Whoever designed Charles De Gaul airport should be shot. It’s a convoluted maze that bears no practical and certainly no aesthetic justification as to why it’s so confusing. The whole airport is just an ugly mind-fuck. This was my second time in ten days at this airport, but I was just as confused this time as when I flew in for my friend’s wedding. Thankfully this time I was here to fly back home to L.A. and leave the social disorganization that is Europe.
After a few bouts of sprinting in the wrong direction and misreading of gate information, I had, thankfully at last, finally found my departure gate. Catching my breath, there I stood, scoping out the passenger security lines, looking for the right person whom I could get in line behind. I didn’t want to look too conspicuous by just standing there observing people because the airport’s armed security was also scoping out people as that was their job. Whereas my people-scanning was borne out of insecurity and the need to identify a possible threat to my OCD fears.
I did a quick scan of the two security lines and immediately identified two people in the line to my right that fit the profile as being in a possibly hazardous demographic. They were a pair of Filipino men, both thin, in unremarkable attire. Yet among their carry-ons were cellophane plastic bags with the handles tied into a knot – a common form of carryall for individuals from under-developed nations. This meant that they were probably still current residents of the Philippines and thereby living in a country with a rampant sex trade rivaled only perhaps by Thailand, so their possible exposure to prostitution and STDs was at an elevated rate, making them individuals to be avoided. Despite the fact that I wouldn’t even be standing behind them and actually would have had several people in line separating me from them didn’t matter. After the gate security personnel handled their items and their passports, they would be contaminated and those same gate security personnel would then handle the items and passports of everyone in line who came after the Filipino gentlemen and would therefore contaminate all those that followed them, including me, if I were to get in that line. So that line was out.
I was now really annoyed by my bad timing because the two Filipino men were near the front of the line and about to pass through security, so if I had arrived at the gate just a minute or two later, I wouldn’t even have seen them and would therefore have thought the line to be perfectly safe and acceptable for me to stand in. I mean other than the two Filipino gentlemen, every other person in that line was perfectly acceptable according to my OCD definitions of safe demographics.
Stop. This isn’t how you think. This isn’t what you believe. You don’t judge people like this. This isn’t who you are. This isn’t how you want to see the world. This isn’t how you want to live your life. These are all intrusive OCD thoughts manipulating your mind. Please don’t give in. Fight.
But, I did see them, so I had to look at the other line, and quickly. I noticed that the armed guards had now glanced at me more than once, just standing there seeming idle. I was starting to look suspicious. I feel the thoughts picking up pace.
I scanned the line on my left and found one questionable passenger. He was African-French and dressed somewhat flamboyantly. However, I couldn't discern if that was because he was gay or just neuveau-European or what.
He was wearing too much gold jewelry, a complicated jacket and very pointy leather shoes. I figured the Filipinos' possibility of exposure probably exceeded this guy's and anyway, I couldn't hone in on his mannerisms sufficiently to determine if he was indeed gay. Therefore, I could placate my OCD criteria by deeming him to be straight which would place him in a lesser danger demographic of possible exposure to STDs. I would get into his security line. There were enough people between us to keep me from having to be right next to him and unlikely to have my carry-on items intermingle with his.
Stop. This isn’t how you think. This isn’t what you believe. You don’t judge people like this. This isn’t who you are. This isn’t how you want to see the world. This isn’t how you want to live your life. These are hateful thoughts. You don’t think like this. These are all intrusive OCD thoughts manipulating your mind. Please don’t give in. Fight. Please.
As I did my profiling for the sake of my security, I noticed that the gate guards were also profiling. They were profiling me. I'm Middle Eastern so right there that's a red flag sticking out of my head. Then I had been suspiciously idling and didn't get into a security line without my own "security checks" so that had to have seemed odd to them. Suddenly, I was mad at them for looking at me suspiciously. For profiling me! An American citizen! A Caucasian! How dare they! Sure I had dark features, but was that sufficient to make me a target to hone in on? I didn't think so. I was mad, but just as suddenly as I had been initially angered by their looking at me untowardly, I was suddenly aware that my anger wasn't really directed at them. I was furious with myself. I Was full-fledged-profiler! How long had I been making judgments of strangers like this? How long had I been avoiding people based on irrational assumptions, exaggerated stereotypes, and hateful criteria unrelated to their character?
