Love, Logic & Bacteria
May 23, 2002. The air was light. The sun bright but setting. The pallid quarter moon peeking over the horizon. And Shawn and I were going out on what would be our first date in almost five months. We hadn’t spoken since the first Sunday in December when we both agreed that it was all too much: going to grad school, interning and dating. It wasn’t an easy decision, for me anyway. I really wanted to be with her. But life and time just refused to let us be together. Deep inside, though, something told me that it wasn’t over, that she and I were meant to be more than just friends. So after letting the months go by like a bird flying south for the winter, I decided to call and congratulate her on graduating from the Kennedy school. I tried to relax my voice when I said, hey, Shawn, but she didn’t. She said my name with so much excitement it was clear she still felt what I felt. Only to be confirmed minutes later when she asked me if I’d go to dinner with her that evening. Of course, I would.
I left my house in Rhode Island around quarter past six, having told Shawn I’d be at her place around sevenish. But I knew that I was going to be late when I hit the tail end of rush-hour traffic and then remembered while sitting on the highway that finding parking on a Thursday evening in Harvard Square would require circling, hunting for a spot. Fate had it that I found one as soon as I got there, right on Mass. Ave. I turned the car off, opened the door and glanced at the dashboard to see that while fate was on my side, time wasn’t. Grabbed a bunch of quarters out of the ashtray, jumped out of the car, slammed the door, fed the meter, tucked my hands in my pockets and scurried down the sidewalk, through the many commuters and students and tourists, feeling sweat drip down my back every time I accidentally bumped into one of them. The sweat wasn’t because I was nervous to see Shawn again. I have obsessive-compulsive disorder and having to squeeze through all those people caused me great anxiety. It wasn’t until I stepped inside Shawn’s apartment building that my nerves shifted to her. Will she still like me? I thought. What if she doesn’t like what she sees? What if I’m not the guy she liked before? What if all she remembers is no more? I couldn’t quell the thoughts. They kept coming with each flight of stairs I climbed, even more so when I reached the fifth floor. I walked down the hallway to her studio, paused in front of her cracked-open door, wiped the sweat off of my forehead, off the palms of my hands, onto the sides of my pants, and then knocked.
“Come in,” Shawn yelled.
I gently pushed the door open, peeking in as it widened, and stepped inside.
“Hey,” she said, in her signature greeting that sounded like the female version of Joey on Friends.
“Hey,” I repeated back, but in a shorter, much punchier way.
“You look great,” she said, walking towards me. “I take that back,” she said coming closer. “You look … fine.”
“Thanks,” I said, glad that she couldn’t tell I had been sweating like I had just run the Boston marathon.
“I just have to do my hair.”
Then she put her hands in mine, leaned forward and kissed me. I wanted so badly to fall right into her arms, to feel her warm breath on my neck like I had fantasized about for the last five months. But I held my stance and stayed by the door and watched her walk off to the bathroom. When she started to gel her short blonde hair in front of the mirror I let my smitten eyes wander off to get reacquainted with the new yet familiar place. Everything was as it was five months ago, though just a little more clutter and a lot less space. Her clothes were piled high on the couch and on the leather chair next to the corner window; none of the windows had any blinds or shades on them still. Her desk, positioned in front of the two middle windows, had a laptop, printer, loose papers, pens and other stuff that I couldn’t see from where I was standing scattered all over it. The wooden bookcase sitting by the desk had Brazilian CDs in place of the books that never were. The digital alarm clock that she had set to go off every morning to NPR was still on the nightstand. The light blue flannel sheets, the ones we first slept on together, were on her unmade bed with the flat sheet hanging off the edge.
