Saturday, November 17
As I stare at the laptop in the unnaturally quiet classroom, I feel kind of anxious. The instructions say there are no wrong answers, but won’t my responses to a morality test reveal a lot about my character?
The room is cold, and I wonder if that is deliberate, to keep me alert. I can almost hear phantom noises – the rustle of papers, the thud of feet against the hard floors, the jostling and joking of students.
I touch the return key with my index finger and wait for the first question.
Could you tell a lie without feeling guilt?
I jerk back.
This wasn’t what I expected when Taylor mentioned the study with a dismissive flip of her hand. I guess I didn’t anticipate being asked to write about myself; for some reason, I assumed this would be a multiple choice or yes/no survey. To be confronted with a question that feels so personal, as if Dr. Shields already knows too much about me, as if he knows I lied about Taylor – well, it rattles me more than a little.
I give myself a mental shake and lift my fingers to the keyboard.
There are many types of lies. I could write about lies of omission or huge, life-changing ones – the kind I know too well – but I choose a safer course.
Sure, I type. I’m a makeup artist, but not one of the ones you’ve read about. I don’t work on models or movie stars. I get Upper East Side teenagers ready for prom, and their moms ready for fancy benefits. I do weddings and bat mitzvahs, too. So yeah, I could tell a high-strung mother that she could still be carded, or convince an insecure 16-year-old that I didn’t even notice her pimple. Especially because they’re more likely to give me a nice tip if I flatter them.
I hit enter, not knowing if this is the kind of response the professor wants. But I guess I’m doing it right, because the second question appears quickly.
Describe a time in your life when you cheated.
Whoa. That feels like a presumption.
But maybe everybody has cheated, even if just at a game of Monopoly when they were little. I think about it a bit, then type: In the fourth grade, I cheated on a test. Sally Jenkins was the best speller in the class, and when I looked up and chewed on the pink rubbery eraser of my pencil, trying to remember if tomorrow had one “r” or two, I caught sight of her paper.
Turns out it was two r’s. I wrote the word and mentally thanked Sally when I got an A.
I press return.
Funny how those details came back to me, even though I haven’t thought about Sally in years. We graduated from high school together, but I missed our last few reunions, so I have no idea how she turned out. Probably two or three kids, a part-time job, a house near her parents. That’s what happened to most of the girls I grew up with.
The next question hasn’t materialized yet. I tap the return key again. Nothing.
I wonder if there’s a glitch in the program. I’m about to go poke my head out the door to see if Ben is nearby, but then letters begin to appear on my screen, one by one.
Like someone is typing them in real time.
Subject 52, you need to dig deeper.
My body gives a sudden start. I can’t help looking around. The flimsy plastic blinds on the windows are pulled up, but there isn’t anyone outside on this drab, gloomy day. The lawn and sidewalk are deserted. There’s another building across the quad, but it’s impossible to tell if anyone is in it.
Logically I know I’m alone. It just feels like someone close to me is whispering.
I look back at the laptop. There’s another message:
Was that really your first, instinctual answer?
I almost gasp. How does Dr. Shields know?
I abruptly push back my chair and start to stand up. Then I get how he figured it out – it must have been my hesitation before I started typing. Dr. Shields realized I rejected my initial thought and chose a safer response. I pull my chair back toward the computer and exhale slowly.I abruptly push back my chair and start to stand up. Then I get how he figured it out – it must have been my hesitation before I started typing. Dr. Shields realized I rejected my initial thought and chose a safer response.
Another instruction creeps across the page:
Go beyond the superficial.
It was crazy to think Dr. Shields could know what I’m thinking, I tell myself. Being in this room is obviously playing with my mind. It wouldn’t feel as weird if other people were around.
After a brief pause, the second question reappears on the screen.
Describe a time in your life when you cheated.
Okay, I think. You want the messy truth about my life? I can dig a little deeper.
Is it cheating if you are just an accessory in the act? I write.
I wait for a response. But the only movement on my screen is the blinking cursor. I continue typing.
Sometimes I hook up with guys I don’t know all that well. Or maybe it’s more like I don’t want to know them all that well.
Nothing. I keep going.
My job has taught me to carefully evaluate people when I first meet them. But in my personal life, especially after a drink or two, I can deliberately dial back the focus.
There was a bass player I met a few months ago. I went back to his place. It was obvious a woman lived there but I didn’t ask him about it. I told myself she was just a roommate. Is it wrong that I put on blinders?
I press return and wonder how my confession will land. My best friend Lizzie knows about some of my one night stands, but I never told her about seeing the bottles of perfume and pink razor in the bathroom that night. She also doesn’t know about their frequency. I guess I don’t want her to judge me.
Letter by letter, a single word forms on my computer screen:
For a second, I’m glad I’m getting the hang of the test.
Then I realize a complete stranger is reading my confessions about my sex life. Ben seemed professional, with his crisp Oxford shirt and horn-rimmed glasses, but what do I really know about this psychiatrist and his study?
Maybe it’s just being called a morality and ethics survey. But it could be anything.
How do I know the guy is even a psychiatry professor at NYU? Taylor doesn’t seem like the type to verify details. She’s a beautiful young woman, and maybe that’s why she was invited to participate.
Before I can decide what to do, the next question appears:
Have you ever deeply hurt someone you care about?
I almost gasp.
I read it twice. I can’t help glancing at the door, even though I know no one is peering in through the glass pane at the top.
Five-hundred dollars, I think. It doesn’t seem like such easy money anymore.
I’ve been honest, like I agreed when I accepted the terms at the start of the study. But now I think about making something up.
Dr. Shields might know if I didn’t tell the truth.
And I wonder… What would it feel like if I did?
Sometimes I think I’ve hurt everyone I’ve ever loved.
I want to type the words so badly. I imagine Dr. Shields nodding sympathetically, encouraging me to continue. Maybe if I told him what I did, he’d write something comforting again.
My throat tightens. I swipe my hand across my eyes.
If I had the courage, I’d start by explaining to Dr. Shields that I’d taken care of Becky all summer while my parents were at work; that I’d been pretty responsible even though I was only thirteen. Becky could be annoying sometimes – she was always barging into my room when I had friends over, borrowing my stuff, and trying to follow me around – but I loved her.
Love her, I think. I still love her.
It just hurts to be around her.
I still haven’t written a single word when Ben knocks on the door and tells me I have five minutes left.
I lift my hands and slowly type, Yes, and I’d give anything to undo it.