I’ve always had compulsions. Innocuous enough, they exercised their power through OCD-lended voices, demanding tribute in the form of exhausted light switches and disturbingly odd hopscotch burlesques across the multicolored kitchen floor tiles every morning.
And by the time I reached college, I’d shaken a majority of my ticks, and their residual effects translated to a socially acceptable anal-retentive cleanliness. It’s one thing to ask that someone use a coaster on your Art Deco sideboard; it’s something entirely different to stand outside the room in which your guests sit, reach around the doorframe, and turn the light on and off four times–only four!–while ensuring you avoid eye contact with something breakable, because it would surely tumble off its stable surface under the power of your gaze.
Face it, with the second option, water rings would be the least of your problems.
It wasn’t until graduate school that many of my dormant compulsions made a terrifying resurgence like a bastardized phoenix from a garbage can fire. Stress undoubtedly informed most of them. During a time when I felt I was spiraling out of control and found myself literally pressing my forehead to postmodern tomes during hours-long library binges in the hopes that their gibberish would translate through osmosis, the ticks wreaked havoc. Many times I had to run to the morning bus stop because I had to turn around to check the stovetop one more time, or give the front doorknob a fifth twist.
And then there was Time, always there, mocking me–asking me why I wasn’t already on my way to teach. After all, it was noon: recitation starts at 12:30, and it takes approximately ten minutes to get there; and you might need to double back for notes; and you’ll probably need to review that closing PowerPoint slide; that shoelace looks loose, and will probably need retying; and you’ll definitely need to check into the nearest bathroom to make sure you don’t have any lunch in your teeth–even though you stopped eating lunch months ago; and you can’t get to the room after the students, because they won’t respect you.
Clearly, it all made sense.
Flash forward a few years and graduate school is a distant memory, and I begin to relish reading again. But I still require evidence that I’ve conquered a book–that I’ve absorbed, embodied, and deconstructed it. Its ending has multiple meanings for the multiple people I’ve been through my life: neurotic late-bloomer teen; neurotic, angsty college goth; neurotic mini-professor graduate student; and neurotic, disillusioned archaeologist.
Enter: Post Its.
Not the big ones, mind you, but the ridiculously useful, multicolored ribbony ones; the ones that just scream to be plastered just so, their ends alluding to the meaning sandwiched between a book’s pages. More importantly, though, no one can see them. My secret obsession is safe.
Perusing book spines, potential boyfriends would be completely unaware of the Post It panoply facing the wall. If we’d become full-fledged boyfriends, and they pulled one off the shelf, I’d provide a very brief justification for the two colors of Post Its marking the pages of The Lord of the Flies.
“Each color signifies a different meaning, I’d explain, “So please don’t remove them.”
It’d be at that point that I’d unabashedly bring my OCD into sharp relief.
It was a great litmus test: either he’d crack a smile and shake his head, or I’d get a “Let’s just be friends” email the next day. But at least Gmail’s flagging function became useful when I filed those in the folder “Close Calls of the Boyfriend Kind.” It was sort of like using Post Its, minus the associated baggage of failed romance. Little did I know, years later, I’d actually snag a guy who cracked a smile, shook his head, and stayed.
But boyfriendom wasn’t in the fore of my mind as I raced to make a book reading by one of my favorite authors at my favorite Raleigh bookstore. As Garbage’s #1 Crush queued into my iPod mix, I began grasping for something witty to say to this prolific, nationally-known, intellectual writer that wouldn’t translate as cliché or trite.
But before I could craft together something memorable, I pulled into the parking lot; I had to make a decision. Stacked on my passenger seat was every book Sarah Vowell had ever written. And each had its pages plumped by Post Its: Radio On: pink; Take the Cannoli: yellow; The Partly Cloudy Patriot: blue and green; Assassination Vacation, my favorite: blue, yellow, and purple; and, the book of the evening, The Wordy Shipmates: orange and yellow. I considered how intensely odd the tower of Post Ited books might appear, and replayed the conversation I’d had hours before with my friend Judie.
“Don’t do it.”
“Why not? I’d be flattered if I knew someone liked my book this much.”
“Because it looks like you’re a bit, um, extreme.”
“You mean insane?”
“Precisely. And you don’t have a book.”
“Whatever. I think it’ll be fine.”
“If you say so.”
And what’d Judie know, anyway? Sure, she’d earned a PhD in psychology, and had diagnosed me with everything in the book, but that shouldn’t stop me, right? Right. Plus, I had half an hour before the reading began; I could test the waters, see what everyone else had brought.
