Spotlight: 85%

[fiction]

On any given day, I spend about 85% of my energy trying to not look crazy. Which is why it’s really pissing me the fuck off that Emma is spending about 0% of her energy not listening to the really simple thing I asked her to do: stay on her half of the desk.

Right now, she’s trying to whisper something in my ear but I have no clue what she’s saying because all I can think about is the wet sound of her gum. How I can hear her saliva swirling in that area near the back of her jaw. How she smells like she hasn’t showered in a few days. How that isn’t me being an asshole because I know she could shower if she wanted to because she’s rich. How many dead skin cells are stacked like plates on top of her unclean forearm. How every time she moves, hundreds of thousands of them flake off, infecting the air. About a million of them every day, to be more exact. I Googled it.

She stops talking just long enough to swallow the spit I could hear pooling in her mouth. I wonder how much skin she just swallowed. The inner cheek kind. I read somewhere that people who wear lipstick swallow about 4 pounds of the stuff in their lifetimes. And people only sometimes wear lipstick, while they always wear their mouths. So, I can only imagine how many pounds of skin people swallow in a lifetime. What the chunks of our ingested flesh would look like all piled together.

I try to pull myself out of this loop. I make myself wonder if pandas are any closer to not being extinct and if I’d be able to tell a naked mole rat and a hairless cat apart if I saw them in real life and about the logistics of old people sex. But it doesn’t matter. I’m in so deep, our teacher could shove his laser pointer right up his ass and I doubt I’d notice.

Emma’s getting closer and I can feel her hot breath on my ear, which sounds really turn-on-y when actually it’s disgusting. She just ate carrots and hummus. I saw her do it, but even if I hadn’t, holy shit can I smell it. And I know I’m being irrational, but I swear to Jesus Christ that I can feel soft particles of carrot hitting my cheek.

I jerk away a lot faster than I mean to. I think I also gag. It hits me first that that was not a normal person thing to do.

The hurt look in Emma’s eyes annoys me until I remind myself that she is an actual person with actual person feelings. And then it hits me that it was also definitely a rude thing to do and that maybe I should feel bad.

“Uh, you good?” she asks.

“Yeah,” I say. Except I’m holding my breath to keep her invasive particles away from my insides, so it comes out in a squeak.

She hesitates, looking down at my contorted position. “You sure?”

You sure. You sure. You sure. You sure. You sure. You sure. My brain’s playing her words on a loop so it takes a while to respond. “Oh, yeah. I’m just—I had a chill.”

I can tell she doesn’t believe me. But I think she wants to so she just says, “Oh. Okay. I get those, too. They’re weird, huh?”

“So weird.” Still squeaking. Then the thoughts are pushing in and I can practically see it. My pencil tearing through her skin. I’m squeezing my eyes shut, squeezing that thought away because I don’t want to do that, I would never do that.

It all feels loud and I need to scratch to clear the static, but that’s also not a normal person thing to do, so I don’t. I don’t and I don’t and I don’t and I don’t and I don’t but then I’m practically twitching I need to so badly.

“I think I need to pee,” I say.

“Okay.”

“I’m gonna, yeah, I’m gonna go do that.” I fall on the floor trying to get out of my desk and then I’m just staring at my hands on the carpet—so dirty it’s stiff—and fucking hell everyone’s looking at me. Which, you know, makes sense considering the fact that I look like I’m out of my damn mind. Like I’m a full-on crazy person.

Except I don’t just look like a full-on crazy person, I am a full-on crazy person because my mouth is moving before I can stop it and I kind of scream. “I’m sorry, it’s just that I really have to pee.”

There’s a beat of silence. I make weirdly intense eye contact with Carl, which, to be clear, is the first time we’ve really looked at each other since the day he decided he was done being my best friend. There’s pity in his expression. For me, I realize. Well, fuck you, Carl. Fuck you right up your own dick. See how you like that, you dumb

Mr. Kautz interrupts my train of thought. “Bathroom pass is right over there.” He’s pointing at his desk. It’s in the front of the room, multiple feet away from me, which might as well be miles at this stage of my meltdown.

