A month ago, give or take—before the lockdowns and soaring numbers—I developed a protocol for returning to my apartment. It isn’t foolproof, and it hasn’t quelled my anxiety (not by a long shot), but for now it feels like a reasonable compromise between wearing a hazmat suit to buy milk and French kissing every doorknob I cross paths with in New York City.
The protocol isn’t that complicated, not when you consider what surgeons do every day: when I get home, I take off my shoes, hang up my jacket, then wash my hands and keys with soap and warm water. Next, I take my phone out of my pocket and clean it with a 70 percent isopropyl alcohol wipe (purchased from Walgreens at 6:00 a.m. after several failed attempts). I use this same wipe to clean my earbuds and their carrying case. Then I walk to the living room and place my phone in the sleek UV-C LED Sterilizer my partner and I purchased before panic was everywhere. The moment I press the circular button on its pristine white surface, a reassuring voice lets me know that sterilization has begun. Sterilizing, the woman’s voice says. After using the device for only a few days, I’d fallen in love. Her measured cadence was—continues to be—reassuring to me. If I could marry her, I would, without hesitation, break up with the man I’ve lived with for twenty years and head post-haste to City Hall.
The process of sterilization takes three minutes. A ring on the lid gradually illuminates to show the progress, and as the band of light moves clockwise I imagine the chamber inside filled with radiant light. Not wanting to waste time, I use the alcohol wipe (still moist!) to clean any other surfaces I came in contact with since returning to my apartment (the button of the UV-C LED Sterilizer, doorknobs and latches I touched when I arrived home, the portion of the soap dispenser in the bathroom my hand made contact with just after I turned on the water.) My beloved’s voice lets me know when the sterilization of my phone is complete. Sterilization over, she announces. Her vocabulary may be limited, but to me she is perfect.
Sometimes, if I’m feeling especially anxious, I’ll put my keys and my earbuds and anything else in my pocket into the shimmering sanctuary of her germ-free body. It doesn’t matter that I may have already cleaned these items or that LED sterilization works best on flat surfaces and may not be effective at killing germs on objects with nooks and crannies. For me, redundancy of effort is a small price to pay to ensure that any harmful microbes I may have brought home don’t multiply logarithmically in an unchecked Dionysian frenzy.
In my more extreme moments my mind spirals out of control. For example, it keeps track of contagion by association: my unwashed keys (my dirty keys) touched my pocket; hours later if a (clean) hand inadvertently finds itself in that same pocket, is it now contaminated again? The possibilities are endless, of course, and allowed to be taken to their logical extreme they could fill an entire day. Sometimes they do. But I’m afraid I’ve gotten ahead of myself. I didn’t intend my starting point for this essay to be my paranoia about COVID-19.
Where I want to start is decades ago, when I was a scrawny kid in Southern California with an immigrant mother and an absent father. I want to begin with a cliché: the high-strung gay boy who grew up in what is sometimes called a broken home, a kid wracked with so much anxiety that even after his mother remarried and everything was supposedly fine, he still lay in bed every night imagining one disaster after another.
The disasters that paraded through my imagination back then, in junior high, weren’t particularly surprising or original. When everyone else was asleep, I pictured kids at school stealing my backpack and trying to flush it down the toilet, or smearing it in dog poop. I imagined the popular kids—the skateboarders who wore Hang Ten shirts and O.P. shorts and flip-flops—blocking me as I unlocked my bike, slugging me in the stomach and calling me dickless, faggot, homo. I imagined my mother coming into my bedroom late at night in her nightgown, sobbing, telling me her new husband Gerry didn’t love her and we weren’t welcome in his house and we needed to leave—making me get out of bed and get dressed and pack my things so we could move to a motel.
Not surprisingly, one of the worries that teemed through my head during those sleepless nights was the fear of getting sick. My imagination raced with endless, lurid possibilities. I pictured myself in bed, stricken by the flu or pneumonia or cancer of the throat, unable to talk or move. I saw myself in the hospital, hooked up to respirators, my skin covered in sores.
My mother had no idea what I was so afraid of. “Stop being ridiculous,” she said. “You should be counting your lucky stars.” She was referring to the things I now had, things that for many years had seemed like pipe dreams: my own bedroom with a desk and bookshelf, a backyard with a lawn and rose bushes and trees that bore fruit, a house we could call ours. According to my mother, we’d hit the jackpot. Compared to the cramped rentals we’d lived in during the decade following my parents’ divorce, our new home was palatial: it had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a rec room with a ping pong table and a black-and-white TV, on which I watched The Love Boat and Real People. According to my mother, Gerry had rescued us—not just from fights with roommates and greedy landlords, not just from menial jobs that left my mother exhausted, but also from the string of dead-beats she’d dated (men on unemployment who sold dried flower arrangements at the beach for extra cash, stockbrokers and mechanics and insurance salesmen who claimed they were single but who really just wanted to get into my mother’s pants). “You should be grateful,” she told me if I came home from school in tears. “Without Gerry we would have ended up on the streets.”
