Authors: Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
Dr. Shields must be close by. So
why can’t I spot her?
“Was that your friend?” David asks, gesturing to my phone.
I take a sip of my wine, trying to stall so I can think a step ahead. My heart is beating faster than usual, and my mouth feels dry. I nod and take another sip but avoid making eye contact with him. Then I signal for the bill and extract two twenties from my wallet.
I glance over my shoulder at the guy
in the blue shirt. I can’t bring myself to just walk over to him and use some cheesy pickup line. I try to remember some of the things men have said to me in bars, but my mind is blank.
I can’t even catch his eye and smile; he’s still looking down at his phone.
David touches my arm, stopping me from setting down the twenties. “Let me take care of that.” He nods at the bartender: “Another
gin and tonic, buddy,” he says as he settles back in his seat.
“No, I’ve got it,” I say, pushing the money forward on the counter.
“Actually, your bill has already been settled,” the bartender tells me.
I search the room for Dr. Shields again, trying to peer into the shadowy booths. But most of them are blocked by the occupants of the tables between us.
I swear I can feel the heat
of her gaze, though.
I don’t know the time frame for Dr. Shields’s instructions, so I force myself to stand up, lifting my glass and my phone. The wine swirls around in the goblet and I realize my hand is trembling again.
“Sorry,” I say. “But I just realized I know that guy. I should go say hello.”
Maybe this is the best strategy to use with the guy in the blue shirt, too. I’ll pretend
I recognize him. But from where?
David frowns. “Okay, but then come join me and my friends.”
“Sure,” I say.
The man is off his phone now. He’s alone at a table for two against a wall. His empty plate has been pushed to the center of the table, his napkin crumpled beside it.
He looks up as I approach.
“Hi!” My voice is too bright.
He nods at me. “Hello,” he says, but it
comes out more like a question.
“Um, it’s me, Jessica! What are you doing here?”
I’ve seen a lot of bad acting, and I know my performance isn’t going to fool anyone.
He smiles, but his forehead wrinkles.
“Nice to see you . . . How do we know each other again?”
The couple at the next table is clearly eavesdropping. I’m terrible at this. I look down at the patterned rug with
its floral design and notice a tiny threadbare patch. Then I make myself meet the man’s gaze again. Here’s the tricky part.
“Didn’t we meet at, ah, Tanya’s wedding a few months ago?” I say.
He shakes his head. “Nope, must have been some other good-looking guy.” But he says it in a self-deprecating way.
I give a dry little laugh.
I can’t just walk away, so I try again.
I say softly. “The truth is I was at the bar and this guy was bothering me and I just needed to get away.” Maybe the desperation I’m feeling comes through in my eyes, because he stretches out his hand to shake mine.
“I’m Scott.” I can’t place his accent, but it sounds Southern. He gestures to the empty chair across from him. “Want to join me? I was about to get another drink.”
onto the chair and a few seconds later my phone buzzes. I glance down at it on my lap:
Well done. Keep going.
I’m supposed to get this polite businessman to flirt with me. So I lean forward and put my elbows on the table, aware that the sticky tape only covers so much.
“Thanks for rescuing me,” I say, looking directly into his eyes.
I can’t sustain the eye contact for long; this feels
so artificial. Flirting is fun when it’s natural, and when I’ve chosen the guy, like with Noah the other night.
But this is like dancing without music. And even worse, there’s an audience.
I echo the question David just asked me: “So where are you from?”
As Scott and I continue to talk, I puzzle over why Dr. Shields needs me to have a conversation with him instead of with David. They
seem almost interchangeable. It’s like those tests in the backs of magazines: Spot the difference in these two images. But I don’t see any significant differences: late thirties, clean shaven, dark suits.
I can’t relax, knowing Dr. Shields is watching me, but by the time I’ve finished most of my wine, the conversation is flowing surprisingly easily. Scott is a nice guy; he’s from Nashville
and he owns a black lab that he clearly adores.
