Authors: Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
I consider the most elegant dress
I own, a black jersey with a low V-neck.
I wonder as I hold it up against my body and look in the mirror. My closet doesn’t contain a better option.
I wanted to ask Dr. Shields for more information—
What will I be doing? Is this one of those tests you mentioned?
—but her voice sounded so focused and professional when she inquired if I’d be free that I didn’t have
As I slip into the dress, I picture Dr. Shields in her refined skirts and sweaters, the lines so structured and classic that they could take her from her office to the ballet at Lincoln Center.
I tug up the neckline, yet I’m still showing too much cleavage. My hair is rogue, and the big hoop earrings I wore to work now look cheap.
I leave my hair down, as she instructed,
and swap out the hoops for cubic zirconia studs. Then I find the double-sided fashion tape in my underwear drawer and seal up two inches from the bottom of the V.
Normally I go bare-legged or wear tights; tonight I pull out the pair of sheer black stockings that has been sitting in my dresser drawer for at least six months. They have a snag, but it’s on my upper thigh, so the dress hides it.
I dab a bit of clear nail polish on the tear to keep it from running, then dig out the basic black pumps I’ve had forever.
I grab a zebra-print belt from my closet and fasten it around my waist. I can always slip it in my purse if it seems like a miscalculation when I show up wherever it is that I’m going.
I think of the question I always ask my clients:
What kind of look are you going
It’s difficult to answer when I have no idea who my audience will be. I follow Dr. Shields’s directive and add a neutral eyeshadow and tone down my liner.
It’s eight o’clock sharp, and still my phone is silent.
I check the signal, then walk around my apartment, mindlessly refolding sweaters and putting shoes back in my closet. At 8:17 I consider texting Dr. Shields, then decide against
it. I don’t want to seem like a bother.
Finally, at 8:35, after I’ve reapplied my lip gloss twice, plus ordered some glittery paint and thick paper online for one of Becky’s Christmas presents, my phone chimes with a new text from Dr. Shields.
I look away from the T.J. Maxx website, where I’ve been checking out shirts for my mom:
An Uber will be outside your apartment in four minutes.
I take a final swig of the Sam Adams I’ve been sipping, then pop an Altoid into my mouth.
When I exit the building, I pull the door closed tightly until I hear the lock engage. A black Hyundai is idling by the curb. I locate the
sticker on the rear window before opening the back door.
“Hi, I’m Jess,” I say as I slide into the backseat.
The driver simply nods and pulls away, heading
I pull my seat belt across my body and click it into place.
“Where exactly are we going?” I ask, trying to affect a casual tone.
All I can see are his brown eyes and heavy brows in the rearview mirror. “You don’t know?”
He doesn’t say it like a question, though. It’s almost a statement.
As I watch the city begin to whirl by through the tinted back window, I suddenly realize
how truly isolated I am. And how powerless.
I backpedal: “Oh, my friend arranged this ride for me,” I say. “I’m meeting her. . . .”
My voice trails off. I slide my hand beneath the seat belt strap that feels too tight against my chest. There’s no give in it.
The driver doesn’t reply.
My heartbeat quickens. Why is he acting so strangely?
He makes a right turn and we begin to
“Are we stopping at Sixty-second Street?” I ask. Perhaps Dr. Shields wants to meet me at her office. But then why all the specifics about how to dress?
The driver’s gaze remains fixed straight ahead.
The realization slams into me: I’m trapped alone with a strange man. He could be taking me anywhere.
I’ve hailed countless cabs and ordered numerous Vias and Ubers. I’ve
never felt unsafe before.
My eyes dart again to the windows in the back row of his car, my row. Nobody can see in.
I instinctively check the locks. I can’t tell if they are engaged. There isn’t a lot of traffic, so we’re moving relatively quickly. We’re bound to hit a traffic light. Should I try to open the door and jump out?
I slowly reach for the button on my seat belt and press
it, wincing when my thumb gets pinched between the metal. I ease it off my shoulder carefully, so it doesn’t snap back into the holder.
