Cami Hofstadter: Stepping Over the Threshold
This is a modified version of the first chapter to Cami Hofstadter’s upcoming memoir about life with an obsessive-compulsive man.
It's December of the new Millennium in Miami, Fla., and I have 64 toothbrushes to get out of my life. Without my usual glance at the soothing views of Biscayne Bay, I hurry past the floor-to-ceiling bedroom windows to Andy's bathroom where I know these inanimate sanitary implements, still in their original packages, are crammed into an aged but barely used canvas kit. I'm determined to conquer his things, so I keep repeating that they're nothing more than meaningless machine-made objects, and any sensible person would do what I'm about to do.
What if he knows I'm about to throw out what he's spent years collecting.
The thought of him looking over my shoulder makes me tremble with anxiety, although I manage to make my voice louder than it's been in years when I say to myself, "This is silly; he's been gone for three months already!"
Shampoos and lotions, pills and deodorants, disposable shavers and bandages, all in scrupulous order, rubber-banded together by brand and purpose, all mock me from their prescribed perches in the bathroom cabinets. Then there are the containers with the vinyl stick-ons from his label-making machine spelling out contents like "eye-shades," "D-batteries" and "earplugs." Abruptly I return to the familiarity of the toothbrushes.
We tell stories.
We tell stories to make sense of our lives.
We tell stories to communicate our experience of being alive.
We tell stories in our own distinct voice. Our own unique rhythm and tonality.
Transformations is a weekly story-telling column. The stories are written by community members who are my students. Our stories will be about family, love, loss and good times. We hope to make you laugh and cry. Maybe we will convince you to tell your stories.
— Kathrin Seitz
“Everyone, when they get quiet, when they become desperately honest with themselves, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there.” — Henry Miller
Kathrin Seitz teaches Method Writing in Rockport, New York City and Florida. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maybe it's easier if I keep these for myself ... but how many does a person need during a lifetime...the manufacturers want us to change every six months, so, let's see ... with my life expectancy, probably about 50. Maybe he was right all along... I could be saving a lot of money here.
I stop short when I realize I'm once again looking to rationalize his collections. Disgusted, I zip up the kit with the toothbrushes and toss it aside. My love for him can't be so powerful that it's trumped the forces of the "proud and fierce independence" long embedded in my genetic code. Or, can it? Maybe I am, after all, just another Scandinavian woman caught on an American stage in a depressing Bergmanesque drama. The director called for blind faith in romance and passion and it sure looks like the props for a life of secret suffering are already here.
Somehow I manage to turn away to saunter into the hallway, where I grope around in tightly-packed bookcases for a screw-top glass jar that I know is tucked in against the wall. It was only by accident — or was it on purpose? — less than a year ago that Andy made a big production of showing me the container holding four sets of keys. I had wanted to protest that I didn't want to know any of his hiding places, but then decided that ignorance never worked at any case when he accused "someone" of absconding with his things. Now I take the key tagged “My Main Closet” and hold it in my palm so long that it gets damp from my sweaty hand. Do I really have the guts to enter the forbidden territory?
The key slides into the lock as if oiled and this makes me think of the tall WD-40 spray cans with their tiny detachable straw-like squirters that he regularly applied to every hinge throughout the apartment and his large collection of old and new keys. In an instant, the door to the closet is open and resolutely I step over the oak threshold.
Storage containers in their expensive, custom-built shelving egg me on to check for their mysterious content. I flip open the lid to the first, almost expecting to see something that I don't know about Andy but, instead, I find his prized assortment of padlocks in all sizes and makes. There are the usual heavy-duty Masters and industrial-size Medecos and Abuses along with a large heap of inexpensive, no-brand travel-locks hooked into each other as if permanently frozen in some military formation. Still in their original packages are his all-time favorites, the solid steel Abloys. "Nobody can tamper with them," he had told me in the authoritative tone he used when talking about things he loved.
Leaning over the sturdy plastic box, no doubt purchased during one of his regular hauls from Costco or WalMart, I ponder what to do next. Each lock is attached to its matching keys with duplicates or triplicates hanging from the U-shaped bars, so there's no doubt all of them are still functional, but what can I do with them?
Wonder if anyone has done a study of how many padlocks a person uses during his life-time ... like toothbrushes but with a gender difference. Can't think of any girlfriend who's ever spoken of locks... should just hand them out anyway to make Andy happy.
Once again disgusted, I snap the top to the box shut and will myself to look around the closet when I spot two familiar 45-gallon bins from his old apartment. I know they're filled with at least 500 little hotel soaps, the lingering fresh scent belying the fact that most of them are dried up and crumbling under the weight of the newer top layers. The plastic of most of the miniature shampoo, conditioner and lotion bottles is so disintegrated that the liquid is oozing between everything. I had pointed out how amenities like that were wasted when not used, and since I knew how much he hated waste, I had begged him to let me take the newer ones to a home for abused women — particularly after I read that Nancy Reagan collected hers for a worthy cause — but nothing had convinced him to part with even a handful.
"But you never use these soaps and shampoos," I tried in a voice that became increasingly weaker and less convincing.
"You don't understand a thing," he shouted more than once.
Now, the glaring proof of a life that could have been so different is all here right in front of me, pulling me back to the past as if I have no control over myself. My eyes won't move from the storage container and I keep asking myself, "Should I or shouldn't I throw it out?" The dilemma is driving me mad. Can it really be that I'm still being ruled by the shame and self-pity from all those years of accommodation and pretense?
Damn that Andy and all his stuff! I'll just show him he was the crazy one for having left all this behind! I'll have every single thing hauled out of here!
The sudden jolt to my inherited Scandinavian stoicism provides welcome relief and, like a petulant child, I want to stomp my foot for emphasis before I storm out of the closet in a big show of defiance.
Instead, I gingerly step over the threshold and shut the door behind me.
Cami Hofstadter is a baby-boomer with a different background: born a member of a Swedish-speaking minority in post-WWII Helsinki, Finland, she's a long-time resident in the tropics of South Florida where she built a career as a university lecturer and administrator, all the time maintaining her life-long love for writing in an eclectic choice of genres and venues (samples posted at www.seagreenpress.com). Her most recent book is The Foreign Consuls Among Us: A Guide to Citizen Diplomacy.
She's currently at work on a memoir about how her life-long search to belong led her through the obsessive-compulsiveness of a loved one to find meaning in it and the Jewish culture and values that he stood for.