This is a Test: A Personal Essay in Six Dissociative Acts

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 FADE IN

 I. This is only a Test.
EXT: 1985, STATE COLLEGE, PA, at dusk before dinnertime, where stately fraternity houses loom over slim sidewalks. LISA (22) is a graduate student striding toward her apartment alone. She passes a porch where a party’s in full swing.

 

MAN
Hey, come join us!

LISA
(tosses a quick smile, keeps walking)

MAN
Oh, come on! Don’t be like that. Hey! Hey! I’m talking to you!

LISA
(over the shoulder, keeps walking)
Sorry! Too much homework!

MAN
That’s bullshit! Hey!

LISA
(quickens her stride. She turns into an alley between backyards, privacy fences and bolted gates that make a kind of cattle chute down the length of the block, unlit and empty, but not too narrow or scary—it’s the shortest route to her building. She wonders how she can be both afraid and flattered, why her brain bangs with clamor over what others see when they see her, how the gift of prettiness is a coin, one side makes you powerful, the other prey)

 

Three men run down the alley linebacker-style. LISA whirls to face them. Right before tackling her, they skid to a stop.

 

MEN
(staggering with laughter, pointing)
You were so scared!
(They stumble guffawing back the way they came, hugging and hanging
on each other)
She was so scared! Did you see her face?

 

 II. For the Next Sixty Seconds
Once upon a time (1979), LADYBUG’s childhood home caught fire and nearly killed her and her family. Now, because they live in a hotel too far for her to walk to the high school, an older BOY shuttles her. One afternoon Boy asks to see the burned house. Because Ladybug’s parents are divorcing, her mother is at work and no one is home. (Until 1979 there was only one set of divorced parents in the entire world, characters on The Brady Bunch, who never mentioned it.) Ladybug takes Boy to the burned house that just got a new floor, wall, and windows, new paint and carpet. The only obese teenager in the entire world, so fat his own ankle once snapped under the weight of him, Boy tells Ladybug he loves her, but it sounds like a demand, a price for friendship, fare for taxi service. Later, MAMA LADYBUG notices the black spot on the small of her daughter’s back: a round scab, hard, segmented, and dark, a carapace, a carpet burn. Although Ladybug doesn’t quite remember, she knows she got it, along with disgust and shame, that day in the house alone with Boy. More than anything, she wants Mama to save her. Ladybug opens her mouth to say everything: “I must’ve backed against a table.”

 

III. Your Local Host Station is Conducting a Test.
INT: 1982. DINING ROOM. DAY. Twelve people at Easter dinner, middle-class ranch house.

LISA (19), a willowy co-ed.

ROGER (34), married, a photographer and brother of her cousin’s new wife.

FATHER (50), divorced, disappointed he never had a son.

 

ROGER
You should be a model.

LISA
Thank you, but I don’t know.

ROGER
I do know. I’ve got a studio in the city. I can take a few shots, put together a portfolio. A couple agents owe me favors.

FATHER
Hey, that’s great, Roger. Thanks.
(The men shake on it.)

 

DISSOLVE TO:

 

INT: Roger’s apartment/photography studio.

 

LISA
(nervously hoping they aren’t alone)
Is your wife here?

ROGER
(turning on umbrella lights)
No. She had to work. She’ll be out all afternoon. Stand here.

ROGER
(taking photos)
Gaze straight into the lens as if you’re looking past me, out onto the horizon. Good. When you smile, press your tongue on the back of your teeth. Lower your chin. Good. Beautiful. I can feel your intelligence through the lens.

LISA
(smiling as directed)
Modeling seems a lot more interesting on your side of the camera.

ROGER
Let’s take a break. I want to get to know you.
(He sits on a black leather couch and pats the cushion beside him.)

LISA
(sitting as directed)
So, what is a portfolio? What do I do with it?

