You stumble upon the first email from Dr. Ramos in your spam folder on Thursday. The subject line simply reads, IMPORTANT. The sender begins the email by stating that Dr. Ramos is a pseudonym, necessary to protect their identity. They state that they need your help. You suspect the email to be the handiwork of one of your co-workers and read no further. You have the cursor above the trash icon, but a line catches your eye.
I know you’re not who you say you are. While I am content to keep your secret, if you fail to cooperate I will expose you.
Below this, your secret lays bare, glaring back at you. Your heart beats sporadically and your vision blurs for a second, the screen becoming warped, words bleeding down the monitor. While tempted to delete the message just to see that heinous sentence disappear, you understand that this will not protect you nor will it save you. You have spent the last few years making a life for yourself. If your secret is exposed, the building blocks of your perfect life will come crashing down. This is your worst nightmare come true. You have no choice but to cooperate with Dr. Ramos.
But how does the sender know your secret? You have been so very careful, revealing almost nothing about yourself to others. Your own family knows nothing of your secret. You deliberate on your response, tempted to project your anger and outrage (already thinking of a few choice obscenities). Instead you settle on a single line: At your service. It feels demeaning but you are determined to do whatever it takes to keep your secret hidden.
After sending that email, you check your g-mail sporadically throughout the day, but there is no further response. You allow yourself to hope, maybe your secret is safe after all. But hope is an untrustworthy fellow. The dreaded response arrives the next day. You force yourself to read the email, although the sight of it makes you feel sick to your stomach.
I knew I could count on you.
The brevity and familiarity of the message haunt you. Dr. Ramos has yet to make a request and you find yourself waiting for further instructions. You cancel all your plans, call in sick to work, and sit at home listlessly staring at your computer screen, waiting. Unable to sleep, you stay up all night waiting. There is no further response on Friday, just as there is no further response on Saturday or Sunday. You call in to work sick once more on Monday. By now you have left a permanent imprint in your swivel chair. You greasy hair hangs limply and you have forgotten when you brushed your teeth last.
What if Dr. Ramos has decided to divulge your secret after all? At this thought, you feel an overwhelming sense of dread. If your secret is out, you’ll need to leave this town. Scratch that, you’ll need to leave the country. You should pack your belongings and leave right now.
It’s too late, you reason. Instead you remain on the swivel chair, your own body odor permeating the air, a sickly sweet smell that leaves you feeling lightheaded. You consider showering, it might make you feel better. Instead of showering you opt to simply change out of Thursday’s clothes, a task that exerts less energy and requires less time. You remove the light blue Oxford dress shirt and replace it with loose-fitted t-shirt, your dress pants replaced by striped pajama shorts.
The email arrives Monday morning, as brief as the former. Dr. Ramos no longer bothers with formalities.
Your doing a great job.
The email leaves you more shaken that before, how does Dr. Ramos know what you have been doing? And why are they congratulating you for becoming a shut-in? This leaves a especially bitter taste in your mouth, like expired two percent milk, rancid and stale. Not to mention, it seems especially cruel to be blackmailed by someone who does not proofread their emails. You try not to dwell on this grammatical error, but you find yourself unable to move pass the erroneous your. ‘It’s you’re’ you type out but you stop yourself from sending that email. You save that one to your drafts nonetheless. Instead you type out an email asking what is expected of you. There is no response on Tuesday, just as there is no response on Wednesday.
Your phone rings at inopportune times, disrupting your ritual, it has been mostly calls from you boss, has been trying to get in touch with you all week long. You’ve been ignoring her calls but on Thursday you decide to block her number. Before Dr. Ramos came into your life, you had been a star employee, never missing a day, always punctual. By Thursday, your workplace reputation is tainted beyond repair. You suspect your boss is trying to fire you. And you still have no idea what Dr. Ramos wants. You send email after email to Dr. Ramos, pleading that they reveal who they are, what they want from you, and how long this ordeal will take. There is no response. March becomes April and there is still no response as April becomes May. You’re spiraling downwards, drowning out of water. You never leave the house now, having food and groceries delivered to your apartment. Oftentimes you forego meals altogether, eating a few snacks throughout the day, your eyes glued to the laptop screen. However, you feel paranoid in your own apartment. You feel as if you’re constantly being watched, your every movement scrutinized by prying, voyeuristic eyes. Your life has become endless waiting. And yet, you understand that you cannot sustain this lifestyle. You have enough money to last you a month at most, but only if you ask for an extension on this month’s rent and get a job. You manage to send your resume to a few companies but receive no follow-up emails.
A month later on the day you’re scheduled to be evicted from your apartment, Dr. Ramos sends you an email.
While some might say my punishment has been rather cruel and unusual, your unraveling exemplifies the frailty of the human spirit. I only placed the trap, and you yourself enacted the torture. I do not write to apologize for my part in your suffering nor to reveal my identity.
Although I’ll give you a clue: I am everyone and no one. I am you and not you.