Authors: Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
You twist around and peer
at the clock on the wall behind you, then you look toward the door. From every angle, you are enchanting.
hope it’s okay if I
break the rules.
You wrote these words before you confided that this study is reshaping your relationship with your own morality.
You fiddle with the silver stacking rings on your index finger as you frown at the computer screen. This is one of your habits when
you are being thoughtful, or experiencing anxiety.
I really need money,
you wrote in your first session.
Something extraordinary is occurring.
It is as though you are now guiding the study into a different realm. You, the young woman who wasn’t supposed to be a part of it at all.
You are presented with two more questions. They are out of sequence, but you won’t know this.
You reply to them both confidently. Flawlessly.
The final query you will receive today is one no other subject will ever see.
It has been developed expressly for you.
When it appears, your eyes widen as they fly across the screen.
Answer it one way, and you will walk out of this room and you won’t return.
But if you answer it another way, the possibilities are endless; you could
become a pioneer in the field of psychological research.
It is a gamble, posing this query.
You are worth the risk.
You don’t reply immediately. You push back your chair and stand up.
Then you disappear.
Your footsteps rap against the linoleum floor. You briefly come into view, then you vanish again.
You are pacing.
Now the roles have been upended: You are the one causing
a delay. You are also the one who will decide whether this study will undergo a metamorphosis.
You return to your seat and lean forward. Your eyes flit across the screen as you read the question once more.
Would you consider expanding your participation in this study? The compensation would be significantly higher, but significantly more would be asked of you.
Slowly, you lift your
hands and begin to type.
I’ll do it.
Saturday, November 24
Everything started off the same for my third session: Ben waiting in the lobby in a navy V-neck sweater. The empty classroom. A laptop on a desk in the first row, the words
Welcome Back, Subject 52
floating on the screen.
I was almost looking forward to answering Dr. Shields’s questions this afternoon; maybe it was the possibility of unloading
my tangled feelings after my visit home.
But toward the end of the session, things got weird.
Right after I answered the question about a guy cheating on his fiancée, there was this long pause, and the tone of the queries changed. I can’t say exactly how, the next two just felt different. I’d come to expect writing about things I could relate to or experiences I’d had. Those final questions
seemed like the big, philosophical type you’d get on a civics exam. They required some thought to answer, but I didn’t have to dig deep into painful memories, like Dr. Shields often wants me to.
Should a punishment always fit the crime?
Do victims have the right to take retribution into their own hands?
Right before I left, I had to wrestle with the decision of whether
to take the study to the next level.
Significantly more would be asked of you,
Dr. Shields wrote. It sounded kind of ominous.
What did Dr. Shields mean? I tried to ask him. His reply appeared on my computer screen, just like his questions always do. He simply wrote that he’d explain next Wednesday if I could meet him in person.
I finally decided the extra money was too tempting to turn
Still, as I head home, I can’t stop wondering what he has planned.
I’m not going to be stupid about all of this, I tell myself as I fasten Leo’s leash and head toward the 6BC Botanical Garden. It’s one of my favorite neighborhood walks in Alphabet City, and a good place to think.
Dr. Shields wants to meet me in person. He gave me a different address than the NYU classroom, though.
He told me to come to a place on East Sixty-second Street.
I don’t know if it’s his office, or his apartment. Or something else entirely.
Leo pulls sharply on his leash, jerking me toward his favorite tree. I realize I’ve just been standing there.
I see a neighbor approach with her toy poodle. I quickly lift my phone to my ear and pretend to be involved in a conversation as she passes.
I can’t engage in a casual conversation with her now.
There are always stories about young women in the city who get lured into dangerous situations. I pass their faces on the cover of the
New York Post,
and receive alerts on my phone when there’s a violent crime in my borough.
It’s not like I don’t take calculated risks; I walk into unfamiliar homes and locations every day for my job,
and I’ve gone home with guys I’ve barely met.
But this feels different.
I haven’t told anyone about this study; Dr. Shields designed it that way. He knows an awful lot about me, yet I know virtually nothing about him.
Maybe, though, there’s a way I can find out.
We’ve just made it to the garden, but I give Leo a gentle tug and we head back to the apartment, my stride quicker than
it was at the beginning of the walk.
It’s time to turn the tables. Now I’m going to do some probing of my own.
I pop the cap off a Sam Adams, reach for my MacBook, and sit down on my futon. Although I don’t know his first name, it should be easy enough to narrow down the various Dr. Shieldses in New York City by adding “research” and “psychiatry” as Google search terms.
dozens of hits appear. The first one that comes up is a professional article about ethical ambiguity in familial relationships. So that part of his story fits.
I move my mouse toward the images link.
I need to see a picture of the man who knows everything from where I live to the details of my last sexual encounter.
I hesitate before clicking on it.
I’ve imagined Dr. shields as
I want him to be, wise and grand-fatherly, with kind eyes. That image is so concrete it’s hard to envision him any other way.
But the truth is, I was projecting onto a blank canvas.
He could be anyone.
I click the mouse.
Then I recoil and suck in my breath.
My immediate thought is that I’ve made a mistake.
Images bloom across my screen, filling it like a mosaic.
eyes barely alight on one before another photograph pulls my gaze away, then another.
I read the captions to double-check, then I gape at the biggest image on the screen.
Dr. Shields is nothing like the portly professor I’ve imagined.
Dr. Shields, Dr.
Shields, is one of the most strikingly beautiful women I’ve ever seen.
I lean forward, drinking in her long, strawberry-blond
hair and creamy skin. She’s maybe in her late thirties. There’s a cool elegance to her chiseled features.
It’s difficult to look away from her light blue eyes. They’re mesmerizing.
Even through a picture, it feels like they see me.