In many ways, I was happy. I no longer had to ask permission to get a yogurt or a piece of fruit from the fridge. I no longer had to listen to my mother call my father and plead with him to send the monthly check she needed to cover our rent. I no longer woke up hearing her sobbing in the sleeping bag on the floor next to my bed, because she wished she’d stayed in Germany and never set foot in this godforsaken country.
In Los Angeles I had the kind of life I’d always wanted. I had my own bedroom; I had a new father who bought me a bike and a Boogie Board. Whereas previously, we moved nearly every year, now I could finally establish the kind of friendships I saw on TV. On the weekends, the three of us—my mother, Gerry and I—went swimming in the ocean or rode bikes. Sometimes, Gerry took us to Benihana’s of Tokyo or El Tarasco’s for dinner. Occasionally, we drove to Palos Verdes to see the homes with swimming pools and tennis courts and manicured gardens. Unlike my real father, Gerry didn’t have a temper, didn’t call other drivers cocksuckers when they didn’t get out of his way on the freeway, didn’t hit me when I did something wrong.
My mother had been married to Gerry for a year or so when things began to spiral downward for me. I was doing badly in school. Teachers complained that I asked too many questions. Kids laughed every time I raised my hand, though I didn’t know what else to do—I asked questions to navigate my anxiety.
I began studying diligently. When I got home from school, I went to my room and did my homework. I spent hours studying the Aztecs and mitochondria and polynomial equations, not because I cared about social studies or biology or math, but because getting good grades became a kind of coping mechanism, a survival strategy. I became a grademonger, a brown-noser, the kid who finished projects before they were due and complained if the teacher postponed a test or quiz.
Sometimes, on the weekend, I went to the bookstore in the mall to read the Cliffs Notes of famous novels, hoping the summaries would make me more intelligent. I’d never been a particularly good reader, and as I devoted more energy to excelling in school this fact also caused me anxiety. In seventh grade, I was required to read Ivanhoe and I despised every word. Each time I sat down to try to focus on the byzantine plot, my thoughts buzzed frantically, like flies trapped in a bottle.
It was during this period that I convinced my mother to pay for us to take Evelyn Wood Speed Reading Dynamics, a class that promised to help us read faster—up to 1,500 words a minute, according to the ads—while doubling or tripling our retention. I don’t remember exactly what we learned in those interminable classes, though I do recall being told that the key was to scan the page, to use your fingers as a guide to draw your eyes down a book’s pages quickly, one after another. I remember answering multiple-choice questions that tested our reading comprehension. I remember getting up early on Saturday and Sunday mornings and making sandwiches with Leberkäse and mayonnaise for us to take on our daylong excursions, then driving to Anaheim and searching for a parking space in a cavernous garage beneath a hotel while Gerry stayed home, constructing model airplanes in the garage.
My insomnia took hold while we were enrolled in the Evelyn Wood course. At first, I lay in bed thinking about the speed-reading assignments, but even after the class ended I still had trouble falling asleep. Often it took me hours. I listened to Gerry and my mother watching TV in the living room, and sometimes I stormed out of my bedroom to tell them they were being too noisy. After they went to bed and the house grew silent, I listened to the hum of my clock. Every sixty seconds the small plastic flaps flipped from one number to the next, and I told myself over and over again that I had to fall asleep before the next flip, that if I was still awake I wouldn’t be able to wake up in time to go to school and I’d miss class. I was convinced that if I didn’t get enough sleep my immune system would be compromised and I would fall ill. I lay in bed, trying to hold my breath, certain that if I held my breath long enough I would pass out and not wake up until morning.
I began to go to bed earlier and earlier, hoping this would allow me to relax and get enough sleep. Being well-rested, I reasoned, would help me read more quickly, to retain what I read and excel in school. I planned my days like a drill sergeant: I’d return home from school at 3:00, eat a snack and watch TV for half an hour, then do homework, have dinner, do more homework, take a bath at 8:00 while my mom tested me on vocabulary words. At 8:30, I’d watch TV to unwind.
By 8:55 I was in bed. For some reason, I decided I needed nine hours of sleep. I was convinced that if I could get nine hours of sleep, everything would be okay. If Gerry and my mother ever wanted to go to a movie or have dinner at a friend’s house, I made them promise we’d be home by 9:00 at the latest. I extracted this promise as if my life depended on it.
Soon enough, I wasn’t just worried about getting enough sleep. I was also worried about germs. I began to wash my hands obsessively, I pleaded with my mom not to let the dog lick our dinner plates clean, and I refused to let anyone take a sip of my Coke or my Dr. Pepper or orange juice. I refused to let my mother take bites of my apple or sandwich or ice cream cone. The smallest thing—a hair on my plate or a utensil dropped on the floor—could cause me, did cause me, to self-destruct.
