We six students sat looking at each other in a small, windowless room whose moisture and heat ratio was visibly rising. Steam poured off our clothes like smoke and “makeup melt” was becoming a distinct and worrisome possibility. Outside drizzled the global warming version of
winter; a cold and sooty rain. It was the first day of the research project and I had dressed as carefully as for all “first days. ” Some people say it’s the only chance you ever get to make a positive impression. I know when picture somebody I usually see them wearing the first clothes I ever saw them in.
To my usual all black pants and sweater (no skirt ever again – not around Corso) I added a red and gold Chinese kimono closed with my lucky dragon pin. Dragons are my power animals because transformation has to be my religion. I thought I looked like a nicely wrapped Christmas gift. A gift to myself.
But there’s always at least one thing wrong – don’t you find?– the Persian rug makers put one in on purpose — and now I was regretting my sweater. I imagined myself melting in slo-mo, horribly and all-too- publicly, evolving into a floor-puddle like the Wicked Witch of the West. I have to say in my own defense, if my makeup was rushed it was not my fault; Aleksa has been acting so weird lately I have to dress in the bathroom and the lighting there are hardly optimal. She talks to herself about her new boyfriend – somebody masochistically hopeless – and I don’t want to know. In recovery as I am over Bex, I can recognize all the stages of Rationalization and Settling, and it’s just too painful. Long story short, in the mornings I can’t get out of there fast enough.
You can study in the library but you can’t dress there. So here I was, on a day critical to my future success as a college student, feeling decidedly off my game.
Needing distraction in order to stop worrying about myself, I focused on my cage-mates. Comparing other people’s outsides to my insides — isn’t that the game? Fortunately we born observers (Virgo – sees all, learns all) can always rely on someone else to muscle their way to center stage. Always. It’s just a question of patience.
The wrestler — I could tell his sport just by his body build and the way he held himself — was first to bat the molecules in motion. He was stocky, none too tall, and seemed permanently angry. Shoulders curved forward as if poised for attack, his gaunt face had the dark-stained, cavernous eyes of the sleepless. He even blackened them for emphasis but it must have been makeup because there was no reflecting light in here.
Hair too was colored black through some inferior substance – say, tar or possibly shoe polish; causing it to stand up like a hayfield startled by electricity. Reddish, furry caterpillar brows suggested his real hair color. He had the trembly, nicotine-stained fingers of the smoker. He also looked familiar, like we had met before. Definitely not one of the happy teen models depicted in the life’s a fairytale brochures.
“God,” he said, knitting those spectacular brows, “I’m a senior in the program and I don’t know anybody here.”
He was worth a second glance and then a third, surreptitious beneath my carefully applied lashes. Consider, for example, this transparent effort to push his storm cloud of electricity onto us. He jiggled his knee, he ran his hands through his hair, he flicked his thumb over the haphazard soul patch ornamenting his pugnacious jaw. His worn jeans seemed like a second skin; probably he slept in them. I thought I recognized a fellow insomniac who superstitiously no longer dresses specially for bed. We’re hoping sleep is playing hard to get and if ignored, will resentfully assault.
An Aquascutum barn jacket and Timberland boots suggested somebody had once had money; of course, everybody in the universe had more money than I did. On the other hand the leather band he wore around his wrist was tied too tight, so either he suffered from guilt or just enjoyed the pain. He caught me looking and riveted me with an astonishing pair of lupine blue eyes.
A full-body shiver unearthed my earliest memory; Little Boy in the Sandbox. Up to the moment I saw him – I was maybe five years old? – I had thought myself alone in the universe, or more accurately, that everyone was part of me; but in the second that little blue-eyed boy looked at me I suddenly realized the world was filled with other spirits, other souls; probably all feeling exactly the same as I did. Thinking, Observing, Remembering; all of us on our way to someplace. I experienced this fellowship epiphany so joyously I recall throwing sand at the kid. Then I sang him a song and made him a sand-cake.
“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” I blurted. Stupid, stupid, stupid! This is why it’s so critical to keep one’s mouth shut. One rash blurt cancels hours of careful staging.
But he smiled at me. Even unfurrowed his thorny brows.
“I’m Chase,” said Barn Jacket. “I guess I just assumed we’d all be psych majors.” That smile alleviated the voiced complaint about mixing with inferiors. The moment was further soothed by the black guy with the bouquet of dreads exploding from the top of his head.
“I’m G-Rad,” he said to Chase. “I think I’ve seen you around, too.” He and the wrestler fist-bumped while I subsided gratefully into the background. My antenna pegged G-Rad as the kind of “sensitive” male who plays games like a girl. With a full knowledge of subtext.
