“Grab him under the arms!”
Adam made a gurgling noise and fell against Tom who, fortunately for him, was the strongest among us. Not that it mattered. Tom caught him with one arm and ordered us to help lower him to the ground.
Donna ran to Adam’s side; she knelt and put her head on his chest.
“I don’t think he’s breathing,” she said. “I don’t hear a heartbeat either.”
That’s when I knelt and tried to find a pulse in his neck.
“Well?” asked Tom. I could see his hands tremble.
I put my fingers on different spots of Adam’s neck, but I couldn’t feel anything. I also found myself thinking about how I had only ever tried to check the pulse of someone I knew was alive. Knowing there is a pulse somewhere, I’d search for it with the confidence I’d find it; it’s vibrations guided me. But with the chance there was no pulse, I felt lost. Even though I couldn’t feel one, I wondered if it was still there and I missed it. Declaring someone dead is a major thing, one that requires a lot of confidence I didn’t have; and yet, I looked up at Tom and said, somewhat mechanically, “He’s dead.”
As you know, each of us volunteered to help you explore the effects of hydration and calorie intake on memory. That’s what you told us we were doing here, but I had my doubts from the beginning. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I’m usually right about things that require rational thought.
When I arrived here two hours ago (that now feels like two days ago), I expected a stark laboratory as I’d seen in the Yale documentary about the Milgram Experiment. Yes, I did my homework. I always do. Instead, this room you prepared looks like the lobby of the Ritz Carlton. You decorated it so lavishly. And the food? None of us had ever seen such opulence. I tried to estimate how much it cost to stage this experiment, and I came up with ten thousand dollars. Am I close?
You told us the experiment had something to do with food, and I’ll concede that, but I bet my life it has nothing to do with memory.
Adam started eating before the scientist (the one he nicknamed Dr. X) spoke to us.
“There are a few rules I have to mention,” Dr. X said. I found him to be a young and good-looking man with a complexion designed for many months without sunlight. “First, I must confiscate all your communication and time-telling devices,” he said. “They will be returned to you before you leave. Second, it is imperative that none of you share your names or any other personal information.”
I barely paid attention to what Dr. X had to say until I heard, “While you wait for the experiment to begin, eat as much as you want.” That sounded suspicious.
When it came to making a pig of himself, Adam was second to Aqualung, the elderly black man who looks homeless. Adam named Aqualung after an album some band wrote about a homeless man who leers at young girls and eventually freezes to death. Charming. He named the middle-aged woman Donna Reed because he thought she looked motherly. Tom — a man who’d look at home shoveling asphalt behind a paver — told us his real name, so there was no need for a pseudonym. Adam even called himself Adam because he was the first man to arrive. He named me Hunger Strike because I wasn’t eating, and I hated the name and him for inventing it. He annoyed me from the start, which was a shame since he and I were the only educated ones in the group. He was ostentatiously learned and liked to use big words. I can’t stand that because it reminds me of my father. Adam did everything humanly possible to annoy me. I can still hear his lips smacking and the moans he released every time he took a bite of food.
“Mmmmm. Oh, wow. I mean, wow!”
“You can say that again,” said Tom.
Adam paused and looked furtively from side to side and said, “Wow” again with an exaggerated smile.
Tom and he shared a chuckle, but I didn’t laugh. Adam was just the kind of person who would pause for dramatic effect before saying “Wow” after raving about the food. Tom and Adam must have set the Guinness Book record for shortest friendship because it did not take Adam long to get under Tom’s skin.
“This food is great,” Tom said. He looked at Donna. “How ‘bout it?”
Donna smiled, half-heartedly at him and nodded. Tom liked Donna.
“It’s not just good,” Adam added with his unwelcome interjection. “It’s exquisite. I can’t say I understand, but ours is not to wonder why. Actually, I do wonder why, but I’m not gonna argue with this spread.”
“Signing up for this is one of the smartest things I’ve ever done,” said Tom.
“I believe that,” said Adam.
Adam, in his best impression of an obtuse angle, looked puzzled. “What?”
“You believe what?” asked Tom.
Adam stopped chewing and stared at him. “Nothing. It was a joke. I’m kidding around.”