At least in the context of post 9/11 air-travel, the gate security had some justification, albeit misguided, in their profiling. Mine was based on irrational fears. Hateful, intrusive thoughts and irrational fears. Fear - how much damage that sentiment does. How much destruction it has wrought in my life. But I knew this was yet another moment of realization wasted. I knew that I would continue to profile and avoid. I would continue to fear. I couldn't stop. I hated it but I couldn't stop it. I hated myself for doing it but I knew I would continue to do it, and rigorously. I had become the kind of person I loathed. Between this moment of realization and the guards eying me, I just wanted to vanish. I didn't want to be there. I don't mean at CDG airport, I meant there – standing amongst people, being a part of society. There was no goodness to be found in it. Just fear and guilt, replacing the heart. Just fear and guilt constantly pulsing, alternately pumping adrenaline and sadness through my body. It wasn’t just my mind OCD was taking over. It was in my tissues, my organs. It was trying to permeate my whole being. It’s hold was tightening. I was only able to tear myself out of it’s grip now by such moments of self-loathing. Of my thoughts, my conduct. But they’re not mine! These thoughts! These behaviors! They aren’t mine! Another epiphany; I was now just trying to survive, here and there, but always in sadness. Always in hateful fear. Where was my heart? I’m not able to live!.
Before I vomited, which I felt I was about to, I needed to act. I was here and needed to move, not remain frozen in thought. I edged toward the line I had chosen, the person who got in line right in front of me was a married business man in his fifties of Anglo-European descent. I was able to make this assessment within the four second window I would give myself to make a judgment before acting. Within that time I was able to surmise his age, see that he was wearing a gold wedding band on his left hand, had blue eyes and a very light complexion. I made a flash assessment that his clothes were of a higher quality. He was well dressed in dark slacks and a stripped button down shirt. The detail that assured me most of his good standing was his watch. I recognized it as an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Carbon Concept which wasn't common or cheaply acquired. Sure it could always be a knock-off, but as the rest of his presence visually supported his being high-class, I gave him the benefit of the doubt that he could afford the real thing.
Stop. This isn’t how you think. This isn’t what you believe. You don’t judge people like this. This isn’t who you are. This isn’t how you ever want to see the world. This isn’t how you ever want to live your life. These are all intrusive OCD thoughts manipulating your mind. Please don’t give in. Fight.
I wasn't as pleased with the woman who got in line directly behind me, but I had no control over who would come in line behind me. So I just had to make sure that I went through security without my items coming into contact with those of the woman behind me. I didn’t get any piercing misfiring synapses indicating she was to be avoided. If I had, I would get out of line and get back in again later behind another "clean" looking person. It's just that she was seemingly from one of the higher-risk countries. Now I could feel the anxiety creeping in because I started to think about the possibility of my items coming into contact with hers. I would have to move fast to get my belt, jacket and shoes back on after they went through the scanner. Sometimes the people at the scanning machines shove the trays containing one's items down the ramp when there's a tray traffic jam and if the woman manning this scanner handled the tray of the woman behind me before handling my tray, I would be screwed. I had to move fast and that I did.
When I came to the trays and security conveyor belt, I first took off my belt and jacket and emptied my pockets into one tray. Then I quickly slipped off my shoes (I always keep laces loose enough to be able to slip shoes on and off without having to use my hands or touch them and the lace knots very tight so they won't unravel forcing me to use both hands to re-tie them). Using only my right hand, I lifted my shoes by the loops of the tied laces and placed them in a separate tray. I couldn't have my shoes that had whatever grime the floor contained, cross-contaminate my other items. I walked through that metal detector without setting off any alarm and was quickly patted down on the other side by a gate agent wearing surgical gloves. I didn't like the connotation the gloves evoked in my mind, but didn't have time to dwell. I had to gather my items in the trays that had come through the x-ray scanners and re-wear them fast before they were handled by a gate agent who may have also touched the trays holding the items of the woman behind me. In record time, I slipped my shoes and belt back on, grabbed my cell phone and keys, and placed my boarding pass and passport into the folded manila envelope and walked toward my boarding gate, keeping an eye out on the way over for a bar or restaurant that served alcohol. I found a bar and had enough time for a quick drink. I needed one.
