It could have been ketchup. Or sriracha sauce. V8 or cranberry juice or pinot noir. It could have been Karo syrup with food coloring as it had been in Carrie or Bosco Chocolate Syrup as in Psycho. It didn’t matter. My dissertation had been on suspension of disbelief in scripted violence, and I knew that as long as the audience agreed that the red scarf pulled from Juliet’s breast was her blood dripping from Romeo’s dagger, it didn’t matter that it was a scarf. The scarf becomes what we expect it to be. Want it to be. What matters is Juliet’s despair, the culmination of dramatic irony that has built to this moment of violence, of catharsis. Not the violence itself. Not the Karo syrup.
When the student pointed the switchblade at the camera and asked, “Left or right first?” I typed my opinion into the chat box like everyone else. I chose a caret symbol because left or right didn’t matter, all that mattered was the moment of catharsis.
• • • •
It started with boxes. Tiny black boxes with names and preferred gender pronouns on a brightly lit computer screen. I taught three classes of boxes two days a week. Sometimes the boxes unmuted and talked. Usually, however, they were aloof or vacant, and I never knew which, unless I called out their names and tried to conjure their spirits like a medium at the lamest séance in history. Mostly, I stared at my own face, which I kept in a perpetual smile that gradually tightened and grew feral. For hours after class, my cheeks would ache and twitch unless I dunked my face into a sink filled with cold water and screamed, emerging long enough to slap myself and take another breath before dunking again.
I understood their right to be boxes. And I came to understand their desire to be boxes as well because I, too, longed to be a box. I imagined it was like the darkness and silence and solitude of a comfortable coffin. One you never had to share. You could close the lid and eat a granola bar or masturbate or nap and no one could disturb you.
So, when I turned off my camera and became just another box in the tic-tac-toe of our virtual classroom, there was no longer a leader or any rules to follow. I had given them an assignment that would take them through the end of the semester, an assignment widely open to interpretation, with no guidelines or limitations. I could watch from the comfort of my own black box. Or not.
• • • •
The first few assignments played like an amateur talent show. One box turned on the camera to reveal a girl in a blond ponytail who played “Amazing Grace” on the oboe. Another box, a boy, played his guitar and sang Ed Sheeran’s “Afterglow.” Those received low ratings, D and D- respectively, which was perhaps what changed the trajectory.
The next class featured an older man sitting on a kitchen chair. He wore linen slacks and a Nehru-style jacket and spoke a foreign language that the student box translated. He talked about his experiences during the Secret War and the years he spent in a refugee camp in Thailand. We were riveted, not only by the first-hand narrative, but by the delay required for us to understand him. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought some of the boxes were crying. That box received the first and only unanimous A. I felt sorry for the box that would have to follow that one.
• • • •
At online faculty meetings, our department chair insisted we maintain a human identity and not a box identity.
“So nice to see all your faces,” our department chair would say, meaning keep your cameras on.
And we did. Unlike the classes of boxes we taught, we were inured to both voyeurism and exhibitionism. Big Brother had been watching and listening to us since birth, and the apathy and boredom between our performed lives and our corporate audience was mutual and thriving.
Let’s brainstorm ice breakers.
I like to ask the boxes what their favorite color is.
I do flavor of ice cream.
That’s really good. Can I use that?
Then someone’s long-haired cat would traipse across the keyboard or a delivery person would arrive with groceries from Instacart or someone’s toddler would careen into view screeching for juice.
What a cutie!
Do you tip your shopper 15%?
Half of them were drunk. You could do that now, drink with impunity, right from a mug. No one could smell the pine needles or fermented grapes on your breath. It was a silver lining to the reality we chose to create.
• • • •
I say chose to create because it didn’t have to be that way. It could be this way.
When the camera came on in the next class, it was facing a terrarium. Inside, a ball python, black with brown markings, slithered out of a log and over to a dead rat lying in a pile of wood shavings. The rat had been taken from the freezer and thawed. Then it had been microwaved to reach an “alive” temperature meant to appeal to the snake’s killer instinct. The result was a rodent with matted white fur and closed eyes, stiff little feet and a long tail that didn’t move when the snake glided past its body and came winding back, opening and closing its mouth around the rat’s head in a comme ci, comme ça way. There was a lot of discussion in the chat box:
Go for it, dude!
