Authors: Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
I look back at the bar. Then I pull open the door and stride in. I see the dark-haired banker playing darts with his friends.
I walk directly up to him. He’s only an inch or two taller than I am in my low boots. “Hi again,” I say.
“Hi.” He draws out the word, turning it into a question.
“I don’t really have a boyfriend.
Can I buy you a beer?”
“That was a quick relationship,” he says, and I laugh.
“Let me get the first round,” he says. He hands his darts to one of his friends.
“How about a Fireball shot?” I suggest.
As he approaches the bar, I see Sanjay look over at me and I avert my gaze. I hope he didn’t hear me when I told Lizzie I was going home.
When the banker comes back with our shots,
he clinks his glass to mine. “I’m Noah.”
I take a sip, feeling cinnamon burn my lips. I know I’ll have no interest in seeing Noah again after tonight. So I say the first name that pops into my head: “I’m Taylor.”
I lift up the blanket and slowly ease out from under it, looking around. It takes me a second to remember I’m on the couch in Noah’s apartment. We ended up here after a few more
shots at another bar. When we realized we’d both skipped dinner and were starving, Noah ran out to the deli at the corner.
“Don’t move,” he’d ordered, pouring me a glass of wine. “I’ll be back in two minutes. I need eggs to make French toast.”
I must have fallen asleep almost immediately. I guess he took off my boots and covered me with a blanket instead of waking me. He also left me a
note propped on the coffee table:
Hey, sleepyhead, I’ll cook that French toast for you in the morning.
I’m still in my jeans and top; all we did was kiss. I grab my boots and coat and tiptoe to the door. It creaks when I open it and I flinch, but I don’t hear any signs of Noah stirring in his bedroom. I ease it shut slowly, then slip on my boots and hurry down his hallway. I take the elevator
to the lobby, smoothing my hair and rubbing beneath my eyes to remove any smudged mascara while I descend the nineteen flights.
The doorman looks up from his cell phone. “Good night, miss.”
I give him a little salute and try to orient myself once I’m outside. The nearest subway stop is four blocks away. It’s almost midnight, and a few people are milling around. I head for the station,
digging my MetroCard out of my wallet as I walk.
My face stings in the cold air and I reach up to touch a tender patch on my chin from where Noah’s stubble rubbed against it when we kissed.
The discomfort is somehow comforting.
Sunday, November 18
Your next session begins as your first one did: Ben meets you in the lobby and escorts you to Room 214. As you climb the stairs, you ask if the format will be the same as yesterday’s. He responds affirmatively, but can’t provide you with much more information. He isn’t permitted to share what little he knows; he has also signed a nondisclosure agreement.
As before, the slim, silver laptop is set up in the first row. Your instructions are visible on the screen, along with a greeting:
Welcome Back, Subject 52.
You take off your coat and ease into the chair. Many of the other young women who have occupied this seat are almost indistinguishable, with their long, straightened hair, nervous giggles, and coltish frames. You stand out, and not
only because of your unconventional beauty.
Your posture is almost rigid. You remain immobile for approximately five seconds. Your pupils are slightly dilated and your lips are pressed firmly together; classic symptoms of anxiety. You take a deep breath as you press the
The first question appears on the screen. You read it, then your body relaxes and your mouth softens. You
lift your eyes to the ceiling. You give a brisk nod, bend your head, and begin to type quickly.
You are relieved the final query from yesterday, the one you struggled with, is not on the screen.
By the third question, any remaining tension has evaporated from your body. Your guard is down. Your answers, as during the last session, do not disappoint. They are fresh, unfiltered.
even leave him a note when I snuck out,
you write in response to the fourth question, the one that asks:
When was the last time you treated someone unfairly, and why?
