by Peter Lynch
My radio alarm clock wakes me, blasting Hendrix’ version of All Along the Watchtower. As I sit up, the bowl rolls off my chest and the weed sprinkles my sheets.
I gather the weed into a single large clump and put it back in the bowl. Only a little is wasted. I smoke the bowl, then strip down to my boxers and grab the towel from my door handle.
Inside the bathroom, I lock the door. Nobody’s around to walk in on me, but it’s something I have to do. I feel the compulsion to unlock and re-lock the door, and to repeat the procedure until it’s been locked eight times. I’ve always felt compelled to ritualize the locking of doors, fearing that, were my pattern adherence be anything short of immaculate, I’d risk bringing catastrophic consequences upon myself and those closest to me. I know it’s illogical, but cognition isn’t a cure for compulsion. Weed, on the other hand—that works even better than the Prozac. Which reminds me that I haven’t yet taken my daily dose.
I unlock the door and walk back to my room. I take three capsules of Prozac from one of the bottles on my dresser and swallow them all together without any water, then walk back to the bathroom. I lock the door, again aware of that portion of my brain telling me to execute the locking/unlocking ritual.
I turn the shower nozzle to “Hot” and wait a minute before stepping in.
Once I’m showered and in front of the sink, I turn look up at the steamy mirror and wipe it with my forearm. Examining my reflection, I decide that I can go another day without shaving. I brush my teeth and go back to my room.
I dress quickly, throw on my shoes, grab my black satchel, and check the clock. 9:36. Plenty of time to make it to work by 10:00. I rumble down the stairs and throw open the front door.
On the sidewalk stands a hefty, middle-aged man dressed in black business attire (including a hands-free cell phone headset), and he’s staring at my apartment. His hand covers his mouth as he mumbles commands to whoever is on the other end of the line. He looks at me and then, as though suddenly remembering something of great importance, briskly crosses the street and walks in the direction of Davis Square, still mumbling commands into his headset.
I shake my head and think to myself, Why was he staring at my apartment? Was he waiting for me? I close the door behind me and, lighting up a cigarette, walk to Davis Square, which is almost exactly a cigarette’s duration away. I finish my cigarette and toss the butt into a trash barrel when I reach the station, then grab today’s edition of the Metro from a newspaper stand and head inside.
At the platform downstairs, I flip through the Metro to the day’s Sudoku puzzles. Then I hear the far-off sound of the train coming down the track and hear the familiar voice:
—The next Red Line train to Braintree is now arriving.
A tired-looking train comes into view down the tracks and, as it arrives, it blows warm, stale air into my face. Passengers file into the mostly-empty cars. I take a seat by the door, pull out a pen, and start working on the first Sudoku puzzle.
A dark-haired, pretty college girl enters and sits in a seat across the aisle. Our eyes meet as she settles into her seat, but then she looks away. I glance around at the other passengers. I notice several pairs of eyes on me but, when our eyes meet, they look away. They’re watching me, I know it. But the thought passes as quickly as it arives.
I pull my ear buds out of my pocket and untangle the split wires, then put the buds in my ears and turn on my IPod Shuffle®. The first song that comes up is Feel Good Hits of the Summer, by Queens of the Stone Age, which starts: “Nicotine, valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy, and alcohol…c-cocaine!” This reminds me that I haven’t yet taken my Adderall for the day, so I search around inside my satchel, looking for the bottle. I open the bottle and pull out two twenty-milligram tablets. Fly casual, but not too casual. I slip them inside my bottom lip and let them begin to dissolve. I zip up my bag just as the train enters Central Square and slows to a stop.
After hitting Starbucks and ordering my daily iced grande six-pump classic coffee, sweetened, with very little ice, I head outside, light up a cigarette, and walk to work.
Once in the office, I take a seat at my desk, which is strategically located right behind the door so that, even when it’s open, I can’t be seen by anyone walking down the hall. This way I can surf the net, play my simulation baseball game, do some recreational reading, or play online poker—even on my massive secondary monitor—without having to worry about being caught.
I turn on the computer and type in my password: s4Ara3HA. It’s the default password given when I started working at the video game company a year and a half ago, and I’ve been too lazy to bother changing it.
I open a browser and go to my Google Reader account. Lots of new articles. I click on my “Neuroscience” folder. I read an article entitled, “Further Developments in the Link between Madness and Creativity,” and another called “Effects of Low Latency Inhibition.”
