CL 2018 Fiction Contest, 3rd place: 'Watch Me'
For this summer, overpopulation was one factor and heat was the other. This summer was so hot that many folks – Harold and Kimmie among them — ran the AC on full blast trying to keep sweaty backs from soaking through clothes and sticking to leather and plastic furniture. The utilities companies hadn’t accounted for the amount of electricity needed to keep Atlanta cool.
Therefore, as a measure to preserve power, the city scheduled night time blackouts (9 p.m. to 7 a.m.) for sections of the power grid. Section 5, structures 61B through 73, the stretch that included Harold and Kimmie’s two-story Victorian home, blacked out on a steamy Wednesday evening.
After the first night, Kimmie decided she would sleep downstairs for the duration of the blackouts, which were planned to last through the weekend. She told Harold he would probably be more comfortable downstairs, too. But there was only one couch, and Harold liked being near his things when he went to sleep and when he woke up. Plus, big guys don’t sleep well on the floor, he told his wife. He was in fact a big guy, tall and broad shouldered with a belly that had settled permanently on his pant line.
The first night went smoothly for Harold. A little uncomfortable, but fine. Once he woke up, he got ready for work and found his sleeping wife downstairs. He drove to his office in Midtown and did some research on a big-money deal his group was working on with some German investors trying to get a foothold in the Atlanta real estate market. He appreciated the rigidness of the spreadsheets he worked in. And even though work duties never called for him to leave his office complex, he told himself the job was sexy because the client was international. He came home, as he did most days, relieved to be back but bored and not sure what to do with his free evening.
Kimmie, who worked from home doing conference logistics for the National Association of Protective Headwear and Goggle Manufacturers (NAPHGM – colloquially spoken as "naf-gam" within the community of headwear and goggle professionals), had dinner waiting for her husband. She told Harold she wanted dinner made, eaten, and cleaned up ahead of the 9 p.m. power blackout.
Harold and Kimmie ate vegetarian pad thai in front of the TV and watched a whodunit real-life murder mystery where it seemed painfully obvious that the killer had to be one person, a person who had motive and opportunity, until twenty minutes later it was painfully obvious again that the killer must be another person, newly introduced, who had a better motive and an even better opportunity.
The couple watched the show and during slow points talked about Germans and big-money deals and how frustrating protective headwear professionals can be. Then the power cut at 9 p.m. Harold helped his wife cover the couch in an old bed sheet and gather some pillows. He put a flash light on the coffee table in case she woke up in the middle of the night and had to go to the bathroom. They fooled around on the couch in the dark and after they both climaxed Harold said goodnight and went upstairs to their empty bedroom.
Sleep wouldn’t come to poor Harold. The air in the room was stagnant, heavy, and damp. Harold felt swaddled by the heat, but in a malicious way. As if it were teasing him, like when he was a boy and the older neighborhood kids would wrap him in a bear hug and squeeze him until his insides hurt. He couldn’t get away from the bullies then, and he couldn’t get away from the heat now. He kicked his legs. Rolled onto his stomach. His side. His back. His other side. He put a pillow between his legs. Took off his shirt. Threw the duvet on the floor. Took off his pants. If not for the fooling around he’d done a few hours earlier, he’d try masturbating, but Harold wasn’t a multiple times a day kind of guy. About 2 a.m. he grabbed his phone off the night stand.
The go-to internet sites can be pretty boring for a happily married person. No Tinder. Facebook, at a certain age, when you’re not searching for pictures of one of your co-workers in a bikini, becomes an unappealing stream of engagements, weddings, and baby announcements. He checked his personal email. He scrolled through a junk mail offer for 30 percent off storewide at an outdoor retailer that sold gear he didn’t know how to use. He looked through his photo library and deleted some pictures where he thought he looked fat or too bald. He sweat into the sheets.
He went to Reddit, the internet content aggregator and message board, and found a page called r/cantsleep. Harold clicked and scrolled. He hoped to find some short, practical self-help-y type stuff that could get him to sleep before the sun came up.
Overactive mind or something else? posted by Khoshekh1
10 Hours Heavy Windstorm with Rain – Ambient Sounds for Sleep posted by theothertrunk
Insomnia and Nightmares….uggggh posted by Zemekus
No, no. Not what he’s looking for. He kept scrolling. And then he found something.
Feast Your Face Lenses On the World of the H.O.T. posted by DonDonShephard.
Not what he was looking for, but strangely, not something he wasn’t interested in.
The link opened to a thread of commentary. Hundreds of comments.
H.O.T. melts my brain. I want to eat, sleep and drink H.O.T. (preferably steaming HOT) all day, all night. I can’t stop.