“I didn’t know we knew each other that well,” Tom said sardonically. News flash, Adam: you didn’t know him at all.
During this exchange, Aqualung sat in a corner eating ravenously and stuffing bread rolls into his pockets. Adam continued to gorge himself while Tom walked over to Donna, busily clearing his plate of food.
“You’re eating like you’re afraid someone’s going to take it from you,” she said to Tom, completely ignoring the old man. Donna had a genuine smile and squinted like she was always looking directly into the sun.
He smiled with her. “Who knows when they will?”
“Oh, she’s allowed to joke?” said Adam. Neither acknowledged him.
“Who says they will?” said Donna. “The psychologist said we could eat as much as we want.”
“That’s what they all say until you read the fine print.”
“Maybe they’ll let you take some home,” she said.
“That’s not a bad idea,” Tom replied. “I wouldn’t mind eating like this for a couple more days.”
“Don’t eat out much?”
“I eat out all the time. That’s the problem. My wife stopped cooking years ago.”
“You could learn to cook yourself.”
“Wanna give me lessons?”
“Why don’t you ask your wife to give you lessons?”
“She’s not my wife anymore. She was a lousy cook anyway.”
“Foie gras! They have foie gras!” Adam shouted. He spread it sloppily on a cracker and took an even sloppier bite. “Mmmmm! And it’s delicious,” he said with emphasis. (Mmmmm! Mmmmm!) “I mean, come on, who puts out complimentary pâté?” He strutted around the table — Queen Anne, if I had to guess — pointing at every piece of pabulum, savory or sweet, and trumpeting its name. “And has anyone tasted the dumplings? Wasabi dumplings? Unbelievable. If I weren’t so bowled over by the food, I’d start to wonder what we’re doing here.” That was the first intelligent thing he said, and it was then I drew his attention. He approached me, still stuffing his face and chewing and talking with his mouth full. It was tragic to see such a proud foodie who no doubt usually ate at McDonald’s.
“Not hungry?” he said.
“No,” I replied.
“Me neither. Fortunately, that has nothing to do with my eating habits, not when the food’s free. I would’ve figured we were in the same boat.”
“What boat?” I asked, knowing full well what he meant.
“The poor-student-boat. It’s more of a dingy, really.” I smiled despite myself. “You strike me as someone who is in grad school,” he said. “Am I, right?” He barely took a breath before shoveling more food into his face.”
“We’re not supposed to give out personal information.”
“We’re also supposed to eat, right? I would’ve thought a girl like you would know the value of a free meal.”
“I do when I’m hungry.”
“Oh, well if you’re not hungry,” he said coyly — more oily than coyly. “Unless you know something we don’t. You know, about the whole…”
“Oh, no,” I said. “No. I don’t know anything, nothing about this, I mean.”
“Other than not being hungry.”
“Right. Other than that.” He raised his right eyebrow into a perfect arrow that pointed up.
“What?” I asked.
“You’re the only one not eating. The food’s really good. You can trust me on that.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll eat when I’m ready.”
“Right, right,” Adam said. “That’s cool.” He paused and moved in closer. “So what do you think is going on here?” He asked like we were the sole members of a cabal.
“I have no idea,” I lied.
“Not even a theory?”
“Not even a hypothesis.”
“Well, all right,” he said, impressed.
I should’ve let it go, but he had piqued my interest. I added, “You seem to have one.”
“Hardly,” he said, inhaling another dumpling. “I’ve been too busy eating.”
“Can’t eat and think at the same time?” I said.
“I can’t do much of anything when I eat.”
“Can’t multi-task?” Donna chimed in. I looked at her, and she squinted back at us, smiling. I’d never seen a woman whose crow’s feet enhanced her beauty.
Adam chuckled. “No. That’s a myth, by the way.”
“What is?” she asked.
“Human multitasking,” he said. “Some people can switch focus from one thing to another quickly, but it’s not the same thing computers can do.”
“My son could multi-task,” she said. “He could have an entire conversation with me while watching a football game.”
Adam laughed, more like a “Ha!” than a sustained laugh, followed by bits of food. “Uh,” he said. “I hate to break it to you, but he probably wasn’t paying attention to your conversation.”
