A Story about an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder:

Fire Away

by Kathy Coogan

Henry was terrified of fire. He carried a fire extinguisher, a bag of sand and a shovel in his car and always had a fancy water bottle hanging from a holster on his belt. The water bottle had been invented for long-haul bicyclists but it worked well for Henry’s peace of mind, too. “Better safe than sorry,” was Henry’s philosophy.

Henry’s compulsive fear made life difficult. He avoided most restaurants. He could not understand why an eating establishment would place a lit candle on a table with table-cloths and napkins made of combustible materials; to say nothing of glasses filled with known fire accelerants like alcohol. Open grille kitchens were anathema.

He had campaigned for smoking bans in public places because who was safe around idiots who placed burning matches and lighters right up to their faces where eyebrows or flowing tresses could catch fire at any time?

Henry was thirty-three and very good-looking in a Tom Selleck-minus-the-mustache way. Most people would call him manly, athletic, self-assured. He attracted women but failed at relationships. His explanations to short-term girl-friends about why he avoided back-yard barbecues (careless amateur grill operators), ski trips (fireplaces) and fireworks displays (duh) were exhausting to him and preposterous to them. Empathy for oddities and quirks only went so far no matter how handsome you were.

One lovely woman had made it through three dates with Henry, in which they progressed to nuzzling in his car and at her door. She had been a major disappointment. She was so pretty and sexy and seemed like a reasonable person.

There had been no reason yet to have the fire-conversation but Henry was optimistic. She was so careful - turning her door-knob twice to make sure it had locked, looking both ways before she crossed the street, carrying a mini-umbrella in her purse. Henry noticed these things and they made him hopeful.On the fourth date she invited him for dinner at her apartment and was only slightly perplexed when Henry asked, “Electric or gas?”

“Pardon?” she asked.

“Your stove? Electric or gas?”

“Um, electric.”

“Good, good, I’d love to come.”

He arrived at 7:00 PM on the dot and stood in front of the security peephole so she could make sure it was he. He was sure that she would want to check before she let him in. She opened it wearing a flowing silk robe wrapped at the waist.

“Hello, Henry,” she said. He noticed that she blushed a little and held the robe closed where it crossed over her breasts as if her shyness was battling her desire. Henry liked that. He also liked that the robe was sheer and clingy and he was only slightly concerned about the static electricity it might generate.

“You look beautiful,” Henry said as he stepped inside to kiss her just below the ear. She was wearing a lovely subtle, ginger and cinnamon-inspired perfume that he noticed as they embraced. “You smell delicious.” He inhaled her scent deeply, then pulled away alarmed, sniffing, sniffing.

“I smell smoke, do you smell smoke?” he said turning his nose to catch the subtle whiffs of flame and wax.

He fought his impulse to back out of the apartment away from danger but feeling heroic, he pulled his water bottle off his belt and unscrewed the lid as he sidled along the wall into the living room as if avoiding sniper fire. Sniffing, sniffing.

“Oh, it’s nothing. It’s only…” She said.

“Candles! You have candles burning. Oh my God, dozens of them.”

The poor woman was mystified and befuddled and now felt more than a little naked in her slinky, skimpy transparent gown. Her embarrassed words, misunderstanding Henry’s alarm and disapproval, came out in a jumble, “So romantic…I thought…we seemed…you…I.”

Henry dodged and darted dousing the tiny flames that if combined would be a conflagration. He dared not blow them out knowing how wind accelerates fire and he didn’t see a snuffer, there should always be a snuffer, he thought, so he relied on the squirt nozzle on top of his bottle.

The lovely, confused woman could only manage, “What are you…? Here, let me, no, wait, no,” as Henry bravely extinguished the individual flickers.

When it was safe, Henry turned to her, breathless. She clutched her gown at her throat, then crossed her arms against her chest then finally reached for the afghan on her couch and wrapped herself in it.

Henry tried to gain composure but his disappointment made him judgmental, “You seemed so sensible and yet you, you stand there in your nylon, assuredly non-fire-retardant gown whose sleeves could at any moment ignite and burn you and me and everyone in this apartment building to the ground. What were you thinking?”

She looked around at the mess that Henry had made and then at his face which was not a face that she would ever want to see again. She was a little frightened by that face. “Please just go.”