Give me the H.O.T., baby! Give me the H.O.T.!
The comment thread was peppered with gifs of dashboard hula dancers, rocking side to side.
The thread was active. It populated new content constantly in real time — comments and links to user-generated videos. "How could I have never heard of this?" Harold thought. Harold read through the comments, skipping a few hundred and then locking into a conversation or debate over H.O.T. Some users were revelatory in their praise of it, but some wrote about H.O.T. as if this were an AA message board and H.O.T. was a very dangerous substance. The commenters seemed familiar with each other. They had rapport and history.
Harold sat up in bed. He threw the top sheet off and spun around to sit upright with his feet on the floor. He held his phone reading and reading. Finally, he found a link. Welcome to H.O.T. – Enjoy! Harold opened the drawer of the bedside night stand and ruffled around until he found a set of Samsung headphones. He plugged in, cued up the video, and on the second night of no electricity, he watched his first H.O.T. video.
In the comments, Harold had repeatedly seen the word transfixed. Mesmerized was a common one. Captivated.
trans·fix - /tran(t)s’fiks/ (verb) — cause someone to become motionless with horror, wonder, or astonishment.
mes·mer·ize - /’mezmə,rīz/ (verb) — hold the attention of someone to the exclusion of all else
cap·ti·vate - /’kaptə,vāt/ (verb) — attract and hold the interest and attention of
Harold watched his first H.O.T. video, the H.O.T. welcome video, and he started out feeling underwhelmed. It was three hours long. After the first hour, he didn’t think he felt anything, except some pain in his back from sitting upright. He kept watching and stretched his back. He stood up to take off some pressure. Alone in his bedroom, Harold shifted his weight from right foot to left foot, headphones in, watching the H.O.T.
About two hours in, his phone gave him the low battery alert. Harold panicked. He dug through his backpack until he found the 2600mAh portable power stick charger he keeps in case of emergencies. He kept watching, pacing the floor of his bedroom, holding the phone’s screen close to his face.
H.O.T. is an acronym — an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word. It stands for Hula On Time. The first H.O.T. video (the welcome video Harold found) was created by a Pilates instructor and amateur cinematographer, with limited but effective motion graphics capabilities. The concept is simple. The conceit is control — control of time and body. This is all explained in the first hour of the welcome video. On screen a fit, middle-aged woman wears a grass hula skirt, a dry-fit track shirt and tights. She stares at the camera. A circular 60-second, analog timer appears above her head. At :00 her hips are vertically aligned. As the clock’s seconds hand makes its way to :15, her hips follow it out to her left in a slow, perfectly controlled hula. The timer’s hand rounds :15 and it revolves down to :30, bringing her hips back to center. At 0:45, her hips have hula’d out to her right. And at :00, she is back to center. A controlled hula that takes a full minute to complete. The concept is commitment.
By the time Harold’s alarm went off in the morning, he had watched the three-hour welcome video and about two dozen user-generated H.O.T. videos, including some DIY videos on how to make your own H.O.T. video using free graphics tools online. When the user’s hula falls out of sync with the time, the video ends. The creator, the master of control, holds the record, as far as Harold can tell, for the longest H.O.T. video. Most user-generated attempts last between thirty seconds and two minutes. Real H.O.T. devotees last at least five minutes.
Harold took a cold shower, partly to cool down and partly to break away from H.O.T. He put on his slacks and tucked in one of the golf shirts he regularly wears to work. On his way out the door, he kissed Kimmie, who was making coffee.
At work, Harold couldn’t focus on the Germans or big money. The Germans, a people who pride themselves on control, systems, and rigidity. What did they know? H.O.T., now that is control, he thought. With his spreadsheets up on his two monitors, Harold watched more H.O.T. on his phone. The concept is dedication. He kept the phone on his lap, so if someone walked by he could roll under his desk and they wouldn’t see it. Three times during the morning, Harold went to the bathroom and sat in a stall watching H.O.T., pretending to poop, so only to be alone, uninterrupted.
Before heading home at the end of the day, Harold did the thing he’d been thinking about doing since early, early that morning. He went on Amazon and ordered a hula skirt, a mini-tripod for his phone, and a one-minute, circular analog timer. He paid extra for next-day delivery to his office.
At home, Kimmie and Harold complained about the blackouts. Only two nights in, ugh, how would they make it? They whined. Secretly, Harold looked forward to the blackout. He watched the clock as it ticked slowly toward 9 p.m. The concept is patience.
