It's Not You, It's My Microbiome
"Austin was chopping a carrot when I realized I could never love him, not really."
Austin was chopping a carrot when I realized I could never love him, not really. It was our fifth date together but the first one at his house, which was all stainless steel and imitation wood. That night I was finally going to try his "famous" Asian salad. He had made the mistake of describing it that way — suggesting a row of supermarket magazines with paparazzi shots of vegetables in dark glasses — on the day we started talking after yoga class. I'd been teasing him about it since. "This salad, is it as tall in person as it seems on TV?" and "It's okay if I ask your salad for a selfie, right?" Not my best, but what can I say, he was hot. Or my type, at least: scruffy, with boyish eyes and an easy laugh that made me feel smarter than I am.
You meet enough jerks and psychos and a guy like that can make a girl feel pretty lucky. If she's not careful, she'll start imagining a whole future for them together. I'd gotten well past that point — picturing myself coming home to him and our two kids (both boys, in matching striped overalls) after a draining day at the catalog — when reality dropped an atomic bomb on my little daydream. It was his fingernails. Really, it was my fault for not seeing it before. Gripping that carrot were four perfect half-moons rimmed with pink, bordered by the telltale dry skin of excessive hand sanitizer use. Just looking at them made me nauseous.
"Oh wow," I said, trying to sound curious instead of disgusted. "You like to keep your nails pretty tidy, huh?"
"You mean these?" he said, putting down the knife and turning up his fingers with a goofy smile. "Yep, it's kind of my obsession. Clean hands make a clean conscience, that's what I like to say."
I guess he was trying to be funny, but there's nothing funny about your health. And if you're serious about it, staying "clean" is just about the worst thing you can do. Did you know that, in your body, microorganisms outnumber human cells 10 to 1? It's true. Depending on your perspective, an "obsession" like Austin's could be considered suicide or genocide. What would you call it, wiping out a whole continent of microbes to make way for bacterial conquistadors like E. coli, S. aureus, C. diff? I have my own answers: A crime, maybe, a kind of madness, a sin.
“I guess he was trying to be funny, but there's nothing funny about your health.”
Austin, sweet Austin, it was already too late for him, another victim of the slow death the antibacterial propagandists call hygiene. If I were stronger, more selfless, I could be with someone like that, put on a brave face while I watched their inevitable decline. But he wasn't the only one with a microbiome that needed protecting. I had to look out for myself.
"I have to leave," I said. And I did, right then, grabbing my bag and running out the door like I was escaping the home of a serial killer. (Which, in a way, I was.) By the time Austin managed to shout out, "Is something wrong?" I was already at my car.
The next morning, safe in my own apartment, I felt pretty bad for Austin, I have to admit. I knew I owed him some answers, but how do you tell someone that everything they've been told is lie? That, once, there was an invisible community of trillions living on their skin and in their guts, one that the medical–industrial complex tricked them into killing? In the end, I kept it simple. "It's not you,” I texted him, “it's my microbiome.” After that, I blocked his number and switched from Monday yoga to Wednesdays.
I wasn't always such an attentive gardener of my microscopic flora. I cringe a little thinking about it now, but for the first 19 years of my life I had no idea what it meant to take care of myself. I was like anyone else, using with the shampoo my mother bought me, the zit cream that the magazines sold me. Hell, I even washed my hands with that cotton candy-colored DDT they put in bathrooms and call soap. A week-long camping trip with my college roommates finally showed me how foolish I'd been. The day we got back, I was waiting for my turn in the shower when I saw my reflection and realized I didn't need one at all: My skin was clearer and my hair shinier than it had been in years.
You've seen The Matrix, right? It was kind of like that, my awakening. After being warned my whole life about the grave dangers of my own filthy body, letting it tend to itself turned out to be the best medicine of all. I decided to run a little experiment, test how many days I could go without soap. One week became two became three became six months, all without the world ending. I stank a little, sure, but that's what water and tea tree oil are for. And the compliments never stopped. "You're skin's so perfect," my classmates said, "what's your secret?" When I told them it was nothing, literally doing nothing, that was my secret, they wouldn't believe me. Or couldn't, maybe — that's how deep the programming goes.
“You've seen The Matrix, right? It was kind of like that, my awakening.”
After my break-up with Austin, I wanted to do something special to cheer myself up. I went to the natural grocery to pick up my favorite yogurt, local stuff that's actually alive and full of friendly bugs. That's when I met Toby, who was working the checkout line and admired my selection as he was ringing me up.
"This stuff's really good, right?" he said. "None of that chemical crap in there."
Toby had a scraggly beard and wore his long brown hair in a ponytail. He was shorter than the guys I'm usually into, but that made him even cuter, in a Charles Manson kind of way. Even better, he already got it. Sooner or later, the professional types I usually dated had questions. I knew I wouldn't need to explain myself to Toby. I asked for his number right there. Toby said don't bother, he didn't have a phone.
Instead, we made plans to meet up at a teahouse down the block when he got off work at 4. Over hot cups of dandelion chai, we shook our heads over the dark path humanity had followed. We saw the same problem, but from different angles. I talked about mutualistic microbe-host relationships. Toby said we were poisoning our vital energies.
"It's like any other kind of pollution, the stuff you find on the shelf at the drug store," he said. "You wouldn't go down to the bus depot to suck on tail pipes, but that's people are doing, every day."
"And they pay for it!" I said, almost knocking my cup off the table. "Not just with their wallets, but with their bodies."
"Is it any surprise that people today are so sick and depressed?"
"Cavemen didn't have psoriasis, I'll tell you that much."
