Authors: Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
The next question hasn’t materialized yet. I tap the
key again. Nothing.
I wonder if there’s a glitch in the program. I’m about to go poke my head out the door to see if Ben is nearby, but then letters begin to appear on my screen, one by one.
Like someone is typing them in real time.
Subject 52, you need to dig deeper.
My body gives a sudden
start. I can’t help looking around. The flimsy plastic blinds on the windows are pulled up, but there isn’t anyone outside on this drab, gloomy day. The lawn and sidewalk are deserted. There’s another building across the way, but it’s impossible to tell if anyone is in it.
Logically, I know I’m alone. It just feels like someone close to me is whispering.
I look back at the laptop. There’s
Was that really your first, instinctual answer?
I almost gasp. How does Dr. Shields know?
I abruptly push back my chair and start to stand up. Then I get how he figured it out; it must have been my hesitation before I started typing. Dr. Shields realized I rejected my initial thought and chose a safer response. I pull my chair back toward the computer and exhale slowly.
Another instruction creeps across the page:
Go beyond the superficial.
It was crazy to think Dr. Shields could know what I’m thinking, I tell myself. Being in this room is obviously playing with my mind. It wouldn’t feel as weird if other people were around.
After a brief pause, the second question reappears on the screen.
Describe a time in your life when you cheated.
Okay, I think. You want the messy truth about my life? I can dig a little deeper.
Is it cheating if you are just an accessory in the act?
I wait for a response. But the only movement on my screen is the blinking cursor. I continue typing.
Sometimes I hook up with guys I don’t know all that well. Or maybe it’s more like I don’t
to know them all that well.
My job has taught me to carefully evaluate people when I first meet them. But in my personal life, especially after a drink or two, I can deliberately dial back the focus.
There was a bass player I met a few months ago. I went back to his place. It was obvious a woman lived there but I didn’t ask him about it. I told myself she was just a roommate. Is it wrong that I put on
and wonder how my confession will land. My best friend, Lizzie, knows about some of my one-night stands, but I never told her about seeing the bottles of perfume and the pink razor in the bathroom that night. She also doesn’t know about their frequency. I guess I don’t want her to judge me.
Letter by letter, a single word forms on my computer screen:
For a second, I’m glad I’m getting the hang of the test.
Then I realize a complete stranger is reading my confessions about my sex life. Ben seemed professional, with his crisp oxford shirt and horn-rimmed glasses, but what do I really know about this psychiatrist and his study?
Maybe it’s just being
a morality and ethics survey. It could be anything.
How do I know the guy
is even a professor at NYU? Taylor doesn’t seem like the type to verify details. She’s a beautiful young woman, and maybe that’s why she was invited to participate.
Before I can decide what to do, the next question appears:
Would you cancel plans with a friend for a better offer?
My shoulders untense. This query seems completely innocuous, like something Lizzie might ask me if she
were seeking advice.
If Dr. Shields were planning something creepy, he wouldn’t have set this whole thing up in a university classroom. Plus, he didn’t ask about my sex life, I remind myself. I’m the one who offered it up.
I answer the question:
Of course, because my jobs aren’t regular
I have weeks when I’m swamped. I sometimes do seven or eight clients a day, ricocheting around Manhattan.
But then I can go a few days when I only get a couple of call times. Turning away work isn’t an option for me.
I’m about to hit the
key when I realize Dr. Shields won’t be satisfied by what I wrote. I follow his instructions and dig deeper.
I got my first job in a sandwich shop when I was fifteen. I left college after two years because I couldn’t take it. Even with financial aid,
I had to waitress three nights a week and get student loans. I hated being in debt. The constant worry about whether my ATM receipt would show a negative balance, the way I’d have to sneak a sandwich to take home when I left work . . .
I’m doing a little better now. But I don’t have a cushion like my best friend, Lizzie. Her parents send her a check every month. Mine are pretty broke, and
my sister has special needs. So sometimes, yeah, I might need to cancel plans with a friend. I have to take care of myself financially. Because when it comes down to it, I’ve only got myself to rely on.
I stare at my final line.
I wonder if I sound whiny. I hope Dr. Shields gets what I’m trying to say: My life isn’t perfect, but whose is? The hand I’ve been dealt could be worse.
not used to expressing myself like this. Writing about hidden thoughts is like washing of makeup and seeing a bare face.
I answer a few more, including:
Would you ever read a spouse’s/significant other’s text messages?
If I thought he was cheating, I would,
I’ve never been married, though, or lived with anyone. I’ve only had a couple of sort-of serious boyfriends, and I never had
reason to doubt them.
By the time I’ve finished the sixth question, I feel different than I have in a while. I’m keyed up, like I’ve had an extra cup of coffee, but I’m not jittery or anxious anymore. I’m super-focused. I’ve completely lost track of time, too. I could have been in this classroom for forty-five minutes, or for twice that length.
I’ve just finished writing about something
I would never be able to tell my parents—how I secretly pay some of Becky’s medical bills—when letters begin to surface on my screen again.
That must be difficult for you.
I read the message a second time, more slowly. I’m surprised by the comfort Dr. Shields’s kind words give me.
I lean back in my chair, feeling the hard metal press into the space between my shoulder blades, and try
to imagine what Dr. Shields looks like. I picture him as a heavyset man with a gray beard. He’s thoughtful and compassionate. He’s probably heard it all. He isn’t judging me.
difficult, I think. I blink rapidly a few times.
I find myself typing,
No one has ever wanted to know so much about me before; most people are satisfied with the sort of superficial chatter that
Dr. Shields doesn’t like.
Maybe the secrets I’ve been holding are a bigger deal than I thought, because telling Dr. Shields about them makes me feel lighter.
