Alice is sitting on the floor outside the bathroom door, listening. Inside, her fifteen-year-old son, Claude, is showering. Claude has been in the shower for almost two hours. When he comes out, his skin will be red as a lobster although the water has long gone cold. He’ll be crimson from the scrubbing, completely exfoliated. Even the bottoms of his feet will be raw. He’ll look like he’s spent a week on the beach without sun screen, and there’s nothing Alice can do to get him to stop. Alice has just gotten off the phone with Claude’s therapist who has tried to reassure her, but it’s not working. She plays with the pushbuttons on the phone while she listens to the running water. Occasionally, she yells through the door at Claude, “Claude, the Grammys are on! You’re going to miss them!” or “Claude, hey you’ve been in there quite a while,” in a voice even she can recognize as hopeless.
Claude has been like this for weeks now. It’s a mix of OCD and anxiety disorder or maybe the beginning of schizophrenia. Alice isn’t sure. The therapist isn’t sure. Alice just knows it’s been weeks since Claude has touched his beloved guitar. On the fridge, Alice has a picture of Claude, his hair falling into his eyes while he strums away, oblivious to the rest of the world. The picture is from an article just last year in the local paper on “gifted” teenagers and argued that perhaps kids like Claude didn’t need regular high schools but should be encouraged to educate themselves. Alice brought out the guitar a few nights ago, hoping to reach Claude, but he flinched when she took it from its case. “There are germs on the strings, ma,” he showed her, “deep in the grooves.” Claude visibly shuddered as he pointed, not quite touching the thick top string. Alice laughed when the therapist suggested that perhaps Claude was taking too much medication. “Are you kidding?” she almost cried, but she knows that means Claude’s toking up on the way to his appointments, and that’s probably the last thing he needs.
The therapist suggested making lists, strict lists allocating only a small amount of time for each activity. That way, Claude wouldn’t be able to get caught in the indecision of going out the front or the back door, and Alice wouldn’t come home from her job at the answering service to find him pacing in the middle of the living room, three steps towards the front door, three steps towards the back, until she took him by the hand and led him to the sofa and set him down, his heart going so fast she was afraid to ask him how long he had been pacing.
As for the shower, Claude hasn’t bathed in a week, despite his fear of germs. “I’m afraid,” he told her finally. “I’m afraid I’ll get in there and not be able to get out.” She gave him some soft soap and a new Egyptian weave washcloth and promised to wait outside the door. After an hour she threatened to walk in on him, hoping that the normal teenage boy fear of being seen naked by his mother would be enough to get him out, but it didn’t. She wonders if she brought this on naming him Claude, what a stupid name she thinks, like clod, like dirt, no wonder he feels dirty. She worries what her ex will think when he comes next week to pick Claude up for the summer.
“Claude, dammit, I have to pee!” She pounds on the door so hard the glass doorknob pops off the stem and rolls down the hall. Alice leans down, peers in the empty hole. She can see Claude through the murk of the sliding shower door. His hands seem to be all over his body, everywhere, scrubbing all of himself at once. Alice gives the phone a kick. She heads for the kitchen and then one-eighties back towards her bedroom. She keeps a flashlight on the night stand, and she grabs it before she heads to the basement. Somewhere, she knows, there is a shut-off. Her ex showed her. He was always showing her things she thought she’d never need to know. He was always there, after all, to fix the toilet or snake the drains. She clicks on the flashlight and follows the pipes with the beam. She can almost see his grubby finger pointing.