She couldn’t help herself. It was a compulsion that pulled her to the sink like a magnet. The second she could sense there were any dishes left unwashed (which, of course there would be before finishing a meal), she had to get up and practically run to them. She had to make clean in dishware–and just about every other household item–what she could never make clean in her own life: the fact that she had been raped long ago by some older guy at a party. She didn’t talk about it ever, had only mentioned off-handedly once to her husband and never again after that. But once was all it took for him to understand that every obsessive compulsive person has something that makes them turn to this behavior. And stressors that trigger it on a day-to-day basis. Elizabeth was dimly aware at some point that her “ritual” of needing to wash the dishes might be annoying to her husband and children, but the way it made her feel usurped any concern she might have once had for their comfort level at the table.
Over time, her progeny developed their own disorders as a result of her behavior. Ones primarily driven by the anxiety and walking on egg shells sentiments they felt when she was clanging and banging dishes together in an “unwittingly” obnoxious fashion while they were still making some “attempt” to enjoy the food that their father, Matteo, was usually responsible for preparing. Being of Italian descent (second generation), cooking was far more indoctrinated in his genes than it was in Elizabeth’s British ones. It was also because of being Italian that it cut Matteo like a knife to see his wife’s utter lack of disinterest in all the effort he had put forth into the cuisine. As though it was something merely “expected.” Or worse, that she could have taken it or left it. Which wasn’t far from the truth. When their two children, Max and Christina, left for college in the same three-year span, it left a huge chasm at the table. For it essentially meant that Matteo was preparing sumptuous poetry on a plate for no one but himself. Elizabeth didn’t care. All she wanted was to wash the fucking dishes. She couldn’t even be bothered to spare a laudatory compliment once in a while, like, “Oh Matteo, this looks delicious” or “You’ve really outdone yourself this time.” No, nothing like that. Instead it was undercutting little remarks like, “A bit heavy-handed on the salt, don’t you think?” Then more strained silence would ensue and Elizabeth would feel the urge to go to her paramour, the sink.
Crash, clang, bang. No one could quite make an onomatopoeia-drenched symphony like Elizabeth. Every day, she was at war. Abusing not only the dishes, but attacking the stove with a soapy rag–even if the stove hadn’t been used. In her mind, everything was dirty all the time. That was the nature of her increasingly augmenting disease. One that Matteo didn’t know how to live with anymore, or what to do about it. Especially since she was what psychiatrists would call a “recovery avoider.” Not only would she not acknowledge the abnormality of her behaviors, but they felt far too good as coping mechanisms for her to ever dispense with them. What was she coping with apart from the trauma of what had triggered the condition in the first place? Perhaps it was the revelation that she didn’t love Matteo and maybe never did. That she had wasted her life building one with him that she didn’t really want. But, as they say, “those were the times,” and she simply went along with what society expected of her trajectory. Of late, she had been questioning why. And, worst of all, she was questioning why she had brought children into the whole mess as well. Max and Christina were lovely people (when they weren’t outstretching their hands to pull from Elizabeth’s coffer), but she often wondered if she had only done them a disservice by bringing their souls here, to this shitshow called existence. It was another thing that weighed on her, kept her awake at night (for insomnia was an additional part of her psychological damage). She felt a certain guilt. The kind of guilt that seemed to plague Lady Macbeth with all that talk of “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” as she washed invisible blood away. While Elizabeth might not have been seeing invisible blood, she was seeing invisible spots. Specks of dirt and other assorted “bits” on everything. Not just the dishes, which did occupy most of her time even when there didn’t seem to be any (Matteo marveled at how she could manage to “rustle them up” out of nowhere, when they hadn’t eaten). She could find “uncleanliness” in the yard, in the bathroom, in the bedroom–any space with or without four walls, really.
Matteo was truly reaching his breaking point. And he didn’t want to concern Max or Christina with the ever-worsening issue. Why shouldn’t they get to enjoy the carefreeness of what was left of their youth? Soon enough, the axe would come down on them too. And they would have to follow the seemingly unbreakable path of getting a lackluster job and having a family. No, he couldn’t burden them with the information. He decided instead to consult with a psychiatrist he had been referred to by a friend. Even though Italians didn’t quite believe in the so-called panacea of therapy the way Americans did, Matteo knew Elizabeth’s case was dire enough for him to make an exception regarding his own personal beliefs (or lack thereof) in the Church of Psychiatry.
Dr. Elgin was a mild-mannered woman in her late thirties, with wispy, wheat blonde hair and a wardrobe that connoted white was her favorite color. Matteo could imagine her saying something like, “White is the ideal color to wear in front of patients. It lessens the chances of them making any associations with me, negative or otherwise.” Instead, what she said was, “It sounds like your wife’s condition is really affecting your relationship, and it sounds like it’s affecting all of her personal relationships as well.”
“What personal relationships? She doesn’t have any friends. She can’t. She’s too goddamn busy banging dishes together and pretending to give purpose to her sad, pathetic life with these innocuous chores.”
Dr. Elgin made no expression. “And what about you, Matteo? Do you feel your life has purpose?”
Matteo thought for a while before he replied, “Right now it feels like my purpose is to get Elizabeth to reconcile with her disease. Because if she continues to go about blindly to it in this way, I don’t think I can stick around any longer.”
Although the sessions were meant to be a jumping off point for developing a strategy on how to gradually get Elizabeth to come in, Matteo found himself enjoying Dr. Elgin’s company beyond the professional scope. She was just so attentive and genuine–even if she was paid to be. He spent many thousands of dollars on their time together by the end of the year. Enough to alert Elizabeth to the situation of their “small fortune” being squandered on something she was unaware of. When Matteo, who by now had ceased eating meals with her to avoid the anxiety it invoked (even so, she still found dishes to create her obsessive compulsive symphony with), confessed that he had been seeing a therapist on her behalf, she roared with laughter. It was highly disturbing. What was even more so was that Elizabeth then proceeded to go upstairs and scrub the bathroom on her hands and knees for roughly two hours. Matteo made an emergency call to Dr. Elgin, who was all too ready to receive him in her apartment for an “emergency session,” which turned quickly into the time-honored therapeutic practice of adulterous sex.
And the Italian ran away with the therapist, as the alternate ending of a children’s story might go. Called Goodnight Recovery Avoider, in this case. Besides, Matteo reasoned, Elizabeth had already been cheating on him all this time with the cleaning supplies.