Okay, he thought. You can do this.
Jack Sharp lay in bed, his eyes open, staring at the ceiling tile. He waited with baited breath for the clock to turn over. He dare not look at it; that would disturb the ritual he had held for as long as he’d been living alone – a ritual that today he just could not get right.
The second hand sounded like a cannon as it strolled around the clock’s face. Its last five steps seemed to reverberate around the room. Sometimes Jack wondered how his neighbors could sleep through the sound of his clock, let alone the alarm.
Jack waited five more seconds to turn the alarm off. Usually that’s how long it took him to get jerked out of sleep by the sound, but this was the third time that he had attempted this ritual today and he was already awake.
He shut it off at 6:00:05, and exhaled with great relief. He hadn’t even realized that he’d been holding his breath. So far, so good, he thought. But you’ve only got ten more seconds to get out of bed.
At 6:00:11, he started pulling the covers off of himself, at 6:00:13, his bare feet touched the hard wood floor, and at 6:00:15 exactly, he pulled the covers back into their rightful position. He checked to make sure that the comforter hung evenly off the bed, that one side wasn’t lower than the other.
Another victory. But the ritual was really just beginning.
Jack started moving towards the bathroom, left foot first. It was eleven steps from his bedroom to the bathroom, and if Jack started with this left foot then he would enter the bathroom with his right. He had read somewhere that it was bad luck to enter a room left foot first. Maybe he had made it up. The walk proved harder than he imagined; he wanted to make sure he did it right, but knew if he overanalyzed himself he’d end up taking steps that were too big or too small. In the end he had to trust himself, but he was sweating bullets for every step he took. Jack couldn’t shut his brain off, couldn’t remove the specter of failure from his horizon.
When his right foot touched the cold tile, he felt as though he could cry with happiness. He opened his mouth to speak, but managed to stop himself in time. Smooth sailing, he thought, which was what he was going to say, but Jack never spoke during his morning ritual. Crazy people talk to themselves, he told himself often.
Shaking off the near-miss – which would have been a colossal mishap, and would have warranted the beginning of the ritual all over again – he began his preparations for what would be his third shower of the morning. Jack Sharp’s hair was still wet from the other two.
He crossed the room to the sink and began brushing his teeth. Thirty seconds right quadrant, thirty seconds left quadrant, thirty seconds top, thirty seconds bottom.
He applied shaving cream to his face, which was already raw and pink from the razor’s ministrations. The cream stung on the minute cuts he’d given himself that morning, but he didn’t wince and couldn’t stop himself.
He shaved and washed the razor for exactly ten seconds. He dried it for exactly five, and put the top back on the canister of shaving cream so that the word EDGE was straight up, looking at the ceiling.
Jack turned on the shower and waited twenty-three seconds. At that point, he took off his boxers and undershirt, folding them on top of each other. Jack knew that at twenty-eight seconds, the water would be sufficiently warm enough to bathe in.
He got in the shower and smiled to himself, pleased with how well the ritual was going this time. He had had some first time blues, but things were flowing nicely now.
After standing under the water for fifteen seconds, Jack reached for the shampoo. He knew it could actually damage your hair to wash it more than twice a day, but he wasn’t concerned about his hair right now; he was concerned about being able to finish the ritual properly so he could just get out the door. Then he could worry about hair.
Jack lathered and he rinsed. He took the bar of Ivory Spring and spent ten seconds washing each arm and each leg; twenty seconds on his torso because he was fairly tall. He washed the soap off his body; thankfully there was no set ritual for washing his body. He had tried to establish one, but the soap ran too quickly and it proved impossible. Still he timed himself: there was no earthly reason to take longer than twenty seconds on this.
Completely, overly clean, Jack stood under the water for thirty more seconds before turning off the shower and stepping out. He did allow himself some luxuries.
Well done, he thought. Not even in there long enough to steam up the mirrors.
Jack got dressed in his usual manner – shirt, tie, underwear, pants, socks, shoes. From the top down, head to toe. This part he never had trouble with, but that didn’t mean he ever stopped thinking about it.
He made his way to the kitchen. Jack couldn’t remember if this was where he’d failed those other two times; as far as he was concerned, those attempts never even happened. He succeeded every day. Jack Sharp won this battle every day.
He started heating up a skillet, in which he meant to scramble some eggs. He put some toast in the toaster and just stood, hands limp at his sides, his gaze dully fixed on the skillet. This was the only time he got to relax all morning. He was scrambling the eggs when the toaster announced the toast’s completion; Jack knew he had thirty-two seconds during which the eggs could sit, while he buttered the toast.
He began to apply butter in three even lines. The first piece of toast was a success. While working on the second one, the knife slipped and butter smeared on the plate.
Jack looked at it, feeling numb anger. It metastasized into fury.
“God damn it!” he shouted, and flung the plate across the room.
Fifteen minutes later, after cleaning up the plate, throwing away the eggs, cleaning the skillet, realizing that he was a prisoner in his own house and of his own making, hanging his clothes back up, dismissing that realization, and setting the alarm clock back to 5:58, Jack Sharp lay in bed, his eyes staring up at the ceiling tile.
Okay, he thought. You can do this.