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The Delicate Art of Counting to Three


By Jess SambucoPublished 3 years ago 9 min read
Top Story - April 2023
The Delicate Art of Counting to Three
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

It’s a remarkable balance, keeping oneself together in this brittle thing we call life. Honestly, it’s a miracle I hold myself together at all, but I try my best. It’s just that my best consists of exhausting, tireless repetition, repeated in threes, to simply, hopefully, make life alright.

You should know I see the world in threes. I do everything in threes, too. As I walk, I count my steps one, two, three, one two three. Three times I wash my hands before I eat, three times I make sure my door is locked, my stove is off, my fridge is closed. I take deep breaths to the count of three, stir my coffee, sip my tea. People have said there is a problem with this OCD, my obsession with the number three, but I don’t see it as a burden. It takes up a lot of time, yes, but it could be worse. I could have to count to 27 or 93.

I’m just happy a guy like me settled on the simple number three.

I called my therapist three times this morning and left three voicemails, which I’m sure she’ll notice as a manifestation of my obsession, but I don’t mind. Nothing seems right unless it’s done in threes. You always said, ‘it’s better for everything to be right in the world than to please other people.’ I remember that. I love that.

I work awfully hard to ensure everything is right in the world, just for you. I have a little black notebook where I write everything down to keep track. Do you remember the notebooks from when I was a little boy? I still buy the same ones, from Moleskine. I like the feeling of the soft cover, it reminds me of the purse you used to carry. We would go to the grocery store and I would raise my hand, pinching the bottom of your purse between my small fingers, moving them around the fabric to make sure you were still there, that you didn’t lose me.

But, oh mother, you left me. You really did, didn’t you? Sometimes I think you’ll come back, you’ll walk right through the front door like you always did, and things will go back to the way they used to be. But you don’t, so I can’t. I can’t go back to normalcy and it is for this reason I count in threes.

When you’re counting so much and thinking so much, it’s hard to keep everything in your head. You need to write some of it down, when you’re a person like me.

On this particular day, in this particular notebook, I have written a lot. I’ve written so much that looking at all of the numbers in the page is starting to make my head spin. That is why I am turning the page and writing this letter to you, dear mother, to tell you of the terrible position I have found myself in.

This morning I discovered in my mailbox a check for $20,000. I solved a theorem online and won a competition and this is the prize money. I know you would say you’re proud and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I am in pain, mother. Excruciating mental agony. You see, $20,000 is not divisible by three. No matter how I do the math, no matter which way I try to arrange it, to move it, to reshape it, it doesn’t work. It can’t work, that’s a fact.

So, I can’t keep the money.

Especially not this year, not this day, because you left me three years ago and it is now March, the third month of the year, and if I really think about it, it’s a sign. It is a sign that this money was not meant for me. Otherwise, the world would have made it something easy, like $3,000 or $30,000. But $20,000 just feels like the universe is conspiring against me.

Dad died when I was three. I know this is off topic and I know you would be mad at me for bringing it up, but it’s on my mind. It’s not like you’ll ever see this anyways. Unless, maybe, you’re looking down on me from above and you can actually read this? If so, can you give me a sign?

It would be nice to know you are with me.

I would like to let you know that I walked away from this notebook and circled the block three times, hoping for a sign, but you did not send one. So, I guess I can say anything now. We both know you won’t see it.

Why did you leave me? Why did you do it?

I know you missed dad. I remember you sleeping in your dark room, under the covers, for what seemed like years. I tried to make you breakfast so many times. One morning, I even tried to make you pancakes. I knew they were your favorite, but I couldn’t reach the stovetop. My arms were too little. I remember I tried to make them on the floor, which didn’t, of course, work, but I tried. It seems I am always trying. Some days were better, though, I give you credit for that. Some days you would wake up and put on a dress and smile for people as you walked me to school. I thought you were so beautiful, especially when you wore the yellow dress. Do you remember it, the long one with straps? It would blow in the wind and catch in the sunlight. It made you look happy.

I don’t understand you, mom. I don’t know why you left. People get sad all the time, but they don’t actually go through with it, you know?

You waited until I was 18 and I can only imagine it is because you thought I was a man and ready for the world, but I really wasn’t ready for the world, was I? A part of me thinks I never will be, especially now that you’re gone. There are some moments in life I need you here for, mom.