“G-Rad!” questioned the anorexic blonde, “What kind of a name is that?” Her subtext was “cheerleader”. She was the kind of tiny, peaky-faced girl quarterbacks love to pick up and run with. I thought she’d look like a little old woman – a little old woman doll – in just a few years. Miaow.
“My parents named me Grady. Get a brother killed on the street! G- Rad’s the same but keeping it real. You feel me? Real is what I’m all about.”
And all about talking too much, too nervously. Just like a girl. I was happy to let him do it. The “Semper Die” t-shirt he was wearing would get him killed on the streets where I come from.
“I’ve definitely seen you at the top of the pyramid,” said Chase to the blonde.
She smiled a practiced Facebook smile. “I’m Koo.” Like that was a normal name. She was obviously flattered to be recognized as a human shuttlecock batted publicly back and forth, then ending up a partridge atop the cheerleading Christmas tree. Was she the type to ever consider what a long way it was to fall, especially for an ornament chosen for fragility?
Zane said to Koo. “Haven’t I seen you running around with that quarterback?” Enviously?
“My boyfriend’s Bo Boyd,” she responded smugly. See! Psychic Jazz! “If you know him.” Evidently they did. Everyone tittered.
“Humptious,” said G-Rad, then leaned towards me and hissed behind his hand, “Juicer.” He pegged me for the gossipy one.
“Steroids? Aren’t they illegal?” “Everything’s illegal.” G-Rad shrugged.
“I’m Soliz and I’m a psych major,” said the dark ethnic-looking girl in a defensive, “you- want-to-make-something-of-it” way. Obviously — amazingly — no one had ever told her she was beautiful. I hoped for her sake she would not find it out too late. She was hardly built like a runway model; her hips were broad but she had the generous breasts that go with that, lots of gorgeous dark hair and a great pair of smoky eyes.
Chase had the grace to apologize. “Sorry,” he said. “Senior year is a haze.”
That gave me the bravery – or the cover – to announce, “I’m undeclared. But so far my favorite class is marketing.”
“Psychology is marketing,” said G-Rad. “It’s when you can’t tell what they’re selling that you should be really scared.” He addressed his comment to the so-far-silent jock in the varsity jacket; giving him a sidelong look that was considerably more intense than anything he’d yet offered to the ladies.
Soliz ignored him, swiveling those soulful dark orbs toward me.
“I know who you are,” she said in her hostile, challenging way, “You’re the Emily Fortunatus-Falcones scholar.”
This room was too small; was that deliberate? We were so up against each other; in each other’s faces. It would be just like Dr. Corso to crowd the rats a little. I pictured him glued to a monitor somewhere; breath sucked in as he gleefully waited for us to tear each other apart.
Chase bailed me out by reacting to Soliz’ previous remark.
“Oh all right, all right,” he said grumpily. “If you guys insist on coming in late to the back of every classroom you can’t be surprised if nobody knows who the hell you are.”
He was the type to sit up front, the better to lock eyes angrily with Authority.
“I’m undeclared too,” whined Koo, fluttering sticky eyelashes. “I started out as a communications major but then I dropped it and now they’re punishing me.”
Chase made a snorting noise so she turned to him and squealed,
“I had to! They gave me a really bad internship.” Priding herself on flirting, she pried a smile out of him. She wouldn’t care that it came on the cusp of a sneer. I guess that makes me the demanding type, who examines and questions everything I get. At this particular moment I experienced a flicker of what would have been jealousy if anyone else had felt it. I don’t allow myself to get jealous.
The tall jock finally said, “I’m Zane,” and extended his hand to me, because I was closest. We shook in a broadly exaggerated, slightly embarrassed up-and-down motion. We were the first to touch so intimately and it jacked up the temperature of the room. His hand felt cold and callused. Clammy.
“Senior year is great for business majors,” he said in a “no haze for me” rebuke to our angry class wrestler. “It’s like we’ve already graduated. All real-world and independent study.”
Insinuating, possibly, that psychology was the opposite. Possibly even a waste of time? Zane continued, “It’s like being on a reality show to get paid for participation in a research project. Do you guys know how lucky we are? If you read Dr. Cadwallader’s book he said one of the potential applications of out-of–body-experiences is “remote viewing”. To see a place without actually going there. Corporations will be standing in line to shower that with cash! Hey, someday we could wage war in our heads!”