Scott lifts up his glass tumbler and takes the last sip of amber Scotch.
That’s when I realize the difference between the two men, the tiny detail in the pictures that doesn’t match up.
David’s ring finger was bare.
Scott is wearing a thick platinum wedding band.
Friday, December 7
She leans forward in her black dress and touches his hand. Her dark hair tumbles forward, nearly obscuring her profile.
A smile spreads across his face.
At what moment does a flirtation become a betrayal?
Is the demarcation line drawn when physical contact occurs? Or is it something more ephemeral, such as when possibilities begin
to infuse the air?
Tonight’s setting, the bar at the Sussex Hotel, is where it all began.
But the cast was different.
Thomas stopped by for a drink during that evening, back when our marriage was still pure. He met an old friend from college who was in town for the night and staying at this very hotel. After a few cocktails, the friend explained that he was suffering from jet lag.
Thomas insisted he go up to his room while Thomas paid the check. My husband’s generosity has always been one of his many appealing qualities.
The bar was busy, and the service was slow. But Thomas was seated at a comfortable table for two, and he was in no rush. He knew that even though it was barely ten o’clock, the blackout shades would be down in our bedroom and the temperature set to
a cool sixty-four degrees.
It was not always this way. In the beginning of our marriage, Thomas’s arrival home was met with a kiss and a glass of wine, followed by engaging conversation on the couch about a recent class lecture, an intriguing client, a weekend getaway we were considering.
But something had shifted during the course of our marriage. It happens in every relationship, when
the first heady months yield to a more serene cohabitation. As work exerted more and more demands, the pull of a silk nightgown and crisp, 1,000-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets proved more irresistible than Thomas on some nights. Perhaps this rendered him . . . vulnerable.
The dark-haired woman reached my husband before the server delivered the check. She claimed the empty seat across
from him. Their encounter did not end when they left the restaurant; instead, they went to her apartment.
Thomas never said a word about his indiscretion.
Then the errant text landed on my phone:
See you tonight, Gorgeous.
Freud postulated that there are no accidents. Indeed, the argument could be made that Thomas wanted to get caught.
I didn’t go looking for this. But she threw
herself at me. What guy in my situation could resist?
Thomas pleaded during one of our therapy sessions.
It would be so comforting to believe this, that his response wasn’t a referendum on our marriage, but rather a yielding to the hardwired fragility of males.
Tonight the booth in a far corner provides a satisfactory vantage point. The man with the platinum wedding band appears to be
falling under your spell, Jessica; his body language has grown more alert since your arrival.
He is not nearly as alluring as Thomas, but he fits the basic profile. In his late thirties, alone, and married.
Was this how Thomas first responded?
The temptation to move closer to the scene now unfolding just two dozen yards away is almost unendurable, but this deviation could invalidate
Although you know that you are being observed, the true subject, the man in the blue shirt, must remain unaware that he is being scrutinized.
Subjects typically modify their behavior when they recognize that they are part of an experiment. This is known as the Hawthorne effect, named after the place where this result was first encountered, the Western Electric’s Hawthorne
Works. A basic study to determine how the level of light in their building affected the productivity of laborers revealed that the amount of luminosity made no difference in the employees’ productivity. The workers increased output whenever the light was manipulated, whether from low to high or vice versa. In fact, a change in productivity occurred when
variable was manipulated, which made
the researchers postulate that the staff altered their behavior simply because they were aware that they were under observation.
Since subjects have this predisposition, all researchers can do is attempt to factor this effect into the research design.
Your flirtations appear convincing, Jessica. It seems impossible that the target would know he is part of an experiment.
The test must
proceed to the next stage.
It is difficult to type the instruction—a wave of nausea briefly delays its transmission—but it is a vitally necessary one.
Touch his arm, Jessica.
The scene with Thomas also followed this progression: a brief caressing of the arm, another round of drinks, an invitation to continue the conversation at the woman’s apartment.
