It happens that you’ve decided to walk around like a woman. You think this will be fun, but what exactly do you mean? It’s crazy, but already you feel like a fraud. To be safe you’ll carry papers. Checkpoints surely coming. In fact, while browsing the landscape, a line forms with you in it. Disconcerting to see how quickly this happens. How readily the patterns. You step left to dig for your papers. You must have, or there should be, waitaminute. What was it you signed? Promptly, sharply, you’re reprimanded for being out of line, but you don’t flinch. You reading.
Close attention, fine print, such and such reveal you did not sign up for hand wringing. Ha ha. The checkpointers, though. They got you surrounded. They want you to perform the mea culpa. You can tell by the way they waiting for you to apologize, staring hotly at what you’re holding. You reply by tucking your papers back where they came from. This should end it you think, but you’re wrong. Not only will they take you as is, without apology, but they’re fairly pleased with your outfit. Well, the one. He covets your socks. He’s not a he and you like your socks, too. You look down.
The others follow your sightline. Now everyone focusing on your ankles. It’s a shared moment. Broken only when they grab you by the elbow and pull you through the closest door one of those seamless doors save for an outline cut into the wall. You’ve seen these indistinct doors in corridors, in airplane terminals. What goes on behind them? Why always the scurrying. Never in a billion years did you imagine, but here you are.
You’re led through a series of windowless rooms that coop you inside like nesting doll layers. As you enter each room, twitchy fluorescent lighting blinks on and you’re further enclosed. It’s impossible. A mistake, even. You instinctively squint. One of them notes this in their pad. The other one who is not a he points you to a seat then tries to retract the gesture. Sweep of the arm, as if that was just some floating dust bunny not-he was after. You exhausted trying to read the signs.
The one with the notepad gives you the once-over over their spectacles and you can hear the critique in the gaze. Fuck this you think and go inside yourself. You picture the mise en scène as a game. Not DnD, you’ve never played it. Rather, a lively round of musical chairs. You pick a soundtrack. No reason that you know, that you have access to, but Beethoven. You listen in for the adagio.
The notepad, the not-he, and the socks walk into a bar you’re thinking when the notepad snaps their fingers. In your face. In no uncertain terms this time, they points. You stand. Put. Not walk. You have no clue what you’re up to or why, and maybe you’re scaring yourself. Or is this the you you are becoming?
Either way, and often it is the, is the you, but at any moment the notepad could call in a superior. To get control of the situation you make a small bet with yourself. How long can the notepad hold out before they surrender authority to a higher-up? You begin to wonder if you might have…if only...well, no matter. You’re here now again. You’ll have to challenge each comer, each escalating level. You envision cumulative emotional states to prepare youself. To plot your moves you try to make a sentence with PSYOPS in it to have at the ready, but the words don’t stay put. Not-he senses this, leans in, whispering. Something like:
You’re only making this harder on yourself. Or you don’t know what they’re capable of. Or if you sit down you’ll be able to go home at some point. Do as you’re told and you won’t get hurt. I’m saying this as your friend.
You losing track of time. How many minutes have passed? Is the situation at last completely out of your hands? You pat yourself down. That’s right. Right where you left yourself. You point to your socks to disrupt the flow of information. You read somewhere, you slightly recall, that the training is based on algorithm. But nothing happens that you can tell. You point. Nothing.
Slowly, you realize something indeed. Moving behind you. It’s not-he, maneuvering, wordlessly, like a photo bomb. That turncoat is making faces. Wasn’t not-he supposed to be your friend? You freeze. The notepad is smirking. They think they have you. Ha ha again. They are on your rhetorical turf now. An if has surfaced. You take it. Every second could count.
To begin your argument you audibly, deeply sigh through your nose. The notepad jumps on this. Wants to know what the hell you were thinking. Do you mean just now you say or earlier? You think they will say something like don’t be a smart-ass or let me tell you a little story but they wasn’t interested in you answer. They didn’t open the notepad.
They rolls their eyes. Not-he is not-surprisingly still. Clearly, they have more expectations of you than you know what to do with. They looking to you. Insistent. Historically you have not been a winner with looks, but you mimic it back to them because what else is there to do? Now they licks they fingers, flips pages. We are looking at you, not to you they writes stressing the false preposition. You are meant to see this, of course.
Well played, notepad. Well played. Oh and what a compromising position to be admiring their tactic! You resolve to implement. A new strategy. Racking you memory for comparables, you think the situation isn’t quite right. You on the verge of an event, but one you don’t recognize. You move to dig in you vest to give them you papers, which is what might have, other side, but didn’t. Now do. They startle. Not-he says easy now. I mean, we don’t know you from. You could be a
But not-he trails off. Anxious. Glancing sideways in notepad direction.
If truly intelligent design you think a grid surge would knock out the power. You blink. You blink again. They mesmerized. Maybe you got this. Series of threes, and twos. Dittos ditto dash. They sit down. You wish you had a house plant, a picture frame. A placeholder so you can make escape. You scan the office. Your eye lands on unused sticky notes. Carefully. Steady not to break the spell you slide you arm from the side of you body into the space between you and the desk in front of them. Tear a yellow square sheet. Blinking. Keeping them seated. You hold it out to them. Go on you think. Take it.
Cara Benson’s writing has been published in The New York Times, Boston Review, Best American Poetry, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and the bpNichol Award. WHAT WOULD EMMA GOLDMAN DO? is her current work in progress.