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My theory on housework is, if the item doesn't multiply, smell, catch fire, or block the refrigerator door, let it be.

-- Erma Bombeck

I slipped in undetected. Every part of me was silently screaming, Get out! Get out! You're not supposed to be here. I quickly found what I came for. At the bottom of two stainless-steel tanks I saw small dishes alive with cultures of toxic biochemical agents. You don't have to do this! No one saw you. You could leave now and no one would be the wiser! There are hundreds of other assignments you can volunteer for.

But it's my turn, and if I don't do it, someone else will have to. This is only fair. This is my duty.

Still fighting my rising gorge, I lifted my hand and inched closer to the saucers of floating blue, green, gray, and white colonies.

I need a better tool; this will never work. Abort the mission!

"I'm running out!" I called to David, who was oblivious to my dangerous undertaking in the adjacent room.

"Where are you going?"

"Just running to the store, babe, no big deal. I'll be back in a sec." Half an hour later (I lingered), I returned with a brand-new, fresh, unsoiled, and therefore not disgusting sponge.

When I moved into David's loft over two years ago, I brought mess with me. At first I was a guest, therefore exempt from home maintenance. But then, as my clothing and shoes multiplied, as my office moved into the corner of the living room above his office downstairs, and as my hats, books, toiletries, and magazines filled in what space remained, I became an equal partner in household chores.

Soon after I moved my toothbrush in, I told my beloved that I don't "do" domestic. "Baby," I said, "I'll do my best to keep my stuff in order, and I'll be happy to pay for a maid, but don't ever expect me to scrub." When I lived by myself, of course, I occasionally broke down and got dirty, but I'd rather save for a professional cleaner than suffer through my spasmodic, half-assed attempts at getting the job done.

Once, when he caught me gagging over the kitchen sink, David said my aversion to cleaning stemmed from my "germaphobia."

"I'm not afraid of germs," I said. "It's not the germs that make me gag. It's the stench of this festering crap and the slimy feel of the residue coating every dish." As an adult, I'd never had a dishwasher, and I never had a problem doing my own dishes. Granted, I kept the sink doused with insane amounts of lemon-scented Dawn. "Okay, the germs themselves are not making you gag right now," David conceded, "but your reaction to the smell and texture could still originate from your deeply rooted phobia."

"I am not afraid!"

He chuckled and muttered, "Pretty soon you'll be wearing Kleenex boxes on your feet." Then he lightly pushed me aside and took over.

David has been accusing me of germaphobia since he noticed that I never touch the buttons at crosswalks. When we're walking together, he will urge me to press them, as if by doing so I will suddenly overcome my concern of picking up toxins from a million dirty fingers. If I must push a crosswalk button, it is always with a knuckle or sleeve-covered back of my hand.

Though I don't think I'm anywhere close to being as psycho about our "invisible friends" as was Howard Hughes, I am aware of germs at every turn. I learned the hard way not to express worry over eating any fruit or vegetable that I have seen David hold under the faucet for two seconds instead of decontaminating with white gloves and chemicals I can't pronounce. The few times I voiced my concern over this, I earned a history lesson from my exasperated partner.

"For centuries, people have somehow managed to survive without having their food deloused, irradiated, and hermetically shrink-wrapped in a NASA-grade clean room" is one I've heard a dozen times. "If we lived in Europe you'd starve" is another.

If germaphobia is indeed what I have, I come by it honestly. My father's quirks would give the most experienced therapist enough documentation for her next book. Last week, Dad and I returned to his place after walking around his Mission Hills neighborhood. "Shit!" he hissed to himself as we approached the front door. He was looking at his feet; his shoelaces were untied and rested on the cement. I knew what was wrong.

"You're upset because your shoelace came untied when we were walking, and you don't want to retie them because that means you might as well be touching the ground they've been dragged across," I said, more as a revelation about myself than as a commentary on my father's behavior.

"Have you seen the sidewalk?" Dad asked in his defense.

"I understand, Dad," I said. "I can't tie my shoelaces unless I'm within close range of a clean bathroom that contains nice-smelling soap." I didn't mention that because of this, only one of my 20 pairs of shoes even has laces. "Now I know where my weirdness stems from, Dad, but what about yours?"

"It stems from reality," Dad said. "From being aware. I enjoy my health. People don't wash their hands, and fecal matter is everywhere."

Then he explained how, when returning from business trips abroad, he packs his sneakers in individual plastic bags so that they won't come into contact with any other item in his luggage. He expected me to judge him negatively for this, but I agreed with his common sense -- I shudder at the thought of my shoes touching my clothing. Yet somehow, despite the onslaught of germs, my father and I survive each day.

I retrieved a new blue sponge from its shiny cellophane package, turned on the water, and let it run until the temperature seemed hot enough to kill microbes but not to scald me (sometimes I make up science "facts" to comfort myself). With my face scrunched in disgust and determination, I dissected the pile of ceramic and glass before me -- I can only have one dish in the sink at a time, lest I accidentally touch a semi-clean bowl against a dirty glass. Surprisingly, I find the monotonous task of washing each dish (rinsing, scrubbing, rinsing, scrubbing, rinsing and rinsing again) to be cathartic once I accept that my hands will be wrinkled and smell like sponge for the rest of the day.

David surely heard the clinking and intermittent gutturals coming from the kitchen, but he remained in his studio. When the sound of running water ceased, he emerged to find me standing over the dishwasher contemplating into which of the holes in the door I was to pour detergent.

Discovering open space where before there had been piles of dishes obscuring the sink and countertops, David said, "Thanks for doing the dishes, babe."

I kissed him on the cheek and said, "Oh, this? It was no big deal."

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