2022 Winner, Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction
You are twelve years old and your mind is like a game of hot potato. Your thoughts are quick and jerky, and you need to get past them before you get burned. Close a cupboard, turn the page of a book, put on a jacket. Hop into bed, open the refrigerator, flick on the light. Stay too long on something and that’s it, BOOM, you need to open and close the door six times before you can continue on with your life. Why? Because if you don’t, your mother will die.
Intellectually, you know that closing a door has nothing to do with your mother dying, but that’s not the point. Your mother is going to die; the only question is how, and your brain dares you to pick the most disturbing manner. Maybe your mother will get hit on the head, the way she did when you were eight years old, when she opened the freezer and a frozen chicken carcass came flying down and bonked her skull so badly that she started to bleed and you had to call the nearest neighbor for help and then later at the hospital your father was laughing to the point of being hysterical. A flying chicken, he kept repeating. A flying chicken! Or will she get into a car accident on Alligator Alley? You imagine her body, burned and twisted under the Toyota, her hair torn out from her raw and bleeding scalp. You will try to run to her, but the police will hold you back. Or what if your mother is somehow decapitated, and you see her head and her body lying on the ground in separate places? Your mother’s brown eyes will be wide, and she will look almost surprised. Her mouth will be open, as if she is trying to take in a breath of air, her lips still coated in Desert Rose Elizabeth Arden lipstick. But her neck will be leaking, streaming, gushing blood, with nothing connected underneath. It will technically be possible to carry her head around in your hands.
You want to unplug your mind, but the only way you can is by opening and closing the door six times, and is that really such a terrible price to pay? So you do it. But if every day is a race, by bedtime everyone else in the world is crossing the finish line while you’re still at the beginning, retying your shoelaces. Why don’t other people flick light switches up and down an even number of times before entering a room? Why don’t they touch the covers of their math textbooks again and again, until they touch it in exactly the right place? How can they turn on faucets and pick up telephones and pull sweaters over their heads without thinking about it at all? Why are you the only one who is stuck?
It’s odd for your biggest secret to be something that is shout-out-loud obvious to anyone who spends more than a couple minutes with you. What are you doing? is a common refrain heard in your house when you are a freshman in high school. If you told the truth, who would understand? “I’m just fixing my hair,” you say instead, as you touch the top of your head six times before taking a sip of water. Six. Six sentences, six words in each. You sit at the kitchen table. At your feet, the dog barks. Both your parents raise their eyebrows. You know they don’t believe you. But lying is the only option.
Because the truth is that you can barely get through a minute without needing to do something weird, like opening your mouth or squeezing your eyes shut or touching your elbows together. You always do these things an even number of times because even numbers are just better. They are fair. If they were to be divided between you and your sister, you would both get the same amount. Even numbers are equal, level, decent, and honest. Odd numbers, though, are spikes, points, and thorns. They poke you in the ribs. Imagining closing a door three times makes you feel like you’ve heard someone chewing gum too loudly. Three. Your body freezes. Your head pounds. Your pulse quickens. There’s an upside. Repeat it twice. It becomes even.
Sometimes you need to raise your eyebrows four times when the feeling strikes. Four. Up down up down. Even when people stare. When can you stop? When it feels right. Sometimes you need to shake your jacket a certain amount of times before you put it on—please God do not think the exact number right now because it’s a big one and you’d like to get on with your life. Your friends stare as you grasp the jacket sleeve and shake it hard. “Just getting out all the wrinkles,” you say.
Usually people ignore the weird things you do. But if your father is in a bad mood and you are walking around the kitchen table before sitting down for dinner, he groans. He takes off his baseball cap that he always wears, even inside, and drops it on the table, exposing the bald spot on the back of his head. When you were little, you used to tap your fingers on that bald spot, promising your father you would make his hair grow back. “You’re crazy!” he says now.
This is fine. Crazy is comfortably general. According to your father, bad drivers are crazy, parents who let their children watch Quentin Tarantino movies are crazy, Republicans are crazy. And there is nothing mentally wrong with these people. “Crazy,” your father says again, with wonder in his voice. And what are you supposed to say? I’d really like to debate you on this, but first I need to click my tongue to the roof of my mouth before turning on this light switch.
