Maria Robinson ~ The Requirement 

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.