ROGER
You kiss me.
(Moving fast, he kisses her)
I never meet beautiful women as smart as you.
Let me see what kind of breasts you have.
(Unbuttoning her blouse even though she draws back)
Oh! They’re perfectly symmetrical. MmMMM!

LISA
(startled, squirming, and reluctant)
They’re too small.

ROGER
No, they’re proportionate.
(He fondles them.)

LISA
(pulling her blouse closed and frowning)
Aren’t you married?

ROGER
I told you, she won’t be back.
(tries to remove her blouse)

LISA
(tries to hold her blouse closed)
I don’t know.

ROGER
Look, we should do some nudes. It’ll show the agents you have courage.
(He slides her blouse off her shoulders even though she frowns and looks away.)
Here, lean forward. Bend over me. God! Look how your breasts hang in perfect triangles. MmMMM!
(He unbuttons her pants. She holds her pants closed.)
Let’s see the rest of you.
(He whips off his own pants)

LISA
(Shocked by his “readiness,” she is not ready and does not want this.)
Wait! I have a boyfriend. I don’t believe your wife would be okay with this.

ROGER
My wife and I have an understanding.
(He pulls off Lisa’s pants, underwear and all, then climbs on her)
My God, you really are beautiful. And you can carry a conversation.

LISA
[She does not feel she’s carrying this conversation—it’s careening away with her, a rickety runaway carriage, and the taboos that should have protected her are spilling off the sides—a married older man and family member who’s broken bread with her family should not and would never try to fuck her. This man is throwing over the trust her father’s handshake placed in him, isn’t buying or caring that she has a boyfriend, and is ignoring the message she tried to convey by her grip on her blouse. Everything that should protect her is now just lost cargo broken on the road. She’s been raised not to embarrass other people, not to disappoint them, especially older people doing her big favors, so she has no polite way to say “I don’t want to have sex with you,” and it’s all happening so fast. Before she can think, his breath strikes her face with a greasy huff of salami, his knee pries between her knees and shoves her right leg wide, and then comes a terrible tapping on the tender, solid bridge of skin between her two secret and now unguarded breaches down below. She resorts to something unthinkable—a lie, a good lie, cloaked in the authority of a male. It shames her, saves her, and protects his pride.]
Wait! I’m sorry . . . I have a disease. The doctor said I can’t have sex for a week.

ROGER
Oh. No problem. I’ll go anal.
(he goes for it)

LISA
(Scrambling away)
Wait! He said no sex of any kind for a week. You . . . you don’t want to risk it. It’s really contagious right now. I can’t remember what it’s called. I’m sorry.

ROGER
(shrugs and sits back, masturbating)

 

naked and horrified
hunched like a bunny
lisa stills herself
and her breath
so as not to interrupt

 

his breath and a rhythmic
sticky wet, smacking
sound that rolls her
into a smaller and smaller ball
as round and unremarkable
as a bug

 

the couch shudders
they make their polite farewells

 

EXIT: ALL

DISSOLVE TO:

 

INT: THEATRICAL STAGE.

ENTER: LISA. Thirty years older.

 

LISA
(onstage holding mic)
My father was thrilled with the photos. Proud. In no time, I had a real portfolio, meetings with agents—and external venereal warts. One agent said I was “too Town-and-Country.” The other said I was “too exotic.”
The doctor said I was lucky. And he told me, “No sex for a week.”

 

IV. Federal, State, and Local Authorities Have Developed this System to Keep You Informed.
In midlife, I dated an older man from a prominent Savannah family who had four brothers. The brothers’ father, a gynecologist, had a history of scandals with his patients that never lost him much. One brother, Charlie, burned his wife with a household iron. He pressed it against her bare ass when she walked by. He didn’t know it was hot, he said, but the burn left a permanent, silvery, iron-shaped scar. One Independence Day at the farm house, when the family was setting their own fireworks, Charlie was carrying a rocket as big as his thigh and as he passed me he rammed it in my crotch. Once, at the river house, Charlie took me aside and reminisced about how he used to ferry women to the barrier islands for picnics and rape them. He said, “Say what you want. Nobody can prove a thing.” I said, “But why tell me?” One night, on the summer house stairs, I was running down and Charlie was trotting up. He stepped in my way and hissed, “I’m gonna put my mark on my brother’s woman.” When I told my boyfriend about Charlie, he said, “You two need to work that shit out between yourselves.” One day, I left him for good, but I hated to leave my boyfriend’s little girl. Years after I left, she tried to kill herself, and they put her in an institution for eighteen months. Eventually she went off to college and majored in Photography. Now she models bondage wear.