“Go? Aren’t you going to thank me?”

“No, yes, I don’t know. Please just go.”

And so he went, thinking for the hundredth time how ungrateful people – women - could be.

Henry had participated in cognitive behavioral therapy for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for years, though he had never bought into the notion that fire was something that he should get used to. He believed that fire was an obsolete source of energy that progress should have gotten rid of by now. Cavemen, really? He had purchased one of the first microwave ovens and had marveled at its coolness as it heated his food.

He continued his group therapy because it was a way to meet people and it was the safest place on earth. Dr. Janus had guided these group meetings for years and Henry often wondered if in her heart of hearts she was disappointed with the progress of her patients. They came and went and usually appeared to be holding onto their compulsions for dear life.

The ones who were considered success stories were the ones who agreed to take the meds that were all the rage. The meds evidently smoothed out the need, whatever it happened to be. But Henry and the patients he knew best could not imagine living without their habits. To take meds would make Henry not take the danger of fire seriously and why would he want to do that?

Penny had the washing compulsion and was constantly wiping her hands with little individually wrapped Wipe-ettes. But other than that she was insightful and intelligent, worked in a library, wearing multiple pairs of latex gloves. Who knew where those books had been?

Esther was a counter, having to repeat certain motions a specific number of times in order to survive. She could be annoying and often held up the meetings with her repetitive behaviors. Magdalena was a hoarder and always arrived with a shopping bag full of stuff she’d picked up off the street. She was pristinely clean and her large purse had multiple pockets and dividers that fastidiously organized her personal stuff.

Henry always thought of the clown car at the circus when she reached into it, which she did often, needing to reassure herself that her stuff was still there. If you needed Kleenex, cough drops, tweezers, pen, paper, a stamp, or aspirin, you knew who to ask.

Henry had once seen her shine the toe of her shoe with a little tin of black shoe polish as she sat waiting for Dr. Janus to begin and she had killed an annoying late season fly with a yellow flyswatter that she pulled out when she needed it

She was meticulous but Henry had heard her talk about the rooms in her house that she could no longer enter because they were bulging with things. And how she was concerned over the mice that left droppings everywhere they scampered. Penny and Henry would exchange glances at these comments, their hearts pounding, Henry thinking of fire and Penny thinking of filth.

The only other male in the group was Josh, who had some post-traumatic stress since returning from Iraq where IEDs and suicide bombers were common place . He felt naked without a weapon and on bad days he was sure that the enemy was around every corner. Dr. Janus had succeeded in disarming him but he was jumpy. He compulsively entered the room with stealth and stood near the door.

He was not quite in synch with the group but Dr. Janus let him stay because he was sweet to the women and sympathetic about Henry’s fire fear, saying, “I get man, fire can be a bitch.”

Dr. Janus had tried unsuccessfully to gradually reduce Henry’s anxiety about fire first with baby steps: asking him to light a single match or flick on a long handled lighter, which she kept on her desk so he could see that it was harmless. This he did, his anxiety rising to a 9 each time on a scale of 1-10. Then with giant steps: walking with him around his neighborhood on Halloween where every stoop bore a jack-o-lantern whose eyes flared with fire.

It didn’t work. His imagination was greater than his power of reason and all he could imagine was buildings and people going up in flames. The visit to a fire department had also backfired. She expected the firemen would remind him that with normal precautions, you could be safe around fire.

This they did but they also regaled him with horror stories of happenstance fires that came out of nowhere and the dangers of their profession – these, the most careful of men, had all been burned. He returned to group, boring, familiar, comfortable group, positive that his compulsion was appropriate and necessary and that everybody else was a damned fool.

One afternoon soon after the trip to Firehouse 10, Dr. Janus was late so Penny, Esther and Henry were waiting for her in the hallway outside her second floor office. It was rainy and thundering. Little light came through the window at the end of the hall making it darker than usual, dimly lit by the single fire exit sign near the stairway.

Dr. Janus arrived to open the door apologizing, shaking water off her umbrella, explaining that the downpour had flooded streets. They assumed that Magdalena and Josh would be along.

They took their usual seats, Henry facing the door. Dr. Janus turned on the lamps but they did little to light the room. She never had evening hours so the lamps were usually simply decorative.

“Are we all okay? Shall we begin? Sorry it’s so gloomy. I’ll get some brighter bulbs for next time.”

