As usual, you start with the door to the fire escape. You see that the latch is locked but you unlock it anyway. Now pull twice to make sure that the deadbolt is also locked. It is. It always is. Re-lock the latch and tug two more times. The doorknob is ancient and already wobbles when you grab on to it. You wonder how much longer it will last.
Now back up to face the stove. This is the most important part of your routine, your nighttime ritual. Check that all four burners are off, first by moving your eyes slowly from left to right over the knobs. Off, off, off, off. Repeat from right to left. Off, off, off, off. Now watch the burners themselves, moving from left to right. Off, off, off, off. Then right to left. Off, off, off, off.
Now walk slightly to the right and press on the door to the refrigerator to ensure that it is fully closed. It is. It always is. Back up to the entrance of the kitchen. Check that the coffee maker is unplugged. Now move back into the kitchen to look at the stove for a second time. First the knobs: Off, off, off, off; off, off, off, off. Then the burners: Off, off, off, off; off, off, off, off. See that the latch on the fire escape is locked. It still is. Turn off the kitchen light.
Cross through the living room to the front door and check that the deadbolt is locked. Tug on it once and listen to it knock against the frame of the door. It’s locked. Walk towards your room and eye the kitchen again from your doorway. Focus on the stove. Off, off, off, off; off, off, off, off. Off, off, off, off; off, off, off, off. Turn off the living room light. Watch the stove for the last time in the darkness (you would see a flame if a burner was on). Off, off, off, off; off, off, off, off. Off, off, off, off; off, off, off, off. Turn to the front door and see the deadbolt lock illuminated by light on the other side of the door. It’s locked. Exhale and turn to go to sleep.
There are good nights and bad nights. On a good night, the routine stops here. On a bad night, you will have to repeat or add steps. Maybe you remember that the kitchen window was open earlier, and you want to confirm that it is now closed. Maybe you realize that the far-right burner looked different today. If you’re drunk or exhausted, you will assume you missed something. If someone comes home after you’ve retreated, you may have to start over. You may re-emerge from your room almost instantly, or you may wait until you’ve settled into bed. The routine is cumulative: if you go back to the stove, you must re-check the refrigerator, coffee maker, and the front door. If you return to the fire escape, you must start from the beginning.
On a good day, the routine takes two minutes. On a bad day, it can take up to ten.
You do an abridged version of the routine whenever you leave the apartment. If someone else is home, merely check the stove once. If you are the last one to leave, look at the stove at least twice. When you leave, remember to lock the deadbolt then push on the door three times from the outside to ensure that it latched. Walk halfway down the stairs, then look back to check that the door is closed.
The daytime routine is precautionary, so that you can fully enjoy your plans for the day. The day you reunited with your boyfriend after the summer apart, you checked the stove three times. You didn’t want to be thinking about the stove when you saw him for the first time in four months. Once last summer, you were housesitting and left for the evening to see a show with your family. You did four sweeps of the house, and took pictures at each step in case you worried while you were out.
You don’t remember exactly when you started doing routines, but you know that the day you don’t is the day that something goes wrong. You develop routines the way a dog develops its territory. Your routine in your apartment commenced instantly, but your routine at your boyfriend’s house took a few months. The routine at your parents’ house is much more elaborate, their stove much more complicated. They have a sliding glass door that occasionally doesn’t lock into place.
You spent years convincing yourself that it wasn’t OCD because you’d never been afraid of germs. You still don’t really know what it is but you know it’s obsessive and compulsive. When you read books for class, you will mark passages two or three times before they look right. You bought erasable highlighters so that you could fix lines that weren’t perfectly straight. You rewind shows and movies if you miss six words of dialogue. If you can’t rewind, you try to find the clip again later. You still wonder what that room looked like on an episode of House Hunters you watched recently.
You’ve spent ten years training to be an actor, so you are good at hiding it. You’re a sober drunk and a subtle obsessor. If your roommates are still awake when you do the routine, you will act more casual about it. Worse case, you can get up later to redo it. When you are alone, it’s much more focused and serious. It’s more official that way. You wonder if your neighbors can see.
You got a new roommate this year, and she slept on the couch for a week before her furniture was delivered. She woke up in the middle of the night to see you staring over the stove.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Just locking up,” you said. “This is a thing that I do.”
Another roommate knows about your routine and—at your request—does an abridged version if you aren’t home for the night (you stress the importance of the stove and the front door). Your boyfriend knows why you leave the room right before bed. You will never be able to come home and go straight to sleep. You know the day you don’t do it is the day that something goes wrong.
It only takes a few minutes, but you wonder if years from now you will add up those minutes and repetitions and off, off, off, off’s and regret them. You wonder if you will do this when you have your own house or kids. You wonder if it will get progressively better or progressively worse.
Sometimes you blame your family. They allowed you to move so far away for college, and your mother always taught you to double check your work. The day you don’t do it is the day that something goes wrong.
You know that there’s a problem, and you know that it’s ridiculous. You’ve always been logical. You know that no one’s died of not obsessing. You know the day you don’t do it is the day that something goes wrong.
Tonight, your boyfriend is going to stay over. You will slip out of bed and do your routine before crawling in next to him again: fire escape, stove, fridge, coffee maker, stove, front door, stove, front door. It will only take two minutes. Five at the most. Maybe ten.
Tomorrow, he will leave at 5:30 in the morning for work. You will lock the deadbolt behind him then check the stove again before going back to sleep: Off, off, off, off; off, off, off, off.
Image: “Smeg stove” by Mike Hauser, licensed under CC 2.0.