'Lying in a Bed of Bee-Shaped Flowers: On Being Watched', by Chelsea Hodson

No one forced me to enrol in drama class during fifth grade summer school, but I chose it because I liked the idea of being a performer. I imagined myself spotlit, showered in stray roses and applause.

But when I read the script and was instructed to write down my top three character choices, I abandoned my fantasy and wrote down the three disposable roles—the ones that had just one word. My line was part of a list of ingredients for a meal the lead characters were cooking. I took drama class all summer so I could be on stage for one night and say bread with an exclamation point.

My parents sat in the audience while my classmates did all the work and I stood there, ordinary. I wanted to be admired, but I refused to risk anything, so I watched the female lead glide around the stage wearing a wreath made of fake flowers. I observed her so intently that I nearly missed my line. Bread!

I remembered this school play when I downloaded Somebody, the half-app/half-human messaging service created by Miranda July. From the website:

When you send your friend a message through Somebody, it goes—not to your friend—but to the Somebody user nearest your friend. This person (likely a stranger) delivers the message verbally, acting as your stand-in.

I downloaded the app right away, created my profile, but I didn’t dare use it. Once again I’d completed my childhood routine: I’d signed up for more than I could handle. I liked the idea of approaching strangers, but not enough to actually do it.

Three weeks passed before I decided to try it out in New York’s Union Square. I’d heard stories of people successfully delivering and receiving messages the first week the app was released, but all of the “floating” messages available to deliver were now three weeks old. It appeared that most of the activity had died down just days after the app was released. Timing was sensitive when attempting to deliver messages like:

[Nervously] Listen, last night was insane. I wish you would have come with me and maybe I wouldn’t have ended up in the fucking psych ward at 2 am. [Hug]

I was also resistant to delivering any messages that required a fist bump, but I attempted those as well.

[Fist bump] You’re awesome.

[Fist bump] You rule.

When those didn’t work, I even tried to deliver the messages that made me cringe when I read them:

Hey there sexy man [Tell your life story]

[Sombrely] I’m calling you from the future. Don’t follow the scorpion. It’s a bad idea.

I also didn’t like the messages that required me to buy someone a cup of coffee, but I tried to deliver those, too.

I’d close my eyes for five seconds, and then I’d follow whoever I saw when I opened my eyes.

From the in-app GPS tracking, I could see that the people I was attempting to deliver to were within mere blocks of me—some were even walking in my direction—but no one answered.

Diego isn’t responding.

Mary isn’t responding.

I didn’t know whose message belonged to who, I just kept selecting them and pressing, I’ll deliver this. No one accepted.

After about twenty minutes and twenty attempted deliveries, I decided I’d do something different: I’d close my eyes for five seconds, and then I’d follow whoever I saw when I opened my eyes. The first person was a short black-haired woman wearing teal ballerina flats covered in rhinestones. I began following her east on 14th Street. I walked about five feet behind her, which was difficult because I’m a fast walker and she was not. I began admiring the bun she’d wrapped her hair into—it was so secure.

I’d only been walking behind her for about three minutes when she stopped on the sidewalk and turned to look at me. I thought I had kept enough distance to keep myself hidden, I thought she seemed distracted, but she noticed me almost immediately, and her eyes seemed to dare me to continue. Embarrassed, I walked away and she walked into Forever 21.

We’re hard-wired to believe others are staring at us, University of Sydney psychologist Colin Clifford said last year. A direct gaze can signal dominance or a threat, and if you perceive something as a threat, you would not want to miss it. So simply assuming another person is looking at you may be the safest strategy.

Opentopia is a website that collects livestreams from webcams all around the world. The text on the homepage reads, The webcam owners may or may not have intended for [the cameras] to be public, but they obviously are.

One of the first streams I clicked on was a “front door cam” in Linden, New Jersey. It was filmed from the interior of someone’s home: beige carpet, a window and a front door. The text below the video feed showed me the latitude and longitude coordinates of the camera’s location.

I clicked on a few scenic views from around the world: Alaska, Japan, Poland. But the scenes I were most drawn to were the ones with people visible, and the closer, the better. I watched feeds from inside a hair salon in Estonia, an internet cafe in Moscow, an indoor water park in Idaho where a man surfed on artificial waves. It felt predatory to watch, and yet I knew I wouldn’t be found out or confronted, so I continued watching.

It felt predatory to watch, and yet I knew I wouldn’t be found out or confronted, so I continued watching.

Growing up in a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, it was easy to feel like my own camera—I was left alone so often, so effortlessly. And sometimes I did film myself with a digital camera while I rode my heavy yellow beach cruiser. It was hot, I dreamt of water and all the worlds I had yet to see. I was barely old enough to drive, but I felt old enough to hunt. Was I?

My father never liked to hunt, but he wrapped a gun inside a handkerchief and tucked it into the car door when we went camping. He expected the worst from strangers.

Our neighbour bought a second freezer to keep all his elk fresh.