“Yeah. Cool, cool, cool, cool, cool, cool.” Which is at least four too many cools to be actually cool. And maybe I should be mad at myself, which I am at least a little because I’d told myself today would be a day without An Incident, but mostly I’m mad at Emma. I had it under control and I would’ve been fine if she’d just stayed over there or anywhere that wasn’t right next to me. Also, I’m mad at Carl. Fuck Carl.

Like he can read my mind, like he knows I’m thinking about how much I’d love to just deck him, Carl says, “Rosa, do you need help?”

And then, because I’m an expert at making things worse and apparently this is my life now and also I think I hate myself, I get up and sprint out of the room.

*     *     *

If 16% of my body weight is skin, and I am 145 pounds, then 23.2 pounds of me is skin. 23.3 pounds of me is soft, malleable flesh; 23.4, 23.5, 23.6 pounds of me builds up and up and up on top of me, and might one day swallow me whole. 23.7 pounds of me is always growing, always shifting at a much faster rate than the rest of me and I just want it off. Off. Off. Off. Off. Off. Off.

*     *     *

Halfway home, I realize I forgot my backpack. I debate turning around, but decide that I don’t care about anything right now that isn’t me sitting on the couch and watching a trashy movie on Netflix.

I’m doing just that, snacking and thinking about T-Pain and why his name sounds like it could also be a mildly successful energy drink when my sister walks in. Mia’s zoned into her headphones and doesn’t notice me until she finishes locking the door.

She does this choked scream thing. “Christ. What’re you doing here?”

I gesture at the TV. “Watching a movie, obviously.”

“Not what I meant.” She yanks off her headphones in an indignant way I might take seriously if she wasn’t half my height and wearing a Chewbacca shirt that asked R U FUR REAL? “Why aren’t you at school?”

“Why do people ask that? It’s stupid; you already know the answer. No one wants to be at school.” I burrow further into my nest of blankets, exposing nothing but my face and my hand right above my bag of Reese’s Pieces for snacking convenience.

“And isn’t it funny,” I add, “how people who ask that also always have somewhere they need to be that they’re not. Like why aren’t you at work, huh? Don’t answer that. I already know, which is why I didn’t ask. Unlike you.”

“I’m not at work because my shift changed to Tuesday, but, whatever, that doesn’t matter.” She puts down her purse and sits next to me, pulling a blanket over her head so we match. “How many times?” She’s talking about the movie.

“Today? The fourth.”

“Hmm. Okay, I’ll just sit here if that’s cool with you. But can I at least have some Reese’s Pieces?”

“Nope.”

She takes some anyway.

Usually, I could just ignore that she did that, push it from my mind. But, right now, all I’m thinking about is how it’s probably been hours since she washed her hands. All that oil built up on her palm over the day, rubbed against the inside of the bag. It feels like my brain’s on fire. “You realize I can’t eat the rest of these now, right?”

“Oh, it’s a bad day then. But,” she grabs the bag from my hand. “Good for me, I guess.”

“Don’t be an ass.” I’m kidding but I’m also kind of not. As if seeing me underneath ten comforters didn’t already let her know it was a bad day. I look at her again and decide to say something shitty, “And do you ever go outside anymore? You look even paler than usual.”

I know it bothers her that she somehow came out significantly less brown than the rest of our family and that people mistake her for white all the time. Whatever, she shouldn’t be a dick if she doesn’t want me to be one.

She ignores that last part and waves the Reese’s in my face. “This is called helping. Exposure therapy, right? That one doctor was saying something about that I remember, about surprising you with it. That was exciting.”

“You also remember that we fired him, right?”

“Oh, hell yeah.” A few seconds of nothing except the sound of her wet chewing, which is enough to make me stifle a gag. “You see Carl today?” she asks.