They were all settling in when Josh opened the door quickly and stood in his usual place by the door. He was soaked and he flinched when the thunder boomed but he settled in, too.

Penny was telling about her week, how she had torn a protective glove when filing children’s books. She was very proud and encouraged that she had controlled her panic, so she didn’t frighten the children in the room. She had simply set down the books and gone to ladies’ room, washed her hands and put on three new layers of latex gloves.

The thunder outside was making it hard to hear anything. The lightning flashed. Josh seemed to be struggling to maintain his composure. Just then Magdalena came in holding her furled, wet umbrella away from her body. Her usual enormous bag was clutched in front of her and her dark hair was covered by a green scarf.

Josh grabbed her, spun her around and pulled and cocked his sidearm yelling, “Take cover. Bomb.”

Henry saw it all unfolding. Dr. Janus who sat in a large comfy wingback chair, quickly stood and gathered Esther and Penny behind her desk and onto the floor. Josh was holding Magdalena in a half-nelson, her bag still clutched to her chest.

Henry stood, but froze in place. “Josh, she’s only Magdalena. Let her go. It’s us. It’s just Magdalena with her stuff.”

Dr. Janus said, her voice small and quavering, “Let Magdalena go, please, Josh. Put down the gun.”

Josh didn’t let her go. He was yelling, “Take cover, take cover. I don’t know where the detonator is but I’ve got her.”

His eyes were crazed as Magdalena whimpered, holding tight to Josh’s arm which pressed against her throat.

“Come on Josh. It’s Henry. Give me the gun. It’s only Magdalena and the thunder. Let her go.”

Josh squeezed Magdalena tighter. “Can’t let go, Sergeant. It’ll go off as soon as she releases it. That’s how they do it; blow us to shit ‘n back.”

“Josh, look at her. Magdalena. You know her. You know me. Please give me the gun.” Henry reached out his hand, which shook as it hovered.

“Can’t, Jesus, can’t, can’t.” Josh moaned but he looked down at Magdalena’s face. He blinked the sweat that had pooled out of his eyes and seemed to be studying her. He looked at Henry and said, “You’re not Sergeant Riley.”

“No, I’m Henry. We’re all here for group.”

Josh seemed to be struggling to come out of a fog. “You’re not Henry. Henry’s always afraid. Where’s Sergeant Riley?”

“I’ll prove I’m Henry okay? Will you let me prove I’m Henry?”

“Do it fast, this things gonna blow.” Josh’s voice laid bare all that he had seen in Iraq.

Henry turned to the desk, flinching as he picked up the long-handled lighter. His hand shook. He was sweating, too. “See Josh, here’s the lighter. Remember how Dr. Janus tried to get me to light the lighter. Remember how I begged and cried. Remember how I, I um, cowered over there like Magdalena is cowering now?”

Josh looked down at Magdalena.

Henry said, “Tell you what Josh. I’ll light the lighter, if you put down the gun and let her go. We’ll do it together. On the count of three. Okay? Together, Josh?”

Josh looked at Magdalena again, then at the gun which he seemed surprised to be holding. “No, you first.”

Henry said, “Okay. Here I go - then you.”

He placed his finger on the torch’s trigger wondering if this is how a gun felt. He pulled back on the child-proof safety slide and tightened his finger on the trigger. A long flame flew out the end and stayed there as his finger continued the pressure.. He wanted to release it. He wanted the flame to go away. His whole body was vibrating, waiting for the flame to leap onto his skin and incinerate him. He held steady watching the long blue flame.

“Okay, Josh, you’re turn. Put down your gun and you’ll be okay. See I’m okay. There’s nothing to it.” He watched the flame spitting from the lighter. He thought of running his other hand through it, so innocent it seemed.

Josh nodded his head a few times. He said, “Penny washes. Esther counts. Magdalena has her stuff.” He looked down at Magdalena and let her go. She fell at his feet, afraid to move. He stooped, opened the gun to take out the bullets and saw that there were none. He placed it on the floor, then slumped down against the wall.

Henry stared into the flame then dropped the lighter onto the floor where it landed extinguished next to Josh’s gun. Then he too sat down and leaned hard against the wall. They sat there a long time, spent and exhausted listening to the thunder move away.

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