And what fun that will be! Zane was the kind of tall, broad- shouldered, arm-swinging gum-chewer so comfortable in his own skin he just assumes he’ll be taking charge. I can admit to a little jealousy of people who can assume they’re already as good as they possibly be.
Chase probably felt the same way as me, because he took against Zane right away, saying smolderingly, “If it works. If that’s even what the experiment is about. You know they don’t always tell the truth about the experiment because they don’t want us to know what they’re really testing. Sometimes all the action is in the waiting room,” he continued, which is just what I had been thinking. “Remember all those papers you signed? You basically said Dr. Corso can do anything he wants to you. He doesn’t even have to tell us the truth about what the experiment is.”
“How can that be ethical?” I protested feebly. “When we don’t know what we are agreeing to.” Innocent freshman. Ignored by everyone. It’s the freshman fate.
G-Rad elegantly re-interpreted. “Why angst your boxers into a twist? For pay Dr. Corso really can do anything to me. I mean how bad can it be? Once I signed up to test a diarrhea cure. For the test to work, first they had to give me horrendous diarrhea. I’m telling you it was horrendous.”
“So, did the cure work?” asked Soliz in an interested way.
“No,” said G-Rad. “But that drug that gives you the diarrhea? They’ve sure got that one figured out. College is a bitch. Well, you gotta do what you gotta do.”
“I don’t think Dr. Corso would lie to us,” said Zane the Jock. Confidently. That invited a new challenge from Chase, persistant in his determination to shake things up.
“Maybe that’s because you’re the ringer.”See how powerful mere words can be? There was a moment’s consternation while we severally dismantled this one.
“You mean like a pro?” inquired Zane, confused.
“One of us is probably a fake,” said Chase. “Somebody who’s in on the experiment. It’s usually the one who says the least.” He backed up my maybe-psychic vision by saying, “Corso’s probably observing us right now.”
“It makes more sense if it’s the person who talks the most,” said Soliz dangerously. “Trying to direct things.”
G-Rad got up and began peering at the walls, standing on chairs and studying the sprinkler system.
“That’s a sprinkler, dog,” said Zane.
Koo shrank from all the activity, saying, “I get claustrophobia in small spaces.”
How can that be? I wondered. When you are a small space? She’s probably just allergic to interpersonal struggle. If people always lift you to the top of the barrel and you never have to struggle to get there, will you ever truly experience claustrophobia?
“Maybe I’m the camera!” G-Rad bounced up and down with excess energy, throwing open his bomber jacket like a magician producing a plethora of doves.
“Great experiment so far,” I muttered. Sarcasm, the tool of the weak, had become my second language. I blame Bex because he was so immune. “Let’s give ourselves A’s.” Gratified by Chase’s cocked eyebrow.
Soliz regarded the dematerializing Koo with the open contempt I had been so careful to conceal. “Let’s not fail “waiting room”, OK? I need this job. Have hysterics after Corso gets here.”
Zane tried the door to the inner sanctum. We all knew it would be locked; you could see a keypad sunk into the wall right next to the knob.
I didn’t care for the suggestion that we didn’t even know what we were doing here. I had already had two cool dreams just thinking about this program and I’d taken it for granted that what Corso told me had to be the truth.
Hadn’t I learned anything from Bex? Maybe it was the power of the wish; I’m a person needing maps, plans and histories to orient myself in the universe. I don’t care for that disgusting seasick feeling of not knowing what to expect. I didn’t like surrendering to the untrustworthy vibe Corso and Howk dished out. How much more would it take for me to join Koo in hysteria?
“I hope the experiment is really about out of body experiences,” I suggested. “I mean, don’t you wish it could work?”
They looked at me like I was the ringer.
“You can’t content yourself with surface muck,” said Chase. Was this good advice or was he saying he no longer my special buddy? “You’ve always got to dig down to the real muck underneath.”
“What if you’re allergic to muck?” I whispered. “Then God help you,” said Chase.“And you know this how?” sneered Soliz.
Chase told her, “Optimism of the will, pessimism of the intelligence. The optimism keeps you digging, the pessimism tells you what’s down there.” I thought that was the most interesting thing anybody said.
“Keeping hopeful’s Basic Darwin,” said Zane. “You ever look down, you’re gone.”
“Why don’t we try some bonding exercises?” suggested Soliz. Here we had yet another leader wrestling for control of the group. “We need to learn to operate as a team, folks. I’ve gotta this job till spring. There are four alternates, you know.”
“I didn’t know that,” said Koo, retracting further into her chair. Soon she would be nothing but a small, wet stain. “I need this job too. You should see my Visa bill. I was planning on doing all my sleeping here.”
