Everybody works in the office normal: a 200 person crowd, all collected to articulate the 9 to 5 in their lives. In a large white room, the periphery of a company is built through the desks meeting each other through columns of three and cubicles are the desks parted. The floors are tiled in pseudo wood and the air is an expansive, hollow cold.
I think the scariest thing about an office is the scanning machine. It is instructed only through the index of a touch, and the instruction continues through and through its process. First, you shuffle the paper into glass panel before it is couched by the metal you press down on. The scanner reverberates the paper and a 5-second wait allows you to fixate on the stick of everyone’s office finger, all amalgamated on one office machine. You’ve touched that, and now you preview the scanned something on an LCD-display attached to the side of it; it does make for pretty scannings. Now, the frontal lobe of the scanner is raised again, before the paper scanned is tucked, past your fingers pushed down your arm, and now raised to sit between your elbow and hip. Sitting back down on the red cushion, I revise all the things I’ve touched, that you’ve touched before it metamorphosizes into the best, final thing: All the things we’ve touched in the office, all together as if all by one, ‘biblically accurate angel’ looking hand. Hard Candy Maker Machine
The paranoia makes me want to giggle first, I like the fragmentation of jerking my upper body back, and letting my hands clap before my face. I want to stomp my feet, in a huddle of hot laughter— I don’t. I crave the Office Girl Clean, there are hundreds to thousands of machines here for me to have to touch. I’ve gotten past the scanner, but I’ve lost the tact, babe.
In short, the structure of the resolute, final Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) within endemicity contextualizes a self-discipline wherein self-tests, social distancing, and the accessory of a mask are incredibly relative. The conjugation of this leniency, alongside the normalcy of tapping through an Instagram story field and finding out, thumb on screen, that a close friend of mine had encountered the virus pronounces the fear in me: I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in April of 2022. Realistically, the mental exegesis my psychiatrist held over me, as she sat in her psychiatrist chair, met no reaction from my end. I had already known this about myself. She wasn’t wringing it out of magic to tell me there was an irregularity in the way I functioned, I knew my head hung well and high above normal, not-mentally-diseased-level when I was nine years old and felt too paranoid over the intricacies of what it meant to be God-loving and God-loved, anyway.
When I was nine years old, I became paranoid that I’d forget how to verbalize the vernacular of the Quranic readings I was taught in pre-pubescence, and would shuffle whispers under my breath to commemorate them, line by line perfectly. In retrospect, I must have looked like I was talking to myself in these instances; I was. When I was 12 years old, I vomited for the first time (in a long time) after committing too hard on eating a mint-chocolate something my aunty had brought back from London. I liked mint-chocolate and felt it my duty, before offering all that I had ingested to a toilet bowl that same night. I remember tracing the sensations of what that had felt like, and emulating nausea for myself again and again so I could feel it coming the next time. I remember mini vomiting on and off for days; ‘Nausea’ became my favorite word. When I was six, I became terrified of using erasers and mechanical pencils for school’s sake. For one, the magical instance that I would be rubbing off my eraser too hard on paper would redistribute the miniscule, minute residue of rubber into my mouth and I’d die. When the lead of a pencil broke off into shard, the fear would replicate and I’d die with gray in my mouth.
A 14-week pausal in breath culminated into a three-month arrest subsumed under the umbrella of restrictions attached to district travel, businesses deemed unessential, alongside public activity left hanging in suspension. The narrative of the coronavirus within the country remained relatively preempted, before an affair of state polls within Sabah amplified local infection rates; in simultaneous action, a Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO) operated with implemented action cousin to the initial MCO spanning until December 31 that year.
In the following year, the MCO and its variations were subjective to each state, in effect with the number of cases. By June 1, 2021, a total lockdown hugged the country whole, before a National Recovery Plan play-acted manifesto in fleshing a way out of virus-hood.
In the habit of panning abstract hypotheticals in my head, I’d die too — with COVID this time. Sorry to be untactful with the language, it is superficial almost to relegate the idea of dying with a hot topic, vastly distributed virus in your body especially at a time when that very dialogue has become a reality for so many people. And, it isn’t as if the vaccine handout was fairly unpopular, everybody had vaccinated themselves when the urgency to self-register for a spot was so fleeting in March.