“I know,” Donna said. “I was making a joke.”
“It was drier than this chardonnay,” he said, taking a sip from a wine glass. “Which is saying something.” Pause. “And who serves wine at one of these things?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never been to one of these before.” Pause. “Have you?”
He seemed to hesitate as if caught off guard.
“No,” he said.
“I can pray while doing just about anything,” Donna confided. “Does that count?”
“I was thinking of only productive uses of time,” Adam replied.
It seemed that Adam might be an atheist like me. If that were the case, he couldn’t be all bad.
Tom turned from the table and his task of dishing even more food onto his plate. “What are you going on about?” He directed it at Adam.
“Multi-tasking and the myths thereof,” he said. “And that led to the conversational skills of Donna Reed’s son.”
Donna laughed in her melodic, delightful way. “Donna Reed? Who’s that? Me?”
“Tell me it’s not,” Adam said.
“Thanks, I’ll take it.”
“Before that, I asked Hunger Strike,” gesturing toward me, “why she thinks we’re here.”
“Hunger Strike?” I asked, annoyed.
“Why she thinks we’re here?” Tom asked.
“Because I’m not eating?” I said.
Tom was slow to catch on. “What do you mean, “Why she thinks we’re here?” he asked Adam.
Adam held his index finger up to Tom and said, “Just a sec,” before returning to me. “Don’t you like it?”
“Hey,” Tom objected.
“No, I don’t like it,” I said.
“Why not? It has intensity.”
“It makes her sound like a political prisoner,” Donna said.
Adam tried to nickname Tom, but he wasn’t having any of it. Adam then busied himself by eating and eating and eating.
“How did I not see this?” he said. He dished himself out a large piece of thinly cut, blood-red filet. He bit into it, and his eyes rolled back orgasmically.
“Oh, you gotta try this,” he said to Tom.
“It’s that good?”
“It’s perfect. If I were a t-bone steak, I’d marry it.”
He was comical, and both Donna and I laughed.
Tom followed Adam’s lead and ate a piece of the meat.
“Now that is some good steak,” Tom said. “Is there any steak sauce over there?”
“I’m sure they know better,” said Adam.
“Then pass me the ketchup.”
“You are not putting ketchup anywhere near that magnificent cut of meat.”
“Give me the ketchup.”
“What do you mean, No?”
“I can’t watch you murder that animal twice.”
I laughed, but have you ever laughed at someone telling jokes and then realized he’s making fun of you? It was then I figured out what he was. Adam was a cheerleader. He was actively trying to get the rest of us to eat. But why?
“So did you have a big breakfast or something?” he asked me.
“What?” I said.
“Is that why you’re not eating?” Tom chimed in.
I shook my head, exasperated. “I’m not eating because I’m not hungry. Is that such a foreign concept?”
“But you are hungry. I heard your stomach growl,” said Adam. “Why won’t you eat? Especially with food like this. It’s criminal.”
“Why do you care if I eat or not?”
“I don’t. I’m just curious.”
“No, it bothers you that I’m not eating.
“No, it doesn’t.
“Why does it bother you?
“It so does.
“Does it bother you?” Donna asked Adam.
“Of course it does,” he said bluntly.
“Why?” I asked.
He laughed. “I don’t know. Gorging myself in front of someone who’s not eating makes me feel a little…”
“Guilty?” Donna asked.
“Yeah, it makes me feel a little guilty. What can I say? I’m a nice person. But it’s not that I care if you eat or not: I want to know your reason.”
“And she said it’s because she’s not hungry. What’s so hard to understand?” Tom said.
“I just think it’s odd,” said Adam, “and I think it has something to do with what’s going on here.”
“Well maybe this is what’s going on here,” I said.
At this point, I had made an educated guess that we were all in a blind study and that the real purpose of the study was not about memory, but to observe how you could coerce people into eating either by peer pressure, or societal pressure. The clock on the wall says it’s time to eat, so most people eat. I read about a study like that: while the subjects were not paying attention, the scientists moved the clocks ahead two hours. Most of the people felt hungry when they thought it was lunchtime even though it wasn’t. But there are no clocks in this room, and you didn’t want us to know the time. You were up to something else.