The book focuses on a high school senior in New Rochelle, New York, whose preoccupation with college admissions, her father’s death and the K-pop group BTS becomes overshadowed by the COVID-19 outbreak.
By C.J. Farley
March 11, 2020
I would give anything to make old people remember what it was like to be a teenager. There were copters buzzing over our house for like forty-five minutes last night while I was trying to do my Mandarin homework. It might have been Fox News or the cops. I don’t know and I don’t care. All I know is that they give us way too much homework. I was up past midnight finishing it. I asked my mom how much homework she used to get when she was sixteen and she said she didn’t remember. High schoolers today get so screwed when it comes to homework. Old people never remember what it was like for them and treat us like they never would have wanted to be treated when they were our age.
I skipped a grade back before middle school, so now I’m a year younger than a high school senior is supposed to be. My mom likes to say I’m young for my grade but old for my age. I don’t even know what to do with that, so when she says it I try to pretend that I’m listening to really loud music on my earphones whether I’ve got earphones in my ears or not.
I should tell you I’ve got obsessive-compulsive disorder, or maybe I should say it’s got me. I get in circles about certain things and it puts people off. Hell, it puts me off. I hate when I hear people in school make jokes about trivial stuff and compare it to OCD, like, He’s so anal about eating green Skittles, he’s got OCD, or whatever. OCD is serious and it’s not like it is in movies or on TV. If you always brush your teeth and look presentable it doesn’t mean you’ve got OCD necessarily, it just means you’re not Post Malone.
My OCD got worse after what happened with my dad. It takes me an extra hour to finish my homework because I have to line up my pens and pencils and paper a certain way in a certain order, and if they’re not lined up in that certain way in that certain order I have to start all over again. I can’t leave or enter any building without clucking my tongue three times and touching my left eyelid twice. That’s what you do when you have OCD—you have these compulsions or rituals you have to perform. But it’s not just about handwashing or any of that. You get these thoughts or obsessions that you can’t help thinking. They keep replaying in your mind and you have no control. It’s like a sample of a song you don’t want to hear and somebody else is the deejay. It is what it is.
I take clomipramine for my compulsions and everything but it pretty much gives me every side effect listed on WebMD. I get nausea, upset stomach, loss of appetite, blurred vision, constipation, you name it. What I don’t go through is all the fun stuff you see in those pharmaceutical commercials on TV—friends giving me fist bumps after we win a race, smiling parents and siblings toasting me at a food-filled dining table, hotties holding me in their arms on candle-filled dance floors. I hate drug company ads. After all the fantasy images, some announcer speed reads through all the side effects I’m actually suffering like he’s an auctioneer taking bids.
Did I mention I also suffer from anxiety attacks? They’re a side effect of the clomipramine. My psychiatrist gives me Zoloft to treat them and that causes diarrhea, dizziness, drowsiness, fatigue, insomnia, loose stools, nausea again, delayed ejaculation—which luckily I don’t have to worry about cause I’m a girl—and xerostomia, which even though I got a 98 in English last semester I had no idea what that meant until I looked it up. I’ll save you a google—it means dry mouth, which is just stupid because they could have just said that from the jump. All of this makes me kind of depressed, so I take Abilify for that, which, you guessed it, exacerbates my OCD. Big Pharma is a scam, I won’t lie.
They’re saying school will be closed for a minute because of this thing that’s going around. Everybody was psyched about getting a flu break until we started receiving e-mails about distance learning and our teachers started going crazy on Google Classroom. You know how in that book 1984 they say that what’s in room 101 is the worst thing in the world? Well, turns out what’s in room 101 is Google Classroom. We might end up getting more homework with school out than we do with school on.
I texted my friend Tovah this past weekend about maybe getting together and seeing that new Pixar movie, but she was like, I have too much work to do. I did too, but that was the one movie I was willing to take a break to go see. Tovah’s a hypochondriac and a germaphobe, which is a pretty terrible combination; and she’s a workaholic on top of that, so I just figured she was gonna be about that homework life until the whole flu bug was over. Even before they began officially canceling classes, Tovah started pushing ahead in her coursework so she wouldn’t miss anything even if the teachers did. We both stayed home like two nerds and neither of us got to see that Pixar movie. I was bummed about it. There’s nothing better than going to the Ozy Theater on opening weekend. They serve you dinner right in your seats. It’s a real meal too, not like horrible theater food. They don’t even let people turn on their cell phones, which Tovah can’t stand, but I love it because it’s just fantastic to not have someone waving or poking or texting you for a couple hours. And they show old films there too like all the Miyazaki classics.
If you haven’t seen Miyazaki’s stuff, you have to. People call him the Japanese Walt Disney but that’s racist and stupid because he’s way better than Walt Disney. First of all, I’m pretty certain Mickey Mouse is just low-key blackface and I’m not okay with that. Miyazaki’s movies have environmental and spiritual and antiwar themes. But they also have these moments that Miyazaki calls ma where there’s no action at all and the characters just sigh or listen to the wind in the trees or stare at a running stream. Disney movies don’t have moments like that. Without ma, everything is like a long hashtag you can’t figure out because there aren’t any breaks between the words. I saw Miyazaki’s Spirited Away with Tovah at the Ozy Theater and after the lights came up we just sat there and hugged each other and cried because the movie is about the afterlife and I was thinking about my dad and we didn’t care that all the parents there with real little kids thought we were like mental.