A fair share of my head holds a grounded version of the thoughts that rationalize my ‘OCD’. She calculates the theory that I am not chasing the need to be clean, but rather addicted to ‘feeling clean’ and rigorously attempting to trap any exercises I can practice in order to gain that feeling. You can physically look clean, but when will the measures of how clean you are, innately and internally, ever parallel both these reflections? This waterfalls into this major breakdown I held over my head through the months where everybody felt it alright to leave their houses, and touch their faces outside their houses, and touch their faces with other faces. I couldn’t fathom the exposure of a crowd, or the shifting of a body held tightly against mine in a packed public transportation scheme; I could feel it all when I parked myself actively within the city (I say ‘actively’, because I had to actively confront these intimidation tactics my OCD gathered against me). When university happened, I hated lunch time and classrooms with a mini diameter range. Through the months, the underlined horror COVID had encased in my mind felt dissipating in the heads held around me. Everybody was over the fear narrative. I took showers with dishwashing liquid when I got home, I encouraged it in my head, “Clean skin thinning is better than dirty skin”.
This was all pre-April diagnosis, by the way. In hindsight, my psychiatrist lent me a name for a thing in my head, and naming things in your head concocts a vocabulary for you to shut the said name up. By May, I was drooling all over Exposure Therapy and taking her for a ride in making things at least more vehicular for me. My psychiatrist held a microphone to me, and asked me what would happen, in a purely Kiki context, had I churned a positive self-test result that morning. I stammered, and explained that I’d get sick and suffocate from the same cigarettes I had smoked at 18. She pauses, before asking me, “And then what?” — I stammer a purely Kiki hypothetical in the paradigms of my mind. This time, I explained that I could infect the relatives and friends around me, although they were all boosted and have already been infected. The exertion of the question, “And then what?” is handled again and again before I am swallowed by the real life of it all. Kiki, and then what?
By June, I was touching my face in public again, slowly. In July, I went for karaoke where you hold your face to a microphone, and expel a breath and two to sing. My birthday was in November, and I’ve climaxed in my dispelling of hand sanitizers; it was all too joyous when my skin sizzled in a porous exclamation of pain, you really do unlearn in due time. I had everything in me to reconstruct my own autonomy over the MCO I had internalized in a panic. I go to dinner in a big group and pretend everything is fine when I am normal and touching everyone, eating everything, and breathing the same air everyone's breath expels in.
Like, if I had to dilute these abstracts into a coordinated, easily understood sense of a reason. Offices have conference spaces, don’t they? And, I am in this imaginary meeting, where the plainest intention is to get to explaining why I stammer so awkwardly around the workspace. Say, I clear my throats and have to puzzle the thought into a singular coherence. I can imagine the colleagues beaming before me, all awaiting their reasons to understand and directing their attention to the tremble of my mouth, ‘I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, so I bitch and moan about the hygiene of things, I don’t think people are dirty. I cringe at things surmounting to physical touch because I often think I am the dirty one. Handshakes are so casual, and for what? Gosh, is this making sense to any of you?’
The biggest challenge in the office is lunch time. The courtesy in mingling and open-mouthed conversations, all of everybody leaning into sharing each other’s breaths in the tide of holding dialogue around one table. I wish I had it in me to have lunch with everybody else. My cousin, who works as an engineer and is the most pragmatic person I know, tells me it’s obligatory to attend lunches when invited. I listen to him, and sulk.
I loved online school. When the world got caught up in its virus and lockdowns were makeshift, I sat in my room almost meditatively, often gaining a weight on my lower spine just in a contemplative mull about the workload before me. It was about waking up, and the discipline in rising to each occasion. It was about sharing screens on Zoom, and holding up questions in classes with classmates that were almost mythological to my being. I had a crush on a boy in my tutorial slot, and part of that was the comfort of gazing through the idea that he wasn’t even real to me. I got good grades and teachers knew my name. The Obsessive Compulsive was a reduction of myself that nobody knew and nobody had to know, because I was operating well enough for work to be done on my own time. I’m clean, you’re clean- We’re all clean and not tangible enough to be real to each other.
Now, in the scheme of endemicity, working online isn’t as much an option as it used to be. It’s like a furrowed brow to people that I prefer the Internet at home, and deviate from the camaraderie of office-sharing. What makes an office fabricated on the offline sphere, anyway? This hand-shaking diorama of people, just falling into each other’s palms. What makes for courtesy in the long run? Hand-shaking is perverse and the simulacra in being polite, I say we should be able to walk into the office, stand in the middle of where everything is and scream, ‘Courtesy. This is me being courteous, and polite’. That should be enough.
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candy pulling machine Cover image by Kiki M. Credits: Angeline Ho.