So Here You Are, Spying

Manda Frederick

To be a spy, you remind yourself, you don’t have to be very good—any good, actually. You only have to be aware that you are looking. I mean really looking.

And not looking out of simple instinct like, say, a fish—that silhouetted, blue-green sheen sliding over creek bottoms, waiting dumbly until a moment arises to reach out like a truncated arm for an insect thrumming at the water’s surface. And you don’t want to be looking while you simply wait, like, say, a poet—waiting, like Dillard, for a weasel to show itself; or biding time like Hikmet, a POW behind those imprisoning cylinders; or reading, like Dickinson, poem after poem until she came upon one so arresting that she felt the top of her head coming off. You especially don’t want to look at the world as Plato thought a poet might, making images from false replications of forms; no—you’ve got to see the real thing. Because these instances—the fish, the poets—these instances of looking are serendipitous. They are good-faith agreements with the universe that if you look often and with your whole heart, you may just see something.

Simply looking, waiting for something to appear is not what you need to do. No, what you need to do is actively look in order to see. Because what you are after is so much greater than just looking, because of one simple difference; you are after something specific: Information. Information is your water bug, your weasel, the unhinging of the top of your head.

Yes, you confirm with yourself, what you need is information.

What you have is hard evidence: self-rendered scars across your arms and thighs like red marker on a confidential file. Collection notices from the Marquette General psychiatric office for bills past due. A stack of failed poems and essays on your subject. Though tangible, this is too subjective—you created this evidence yourself. This is not good enough. You need outside material. The information you need must be proof. Undeniable proof that you were not, in fact, a stupid Midwestern girl who drank herself into a cliché by passing out on a bathroom floor, waiting to be raped. You need proof that it might have happened anyway, no matter what you’d done. You need proof that you were not operative in your own assault. You need information that he was capable. Responsible. That you were not—are not—culpable.

***

So it starts, one day, like this: The need to know weighs heavy—knowing, as Shakespeare said of the play, is the thing.

So you do an Internet search of your subject, B. You find B. is a generic name. Many men have this name. You do not find him. You find other B.s: an aviator; a math professor; a representative from Kentucky. You do not find the B. that followed you into that bathroom.

You consider asking once-mutual friends—of which there are many—about B. But what would you ask them, exactly? You can’t simply phone or write out of nowhere with questions about his character—even though you know a few of them owe you. They owe you big for being there that night. For not looking, not really. But, even so, what would they do for you? Slink about in trench coats, snapping black and white photos of him doing incriminating things? No. You need to look yourself. But you need an expanded distance of observation; this will make things easier.

But how?

You need a way in.

After a great deal of thought, you decide to create a social-networking page on myspace. You know he has a profile there. You’ve seen his face on acquaintances’ pages. You’ve looked away and clicked on his picture a score of times, each time finding that his profile has private settings—these settings are almost funny to you; you’d never think of him as someone to value privacy. At any rate, your access is too limited. You need more.

So you pirate a photo of a girl who looks like someone he would want to be close to, a girl who seems a lot like the girl you were then—a real boho-chic, pseudo-Marxist, fair-trade-coffee-drinking kind of girl. You add a bunch of underground bands as friends. You add quotes from Nietzsche. You post local art. You call yourself K. You don’t know if the myspace page you’ve built looks convincing. But you send a friend-request to him anyway.

***

Two days later, you reconsider your actions. A good spy would never reconsider her actions. But you consider that the distance between you, the safe observable distance, may be better left unfilled—empty of any connection to him, even if it is only a connection of underground wires and the knowledge that you could look if you wanted to. Because maybe a good spy knows when not to look. When to embrace ignorance. When to avoid, by possessing knowledge, being an agent of her own demise.

And you reconsider because this is not a game you see yourself playing: you are stalking B., trying to befriend him under the guise of a lie—you are using his own tactics against him. To what end? In truth, you find spying to be a hateful and ugly thing to do. And you hate the idea of yourself undercover.

But remember: you were not under the covers then—you were belly up on a bathroom floor. Quell your guilt—there can be no emotional involvement in this mission. Remember: you did not ask for this—you were an ordinary girl who accidentally became involved. Or at least, that’s what you need to prove: your involvement that night was accidental. Remember: You need proof that you were not operative in your own assault. Remember: a spy is a thing of necessity, justified by the agency of your own self-doubt—you lack power and insight. This is why you must spy.