A notification pops up, reminding me of a meeting scheduled to start in five minutes. Grabbing my pen, I walk down the hall and over to the conference room on the other side of the elevators.
An hour and a half later, the conference room door opens and people file out. I am one of the first. I glance up at the clock in the lobby and, seeing that it is almost 12:30 pm, decide to take my lunch break. I grab my satchel from the office and head for the elevator.
Outside, I light up a cigarette. I start walking toward Harvard Square as I put in my ear buds and push the “Play” button. First up: the Pixies’ River Euphrates. It has a driving beat and I’ve no choice but to swagger as I walk towards Harvard Square. I wonder whether my swagger, my scruff, the cigarette hanging out of my mouth, my fedora, and my black leather jacket, and the man-satchel I’m carrying over my shoulder make me look like some kind of hipster.
About halfway to Harvard Square, I see a homeless man curled up against the brick wall of a bank and holding up a Styrofoam coffee cup.
–Spare some change? the man asks.
I reach into my pocket, pull out two quarters, and put them in the cup.
Passing through Harvard Square, I find myself stopping to examine the map displayed on the wall of a kiosk, despite my thorough familiarity with the area. As I read the map, my ears begin to ring and I start to feel as though I am being studied, like a rat in a cage—aware enough to recognize the synthetic environment created for me but not enough to notice the men in white lab coats holding vials and syringes. I know that something is amiss.
Then there’s the clicking of a camera to my left. I look.
Click! Click! Click! The photographer is a young woman wearing a crimson red Harvard hoodie.
She is pointing the camera in my direction. I look back to see what she’s photographing, but behind me there’s only a bank with big glass windows, behind which is a row of ATMs. Am I the subject of her pictures? I wonder. Both flattered and anxious, I begin to regret neglecting to shave this morning.
I turn back towards the girl in the red hoodie, but she’s gone. Where did she go? I try to shake off the paranoia—the feeling of being watched—but it has nowhere to go.
Opening the door to my favorite burrito joint I’m greeted by a faceful of steam from the grill. Today the line extends nearly to the door, so I turn my attention to the music playing on my IPod®. It’s Exo-Politics by Muse, a song about a big brother government that uses satellites to track its citizens. The song drowns out the wailing of a baby who glares at me over his mother’s shoulder. I tilt my head back and eye the ceiling. Above the cash register and behind a veil of steam is a smoke detector with an illuminated red light that shines through the haze.
My eyes rest on it, and the red light turns off.
I glance around at the seating—most of which is occupied by college kids in crimson hoodies, overweight WASPy businessmen, and high school-aged kids—and then direct my gaze toward the cash register. Above it, in my peripheral vision, something grabs my attention. It is the smoke detector’s red light again.
But as soon as I look, the light turns off and remains off while I watch it. When I glance at the woman working the register, the light goes on again. Is someone fucking with me? My feeling of being watched increases. The smoke detector is has a camera watching me. No. That’s insane. You’re paranoid. But what if it’s true? It’s possible. It could happen. I need to figure this out.
Keeping my eyes down but with the smoke detector still in my peripheral vision, I silently count out fifteen seconds. The light stays on for the duration. Then I look up and, when I do, it goes off again. I keep my eye on it for five seconds, but as soon as I look away it turns on again. The paranoia intensifies. I try other lengths of time, too: seven seconds, twelve seconds, twenty seconds—but it works the same regardless of the duration of my glances. This is just like Exo-Politics—there’s an eye in the sky and it’s looking at me.
At the front of the line, I order my usual rice and bean burrito with cheese, lettuce, salsa, guacamole, and sour cream. The cashier puts the burrito in a tube-shaped paper bag, and I order a large fountain soda. I pay the bill and, instead of sitting down, take my lunch to the park across the street. I grab a copy of today’s Metro and fill in the Sudoku puzzle with one hand as I eat the burrito with the other. After annihilating the burrito with great efficacy, I walk over to the Coop, where I read Kafka’s Metamorphosis before returning to work.
Then, leaving the Coop, I pass all the people milling about around in Harvard Square.
As I pass them by, I feel slightly on edge. My spidey sense tingles. I’m being watched. I look around, but the people seem to be minding their own business. I shake off the feeling and walk down Massachusetts Avenue, back to work.