I throw the comforter off me. “Just, ugh, just shut the fuck up. Yes, I fucking saw him, of course I did. Jesus.”

“Ooo. Touchy.”

“I will strangle you.”

“Your hands are too tiny. You have baby hands.”

“Mia. Either stop talking or leave. I’m being serious.”

She groans. “Fine.” And moves around on the couch just to make some extra noise before settling down.

*     *     *

There are a few key differences between me and the stereotypically average person. One is that my brain circuitry function is abnormal, which basically just means my brain is bad at communicating with itself. But another is that most people think they’re invincible. They get on planes, confident they won’t die. One in a million dies on planes, which is statistically small enough that I guess I understand why people think it’ll never happen to them. They drive cars like they’ll make it to their destination: 3,287 deaths a day. Statistically high enough that they’re just being ignorant. Choking: 3,000 a year. Guns: about 86 a day. Elevators: 26 a year. It really goes on and on. People die from all kinds of shit every day. Thousands of them. Hundreds of thousands of them. Google told me 151,600, but I think it’s higher. Don’t ask me why, I just know these things.

Like how I’ve always known I wasn’t invincible. I remember being five and crying for hours because I thought a tsunami would drown me in my sleep even though I’ve always lived in Arizona, which doesn’t even touch the ocean. Or when I was twelve and I thought I’d get leukemia before I made it to high school. Or two days ago, when I refused to get into my sister’s car to go to the grocery store. I can’t explain it, but somehow I knew that if I got in that car, it would be the last thing I ever did.

If anything, I feel like I’m destined to die too soon. Not necessarily when I’m young, but definitely before anything happens that makes my life worth living. Which is worse than sad. It’s a fucking nightmare.

*     *     *

“You’re going to last the full day this time, right?” My dad’s arm starts to go around my shoulders before he thinks better of it. There’s a moment of awkwardness where he figures out what to do with his arm.

I don’t say anything. I want him to worm in his own self-consciousness for a second. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the whole act he has going on right now. The one where he pretends he actually cares about me getting better for any reason other than he hates doing things for me that aren’t the very bare minimum. It’s tiring for both of us and just wholly unnecessary.

He grabs a pre-packaged Uncrustable that was sitting on the counter and holds it out to me, his ill-fitting polo stretching over his torso. “I know yesterday was supposed to be your first day back, but I say we scratch that, huh? We can pretend it never even happened.”

I take the Uncrustable. “Thanks.” Except I say it in a way that makes sure he knows I am very not thankful and, if anything, just want him to shut up and leave me alone, which is usually what he’s best at.

“Bet you five bucks she comes back before twelve.” Mia’s eating cereal, Cap’n Crunch because, as she told me one time, she doesn’t believe in cavities.

“Bet you ten bucks Mia never learns to make actual good jokes.”

Eyes unmoving from the back of the cereal box, Mia says, “Oooo. Really got me there. Felt it so deep. Oh no. What will I ever do now?”

“Hey, stop.” He looks at us in the least convincing rendition of Dad Pretends To Be A Disciplinarian. “Rosa, listen, you just have to be strong, okay? And remember that giving up is not an option.”

Mia looks at me and mimes gagging. We both know he’s spewing bullshit. Bullshit he was too lazy to even look up, because if he had he would know that whatever he’s saying right now doesn’t relate in any way, to any part of my life, at all.

My dad is still talking. Unfortunately. “Today’s your fresh start. Just,” he makes a disgusting slurping sound, “forget the rest. Okay?”

I think Mia knows I’m about to explode because she’s shaking her head at me. She’s right, I know it. I just gotta let him talk until he’s done. I look at him and nod.

Then he opens his mouth again. “That’s my big girl.”

I literally think the letters El OH EL then say, “God, you’re so patronizing. I’m mentally ill, not five. Not that you’d care enough to look up the difference.”

His eyes widen and I would laugh at his discomfort if I was one of those people who did things like that. Instead, I take his silence as an opportunity to leave.

