I grew up literally next door to my grandparents. When school ended I went there at least as often as I did my own home. The school bus dropped me off at the end of the block and I’d run home, the sidewalk’s crests, valleys and slants as immutable as the big blue water tank towering over the town. As I ran, I made sure each foot crossed an equal number of cracks; if one foot got too far ahead, I’d make my gait as awkward and contorted as I had to to make sure the number evened out by the time I reached the front door. On especially unbalanced days I’d cheat to achieve equality. Crossing from the sidewalk into a driveway or past the edge of the lawn counted as a crack. Each step up the front porch could, too. By any means necessary.
We moved upstate to a neighborhood that didn’t have sidewalks. I’d never even known that was possible. Our new home was in a suburban tract where if you wanted to walk, you were out in the street. There was a sunken sliver of space between the streets and the lawns for water to flow down into the grates. In junior high and high school I’d get off the bus blasting Metallica, Public Enemy or Vladimir Horowitz in my walkman at volumes I knew then were dangerous and am now, at 41, beginning to pay the price for. As immersed in the music as I was, no matter how far from the non-sidewalk I was, I always accounted for the cracks. I always made sure by the time I got home that each foot had passed an equal number.
A girlfriend discovered a variation on this fixation when I was in college. If she wanted to tease me, or bother me, or gain control of an argument, she would tap me on a shoulder. When she did, I couldn’t focus on wherever my mind or mouth had been before then; I needed her to touch the opposite shoulder in the exact same place with the exact same force to feel free. I’d beg her to. If she touched the opposite shoulder in a different spot, or with any more or less force, she had to do so twice, then do the same thing to the original shoulder. Even today, pushing a grocery cart requires faith and focus on my part; if my foot kicks or bumps the wheel or the undercarriage, I have to do the same thing with the same amount of force with the other foot. Every time I don’t, double the number of touches are required to re-establish peace.
Whenever I cook something in the microwave, the time it gets has to be a multiple of one of three numbers. If something needs more than 1:30 but less than 2:00, I can’t set it for 1:45. Even if I know that’s perfect, even if someone asks me to set it for that time, I can’t. Same when I’m cooking on the stove: if I’m adding salt, I’ll add in pinches or dashes that equal a multiple of one of the three numbers. If the food needs a little extra time, I can’t just eyeball it or check the texture to make sure it’s done. I have to pick a number, and I have to see it through that number. Often my cooking is too salty (for some people) or not salty enough (for everybody). Sometimes I overcook because of this. I always feel guilty when that happens. But I can’t imagine not worrying about the numbers.
“You can stop this right now,” a voice in my head says. “You do this to yourself. You know it’s silly. End it. You can end it.” All the while, this other voice is counting. It’s not just a voice. It’s an energy that puts my body on lockdown — like an actual, physical takeover — and doesn’t relent until the number or the balance hits.
When I write, I struggle with highlighting and deleting entire chunks of text. It feels wrong. It feels wasteful. What feels right to me — feels necessary — is putting the cursor at the end of the doomed text, pressing “delete” and holding it down while it erases the words. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing something on a deadline. It doesn’t matter how long the “delete” marathon runs.
I annoy my fiancee a fair amount. A decent chunk of those instances come from me doing something in a manner I find I cannot assert control of, because it has to be done a certain way. Even when I know it doesn’t. I can’t stop.
I struggle with chronic migraines. Right now I’m on day five of a headache. These headaches can run for weeks. After trying numerous pills and techniques prescribed by neurologists and other doctors, I’ve found that using THC medicinally is the most effective pain-management approach for me. I prefer to use a vaporizer to intake the THC, as it’s the easiest way to regulate dosage when one lives in one of the backward states that still hasn’t legalized cannabis. I know how much flower cooked over a certain temperature over a certain period of time will impact me. But whenever I vape, I have a time fixed in my mind for that session. And I can’t deviate from it. Breaking from that figure — one which is always one in a series of multiples, rather than determined by the intensity of the migraine — gives me the same anxiety I feel when I bump my foot on the shopping cart. I understand it doesn’t matter. But it feels like it means everything.
Last year my fiancee was with me while I was making edits to a short story for a contest. The deadline was a half-hour away. Not only was I drag-deleting instead of highlighting and chopping, I couldn’t have the paragraph end with a sentence that was barely carrying over onto a new line. Whenever that happened, I’d chop whatever words I had to in order to create a symmetrical paragraph. Sometimes I cut story details just to create that look. She was horrified. I had to see it in another person’s face to realize the absurdity of what I was doing. None of the judges or readers would care about paragraph symmetry. They cared about the story. But I can’t hear that, even when someone is speaking out loud to me. I just hear the voice inside. Always counting.