Back at the office, I decide it wise to do some actual work. So I do some analysis and sketch a diagram of the scope of the company’s next game and, once satisfied, estimate how many people will be needed to work on each component of the project. My work is solid but, since the department director has a fetish for appearances, I make a PowerPoint presentation with six slides: a title page, one with my diagram, and the other four outlining my rationale. Finished, I give it a cursory once-over, then email it to the department director, the managers, and all the department leads.
Now, I think, I won’t have to worry about big brother for the rest of the day.
I sign up for a 200-player online poker tournament with re-buys. The game begins, but before the third blind level I start getting bored, so I turn on my secondary monitor, which is connected to my Xbox 360, start up a first-person shooter game, and continue with one of my campaign mode files. By seven o’clock, I’ve finished the tournament in third place (with a profit of $240), and have advanced three levels in my campaign. All in a day’s work.
I check my work email, and there is a new message from my boss, applauding my promptness and thoroughness.
My mind wanders to the subject of the smoke detector in the taqueria.
Its red light reminds me of the flashing light on those old video recorders, the light that let you know whether the camera was recording.
Get over yourself. Why would anyone want to watch you? I haven’t the slightest idea. You’re attaching meaning to the inconsequential.
I doubt if any of the other customers noticed anything unusual about the smoke detector. You’re imagining things.
But even if nobody else noticed anything wrong with the smoke detector, it doesn’t make me wrong—the light had been synchronized with my glances; what I saw as cause and effect could look like stochasticity or even true randomness from another perspective.
They didn’t see what I saw.
This is how insane people sound, I think. I’m losing it.
Privately, I acknowledge that this isn’t the first time I’ve felt as though I am being observed through a thin veil: over the past few weeks, and increasingly in the past few days, a number of my favorite blogs have shown increasing interest in topics that pertain to my interests.
There had been a spike in articles about ADHD, OCD, prescription medications for each, alcohol abuse, and the use of stimulants. Prozac’s capacity to induce neurogenesis has been a frequent topic, as has the connection between mental illness and creativity. These trends have been registered somewhere in my mind and I simply wrote them off, perhaps assuming that I had subscribed to the blogs because they discussed topics relevant to me.
Now I begin to suspect something I can’t tell anyone.
Maybe, I think, the causality goes the other way. Maybe the blogs are more focused on these topics because I’ve subscribed to them.
I condemn my own egocentricity.
You’ve let your brains get to your head.
But I can’t subdue the thought, and I think back to the Abnormal Psychology class I took freshman year of college. It had a word for thought patterns like mine. Delusions of grandeur. I decide to test my suspicions about the blogs.
I sign in, open the “Neuroscience” folder, and scan the list. ADHD and OCD are the topics of several new articles apiece. Interspersed are two articles about alcohol, one about apophenia, one about bipolar disorder, and one about pronoia.
I smirk as I read about apophenia, the experience of seeing patterns or meaning in randomness—is this author referring to the smoke detector, or is the very idea that it might be such a reference an example of the topic itself?
I’m not sure how the article about bipolar can refer to me unless, of course, it is there to suggest that I have the illness.
What little I do know about bipolar disorder gives nothing to indicate that I do have it; I’ve never had a manic—or even a hypomanic—episode (unless I’m having one now), so far as I know, and I can’t even conceive of what psychosis would look or feel like. The article discusses common treatments, the genetic and environmental components of the illness, common delusions, the illness’s link to creativity, and the rate of suicidality in bipolar patients, ending with a list of famous people who suffered from the illness.
I’d never heard of pronoia, which I learn is the belief that the world is somehow conspiring in one’s favor—basically, the opposite of paranoia. I wonder whether I am meant to infer that I should appreciate this feeling of being watched. I want to write a letter telling the author to get fucked, but breathe deeply eight times instead. Because eight’s my number.
My mind races. Do I have bipolar disorder? I’ve never thought about it, not even when we discussed the illness in Abnormal Psych.
I turn on the Xbox 360 and resume my campaign, almost certain that my earlier work has earned me a pass on scrutiny from my superiors for the rest of the day.
At 8:30 I take the T back towards Davis, but get off a stop early at Porter Square when I feel the urge to hear some free live music at my favorite hole-in-the-wall bar. Passing through the station’s ground-level exit, I feel the warm, stale subway air give way to the cool, dry breeze of the outdoors, and I light up a cigarette.
I look through the windows as I cross the street to the joint. The bar is crowded; the tables are all taken; the standing room area, as usual, is packed. There is a line of would-be patrons formed to the right of the door, waiting to get in.