After the ill-tasting beer I had at the bar to calm myself (sans success) I made it to my gate just in time to start boarding the plane. They called the first class passengers and premier members to board first and a small line of acceptable looking people formed. I got into that line. I wasn't a first class passenger or a premier member, but I didn't care. I knew they would still let me board and by doing so, I would avoid the cattle rush of all the other passengers called up to board by sections. It worked. I was let through and went into my economy class section of the plane that bore no human traffic yet and found my seat. Just moments later, the economy section of the plane was teaming with passengers in search of their economy seats. Thankfully I had already used the bathroom where I thoroughly washed my hands with my piece of anti-bacterial soap always kept in my right pant pocket and taken my seat before the gathering of crowd of economy section passengers.
Still, I felt very anxious sitting there waiting. The roar of the engine and the bustle of the passengers aggressively stuffing their bags into the overhead compartments created a sense of exigency which further exacerbated my unease. To calm myself, I methodically began my pre-flight ritual. I looked toward the ceiling as inconspicuously as possible and said a prayer under my breath. I always repeated the same line four times. Then I thanked God four times, looked to the right and then the left and then unclasped my hands. I'm not religious at all and don't subscribe to any organized religion, but I had been performing this ritual since childhood, so I didn't want to deviate from continuing it just as I had through the years.
After the prayer, I took out a copy of the in-flight magazine. I needed to read sixty-four words from the magazine; four multiples of four is sixteen and four multiples of sixteen is sixty-four. That was the number that felt right for that ritual. Some repetition rituals varied in the number required, but they all were multiples of four.
I would try to read four words from one page and then flip a few pages until I stopped at another page to read more words. My rule that I had to read complete sentences made this task challenging in that sometimes I would have to read seven words, or if I mistakenly stumbled upon a particularly long sentence, over ten words. I had to keep count of all the words I read so as to not exceed sixty-four. In order not to violate my rule of having to read all the words in a sentence and in order to not exceed sixty-four words total, when I reached about fifty words, I would choose to focus on one-name brand names such as "Tylenol" or "United" as reading just one word was a cautious way to approach the golden number without exceeding it. If I came upon a sentence that took me over the sixty-four word count, I had to start the ritual all over again until I got it right.
Fortunately I got the task done in one shot. After my word counting ritual was completed, I fastened my seat belt and waited in dread to see who would be sitting next to me. I had an aisle seat, so at least I wouldn't be wedged between two people. Still I would have to spend the next eleven hours sitting next to God knows who? God, I hated the uncertainty. I should have taken the medication sooner. I waited too long. Consequently it still hadn't taken affect. My doctor instructed me to take one five hours before I was to fly and then another one as the plane was preparing to take off. I had taken both doses at the instructed times and no affect yet. I took my daily dose of Prozac just before my second dose of Xanax, so hopefully the Prozac wasn't diluting the effects of the Xanax. My thinking and over-thinking about the possible diminished effectiveness of my anti-anxiety medications were abruptly interrupted when a gaunt man walked down the aisle past my seat. As he whisked by, the jacket he had folded over his arm nearly brushed against my face! The repetitive thoughts about my medication were broken by the more urgent focus of avoiding contact with any hurried passengers as they walked past my seat.
At least when I was out in public, I could observe a safe distance from others so as to avoid potential contact. But the confines of a plane didn't afford one the ability to weave in and out among the gathering crowd. As I was sitting in an aisle seat, I had already estimated that my seat was approximately seven inches away from people walking past it. However an errant garment, such as the gaunt man's jacket, not well secured to a passenger and thereby dangling haphazardly couldn't be accounted for in advance and since, (as the gaunt man's jacket just proved) the flailing extraneous item of clothing could actually brush against my head or face (my face!), I would have to maintain sharp focus on all approaching passengers, anything they may be carrying, and their general movements as they walked past my seat, until every passenger who made their way down my aisle was seated for take-off.
God I hated traveling. Well now I mean. I used to love it when I was normal. I remember when –
"Everything alright, sir?" asked the flight attendant.
What? Me? Did she notice something? What was I doing? Too much time is passing, get out of your head and just respond for now! What should I say? How was her question intended exactly? Stop thinking and just say something!
