It is Saturday morning and I am going to take the Mensa exam.
To be fair, I almost forgot to. Mere minutes from going to the scumbag bar near my house with my not-scumbag friends the night before, one of them asks if I should be drinking before an exam you’re only allowed to take once in your entire life. Not the best night to get McFucked, my friend says. He’s right.
So I do not get McFucked. I stay at home and drink a glass of orange juice and sit very, very still and ask myself why I am taking the Mensa exam.
Here’s what you might already know about Mensa, a flytrap for those overestimating their own intelligence and the bored hoping to increase their own self-worth: it doesn’t actually mean that much. Founded in the immediate aftermath of World War II, it’s the oldest IQ association in existence that requires applicants to pay $60 to take an IQ test and score in the ninety-eighth percentile to be admitted.
Admission to what? An additional $70 annual membership fee. An email address. Invites to community events with other Mensa members around the country, but nothing you couldn’t do by being a normal person with friends. Access to the corniest merch I’ve ever seen. The night before, I feel sure it’s more about the clout that comes with it, sort of a blue check that preceded the existence of blue checks. Proof you matter. There is a part of me that I am not proud of that will pay for that.
Whether I’m smart enough to get into Mensa depends on the day, according to practice tests. On a good day, I am smart enough. On a not as good day, I am a plebe whose millennial trophy syndrome will soon sap them of sixty dollars.
For twenty minutes, I am the only person in the entire county of Los Angeles with any interest of joining Mensa International. We’re in a classroom that’s virtually empty, save for me and my proctor Charlie.
Charlie is a middle-aged Asian man who sips on a large Hardee’s drink from the night before. He is the sort of person I need to know everything about. I have this feeling every once in a while, a low-vibration OCD alert that is built into my occasionally medicated brain that’s currently directed straight at this nondescript smart guy my dad’s age. Charlie is a cheerful and slightly condescending Mensan who got up early to give a test to one loser and didn’t throw away last night’s Hardee’s cup. Or maybe it’s this morning’s Hardee’s cup. Do they give soda cups out this early in the morning? I have a lot of questions for Charlie.
He waits a few minutes before addressing me. Is my name Vanessa? It’s not. It’s Jamie. Charlie walks over to me. He says he’s an engineer. That has nothing to do with what’s happening but he wants me to know, so I say “cool.”
He frowns. “You were supposed to take the test last month.” I look at the email. It says today’s date. I signed up for today’s date, six weeks ago.
“No, I wasn’t,” I say. It’s too early for a Mensa member to be wrong about something. For a split second, I worry it’s not June. What if it’s July and I’ve forgotten? That would compound every worry I’m having by thirty-something days. Five minutes in a room with Charlie and my connection to time has been severed.
He turns to me with Hardee’s cup in hand, politely baffled. “You were supposed to take the test in June, Jamie” he says with the confidence of a Mensan. “We were ready for you in June.” My brain is broken. It is June.
Charlie looks at me and smiles sympathetically. It’s here he decides I will not pass the test. I don’t even know it’s not June, he’s thinking. But it is June. But when this is happening, I don’t feel sure it’s June. Charlie’s certainty has stripped me of my confidence. I feel naked and like it might not even be June, even though I am fully clothed and it absolutely is.
“It’s June,” I say, because it is.
“Have you seen any movies lately?” Charlie asks in response, and it occurs to me that the test might already be happening. Instead of acknowledging my accurate description of the month, he spoils Hereditary and now my night plans are just as McFucked as the last one’s. He tells me that Mensans go see movies together a lot and that I could too, if I get in.
Two other people show up, a lawyer and his girlfriend, who doesn’t need the other two people in the room to know what her job is in the same way the lawyer does. Charlie is an engineer, he feels the need to repeat, but his real passion is fixing antique organs. He tells us about this at length, a five-minute tangent about being depressed working in Silicon Valley in the early 2000s, joining Mensa in an attempt to make friends outside of the engineering community, moving to his parents’ house in the Valley and becoming the events coordinator of the LA chapter. Members are both scarcer and more interesting in this area of California, he says. And no one comes to events. Maybe we will. If we get in.