That is so disgusting!
Yo, give him some salt and pepper!
The snake pulled the rat to a standing position—the rat was stiff enough that it worked—and then the snake angled its long body above the rat, using gravity to work the prey more efficiently into its mouth. It seemed impossible that a snake so slender could consume a rat so fat, but the elastic jaws stayed wide open and eventually all that remained of the rat was a tip of the tail that stuck out between the snake’s sharp teeth. The snake lifted its head, its black eyes rolling up at the ceiling as the rat went deeper inside, an undulating lump beneath shiny scales.
Squeak, help me, squeak:)
Animal kingdom lite
You know what would have been better? Live prey!
Hell, yes!! It took forever for that snake to eat!
I took a nap on my keyboard
I was pleased that the boxes were displaying critical thinking skills. And while I did not find the snake eating the rat to be a soporific, it did lag at points. Mostly because, as the boxes pointed out, the prey had been zapped like a burrito, so the predation lacked dramatic tension. There was no fear, no attempts at escape, no realization of doom in the rat’s tiny eyes. No catharsis. Plus, there was no information about the snake. We didn’t learn anything about the species or where it came from. I could respect that as a narrative choice—that is, pointing out the purposelessness of backstory when it comes to consumption. But I felt, as did the other boxes, that it was ultimately devoid of social commentary or subtext. Really, it was the cheapest kind of body gore.
• • • •
I didn’t keep my synchronous online experimental assignment a secret, but I also didn’t call it an experiment and I didn’t share certain things, or most things, with the faculty. At meetings, I told them I had been inspired by a news story about a student who faked his own kidnapping in order to get out of a Zoom class. I said it showed a lot of creativity and initiative on the student’s part. Instead of playing video games or brushing his teeth or taking a piss—activities I suspected my black boxes were engaging in—this student had obtained a handgun and a ski mask and ran lines with his kidnapper friend. Even the drunk professors stirred themselves enough to ask me at least one pointless question.
How do you incorporate self-assessment in the grading schema?
What is the writing intensive component?
Can you put the rubric in our shared google drive?
What I didn’t tell them:
1. There was no rubric. I had been teaching for over a decade and still didn’t know what that was.
2. The grade was determined by their peers, not me. It was done Roman pollice verso style in the chat function.
3. I never hit “end meeting.” After midterms, which tested my resolve, I knew I’d always be able to keep the meeting going. No matter what.
• • • •
Midterms started a week of confessional narratives. There was a cutter who talked about being molested as a child and showed us the scars on her arms. They looked like years etched into a prison wall to mark time. She received a B+. There was a bulimic who pointed out all the parts of her body she hated, mainly her flabby stomach, which she flashed at the camera and the cellulite on her thighs, which she didn’t. I thought she was heading towards a C or a D until she ate half a cold pizza and brought the laptop into the bathroom. She showed us the best technique to initiate a gag reflex, then vomited neatly into the toilet bowl. A-. Then there was a bully who talked about how he used to pick on his little brother. How he set fire to his little brother’s collection of stuffed toys and twisted his arm until it broke because he liked hearing him screech. I thought he would have received a lower grade if not for his little brother entering the screen at the end of the monologue. The little brother forgave his big brother and the two hugged it out. B.
One of the boxes claimed she was a victim of rape. She recounted a story where she went to her cousin’s party and drank too much and fell asleep in one of the empty rooms only to wake up with a guy on top of her, covering her mouth so she couldn’t scream. It was tearful and graphic. Because we were living in the #MeToo era, and because the girl was very attractive, I thought this this would be an easy A. But then I read the chat:
Was that the party at Dee’s? With the strobe light? OMG, I think I was there.
Wait, so I’m confused. When did this happen? I couldn’t tell because you were crying so much.
Yeah, it seemed kind of rehearsed
Forced, I would say.
This is not group therapy!
