“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The In Love Test: Openning to Chapter 2 of "The Music Box Routine"


(Start from the beginning) 2:
            I could have moved on. It was just a restaurant job. My time in was accruing at UPS, though, and I figured I should just wait until a full time position opened there. At the time, I wasn’t writing. My mind wasn’t right for writing. I’d fallen in love with the twenty-five-year-old bartender and general manager. She was something of a phenom, a cute chick running the whole restaurant, somehow never brooking challenges. Thinking back, I see that type of intense competence came at a cost, but at the time I was bowled over by her, like everyone else.

            I started working at the restaurant just a year before Anton introduced me to the community, and I was getting sick of the bar scene. Maybe that’s why I had such high hopes for her. We had our differences though. But all that’s for another story. Suffice to say that at first she was after me but I was focusing on certain deal-breaking attributes of hers, but then something shifted and I decided to overlook those attributes. So then I went after her and things almost worked out. But then they didn’t. When it was over, I had gotten the worst of it.

            You show up at work one day and start your opening duties, and the woman you’re still in love with but who’s in another relationship now poses the question to a coworker, “How do you know if you’re in love?” You have the thought that she’s purposely torturing you, or at least assessing your response. Steve, the coworker, gives a lame answer like, “Well, you just know.” And then asks, “Why do you ask?” The woman you’re in love with says, “No reason, I’m just wondering.”

            You’re already set to spend the rest of the day agonizing over the implications when the fourth person in the kitchen, another attractive woman who’s much younger, chimes in with, “Yeah right, you’re in love with Steffen—you want to have his babies.” She turns toward you as she says this, clearly expecting to see you wince.

            Not wanting to indulge her, you turn your back to her just as the woman you love says, “I told him I wanted to have his abortion.”

            On the first date you had with this woman you love you went to her apartment and watched the movie Fight Club. After the scene where Tyler Durden tells the story of his night with Marla, she said, “I guess in the book Marla doesn’t say, ‘I haven’t been fucked like that since I was a school girl.’ She says, ‘I want to have your abortion.’” And she’s used the line with you on more than one occasion, saying, “I want to have your abortion.”

            If she hadn’t reprised that line, you would probably have just taken your licks and gone through the day, the week, the next few months completely miserable. But the line suggests her infliction of pain is personal and deliberate.

            “I know a test that will tell you whether or not you’re really in love.” You say this even though at that moment you really don’t have any such test in mind. But you have to do something to retaliate, and you do have some inchoate glimmerings of an idea. The younger woman hears you say this, even though your back is to her and you’re on your way out of the kitchen. The woman you love is prepared to dismiss it. But you can work with that.

            You go from the kitchen to the bathroom and stand looking in the mirror, taking deep breaths, recovering from the surprise onslaught, trying to recall a night of fun with your best friend, one of those ridiculous drunken misadventures that reliably cracks you up. And just like that your idea takes shape. You really do have a test to see if someone is in love. And you even have a plan for how to use it to get what you’re really after.

            Tina is the younger attractive woman at work. She’s the type of girl who gets hated on by other girls because she’s cute and skinny and has a sunny disposition. Until that comment about the woman you love wanting to have someone else’s babies, you thought Tina was on your side, that you could count on her to help you. But now she was going to help you whether she knew it or not.

            “What’s this test you were talking about?” she asks out in the dining room.

            “Well, I can’t tell you about it or it won’t work. You just have to do it.”

            So the two of you go to the server station, a small room with better lighting tucked in between the bar and the dining room. You position her against the wall where there’s the most light on her face, tell her to close her eyes and count backward from a hundred by sevens. In the middle of the task, you tell her to stop, open her eyes, and imagine Mike, her boyfriend, smiling at her. Now the light ought to make her pupils contract when she opens her eyes, but the thought of the man she’s in love with will be arousing to her and make her pupils dilate.

            Tina opens her eyes, grins fatuously, and you’re standing close enough to see her pupils contract from the light and then dilate. Trying not to be shocked that the test actually worked, you laugh and say, “You looked right at me when you opened your eyes, so now I don’t know if you’re in love with Mike or with me.” She laughs too and playfully pushes you away. You figure now you won’t have to recruit the woman you love for the test. Tina will do it for you. The key is to start with the minions and work your way up.
——————————
            Less than ten minutes later you’re facing the woman you love as she stands in the same spot in the server’s station where Tina was before. Only this time, four other people are crammed in behind you because word of your test has spread to everyone in the building. The woman you love makes it clear she finds you distasteful and only reluctantly agreed to the test. She makes threats about what will happen if you touch her. Tina assures her no physical contact is involved.

            She stands there, closes her eyes, and begins the distraction task of counting backward from a hundred by sevens. You wait a few moments and then say, “Now open your eyes and picture Steffen smiling.”

            You see her smile fatuously, just as Tina had, but she’s not directly facing you as Tina was. You don’t even bother looking at her eyes, which are blue and would be easier to see dilation in. You just watch her smile, as much from the sudden realization of how the test works as from the image in her mind, wait a beat, and then turn to the gathered audience with a devilish smile, saying, “Did you see it?” They’re all amazed, even though you doubt there’s any way they could have seen such a subtle change from as far away as they’re all standing.