*     *     *

Talking to therapists involves a lot of calculated moves on my part. For example, I have to decide which aspects of my life we’re going to focus on. Because, here’s the deal, I can’t go in there and do the whole thing. It would be physically impossible. One time I heard someone describe OCD as the party bag of mental disorders because you get a little of everything. And I guess I would agree with that except I would say less a party bag because at least with that I’d get a thing of bubbles or something. And no one’s ever given me bubbles for my OCD, although I wish someone would.

If anything, it’s like someone just came up to me and handed me a piping hot mug containing the collective piss of every human on earth. The worst part about that being that I know they probably heated it up in a microwave, because no one’s going to bother boiling piss in a kettle just to pour it into a mug. That’s way too much effort for the given product. And there’s just something so much infinitely worse about piss that was heated through exposure to electromagnetic radiation than piss that was just heated by a flame. Anyway, point being that my mug of mental problems and traumatic experiences can only feasibly be addressed one savory sip at a time. So, I get to create a hierarchy of problems from immediate to abandonment issues, which I think could safely stew for a few more years.

*     *     *

Carl’s sitting on the corner that connects our two streets. When we were nine I remember pushing him off that exact curb and into the cracked street. I’d thought it was absolutely hilarious. Carl had not. In fact, he’d cried.

He looks now how he looked then. Exactly how you would imagine a Carl looks but a little like a limited time only, special edition remix of a person and a guinea. Which I guess is my nice way of saying he looks like a grown ass human fucked a rodent.

There’s something in the way he’s resting his arms on his knees that makes it look like he’s waiting for something. When I get close enough, I see my backpack on the dirt next to him and I realize I’m the thing he’s waiting for.

I walk up to him and say, “Delightful.”

He looks up, squinting into the sun. “By delightful, you mean not delightful.”

“Oh, he really does know me. Almost like we were friends or something. Interesting, isn’t it?”

He shakes his head and looks at his hands. “Dude, I just wanted to bring you your backpack. You don’t need to go there right now.”

“Well, I didn’t ask you to do that.”

“Okay, does it matter? I’m doing a nice thing.”

“I’m not gonna say thank you.”

He stands up, cleaning off the back of his jeans with his hands. “Didn’t ask for it. You could just take the backpack.”

I look at it. It’s not that I think he did anything to it. It’s that I don’t know where it was, what it touched. I want to pick it up. Or, I think I want to. If anything, just because I own it and I know if I leave it here someone will take it. But I can’t. I’m staring at it and trying to tell my legs I want them to move and wondering why on a day that doesn’t feel too bad, I can’t just pick up a stupid bag.

“Okay, fine, or don’t take it. But, just know if you’re doing some weird punishing thing to try to get at me or whatever, that I don’t care.” Carl moves to leave.

And I don’t care either so I don’t know why I say, “It’s not that.” Maybe it’s that I hate people misunderstanding my germ thing for a rude thing more than I hate Carl.

He stops. “Alright, so what is it then?”

“The, uh, the dirt. Also the not knowing. Like where it was. You know?” Except maybe I do care because suddenly I’m filled by how much I want him to know.

“No,” he says. “I don’t know.” Then he’s staring at me in that way he did right before he told me he was in love with me when we were twelve. I’d thought I was in love with him too. Turned out we were both super gay and just really confused at the time. But, still, I think that says something about our friendship. Or, at least, I used to think it did.

He runs a hand through his hair. “I don’t get it at all. Really, I don’t. And, the thing is, it’s a lot. So much, all the time. I don’t know how to deal with it, and I know you don’t either because you look like a fucking mess. Really, you look like shit. But it’s not like you’d let me help even if I wanted to. Which I did, I do, I think. I’m just lost here.”

I take a second to respond so I don’t lose it and realize I’m still holding that Uncrustable. I’ve squished it into a blob.

