Short Story Theory of Knowledge
An example of the just-world phenomenon: If anyone found out, they would think I deserved it. When it’s the girl who gets hurt, they always do.
This final exam will count for 40 percent of your course grade.
In the space below, please provide an example of each listed cognitive bias.
When I thought you didn’t want me, I would have done anything.
Everyone on the department website has an official headshot, except you. (I looked. Of course I looked.) Instead you have a snapshot taken near dusk, near winter, your jacket zipped to your jaw. The buttery light from a streetlamp pours molten down your face; you are lifting your chin against a sudden wind that blows your hair back. Who took this picture? You aren’t looking at her. You’re looking off to the left, with an expression so buoyant and hungry that when I first peeked at the website in the library, I snapped my laptop shut in embarrassment, as if I’d been caught looking at porn.
The other day, I felt okay. I was sitting in a café, doing my reading—for someone else’s class, not yours, not thinking about you. Not thinking about you so hard that my hands were clenched into claws from the effort of it. When I pried my fingers open, they ached like arthritis, crescent nail marks scrimshawed on my palm.
But my mind, at least, was clear. Until I looked out the window and there was a dog tied up outside the café, a big mahogany vizsla, with exactly that expression of ravenous joy. Are you going to ruin dogs for me now too?
By the time my friends told me I shouldn’t, it was too late for me to listen.
You never told me I shouldn’t. You’re the only one who never did.
Illusion of control
The whole thing was my fault, all of it. I stayed late. I struck up conversation. I was charming, bold. I made myself available. I offered friendship. I was offering anything.
The first time was in your office, an incalculable risk: There was no window in the door, but also no lock. The other times were in a hotel, a room of calculated blankness in a part of town where no one really lives. When I stumbled to the subway, even the drugstores would be locked tight as fists, even if there was still a blush of light in the sky; everyone who mattered had gone home. That included you. I was supposed to wait half an hour after you left before I showed myself, just in case. You did not ask me to help pay for the room, a small grace; it was worth it to you to make sure I was not allowed in your home and that you were not forced to see mine. It would have embarrassed us both: your elegant hand, with its conspicuous ring, folding down the zoo-animal quilt I’d kept from childhood. Besides, I had roommates. Potential witnesses.
(What happens to these exam books after you grade them, I wonder?)
I started to believe that my life, the whole last twenty years, had been a process of preparing myself: reading books only so that five years later, I could impress you with my erudition, listening to music only so that two years later, I could surprise you with our affinities. Going through puberty, for the obvious reasons. Dating older men who hated me, for practice. If I was smart, audacious, analytical, underdressed, studious, deviant, biddable, hadn’t it been for your benefit all along? Of course I was there to be chewed up and spat out. Of course I climbed onto the plate.
What was worse: the things you did to me, or the things you wouldn’t do?
I told you we had to stop. We didn’t stop.
I did say we had to stop, didn’t I? I remember, or else I imagined, standing outside your office rehearsing the reasons: what I’d say, what I thought you might say in return. I didn’t expect you to fight for me; you’d been very clear that you didn’t love me and never would. I expected you to be chilly, to tell me this wasn’t the place, that someone could be listening. I can picture, or else I imagined, putting off going in, examining the wood-veneer door, your name hung up on a slip of card—nothing permanent, that’s how new you still were. My bitten fingers hovering over the knob. On the other side of the door: a void. What did I say? And what did you do when I said it? I know I wound up crying. I know we didn’t stop, not then.
I don’t see why you get to be the one who says when it’s over. I don’t see why you’re allowed to turn all the ways I twisted myself up for you into a pathetic waste. I have done so much and I have studied so hard for what you wanted me to be, and maybe I should have dropped this class and maybe I should have walked away, but I couldn’t and I didn’t and now I’m here and I am going to ace this exam and then we’re going to see.
I was miserable almost every moment we were together and I have been miserable almost every moment that we haven’t been together, but if you think I’m going to forget you, think again. I could and I should, but I won’t. You’ve already decided it never happened, you’ve made that perfectly clear, so if I let it go too, it will be well and truly gone: alive in nobody’s mind, stored in nobody’s memory, wiped from the earth. I couldn’t bear that. I wish it never happened and I wish you were dead and I wish you loved me and I wish I’d never met you, but I won’t pretend I didn’t. I did.
If anyone found out, they would think I deserved it. When it’s the girl who gets hurt, they always do.
You counted on that, didn’t you? That I wouldn’t tell anyone, because I knew what they would say. I almost didn’t, either. But after you cut me off, I guess I was a drama queen for a while, just like you always said. I must have been trying to bait my roommate into asking what was wrong. Anyway, she did ask, and I told her. And she told me she knew somebody who could help.