I’m still bummed we didn’t get to see that Pixar movie. That’s like the first Pixar movie I didn’t rush to see on opening weekend. Except Cars 2. Have you seen that movie? The talking cars get caught up in an international spy ring? Even when I was seven I called bullshit.
It’s not like I didn’t do anything over the weekend. I did get a lot of homework done—I studied for a test we were going to have in Mandarin and a quiz we were supposed to have in AP Gov. We’ve been reading about FDR and the Great Depression and World War II. Ms. Swain told us FDR kind of saved America. Did he really though? I mean, of course the New Deal was awesome and I wish more people knew about the Second Bill of Rights that FDR proposed that included freedom from monopolies and the right to work and have housing and medical care and education. But I’m kinda tired of the whole great-man-of-history thing. FDR didn’t storm the beaches at Normandy. FDR wasn’t working in assembly lines in Detroit building amphibious trucks and flame-throwing armored cars. Yes, FDR was a great president and he helped create the whole postwar international framework that President Mad King is currently breaking apart like a bull in a LEGO store. But why isn’t history more about the everyday people who do stuff and not just about the names with blue check marks?
Of course they’re not going to ask us anything interesting like that on the quiz, just a bunch of stupid multiple choice questions about dates and names and definitions. Homework is such a waste of time. Teachers use it to pretend they’re really teaching. Now it looks like we won’t even have that quiz in AP Gov, or the test in Mandarin. They sent out an e-mail blast that we’re going to be out of school for two weeks at least, and they canceled a bunch of quizzes and tests until they figure things out. I wasted all my time studying when I could have been getting my Pixar on.
Instead of sulking even more, I closed my window shades, put in my earphones, and turned up BTS.
They’re like my favorite band. None of my friends can understand why I like them. To tell you the truth, I don’t even completely understand it myself. I know they’re not what most people would call a cool band. I know they’re not all whatever like Kendrick Lamar or XXXTentacion. I will sometimes check out vintage stuff if it comes recommended by a person I respect. My mom’s crazy boyfriend is always listening to crazy stuff from decades ago like Public Enemy and the Fugees, and rock stuff like Nirvana and the Strokes, and obscure stuff like Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. No thank you. My mom’s boyfriend is like fifty years old, so he’s pretty much stuck in the past like that prehistoric mosquito trapped in amber at the beginning of Jurassic Park. People in their fifties are funny because they’re too young to realize they’re really old.
BTS—there’s just something about them. It’s not exactly cool to like K-pop, but I love their music because it goes against what other kids at my school are into. I don’t know any other Black girls in school who are into them. My friend Tovah follows them on social media and she’s like the only person in school I can really talk to about BTS. She’s not as into them as I am, but she doesn’t shame me for liking them. When she had her bat mitzvah she put that BTS song “Wings” on the afterparty playlist, partly because her dad’s Korean and she wanted to have a nod to her culture, but also because she knew I’d lose my mind and actually get up and dance if I heard it.
I know all the band members’ birthdays, and I watch all the videos they post on YouTube—not just the music videos, I also keep up with the documentary-style ones, and there are about a thousand of those. BTS makes a lot of videos where they’re playing weird games and the clips are all in Korean and some of them don’t even have subtitles. Korean game shows are really funny, and they have elaborate sets, like there was this one I saw that took place in what looked like a classroom and the point was for contestants to try to hit the teacher with paper airplanes. I love BTS but I have to admit watching all their videos is a huge time suck. I’d like to blame my obsession on my OCD though I think it’s just that I really love this band. It is what it is.
There are seven members of BTS and I have a sticker of Jungkook on the water bottle I use whenever I’ve finished a run; I keep it on the nightstand next to my bed. Jungkook’s got a sweep of hair that falls down just above his eyes, and he’s got a sweet perky red mouth like a flower that I’m pretty sure he accentuates with lipstick. He is the youngest member of the group. He’s like twenty-two which is only a few years older than me. He’s the best singer in the band, IMO, and he has the most energy. He’s also the only member of the group with tattoos—a tiger flower and a skeleton hand on his forearm, the date he joined BTS under his thumb on his right hand, the letters A-R-M-Y on his knuckles as a tribute to his army of fans, and his life motto—Rather be dead than cool—on his wrist. Don’t ask me why I know all this. I would never care this much about One Direction or the Jonas Brothers. My left brain understands that boy bands are ridiculous, like fidget spinners or American Girl dolls or the fact that the Twilight franchise was ever a thing. But my right brain likes looking into Jungkook’s cute dark eyes as I lie in bed.
I could hear the TV through my bedroom wall as I drifted off to sleep last night. My mom’s stupid boyfriend was watching the Night King and his White Walkers talking about the virus crisis:
We have contained this. I won’t say airtight, but pretty close to airtight.
You have fifteen people, and the fifteen within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero. That’s a pretty good job we’ve done.
Right now, at this moment, there’s no need to change anything that you’re doing on a day-by-day basis. Right now the risk is still low—but this could change.
Excerpted from “Zero O’Clock” by C.J. Farley. Copyright 2021 by C.J. Farley. Used with permission of the author and Akashic Books.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.