No one else will help you do this. You are, by most accounts, alone. You fear returning to your impossibly small hometown, where he is also from, because you may see him. And because when you see him you shut down like a self-destructing letter upon opening, you might reveal your vulnerability. You fear returning to your college town because he was enrolled there too, despite its four-hundred-mile distance from your hometown: you’d find him behind you in line at Starbucks, in the stacks of the library. Once, you found yourself facing him in a parking lot. You neither fled nor fought, but made light conversation with the little air squeezing itself out of your tight, tight chest. And he told you his only regret from high school was not dating you. (If you were a character in a play, you’d be a model for dramatic irony.)

After that encounter, you became quite skilled, didn’t you? You were coy. Elusive. Crossing to the opposite side of the street when any man approached you. Wearing sweats and sneakers to the bar with friends as to become inconspicuous to the untrained male eye. Convincing male professors that you’d “think better” at the on-campus (very public) Starbucks instead of in their offices. Messaging a cab’s license plate to a friend before stepping into the backseat of his yellow vehicle. Spreading your keys in a fist, your elbow loose like a hinge, your whole arm a makeshift mace.

Still. No matter your efforts, your undergraduate days were marked with other incidences: You can calculate to an exact degree the trigonometry of sexual assault: Alcohol. Sleep. Male friend.

But your calculations are clearly not enough. So here you are, spying.

***

A week after your friend request, you check K.’s message in-box and discover a note from B. He thanks you for the friend request. He says you look cool. He accepts.

He accepts. You are in. Go to his page.

For a second time, you are his friend.

Look! Right there—there is your photo—well, K.’s photo—right there with his other friends, half of which you know. They would never recognize you—not here. His profile is no longer private—not to you. You need to look. Your intelligence on this issue is central, vital. There must be something. There must be something.

You consider having K. send him a message.

But what would you say?

You realize that after all these years, you don’t have a single thing to say to him.

Examine his profile. Consider the validity of his presentation. After all, were you not friends for several years before the weight of Schnapps was thrust into your sleeping frame? You’d never suspected he was capable.

Look at his profile photo: B. tilts a bottle of bottom-shelf vodka toward his jaw and presses his face close to a woman’s ear. You recognize her from a writing seminar. You wonder if his mouth stinks like peppermint, vomit, saltine crackers. You consider sending her some sort of warning. But you can’t draw attention to K., to you. You feel terrible that she may be a casualty. But, somehow, your secrecy weighs heavier.

You think you could post “rapist” on his message board. You want to sabotage him. You want him to feel like he drank too much, fell asleep in a minefield, and woke up to utter detonation. And though the hurt you feel is as unique and residual as a fingerprint pressed deep into your chest, you don’t do any of those things. You only look.

***

Weeks pass. You find nothing. Your guilt, once more, surfaces—you are malicious and misleading. You don’t want to be like him, do what he did. But, you think, what he did was not spying. No, he was more like the fish: noticing that a girl had closed a bathroom door behind her and maybe, after a long while of not emerging, she’d fallen asleep. Maybe she had fallen asleep on the floor as clumsily as a mayfly sunning herself on the surface tension of the water. No. You are not like him. You cannot fathom executing such a heinous mission as his. And so you keep looking, though it seems the edges of your inquiry only expand, the borders become impossibly foreign. Yes, you have successfully planted yourself as a mole in his profile, but you are, in the darkness of it all, blindly digging deeper.

You fear you may never understand him.

If you can’t spot in him what you know him to be, is there any chance at all you could ever spot another?

You are exactly in the same place that you started—except you feel foolish and embarrassed. You have exposed only your own ignorance. There are not logical answers for the questions you ask.

You are not cut out for this. Spying is a dangerous game—everybody knows this and most people know why. But what no one tells you is this: when you are looking, really looking, you might not see anything at all. Even if seeing is what you are after. You might come up empty-handed, except, of course, for your own flushed face squeezed between your fingers, the reflection of your own profile boxed in with his on a computer screen. And though you know spying is a natural human faculty—as old as the divisions of the first tribes—this doesn’t feel natural to you. Because even if you’d found what you were looking for, no amount of information could ever supersede your wish that you’d never had a reason to look in the first place.

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Manda Frederick holds an MFA in creative nonfiction. She has published essays, poetry, book reviews, interviews, and fiction in a number of journals and anthologies. She is currently an Asst. Professor of writing arts at Rowan University and serves as the editor in chief for Glassworks Magazine.