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Corner Loner

A short story about the unbearable loneliness of OCD


Author's Note: As someone who struggles with OCD, I wanted to write a short story focused on representing the isolation and solitude that often accompany such a mental affliction, especially if the symptoms are not compatible with social norms.

 

Raise your hand. Raise your hand.

“Anyone?”

You know the answer. Raise your hand.

Her hand lay limp on her desk like a dead snake. The professor’s eyes passed over her briefly and swept across the rest of the classroom, imploring someone present to offer some sort of response to his open-ended question. When no voice heroically rose up among the assemblage of sullen, silent, weary-eyed students, he resignedly shrugged his own fatigued shoulders and continued on with his lecture. What difference did it make to him if his students were so apathetic? He was still being paid, regardless. Though not very much.

The professor carried on relentlessly, with few pauses for breath, and her hand awakened at once from its comatose state and moved like wildfire across the pages of her notebook, scribbling frantically and recording every measly crumb of information it could snatch. It worked as quickly and desperately as a starving, scrounging rat. She needed to pass this class. It was part of her major. Her notes had to be perfect, even if it meant putting the muscles of her writing hand through the worst kind of boot camp. If only he wouldn’t talk so fast…

“Just bring your laptop to class,” insisted her sister, when she voiced this concern during one of their infrequent late-night Skype meetings. “Everybody does that now.”

She couldn’t do that. What if she brought her laptop to class to take notes with and she needed to charge it? Then she would have to give up her cherished spot in the far-right back corner of the classroom. She would have to move closer to one of the few outlets at the very front of it, inches away from the professor’s desk.

It was too crowded at the front of the classroom. She would have people sitting next to her, on both sides. She would get poked by strange elbows. Someone behind her would be staring at the back of her head and breathing down her neck for a full hour and a half. The professor would be right there the whole time, pacing to and fro in that languid, slouchy way of his, where he could see her, and demand an answer from her, because he would be able to detect on her face that she always knew the answer to every question he asked, and she wouldn’t be able to hide it…

She shuddered in her seat at the very thought of it. No, never. She wouldn’t give up her corner spot for anything. Not even for better notes. She didn’t even know these people. She would not try to squeeze herself into the herd where she didn’t belong.

It had always been that way for her. In elementary school, in high school, in Sunday School. Even in Girl Guides. She had always taken the furthest back corner seat and would not be coaxed out of it for anything. Not by teachers, by parents, by pushy scout leaders. Not even by soft-spoken priests. “Shyness” was what most of the grownups called her fixation with being corner-bound. “Anti-social” was tossed around on occasion too, paired up with “stubborn” or, if the adult in question was particularly exasperated, “ridiculous.”

She considered it comfort, one that she had every right to. If there was no chair in the corner, she would pick one up, move it there, and plunk herself down. If someone was sitting in her corner, she would take any action necessary to make them abandon it in her favour. Once, when she was eleven, she tickled her own nose with a feather plucked from her winter coat and sneezed on a kid to make them move from her spot. In high school, she once sneaked into a classroom to switch her history teacher’s assigned seating plan with one that suited her needs better.

People just didn’t understand. She needed to sit in the corner, at the edge of the crowd, away from the crowd, not in it. And certainly not touching it. She couldn’t handle crowds. She couldn’t handle being surrounded. In elementary and high school and everywhere else, the other students did eventually get the hint that the corner desk was hers, though they gave her an endlessly hard time for it. “Corner Loner,” they called her, and she lived with the cruel teasing and that nickname stamped on her all the way up to college.

“Be flexible,” her mother had pleaded with her on that first day, when they were about to leave her alone in a dorm room with a dozen boxes to unpack and a grueling degree to obtain. “The class sizes will be big, and you might not always get the seat you want.”

But she did. She fought for the seat she wanted, every day, in every class. She got there early. She claimed her territory and shifted as far away from the other desks as she physically could. And there she stayed, safe and snug in her corner, unnoticed and undisturbed and never, ever called upon by a professor.

The professor was asking another question now. Again, she didn’t answer. If she spoke, it would mean two dozen heads would whip around and look at her, in her corner, her corner, where she wasn’t meant to be seen or acknowledged. No, no, she couldn’t do that. She couldn’t break the divide. She lowered her head and her gaze down further instead, and quickly reread what she had just written in her furious, choppy scrawl.

