Short Story | ‘Phoebe’ by Amechi Ngwe, Illustration by Sayantan Halder
You meet Phoebe at a party. You say “nice to meet you,” and extend your hand to shake hers. She won’t take it. She’ll completely reject your offer of the ribbon of friendship. Because Phoebe sees death when she looks at the hands of another person. To her, your hands are safe havens for sickness, incubators of infectious disease, gateways to malady, so she will not touch your bacteria infested appendages, not even for a thousand dollars.
So your unshaken hand hangs in midair until you realize she isn’t going to shake it and lower it. You feel a little offended and hint that she might be a germaphobe and she denies it by making a joke. “I have plenty of friends who are germs,” she says. Then she laughs. And you laugh because it’s like when closet racists say ‘I have lots of black friends’ and you want to show her that you get the joke.
You want to change the subject now but she keeps it going because she’s got a whole routine down. “I’ve actually been intimate with a few different germs,” she says in a tone that makes her sound a little slutty and turns you on a little. “I have this on/off relationship with the common cold. It’s complicated,” she says. She twirls the ends of her hair around her index finger and continues: “And I spent a few weeks last summer getting to know influenza. We hardly ever left my bedroom.”
Then she tells you about the time when her last roommate Mindy said it would be fine if they both drank from the same wine glass and she ended up getting mono. It might have been unrelated but she doesn’t think so. “That relationship was pretty serious.” She says and goes on to explain that she doesn’t talk to Mindy anymore. Then she gives you a tight smile, keeps her hands balled up by her sides, and hopes you’ve forgotten that you’ve not shaken her hand yet, and that you’ll walk away, and leave her the hell alone for the rest of the evening. But you don’t walk away and if you were paying closer attention to her body you’d notice that her chest was not rising and falling because she’s holding her breath now too; afraid that the toxic cocktail that is your stale, exhaled breath might make its way into her respiratory system.
There is an awkward silence that lasts longer than it should and eventually she is forced to give in and inhale the dirty air and she inwardly curses you and all of the other people in the room, who have no doubt brought their favorite germy ingredients to add to the germ soup that is floating up her nostrils.
Seeing that the conversation is over, you say: “Well, it was nice meeting you.” You extend your hand again but she gives you a look, and if you’d known her for an extended period of time you’d know that this particular look means that she’s thinking that if she shakes hands with you, she’s shaking hands with everyone you’ve shaken hands with today. And who knows how many of those hands hadn’t been washed? And when did you last wash your hands? You’ve probably used the bathroom 10 times since then and maybe you peed on your fingers a little or couldn’t find any toilet paper and decided to use the side of your palm instead. And she’s almost certain that you just picked your nose really quickly when she blinked just now.
She’d put on protection to touch you but she’d accidentally left her latex gloves on the bus after taking them off to look through her purse for some hand sanitizer because it had been 20 minutes since she’d last sanitized her hands. There was an old man sitting next to her and he coughed violently into his hand and his knee touched hers and she jumped up out of her seat and got off the bus two stops early. Thinking of it now is enough to send a shiver up her spine. You don’t know this, but it’s the reason why she turns away from you and makes a beeline for the exit. You head to the bathroom to see if you have something in your teeth.
Illustration by: Sayantan Halder