The water from the faucet was piercingly cold. But there was no time to wait around for it to warm up. Kousaka began washing his hands. Immediately, the running water took away all heat in his hands, and they went numb. He stopped the faucet, soaped up his hands and washed thoroughly, then ran the water again. Even after the bubbles were drained away, he kept his hands in the running water. After about two minutes, the water heater finally remembered its duty, and the tap water began to warm up. His frozen hands had a prickling numbness, and couldn’t tell hot from cold.
He stopped the faucet and carefully wiped the water with a paper towel. Bringing the numb hands to his face, he closed his eyes and sniffed. Once certain they were odorless, he applied rubbing alcohol from the table all over his hands. Gradually, he started to calm down.
Back in the living room, he threw himself down on the bed. Light weakly shined through a gap in the white curtains; it could have been early morning, or it could have been evening. But either way, time was currently not all that important in this man’s life.
He heard a constant stream of children’s voices outside. It was the elementary school nearby. Hearing the children playing and having fun would occasionally cause him suffocating sadness. Kousaka turned on the radio by his bed, tuned it to a random frequency, and let music play. An old staticy song covered the shouts of the children.
After quitting his last job, Kousaka made no effort to find a new place of employment, steadily exhausted his savings, and spent his days lying in bed, pretending to think about something. Of course, he wasn’t actually thinking about anything. He was just trying to keep up appearances. I’m storing up vitality for the time I’ll need it, he told himself. He himself didn’t know how to give a “when” to this “time I’ll need it.”
Once a week, he reluctantly had to go out to do shopping, but the rest of his time was spent in his room. The reason was simple: he had a serious case of germaphobia.
He lived in a small, neat dining-room-plus-kitchen rental apartment within twenty minutes of the nearest train station. It was his one and only holy space. There, he always had two air purifiers running, and there was a faint smell of antiseptic. The floors were so polished as to appear brand new, and his shelves were lined with disposable latex gloves, surgical masks, bacterial spray, wet tissues, etcetera. Most of his clothes and furniture were white or close to it, and his closet was stocked with new shirts still in the bags.
Kousaka washed his hands over a hundred times a day, so they were terribly rough. His nails were neatly cut, with the exception of a long nail on the index finger of his dominant hand. This was his backup measure for when he was driven into situations that called for touching elevator or ATM buttons with his bare hands.
Another part of Kousaka’s body that was dubiously “clean” was his hair. He’d let it grow somewhat long. He recognized it was better to have short hair for keeping his room clean, but he really couldn’t handle salons and barber shops, so he had a habit of putting off haircuts as much as he could.
While it would be easiest to call him a clean freak, he really had a variety of conditions. If you dig into such people’s perceptions of “uncleanliness,” you’ll discover a number of irrational beliefs. People who call themselves clean freaks in spite of having messy rooms are a superb example.
Kousaka’s image of uncleanliness was “other people.” More than actual dirtiness, the major issue lied in whether or not another person had some involvement. If it came to having to eat food another person’s hand had touched, he’d rather eat something that’s been expired for a week.
He saw people other than himself like petri dishes generating bacteria. He felt just the touch of a fingertip would make microorganisms propagate and contaminate his body. Kousaka couldn’t hold hands even with someone he was close to - of course, for better or worse, he had no one to hold hands with right now anyway.
Suffice to say, his fastidiousness was a major obstacle in having a social life. Someone who views other people as impurity itself can’t form positive relationships. His essential desire not to interact with others manifested in various ways, and irritated those around him. He couldn’t put on even an insincere smile, he couldn’t remember people’s names, he couldn’t make eye contact with people… There were too many things to list.
At any rate, dealing with other people was nothing but agony. Back when he was working, everything caused him stress, and all of his desires except sleep vanished.
Above all, company functions like get-togethers and trips were hell itself. After coming home from such events, he would often take four-hour showers, lie in bed, and listen to music to retune his mind. He had to do this to teach himself that there was sound worth hearing in this world, or he’d feel like ripping his ears off. On such nights, he couldn’t sleep without music playing.
In short, I’m not suited to be a human, Kousaka thought with some seriousness regarding his fitness for society. As a result, he quickly lost his place regardless of what the job was, and ended up quitting just to get away.
His repeated changing of jobs was essentially a process of eliminating his prospects one by one. In just a few years as a working adult, he felt like he had been thoroughly denied as a human. It was like he was branded with the words “it’s no use whatever you do.”
It wasn’t like he was searching for a bluebird. He knew from the start there was nothing like that out there. It’s not as if all people have a calling. In the end, to some extent, everyone has to make a compromise somewhere.
Yet while his head understood this, his heart wouldn’t come on board. His mind had been steadily worn down by the day, and his compulsions worsened with it. In correlation to his mind degrading, his surroundings became cleaner, and his room was practically sterilized.
— ◆ —
Lying in bed and listening to the music on the radio, Kousaka faintly thought over the events of a few hours ago.
He was at a convenience store. He was wearing disposable latex gloves. These were necessities for him, and especially required in a convenience store or supermarket, riddled with things which he had to touch, yet other people had gotten their sticky hands all over.