The girl sniffed and blew her nose and turned off her camera and became a box again. I didn’t know if Title IX applied to this situation, but the rape had happened off campus and, as the boxes said, there were holes in her narrative. The median grade was C+. The allegedly raped box left the meeting before it ended. Never to return. Which was for the best, because it would have been awkward for everyone if the box had returned. Still, I felt a little guilty, but more so enlightened. We had been so careful with the boxes, worried about them in these traumatic times, worried about them feeling exposed—their faces and homes and families and precarious Wi-Fi and bandwidth. We didn’t realize that inside the black boxes they were gathering stones.
• • • •
That week’s faculty meeting was about student retention. I would have been stressed about that after the last class, but it was past midterm now, so the allegedly raped box could not obtain a refund for the semester.
• • • •
After midterms, the confessional monologues stopped. The tone shifted, becoming lighter and more upbeat. Perhaps it was the upcoming spring break with visions of bikinis and sand and sun, even if we couldn’t go to any of those places or do any of those things.
There was a cooking lesson. The mother of one of the boxes showed us how to make fresh ceviche with sea bass and oysters and a whole bag of limes. I considered this a bit of a cheat since technically the student should have made the ceviche, but the mother stuck around for grading, and the students respected the mother and her food so much that there was another almost unanimous A. The holdout was a vegan who had been petulant ever since the snake ate the rat.
Then there was the ghost. Or was it a ghost? One of the boxes insisted its house was haunted. Every night at midnight a ghost would float into the living room and wail and pound on the walls and knock down pictures. We watched a recording of the living room at midnight. We saw a white haze, a smudge of something, enter the screen. There was a lot of debate in the chat. Then the audio crackled, and something made a thin, crying sound, like the yowl of an alley cat. There was pounding on the walls, and a picture fell, and we could hear the glass inside the frame shatter on the floor. I wondered why the family would put glass in the frames if the specter came every night, but otherwise it was convincing and creepy. A-.
I was blindsided by Thursday’s class. I should have seen it coming, but how could I? It wasn’t a ball python, but it was a different snake in the grass, so to speak. I started the Zoom meeting expecting a stir fry or a found footage follow up to our specter. Instead, it was music. Loud, thumping beats with a synthetic groove that blasted from my speakers, which had been previously adjusted to catch the ghost cries. I scrambled for the volume control.
Then the camera turned on. It was a young man in a white button-up shirt and jeans. He hovered on the screen for a moment, as though he was about to run away, but then he moved his hips left and right and raised his arms above his head, rolling his body back and forth in an undeniably provocative manner.
The class exploded. For the first time ever, they all unmuted their mics and began hooting, cat-calling and whistling, shouting encouragements and suggestions. The chat flew. I couldn’t keep up.
Oh hell yeah!!!
Move it, baby!!
Take it off!
I had to admit, the kid was loose. And fit. He obviously worked hard at both flexibility and muscle building. A gymnast? A wrestler? He unbuttoned his shirt and peeled it off to reveal six-pack abs. In a classic move, he waved the garment above his head before throwing it off camera. Then he teased the zipper of his jeans up and down, up and down, directly in front of the camera. The boxes went wild, frenzied with lust, electrified, shooting invisible sparks. To my amazement, cameras unmuted and boys and girls and those in between (it was a totally inclusive environment) cheered him on to total nudity. There was a continual flashing of Zoom emoticon reactions: clap and thumbs up and heart and tada and someone confusing the raise hand function.
I had never received this kind of validation. Not in my entire life. And I was somewhat saddened that this young man, who was now grinding his pelvis against the floor lamp in his dorm room, would not be able to take in all this love. I considered recording or saving the chat, with all the compliments and emojis, and sending it to him like a purse stuffed with dollar bills, the ones that would have been tucked into his G-string if this had this been an in-person class.