The survey questions are deliberately open-ended so subjects can steer them in the direction of their choosing. Most female subjects shy away from the topic of sex, at least this early in the process. But this is the second time
you’ve explored a subject that makes many people self-conscious. You elaborate: I
figured we’d sleep together and then I’d leave. That’s what usually happens on nights like this. But on the way to his place, we passed a pretzel vendor and
I started to buy one because
I hadn’t eaten since lunch. “No way,” he said, pulling me away. “I make the best French toast in the city.”
But I fell asleep
on his couch when he ran out to get eggs.
You are frowning now. Is this due to regret?
You continue to type:
I woke up around midnight. But I wasn’t going to stay, and it’s not just because of my dog. I guess I could have left my number, but I’m not looking for a relationship.
You don’t want a man to get too close to you right now. It will be interesting if you elaborate on this, and
for a moment, it seems as if you will.
Your fingers remain poised above the keyboard. Then you give a little shake of your head and you touch
to submit your answer.
What else was it that you were tempted to write?
When the next question appears, your fingers fly back to the computer. But you don’t respond to it. Instead, you pose a query of your own to your questioner.
hope it’s okay if
I break the rules, but
I just thought of something,
I didn’t feel guilty when I left that guy’s place. I went home, walked Leo, and slept in my own bed. When
I woke up this morning, I’d almost forgotten about him. But now I
I was rude. Is it possible that this morality survey is making me more moral?
The more you disclose about yourself, Subject 52, the
more compelling the picture of you becomes.
Out of all the subjects who have participated in this study, only one has ever directly addressed the questioner before: Subject 5. She was different from the rest in many other ways, too.
Subject 5 became . . . special. And disappointing. And ultimately, heartbreaking.
Wednesday, November 21
Moral questions lurk everywhere.
As I buy a banana and water for the bus ride home, the weary-looking cashier in the terminal kiosk gives me change for a ten instead of a five. A woman with pockmarked skin and crooked teeth holds a flimsy piece of cardboard that reads:
Need $$$ for ticket home to see sick mother. God Bless.
The bus is crowded,
as it always is right before the holidays, but the thin, longhaired man sitting across from me puts his backpack down on the empty seat beside him, claiming the territory.
I pick a seat and immediately regret my choice. The lady next to me spreads out her elbows as she reads on her Kindle, edging into my space. I pretend to stretch, then bump her arm and say, “Excuse me.”
As the bus driver
turns on the engine and pulls out of the terminal, I think about my Sunday session with Dr. Shields again. The question I dreaded never resurfaced, but I still dug into some pretty serious stuff.
I wrote about how a lot of my friends call their dads when they need to borrow money, or to get advice on how to handle a difficult boss. They dial their moms when they come down with the flu, or
for comfort during a breakup. If things had been different, that’s the kind of relationship I might’ve had with my parents.
But my parents have enough stress; they don’t need to worry about me. So I carry the burden of needing to construct a great life not just for one daughter, but for two.
Now I rest my head against the seat back and think about Dr. Shields’s response:
That’s a lot of
pressure to endure.
Knowing that someone else gets it makes me feel a little less alone.
I wonder if Dr. Shields is still conducting his study, or if I was one of his last subjects. I was addressed as Subject 52, but I have no idea how many other anonymous girls sat in the same uncomfortable metal chair, pecking away at the same keyboard, on other days. Maybe he’s talking to another one
My seatmate shifts, crossing the invisible boundary into my space again. It’s not worth battling. I edge closer to the aisle, then reach for my phone. I scroll through some old texts looking for one from a high school classmate who was organizing an informal reunion at a local bar the night after Thanksgiving. But I scroll down too far, and instead pull up the text that came in
from Katrina over the summer, the one I never responded to:
Hey Jess. Can we meet for a cup of coffee or something? I was hoping we could talk.
I’m pretty sure I know what she wants to talk about.
I slide my finger over the screen so I don’t have to see her message any longer. Then I reach for my earbuds and pull up
Game of Thrones
My dad is waiting at the bus station in his beloved
Eagles jacket, a green knit cap pulled down over his ears. I can see his exhalations make white puffs, like cotton balls, in the cold air.
