Stefan is sliding me into an ice-cold metal tube, and I am shivering, which proves to be an issue. “Keep still!” he shouts through the mike, all sharp, foreign consonants and pitchy vowels. “Please,” he adds.
I can barely hear him over the clanging of the machine, which he described as “a bit noisy.” Something about the shifting magnetic fields. It’s too loud for me to remember.
I’m completely horizontal as I look around my magnetic tomb, towards a mirror reflecting a screen. Flashing images appear: two red dogs, one green fish, a blue cat.
Stefan’s voice cracks on again, a disembodied Freud who asks, “What do you see?.”
I’m the psych department’s call girl–only willing to engage with them for a little cash. Partaking in their scripted fantasies, deep within the chasms of Green Hall. The people who hire me are grad students, constantly stressed and giving off an air of desperation – a picture of myself in five years.
Psych studies are my cash-only, tax-free campus job, which I can schedule around classes. I don’t have to don a hairnet, or learn how to operate the library checkout system.
I don’t understand why more students don’t whore themselves out. Maybe it’s because the work can be boring, or the clients tricky – no matter how many times I check our appointment time, they always tell me I am late, on the wrong day, or in the wrong building. It happens with such consistency that I’ve theorized that this exchange – implying that I shouldn’t be there – is the real experiment. The computer simulations are the control. Because, after griping about how I’ve inconvenienced them, they always manage to put down their Small World. “Sure,” they say. “I have the time.”
As they lead me to the exam room, they explain what the experiment is about – emphasizing and expanding on the concept of “watch and click” with the kind of earnest condescension usually reserved for a teacher explaining the alphabet to a particularly thick kindergartener. I have to click on a bird when I feel threatened/hit the K key when I recognize a chair/arrange shapes by their color and position.
I use these valuable debriefing sessions to figure out their accents – Turkish, Russian, Czech. I had a Minnesotan the other week, his folksy vowels clashing with terms like “alexia” and “synesthesia.”
Sometimes I sit in front of a computer, or, in Stefan’s case, am placed like a corpse on a slab into an MRI machine. The MRI studies pay about twice as much, but are three times as cold. Bizarrely, I fall asleep in the MRI machine far more frequently than in front of the computer, despite the jackhammer noise of the MRI machine.
This is the best part: If I fall asleep, they still have to pay me. I’m not sure if this rule applies to my sisters on the street.
After an hour spent clicking through computer-generated faces, rating them on attractiveness – obviously something related to racism, because each face was slightly darker than the last – I leave the dark room and wander back to the researcher’s office.
“All done?” they quiz. “How did you like it? What did you think we were asking you?”
This is my moment to shine, to prove that I am not the typical idiot undergrad, as is apparently the norm at this #1highly ranked institution. I spin a theory about language retention/reaction times/cultural biases.
But there’s always some twist, which they explain, gleefully, counting out bills. The points don’t matter/the numbers painted on the slides matter/the points are all that matters, she says. It’s all a trick. I just spent an hour trying to interpret Greek characters, only to support her thesis on colors.
I take my money.
“Good luck with your research,” I say, brightly, which always manages to come off as, “Fuck you.”
The MRI room is all oak wood and dark linoleum, and gives off a throbbing hum of isolation. A sleepless month’s worth of Wawa cups are stacked haphazardly in one corner.
No one could hear me scream, I think, immediately followed by, This would make a great episode of “Sherlock”. The study they should really be doing is how my fight-or-flee instincts have been undermined by pop culture.
Stefan asks me if I want a video of the my brain scan, and I agree. Later, I will scrutinize it for signs of cancer for hours as my roommate sleeps, blissfully unaware of meningioma.
“Um,” he clears his throat. “So you’re a student here?”
This is not part of my job description. I shift uncomfortably from foot to foot.
“Mhm,” I reply.
Despite the degrees, he holds all the awkwardness of a middle-schooler. “So maybe I’ll see you around,” he ventures. He’s holding my release form, the still-wet ink streaking black on his palms.
I stare blankly back at him, trying to decide if he’s coming on to me, or I’ve spent too much time manipulating magnets.
He opens the door for me in a way that would be chivalrous, were I not fifteen years younger, his test subject, and clutching fifty bank-stiff dollars.
I duck under his arm, and escape into the bright white of Green Hall. I am less sure of what he wanted from me, than when he explained it in psychobabble.
“Until next time,” he calls out, hopeful. We both know I’ll return.