Finally, he stood in front of us in his black jockey shorts. No G-string, as it turned out, which he probably would have had to purchase on Amazon, so, understandable. The tension was extreme. Anything and everything that could be written in the chat had been. It was up to him now. His choice. He would have received an A no matter what at this point. Even the vegan was screaming. The young man on the screen turned around and mooned us. The boxes howled like wolves at a real full moon and typed: tease, flirt, you’re killing me. The stripper student was an accounting major. I knew this because I was also the student’s temporary faculty advisor, but really, accounting, what a waste.
Then he pulled down his jockey shorts. There was a hiccup of silence, maybe the kind that always comes when there’s a penis right in your face, but then a thundering of applause, approval both in the chat and on the screen.
Awesome meat show!!
Rocket in the pocket!
Did someone order a footlong?!?
Jerk the junk!
I noticed the young man had shaved to make himself look bigger. He would regret that choice in a day or two, when his crotch was itching like he was in the Navy. Still, it was impressive. I was relieved that the chat remained so active because it meant the hands of the boxes were on their keyboards and not on their nether regions, unless they were ambidextrous in a way I couldn’t achieve, which they probably were.
The striptease resulted in an A and started what I came to refer to as the phallic stage of our collective psychosexual development as a class. During this time, we thought a lot about our genitals and the genitals of those in other boxes. A series of amateur porn scenarios played out for several weeks on their screens. They were shockingly bad. Still, watching young people have awkward real or simulated sex felt somehow wholesome and life-affirming. As the boxes rediscovered horny pizza delivery guys and giddy cheerleaders and plumbers with big tools, which could now include women, they were refreshingly free of the anxiety of influence. They could revive retro mood lighting and feather boas, Reddi-wip and blindfolds and mirrors.
Occasionally, my conscience tugged at me and I wondered if I should tell them to use protection, but I wasn’t their parent. I wasn’t even their teacher anymore, now that I was a box.
• • • •
As you might imagine, the tedium of faculty meetings reached a new crescendo during the phallic stage. None of the faculty seemed remotely interested in their own genitals, let alone mine. The Renaissance expert would never plow the Victorianist and the American twentieth-century scholar would not lick any part of the Lacanian theorist.
From TMI Zoom breakout sessions, I learned that many of my colleagues were on medications that crushed their libidos to a dusty paste in order to continue teaching boxes. They missed a trick. They would have been fine if only they let themselves become boxes too. I looked at my face, required at these meetings, and realized they didn’t know anything about me. From the shoulders down, I could have been a centaur or a mermaid. I could have had tentacles.
• • • •
The phallic stage ended when the vegan did a solo performance. Afterwards, he showed us how to create a tasty milk substitute with water and almonds and a blender. I felt the boxes had learned as much as possible with their pants down and I was excited to see what would come next. Korean barbeque? Haircuts? Stupid pet tricks? Knife throwing?
You can imagine how disappointed I was when the next class session turned out to be another porno. Predictably, both participants were facing the camera. The boy’s face expressed an intensity of purpose and the girl’s mouth was in the now all too familiar “oh” of feigned ecstasy. I thought I would make some tea. Maybe a toaster pastry, too, since I was a little peckish after my morning routine. If I left now, I could miss the ejaculations both on camera and in the chat. I was walking away when I heard the girl scream. Actually, what I heard was a scream cut short. I hurried back to my computer.
The boy’s hands had moved from the girl’s backside to her neck. They circled it, squeezing, tighter and tighter, which was what had cut off her scream. I watched the girl pry at his fingers, her eyes wide and scared, but the boy kept choking her. She thrashed her head back and forth like a bird caught in a fence. Her red hair fell forward and obscured her face. We could hear her sucking in thin slices of air, these horrible little gasps she was hardly able to pull in around his grip. The boxes turned on their mics and hollered at the boy.
Let her go!
She can’t breathe!
You’re going to kill her!
I’m calling the cops!
Except none of the boxes knew where to send the cops if they called them. Because of FERPA privacy laws, only I was privy to her personal address, if indeed she was even at her own home and not the home of the boy. The girl’s arms flailed forward and swung back, attempting to scratch the boy, to slap away his hold, but she was at the wrong angle and failed. She couldn’t reach him. Her nose started bleeding.
Make him stop!
Professor, are you there?
Tell him to stop!!