An abrupt movement from the
table by the wall and the memory of Thomas’s duplicity glitches. The man in the blue shirt stands up. You rise as well. Then you head toward the lobby with him trailing a few feet behind you.
It took less than forty minutes from the time you entered the bar for you to seduce him.
Thomas’s defense was sound; it appears that men are incapable of steeling themselves against blatant offers
of temptation. Even married ones.
The flood of relief that accompanies this realization is so profound it has a weakening effect on the body.
It was all
fault. Not his.
Bits of shredded cocktail napkin, evidence of the contained anxiety, litter the table. They are scooped into a pile. The untouched glass of sparkling water on the table is finally tasted.
Several moments later,
the bell of an incoming text peals.
It is reviewed.
And immediately, it is as though the busy, welcoming bar is plunged into ice and silence.
There is nothing save for the three lines from you.
They are read once.
Dr. Shields, I flirted but he rejected me. He said he happily married. He went up to his room and I’m in the hotel lobby.
Friday, December 7
Being told to hook up with a man, and being paid for it, is the same as being a prostitute.
I’m trembling again as I stand in the lobby, waiting for Dr. Shields to respond to my text. But this time it’s with anger.
Did she really expect me to go up to Scott’s room? She probably assumed I would because of my confessions about my one-night
stands on her stupid questionnaire.
My pumps pinch my feet and I alternate easing up my left heel, then my right one.
She still hasn’t responded, even though I sent the message several minutes ago. Now the front desk clerk is staring at me, and I feel even more out of place than I did when I walked in.
I can’t believe Dr. Shields put me in this position. It wasn’t about being in danger.
It was about the humiliation. I saw the way David and his friends eyed me when I walked out with Scott. And I saw the way Scott looked at me right before he stood up from the table.
“Is there something I can help you with?”
The front-desk clerk has come from behind her post to stand next to me. She’s smiling, but I see in her eyes what I already know: I don’t belong in a place like this,
with my sixty-dollar dress from a sample sale and my fake diamond earrings.
“I’m just—I’m waiting for someone,” I say.
Her eyebrows lift.
I fold my arms across my chest. “Is that a problem?” I ask.
“Of course not,” she says. “Would you like to take a seat?” She gestures to the couch over by the fireplace.
We both know what her hospitality is thinly disguising. She probably
thinks I’m a hooker, too.
I hear the rapid clicking of heels against the wood floor. I turn to see Dr. Shields striding toward us, and even though I’m upset by what she has just done to me, I can’t help but marvel at her beauty: Her hair is pulled into a sleek chignon and her legs are slim and impossibly long beneath the hemline of her black silk dress. She is everything I tried to be tonight.
“Hello, there,” Dr. Shields calls. When she reaches us, she puts her hand on my arm, like she is claiming me. I see her glance at the woman’s name tag. “Is everything all right here, Sandra?”
The clerk’s manner transforms. “Oh, I was just offering your friend a seat by the fireplace, where it’s more comfortable.”
“How thoughtful,” Dr. Shields says. But her tone is a subtle rebuke, and
the clerk retreats.
“Shall we?” Dr. Shields asks, and for a moment I think she wants to leave. But then she leads the way to the couch.
Instead of taking a seat, though, I remain standing. I keep my voice low, but it’s thick with emotion: “What was that all about?”
If Dr. Shields is surprised, she doesn’t show it. She pats the cushion next to her. “Jessica, please sit down.”
tell myself it’s because I want to hear Dr. Shields’s explanation. But the truth is, I feel a gravitational pull toward her.
As soon as I am beside her, I smell her clean, spicy perfume.
Dr. Shields crosses her legs and folds her hands in her lap. “You seem very agitated. Can you tell me what that experience was like for you?”
“It was awful!” My voice cracks unexpectedly and I swallow
hard. “That guy Scott, who was he?”
Dr. Shields lifts her shoulders once. “I have no idea.”