He’d be dead by the time I wake up tomorrow if I don’t do this perfectly.
“Just turn off the lights and go to bed!” my older brother would tell me every night as I stood by the door of our bedroom, flicking the light switch on and off about a dozen times until I achieved the perfect sweeping motion with my finger. The blinking lights from my fiddling with the light switch turned our bedroom into a cheap ‘80s disco inferno every bedtime. A dance-mix of Donna Summer hits would’ve been the perfect accompaniment to this nightly neuroticism, but that’s probably where my brother would’ve drawn the line.
“I want to go to bed as much as you do but I HAVE to do this,” was my constant reply. I didn’t know what my brother was complaining about especially since his life depended on it. I was dead serious about this lights out ceremony and would do it all night if I had to.
This strobe light action was part of my elaborate bedtime ritual, which included opening and closing the drawers at least three times, touching the sleeves of my hanging shirts in the closet at least six times, knocking on the door (from inside the room) three times, and making the sign of the cross two times. The final touch was positioning my bedroom slippers neatly side by side and pointing them at a 45-degree angle from the side of my bed. Oftentimes, I’d have to do the whole thing all over again because I missed a count or touched the corners of the cabinet the wrong way. With all the to-ing and fro-ing and opening and closing I did, I looked like a flight attendant tinkering with the numerous contraptions in the galley while my lone passenger tried to get some shuteye. And each time my sleep-deprived brother would wake up the next morning, I’d think it was all worth the trouble.
“You’re welcome,” I’d say.
“What for?” he’d ask.
My brother was clueless that he gets to live another day because of me.
I don’t remember the exact time I started developing these obsessive habits. They probably started when I was about seven or eight years old—mostly driven by the fear of something bad happening to me and my family if I didn’t surrender to what my brain thought was a rational way of controlling life’s uncertainties—death being at the top of the list.
I grew up believing that as long as I did certain things the way my twisted head deemed necessary, we were all going to be safe. I saw myself as a superhero whose powers didn’t exactly include phenomenal strength or the ability to fly, but a proficiency in tapping a faucet at least eight times before turning it on like it was nobody’s business. If I wanted to prevent an asteroid from crashing into Earth and killing my relatives, for instance, all I had to do was gently touch the doorknob with my right elbow, quickly followed by the left one, in three sets. It looked like a routine straight out of Olivia Newton John’s “Let’s Get Physical” video. Unfortunately, reversing the sequence didn’t work for times when I actually wanted an asteroid to kill my relatives.
In my warped account, I’ve saved people I know from car crashes, plane crashes, volcanic eruptions, electrocution, burning, and drowning at least hundreds of times. It was a tough job to keep everyone I cared about alive while trying to accomplish what would’ve otherwise been regular tasks. Brushing my teeth, for example, turned into a mathematical undertaking as I counted every stroke for each part of my mouth (which I divided into 14 parts), brushing them in equal counts and making sure to never, ever end with an odd number.
“You have perfect teeth, hijo,” my grandmother once told me. “Remember to always brush your teeth,” she said.
Little did she know that if I didn’t, she wouldn’t even be alive to remind me.
So when she died one summer afternoon, I began to question the efficacy of my powers (and toothpaste). Did I miss a count? Did I touch the doorknob the wrong way? And more importantly, who’s next? I remember staring at my grandmother in her coffin, her wrinkled eyelids shut for good. “If you try opening her eyes, they will crunch like dried leaves,” my cousin whispered behind my ear. It scared me to think how a woman like my grandmother, with her imposing personality, was now as crunchy as a dead leaf. Hers was my first exposure to death. I was too young to grasp the gravity of my grandmother’s passing but nonetheless felt a break in my cadence. One day she was there, the next day she wasn’t. There was suddenly a lola-shaped hole in my known universe and no amount of gum-bleeding tooth brushing could’ve changed that.
This idea of dropping dead and the apparent lack of choice anyone had about it made me desperate to control just about anything I could to maintain what I considered to be the natural order of things: a world where no one dies and where closets are impeccably organized. But when pets, neighbors, and relatives started dying as I grew up, I figured that the latter was perhaps a more attainable worldview.
Being overly tidy and organized became my new coping mechanism to help me deal with life’s volatility. What? Our teacher fell into a crocodile pit and got ripped into pieces? Come take a look at my color-coordinated wardrobe. It looks perfect! To me, a disorganized space meant a disorganized inner state. And with all the instability that the external world presented, the last thing I wanted was to feel chaotic both inside and out. I cleaned to feel in control, especially at times when I wasn’t. As long as the things on my desk were in perfect symmetry, I’d be safe from harm. One could easily tell my level of anxiety simply be looking at how wrinkle-free my sheets were. There’s a war in Israel you say? Here, put more starch in your linens. Such an outlook in life was like hiding in a bomb shelter made out of properly labeled boxes and folders—a mere distraction to cover the fact that a crocodile could indeed tear me apart if I wasn’t careful, regardless of whether my paper clips were stored according to color or not. I struggled to deal with the arbitrariness of the environment beyond my organized closets.
Hence, my compulsive habits intensified to compensate for feeling so powerless over seemingly random circumstances. And thanks to television, even ridiculous situations became plausible and needed my full attention. I couldn’t walk too near the side of buildings for fear of a potted plant or a grand piano falling on my head. This required me to look up in the sky every ten seconds, which made me seem like a cave-dwelling child who has never seen buildings in a big city before. I couldn’t ride a car without an exit stunt strategy in case it lost its brakes while going downhill. Despite the fact that I lived in a flat suburb with no ravines of any shape, size, or form, the thought still required me to touch the external door handles of a car before getting in as if dusting for fingerprints. I couldn’t dip in the ocean or a swimming pool (public, private, or plastic) without half expecting a shark attack. For this, I had no counter tactics. I just hoped that the shark would eat the other kids first.
Deploying specific tactics for would-be disasters wasn’t enough. I needed something more. Soon enough, I discovered one trick that helped. Ironically, it also made people want to kill me.