I take a deep breath. “I can totally see how you think what you just said is nice. But you realize that however hard this is for you, it’s a million times harder for me, right? Like, what, you had to deal with a few hours of it at most? But you could have taken a break whenever. I don’t get breaks. I don’t get to peace out whenever it gets too hard. And I don’t get to leave and never answer their calls and ignore them in the hallways and pretend like they never existed even though they needed me, even though I knew they needed me but would just never say it.”

The look on his face shifts. “That is not what happened.”

“Then what happened?”

He’s kind of yelling at this point. “You! You, just—you were treating me like shit. And how the fuck was I supposed to respond to that? I would come over, I would do all the friend things you’re supposed to do, and you would just yell at me. Everything I did was wrong.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t do things because you’re supposed to do them. That’s not friendship. That’s obligation.”

“Well, maybe that’s what you were becoming.”

We’re in each other’s faces.

“Fuck you.”

“Fuck you too.”

“I hate you.”

“Okay, well, I think I hate you too.”

“Sounds like we’re even then.”

“Yeah, sounds like it.”

I respond by turning in the opposite direction of the school and starting to walk away.

“You’re really just going to leave your backpack here?”

I turn around for a second, just long enough to chuck the Uncrustable somewhere in his general direction.

“Oh, how mature,” he yells at my back.

I flip him off without looking.

*     *     *

Raul’s has smelled the same for as long as I can remember. Dirt, from the desert sand that’s moistened into black gunk stuck between the tiles. Buttery popcorn, because Raul is always whipping up some Act II in the microwave. Sour metal, from the ICEE machine that’s more broken than not. And a distinctly old smell, which I don’t know how to describe except for that it definitely doesn’t smell new.

The only thing about this place that’s from this century is the bell Raul set to the tune of “My Hips Don’t Lie” by Shakira in the summer of me and Carl’s freshman year of high school. It rings as I enter the store.

“My main man,” I say because Raul is the only one in there and he is, indeed, my main man.

Raul barely looks up from the mini TV he’s got set up behind the counter. “Rosa, mija.”

I lean over to take a look, careful to keep my arms of the actual counter surface, because germs. “Huh, Chile’s up by two.”

He sets his Act II to the side because he has common human decency and knows it’s hard for me to watch people eat. “I know, the sick sons of bitches with their fancy wine and their fancy Neruda. Well, they can go to hell, I’ll tell you that much. Directly. No stops for them.”

“Harsh.”

He shrugs. “The way the cookie crumbles.”

He’s zoned back into the game so I head into the aisles to grab my snack. I’m halfway down the chip section when I hear him yell, “Gooooooooooooooooooool!” Followed by what sounds like a bunch of popcorn kernels hitting the floor and an, “Ay, carajo.”

It reminds me of three years ago. During the world cup, Carl and I had come here almost every day to watch soccer. That was during the time we were systematically making our way through every flavor of paletas. I would bite into the cold ice and be done with it in seconds. Carl was more of an appreciator of the process, and by the time he was finally done, his hand was always covered in the sticky juice. We had equally thought the other person was being disgusting.

I stand there for a while, wrestling between the warm nostalgia of the memory and how much I wish Carl had been born into a universe where he didn’t have an asshole so that all his shit would just compile inside his own body until he exploded. The anger wins. Really, I’m pissed that after ignoring me for weeks, he would wait on a curb just to fight with me. That’s just so fucking typical.

I grab my usual Reese’s Pieces before heading back to the front. Raul looks at my snack choices. “Just the Pieces?”

“Yeah.” I pull out the dollar I swung back to the house to grab. “What? Do you wanna give me some carrots or something? Because, look, I’ve thought about this and I figure my heart health’s already so fucked that I might as well not even bother trying to salvage it.”

He shakes his head. “I have no idea why a sixteen-year-old is thinking about heart health. But, don’t you want Skittles?”

I freeze. “Why would I want that?”