"Do you know if the seat next to me will be taken?" I asked.
"Yes, we have a very full flight," she responded.
"Yeah, that's what I figured," I said with a shrug and a smile. She smiled back and walked off. Fuck me. I hate flying. Hate. I would actually prefer to slice –
"Hi. I'm in sixteen B," announced a man who looked to be of Indian descent but had no trace of an accent.
"Oh, sure," I said and stood as much as I could with my seat-belt still fastened. The man made his way past me and took his seat. As he did so, I made a thorough inventory and assessment, per usual. He wasn't too underweight so he probably didn't suffer from any chronic ailment, which was a huge relief. However he wasn't wearing a wedding ring which meant he still probably had more than one sexual partner which increased the odds of his having a sexually transmitted disease. At least he had no accent which probably meant he didn't grow up in India, a country host to vast poverty and a variety of diseases.
His shirt sleeves were rolled halfway up, so I was able to quickly ascertain whether his arms had any broken skin or track marks, indicating a drug habit which would place him in a very at-risk disease demographic. He didn't have any markings on his arms to set off any red flags. There were no stains on his clothing which didn't look to be made of cheap fabric. The growth of his nails was sufficiently white with no noticeable grime underneath them which meant he had acceptable sanitation habits. With such reassurances, I felt no ruminations about his posing a potential danger to me were necessary.
Stop. This isn’t how you think. This isn’t what you believe. You don’t judge people like this. This isn’t who you are. This isn’t how you ever want to see the world. This isn’t how you ever want to live your life. These are all intrusive OCD thoughts manipulating your mind. Please don’t give in. Fight.
Jesus I hated flying. Seeing Paris was always nice, but getting there and back was excruciating. (Well, more so than my routine existence.) Even the visit to the city was imperfect. Having my friend, Joe, with me demanded double hyper-vigilance. I had to conduct my usual inconspicuous scouring of my immediate and potentially future environments and making sure I did so in a sufficiently comprehensive but also subversive manner, so as not have it detected by Joe. Meeting up with my brother and his girlfriend who happened to be vacationing in Paris at the same time as my visit should have been a fun experience, but instead served as a brutal reminder of my degeneration.
I still cringe every time the memory of that day comes back to me. It was about three days into my stay in Paris and Joe and I were trying to coordinate with my brother and his girlfriend to meet up for dinner or coffee or drinks. I speak French and Joe is an explorer by nature so navigating the city wasn't an issue. What was an issue is that my flighty brother and his joie-de-vivre girlfriend wouldn't stay in one location long enough for Joe and me to reach it, so we had to keep calling them as they gallivanted about town to learn which latest neighborhood they had casually strolled into. They were a young couple drunk in love so they floated about the romantic city without a care to the rest of the world. Unfortunately for Joe and me, we had to oblige them as they floatingly bandied about.
"Well, where to now?" asked Joe after I hung up.
"Merci Bien," I said to the hotel concierge who allowed me to use the phone. I looked to Joe and sighed.
"They're in the Sixiemme Arrondissemont now. At a Café Roullard. I have the address. I think it's just a few blocks up," I said.
"This is getting ridiculous," Joe said as we left the hotel and headed toward our newest destination.
"Oh we have moved well past ridiculous and veered far into some form of absurdist theater," I said.
"Well at least this fits with our nothing-is-going-according-to-plan trip so far," Joe said.
"I seriously feel like I'm on some sort of inane scavenger hunt concocted by a fucking band of teenage meth-heads as a prank," I said. "And we, like a pair of idiots, just keep playing along."
Joe sensed my annoyance, since I made it very obvious, and being the good friend he was, tried to diffuse my anger. "Look, they're a coupla kids in love and in Paris and we're a coupla old bitter single guys in Paris. I think their situation beats ours, so just indulge them a bit longer."
"Yeah, I know. Besides it is really awesome that I get to see my brother in Paris. It's not like I'm meeting up with him in L.A.," I said.
Joe nodded and gave a thumbs-up. Indeed, there are worse things than running around the city of Paris at night. Still, I felt apprehensive which I knew had everything to do with my angst-ridden condition and almost nothing to do with my brother, but I needed to place blame. However, as usual, Joe was right. So I exhaled my current annoyance toward my brother and with a deep breath, took in Paris at night without filters.