 

V. Important Information Will Follow This Tone.

INT: DINING ROOM. DAY.

LISA (42), a Pennsylvanian recently transplanted to Florida, a teacher working on her certification, and a newcomer to online dating. She loves dogs.

SCOTT (47) claims on his dating profile he lives on the Gulf coast of Florida, flies back and forth to DC to practice law, and loves dogs.

LISA is at her kitchen table with her daughter, DELANEY (14), who is doing homework on a laptop.

 

LISA
(into phone)
Can’t we meet halfway?

SCOTT (O.S.)
My condo’s right on the beach. You’ve got to see it.

LISA
(into phone)
I commute ninety minutes round-trip to work, I’m out for trainings a couple nights a week, and I’m a single mom. It’s hard for me to drive all the way out to the beach.

DELANEY
(shakes head and mouths the words “Don’t go”)

SCOTT (O.S.)
(angered)
Jesus, who isn’t busy?!
(Takes a breath)
We’re perfect for each other. The sooner we meet the better.

LISA
I have a training at the Administration building Wednesday. Isn’t that near you? Why don’t we meet for a quick drink?

SCOTT (O.S.)
You might as well come to the condo.

LISA
I’m not shopping for a condo.

DELANEY
(smiles and nods)

SCOTT (O.S.)
You’ll be just minutes from here, for Chrissake. You can meet Jasper.

LISA
If it’s that close, I’ll take a quick walk on the beach with you and your dog, but that’s it. I have to get back. I hate leaving my dog alone while I’m at work all day.

DELANEY
(sprawls across her homework in mock defeat)

 

 

DISSOLVE TO:

 

 

EXT: BEACHSIDE CONDO PARKING LOT. EARLY EVENING.

LISA, wearing a business suit, parks her rusty Toyota among expensive cars.

 

LISA
(to cell phone)
He lied. The drive was another twenty minutes. I’ll go stagger around in the sand in my high heels and then get the hell out of here.

 

SCOTT approaches from the beach in cargo shorts and a polo shirt, leading an overweight Corgi.

 

LISA
(to phone, exiting car)
Here he comes. Looks like he lied about his height too. I’ll be home soon. Love you, sweetie.
(Sticks the phone in her pocket)

 SCOTT
(Gives LISA a peck on the cheek)
Let me just put this guy inside and get you some wine.

LISA
I thought we were walking him.

SCOTT
(angered)
I just did that! It’s time to feed him. Let’s get a glass of wine.
(He walks up the high-rise condo steps)

LISA
That wasn’t the deal. I came to walk on the beach. I’ll wait here.
(Sits on the steps)

SCOTT
Don’t be ridiculous! I’m on the ground floor. That’s my door right there.
(He points through the front doors and a lounge area to an open door) Just come have a glass of wine while I feed him and then we’ll walk him.

LISA
I’m good here.

SCOTT
(angered)
For Chrissake! Don’t ruin your suit! You’re impossible!

LISA
You wouldn’t want your sister going into a strange man’s condo.

SCOTT
I’m a lawyer. I defend people all day!

LISA
Okay, I’ll wait in the foyer.
(They walk up the steps together)

 

 

CUT TO:

 

INT: FOYER. DAY. Elevator doors, plush armchairs, an end table, ostentatious silk plant arrangements.

