned by some lost soul who believes in the five-second rule as much as he believes in the basic role of humans to contribute to civilized society by cleaning up after themselves, because we're not animals and this isn't The Lord of the Flies.
I walk back to my seat with my irreparably filthy self, and sit down without a word.
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