I took a deep breath, inhaling her scent saturating the air, and let out a long sigh, while visualizing that first morning waking up in her bed: the dawning sun shining on us through the blind-less wall-length windows, the birds sitting on the telephone wires and fire escape railings, twittering unconcernedly and gazing at us unabashedly. If only I had listened to the birds instead of Weekend Edition Sunday. Maybe I would’ve heard them telling me what I couldn’t tell her. Maybe I would’ve talked it through instead of just letting it ride. But I didn’t, and that’s what I wanted now: the chance to tell Shawn about my OCD. I haphazardly lifted my head and turned towards the bathroom only to see Shawn peeking at me through the mirror. She smiled with her stop-you-dead smile, and I couldn’t help but smile back. Bottled up behind my smile, though, I could feel the words wanting to tumble from my mouth, but I pushed them down my throat with one swallow. Put my hands back in my pant pockets, padded across the hardwood floor to the one open window, and climbed out onto the fire escape. I leaned against the railing, and looked out at Harvard Sq. to where we first met.
It was at the Harvard Coop, a bookstore in Cambridge. I was buying schoolbooks for my first semester at Emerson College, but having a hard time finding one of them. Completely caught up in my search, I felt someone put their hand on my shoulder and try to brush past me. I turned around, moved back to let the person go by, and as I turned back around, I saw this tall, thin, blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman standing on the far side of bookshelves. She was wearing an L.L. Bean styled maroon sweater and Wrangler-styled denim jeans, not exactly your typical Harvard clothing. But there was something intrinsically decent about her. I could see it each time I looked up from the books and saw her blue eyes regarding me furtively. We did this for about 15 minutes until I found the book and made my way towards the checkout. When I got in line to pay for the book someone grabbed my hand from behind me.
“I said to myself that if I saw you again I’d say hi.”
“Hey,” I snapped, about to tell whoever had latched onto my hand to let go, but lost my edge when I saw who it was.
“You walked away so fast.”
“Well, I wanted to get in line before it got longer.”
“I made that mistake before,” she said, letting go of my hand.
“Not going up to a guy, and letting him just walk away,” she said, pausing before introducing himself. “I’m Shawn.”
“I’ve been wondering what your nationality is,” she said, with a bit of reservation. “Are you Latino?”
“No,” I said laughing, “but I’ve heard it all: Latino, Italian, Brazilian …”
“It’s a nice mix.”
“I’m a mutt,” I joked. “My dad’s English, my mom’s African American and American Indian.”
“Ah, I can see it now,” she said, pressing up against me to let someone pass by. “Where are you going to school?”
Where am I going to school? I repeated in my head. How does she even know I’m in school? I wondered before deciding to just go with it. “Emerson. And you?”
“The Kennedy School.”
“Oh, nice,” I said, intrigued by the fact that she chose to say the name of the school and not the university. “I volunteered last year for a congressman back home in Rhode Island. She was running for the late John Chaffee’s seat. It was a lot of fun: making phone calls and going house-to-house asking people for their vote. We even set up a table at a festival and passed out free t-shirts and soda and flyers.…” I thought I had lost her interest with my ramble, because she just stood there with a blank face. I was unsure of what to say then, so I said, “I’m kinda holding up the line here.”
“Let me give you my number,” she said, and proceeded to write it on the inside cover of the book I had yet to purchase. “Give me a call sometime.”
Well, sometime became twelve hours later, Labor Day. Early afternoon. I called her, and she invited me over to her place. Within minutes of my arrival we were sitting on her couch engulfed in conversation. She told me that she had never been in a relationship before, had never really dated before, that she had kept her focus on helping the homeless, strengthening civil society in Africa, Latin America and many Caribbean countries and improving Cuba and Cuba-U.S. relations. That was why she was pursuing a masters in public policy. I told her that I had been in a relationship before, but that woman had lied and cheated on me several times, so I had stopped dating and kept my focus on bettering the world. That was why I was pursuing a masters in journalism. Then she smiled and put her hand on my knee and leaned forward and then, and then she, we … well … let us just draw the curtain on this scene, shall we?