And with some determination now, I could hear the sounds of traffic on the bustling street occasionally dotted with French disco music and car horns that emitted a distinctly higher pitch than cars in the U.S. I could see the decorative stone carvings hanging overhead that were darker in color than the buildings they embossed due to centuries of soot emanating from machines of human industry below.
As Joe and I briskly walked down Rue de Lautrec, even the yelping Pomeranian dressed in a plaid sweater being walked by its dour owner brought a smile to my face. I was glad to be among all things Parisian and shortly I would share my happiness with my brother, who loved Paris and whom I loved dearly. Dwelling on this thought induced me to acquiesce to an unexpected sense of inner calm.
And there it was.
This now alien sensation from years past evoked in this foreign city, while intangible as a memory, would be my most valuable souvenir. My moment of stillness was only marred by the prick of an acute exigency that I needed to sequester this utterly welcome memory of languid awareness from all the other insidious hazards that now populated my mind. Because as I feared, the sensation itself would prove fleeting.
I was jarred back to the frenzied activity of the omnipresent malicious imps living inside my head by the passing touch (which would probably have been imperceptible to non-sufferers) of a homeless man. Damn it! That's what I got for letting my guard down. I should have been scanning for this, not passively strolling along! I knew I couldn't do that anymore. How could I be so careless?! Joe noticed my glancing backward at the homeless guy repeatedly as I endeavored to do an assessment before he got too far away.
"What's wrong?" he asked. "That guy weird you out?"
"Huh? No. I was just trying to see what street we just passed. Just want to be sure we're heading the right way," I said.
"Are we?" Joe asked.
"Yeah," I said too hastily. "Yeah we are."
The triggered alarms were incessant. Always.
"Should we get a bite along the way since we missed them for dinner," asked Joe. "I'm feeling really hungry."
IMMINENT DANGER! IMMINENT DANGER! IMMINENT DANGER! IMMINENT DANGER! DANGER! DANGER! DANGER!
"What's that?" I asked.
"Want to get something to eat on our way? I need to eat."
"We can grab a sandwich or something," I said.
PANIC! NOW! RUN! NOW! WASH! NOW!
"I'm actually craving another one of those salami deals we had earlier."
INFECTION! CONTAMINATION! SCREAM FOR HELP! SCREAM NOW! NOOOOOOOOOOOOWWW!
"Anything sounds good to me, man," Joe said. After all this walking, a hot chocolate and croissant just won't cut it."
"Hey man, are you hot at all?" I asked.
STOP TALKING! START SCREAMING FOR HELP! SCREAM! NOW!
"Not really. I'm fine. I mean, all this walking is warming me up a little, but it's cold out," Joe replied.
"Well I'm burning up," I lied.
OHGODOHGODOHGODOHGOD! DO SOMETHING!
"Stop!" I said to myself through grit teeth, but audibly perceptive enough for Joe to detect.
"What?" asked Joe.
"Hmm? Oh. Just stop for a second," I said as I started to peel off my jacket, being very careful not to touch the area of my sleeve the homeless man brushed against.
"What are you doing?" asked Joe.
"I'm just really hot all of a sudden. I need to take this off," I said as I tried to make it look like I was removing my jacket in a normal fashion despite my conscientious evasive handling.
"Dude, are you ok?" said Joe.
"Yes! I'm just warm, ok?" I said too defensively.
"Ok, ok. Man. I was just asking," said Joe.
"I know. I'm sorry I'm snappy. I'm just irritable from being too hot. And hungry," I lied.
"I hear ya."
After walking another block while holding the interior of my jacket with one hand, with my arm awkwardly stretched out a little so the now contaminated jacket fabric wouldn't brush against my jeans or any another part of my person, we at last came upon a trash bin on the street corner. As we walked past it, I casually tossed my jacket into the trash bin and kept walking at a steady pace. Joe had stopped.
"Did you just throw away your jacket?" Joe asked. I hated this part. Damage control, but I had cultivated an aptitude for it.