I lean forward slightly and fiddle with the trio of silver rings on my index finger as I wait for the next question.
It seems to take a few moments longer than it did for the last ones to appear.
Then it does.
ever deeply hurt someone you care about?
I almost gasp.
I read it twice. I can’t help glancing at the door, even though I know no one is peering in through the glass pane at the top.
Five hundred dollars
, I think. It doesn’t seem like such easy money anymore.
I don’t want to hesitate too long. Dr. Shields will know I’m evading something.
I type, trying to
buy myself some time. I twist one of my curls around my finger, then type some more.
When I first came to New York, there was this guy I liked, and a friend of mine had a crush on him, too. He asked me out—
I stop. Telling that story isn’t a big deal. It isn’t what Dr. Shields wants.
I slowly backspace over the letters.
I’ve been honest, like I agreed when I accepted the terms at the
start of the study. But now I think about making something up.
Dr. Shields might know if I didn’t tell the truth.
And I wonder . . . what would it feel like if I did?
Sometimes I think I’ve hurt everyone I’ve ever loved
I want to type the words so badly. I imagine Dr. Shields nodding sympathetically, encouraging me to continue. Maybe if I told him what I did, he’d write something
My throat tightens. I swipe my hand across my eyes.
If I had the courage, I’d start by explaining to Dr. Shields that I’d taken care of Becky all summer while my parents were at work; that I’d been pretty responsible even though I was only thirteen at the time. Becky could be annoying—she was always barging into my room when I had friends over, borrowing my stuff, and
trying to follow me around—but I loved her.
her, I think. I still love her.
It just hurts to be around her.
I still haven’t written a single word when Ben knocks on the door and tells me I have five minutes left.
I lift my hands and slowly type,
Yes, and I’d give anything to undo it.
Before I can rethink the words, I hit the
I stare at the computer screen,
but Dr. Shields doesn’t write anything in return.
The cursor seems to throb like a heartbeat; it’s mesmerizing. My eyes begin to burn.
If Dr. Shields typed something to me right now, if he asked me to continue, and said it was okay for me to go over my allotted time, I’d do it. I’d let it all out; I’d tell him everything.
My breathing grows shallow.
I feel like I’m standing on
the edge of a cliff, waiting for someone to tell me to jump.
I keep staring at the screen, knowing I’ve only got a minute or so left.
The screen is still blank except for the blinking cursor. But words suddenly begin to pulse in my mind, in time with the cursor:
Tell me. Tell me.
When Ben opens the door, I have trouble dragging my gaze away from the screen to nod at him.
around and slowly pull my coat of the back of my chair and pick up my backpack. I look at the computer one last time, but it’s still blank.
The minute I stand up, a wave of exhaustion envelops me. I’m completely depleted. My limbs feel heavy and fog invades my brain. All I want to do is go home and crawl under the covers with Leo.
Ben stands just outside the doorway, looking down at an
iPad. I catch a glimpse of Taylor’s name at the top, followed by three female names below it. Everyone has secrets. I wonder if they’ll reveal theirs.
“I’ll see you tomorrow at eight,” Ben says as we begin to descend the stairs to the lobby. It’s an effort to keep up with him.
“Okay,” I say. I grip the rail and focus on the steps so I don’t miss one.
When we reach the bottom, I pause.
“Um, I have a question. Exactly what kind of survey is this?”
Ben looks a little irritated. He’s kind of fussy, with his shiny loafers and fancy stylus. “It’s a comprehensive study on morality and ethics in the twenty-first century. Dr. Shields is evaluating hundreds of subjects in preparation for a major academic paper.”
Then he looks past me, toward the next woman waiting in the lobby:
I walk outside, zipping my leather jacket. I pause, needing to get my bearings, then I turn and begin to head toward my apartment.
All the people around me seem to be engaged in ordinary activities: A few women with brightly colored yoga mats enter the studio on the corner. Two guys holding hands stroll past me. A kid zipping by on a scooter is chased by his father, who shouts,
“Slow down, buddy!”
Two hours ago, I wouldn’t have looked twice at any of them. But now it’s disorienting to be back in the noisy, bustling world.
I head to my apartment, pausing at a stoplight when I reach the corner. It’s cold, and I reach into my pockets for my gloves. As I put them on, I notice the clear polish I’d applied to my fingernails only yesterday is chipped and peeling.
I must’ve been scraping at it while thinking about whether I should answer that last question.
I shiver and cross my arms over my chest. I feel like I’m coming down with a bug. I have four clients today, and I have no idea how I’m going to summon the energy to haul my case around the city and make small talk.
I wonder if the survey will continue where it left of when I return to the classroom
tomorrow. Or maybe Dr. Shields will let me skip that last question and give me a new one.
I turn the final corner and my apartment building comes into view. I unlock the main door, tugging it hard behind me until I hear the latch click into place. I drag myself up the four flights of stairs and unlock my door, then collapse onto my futon. Leo jumps up and curls next to me; sometimes he seems
to sense when I need comfort. I adopted him almost on a whim a couple of years ago when I stopped in to an animal shelter to look at the cats. He wasn’t barking or whining. He was just sitting in his cage, looking at me, like he’d been waiting for me to show up.
I set the alarm on my phone to ring in an hour, then rest my hand on his small, warm body.
As I lie there, I begin to wonder
if it was worth it. I wasn’t prepared for how intense the experience would be, or how many different emotions would engulf me.
I roll onto my side and close my heavy eyes, telling myself that I’ll feel better once I’ve rested.
I don’t know what could happen tomorrow, what new things Dr. Shields will ask. No one is forcing me to do this, I remind myself. I could pretend I overslept. Or
I could pull a Taylor and simply not show up.
I don’t have to go back, I think right before I sink into oblivion.