We became an item, and for the first few months, Shawn was able to soothe my fears when I worried that she might catch something when she got inside a dumpster and helped a homeless man get a chair out. When she used the same bath towel she had used the day before to dry off with. When she would hang the jeans she had on all day in school back up in the closet, like they were clean. But as the months went on, my OCD became like a third person in the relationship and made it difficult for us to have one. If only I could have just told her I have OCD. It would have helped her to understand why I was late for dates, which, of course, having OCD, happened every time. Because I had to clean my keys, my wallet, the steering wheel and the door handles before I could get in the car to drive. And why I washed my hands so thoroughly when we got back to her apartment, even though I kept them in my pockets when we walked in public. Why I panicked I would catch a cold or some disease if she sniffled, sneezed or coughed near me. Why I hated opening doors and made her open them. Sweated profusely when I was among people. Asked her to wash her hands before touching my face. Told her not to touch me if she didn’t. Preferred staying in to going out. Avoided holding her hand in public and kissing her if she sounded like she might be getting a cold. At the time, I thought I could hide it all. It wasn’t until Shawn stepped out onto the fire escape, wrapped her arms around me, asked if I was ready to go to dinner and started caressing my cheek that I realized I could not.
She did not just take her hand off the railing and put it on my face, the OCD voice said. Now I’m gonna get a disease. How could she do that?
But all she’s doing is showing you affection, the intellectual voice said. There’s nothing there. Can’t you see that? You’ll be fine. You won’t get sick. Your skin won’t get infected. There’s. Nothing. On. The. Railing. Look! There’s nothing there.
I took Shawn’s hand off of my cheek, ran off of the fire escape and into the bathroom. Washed my hands and cheek until I heard Shawn yell for me to shut the door when I was done. When I finished, I found her standing at the elevator, the down arrow button lit up. Not a smile, a kiss or even an attempt to hold my hand when I approached. The whole walk to dinner was in silence. She wore this face, this slightly miffed face, and I knew for the first time she knew about my obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The setting sun was reflecting off of the tall Boston buildings. The quarter moon was lucid and rising through the variations of reds, purples, oranges and peachy colors in the sky. The relaxed air was filled with the scent of budding trees. But as we walked through Harvard Yard to the restaurant, I couldn’t stop wondering if perhaps I didn’t do as good a job hiding my OCD as I thought I did. Perhaps what I thought I hid she saw, and she just let it ride instead of bringing it up. Maybe all my obsessions were too much for her, and she hid that from me. My mind was reeling. The intellectual voice was buzzing around inside my head like a bumblebee, but all I could hear was the OCD voice hissing like a snake underneath, saying over and over, Shawn knows you have OCD.
We got to the restaurant, and sat at the table in silence. I was terrified to tell her about my OCD. The thought caused an overwhelming sense of fear to rise up and rush my head. I couldn’t quell the fear no matter how tight I tried to hold to reality. It kept coming with each step the waitress made towards the table. Shawn smiled at me, leaned forward and kissed me. Right then I was reminded of our first night together, five months ago. Me curled up against her as we lay staring out at the night sky, falling asleep in her arms, her falling asleep in my arms. An experience I hadn’t had with anyone before. Until Shawn I wasn’t able to fall asleep in the same bed with anyone. Until Shawn I hadn’t any idea how to fall asleep in a woman’s arms. Until Shawn I didn’t even know it was possible to wake up holding hands. But when her alarm clock woke me up and I felt her fingers still folded in mine and then turned over and saw that she was sound asleep, I knew right then, right there that she was here to be more than just my fiancée, more than my friend, or even the mother of my unborn child. She was a sacred gift from Heaven that came to stop the crying in my soul.
You have to tell her, the intellectual voice said, because if you don’t you are going to lose her. I lowered my head to the table, and my eyes locked on to the waitress’ hands as she sat our plates down. Do it, Allen, just do it, the intellectual voice kept saying, but all I could do was stare at the raised red bumps all over the waitress’ hands.