Trying to Escape “It”


I’d been blissfully ignorant of “it” until my first trip to Las Vegas. That was nearly 20 years ago, but I distinctly remember tossing a Bellagio-branded Wet-Nap® aside as I slid into an empty seat in front of (yet another) slot machine. As I gave the handle a satisfying crank, all the Wet-Naps I’d seen lying around started drifting through my mind. I wondered why, of all things, casinos chose to advertise on those little packets… It wasn’t until my boyfriend told me I had something on my face that I finally glanced at my hands and saw my fingers had turned black.

Still, it didn’t register; I just stared at my fingers in dumb confusion, trying to figure out what had happened to them. Then, as if in a dream, the casino’s hypnotic chorus of dinging and chiming machines faded from my ears, the flashing lights dimmed from the edges of my vision, and the three small Wet-Nap packages beside my slot machine came into sharp focus. Right behind my filthy fingers.

Suddenly, I became hyperaware that everyone was touching the same things as me – doorknobs, hand railings, elevator buttons, the grab bars on trains and buses, you name it. And, every time I touched those things, I would come in contact with “it.” To be clear, I didn’t really know what “it” was, but “it” had turned my hands black, and the thought of “it” made my stomach lurch.

“It” followed me everywhere I went after that, including movie theaters and hotel rooms where every surface seemed ripe with invisible “it” microbes I didn’t want to know about. Unfortunately, the more I tried to ignore “it,” the more I fixated on “it,” until I could barely touch a thing, much less sit down on any of the furniture. “It” was in the air too, which made airplane travel a fresh, new, fun-filled adventure where I saw “it” everywhere.

You might be thinking that this fixation on “it” would get tedious. Fortunately, I have friends who tolerate my quirks and chuckle when I won’t touch things with my bare hands or insist on wiping them down with sanitizer. My husband even admits that the tiny packets of Wet-Nap-esque cleansers I always have squirreled away have come in handy on more than one occasion. Most surprisingly, he finally stopped going barefoot in public spaces. To be fair, though, I insist on that because of Athlete’s foot and warts – not “it” – and I’ve followed that precaution for my whole life. (You can blame that one on my mother.)

I should also clarify that I can touch and dispose of plenty of gross things without batting an eye. And, thanks to sharing a home with cats and dogs for most of my adult life, I could easily write an entire essay devoted to that disgusting subject alone. I also don’t have a problem with dirt and have been known to go far too long without showering, especially when camping. I’ve also eaten things that I’ve dropped on the floor before – my own floor, not the floor of the State Fair Food Building like my husband did once, but let’s not go there. Needless to say, I understand the value of a little dirt and know it can actually be good for you.

No, my problem is the intangible “it” from strangers touching handrails, doorknobs, money, movie theater seats, faucets in public restrooms… for a while, I even had a hard time eating in restaurants because I started thinking of all the hands that had touched my food, and it really didn’t matter to me that they’d (hopefully) washed their hands first. I don’t think that “it” will kill me, but the thought of all those hands touching the same thing makes my stomach churn and the image of my blackened fingers spring to mind immediately, even if I don’t have to touch the surface myself.

Which brings me to 2020 and a little thing called COVID-19. I’ve come to accept my overactive imagination where “it” is concerned, and I’m lucky to have people in my life who help me laugh about it. But I can’t help seeing this virus on every surface I touch, moving from person to person, and floating around in the air I breathe. Again, I can rationalize this irrational reaction, and I know that, if the data is correct, I’ll end up sick at some point. I also understand that the likelihood I’ll end up dangerously ill is slim. Still, like “it,” I can’t help but avoid touching shared surfaces, staying away from people whenever possible, and my hands have taken on a remarkable reptilian appearance from all the handwashing.

For everyone practicing social distancing, thank you. If we do engage in casual conversation from (at least) six feet away, please don’t be annoyed if I seem distracted. I honestly can’t focus on a thing you’re saying because all I see are coronavirus particles floating around you, like the pulsing cloud of dirt circling Pigpen. And, yes, that’s also why I won’t let you in my house right now.

COVID-19 may not be “it,” but I’m kind of thankful now that my fingers turned black on that first trip to Vegas all those years ago. It turns out some of my irrational neuroses are finally coming in handy, and because of “it,” I’ve got a good supply of Wet-Naps to fall back on.

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Heidi Van Heel

Heidi Van Heel

Writer, freelancer, and believer in magic living in Minneapolis. In my free time, I love reading, exploring the great outdoors, and experimenting in the kitchen.

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