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Germ Warfare

There are always germs, and you’re never going to get rid of all of them. — Cheryl Mendelson

I scrutinized the underside of David’s shoe as it dangled in the air. The sole and its host of pathogens revealed itself as David leaned back in his chair and lifted his right leg to rest his calf on his left thigh, thus positioning shoe-borne flora and fauna within inches of the platter of cheese on the low table between us. I envisioned millions of germs as microscopic, distorted humanoids jumping off of the shoe, sounding inaudible germy screams as they hurtled through the air and landed on my cheese, where they would bivouac on the rind until they received orders to invade the soft, gooey part that was allocated for my cracker.

“What?” David said, studying my face as I inspected his foot. I shrugged, my eyes looking deep into his sole, wandering from toe to heel and back again, finally settling somewhere in the middle, on the most offensive blemish on the black rubber — remnants of a splotch of gum, rendered unsticky by dirt and what I realized were bits of hair protruding from the buildup.

“What?” This time, David’s tone was more impatient.

I tore my gaze from his shoe and met his eyes as I considered how much to tell him. After a moment, I settled on “Your shoe is grossing me out.” He uncrossed his legs and brought both feet to the floor. “It’s nothing,” I said in response to his interrogatory frown. But David can always tell when I’m withholding something. “Okay, fine,” I said. “Your foot was so close to the food, and I could picture shit jumping off of your shoe and onto my cheese.”

“That’s ridiculous,” David said.

“Is it? Well, even if germs can’t jump, it was still unappetizing to look at.”

“Unappetizing is one thing, but germs absolutely do not jump,” David said.

“How do you know? You can’t see them,” I said. “For all you know they could be climbing up the side of the table right now.”

I learned long ago that not only do most people seem not to have the same concerns as me, they tend to think mine are peculiar. Maybe I was trying to defend the rationality of my aversion to shoe bottoms or to mitigate David’s derision for what he thought was my misguided perception of biology. But whatever my motives, I soon found myself revealing the details of a private episode that had occurred that morning, and I began to regret the words the moment they tumbled forth from my mouth.

I had been applying my Lancôme liquid eyeliner, with the applicator in my right hand, when I sneezed in the general direction of the open container I held in my left hand. I relayed to David that as soon as the choo part of my sneeze escaped, I began to visualize colorful cartoonlike amoebas sailing through the air and diving headfirst into the container, their tiny cilia pointing forward like arms. Then in my mind’s eye I beheld an animated sequence of my spit molecules reacting with the chemicals in the eyeliner and multiplying into some superbug with the power to blind me. “And now,” I concluded, “I’m not sure if I can use that eyeliner again. And I just bought it, and it wasn’t cheap.”

“Wow,” David said. “On so many levels…wow.” He leaned forward, spread some Brillat-Savarin onto a square of multigrain flatbread, then sat back, began to cross his legs, seemed to think better of it, and popped the presumably polluted soft cheese into his mouth. When he finished chewing, David said, “First, that you would think that you could actually sneeze something directly into that little bottle is just remarkable.”

“I sneezed right on it! Millions of little God-knows-what flying directly onto, into, the container,” I argued.

“Second,” David continued, “to think that anything can possibly live and flourish inside the chemical miasma within that bottle is unthinkable. That after you sealed it, you’d think anything that got in there would grow and multiply using the eyeliner as nutrition.”

“Then how do you explain pinkeye? I got that, and the doctor said it could have been from my pencil eyeliner. That means it had to be living on my eye makeup for months!”

“Third,” David said, disregarding my argument, “that you would think that once you open it again and put it on your eye, that it would be bad for you.”

“You never know,” I said. “Pinkeye.”

David scanned my face with the same intense look he has when he’s working on a pivotal Scrabble play. “Your brain is so preoccupied with bizarre shit, it’s no wonder you have so little left over to cope,” he said.

“This isn’t make-believe,” I said. “I remember biology class in high school, when we did the Petri-dish project. That shit grew from swabs taken from the bottom of my shoe, from my backpack — to think I used to put my face on that bag! But never again, not after I saw all the gunk that lived there with my own eyes. I don’t even like to put my face on the pillows we keep on the couch.”

“Your germophobe thing is so arbitrary,” David said. “I mean, do you even know what the germiest place in the house is?”

“The kitchen sink,” I said with confidence. “That’s why I’m always running our sponges through the dishwasher. I saw it on the news, during one of those ‘Now Fear This’–type segments.”

“That’s not it,” David said.

“Don’t,” I said. “I don’t want to know. You’re right. It’s arbitrary. So, the less I know, the better.”

“It’s the shower,” David said.

“I don’t touch the walls or the curtain when I’m in there, so I’m —”

“It’s the shower head, actually,” he clarified. I couldn’t tell if he was attempting to cure my neurosis with logic or if he was being sadistic. I decided on the former when he continued, “Germs are good for you.”

Jesus, David, how am I ever going to shower again? Is that what this is? Are you trying to tell me you have a thing for stink? I mean, the walls I can avoid; the curtain, sure; but the head? I can’t avoid that. What am I going to do now?”

“Germs are what your immune system thrives on,” David said, speaking faster to match my hysteria. “Like the flu shot, they —”

“That’s why I don’t get the flu shot,” I shrieked.

David cracked a smile. I’d been wrong. This was sadism. “You’re evil,” I said. He offered me a piece of cheese and did not seem surprised when I refused to take it. “Just for that, I’m going on a shower strike,” I warned. “You think that cheese is funky? Just wait.”

David laughed and called my bluff. “Go ahead…won’t bother me. If anything, you’ll be building up your immunity.”

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