How do I even know he’s an Uber driver? It’s probably not all that hard to get one of those
stickers. Or he could have borrowed the car.
I look at him more carefully. He’s a large man with a thick neck and beefy arms; his hands gripping the steering
wheel are about twice the size of mine.
I’m fumbling for the button to roll down the window when the driver says, “Yeah, okay.”
I seek out his eyes in the rearview mirror, but they are fixed on the road.
Then I hear the slightly tinny, distinct sound of another male voice.
The tightness in my chest releases as I realize the driver didn’t respond to my questions because he’s on
a phone call. He’s not being deliberately evasive, he simply didn’t hear me.
I take a deep breath and sink back into the seat.
I’m being silly, I tell myself. We’re traversing up Third Avenue, surrounded by cars and pedestrians.
Still, it takes a full minute for me to feel steadier.
I lean forward and repeat my query a third time, my voice louder.
He glances back over his shoulder,
then says something that sounds like “Madison and Seventy-sixth.”
Between the radio and the noise of the engine, though, I’m not sure, and the driver has resumed his phone conversation.
I pull out my phone and google the location. A bunch of businesses show up—the Sussex hotel, Vince and Rebecca Taylor clothing boutiques, a few residential apartments, and an Asian fusion restaurant.
, I think. All innocuous places. Which one is my destination?
The restaurant seems the most likely.
I reassure myself that Dr. Shields is probably seated there already, waiting for me. Perhaps she wants to give me more instructions about the real-life test.
Still, I can’t help but wonder why she needs to see me outside the office for that. Maybe there’s another reason.
brief moment, I imagine we’re two friends, or maybe a younger sister going to meet her older, more sophisticated one, to share a seaweed salad and some sashimi. Over a carafe of warm sake, we’d share confidences, too. This time, though, I would ask her all the questions that have been bubbling up in my mind.
In the side mirror, I see the bright headlights of an approaching car. At almost the
same instant, my driver begins to swerve into that lane.
A horn blares and the Hyundai jerks back, brakes squealing. I’m flung against the door, then forward. My hands shoot out and I brace myself against the back of the passenger seat.
“Asshole!” my driver yells, even though the near-collision was his fault. He was so busy on his phone call, he didn’t check his blind spot.
rest of the ride, I keep watch out my side window. I’m so busy looking out for pedestrians and other vehicles that it takes me a few seconds to notice that the Uber has pulled up behind a black Town Car. We’re directly in front of the Sussex hotel.
“Here?” I ask the driver, pointing to the entrance.
I step out onto the sidewalk and gaze up and down the block, unsure of what
to do next. Am I supposed to wait inside the lobby?
I turn back to look at the Uber, but it is already gone.
A group of people pass by and one of the men bumps against my arm. I’m so startled I almost drop my phone.
“Sorry!” the man calls.
I look around for Dr. Shields, but the only faces on the street are unfamiliar.
I am on one of the safest blocks in all of Manhattan, so
why do I feel so uneasy?
A few seconds later, another text arrives:
Go directly to the bar on the lobby level. You’ll see a group of men at a large circular table about halfway back. Choose a seat at the bar close to them.
Clearly, I’ve guessed wrong. I have no idea what’s in store for me this evening, but it’s not going to be an intimate dinner with Dr. Shields.
I walk the nine steps
to the entrance of the hotel and a bellman pulls open the door.
“Good evening, miss,” he says.
“Hi,” I say. My voice sounds timid, so I clear my throat. “Which way is the bar?”
“Past reception and all the way to the back,” he says.
I feel his eyes linger on me as I proceed through the entrance. I realize my dress rode up a bit when I got out of the Uber and I tug down the hem.
The lobby is mostly empty except for an older couple sitting on the leather couch by the fireplace. Behind the reception desk, a woman wearing glasses smiles at me and says, “Good evening.”
My heels sound too loud tapping against the ornate wood floor. I’m acutely conscious of my stride, and not just because I’m unaccustomed to wearing pumps.