            You make sure to be the one who’s in the biggest hurry to get back to work and you hear two more women coworkers wondering aloud what their own test results would show. But you won’t be doing any more tests today.
——————————
            Some time later, you’re sitting by yourself near the front door of the restaurant, awaiting the first customers of the day, and you see the woman you love emerge from the kitchen, walk the length of the dinning room, and sit down on one of a series of extra chairs lining a wall near the entrance. She looks perplexed. “I don’t think your test is valid,” she says, “because I’m not in love with Steffen.”

            You go through the motions of defending your research protocol—“Well, maybe it doesn’t test love exactly, but it would test attraction”—even though you want to howl in triumph. You know your test did exactly what you designed it to do.
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            Will made me tell him the story of how I came up with The In-Love Test again and again. He liked it because he thought I was stubbornly aloof when it came to women and I’d only ever really been interested in two, both of whom had done a pretty good job of working me over before they moved on. For Will, my little scheme to get Laura to tell me she wasn’t in love with Steffen looked like this grand turnaround for my love life. And maybe it was. It was about five months into our first dabblings with pick up, and the idea was clearly influenced by the type of gambits used in the community. But somehow, as happy as I was that day, as triumphant even, I wasn’t really—well, happy. A turnaround for me would’ve been meeting someone I was attracted to and compatible with, someone I didn’t immediately come to loggerheads with over some major philosophical or personal issue.

            Will probably liked the jujitsu of The In-Love Test; someone came at me with superior power and I used her own power against her. I was surprised that in the conversations we had in the coming months he was as interested in the cognitive aspects of my creativity under fire as he was in how effective the product was—it not only put me even with Laura but also set me up to go to third base with Tina the following weekend. (I was overly passive with Tina, wanting to have fun, wanting to build some confidence, but not really needing to upset her life thoroughly—she called things to a halt after the progression stalled for a while, for the sake of her boyfriend. Still, I felt guilty.) If I had been on track to be the abandoned lovable loser of our little luncheonette, after the test I was no one to fuck around with. Pretty cool. 

            “So you left the kitchen,” Will said one night sitting across from me at Corner Pocket, one of our bars, “and you went in the bathroom to Zen yourself out. But you already must’ve had the idea in your head because you said you had a test before going out the door.”

            “I hadn’t worked it out all the way through. All I had was confidence that I could come up with something. That I could use pupil dilation came to me, I think, in the two or three steps between the kitchen and the bathroom.”

            “And you knew whatever test you came up with she would disagree with its results?”

            “Honestly, I hadn’t gotten that far. I think I just wanted to take control at that point, you know, steal the show so I could go wherever I wanted with it, get all the attention focused on me.”

            “So when did you know you could get her to admit she didn’t love the guy?”

            “I can’t say. Really, it seemed like I hadn’t known until she came out and said it, but afterward it was like I knew she would. I was kind of just following the general rule of dealing with rivals by appearing to push them together with the target. But on some level I recognized a scientifically framed test would have a particular significance to her, that she wouldn’t be able to resist challenging me.”

            As he continued trying to parse my process of inspiration, it began to seem less and less like I’d really managed to take control and more like I’d been ridiculously lucky. Even as I was feeling less triumphant about it, though, Will was seeing it as more and more impressive. And since he was aggressively dismissive of my feelings toward any one special girl, as if he disapproved of me letting anyone have that much power over me, I didn’t understand why he was so fascinated with the details of the ruse. It wasn’t like I’d figured out a way to turn off my feelings for Laura.

            Looking back, I think that the element of her having so much power over me and me still managing to get one over on her was what impressed him. And Will may be a much better performer than me, but he’s never really been clever or creative in a way that would make him capable of devising a new strategy under fire. Still, he ended up getting a lot more mileage out of the In-Love Test than I ever did, using it with women at the tail end of lackluster relationships with less motivated men. What a bizarre but thrilling experience it was to watch my best friend use the same words I’d spoken under the pressure of passion to woo a woman he’d just met.

            “What happened?” she’d ask eagerly.

            “You looked right at me,” he’d say laughing. “Now I don’t know if you’re in love with your boyfriend or just really attracted to me.”

            But Will would have his moment of passion, when he had to defend himself, and he dealt with it at least as cleverly as I ever could have. That’s why I look back to all those times when we talked about the In-Love Test, and all the pick up gambits he never would have learned if not for me, and I wonder if I’m not at least as responsible for what he did as he is. I didn’t know what the plan was when I mailed that damn music box—but I didn’t know what the plan was, really, when I tricked Laura and Tina. Somehow, though, I knew what I was doing. Will might have kept me in the dark because he knew I’d feel guilty. But apparently neither of us is clever enough to trick my conscience. The biggest surprise of the story, though, is that Will had so much trouble with his own.
——————————
            “I got a text that woke me up,” Will said over the phone at three in the morning. “It said ‘wake up. get a knife from the kitchen. go to the bathroom.’ It wasn’t real. I was fucking dreaming. But I woke up in the hall like I was on my way to the bathroom.” It was getting worse. He was in real trouble. “Scott, I have never sleep-walked before in my life. Stacy put some kind of curse on me, I fucking know it. I know it’s just suggestion. I know it’s all bullshit. But I can’t help it man. I’m freaking the fuck out.”

            Will had brought me the package with the music box in it. I’d had it delivered to Stacy. The label stated clearly that it had been sent two days earlier. The gift looked exactly like it was intended as nothing but a gift. It was perfect. And it had exactly the effect it was designed to have. But its effects continued beyond the one who’d received it. I knew I was responsible. So I had a new problem to solve.

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