As I finish my cigarette, I chat with the doorman, Matt, asking him for his thoughts on the evening’s band: a bluegrass and folk trio from Austin, Texas.
Matt says they’re good, an impressive review given Matt’s near-pathological aversion to all things fiddle. When I put out my cigarette he opens the door and waves me through, to the chagrin of a few constituents of the queue. I nod and thank him.
I stand next to the bar, facing the long-haired, folk crooners. The lead singer sounds like the progeny of Bruce Springsteen and that guy from The Gaslight Anthem. The drummer’s rhythm and driving beat belie his folksy looks. And the girl on the fiddle—she’s easily the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen in a flannel shirt and overalls, and her backup vocals and harmonies are stunning. As I gawk at her rustic chic charm, her eyes flit towards my end of the bar and I get butterflies.
I catch the eye of one of the bartenders, Jeremy, who nods at me and silently mouths:
I nod and hand over my card to start up a tab.
After finishing my PBR, I have another, followed by Bailey’s on the rocks, two more PBR’s, two long island iced teas, a White Russian, a screwdriver, and two more PBRs. The band croons a cover of Dylan’s Tangled up in Blue before setting their instruments aside and going on break to a standing ovation.
I go out for a cigarette, and the band is fast on my heels. I congratulate and chat with all three of them, but make sure to address the girl last.
I ask her about her musical roots and growing up in the Austin music scene. Soon I have her engaged in a one-on-one conversation, leaving her bandmates to chat with each other off to the side.
She asks me what I do for work, and I tell her that I’m technically a video game tester. She asks me what types of video games we make. I tell her that we make music video games.
I tell her that I also help in selecting the songs to be authored for the video games. In fact, I make sure to note, the batch of DLC to be released on Friday features songs I’ve chauffeured through the bottlenecked selection process and on to production.
I light up a second cigarette, offering her one as well. She—Diana, her name is—says something coy and evasive about not being a smoker, about only smoking when she’s drinking. Having excused herself for the forthcoming transgression, she accepts the cigarette, and I light it for her.
Her bandmates go inside to set up for their second set, but she pretends not to notice. I read that as a good sign, and ask her about her band’s near-term plans. This is their last show in Boston, she says, and they are touring upstate New York, Michigan, Oregon, and northern California over the next few weeks before heading to a week-long music festival in southern California.
I mention that there may be some weed circulating at the festival and she says that, if it’s anything like last year, there will be. I ask whether she smokes weed, and she looks at me like I’ve just asked whether she has any x chromosomes, laughing. Of course she smokes. I tell her I’ll be smoking after the show, and that she’s welcome to join me at my apartment.
She finishes her cigarette and asks if I am sticking around for the end of the show. I am.
–Well I guess I’ll see you then.
She shoots me a knee-buckling smile and disappears into the dark bar.
I finish my cigarette and go back inside, taking a seat at the bar as the band members re-tune their instruments. They start up, beginning with a few covers of Dylan, Hendrix, and Springsteen, then venture on with their own songs: songs about love, and rent, and hating your boss. They’re crowd-pleasers, to be sure.
I clap along with everyone else, watching Diana, noticing that after each song, and sometimes in the middle of a song, she looks in my direction. Sometimes our eyes meet.
The bar stays crowded right up until last call at 12:45. The band plays one last song, and the lights go up as the crowd trickles out through the front door. I sit at the bar as the band packs up.
As Diana steps off the stage with her case in one hand, I stand up and open the front door. The players load their instruments into a friend’s old rusty sedan. I want to say something to her, want someone to talk to, but she says she has to get up early tomorrow, and they drive off together, leaving me cold and alone.
I start walking back to my house (public transportation’s already stopped for the night) and light up a cigarette.
After walking by a few buildings, I turn and look at the old brick building on the left. It’s big and made of stone, and above the front door, right between two pillars, a square and compass are chiseled into the stone. So, I think, there’s a Freemason lodge in Cambridge.
When I get home, stumbling through the front door of my apartment, I put on some Wu Tang and pack a bowl, collapsing into the couch. I turn on the TV and slowly sink. I take a rip and surf the channels, settling on a highly edited-for-TV rendition of Pulp Fiction.
I finish a second bowl and, minutes later, I’m asleep.
Peter Lynch hails from Vermont and lists The Catcher in the Rye as his favorite book. Besides being a writer, he works as a data forecasting consultant; therefore he is able to describe his job as “predicting the future”! He can be reached at email@example.com.