They ate fried cod that they made together. Kimmie didn’t like cooking with the hot oil, so she let Harold do that part. Kimmie had a glass of wine. She poured a glass for Harold but he pushed it away. He told her, he had a long day at work and needed to get a solid eight hours of sleep tonight. A wine buzz would mess with his R.E.M. That’s what he told her. Really, he wanted to maintain a sharp mind for that night’s viewing. At work, he’d read about the must-see H.O.T. videos and he had a playlist in his head of who he wanted to watch once he went up to the bedroom alone after the blackout.
Kimmie and Harold ate and then played cards by candlelight until about 10 p.m. She was unknowingly encroaching on his blackout time, and he was getting frustrated. She tried to sit on his lap and kiss his neck, but he reminded her about the need for eight hours. She shrugged him off and they made her sleeping space on the couch. Finally, about 10:30 p.m., an hour and a half later than he’d hoped, Harold went upstairs alone.
There was no R.E.M. or eight hours for Harold. He watched H.O.T. until his eyes were too dry to blink. He went to the bathroom at 4 a.m., washed his face and put in eye drops. Harold practiced along with the videos from the more experienced H.O.T. devotees even though he didn’t have the skirt or the timer or the ability to document it. He took notes on technique, how far apart his feet should be, where his eyes should look, what to do with his hands, etc.
In the morning Harold took an especially long, cold shower, nearly 10 minutes of freezing cold water. His skin felt alive and every cell in his body was screaming to carpe diem. He put on olive slacks and a fresh golf shirt. He kissed Kimmie, who asked if he was okay, and he said of course a little too loud, but left before she could say anything about it.
The packages arrived at his office in the mid-afternoon, a few hours before leaving time. He immediately took them down to the garage and put the packages in his car. He didn’t want any nosy co-workers asking about them. Those last few hours of the day were clock watching at its worst. This was last-day-of-school-before-winter-break-level clock watching. The digital clock at the top right of his computer screen taunted him with how slowly it moved. He decided the Germans and the big money deals could wait, and he left early.
Harold got home earlier than usual, and Kimmie was surprised to see him. She told him it had been a busy day with the National Association of Protective Headwear and Goggle Manufacturers. She hadn’t had a chance to make dinner or even go grocery shopping. Maybe they could go out to eat, she said. Harold told her he wasn’t in the mood. She asked if he’d go to the grocery store with her. He quickly made up a lie about the Germans and the need to get on a conference call, and that that was in fact why he had come home early. You go to the store and I’ll do the call, he told his wife. She looked in the fridge and the pantry, wrote down a few things and then left.
Harold was alone. It felt strange and revealing in the daylight. Once Kimmie’s Jeep had safely left the driveway and turned the corner of the street, Harold ran out to his car to grab the Amazon packages. He ripped them open as he went upstairs and immediately started setting up his in-home studio just as he’d sketched it out in his notes. He took off his slacks and his golf shirt and put on gym shorts. He didn’t wear a shirt. Normally he was self-conscious about his belly, but his focus and sense of purpose overpowered his body image issues. He couldn’t risk frivolous fabric interfering with his H.O.T.
Harold set up the tripod. He arranged the timer behind his head and a mirror behind the tripod. After salivating over it for 38 hours, the moment had arrived. He marveled at the self-control it had taken to get him to this point. It was 6:15 p.m. when he hit record.
Focus, he told himself. Forget the minutes, remember the seconds. Your hips are an extension of your soul. Clean mind, clean sway. He hit the :30 mark, feeling fantastic, feeling in control. His chest upright, his hips swayed to the :40 and :45 positions. He stared at the timer in the mirror. He couldn’t see himself. He only saw the second hand smoothly plot its course around the analog surface. The hand pulled his hips slowly side-to-side as if on a string. Unbeknownst to Harold, the minutes came and went. He hula’d. He did it slowly. And he did it on time.
He was so much in the zone that he never heard Kimmie’s loud Jeep engine pull up the driveway. He didn’t hear her open the door or hear her bang around the kitchen putting away groceries. He didn’t hear her boiling water or chopping vegetables. He did H.O.T. She cooked. Both of them in the same house, completely unaware of what the other was doing.
When dinner was ready, Kimmie went upstairs to check on Harold. She found him transfixed, mesmerized, captivated – standing shirtless in front of a mirror wearing a hula skirt. She stood in the doorway. Harold never took his eyes off the clock. His hips moved in step with the timer’s seconds hand. He opened his mouth and, without looking at his wife, he said: "Watch me. I’m in complete control."
Drew Grossman lives in Grant Park with his wife, Arielle, and their two cats, The Great Catsby and Daisy. The best books he read this year were Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Purity by Jonathan Franzen, and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. He graduated from the creative writing program at Florida State University and works in advertising.