"Yeah, I just didn't want to carry it around all night," I said. Joe wasn't moving but was looking at me with a confused squint, so I continued. "And every time I wore it, I would get hot or itchy. It's probably because the material is so cheap. It's a super cheap jacket. I just bought for use on this trip." A lie. I loved that jacket and when I spotted it just three weeks ago, I gladly paid the ninety-nine dollars it was on sale for with the reasoning that it was very well made and I would have it for a long time.
"Dude, that was a nice jacket. I will take it if you don't want it," said Joe.
"No, leave it! Just come on, Joe! We will miss my brother and his girlfriend again," I said, very worried that Joe would fish the jacket out of the bin, thereby contaminating himself. I couldn't throw away Joe if he did collect the jacket, but I certainly would avoid him for the rest of my trip, so I sincerely hoped he would leave the jacket where it was and just start following me. I turned around and he was still standing there with his palms turned skyward, wearing a what-the-fuck expression. "Just come on, Joe," I prompted him with some annoyed eagerness. He just shook his head and started running up to me. I was very relieved.
"Ben, you are one strange kid," Joe said and then chuckled while still shaking his head. I looked at him and smiled and let out a deceptively fake chuckle myself. The potential awkwardness of prolonged questioning would be tiring and uncomfortable, so I was glad the moment had passed.
However, now I needed to wash my hands before coming into contact with my brother and his girlfriend so as to remove the contamination from the hand that held the jacket and more importantly, not contaminate my brother or his girlfriend.
As we walked along, we looked for a boulangerie, or even street food vender for a sandwich to go, but we weren't coming across anything of the sort. As we got closer to where my brother and his girlfriend instructed us to find them, I noticed an increase of nightclubs, pedestrians, and loud music. This had to be some sort of club area or nightlife district. I then noticed the ratio of male to female pedestrians was very disproportionate. I did a flash count of people within a sample area of about two blocks and came up with the estimation that there were fifteen men per every woman in the area.
"Hey, what's the address again?" asked Joe.
I absentmindedly handed him the hotel stationary that had the address scribbled on it. I was distracted and started to feel the ominous pre-panic tingling in my tongue.
"Thank Jesus it's close. I'm about to pass out from lack of nourishment!" Joe exclaimed.
"Me too," I said barely audible. I was starving, but that didn't have anything to do with my sudden light-headedness.
"Hey man, have you noticed anything about this area?" Joe asked me smiling. I had, but didn't want to reply. At least I didn't want to verbalize it, so I just looked at Joe and gave a knowing smile.
"Yeah, we are definitely in boys' town," Joe said. He as was right. My brother and his girlfriend had led us into Le Marais, the gay district of Paris. All around us were very fit men in attire that clung to their muscular bodies. Occasionally there was a pair of girlfriends, or girls with their gay guy friends who probably came to the area to take advantage of the better dance music. I even noticed some straight couples strolling together in the area which gave me some solace because it diminished the percentage of the area's more at-risk demographic. Anything to skew the statistics toward a less “in danger” demographic was a welcome visual.
Stop. This isn’t how you think. This isn’t what you believe. You don’t judge people like this. This isn’t who you are. This isn’t how you want to see the world. This isn’t how you want to live your life. Please don’t give in to OCD.
Along with the rising panic, I felt the sense of intense guilt. Followed quickly by that the sense of self-hate. I had read something about the possibility that gay men were statistically more at-risk for getting and transmitting sexually transmitted diseases and I loathed myself for viewing them through this filter. It felt horrible and were it not tempered by the augmenting panic, it would have made me acutely despondent. After all I worked in the entertainment industry in L.A. which meant I worked with many gay people including those who hadn't yet identified themselves as such. Some of my favorite colleagues were gay. I had gay friends that I deeply cared about who would be appalled by my judgment if they knew my current thoughts. And of course I knew there was something else. Something that made my avoidance, all because of my OCD, far more shameful.
However, my friends and colleagues weren't strangers. I had established relationships with them and consequently, had done exhaustive assessments of them and their tendencies. So yes, I had connected with them emotionally, but more logistically important and paramount in the context of OCD, I had deemed them to be "ok" and "safe." I didn't know any of the men I was among at that moment. Worse yet, I had recently read a research article about how gay Europeans engaged in risky sexually behavior at a higher rate than Americans. The numbers and facts of that article were now present as if I was reading the report at this very moment. Naturally, that information was flagged subconsciously, ready to conjure up for just such a moment. A moment of potential danger. Again, alarms were triggered.