This was before I’d heard of OCD, before books like The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing, before psychiatrists appeared on talk shows telling parents with children with obsessive-compulsive disorder to consider treatments like cognitive behavior therapy or exposure and response prevention. These days, we know that dealing with OCD can often require a combination of psychotherapy and drugs like Anafranil or one of the SSRIs prescribed for anxiety, but back then Gerry and my mother thought I was simply high-strung. I guess that’s what I thought too.
Last fall, when my mother came to visit me in New York, she arrived with a cold. “I’m sorry to come here so sick,” she said after we hugged. “I know how you are about germs.”
I told her it was okay, that she shouldn’t worry about it, but I spent the rest of our time together washing my hands every time I was within spitting range of a sink—when I touched something she’d handled, or when she asked me to help her zip up her jacket or help her into a taxi, I registered the exchange of germs.
“At least I’m staying in a hotel,” she said early on. “At least I won’t get so many germs in your apartment.”
I nodded, trying to act nonchalant. If she came to our apartment and blew her nose, I held my breath, as if that actually mattered. If she used our bathroom, I surreptitiously doused a sheet of Bounty with rubbing alcohol and wiped the doorknobs and faucet handles of our sink.
Three days into her trip, when she and my partner and I were at a museum, looking at the work of a Hungarian conceptual artist who planted a field of wheat in the Battery Park landfill in the 1980s, my mother burst into tears. I asked her what was wrong. “I never get a break,” she said. “Here I have a chance to come to New York to be with you and God makes me sick. I feel awful. I know you must hate even being with me.”
I told her that wasn’t the case. I tried to reassure her, though I’m not sure she believed me. I’ve always been a bad liar. Two days later, when she was sitting next to me in the cab, heading to the airport, I was the one who cried. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “Why are you crying? We had a nice trip.”
“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head.
But I knew why I was crying: I was crying because I knew how messed up things were. I knew how messed up it was that, at the age of fifty-two, I was still worried about catching a cold, that I flinched when my mother tried to hold my hand or give me a hug, that I spent so much of our time together allowing myself to spiral into the same unproductive thoughts I’d battled for decades.
In the taxi, she reached out to hold my hand. This time I didn’t pull away. She wasn’t blowing her nose anymore, and I knew that even if she was still sick, it didn’t really matter. This was before COVID-19 had begun its ugly spread across the globe, and the rational me, the mature me, gave myself a pep talk: “Look,” I said, “every day you come into contact with millions, maybe billions, of germs. You’ve made it this long, haven’t you?”
After my mother left, and I started working on an initial draft of this essay, I adopted a philosophical stance: it was time for me to get over my germophobia and the remnants of my childhood OCD. It felt like a reasonable—an admirable—organizing principle. As a child I was fucked up, but as an adult I’d gained insight and perspective.
In retrospect, however, I realize that many of my paragraphs in that early draft weren’t convincing; they were, to be frank, aspirational. Now, in the age of COVID-19, they ring hollow. Listening to the news, seeing the images of patients on ventilators, I wonder if my paranoia about germs is, has ever been, unreasonable. Indeed, doctors everywhere are telling us to wash our hands for at least twenty seconds dozens of times every day. People everywhere—at least in New York City—are wearing protective masks whenever they leave their apartments.
A few weeks ago, I called my mother and chatted with her as I often do on Saturday mornings. I told her about the UV-C LED Sterilizer I’d bought on Amazon, and how much I loved it. “Ach, don’t always worry so much!” she replied. “You’re young. You’re not going to die!”
“How do you know? Have you watched the news? You have to be careful. You have to wash your hands. Are you washing your hands? You have to wash your hands and not touch your eyes or your nose.”
“I know, I know. I’m trying.”
For as long as I’ve known her, my mother has resisted washing her hands. The only times I’ve ever seen her wash her hands are when I’ve stood next to her in the kitchen and made a big stink, the times she’s said I’m just like my father and should mind my own business.
“Trying?” I said. “You have to wash them. And don’t touch your face.”
“Look, that’s enough. I’m 84 years old. What do I care if I die? It’s high time anyway. I’ve had a good life.”
“It’s not high time. You’re very healthy.”
“So, see—I’m healthy. Then there’s nothing to worry about. Look, I have to go. I’m going be late for tennis.” I knew she wasn’t going to be late for tennis. She didn’t play tennis until 9:00 and it was only 7:45 her time. She had plenty of time.
As soon as I got off the phone, I texted my partner: “My mom just said she doesn’t care if she dies!”
“She said she doesn’t care if she catches Coronavirus. She’s not washing her hands.”
