No Use For A Name
Behold, the rest of chapter four:
So it was like Christmas around here when Alex came back. At least for me and Dad. He put on a good fatherly front, but I knew he was as eager as I was to see Alex again. We sat on the couch watching some end-of-the-world show, but when Christopher knocked on the door he jumped up to answer it.
“’Home is the sailor, home from the sea,’” Christopher said, holding up the box.
Dad had cleared off the little bar area that divided the kitchen and living room, and the two of them got busy putting Alex together. “Where are his ears?” Dad asked.
“Oh, I left them in the car. I took them off before I put him in the box so they wouldn’t get crushed.”
“I’ll get them,” I said, making for the door.
“Oh, no, I’ll get them,” Christopher said hastily.
“Caroline won’t rob you, I promise,” Dad said. “He’s loose at the base, help me adjust this.”
I’d never seen Christopher look unhappy before. “Okay. It’s the old red Beemer.”
I went down to the parking lot and found his car. It was one of those old BMWs, the 2002s, which I liked a lot more than the new ones. Every time I saw the new ones I thought, “assholemobile.” I thought it figured Christopher would have one of these if he had to have an old car – a way of extracting as much style value as possible from an economically inconvenient situation.
Imagine my surprise when I found someone behind the wheel. For a scary moment I thought it was someone trying to steal the car. Then I realized he was just sitting there, staring into space. “Excuse me,” I said. He rolled down the window. “I…is this your car?”
“Yeah. Are you the experiment?”
Huh? I thought. If it hadn’t been such a weird thing to say, in such a weird situation, I probably would have frozen up like I always do around cute guys. Because he was definitely cute. In that kind of “I’m in a band and majoring in something useless” way. He had that black Irish look, the dark hair and eyes with skin so white you’d suspect a sun allergy, a mop of dark curly hair that needed more grooming than it was getting, thin arms (a little boney, I thought critically), and a look on his face that was world-weary and a little disdainful, not quite the Look of Disapproval but close. You know – Heathcliff shit.
“’The experiment?’ No, I’m the villager with a pitchfork. What are you doing in Christopher’s car?”
“I just told you, it’s not his car, it’s mine. I’m his brother.”
Now that stopped me in my tracks. So much for Christopher’s “Virginia horse people” accent being real, I thought. This guy spoke American standard TV English – though he did have the patrician attitude, that’s for sure.
“Well, nice to meet you, I guess,” I said with an edge. “Can I have the ears, please?”
He looked at me for a second and then sighed. “Sorry.”
“Being an asshole.”
“Accepted. I’m Caroline.” I offered my hand and he took it awkwardly, reaching out the window with his right hand.
“Nick. So you’re one of the testers.”
“Yeah. Are you?”
He smiled. “No, I’m the other mad scientist.”
“You helped make Alex?”
“Yeah, I’m ‘helping.’” I could tell that was in air quotes from the look on his face. Something was terribly amusing about that idea, but before I could ask him anything else, there was Christopher.
“Nick, you’re not violating the firewall, are you?”
“Yes, C, I am. I know the name of one of your subjects, that should spoil the results.”
“It’s a start,” Christopher said, matching him tone for tone.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you,” I said. “Can I have the ears?”
“Right,” Nick said, reaching into the back seat and handing me a bag. “Nice to meet you too.”
There was something about the look he gave me that I kept thinking about after I went to bed that night. There really wasn’t time the rest of the day, since Dad and I spent it quizzing Alex – oh, and doing my homework. But once all the sensory input was done for the day, and I could just lay there and think, I was left with the picture in my mind of that last look on his face. Funny, with most guys that good-looking, I’d be all awkward and do what I do worst and then later reconstruct the encounter Bizarro World style, wherein I’m all Lauren Bacall and he falls in love with me, and I fall asleep with my arms wrapped around my pillow/lover. But there’d been something about his assholeism that had shut off the awkward switch, and let me be myself. It was probably the longest non-mandatory communication I’d had with a guy, sad, huh?
So what was the look he gave me? That’s what I was trying to puzzle out. It seemed a little pitying, a little sad, but also…I don’t know. Like there was…you know when someone looks at you like they know you? And you think, no, you’re wrong, you can’t see how screwed up I am, you’re mistaken – because it’s that look that says, I know you and I don’t hate what I see. And there was a kind of asking in it. And all I could think was that Nick had seen the transcripts of the conversations with the testers, and he knew me, or thought he did. I got a sick scary feeling in the pit of my stomach at the idea that all my conversations with Alex were exposed to this guy. More than I did with Christopher, because I think I instinctually understood that Christopher didn’t really care about the emotional details – only about what the conversations did to improve Alex. I wanted to say there was compassion or sympathy or even crazy as it sounded liking in his look. But that was impossible, I thought with a rush of shame, thinking about how I’d unburdened myself to Alex about my inadequacies. Nobody could like what they’d seen there. It’s one of those cognitive dissonances people like me suffer from – the desire to be known, understood, accepted, vs. the terror of being known, exposed, rejected. And knowing how it works, being smart enough to see the mechanics of it, doesn’t make it one whit better.
Then I slapped my forehead, literally. I’d totally forgotten that he’d said, “Now I know the name of one of your testers.” He didn’t know any names! He didn’t know who I was, hadn’t seen my deepest darkest secrets after all – or at least, he didn’t know they were mine. If he had read transcripts, Christopher had removed the names.
So he didn’t know me. Why was that suddenly such a depressing thought?