Walking in, my adrenaline rushed; this was the first real author I’d ever met. My palms started sweating. I tried to take my mind off things, so I judged others.
A woman to my right only had her reserve copy of The Wordy Shipmates, and a slight man to my left had Radio On and was thumbing through The Wordy Shipmates. I smiled to myself.
Ten minutes away, people began filing down from the reserve counter. Decision time. I calmly stood, placed my copy of The Wordy Shipmates atop my chair, gave a quick I-Will-Cut-You glance at seat-ogling latecomers, and walked up to the entrance. The minute the door swung closed, I took off running to my car, ripped the books from the front seat, and ran back, slowing at the door, and walking in with the books’ spines facing out.
When I sat back down, the woman stared at the books’ colorful pages.
Cutting a sideways glance, I politely responded to her non-inquiry, “I’m a fan.”
The slight man arched an eyebrow, turned, and resumed thumbing. Then the introduction came, and Sarah Vowell was at the podium. Her signature voice was unmistakable. But I was astonished at how the larger-than-life mental image I’d constructed didn’t translate to her actual stature. It’s a little thing, but still.
Interjected between her readings were random bits of experience: emasculating a friend’s boyfriend by successfully defending her title as the HORSE champion of Bozeman, Montana; meeting Al Gore while giving an interview on The Daily Show; listening to The Buzzcocks while sitting in her Stickley rocking chair.
Before I knew it, she was wrapping up. And I was combing through my mind, searching for my meaningful statement like a bonobo searching its mate’s hairy back for bugs.
Two women in the back asked how Sarah (we’re on a first name basis, you know?) reconciled her atheism with researching Puritanical Protestantism, the crux of her book. Sarah explained, and offered a closing statement.
“And thank you for pointing out, in the South, that I’m a godless heathen.”
That’s when it slapped me across my face: atheism, my in!
The signing line was incredibly long, and I thanked the universe that I didn’t have to go to work the next day. I got closer, and found myself behind the women who asked the religious question. I secretly envied them, especially when they exchanged guffaws with Sarah while she signed their books.
There’s no way I’d be as cool and collected as them. I’d probably sweated so much that I’d lose my grip on my books and drop them on her.
But then the attending employee took my stack from me, and readied them for Sarah. In the brief moments between the employee taking the books and Sarah telling the women goodbye, the employee looked from the bloated pages back to me. I blushed. She set them down.
Sarah and I exchanged the usual pleasantries, and then she saw the books. And the Post Its.
“Wow, you like Post Its.”
I turned magenta. Cue nervous laugh.
“Hah. Well, I’m a little obsessive-compulsive.”
She opened The Partly Cloudy Patriot to a Post Ited page.
“So, what do the different colors mean? Different significance?”
I laughed a bit and nodded. She signed, perused the others, and opened the next in the same fashion.
“And this one has three different kinds?”
“Yes, well, um, the blue signifies something interesting from a historical perspective. Purple, something I found personally meaningful. And yellow, something funny. Yellow usually marks something funny.”
She cracked a slight smile, which could’ve stemmed from horror or puzzlement.
And then she opened up The Wordy Shipmates. I wrung my hands. I hadn’t finished putting in the Post Its. It looked like I hated it. Why had I told her about my Yellow=Funny equation? There were only three yellow Post Its in the whole book.
“Well, I just finished this one. I really liked it!” I boomed a bit too cheerily.
She finished signing, looked up, and thanked me for coming.
I stood in awkward silence.
I smiled, turned, and took a step away. But then I figured, why the hell not? I swiveled back around, probably to the chagrin of the assisting employee.
“Well, from one godless heathen to another, thank you for your books, I really appreciate them.”
She looked up from the book she was prepping, stared at me, and cocked her head.
I turned quickly and aimed for the door. I hope you’re satisfied. You just embarrassed yourself!
But then, that unmistakable voice.
“Well, if you ever do decide to go to church, you’re well prepared. Well-equipped with all your Post Its.”
Several months later, I was in the same bookstore, with a similar pile of Post Ited books to hear Celia Rivenbark read from her new book.
Sidling up to the signing table, I watched the same employee push the stack toward Celia. Her eyes widened a bit, and she looked up at me. We had a similar conversation as I’d had with Sarah Vowell, but then Celia yelled to her daughter.
“Honey, come see this!”
Her young daughter came over, and Celia asked the employee to take a picture of us, with them holding up one of my marked books.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m happy you like them so much!”
And I guess that’s the point, right? Knowing your life—what you’ve written—strikes a chord somewhere.
Even if it’s not particularly colorful.