Many of the Opentopia cameras are of public areas like city squares and traffic cams. Watching those reminded me of a “(Somat)tic Poetry Ritual” by poet CAConrad. In number 88, “Security Cameras and Flowers Dreaming the Elevation Allegiance,” he walked five blocks along Walnut Street in downtown Philadelphia while stopping for every security camera. Then, he took a flower from his basket of nasturtiums, roses, and pansies, looked into the camera, and stuck his tongue inside the flower.

Flicked it in and out, he wrote, in and out, flicking, licking, suckling blossoms. A security guard asked what the fuck was I doing, ‘I’M A POLLINATOR! I’M A POLLINATOR!!’

The Ophrys, known by some as the “bee orchid” due to its resemblance, and by others as the “prostitute orchid” due to its trickery, has evolved or “learned” to deceive. Michael Pollan wrote in a Guardian article:

The orchid offers the bee no nectar reward of pollen meal; rather, it seduces the male bee with the promise of bee sex, then ensures its pollination by frustrating the desire it has excited. The orchid accomplishes its sexual deception by mimicking the appearance, scent, and even tactile experience of a female bee.

The Ophrys completes its costume with fake bee fur, wings, and a scent that closely matches virgin female bee pheromones. During the bee’s attempt at copulation with what he thinks is a female bee, the orchid’s pollen becomes attached to the head or abdomen of the bee, which he takes with him when he realises his mistake.

From my computer, I watched a giraffe sitting in a cage in a Japanese zoo. The camera zoomed in, moved to a new angle facing the ceiling, then refocused, resettled back on the same scene of the giraffe.

I watched a girl at a cookie store in Taipei remove the money from her register. She counted the money, then counted it again.

I tried to count all the times I’d seen the man watching me at my job. He came to Kinko’s, opened his laptop, but didn’t bother pretending to work. He sat behind the glass partition that separated the computer area from the work area and looked at me as I rang people up.

I don’t know how long he had been watching me when I noticed—had I ignored days of this? I don’t think I could have because I had that distinct feeling, that instinct I had not evolved out of. I was still using it.

I felt his gaze, and I turned. It went on like that for weeks. There was no way to ask him to leave, he was allowed to sit there. He was short, mid-thirties, red acne-scarred skin. I could not tell him where to look.

A few weeks later I rode my bike to a bookstore. I looked up and there he was again, watching me from behind a bookshelf. When I saw his eyes, he turned. I walked toward him, and he left. I rode my bike home, looking over my shoulder every time a car passed. I waited until no cars were around and then turned onto my street and hurried home.

I think I cried, I think I was scared. I also think I felt special, spotlit.

I think I cried, I think I was scared. I also think I felt special, spotlit.

The only time a man took notes on something I said was when it seemed possible I could be kidnapped. The rocking chair creaked with the cop’s weight and I was happy to have him there. I’d been in a field of wild gazes and wild flowers and bees and flowers that resembled bees. I was young. I didn’t have words for everything I saw, but I looked at his gun and thought, Order.

And yet there was nothing he could do, even with the license plate number I’d dutifully documented. He mentioned casually that I should never be alone in public. He prescribed it like medicine.

Back at work, my manager went over old security footage with me. We went through tape after tape. I could not remember the last day I’d seen the man who watched me. The tapes piled up on top of the television.

There! I said. That’s him. I hadn’t realised my manager didn’t have a tape in the VCR.

That’s the live footage, he said, and we turned. My manager hurried to put a blank tape in the machine and pressed the red “record” button so we could have him.

I stayed behind the tinted windows of the office for about half an hour until he left. The employees were briefed on the situation and, over the next few days, began watching him back. Someone wrote down the websites he pretended to visit, none were suspicious. There was still no reason to kick him out. I even went back to work. Every day he’d sit there and stay silent and watch me complete my dull tasks: pressing buttons, giving change.

One day, he packed up and began to leave, but paused halfway to the door and looked back at me—something he never did before. I stood still, focusing on him. The machines hummed around me and I could tell he was never coming back. My body evolved to read his.

I felt calm, in control, older. I made a wreath of everything I loved and, when it grew too heavy to hang, I made a place for it on the floor. I looked through the smallest window of the world and called it a film. Nothing could touch me, and nobody did. Could I be the star of my own movie? Danger was part of that answer, instinct was another. I learned one new language each day.

This essay originally appeared in The Office Dog Edition of The Lifted Brow: Digital (Volume 13, Issue 2), which is out now. Also in this issue: Lily Mei is—suddenly—a cat owner; three poems by Les Wicks; James Robert Douglas interviews Swedish director Ruben Östlund; and recommendations from the fresh-faced TLB crew and mates! Get your copy now.

Chelsea Hodson is the author of two chapbooks: Pity the Animal (Future Tense Books, 2014), and Beach Camp (Swill Children, 2010). A collaborator with the Marina Abramovic Institute’s Immaterial and a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow, her essays have been published in Black Warrior Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Sex Magazine, Sundog Lit, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.