There was a requirement but no one would tell you what it was. At first you were confident you would figure it out. Now you spend every waking moment searching—desperate!—and every night pleading with whatever forces might be gathered in the shadowed corners of your room.
What is the requirement?
What is the requirement?
What is the requirement?
You ask and ask, but no one will say.
How could something so critical—it would not be an exaggeration to say it was foundational to all that followed—be allowed to remain unarticulated—kept hidden!—? It was a conundrum. These were good people, not the sort given to cruelty or deceit. It stood to reason that figuring out the requirement must be part of the requirement itself. What a task! Every day a vast, inscrutable puzzle, every person, room, and situation a possible clue. The whole world like one of those escape rooms where everything that could be seen—and some things that could not—might be The Key to solving the room’s mystery and stepping through its now-unlocked door to claim the prize. (And what is the prize you’ve come and paid and labored for the privilege of claiming? The same freedom you had before entering, sweeter now that it’s been earned.)
Before you were aware of the requirement, things were simpler. A conversation was a conversation. A meal was a meal. Now every choice seemed fraught with peril: is choosing the correct wine the requirement? Is capitulating to the assertion that, if we divorce the work from the author, even Mein Kampf has some merit the requirement? Is reading Gramsci in the original the requirement? But in rooms with those who had successfully traversed to the other side—the gatekeepers now assaying the gatekept—there were people who drank tannic reds with fish; there were poorly read monolinguists; there were theoretical hardliners and pop-cultural heretics aplenty. The only discernible uniformities were of the non-meritorious variety—and such traits, it went without saying, could not be the requirement, as they were not the acceptable criteria by which to mete out success. Not in these circles! These good people were aware of things like that.
Some of your peers have already met the requirement. They say they’re not so sure (imposter syndrome is the harrow of your cohort), but the aura of ascendancy is unmistakeable. A generosity in the eyes of the appraisers, a softness at the shoulder.
How—you ask over coffee, over whiskey, over a hand job, always on you—did you do figure it out? How can I meet the requirement, too? I feel like I’m too slow-missing something-looking in the wrong place-the clock is running out.
Nonsense, they say, the burnished ones. There is no “requirement,” just the work. I don’t know anything more than you do, no one does, you’re smart, you’ll get there, keep going, you’ll figure it out.
You tell your mother you’re afraid you will not solve the riddle in time. She is indifferent to your concern. In her mind, you, too, are one of the burnished. When she speaks, it is not a comfort. You can hear how swollen her ankles are in the timbre of her voice.
Process of elimination (speed round):
adopt, absorb, reflect any habit, trapping, or trait that is not unequivocally not the requirement:
Krautrock, bangs, poststructuralism, Negronis, european sevens, the letter “zed.”
More of your peers burnish, others fall away. You have no markers or referents but can sense that time is growing short.
What is the requirement? you whisper into your cupped palms.The answer they return is your breath.
You visited an escape room once, a family activity while everyone was together for the holidays. It was at a science center and had a space theme. Your little sister couldn’t find anyone to watch the baby—all her babysitters were there with her at the escape room—but she knew the man checking groups in at the reservations desk.
Ronnie, she said. Hey, Ronnie, can I bring the baby in? It technically makes us one too many, but she’s little, she can’t play. My family doesn’t mind.
Ronnie gave her a thumbs up and said I got you.
When it was time to go inside a blonde lady with a clipboard wearing a sparkling silver space dress arrived to give a brief introduction to the exercise. Before she began, she opened her mouth toward your sister but Ronnie caught her eye and moved his hand like a baseball catcher and in waggling code somehow informed her that neither intervention nor comment was necessary.
The room was really a series of rooms and together your family had the perfect combination of acuity, know-how, and talent to elicit its secrets. You had an hour to solve but finished in 29 minutes and 18 seconds. When the escape door unlocked, Ronnie was on the other side.
Congratulations! he said. This is our hardest room! You broke the record for fastest escape!
He reached into his back pocket as your family’s eyebrows lifted and your smiles collectively widened—was there a prize, a real one, for speed?—but the sparkling blonde lady appeared from behind another door, rushed toward him, and stayed his wrist.
We can’t, she said, and Ronnie let his hand drop. She jut her chin toward the baby.
Technically they were one too many, she said. Technically it wouldn’t be fair.
Maria Robinson studied creative writing at The Johns Hopkins University and has done graduate work at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her stories have been published in PANK, Bellevue Literary Review, and cream city review, among others.