“Paid to sleep,” said Zane excitedly, “What’s not to like?”
“I bet the whole “alternates” thing is another myth,” said Chase, regarding Soliz in a dissatisfied yet challenging way. “Corso’s just priming us.” He wouldn’t give up control of the group without a struggle. “What kind of bonding exercises did you have in mind?”
“I thought she said bondage exercises,” joked Zane. G-Rad laughed and laughter ran around the room in a rippling wave. Heat crushed me in its vise. I surrendered to the inevitable and took off my kimono.
I don’t know about bonding exercises. But I know all about changing subjects; because I want to talk about what I want to talk about. Pressured speech. It can be a bad habit, like biting your nails. “You know what I hate about falling asleep?” I asked finally. “That feeling of falling. I hate falling, period.”
“That’s just the myoclonic jerk,” said Chase.G-Rad teased, “Who are you calling a myoclonic jerk?” More laughter. We were bonding.“I can dream while I’m awake,” said Koo. “Daydreaming,” spurned Soliz. “Everyone does that.”
Chase said, “Yeah. Do you lose touch with your surroundings?”
“Well, obviously,” said Koo, impatiently. “You don’t daydream unless you wish you were somewhere else.” Seeing the faces of the others she shrank back into her seat. “Not like I’m a weirdo.”
“It’s so hot in here,” Soliz said. She stood up and took off her jacket; her blouse was very thin underneath. I could clearly see the outlines of her underwire bra; the better to push you up, my dear. The boys ogled her like judges at wet t-shirt contest. She ignored them. “You guys remember the experiment where they put the frog in hot water and turn up the heat so gradually it never gets out and it boils to death? Maybe that’s what Corso’s doing.”
“Poor frog,” sighed Koo, pouty-lipped.
“Urban legend,” said G-Rad. “Nobody ever ran that experiment.”
“Nasty little boys probably did,” said Soliz. “They do all kinds of nasty things.” Maybe she hadn’t ignored them after all. “Can’t help it. It’s hormonal.”
“What year are you?” Chase asked her, like a dare. The air crackled with tension. Fight brewing. Fight! Fight! Fight!
“Sophomore,” she answered, “But I’m a transfer. Spent my first two years at community college. One year’s worth is all this hole will give me credit for.”
“I’m a transfer, too,” said G-Rad, amazed. “I applied to this place right out of high school but I didn’t get in. Not even waiting list.” The two “minority” students looked at each other.
“Is this a snob factory or what?” asked Soliz.
“You had to wait for the freshmen burnouts,” joked Koo. “On a clear day you can see a meat wagon scraping corpses off the Hadleigh quad.”
I reacted visibly before I could stop myself. They noticed.
“Don’t tell me you live in Hadleigh,” said Chase, and so I said, “OK, I won’t tell you.”
“You live in the skyscraper?” Even Koo, who had previously not deigned to notice my existence, was interested.
“I heard all the freshmen live there.” Defensive.
“Unless you get sick,” said Koo. “I swear that place has got sick building syndrome. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I think I had a cold for six months.”
“You know that building is haunted,” said Zane. “Years ago they really had a jumper.”
They looked at me as if I had … What’s the opposite of status? Dis- status?
“So that’s why the windows don’t open,” I said.“The windows don’t open,” repeated Koo, “So it has sick building syndrome.”Soliz tried to bring us back to earth, objecting, “Nobody died
And this room suffered from “old building syndrome” which is to say, no ventilation at all. Chase filled that death-conversation awkward silence by repeating the names he knew, starting with himself. “Chase, G-Rad, Zane, Koo, Soliz.” His finger stopped at me. Almost accusingly, as if I’d traveled deliberately beneath the radar.
“Jazz,” I said.
As if at the magic word the outside door opened and Dr. Corso blew in, swathed in Burberry, twill, leather and tweed and carrying a pile of books. He balanced them on one hip to punch in the security code and, as he did, he glanced around slyly.
“Greetings, dream team,” he said, “I think that’s enough bonding for now.”
Did I blush again at being right? Fortunately no one looked at me. Most importantly, not Chase, who regarded our professor with bared teeth. Corso looked at back at us, not him.
“I can see you’ve met my teaching assistant, Mr. Quinn,“ said Corso.
“You fired me,” said Chase.
“Well, I’m re-hiring you,” said Corso.
“Ringer! RINGER!” Zane hissed like an attacking rattlesnake.
“Of course he’s “ein ringer”, Corso told us calmly. “And a very good one, too. “Ringer “ only means “wrestler”. In German.”