I finally make it to the bar and pull open
the heavy wooden door. It’s a good-size space, filled with a few dozen people. I squint as my eyes adjust to the dim lighting. I look around, wondering if Dr. Shields is waiting to greet me. I don’t see her, but I do spot a bunch of guys at a large table about halfway back.
Choose a seat at the bar close to them.
Are they working with Dr. Shields, too?
I check out the group as I draw
closer. They appear to be in their late thirties. At first glance, they’re almost indistinguishable with their short haircuts and dark suits and crisp, collared shirts. They’ve got an air about them I’ve seen before: They’re a younger version of the dads who pay for the fancy bar mitzvahs and sweet-sixteen parties, the ones that cost as much as a nice wedding.
There are only a few empty high-back
stools at the bar. I take one that’s about six feet away from the men.
When I slide onto it, I feel the warmth of the wood against my thighs, as if someone has just vacated it. I loop the handle of my purse on the hook beneath the counter, then shrug off my coat and put it on the back of my seat.
“Be with you in just a minute,” the bartender says as he muddles herbs for a craft cocktail.
Am I supposed to order a drink? Or is something else going to happen?
Even though I’m in a public place, anxiety swirls in my gut. I remind myself of what Dr. Shields said during my first visit to her office:
You will be in complete control and can back out at any time.
I twist slightly in my seat, so I can glance around the room, searching for clues. But all I see are the monied customers
drinking and talking, a stunning blonde leaning in across the table to point to an item on the bar menu to her date, a well-built guy with a slightly receding hairline in a blue shirt, typing away on his phone, and two smiling, middle-aged couples raising their glasses in a toast.
My phone vibrates in my hand, startling me.
Don’t be nervous. You look perfect. Order a drink.
jerk back up.
Where is she?
She has to be in one of the back booths, but my line of vision is obscured by the dim lighting and the other occupants of the bar.
I’ve been fiddling with the rings on my index finger. I put my hands in my lap. Then I look at the table full of guys again, wondering why Dr. Shields wanted to position me near them. My eyes run over each of the five men in
turn. One meets my gaze. He leans over and whispers something to his friend, who laughs and turns to check me out. I twist back around, feeling my cheeks grow warm.
The bartender tilts toward me over the counter. “What can I get you?”
Normally I’d have a beer or a shot, but not in a place like this. “Red wine, please.”
He’s still waiting for something. I realize he’s expecting me to
be more specific.
I cast back in my memory, then blurt, “Volnay,” hoping I pronounced it the same way the waiter did in the French restaurant a few nights ago.
“I’m afraid we don’t have that,” he says. “Would you care for a Gevry?”
“That’ll be fine,” I say. “Thank you.”
When the bartender delivers my glass, I grip it extra hard to disguise the fact that my hand is shaking.
Usually the warmth of alcohol relaxes me, but I still feel on edge as I scan the room again. I sense the presence of the man next to me before I see him out of the corner of my eye.
“Looks like you’re waiting for someone,” he says. It’s the guy from the table, the one who was whispering to his friend. “Mind if I keep you company until they show up?”
I quickly glance at my phone’s screen,
but it’s blank.
“Um, sure,” I say.
He sets his drink down on the counter and takes the stool to my left. “I’m David.”
“Jessica.” My full name must have slipped out because I’m in Dr. Shields’s world now.
He rests an arm on the bar.
“So, Jessica, where are you from?”
I tell him the truth, not only because I don’t know what else to say, but because of Dr. Shields’s rules
It hardly matters, though, because he just replies, “That’s cool,” and then launches into a story about how he moved here from Boston for a big job four years ago. I’m in the midst of feigning interest when my phone vibrates.
“Excuse me.” I grab it and see the text from Dr. Shields.
I tilt my phone so David can’t read the message:
I blink in surprise,
wondering what I’ve done wrong.
I flash back to when I first entered Dr. Shields’s study and she spoke to me through the computer.
I see three dots indicating Dr. Shields is still typing.
Her next instruction arrives:
Locate the man in the blue shirt sitting alone at a table to your right. Start up a conversation. Get him to flirt with you.