I’m not going to tell you who it was, or where they were, or who else was there. People like you are not allowed to know. Let’s imagine it was at the back of an antique store, a huge mirror flanked with taxidermy that swung open to reveal shelves of herbs and concoctions, the genderless proprietor swathed in so many scarves I couldn’t even tell you the color of their skin or hair. Let’s imagine it was a booth at a dive bar, an exchange made under the table with a woman who looked like a tired nurse, neither of us meeting the other’s eyes. Let’s imagine I sent a letter in the mail and then someone called my phone with coordinates, or that I drove up the coast at night and found what I’d asked for buried under a rock. Let’s imagine I talked to a fairy inside a tree.
Once you know this kind of help is out there, you realize how many people have used it. We’re all over campus, a silent sorority: girls who were desperate, girls who were saved. My roommate went when she was pregnant, a classic, but it’s bigger than that. Laci needed help getting hormones. Sasha had to start eating again. Kendra’s family was in trouble. Eunice was frightened. Cat wanted revenge. Alexis wanted revenge. Meredith wanted revenge.
Anyway, I swung open the mirror, or I slid into the booth, or I sent the letter. And I told them what you’d done, and what you hadn’t, and how it felt like your voice had burrowed into me like a botfly, carved out a nest in my brain where it could curl up and leach poison, where it could whisper all the ways I’d never be good. They asked me what I thought justice would look like. I said a little thing with teeth, living in the hollow where your heart should be.
The object they gave me is palm-sized and metal, or something like metal, and it’s warm all the time like it’s been lying in the sun. There’s a hair-thin seam around it, but I didn’t open it up to look. I thought it might be better not to know.
Is your house very beautiful, or do I just think so because it’s your house? It was a gibbous moon last night, the air so cold it felt about to crack. I learned your address by looking at a piece of mail on your desk—you never would have allowed me there, of course. (If you never find out, you can’t be mad. But I guess you know now, don’t you?) I have no idea what color the house is in daylight, but in the dark it looked blue-violet, the frosty lawn washed with streetlight peach. A magic place, or anyway, the place where you live.
I didn’t come any closer than the boxwoods. I was there to do what I needed and get out—although I think part of me never intended to leave, a feral thread in my brain saying, Strip off and freeze to death in the hedge . What would you have done if you’d found me there in the morning, my bare breasts blanched with cold? Anyway, I was there for a reason, but there were many things I maybe wasn’t ready to see. Among them: a face smoothed out like an ironed handkerchief, not your impassioned lecture facade or the private self glinting with intimate cruelty, but something new and uncannily gentle, your leonine head gone kittenish with domesticity. Among them: a woman who couldn’t look less like me, rising on tiptoes to kiss you.
I must have known she’d be there. I think I must have meant to see her, to judge you together, before I did what I came to do. I didn’t have to look in the window, after all. The idea of you married seemed impossible, even though I knew; the things I remembered you saying about love, about sex, about me, must be hostile soil. I wanted to see how you looked when her face was toward you, and when her back was turned.
I was right: You looked like nothing. A blankness. A smudge. I thought I’d be sorry to learn you don’t disdain her, but what are you without disdain? I have your contempt, which means she has no meaningful part of you. I have your marks on me, even if you never touch me again. I would let you break me open. I already have. She’ll stay whole, and then who will you crawl to when you need something to nest inside?
I buried the object where they told me to. As I tamped back the earth, a veil of cloud unfurled from around the moon. It was so bright. You might have seen my shadow out here, if you’d been looking. You might have heard my phone buzz a moment later, when you texted me.
Here’s what will happen, or what they tell me will happen: Over the next few weeks—or months, it could take longer, even years—you will start to feel a gnawing. It will be like a small creature, sometimes in your chest and sometimes in your guts; you will imagine it like a naked mole rat, scrabbling through your torso with its overgrown teeth. It will hurt a little, sometimes, but mostly it will be inescapable: turning your stomach, wrenching you from work or pleasure, keeping you up at night, deforming your dreams. And it might have something to do with me, with whatever I’ve unleashed on you. Or it might be the thing other people would call a conscience, slithering past all the barriers you’ve put up for it: the self-justifications, the lines you moved so you could tell yourself you didn’t cross a line. Or then again, it might just be your worry, an anxious acid feeling that no amount of cold rationality can quench—now that you know we are not helpless, now that you know we have weapons you don’t understand. (You don’t believe in them either. Will that save you? Let’s see.)
You won’t know which one it is—fear, guilt, revenge—and so they will feed on each other. When you remind yourself that rationally there is nothing I could do to hurt you, you will feel the gnawing and think: I am afraid. When you try to calm your mind, you will feel the gnawing and think: This is what I deserve. When you tell yourself you did nothing wrong, you will feel the gnawing and hate me for what I’ve done—but you’ll never know whether I did it, or whether you did it to yourself. And so it will get harsher, and harder, and worse, and you will curse my name every day, and I will think about it and laugh.
I will never be rid of you.
You will never be rid of me.