"Fresh From My Body, Straight to Your Plate, Part 2: Contagion"
Carolyn Space Jacobson
March 7, 1997

copyright © 1997

[Lights up.]

It's Saturday and I am sitting in a rare-book room, reading a book about the plague written in 1820, which looks and smells as if it had been kept in a damp place for a very long time. Many of the pages are mildewed, and the binding has completely rotted away, leaving the sheets hanging together by threads. On page 82, the author suggests that the plague can be spread by the handling of unfumigated paper, and then the smell hits me, and for one panic-stricken moment I'm worried that I might catch the pl ague from the putrid pages of the book.

When my mom came down with polio, her mother took back the books that they had checked out from the children's library, and warned the librarian that they were coming from a house where there had been polio. The librarian told her not to worry, because t hey had a bright sunny room, where all the returned books were placed, open, and the librarians came through and turned the pages periodically, during this disinfecting process. When my mother was let out of the hospital six weeks later, though, she had to leave all of her stuffed animals and dolls and clothes behind, because the doctors were so worried about polio spreading.

My great aunts are paranoid about clothing spreading germs. Everything has to be washed in VERY HOT WATER, and if you are taking your clothes out of the dryer, and one sock falls on the ground, they are RIGHT THERE to pounce on you and make you REWASH th at sock, even though they clean their floors with Lysol ALL THE TIME, and even though this sock will never go near any of the openings of your body that permit germs access. And don't think you can just slip that sock back into the pile of your really cl ean laundry, because they're always watching. You reach down in the dark to pick up the sock, and the LIGHT IS ON, and there is Great Aunt Juliana in her nightgown, hanging onto the string that has been tied to the light pull so they can reach it now tha t they are shrinking. They have to be to be as vigilant as the germs themselves. Germs never sleep, Carolyn. When you least expect them, they're crawling up your leg. They'll crawl from your sock to your pant leg, and then up and up into your underwea r. And then they'll crawl right in!

And even with great-aunts on the lookout, sometimes there's nothing you can do, the germs will get you in the end. When my Great Aunt Carol was young and working in New York City, she was deathly afraid of catching tuberculosis, so when she would eat at a lunch counter near where she worked, she would turn her coffee cup around so that even though she was right handed, she'd be drinking as if she were left-handed, touching her lips to the side of the glass that fewer people had drunk from. One day, the woman sitting next to her started talking, Oh I see you drink from the wrong side. Yes, my great-aunt answered. I do it to avoid catching tuberculosis. That's funny, the woman said. I do it because I have tuberculosis, and I want to pass it on to as f ew people as possible. And Carol died a few years later, mysteriously. You can never win with germs. Other people serve as their agents, even well-intentioned people.

This is why my aunts never leave the house anymore. This is why, above all, one should never never work in NY. All those people with tuberculosis.

Oh, I know that I'm young, with a strong immune system. But I also know that when I stay at my great aunt's house, the most germ-free environment one can find outside of an environmentally sterile bubble, I start to think the germs are everywhere. Pesti ferous introductions at every turn. When I visit, I start to wash my hands after I touch anyone or anything. As a result, my hands get dry and scaly, which makes me think they're infected, so I wash them all over again. I use the basin of Lysol next to the sink my Great Aunt Marie dips her hands in to make sure she's killed off everything. I pick up those dropped socks and wash them. And then wash my hands again. I drink out of the cup right at the handle where no one else would possibly think to dr ink, except, probably, my great-aunts, when nobody is looking and they don't have to drink properly. I touch things only with my dry and scaly fingertips. Or I don't touch things at all. I use the ubiquitous rubber gloves when I'm emptying the dish was her so I don't spread germs that way. I lay down paper towels so I don't have to step on the bathroom floor. Ewwwwww. I construct elaborate and sanitary contraptions so I don't have to hold books open with my bare hands, because who knows who touched t hem last or what that person died of.

And just because you don't get sick doesn't mean the germs aren't in you. You breath something bad, and they're there. Clinging to your lungs. The slightest lowering of your resistance, and they take over. You eat the wrong thing? You'll get cholera. You get too upset in the car on the way home? Cholera. You wake up too much at night? Cholera. You can't fall to sleep right away? Cholera. You drink? Cholera. You snap at your daughter? Cholera. Feel a cold breeze? Cholera.

Oh, God. Cholera. Projectile vomiting. Projectile diarrhea. I once heard of an elephant with cholera. I can't imagine. You lose so much water that your blood turns to tar and stops moving through your body. If your vein is sliced open, nothing come s out, or what is squeezed out is dark and ropy. People's hearts stop, their blood is so solid. They turn cold, as if dead, but can still talk or cry. The vomit turns thick and black. The evacuations are just mucus and slime. The stomach spasms, and the permanently contracted muscle of the gut is the size and hardness of a fist. The fingernails become livid, and bent inwards. The skin of the palms becomes bleached and wrinkled up into folds. The whole person shrinks. And the mess gets everywhere. Gets on the bedding, gets on the clothing of all the caretakers. Gets on the baskets under the bed that the family uses to sell fruit in the morning on the streets. Gets into the water systems. Gets into the pumps. Gets into the beer. The nurses pa ck up the damp clothes of the dead woman (Why don't they wash them first?) and send them to her sister, and the cholera spreads. Damp clothing being sent out of town set on top of books which become damp. You open up the wrong book? Cholera.

I think of the doctor who in 1850 wrote in desperation that he had locked all his instruments and his favorite wool coat in a cabinet because he was afraid that they were somehow spreading disease to the women he was treating. Who knows where it lurks? I can't imagine all the things my great aunts have locked up over the years. Think of all the books locked in cabinets for fear of the harm they might spread.

Henry Holland had a theory in 1855 that germs were really small insects, which makes sense given what people were starting to see under microscopes. But he thought that germs could fly, could be attracted to things, like flies or gnats. Think of a baby' s mouth covered in something sweet. Think of bright colors attracting germs like flowers. Think of any light in the dark. Your nightlight, and the germs banging against the windowpane, scuttling over the sill. Think of the eggs being laid, and then ha tching again when the conditions are just right. When the spring air gets just warm enough. Think of the inescapable thick swarms of May flies as germs. Crawling under your door at night, smelling you in bed and heading straight for you.

When I reed about the copious evacuations of the mucus membranes that come with cholera, I don't even quite know what that means, but for days I can't shake the image of snot gushing from my nose. I can feel it. My imagination has come down with a horri ble case of cholera. If only I'd shut the book a page earlier. At the first whiff of something so horrible, I should have slapped the covers closed. But those images you can't shake, sneak up on you when you're reading. You can't pull away. Just one more page. I can see all these words coming toward me, insisting I read them. Off the page, up onto my face, into my eyes and now I'm caught. Done for.

Skeptical? Truth travels slowly. In time it will reach you.

"Fresh From My Body, Straight to Your Plate, Part 2: Contagion" debuted March 7, 1997.

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