An OCD List
By Michael Seymour Blake
Stick your hand out the window. Extend your pointer and middle finger, making them into little legs that run alongside the car. Your mom is driving about 40mph. Vigorously pump your fingers to keep up with the passing landscape.
Jump over every tree that comes your way (miss once, and dread will be your world. A vague dread you can’t quite place).
Flick the light switch near the front door on and off, on and off. Keep the rhythm going. On the 18th flick, stop. Don’t breathe. Don’t do a thing. Just stand there, staring. Did you get it right? If not, start over. Your head will begin to ache in anticipation of the next steps. Don’t let it distract you, or you’ll be here forever. Once you’ve finished, you may move on to the next room. (Ignore your mother saying “that’s enough of this nonsense” as you move from room to room. 15, 16, 17. Keep proper rhythm.)
When you’ve made it to your bedroom, adjust everything on your shelves. Every book, knickknack, toy. Adjust it all. Move it back and forth. If it feels right, move it again to be sure. Nothing can be pointed towards the bed, so take care, be vigilant. Anything less than perfection will cost you another 15-20 minutes of readjustments. Keep going until that boiling dread settles down. (It’ll be back soon, but don’t worry—we have other ways to distract it.)
Tap each shelf. No set number of times, just until it feels right. It could be 10, 50, 150 times per shelf. (You’ll be stuck on this step often, huffing and puffing with frustration, face burning bright red. Don’t be discouraged, you always figure it out in the end.)
Pace around the room, stopping a foot short of the wall in either direction. Back and forth. (I know you’re tired. It’s been a long day at school and you have a lot of homework, but you need to focus on what’s important right now.) Back and forth. The sound of your shuffling feet is like a mother’s gentle hum, soothing and safe. Pace until your legs ache. Pace until you can’t think. Back and forth.
Open the closet door. Now close it. You know the drill. Open. Close. Gusts of air fan your hair back and tickle your eyelashes. Whoosh. Whoosh. Enjoy it. There’s a hoodie hanging from the knob. Metal zipper smacks wooden door over and over. (Annoying, isn’t it? Keep going, and don’t you dare touch the hoodie. Don’t even think about touching that hoodie.)
Walk to the bed. Keep the sheets smooth and flat. No wrinkles, no creases. Make sure to run your hands over it until the skin on your palms feels tender and irritated. Keep going. You’ve got to be sure. Don’t touch the bed again until it’s time to sleep. Not a second before.
The dreaded pager ritual. The pager (google it) is on the floor next to the TV. (You still remember the day it fell off your desk and landed there, pointing right at you, taunting you. You still remember the tingling, nauseous realization that it would now be your duty to have it stay there forever.) Take off your shoes. Now your socks. Never touch the pager with your hands. You may only adjust it with bare feet. Position yourself over the pager. Using your big toes, wiggle it one way, then the other. It needs to be perfectly straight. More perfectly straight than perfectly straight. It needs to feel right. (You’ll stand here for an hour, sometimes two. Adjusting, readjusting. Feeling ridiculous, your thighs and calves aching, your forehead sweating, tongue peeking out between dry lips. You go sort of numb after the first 15 minutes. It’s better that way. The pager is facing clip down, delicately balanced on that little strip of plastic. One wrong move and it will flop over and you’ll need to start again. This can happen at any time, day or night.)
Time to get sneaky. Creep into each room and spit twice in the corner. Any corner will do. (This part takes some degree of stealth. If your mother sees you, you’re through.) One, two. Next room. One, two. Next room. (Your mother works hard to afford this little home, and here you are spitting all over it. Don’t be ashamed, focus on the task at hand. You’ve come too far to give up now.)
Eat. If your mother made something, grab it, heat it up. If not, make some cereal. You earned it.
Flick the light switches again on your way back to the bedroom. Each and every one. (You’re almost in the clear, but don’t get cocky. A screw-up here will cost you at least an hour of crippling self-doubt. Mountains of nausea will rupture in your stomach, your headache will linger, the rapid pulse already pounding in your temples will increase.)
In the bedroom, sit on whatever section of the floor nothing is pointing at. Mind the pager. Breathe for a little while.
Start your homework. You’ll have about an hour until the light switches start calling again.
Don’t end this on an odd number.