It took me a few hours to figure out why her blasé attitude surprised me so much—I’d always thought of her as a worrier. Even if she wasn’t concerned about germs, she’d always fretted about her well-being. “Who’s going to take care of me when I’m an old woman?” she asked me endlessly when I was in my twenties and thirties and forties. “I have no one. I’m all alone.”
When I professed my love for her and told her I would take care of her, her response was always the same: “Ach, you don’t love me. You have your own life. You live in New York.”
For as long as I can remember, she’s always been dramatic. On a trip I took with her to Barcelona when I was in college, I remember waking up in the middle of the night, hearing her gasping. She was walking back and forth in our cramped hotel room, clutching her lower back with her hand. “I’m in so much pain,” she moaned. “I think I must be dying.” We got dressed and went to the emergency room where a doctor said she was just having a muscle spasm and gave her some pills.
A few years after college, when I was in graduate school, she left a goodbye message on my answering machine. “When you get this, I will no longer be. I can’t go on anymore. I’ve had it. I’m taking my car and driving off a cliff.”
She’s left me several messages like this over the years, prompted by a range of circumstances: men breaking up with her, people not inviting her to holiday parties, my not spending enough time with her. Once she became distraught after a facelift left her skin puffy and inflamed.
I realized long ago that my mother’s fears about who will be there when she is infirm have never been about her physical well-being, but, rather, about her emotional state. I understand this because, in many ways, I’m guilty of the same behavior. The periods in my life when I’ve been most worried about germs—about getting sick—have been times when I’ve felt the most vulnerable: emotionally, socially, professionally, financially, maybe even spiritually. This wasn’t just true when I was in junior high. It’s been true throughout my adulthood.
I guess it makes sense that my germophobia isn’t just about germs. To friends of mine, this insight would probably be obvious. Like my mother, most people have always told me I’m going to be just fine—whether I wash my hands or not, whether or not I go to dinner with someone who has the flu, whether or not I’m exposed to COVID-19. Several days before New York’s restaurants and bars and gyms all shut down, my partner and I went to a friend’s birthday party, and I kept asking everyone whether they were afraid of getting sick.
“Not really,” people kept responding. “We’re the wrong demographic. It’s the old people who are dying.” All around me, people were laughing and drinking and dancing. They were hugging and kissing with abandon.
“But aren’t we old?” I asked one of my friends, someone I’ve known for twenty-five years.
“Nah, we’re young,” he said. “Look at you—you look like you’re forty.”
“But that’s not the point,” I said. “It doesn’t matter how old you look.”
“Stop it! You’re giving me a headache. Have a drink! Have a good time!”
Sometimes I wonder how many hours I spent in Gerry’s house trying to fall asleep. In ninth grade I decided the source of my anxiety was the clock radio—that it made too much noise as it flipped from one minute to the next, and I insisted it be replaced. By then, I’d begun getting straight A’s and was in honors classes. My hard work was paying off, and I was certain that if I was careful enough, conscientious enough, things would work out. Since then, I’ve learned that hard work and discipline and prudent decisions don’t always translate into success and happiness and well-being. I’ve learned that sometimes—often—success and happiness flow from things we have no control over: luck, circumstances beyond our control (including, of course, race, gender, sexual identity, and access to privilege).
Back then, however, I still believed I could control how my life would unfold. I guess it’s one of the traits I inherited from my mother: the conviction that I could mold my destiny through willpower and persistence and sweat. It was that conviction that led my mother to the United States to work as a maid when she was just twenty-one, and it was that conviction that inspired us to sign up for Evelyn Wood’s Speed Reading Dynamics when I was twelve.
I still remember the hope my mother and I both brought to that strange enterprise, the hours we spent practicing Evelyn Wood’s techniques for reading success, and the disappointment we both experienced, just weeks after the class ended, when we realized there weren’t actually any tricks or shortcuts when it comes to reading comprehension.
When we sat on the couch in the evening with books in our hands, our minds still meandered off in unexpected directions. We read slowly. Our ability to retain what we’d read hadn’t tripled, or even doubled. We were still the same people we’d been before we took the course that promised to change who we were. My mother thought about how she might shave a few dollars per week off the grocery bills. I devised ways to get home as quickly as possible after school, strategies to avoid getting beat up by kids who carried pocket knives and smoked pot in the park. Eventually we stopped using our fingers to guide our eyes down the page, and our excursions to the speed reading course that had promised so much receded into the distance of our memories.
I sometimes wonder whether my mother got the life she hoped for when she emigrated to this country. Despite the fact that she lives frugally, she now has the financial security she always craved, and, by many measures, she has a good life. She’s had her share of disappointments and setbacks, of course, but I guess that’s true for all of us. In any case, she doesn’t seem as worried or anxious as she used to be. In fact, she doesn’t seem fazed by that much anymore—not even the pandemic that’s killing tens of thousands, and keeping so many of us awake.