MISFIT DOC: No Mercy for the Lab Rat

I’m interviewing for my dream job.

My interviewer, all smug and refined, gives me a hard stink eye. I’ve lost him, I know, and to reel him back would take confidence I just can’t muster now. The truth is plain for me to see, written all over his face: that I’m grossly inadequate for this position and I’m making a fool out of myself trying to reason that I should have it. I talk anyway: “Ok, well, uhhh, I guess one thing that qualifies me for this position is my bachelor’s degree…” I fumble.

I don’t deserve this. They’ve done everything they could to make this feel not like a job interview, but an interrogation. From the long table, where I sit on one broad side and they sit on the other; to the good cop bad cop routine, where she sits on the right just smiling and not saying a word, and he sits on the left sneering like I’ve done something to put the whole state against me. Then there’s the camera in front of me. Why is it hooked up to a TV monitor? I know I’m fucking up but why do I have to see myself fucking up in real time? What good does it do them? I’m freaking out. Why am I so nervous? This isn’t even a real job interview.

I realize now that when I signed up for this study, I should have known to expect to be thrown curveballs—but up until this point, everything has been so chill that I guess I let my guard down. Austin, the test administrator, the guy who gave me the pill, who before the study stuck several electrodes on my bare chest and back and calibrated the heart rate monitor, who came in every half hour after giving me the drug to check up on me and give me time-lapse questionnaires (how stressed do you feel? How confident do you feel? Etc. etc.) to fill out; he wasn’t like this. Austin told me “great choice!” when I picked strawberry yogurt out of all the flavors of granola bar he offered me. Austin cracked jokes and made sure I had plenty of water before he left me to watch Blade Runner until it was time for my cognition test. Austin smiled.

But this motherfucker? He wouldn’t smile for a wedding photo.

“OK, wait. Time out,” I say. “Am I supposed to be looking at you or the camera?”

Then he takes his hand out from under his chin and gives me an incredulous look that says, “That question is so dumb you can’t possibly expect me to answer it.”

But for real, am I supposed to look at him or the camera?

For this study, I could have been given any one of the following: a stimulant, a depressant, MDMA, a cannabinoid, or a placebo. I’m not supposed to know which or how much until the study is over, but going into this cognition test, this “interview for my dream job,” I was just about 100% positive that they’d given me the placebo.

Now I don’t know, and I don’t care; I just want to get out of this room.

I talk until I’ve run out the clock, finally resorting to some general mish mash about how I’m “such a hard worker” at the end of my allotted five minutes: which is really more of a speech than a job interview since I have no questions or response to bounce off of besides grimaces and death stares. After that, it’s on to the mental math test portion.

“What I want you to do now,” the interviewer says, “is subtract 13, incrementally, as many times as you can from—,” he pauses for thought, stretching the moment to remind me that it’s his whims we’re both following, “how about 3,233.”

I can do this. In the back of my mind, I realize how foolish it is to try and please these people; and in a few weeks, I’ll learn in a post-study e-mail that these are both actors. They’re not professional psychologists, “trained to pick up physical and verbal signs of confidence and believability” like Austin told me in his briefing. They’re hired stooges, paid to sit here acting mean the same way I’m getting paid to be a lab rat. And that camera they have set up isn’t even recording.

But goddamn—for some reason I need desperately to show them that I’m not a total moron. The interview I fucked up, I’ll admit, but this is math. There’s no rambling with math, or backtracking on something you decided was stupid to say with math, or picking up tremors in your voice because you know they heard the tremors that were already in your voice; with math. It’s black and white, right or wrong. As long as I keep these numbers straight, there’s no reason I shouldn’t knock this out of the park.

I look to the silent smiling woman on the right, and the smug gentleman on the left. He hits the timer and I go:

“3,233; 3,220; 3,207; 3,190…”

I keep getting dirty looks, for reasons I can’t figure out since my numbers are correct, but I manage to ignore it and persevere.

Then, after 2,531, I fuck up. I forget, immediately after saying the number, whether I just said “2,531” or “2,541” and, to not break the rhythm of my counting, I make a quick decision.

“…2,228; two-thou—“

“That number was incorrect,” the man says.

“OK, sorry, I should have said 2,518. Let me—”

“No, that number was incorrect,” he says again. “Now you have to start from the very beginning.”

Seriously, fuck this guy.

I don’t make it past 3,155 the second time around. And the timer interrupts me on the third try before I can even make it that far. I sit tight for a moment. I wonder what the end game to all this is supposed to be, why that man is supposed to act like I’m not fit to lick the dirt from his boots and why that woman still hasn’t said a word. I wonder if maybe they didn’t give me the placebo.

Austin pops in—“Hey! You guys all finished?”—and I fill out another time-lapse questionnaire before he takes me back to the room where I can chill out, finish my movie, and wait out the rest of the session. No more cognition tests for today.

The next week’s session goes comparatively better. I’m given the simple task of talking for five minutes about a book I’ve recently read or a movie I’ve recently seen. The woman I talk to this time acts normally, politely; she makes light comments and asks questions here and there to make my five minutes run smoothly. We sit on a couch together in a room that’s not rigged or prepared for this in any way. It feels perfectly casual and I don’t choke at all; although afterwards I do something perhaps ultimately more embarrassing and walk an extra twenty plus blocks catch the train at 35th street going home—when I much more easily could have caught it at 57th—thinking I’m on some kick of energy from the amphetamine they gave me, when in fact, I was given the placebo once again.

Yes, I got a placebo both times. There was a variable group that got MDMA both times, but I wasn’t in it. And the woman from the second session wasn’t a trained psychologist either, nor was she recording or collecting any data. The only collected data came from the heart rate monitor I was hooked up to and the time-lapse questionnaires Austin gave me every half hour. It’s a hot summer day when I decide to take that long walk through Chicago’s south side—and by the time I make it up to 35th street, I think for sure that my amphetamine high has worn off.

A few weeks later I get a check in the mail for $150.

Eric Wallgren lives in Chicago where he just started playing in this new band, Killionaires. He's online at ericwallgren.tumblr.com.

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