I don’t know why I assumed she was male. Thinking back, I realize Ben only called her “Dr. Shields. The way I incorrectly pictured her probably says something
I finally click on an image, a full-length one. She stands on a stage, holding a microphone with her left hand. She appears to be wearing a diamond wedding band. Her silky blouse is paired with a fitted skirt and heels so high I can’t imagine standing in them even for the duration of a walk to the stage, let alone for a speech. Her neck is long and graceful, and no amount of contouring
can create the kind of cheekbones she possesses.
She looks like the type of woman who lives in a very different world from the one I inhabit, scrambling for jobs and flattering customers to get a bigger tip.
I believed I knew the person I was writing to: a thoughtful, compassionate man. But learning Dr. Shields is a woman causes me to rethink all of the questions.
And all of my answers.
What does this flawless-looking woman think about my messy life?
My cheeks grow warm as I remember casually describing lap dances and G-strings at a bachelor party when I answered the question about what I’d do if I saw a friend’s fiancé kiss another woman. My grammar wasn’t always perfect when I wrote my answers, and I didn’t phrase things carefully.
Yet she was kind to me. She pushed
me to reveal things I never talk about, and she comforted me.
She wasn’t repelled by anything I confessed; she invited me back. She wants to meet me, I remind myself.
I zoom in on the photograph, noticing for the first time that Dr. Shields is smiling slightly as she holds the microphone to her lips.
I’m still a l ittle nervous about Wednesday’s appointment, but for different reasons
now. I guess I don’t want to disappoint her when we meet.
I start to close my laptop. Then I move my mouse back to click on the news link of my Google search. I grab my phone and begin typing notes. I write down her office address, which matches the location where she suggested we meet on Wednesday; the title of a book she wrote and her alma mater, Yale University.
I can’t let the fact
that Dr. Shields is a woman change my original plan. She is paying me an awful lot of money and I still have no idea why, or what for.
And sometimes the people who seem the most accomplished and together are the ones who can hurt you the deepest.
Monday, November 26
Her photos didn’t lie, which is fitting, given her research study rules about telling the truth.
It was easy to
find Dr. Shields’s NYU class schedule online; it was one of the first things that popped up in my search. She teaches a single seminar a week, on Mondays from five to seven p.m. Her classroom is just down the hallway from Room 214. It’s so different here today, with the hallways filled with noise and activity.
Dr. Shields adjusts her taupe wrap around her shoulders, untucking her glossy hair
from beneath the folds as she walks down the corridor. I’m in a baseball cap and jeans, like a lot of the students milling around.
I hold my breath as she draws closer. I’ve positioned myself behind two girls chatting animatedly, but Dr. Shields is about to stride past them. Right before she does, I duck into a bathroom.
I poke my head out a few seconds later. She is continuing down the
hallway toward the stairwell.
I let her get a dozen steps ahead of me, then I trail her out the door. I catch the faintest scent of something clean and spicy.
It’s impossible to take my eyes off her.
It’s as if she is gliding through the streets in a protective bubble, where the elements can’t tousle her hair or snag her stockings or scuff her heels. A few men turn around to get a
second look at her, and a UPS guy steering a heavy-looking cart twists it out of her path. The sidewalk is crowded with commuters and shoppers, but she never needs to slow her pace.
She turns onto Prince Street and proceeds past a row of designer boutiques that sell three-hundred-dollar cashmere hoodies and cosmetics in cases that look like jewels.
She doesn’t glance in any of the windows.
Unlike the people around her, she isn’t on a cell phone or listening to music or distracted by her surroundings.
She continues to a little French restaurant farther down the block, then pulls open the door and disappears inside.
I stand there, unsure of what to do.
I want to get another glimpse of her, since I only saw her face fleetingly. But it would be too weird to wait outside
the whole time she eats dinner.
I’m about to leave when I see the maître d’ has led her to a seat by the window. She is only a dozen feet away from me. If she turns her head slightly and looks up, our eyes will meet.
I quickly shift to my left, pretending to read the menu displayed behind glass to one side of the entrance.
I can still see her out of the corner of my eye.
approaches Dr. Shields and hands her a menu. I glance back at the one in front of me. If I could afford this kind of place, I’d choose the filet mignon with bearnaise sauce and frites. But I bet Dr. Shields orders the broiled swordfish au Nicoise.
She chats briefly with the waiter, then hands him her menu. Her skin is so pale that in the candlelight her profile appears celestial. I’m reminded
of the gorgeous items in the procession of storefront windows we passed earlier. It seems right that she should also be displayed here for others to admire.
It’s growing darker outside now, and my fingertips are beginning to feel numb, but I’m not ready to go just yet.
She has asked me all these questions, but now I am the one brimming with queries for her. The most pressing one: Why do
you care so much about the choices people like me make?
The waiter returns with a glass of wine. Dr. Shields takes a sip and I notice the burgundy color is almost a perfect match for the nail polish that adorns her long, tapered fingers.
She smiles and nods at the waiter, but after he leaves, she touches a fingertip to the corner of her eye. She could have an itch, or be brushing away
a tiny fiber from her wrap. It is also the gesture someone makes to wipe away a tear.
She lifts her wineglass again, this time taking a much deeper drink.
I definitely saw a wedding band in the photo when she was holding a microphone. But her left hand is tucked in her lap and I can’t tell if she’s still wearing a ring.
I’d intended to stick around to see if I’d guessed right about
what Dr. Shields ordered. But now I put in my earbuds and begin to walk east, toward my apartment.
Even though I’ve given a lot of intimate information about myself to Dr. Shields, it was voluntary. She has no idea I’ve been watching her in such a vulnerable moment. I feel like I’ve gone too far, like I’ve crossed a line.