RUUUUNNNNNNNN! THIS IS A CODE RED SITUATION! YOU ARE BEING CONTAMINATED! YOU ARE ABOUT TO–
"Hey, wanna hold hands?" asked Joe with a big grin. "We don't have to hide our love here, Ben. Here we're among friends." I looked at Joe and smiled.
"I would," I said, "but I know what it will lead to and I just want to take it slow." Joe laughed. I felt even guiltier. Joe and I had a very close mutual gay friend and if Joe was aware of the thoughts racing through my mind right now, he would think less of me. He would accuse me of being homophobic and when I tried to explain, to tell him that I absolutely wasn't, that it wasn't me, it was my diseased mind that was creating the thoughts, he would then think I was crazy. He, like anyone else to whom I tried to explain and rationalize my completely irrational thoughts, would think I was abnormal and unhinged. They would be right, but their judgment that accompanied this understanding, I couldn't bear. Karmic irony, I thought.
I went through this thought process and emotional turmoil every time the alarms were directed toward a particular demographic. Any nationality, ethnicity, or other inalienable criteria that fell into the category of an at-risk demographic to contract an STD or other transmittable disease had to be avoided. So any strangers from central or South Africa, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, the Philippines, island nations of the Caribbean and, as of a recent article I had read, now China and any Central-Americans had to be avoided. Straight men were much more preferable than gay men because of the latter group's at-risk statistics. And women were preferable to guys because women usually have better health habits. Essentially the only strangers that wouldn't trigger the alarms were white females who appeared healthy and not overly thin as a gaunt appearance could mean they were intravenous drug users. The white female demographic had other caveats. If I encountered white women with Swiss German or Southern Swedish accents, they had to be avoided because I read that intravenous drug use among Southern Swedish youth had recently spiked and consequently so too had transmittable diseases among them.
The Swiss German pertained to "Needle Park" in Zurich, Switzerland. On a an episode of "60 Minutes," I watched a segment about how the city of Zurich made it legal for people to shoot heroin and engage in intravenous drug use within a particular designated park. This unorthodox measure was adopted as a means to better contain disease transmitted from intravenous drug users to a limited population. The program was working. The segment featured several young white women who were drug users and consequently any woman resembling them with Swiss German accents were to be avoided. They were a contamination risk. Actually, as a precaution I should avoid all thinner, young white women.
Stop. This isn’t how you think. This isn’t what you believe. You don’t judge people like this. This isn’t who you are. This isn’t how you ever want to see the world. This isn’t how you ever want to live your life. These are all hateful, intrusive OCD thoughts manipulating your mind. Please don’t give in. Fight.
The condition made me a racist, a homophobe, a xenophobe, and a sexist. The diseased part of my mind was a bigot. That label was contradictory to every intrinsic fiber of my being and to everything my parents had raised me to be. I had to often remind myself that the fearful bigot is just the OCD and not me. The still normal, rational part of my mind hated the OCD part with passion. It was my worst enemy. But it lived in my head and increasingly was taking control of my thoughts. Sometimes I would forget that I was split in two. That I was actually a good person. That the OCD evoked the fear that yielded cautious discrimination. I would forget there were two parts to my mind and that I needed to just hate the diseased part. As a result I would often just hate myself in general. All of me. As I did at this moment. Again.
All these thoughts were incessantly racing in my head as we walked further into Paris' gay club district. My adrenaline levels were skyrocketing. I wanted to bash my head into the Parisian architecture I had admired earlier. I needed to –
"Hey! Here we are! This is the café. Thank God man!" declared Joe. I glanced toward it. It was a charming, quaint coffee house and very Parisian. It held exactly the type of ambience my brother loved. However it was here. In the gay district. In a danger district.
"Let's go," Joe said perhaps noticing my frozen stance.
"Can you just go in there and get my brother and his girlfriend to come out? We won't have time to sit and have drinks with them. The metro closes in twenty minutes, but at least we can say hi and bye to them," I said.
"What? What are you talking about?" asked Joe. "Who cares about the metro, we will take a cab or Uber. We have been walking all over town all night to see them. We can at least have one drink with them."
"No. I don't want to take a cab or Uber. I'm on limited funds and I'm super tired. I really just want to head back to our hotel," I said.