Professor, where are you??
Help! Please, do something!
My hands shook over the keyboard. Sweat broke out on my forehead. I couldn’t seem to breathe in. I couldn’t swallow. I thought I must be having a heart attack or a stroke. I felt for my pulse. I managed a sip of water.
On the screen, the boy jumped sideways, away from the girl’s backside, cussing that she’d pissed herself. Then he lunged once more at her neck, hands around her throat. The girl covered his hands with her own, scraping at his fingers with her fuchsia-colored nails, but she eventually slowed, her hands curling into useless claws. Her body spasmed, then went limp. She slipped from his grip to the sofa in a pool of soft flesh. By then, I was saturated with sweat. My ears were ringing as I listened for sirens outside my home. The boxes were silent.
We watched the boy pull on his clothes. He pushed the girl deeper into the sofa with his foot, her face pressed into the cushions, her legs scissored open, splayed like a mannequin.
I wanted to end the meeting. To turn off the computer and run away. To leave my front door open and race down the block to the park with its meditation labyrinth and water fountain. But if I ended the meeting now, the boxes would know I was in my box. That I had watched the whole time and done nothing. As it was, I never answered the pleas for help made by the boxes. I could say I wasn’t there. That I didn’t see the girl die. What could the university do? What could the police charge me with? It had not been recorded. I would be fired, to be sure, but maybe no jail time. So, I couldn’t end the meeting and I couldn’t say anything, or I’d give myself away, and the boxes could bear witness against me.
On the screen, the boy reentered the frame. He looked at the dead girl and then at us.
“You’re still here?” he said.
The boxes broke into hysterics:
I took a screenshot of you, mf. I know your face.
We’ll find you!
And we’ll choke you to death. See how you like it.
The boy ignored the threats of the boxes and leaned closer to the girl. He moved aside a lock of red hair from her face. I begged silently that he would not desecrate her body, because then I would have to watch and pretend I wasn’t watching and my nerves were already shot.
“Should we take a bow?” he said to her.
The girl lifted her head from the sofa. We were expecting popped eyes and a lolling tongue, an animated corpse, but instead her face was smiling, beatific, an Oscar-acceptance smile. I gasped as I imagined the other boxes did also.
The boy handed the girl a robe. She put it on and took his hand and they both bowed to the camera. There was no applause, but, slowly, the boxes expressed anger and lots and lots of relief.
Oh no, you didn’t!!
You got me, man. That was fucked up!
We’ve been pranked!
You shouldn’t joke about shit like that. I got PTSD now.
You guys are sick. But good. But sick.
Take it to Broadway, mf!
The relief was even more intense than the fear. I was stupid with it. I grinned in my black box, sheepishly, like I’d been appraised of the snuff film in advance, like I was in on the joke. But I hadn’t been. Erotic asphyxiation. It was the logical progression from amateur porn. My hands were still shaking. My heart was going 160 beats per minute. I had a faculty meeting in half an hour. I had to pull myself together. I moved my laptop to the living room so I could face the door in case a quick escape was needed. Then I went to the kitchen for that cup of tea and pastry.
• • • •
The faculty meeting was about who our guest writer should be next year and about who was slated for sabbatical.
I like that poet. You know, the girl who read at the inauguration? What’s her name?
Someone google her.
I think she’s out of our price range.
I was too unsettled by the class to weigh in. While I was relieved the girl was not dead, the simulated violence had been troubling. I couldn’t shake the feeling that any minute cops would arrive and break down my door and haul me off to jail. The days of oboe and ceviche were long gone. Fellating had become quaint. I was in over my head. If there was one thing I knew about the boxes, it was that they would always up their game and take it to the next level. And where would we go from a snuff film? A real murder? I had to put an end to this immediately. If I stopped now, maybe no one would find out. Maybe the boxes would keep their mics muted. I would give them all an A and call it quits.
When someone did knock on my front door, I nearly flew out of my office chair. I stood up fast, holding my breath as I waited for a second knock, but none came. I was sweating again. My glasses slid down my nose. My colleagues prattled on.
It’s a delivery.