"You know how the Native Americans dealt with cavities?" Toby looked around the room and lowered his voice to a whisper. "They didn't have any, that's how."
After tea, Toby told me he wanted to show me something special. We walked together to his house, which was actually a wooly yurt set up next to five others on a lot by the river. Inside, there was almost nothing modern, or at least nothing that looked it. His bed was made of raw hemp filled with straw. His dining table, an upturned tree stump, sanded down by hand. I sat down on his bed and Toby went into the other room, which was just a corner of the yurt partitioned off with beaded curtains.
"Alright," he said, "I have it right here, but you can't tell anyone, promise?"
"I promise," I said. I knew what it was like to have a secret.
Toby emerged from behind the beads holding a glass carboy as big as his scrawny chest. It was hard to see what was inside the jug in the candlelight, but his smile shined, full of beautiful, uncorrected teeth.
"What is it?" I said. He heaved the carboy onto the ground with a thud.
"Raw water. Untreated. The stuff our ancestors drank, before the chlorine and the fluoride and all that other crap. A guy I met at a primitivist workshop collects it from his own spring in Oregon. Here," he said, picking up a glazed clay cup from the stump, "I want you to try it."
People think they want purity, which can feel like control a universe that is mysterious, unpredictable, scary. But purity is just another word for death. I guess there's a safety in that, a life where water looks like nothing, food tastes like nothing, one where you reduce your whole experience to nothing until you become nothing yourself. Personally, I never saw the appeal. I want to feel alive. And you can't do that alone, hiding from the messy world like a medieval baroness holed up in her castle from the rabble beating at the gates. You have to let them in.
I took the cup Toby filled up for me with both hands. The first gulp was sweeter than I expected. The second revealed a symphonic earthiness, like I could taste the whole journey the water took from the sea, to the clouds, to the mountain top where it rained down before soaking into the ground. Compared to something like that, the stuff from your faucet is like sucking on a penny. I chugged the rest of the cup and asked for another. Toby, having finally found someone to share his secret with, was glad to give it to me. After that, we made love.
It was a couple days later, at work, when everything went wrong. We had just gotten a new product line in — a series of custom leather totes for oversized hats — and I was supposed to write descriptions for each one. Instead, I was Googling trails for me and Toby to hike that weekend. My stomach had been feeling off all morning, but I didn't think much of it, eating an extra cup of yogurt to be safe. By lunch, however, the dull ache had sharpened into a lance of pain. I spent the second half of the day in the bathroom, sweating through my Merino wool shirt while my insides twisted into knots. I wondered how I was going to explain my illness to Justine, my manager, without using the word "diarrhea." Then I passed out.
“People think they want purity, which can feel like control a universe that is mysterious, unpredictable, scary. But purity is just another word for death.”
Later, I learned that I wouldn't need to explain anything to Justine. She was the one who found me in the bathroom and called 911. I woke up in the hospital, too weak to stand or even talk, struggling just to push the button to call the nurse. Later, a doctor told me how lucky I was. I got there just in time, she said. She'd never seen a patient my age so dehydrated.
"We still don't know what you have," said the doctor, "so we've started you on an empiric regimen while we wait for the test results to come back."
"What does that mean?" I said. Deep down, I already knew. Technically, I was alive, but my body was already dead.
"Antibiotics. Don't worry, you'll have this bug beat in no time."
I didn't argue. By then, the poison was already racing through my veins, destroying every living thing in my body like napalm dropped on an old-growth forest. When I tried to imagine my future, it stretched out like a Costco parking lot, flat and dead and gray. Maybe I could do it, though, live like everyone else in this lifeless, sterile world. Maybe, if I was real nice about it, Austin would even take me back, if I called and apologized. I spent three days like that, in a haze of sad dreams while friends and coworkers stopped by to tell me everything would be okay. I wasn't sure what "okay" would look like. My strength was coming back, but my spirit had left me completely.
On the fourth day, I woke up in the middle of the night to someone sitting by my bed. It was against the rules, visiting that late, and at first I couldn't tell who it was.
"Hey," they whispered. "I just had to see you."
When I realized it was Toby, what I felt was shame, if that makes any sense. I was like a kernel of grain ripped from its husk. Out of everyone, I didn't want him, most of all, to see me like that.
"I stopped by your work," he said. "They told me what happened. I'm sorry, I'm really sorry. It just makes me so.... mad! Places like this, they things they do to people. It's wrong."
"So you already know," I said, closing my eyes. "I guess, then, that this is goodbye."
"No, not yet." I looked up and there was that beautiful, natural smile again. "Here, I have one more thing to show you."
From under his chair, Toby lifted up a glass jar filled with a murky liquid. He also held a long, plastic tube with a funnel stuck in one end.
"What is it?" I asked.
"A present. From me to you. In a way, well, it is me. If I could, I'd give you my heart. Instead, I'm giving you my gut."
It took me a moment to understand what he was saying. When I did, I started crying. Even after I'd given up on myself, Toby hadn't. That night, he had snuck into the hospital to perform his own operation, a procedure to donate the contents of his colon to mine.
"I don't know what to say, Toby."
"Don't say anything. Here," he said, guiding the tube into my nose. As it went down my throat and into my stomach and farther still below, I imagined a taproot growing out of Toby's hand, anchoring him to me forever. Once the stool transplant was complete, we would share a closeness few others could understand, a merging not just of two people, but two worlds. One, a graveyard, as barren as the Moon. The other like Eden before the Fall, a place where life was still sacred, where creatures could live freely, a place where I could be happy, healthy, whole.