"Ben. You are in Paris at the same time as your brother. It's weird to not hang out with him for a little while. It's kind of really rude," Joe said.
"Look to be honest, I'm just kind of annoyed that he had us walking all over town to track them down and now I'm so tired. I feel like I will just be sitting there kind of sulking and annoyed with him. I don't want to do that and ruin his and his girlfriend's night. Trust me, it's best if I spend as little time as possible around him when I'm like this. I don't want to be passive-aggressive, you know?"
"No, I don't know. But if you really don't want to hang out, then let's just see them and leave, I guess," said Joe.
"Ok. You get them and ask them to come out here," I said.
"Ben. Why won't you go inside the café," asked Joe with some concern.
"I know if I go in, they will insist we sit down for a little and I really, really don't want to, ok? Can you please just ask them to come out here?" I asked. Joe shook his head and blinked his eyes rapidly to indicate his utter confusion. I hated this part. I hated the reactions. More damage control.
"Ok. I will let them know. But I have to use the bathroom anyway and buy something to eat even if it’s to go. I need to eat something," Joe said annoyed at me.
"Ok," I said and watched Joe head inside. I wanted to erase this whole night from my life. When Joe came back out minutes later with my brother and his girlfriend in tow, all three of them had the what-is-going-on-with-you expression. My brother's was more knowing because he was aware of my worsening "odd behavior" but even this must have felt extreme to him; that for some reason, I had to see him and flee.
"Hey!" I said. My brother's girlfriend came in to hug me first. I dreaded it. She had been inside the café where an at-risk demographic frequented. I would get cross contaminated. I just had to endure it. I couldn't evade her embrace. Instead I circled her torso with my arms with trepidation, being careful to have as little actual contact with her person as was feasible. My brother noticed this. He suspected my "condition" was at work. Then I hugged my brother and he was certain. He looked at me.
"Ben, just come inside for hot chocolate or something. Just a quick drink," he said. His girlfriend agreed, "Yeah Ben. Come sit for a little. We want to see you for more than five seconds!" she said.
"I know, I know. I really want to hang out with you guys too, but we have to catch the metro and we will miss it unless we leave now. It sucks, I know but we did waste a lot of time moving from location to location trying to track you guys down, you know?" I said semi admonishingly. I would shift part of the blame of our fleeting encounter on to them.
"Ben. We're in Paris. How often does that happen? This is crazy. Just come in for a coffee or pastry or something so we can spend some time together," my brother implored. “You would love this cafe. It’s so cute and cozy in there.”
"I really want to, but our schedule is completely off track now," I said. I needed to change the subject and shift momentum back toward our imminent departure. "Ok, let's take a picture with all of us so we have some proof we were all here at the same time," I said laughingly, trying not to seem erratic. My brother gave his phone to a woman who was walking by with her boyfriend and asked if she could take a picture. We posed and smiled. The woman took the picture. I awkwardly hugged my brother and his girlfriend goodbye. I headed toward the metro station with Joe, all the while trying as hard as I could to not think about the look on my brother's face as we left. “I’m so sorry,” I said in my own head. Who was I saying it to? My brother? The innocent strangers I avoided? Myself?
"Ladies and gentleman, we will be arriving at Los Angeles International Airport in about twenty minutes. Once again we ask that you ensure your seat belts are securely fastened and your trays and seats are in their upright position. Please do not turn on cell phones or any electronic devices until we have arrived at our gate and the plane has fully stopped. On behalf of the captain, flight and cabin crew, thank you for flying British Airways and we hope you join us again soon."
Eighty-seven words. Her announcement ended in an odd number. Despite the Xanax having kicked in, mostly due to my having taken another two tablets of it about an hour into the flight to usher in the effects more quickly, I was alert enough to notice the flight attendant's announcement felt wrong. It ended in an odd number. I would have to get her to state some more words to yield an even sum of words before I left the plane. I knew what I needed to do.
After landing, I waited until all the other passengers had de-boarded. I stayed seated. Eventually the flight attendant who made the announcement walked over to my seat and leaned in. "Sir, are you feeling alright? There. Ninety-two words total. An even number and a very good one at that. I looked at her with my Xanax-glazed eyes and smiled.