Like dealing with this money. I know it seems like a trivial problem compared to everything we have been through, but I can’t wrap my mind around it, you know? If they just added $1,000 I could accept it. Or if they subtracted $2,000. Or if they added $10k or only gave me $3k then this would all make sense. But they didn’t, and world didn’t make it easy for me, so it just feels wrong.

I called my therapist to ask if I could gift her $2,000 so that I could take $18,000 and make it divisible by three before I put it in the bank. But, as I write this, I’m realizing that would mean putting the bad luck on her because $2,000 is not divisible by three and what if something happens to her? What if by giving her this bad luck she gets fatal food poisoning from peanut butter or her car gets caught in the train tracks or…? I can’t lose her, mom. She’s tries to understand what it feels like to be me. She’s the only one.

It’s lonely, to think in threes.

You would like my therapist. She shows a lot of compassion. One time, when we were talking about you, I cried so much she got up and hugged me… which I’m pretty sure is against the “rules of therapy,” but I needed it. Before that moment, I couldn’t remember the last time I was given a proper hug. It was probably from you, before you were gone.

I broke down when you left, mom, which is why I count in threes. It helps me make sense of the world; it gives me control. As much as I know I shouldn’t say it, it is a part of who I am now. Sure, it’s not very manly and I know it probably causes more harm than good, but it makes me feel… alright. Isn’t that enough? Some days all I need is to feel alright. I don’t ask for a good day, or a great day, just the essentials. So far it has been enough.

So, I count in threes and I continue my life, without you, because this is where you have left me. But it is alright, mom, because I am doing just fine. As I write this to you in this little black book, I have figured out the solution to my most recent problem.

Tomorrow, I am going to wake up at 9:33, brush my teeth three times and shower three times. I will get dressed three times and tie my shoelaces three times. I am going to skip breakfast, because I won’t have time for all that entails, which as you could imagine, is a lot.

I am going to walk around the block three times and go to the post office three times. First, to pick up some stamps. The second time, to get an envelope. The third, to mail back the check for $20,000 with a note attached asking if they could so kindly send me a new check for $18,000 - after all, it seems rude to ask for $21,000 - and a brief explanation of my obsession with the number three.

They’re mathematicians, they should understand.

I know this will work, mom, I just know it. Sometimes, people like me, well, we have to put ourselves out there. There are moments when I want to crawl into bed the same way you did, hiding for all those years, but I don’t. I don’t crawl into bed because I found the solution to all of the sadness. I found the solution to you being gone and the world feeling like its spinning too fast and changing too fast for me to even catch my breath quickly enough to see what is going on...

Mother, it is alright. Now that you’re gone, I deal with things. It all starts by just counting to three.

Tomorrow, when all is said and done, when the sun has set and the darkness takes over and I’ve counted myself into exhaustion, I will write to you. I will write to you in this little black book that reminds me of your soft purse and being a child and what it once felt like to stand beside you. I will write to you and I will think of you in the yellow dress. I will think of you beautifully. Just when you feel so real I can almost see you, I will take a deep breath and count to three and hopefully, finally, feel complete.


About the Creator

Jess Sambuco


Reader insights


Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insight

  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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Comments (9)

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  • Suzy Jacobson Cherry12 months ago

    This made me cry.

  • Erica Wagnerabout a year ago

    Great to read this again thanks to Top Stories. So stylish and compelling. Bravo.

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  • Kristen Balyeatabout a year ago

    Very well done- so much emotion! Congrats on top story!

  • Stephanie J. Bradberryabout a year ago

    Hey Girl!!! This brings back such wonderful memories. I appreciated how our writing comraderie led to a wonderful monetary win from Vocal. Teamwork makes the dream work 🙌 Congratulations on Top Story!

  • Dana Stewartabout a year ago

    Congratulations - now that comments are a thing, I can tell you that!

  • Awesome ✨ 💖😉Congratulations❗🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉

  • JBazabout a year ago

    Love that Vocal Placed this story on the Top List for all to read who never had the chance. It is so beautifully told. Congratulations Again

  • Samia Afraabout a year ago

    Very touching, great read!

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