A Test I Knew I Could Pass

This newsboy-hat-wearing guy Hal told my friend Mallory that he’d like to dictate her tastes. Quote: “Don’t misunderstand, Love. You’re golden, but your aesthetics are shite.” We were at Mallory’s step-brother Kevin’s housewarming party. Barely twenty-four, already Kevin owned a house. Fancy too. Mallory and I had been imagining how we’d spend half the upcoming summer lounging around Kevin’s pool, drinking pretty cocktails, when Hal made his offer. Mallory said, “You’re not even British. And what is this? Pygmalion?” which is why once Mallory went outside to find Kevin, Hal reluctantly talked to me.

He was cute in a blurry way, like a sketch I’d smudged with my thumb.

“How do you know Kevin?” I asked, and it turned out they played in the same soccer league, only Hal called it football. When he said, “No, British football,” I understood that was the whole point: that’s probably why he played soccer in the first place, so he could go around calling it football. Like he called the potato chips we were eating “crisps.” But I’m not Mallory: I’m completely willing to be educated, to have my tastes and vocabulary re-shaped.

The weekend before, Mallory and I had drawn vision trees on butcher paper. Some of my leaves had been concrete objectives, like “get a boyfriend,” but others more abstract, like “be less wishy-washy.” I’d never admit it to Mallory, but in truth, I’m ambivalent about Neil Diamond, who Mallory says is a dream, or was, in the ‘70s. I’m ambivalent about a lot of things Mallory believes we both love, like fried calamari, clove cigarettes, and Scottish Fold cats.

“Hand me a crisp,” I said to Hal, and a flicker of interest ignited in Hal’s eyes. I pictured myself as a damp blob of clay, spinning on a potter’s wheel.

He invited me over to his apartment to watch Andy Warhol’s Empire. He told me to dress comfortably and bring a snack to share, “only nothing that smells too weird,” instructions I spent several hours deconstructing. Eventually, I settled on a flannel shirt and jeans, and a spinach cheese dip with a sliced baguette.

I don’t know how many minutes passed as the light on the white screen slowly, slowly shifted until the Empire State Building emerged like an image being developed on photographic paper. Or how many more minutes passed before I asked, “So is anything going to happen in this movie?” But from the beginning, time felt vast, as though the carbon and other elements in the baguette I was quickly devouring were already helping form new eyeball cells to replace the cells the film was exhausting.

“The day is happening,” Hal said.

I thought he meant our day, the time we were spending together, so I tried to subtly scoot closer to him on the sofa. But then Hal explained that the film consisted of eight hours of slow-motion footage. “The characters are the building, light, and, most importantly, time.”

I stared at Hal, trying to figure out not whether I was being tested—obviously this was a test—but rather, the terms of the test. My capacity for boredom? My gullibility? I thought of the famous Prisoners and Guards case study Mallory and I had learned about in our psychology class. The study’s subjects: the undergrads assigned to be Guards. The study’s focus: the corruptibility intrinsic to power. How long would it take these students to turn into sadists, to inflict, without wincing, electric shocks on the Prisoners (who were only pretending to be hurt, but the Guards had no way of knowing that)? What defect of mine was Hal assessing?

Because if what he was interested in was my willingness to improve myself, that’s a test I knew I could pass.

I thought about how Ryan, my ex-boyfriend, had broken up with me. Well, I’d thought he was my boyfriend; I doubt Ryan would accept that title. We were having lunch, I was eating an egg salad sandwich. I was chewing, feeling happy that I was comfortable enough with Ryan to eat something weird and gross like an egg salad sandwich. Here’s what he said: “It’s not me, it’s you.” Then he laughed, and said, “Just kidding.” For a mortifying minute, I wanted to ask what, exactly, he was kidding about—breaking up with me, or turning our breakup into some harsh punchline to relay to his friends? I felt a flash of relief when I thought it was the former.

Before he walked away, leaving me to finish my sandwich alone, he said, “Seriously, I don’t know how you can eat that. It’s disgusting.” He wrinkled his nose at me. You are what you eat, I thought.

When I returned from Hal’s bathroom, I said, “Did I miss anything?”

He didn’t return my smile.

When the Empire State Building disappeared from the screen, I said that while the movie certainly felt slow, I was shocked by how quickly time had passed. “Maybe I was asleep with my eyes open?”

Hal looked at me as though I was as useless as the bit of string a Grinch cons a Hoobub into purchasing in a Seuss story I read recently to my little step-sister. Then he explained that what we’d watched was a one-hour bootlegged cut. You can’t watch the film in its entirety unless the MOMA decides to show it.

I said, “Watching one hour of an eight-hour film is stupid, isn’t it? Undermines the whole point?”

Hal smiled, said, “Very good.” Then he tossed me a sea salt truffle, a reward, as though I was a dog that had sat on command.

The chocolate was, I felt certain, the best I’d ever tasted.

 

by Kim Magowan and Michelle Ross

 

joint coauthor pic Kim and Michelle grayscale

Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Sixfold, Word Riot, and many other journals. www.kimmagowan.com

Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has appeared in The Common, Gulf Coast, Hobart, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, TriQuarterly, and other venues. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review, as well as a consulting editor for the 2018 Best Small Fictions anthology. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she works as a science writer. www.michellenross.com