Horrified, she discovered that rather than copy down the professor’s words, she had copied down her own thoughts instead, which had nothing to do with the class content, but everything to do with her.

Corner loner, corner loner, trapped in the corner forever and ever.

The taunting mantra. Third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade. She scowled to herself and blotted out the words with hurried, sloppy smears of Wite-Out. Couldn’t those kids at school at least have come up with a mocking jingle that rhymed properly? It grated on her nerves now, as it did then. In what universe did “loner” rhyme with “ever?” They could have gone with “owner” or “moaner” or…or…

“I betcha she texts back there, or masturbates.”

“What a fucking freakshow.”

Seventh grade, eighth grade. Ninth grade and tenth grade. Glances snuck. Dirty looks and smirks tossed over shoulders. And there was her just minding her own business, in her corner, hurting no one, but inviting all the sneers. Why couldn’t they just leave her alone? She had to wait until halfway through twelfth grade for them all to stop caring so much.

Oh God. Her hand was shaking now, and the professor was still talking. She was screaming inside. She was a prisoner of her own impulses. Why here, why now? This was the worst time for this to happen! What was she going to do, if she couldn’t take notes? She had to write, record, pass the class. Get her degree. Get a job. Lead a normal life. Everyone expected it of her. She had to.

Control your hand. Control your hand.

“…and what makes this set of memoirists so special is that they don’t want to be pitied…” the professor droned on.

You can do this. Just make it stay still.

“…their goal is, rather, to educate the masses, to make their lives and stories public and relevant…”

She seized her trembling writing hand with her other one and willed it not to move. It worked, to an extent. Her hand obeyed and came to a stiff halt. But then her elbow twitched rebelliously, traitorously, and to her incredible horror, knocked the bottle of Wite-Out off her desk and sent it toppling over.

To her ears, there could have been nothing louder than the sound that little bottle made when it hit the floor. Heads turned, and suddenly there were eyes on her, and on the gooey whiteness oozing out of the bottle and making a roundish stain on the tiles below like a half-moon.

No, no, this couldn’t be happening! Wite-Out was supposed to blot out messes, not make new ones! Now they were looking at her, instead of at the professor, who wasn’t talking anymore, because he was looking at her too. She had made a mistake, a terrible, terrible mistake, a catastrophic mistake, and there were witnesses!

She gripped the sides of her desk, and suddenly felt very, very trapped, and very, very concerned, in her far back-corner seat. There was no back door through which she could make a swift exit. There was only one door, at the very front of the classroom, and to get to it now she would have to pass through this crowd of unimpressed classmates whose judging stares let her know that she didn’t belong there.

I can’t do this. I can’t do this. My hand hurts. Her whole body hurt. There was a burning sensation, starting from the bottom, scorching her toes, and creeping up to her face. She knew what it was, what it meant. She couldn’t stay here. She had to leave.

“Well,” the professor was saying now, calmly and casually. “No use crying over spilled Wite-Out. Now, as I was saying…”

She got up. She felt like a stampeding rhino, racing and pushing herself to the front of the room, squeezing forcefully through the cracks of space between the desks and ramming hard into her classmates’ shoulders and elbows in her haste to escape. She had her notebook and pen and Wite-Out clutched to her chest and the only trace of herself she left behind was the glob of pasty white goop on the floor.

“Sorry…sorry…” was all she could stammer in her own defense. And then she was gone.

The classroom door slammed shut behind her. Her confused classmates whispered to one another before the professor shushed them.

“Perhaps someone can lend her their notes tomorrow,” he suggested. He cleared his throat and glanced down at his own notes on his desk. “Where was I?”

The next morning, when the professor sauntered into the room with his briefcase and takeout coffee and greeted his class, he noticed that the back-corner seat was vacant. Every other seat was filled, but that one, where she always sat, was empty. The Wite-Out stain on the floor had been cleaned away by the janitor the night before.

“She must be sick,” he thought, sparing her a single, generous thought.

The rest of his class, still blinking the sleep from their eyes, was thinking about lunch, and assignments due, and when they could slot a nap or a beer out with friends into their hectic schedules. And he wondered, enviously, what it would be like to be young and not have so much to worry about.

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