Your father is most likely to call you crazy just before you go to bed, because he’s tired after a long day and because going to bed means you have to close the door to your room. Anything that needs to be opened or closed is tricky for you. There are the doors you walk through—the door to your room, to your school, to the Starbucks down the road. Then there are locker doors, car doors, and refrigerator doors to contend with. And those are just the doors. So many other things need opening and closing—drawers, backpacks, mailboxes, books, cupboards, trunks of cars, your purse when there is a line behind you at the school cafeteria and you need to pay for your chocolate milk. You need to open and close these things, repeatedly, until something that lives inside your chest and elbows and fingertips is placated. This happens every day. Other things you do are more like fads—they zoom in out of nowhere, and you have to put up with them until you don’t need to do them anymore, and something else pops up in their place. Life is just funny that way—one day, you wake up to find you like country music, and also have to jump up and down six times before getting into any moving vehicle. Six. You do everything your brain commands. But it can never be enough. There’s always something else to do. It’s a horse impossible to break. A thirst that cannot be satisfied. It is like scratching an itch. You need to scratch it, but the scratching just makes it worse.
It hurts when I put my arm over my head, the patient says in the old joke. So don’t put your arm over your head, the doctor matter-of-factly replies. If you let anyone in on the inner workings of your mind, you are sure this is what they would say. What you are doing is so off-the-charts bonkers that there doesn’t even seem to be a starting point, a ‘You Are Here’ mark on the map, for a normal person to navigate their way toward a brain as freakish as yours. Your brain has been on fire far too long for you to be able to return to the crisp, clear world of rational thought, but the inferno you are trapped in is of your own making. You lit the match, you closed the door. The truth—that you can’t stop yourself from doing these things—seems laughable. Who would believe you?
“I see what you do,” your mother tells you, once. ISWYD. You are walking the dogs together in the Florida heat, the sun shining so brightly it feels almost perverse. You want to explain to your mother the reason you haven’t picked the books off your bedroom floor: it’s not because you’re lazy, but because whenever you pick a book up, you have to open the book to a random page, focus on the first whole sentence you see, and make an acronym out of the letters. You then need to remember the acronym. YTNTRTA. Sometimes it’s not so hard. SINSH. Sometimes the sentence is short. STSIS. But sometimes there are twenty words or more, and you have to go through the entire day repeating the acronym in your head over and over, devoting so much of your mind to the acronym that it is impossible to focus on anything else. BSTATWOMAYHTGTTEDRTAIYHOAODSMOYMTTATIIITFOAE. If you focus on something else, you might forget the acronym. IYFOSEYMFTA. If you forget the acronym, what else will you forget? IYFTAWEWYF?
You want to tell your mother this, not because you want to forge a deeper relationship with her, but because you want her to feel terrible. Is it fair to blame someone for not knowing the one thing you would rather die before letting them find out? You open your mouth, about to let the words obsessive-compulsive disorder slip from your lips for the first time, but your mother essentially beats you to it. “I see you closing doors,” she says. “Don’t feel so sorry for yourself.” DFSSFY. She extends her arm, allowing the leashed dogs to sniff the base of a nearby palm tree. Her voice trails off not in malice, but confusion. “It’s not hard to close a door.”
Door. D-O-O-R. Your fingers flicker up with each letter. Four letters, but one syllable—four one. This is not unusual. Most words have to be repeated twice. Door door. Eight two—much better. Your father is slicing up a mango. You can tell it is sweet just from the smell.
You have to close the door eight times. This will surely be noticed by your father at the kitchen table, from which the door to your room can be plainly seen. “What are you doing?” he says, as you open and close the door. His tone is aggressive.
You scrunch your eyebrows together to pretend you didn’t understand why he felt it necessary to ask this question. “It’s humid in here, so I’m using the door to fan some air onto me.”
“No you aren’t.” You open and close your bedroom door again. And again and again and again and again. It doesn’t work. Shit, you think. You think this word purposefully, as you have decided that at sixteen years old, you should probably start cursing. “What the hell are you doing? You’re sick.”
“You’re sick.” The word flies out of his lips and splatters all over the floor floor. Ten two. Open and close, open and close, open and close. “You know something? This is all in your head.”
Your mother is sitting beside your father, waiting for her mango slices, and as you open and close the door you can hear her sigh. Compulsions always elicit long, drawn-out sighs from your mother. Your father spreads the mango slices on a plate. The pit goes into a bowl, to be argued over by your siblings later. “This is all in your head,” your father repeats, as he picks up a mango slice and takes a bite. “Just close the door once and go to bed.”
This might be an easy task for someone with a cool mind, but if you don’t close a door perfectly, it doesn’t count. And if it doesn’t count, you need to do it again. This part of your compulsion is obvious to onlookers—closing a door again and again—but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Most of what makes a compulsion burdensome is in your mind, the set of rules you need to follow to achieve this perfect closed door, or buckled seat belt, or rolled-down window. For example, you need to be inhaling the entire time, because when people are alive, they breathe. When they are dead, they don’t. So if you don’t want your mother to die, you have to inhale when you are closing a door.