Charlie is the sort of person I can think about forever, someone who wants us around just as badly as he needs us to prove that we deserve to be around. I want to trick him into being my friend, just like he’s tricked me into thinking it might not actually be June.
The lawyer looks between his girlfriend and me as Charlie continues to explain why he feels members should see international movies instead of Hollywood ones, even though he loved The Incredibles 2. Charlie does not realize the lawyer is not listening, but rolling his eyes at his girlfriend and at me.
Charlie wants the lawyer’s attention more than the women in the room. I don’t know that he recognizes why that is. That’s part of what is interesting about Charlie—he’s participating in a form of misfired masculinity that doesn’t even recognize itself. It’s the kind that tells me it’s not the month it is without considering that I could be right, and doesn’t realize that the only person in the room he seems to want the respect of is also the only one who’s not listening to him.
I’m listening, though. Charlie tells the three of us about how he briefly left engineering to fix the organ at Disney Symphony Hall. He checks the time. We need to start the test.
You’re not supposed to tell people about the Mensa exam, but I don’t know what they would do to me besides prevent me from getting in. I’m already too dumb to get in, so I’ll tell you.
There’s a vocabulary test. There’s a test of identifying patterns. There’s a test of historical figures. There’s an arithmetic test. The proctor is supposed to tell you when there’s one minute left in all eight sections. Charlie succeeds in doing so exactly one time. He’s too busy taking the test himself, and occasionally sipping from the Hardee’s cup. This decreases everyone’s likelihood of getting into Mensa, robbing us of the chance to even guess at the remaining questions. Statistically, we will all fail.
The test ends, and Charlie hesitates for a moment after collecting the multiple choice bubble forms. We are not sure if we are allowed to leave. He has control of the room for a few more seconds before we are released to the wild again, to have friends and assign our own value and standards to the people and ideas around us. It could be July for another minute if he wants it to be. Charlie grips the chalk, then goes for it.
“I’d like to give you my email,” he says. “In case you need it.” There’s no reason any of us would need it, but that is why it’s beautiful that he gives it to us anyways. He hopes we will not notice. His email is embarrassing, decades old, reflective of a person he only sort of is now. He replies to Yahoo answers on the internet with very sincere, semi-accurate information. Usually about organs.
Before we leave, he gestures to the embarrassing email and tries to explain. He says that he used to be overweight.
“Not as much anymore,” he said. “But up north, when I was an engineer up north, very fat.” He makes sure we have the calendar of Mensa events. In case we get in.
Charlie wants someone to go to the movies with badly, but lives by strict codes. He would like for all of us to go to the movies with him, but if we are not able to answer fifty arithmetic questions in three minutes with complete accuracy, then we’ll have to find someone else to see The Incredibles 2 with. It sounds stupid because it is stupid, and then I think about my own stupid rules for myself and the people around me, and the fact that I wouldn’t be there if they didn’t exist.
Driving to the Valley early on a Saturday is not a test of intelligence. It’s not even entirely to feel like you’ve paid sixty dollars to be blue checked by the world. It’s an attempt to find people who make sense to you, to build a community of like-minded people because the people around you don’t make sense. Maybe you don’t feel they deserve you, or maybe the opposite. It’s a manic episode that you set yourself up to fail. It’s telling a room full of strangers you used to be fat, but now you’re not, and hope that someone finds that interesting. It’s a waste of money that ends in, hopefully, community.
I emailed Charlie a question about organs today and he answered in under ten minutes. I hope he is happy. I can’t wait to not get in.
Jamie Loftus is a comedian, writer and social media victim of the International Olympic Committee. She’s the creator and star of the Comedy Central online original series Irrational Fears. You can find her some of the time, most days at @jamieloftusHELP or jamieloftusisinnocent.com.