It has been only four months since I last visited, but when I glimpse him through my window, my first thought is that he appears older. The hair peeking out from beneath his cap is more salt than pepper, and his posture sags a little, like he’s weary.
He looks up and catches me watching him. His hand flicks away the cigarette he is sneaking. He officially quit twelve years ago, which means he no longer smokes in the house.
A smile breaks across his face as I step off the bus.
“Jessie,” he says as he hugs me. He is the only one who calls me that. My father is big and solid, and his embrace is almost too firm. He lets go and bends
down to peer in the carrier I’m holding. “Hey, little guy,” he says to Leo.
The driver is pulling suitcases out from the belly of the bus. I reach for mine, but my father’s hand gets there first.
“You hungry?” he asks, like he always does.
“Starving,” I say, like I always do. My mom would be disappointed if I came home with a full stomach.
“The Eagles are playing the Bears tomorrow,”
my dad says as we walk to the parking lot.
“That game last week was really something.” I hope my remark is flexible enough to cover a win or a loss. I forgot to check the score on the bus ride down.
When we reach his old Chevy Impala, he lifts my bag into the trunk. I see him wince; his knee bothers him more on cold days.
“Should I drive?” I offer.
He looks almost offended, so
I quickly add: “I never get to do it in the city and I worry I’m getting rusty.”
“Oh, sure,” he says. He flips me the keys, and I snatch them out of the air with my right hand.
I know my parents’ routines almost as well as I know my own. And within an hour of being at home, I realize something is wrong.
As soon as we pull up in front of the house, my father lifts Leo out ot his carrier
and offers to walk him around the block. I’m eager to get inside and see my mom and Becky, so I agree. When my dad returns, he has trouble unfastening Leo’s leash. I go to help him. The smell of tobacco is so powerful I know he has snuck another cigarette.
Even when he was an official smoker, he never went through two cigarettes in such a short time.
Then, while Becky and I sit at stools
in the kitchen, tearing up lettuce for a salad, my mother pours herself a glass of wine and offers me one.
“Sure,” I say.
At first I don’t think twice about this. It’s the night before Thanksgiving, so it feels like a weekend.
But then she pours herself a second glass while the pasta is still cooking.
I watch as she stirs the tomato sauce. She’s only fifty-one, not much older than
the bat mitzvah mothers, the ones who want to look young enough to get carded. She colors her hair a chestnut brown and wears a Fitbit to monitor her ten thousand daily steps, yet she appears a little deflated, like a day-old balloon that has lost some helium.
As we sit at the round oak table, my mother peppers me with questions about work while my father sprinkles the grated Kraft Parmesan
over the pasta.
For once, I don’t lie to her. I say I’m taking a little break from theater to do freelance makeup.
“What happened to the show you told me about last week, honey?” my mother asks. Her second glass of wine is almost drained by now.
I can barely remember what I said. I take a bite of rigatoni before answering. “It closed. But this is better. I can control my own hours.
Plus, I get to meet a ton of interesting people.”
“Oh, that’s good.” The creases in her forehead soften.
Mom turns to Becky. “Maybe someday you’ll move to New York and live in an apartment and get to meet interesting people!”
Now I’m the one who frowns. The traumatic brain injury Becky suffered as a child didn’t just affect her physically. Both her short- and long-term memory are so
damaged that she can never live alone.
My mother has always held on to false hope, and she has encouraged Becky to do the same.
It bothered me a little bit in the past. But today it seems kind of . . . unethical.
I imagine how Dr. Shields would pose the question:
Is offering someone unrealistic dreams unfair, or is it a kindness?
I think about how I’d explain my thoughts on the
situation to him.
It’s not exactly wrong,
And maybe this is less for Becky more for my mother.
I take a sip of wine, then deliberately change the subject.
“Are you guys getting excited for Florida?”