They left it outside.
Hey, are you alright?
I gulped in too much air, coughed, and stared at the door.
Aren’t you going to get it? Go ahead, we’ve got time.
Things can melt if you leave them outside.
Or be stolen.
I walked stiff legged to the door. Behind me, I could hear the faculty discussing weekly orders and how to put in substitutes and who was that girl who read at the inauguration.
I pulled aside the curtain from the top of the door. I peered outside. There was a box sitting on my top step. No person in sight, just a box, with no indication of what could be inside. I turned away from the door. The faulty were watching me from their screens. If they weren’t already suspicious, alerted to my guilt by the sweat stains growing beneath my armpits, or by my obvious jumpiness, then they would surely know something was wrong if I didn’t retrieve the box. I looked outside once more. The front step was still empty. Except for the box.
I unlatched the door. Cracked it open. Looked outside again. Still no one. Blood whooshed in my ears. I felt dizzy and nauseous. Leaving the door open, I reached down to lift the box and bring it swiftly into my home. I was prepared for it to be heavy or light. I would move like lightening. I already anticipated the sound of the bolt sliding closed behind me.
I heard the faculty exclaim just before someone put a sack over my head.
There was more than one person waiting for me on the front steps. I could hear their feet. They must have been hiding on either side of the door. They pulled my arms behind my back and lifted the sack enough to cover my mouth with duct tape. Then they sealed the sack around my neck and bound my hands tightly together with more duct tape. I listened to the chorus of faculty behind me, but I couldn’t ask them for help because I was muted.
Is this part of the assignment? Are we supposed to participate?
I think we are participating by watching.
This is so exciting!
My abductors shoved me forward, hustling me down the walkway. They pushed me inside an idling car, and I fell hard into the backseat. The door closed behind me. Then the driver hit the gas and we sped off.
I probably would have been better off with the police. I knew the faculty would do nothing. They thought it was all part of my class project. And, in a way, they were right. As the car sprang over potholes towards an unknown destination, I thought of the box on my front step. I never found out if it was empty or not.
Eventually, I was taken from the car and guided into another building. Once inside, my abductors sat me on a chair and took the sack off my head. In front of me was a cheap laptop filled with boxes. My boxes. On either side of me were my former boxes, now humans in ski masks. They ripped the tape from my mouth, unmuting me. I considered pleading for my life or whatever it was they planned to take from me, but I knew from many class sessions that whining and wheedling only got you a D-.
“I never saw your faces,” I said. “You don’t have to hide behind ski masks. You were always just boxes to me.”
None of my abductors, there were three of them, took off their masks. Then one of the boxes on the screen unmuted and addressed me.
“You let her die,” the box said.
Of course, referring to the redhead. I said, “She’s not dead.”
“Not because you saved her,” the box snapped.
“It was a joke,” I said, bluffing. “I knew she would be fine.”
One of the boxes turned on its camera. It was the redhead. “You didn’t know shit,” she said, and turned her camera off again.
“I wasn’t even at my desk,” I said. “I stopped watching all of you weeks ago. I didn’t see a thing.”
“Then you must be blind,” said one of my abductors. “Are you blind?”
The abductor on my left took out a switchblade. “I could make you blind.”
The chat box filled with tiny words I couldn’t read because my glasses had come off in the sack.
The abductor, student, former box, now eager eye gouger, pointed the switchblade at my face. “Left or right first?”
“Should we do a poll?” asked another abductor.
“I want a vote,” I said. “I’m a box too.”
My abductor cut my hands free. I rested them on the laptop and leaned closer to the screen, squinting to read the chat. It was useless. My eyes were blurred with fear. I could only see my own terrified face looking back at me. I turned off the camera so none of the boxes could see me anymore. So I couldn’t see myself. I thought they would object, but who were they to object? They were boxes, that’s what. Boxes with and without talent, with and without body shame, with and without morals, but in the end, they were all boxes. They contained things they wanted to protect and hide.
I knew my fellow boxes would not be hypocritical. They would not judge my decision to hide from them, but neither would they spare me. I typed my vote into the chat.