“Uh, okay, I feel like I just stumbled onto something I didn’t want to stumble onto. It’s just, never mind. I am not getting involved here.”

“Did he tell you something?”

“No, nothing.” Raul scans the Reese’s. “That’ll be a dollar.”

I hold out the dollar. “Seriously. Tell me. What did he say?”

He takes the dollar. “Really, he didn’t say anything.”

“So he did something?”

“Christ, you’re like a dog with a bone.”

“Worse, some would say.”

He groans. “Fine. He just bought some Pieces the other day. That’s all.”

“Yesterday?”

He sits back down on his stool. “Yeah.”

“After school?”

Props his feet up on the counter. “Yeah.”

“How many backpacks did he have with him?”

“Oh, two. It was weird.”

“Huh.”

Turns the volume up on the TV. “Satisfied?”

“Hardly.” I watch soccer with him for a bit. “Hey, actually, can I have the Skittles? I’ll

pay you back tomorrow.”

Raul gets up to make some fresh Act II. “Just take it.”

*     *     *

My mom told me once that we have to be careful about the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves. Which sounds like something a pretentious asshole would say, but I guess that’s what she was. Anyway, she probably just meant that people shouldn’t get stuck in the way they think they are or should be. I think I agree with that, although I’m pretty unsure about how I would really implement that nugget of wisdom into my life.

Like, sometimes I have a day that’s not too bad and I think that I might not have OCD. That maybe I was making it up this whole time just to be a bad person. Those thoughts are usually followed by hours and hours researching symptoms on the internet. At about hour three, I always realize that if I didn’t have OCD I would’ve stopped at minute ten. Neither the realization that I’m not a liar nor the realization that I still have OCD is ever comforting.

*     *     *

I let myself in with the key Carl’s mom keeps underneath a ceramic frog. He’s in his room, skipping school to sulk and watch Law & Order: SVU just like I knew he would be.

I walk right in.

I say, “You were there on the curb to make up.”

In a bored voice, he responds, “No I wasn’t.”

“Yes, you were.”

I toss the Skittles into his lap. “I went to Raul’s.”

He looks at the Skittles and then back at me. “And?”

“Well either you bought the Reese’s because you decided I was right and that using your EpiPen would be an exciting adventure, or it was a peace offering. Considering your fear of needles, I’m assuming it was the latter.”

“I’m not afraid of needles.”

“Yes, you are.”

He looks back at the Skittles and I wait. After a few really miserable seconds, he scoots over and pats the space on his bed next to me. “I want you to know I’m still mad at you.”

I hesitate, thoughts of skin particles and germs starting to press in. I try to cut it off, tell myself I won’t die, but I know I’m lying. I sit anyway. “Okay. I’m still mad at you too.”

“Like, you were being a really huge dick.”

“And you were being insensitive.”

“I know.”

We watch an episode of SVU. I spend the whole time trying to not think about the fact that his dead skin cells are nestled in-between every fiber of the blanket we’re sitting on. The kind of not thinking about it where I’m really just thinking about it. Which is why I almost miss it when Carl says, “By the way, I don’t hate you.”

“Obviously.” I pull my knees to my chest and squeeze. I don’t realize the words are going to come out until they do. “But what if I hate me?”

“Because of your OCD?”

“I don’t know, I’m thinking it might be a one-way causal relationship, as in the OCD causes hatred. Or maybe it’s outside of the whole thing.” I rest my chin on the tops of my knees. “Either way, I find my existence unsettling and a little gross.”

“I mean, how much?”

“How much what?”

“Time do you spend hating yourself?”

“Hm. I don’t know. 85%? Maybe?”

He shrugs. “We can work on that.”

Nico Oré-Girón is a junior studying literary arts at Brown University. He is an aspiring comedian and writer, as well as a fuzzy sock enthusiast. He grew up forty minutes from the Mexican border in Tucson, AZ, but can currently be found in the freezing state of Rhode Island or on Twitter and Instagram at @noshownico.