And, of course, there is a difference between inhaling and holding your breath. So if your lungs fill up with air too quickly, you are holding your breath instead of inhaling and it doesn’t count. You need to start again.
You also need to be thinking a stream of positive words. If a single negative word drops in, it doesn’t count. The problem is, all words can be negative if you think about them long enough. Happy seems like a positive word, until you realize sad is its opposite. The most non-negative words are simple articles and prepositions, words so boring they can’t be associated with any emotion at all. A is a positive word because it can’t be negative. So is the. And at. You need to think these positive words in a continuous stream while you are closing the door, and if your mind wanders for even a millisecond, you need to do it again. You open and shut the door on the inhale, trying to move fast enough so that your lungs don’t reach full capacity too quickly, all while generating positive words.
A the at the at in of an is, you think, as you inhale while swinging the door. The is of an a the at is for the or of death. No! Start again.
By the way, this is excruciatingly boring. Closing a door takes most people a matter of seconds seconds. Fourteen four. It’s really a pretty simple thing to do. So it becomes mind-numbingly dull when you are forced to close a door for six or eight minutes at a time, except that your brain is also ablaze with frustration. Some things, by reason of monotony alone, are supposed to be automatic. What does life become when something that isn’t worth thinking about becomes all you can think about?
You close the door again and again, but something isn’t working. It doesn’t feel done, it doesn’t feel finished, it doesn’t feel right. You need to inhale more deeply, focus more strongly on positive words.
“What are you doing?” you hear again, and this time it’s your mother asking.
Closing this door twenty-four times so you don’t die, doesn’t seem like the best response, so you try to think of an excuse. Of course, there isn’t really any excuse for closing a door twenty-four times except I’m sorry mother, but I’m an obsessive-compulsive. Still, you try your best. “This door is a bit stiff, so I’m trying to loosen up the hinges,” you say.
Your mother sighs. Disappointed. Twelve four—perfect!
Your father is more to the point. “Aren’t you embarrassed?” he asks, as he picks up another mango slice. Sometimes your father asks this question with sincerity, as if he is genuinely curious. Tonight, he barks it, but regardless of how he asks, you never understand his point. Who has time to be embarrassed? Not you. Your life is busy. How can you worry about what people might think of you when at this very moment there is a spoon begging you to take it out of the drawer and tap it fourteen times on the kitchen table? How can you focus on how you are perceived when you have to save all your focus for thinking it and or of a an on when you jump up and down eight times before you hang up a telephone? If the simple act of being alive is a choice between living in anxiety or embarrassment, embarrassment wins every time.
You continue to close the door. “I just don’t get it,” your father says, and you wish you could tell your parents to stop talking, that they are distracting you from thinking positive words. “This is all in your head.” You close your eyes, trying to focus on of be a an it for the. “You’re crazy!”
Crazy crazy. Ten four. You’re happy to leave it there, but your mother sighs again. “She’s not crazy,” she says, as she turns the page of her magazine. “She has a problem.”
Problem problem. Fourteen four. The instant you hear the word problem, it jabs you in your stomach. Your heart starts beating faster and faster, and you cover your face with your hands. You can’t admit to having a problem because that will lead to a discussion, which is the last thing you want. It’s bad enough you have to do these things—do you really have to talk about them too? Can’t you just be crazy crazy? Ten four. “She needs help.” Help help. Eight two. Help is even worse. Stranded mountain climbers need help, wounded soldiers need help. What kind of freak needs help to close a door? Your body tenses, and if you had the power to rip off your ears in that moment, you would. You would do anything to block out your mother’s words, anything to stop the shame in the pit of your stomach from beaming through to the tips of your fingers.
“I don’t want help,” you say. “I don’t need help.” Eight two.
You can feel my mother’s eyes on you. “But you have a problem,” she says, again, and then it’s like everything is peeling off you. Problem problem. Fourteen four. All these invisible layers of protection built by your excuses float up towards the ceiling. You bend inwards and fold your arms, pressing them onto your stomach. “I don’t have a problem,” you spit out. “No problem here.” Fourteen four.
“But—” your mother says, but this is all you hear because right then you scream as loud as you can to drown out her words. All you want is to be alone in your room, but to be alone in your room you have to close the door, and to close the door you have to open and close the door while inhaling and thinking positive words, and it’s hard to inhale while screaming, and even harder to focus on the nothingest words in existence while burning with shame and anger. Eventually you manage it, and flop down on your bed.
Back in the kitchen, you can hear your parents arguing. “What is she doing to herself?” “How is she going to handle the real world?”
You swear you can still smell that mango.