Erika Staiti : an excerpt from The Planned Experiment

This past spring season, I missed Erika Staiti's Small Press Traffic reading, so I thought I'd ask her to share some of what she's currently working on.  I enjoy the coolness of this prose. You know the subjects, you too have been surveilled; we've also gotten something wrong.

from The Planned Experiment
by Erika Staiti

The tall glassy building towers over the city of margins. A group of representatives from the conglomerate arrive just on time. They enter through large revolving doors. They arrive individually or in couples or small groups. They wear expensive well-pressed business suits and move in confident strides. It appears as though the representatives glide along the surface of the floor while the rest of the visitors bound clumsily. We observe one subject peeling the sunglasses off her face in an overly aware motion. Another gives a slight shake of the wrist before lifting the edge of his shirtsleeve to glance at his shimmering watch. Watchers know that it is almost time. The doors are about to close on them. They can’t see it, but they feel hints of impending paranoia.

When the subjects enter the building, they slide across the long atrium, stopping to check their phones, contemplating whether their bladders need releasing, making a trip to the metallic restrooms on the right, then moving further through the atrium to the other end, where formal theater doors are propped open for their arrival. This is not a private screening but it feels as though it is. Their tentacles are ready to receive anything.

When the subjects enter the theater, they disperse. Some sit alone and others arrange in advance to sit together. Some choose the edge of an aisle while others climb over legs to get in the center. Some prefer the front rows and others stay in the back. After everyone appears to be ready, the room collectively waits for time to catch up. Time lapses in conversations and clearing of throats, readjusting crossed legs, turning off of cell phones.

Slowly, the overhead lights begin to dim.

Note: This is an ideal control group for the purposes of our experiment.

Every face faces a camera. Expressions are slight but traceable. Each camera affixed to each face traces the facial distortions presented in reaction to the material viewed on screen. The screen rewires the faces back to the faces at delayed intervals. The faces exhibit a series of twitches based on the twitches perceived. Slight movements for some, others wincing in expressions of ecstasy and revulsion. It goes on like this for hours.

It will be a late night, a long night. It will be memorable when they leave the theater. They will make sure of it.

The subjects will re-congregate outside, perhaps after visiting the restroom. Some will smoke cigarettes eight feet from the revolving glass doors. They’ll move around coolly. It will seem as though they are sliding on ice. Is it a frigid night? Someone will light a second cigarette after flicking away the first, just because. They’ll shift around for a few minutes, chit chatting while a touch of awkwardness looms in the background. Someone will suggest that they walk to a nearby establishment to continue a conversation over drinks.

A stout man locks the doors of the tall glassy building from the inside. The members of the conglomerate, the representatives, our subjects, will begin walking to a nearby establishment for a drink. They will have to merge with the rest of society now.

I walk to the bar, thinking more about the theater than about the images I saw on the screen or the hidden camera that I knew was watching me there, and elsewhere, perhaps everywhere. As I turn the corner a blast of cold air hits me on the side of my neck and I button up my coat. I pull my collar closer. One half of a block left until I reach the bar. There is enough time to decide not to enter. My left tentacle holds the door for me as I enter.

The bar is crowded. The members of the conglomerate are already gathered at a table in the corner, drinking from their drinks and fingering food. I walk over to the long table and sit at the end of it, facing the brownish yellow wall. I was late because I had to make an extra stop. The subjects have been reviewing what took place in the theater to make sure everyone is on the same page. Key members make their theories known so that marginal members can re-adjust their impressions in order to preserve a cohesive account. Members reconfirm the solidity of the group by repeating to other members, those who weren’t there, what had been said. I sit at the edge of the table playing the role of a marginal, as I joined the gathering too late to catch up on what has been discussed, and so am unable to contribute my own key thoughts toward the record.

My attention wanders. At the other end of the bar I notice a woman sitting on a stool staring disinterestedly at the far wall. The thrumming begins in my head. I feel myself floating toward her. The bartender calls out my name but I ignore the plea to sit down. When I get to the woman she looks right through me as though I am not there. I gesture wildly in her face, refusing to believe what is happening. Is she an apparition from my memory? Am I? Did she not sit in the theater where I sat a short while ago, her face projecting its twitches into my own face’s twitches? Did she not place her hands on both sides of my head and kiss me softly on the lips before vanishing from my mind, the bar, the theater, the icy street corner, a photograph on the edge of which my thumb holds the photograph?

I want to touch her to see if she is real but I can’t move my body. She will absolve me of the pain of my wanting but only if she reaches out to me first. A broken piece of film is slapping the projector. I got something wrong.

Erika Staiti  lives in Oakland. Her chapbook In the Stitches was published by Trafficker Press.

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