He did his shopping with gloves on as usual, but a problem came up midway. As he reached toward a case to grab some mineral water, suddenly, a joint on his right index finger hurt. He looked; the skin had cracked and bled. A common occurrence. He always washed his hands far too much, and this was a dry season, so his hands were as rough as a beautician just starting out.
Unable to bear the feeling of the blood seeping through the glove, he took the right glove off and discarded it. And not liking the unbalanced nature of wearing only one glove, he also discarded the left glove. And he continued shopping.
The person at the register was a girl he commonly saw working part-time here. She was a courteous girl with hair died coffee-brown, and as Kousaka brought his items up, she received him with a full-faced smile. There were no particular problems up to that point, but as Kousaka took the change, the girl handed it to him by wrapping her hands around his.
This was bad.
Kousaka immediately, reflexively shook her hands away. The coins scattered to the floor, and the customers in the store all looked their way.
He looked at his hand, dumbstruck, ignored the girl at the register hastily apologizing, and fled the store without even trying to pick up the change. And after returning to the apartment as quickly as possible, he took a long shower. But he still felt the unpleasant sensation, and rewashed his hands after leaving the shower.
After recalling the whole sequence of events, Kousaka sighed. Even he thought it was unusual. But he simply couldn’t stand his bare skin being touched.
In addition, Kousaka was poor with girls who had a sense of femininity, like the one at the register. It wasn’t limited to women; he similarly disliked men who pushed their manliness to the forefront. He felt a similar sense of impurity from both of them. It sounds like something a girl entering puberty would say, but it really felt that way to him.
During childhood, he thought his phobia would naturally be cured as he grew up, but in reality, it only got worse. At this rate I’ll never marry, to say nothing of making friends, he muttered to himself.
— ◆ —
When Kousaka was nine, he had a mother. Just before he turned ten, she left this world. It was judged an accident, but Kousaka still suspected it to be a suicide.
She was a beautiful woman. Cultured and resourceful, with good taste in music and movies. Apparently she was an Electone instructor before she met Kousaka’s father. It was a relatively small class, but reputable, and quite a few students came from far away to take it.
It still baffled Kousaka why a perfect woman like her chose a mediocre man like his father as a partner. His father was not a classy man, to say the least. His face was like a failed montage of parts that didn’t fit together, he didn’t earn much, he had no hobbies but also no passion for work, and generally, you couldn’t find any merits worth calling merits (though to the Kousaka of today, just living normally and keeping a house was worthy of respect).
Kousaka’s mother was harsh on herself, and sought similar effort from her son as well. From a time before Kousaka can remember, he was forced to take various lessons, and when at home, followed a minute-to-minute schedule devised by his mother. Being so young, he thought all mothers were like this, so he harbored no doubts and obediently did as told. If he defied her, he might be locked out of the house barefoot or not get any meals all day, so he had no choice.
The fact that he didn’t live up to even half of her expectations seemed to make Kousaka’s mother more bewildered than upset. Why is this child, my own flesh and blood, not as perfect as me? Perhaps there was a problem in how I raised him?
Strangely, she doubted everything except Kousaka’s disposition. Yet that most likely wasn’t a result of partiality as a parent, but a manifestation of her warped self-love. She chose to doubt her teaching methods before she’d doubt her own blood, that’s all.
Like many perfectionists, Kousaka’s mother liked cleanliness. When Kousaka’s room was messy or he came home looking dirty, she had a deeply sorrowful look. That was much more harsh on him than shouting or hitting. On the other hand, when Kousaka went and cleaned his room or washed his hands, she always praised him. As someone without any particular scholarly or athletic skill, these were one of few opportunities to make his mother happy. He naturally came to like cleanliness more than other children his age - within reason, however.
Abnormalities began at age 9, at the end of summer. One day, Kousaka’s mother started being very kind to him, like a changed person. As if regretting her prior behavior, she discarded all the rules she’d imposed on him, and treated him very affectionately.
Freed from all his limitations and able to experience an unrestricted, childlike life for the first time, Kousaka didn’t give any deep thought to the sudden change in his mother’s attitude.
Occasionally, she would gently put her hand on Kousaka’s head and stroke it, repeating “I’m sorry.” He wanted to ask what she was apologizing for, but felt it might upset her if he did, so he stayed silent and let his head be stroked.
He would realize afterward: She wasn’t apologizing for something she had done, but something she was about to do.
After just a month of acting as a kind mother, she died. While driving home from a shopping trip, she had a head-on collision with a car going far faster than the speed limit.
Naturally, it was considered an accident. But Kousaka knew something: at certain times of day, that road became an ideal place for committing suicide. And it was none other than his mother who’d told him that.
After the funeral, something in Kousaka changed. That night, he washed his hands for hours. His right hand with which he’d touched his mother’s body felt unbearably disgusting.
When Kousaka woke up from a light sleep the next morning, his world had changed. He sprang out of bed and ran into the bathroom. And he took a shower lasting hours. Everything in the world seemed to be dirty. Hair in the drain, mold on the walls, dust on the windowsill - just looking at these things made a chill go down his spine.
And in this way, he became a clean freak.
Kousaka himself saw no direct cause and effect between his mother’s death and his fastidiousness. It was nothing more than one impetus. Even if it weren’t for that particular incident, surely something else would have awakened this. It’s just something that’s always been in me.