 

SCOTT
I’ll bring you a glass of wine.
(He exits through the condo door, enters with a glass of white wine, and hands it to LISA)

LISA
Thank you.
(She takes the glass and does not sip)
Your dog’s on a pretty strict schedule, huh?

SCOTT
(standing over her, glaring, waiting)
Dogs are a lot of responsibility. You know that.

LISA
I wish my job didn’t keep me away from my dog all day.
(She sets the wine glass on the end table without drinking any)
I don’t know how you take care of him, what, with all your travel.

SCOTT
(Blinks at her for several seconds)
I’ll be right back.
(He exits through the condo door, leaving it wide open. Not a sound escapes, no kibble rattling into a bowl, no toenails on the tile or canine crunching, no coughing, sniffling, or chatter to a pet, just minute after minute of increasingly hypnotic silence.)

 

WISH-FULFILLMENT EDITION

LISA marks ten minutes on her cell, then concludes, He’s done this before. She pulls a dog-poop bag from her purse, quickly empties the wine into it, knots it, and drives off. SCOTT phones, “Where are you? Come back right now! You shouldn’t be driving! Jasper’s ready to walk.” Lisa says, “I’m sorry. It’s an emergency.” She takes the poop-bag-cum-wine-balloon straight to the police. It’s positive for GHB, and the cops catch the evil fuck who’d been eluding them for years.

CRIME SERIES PILOT

LISA dumps the wine into the flower arrangement and rises, forgetting her cell on the chair. “Scott? Jasper? Why’re you so quiet?” She ventures into the condo. The audience loves knowing that SCOTT doesn’t know she didn’t drink the wine. It gives her a fighting chance. Ironically, if she had consumed the wine, she only would’ve slept through a rape. That’s why her spectacular and ironic death hits hard enough to launch twelve episodes.

 

UP NEXT: a lovable alcoholic detective identifies the spectacularly slaughtered body of his ex-wife (or sister or friend) and an overweight corgi wanders the beach with a cell phone in his mouth.

THE FACTS

LISA marks ten minutes on her cell, then leaves the wine untouched and drives away. Almost immediately, and for hours afterward, SCOTT leaves one seething voicemail after another: “Pennsylvania white trash! I’ll report you for neglecting your dog! I know where you live! Fucking Pennsylvania white trash!”

 

On the bright side, a notification pops up on the cell phone. After twenty-six years, BOY has found LADYBUG on Facebook. He says he now has two teenage ladybugs of his own, and he’s sorry for what he did to her. Ladybug blocks him. Later a mutual friend says, “But why? He’s so nice!”

VI. If This Had Been an Actual Rape:
Many years later, you would be arrested in an airport for resisting the upper-body search. Even though you were in your forties and knew better, you’d helplessly panic when a stranger tried to grope your breasts. The police would release you, but later you’d be charged, ironically, with battery—by the TSA agent whose hands you pushed away. You’d go to a lawyer. Bemused, he’d say, “This is nothing. You can represent yourself.” He’d write your lines for you and have you rehearse them twice. Then he’d walk around his desk, hold out his hand, and lead you to your feet like a movie star. “Now that I’m not representing you,” he’d say, “I get to do this.” He’d kiss you, groping Exhibits A and B. As a Struggling Single Mom, you’d think, Maybe I’ve found my Happy Ending! Abruptly he’d show you the exit and promise to call, and he would call, over and over, always asking the same thing, “Would you go out with a man like me?” And you’d say yes, yes, of course, but he’d never ask you out. He just needed to know, if he ever gathered the audacity again, he could still caress those reprobate breasts.

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About Author

Lisa Lanser Rose is the author of the memoir For the Love of a Dog (Harmony Books) and the novel, Body Sharers (Rutgers University Press), which was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for Best First Novel. Her publications and honors include the The Briar Cliff Review Nonfiction Award, The Florida Review Editor’s Award, and a Best American Essay Notable Essay. She rescues herding dogs, trains trick dogs, and blogs with awesome women at TheGloriaSirens.com.

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