there are rules and then there are principles.
a case study of wade and alice and nathan and molly
Wade’s roommate used to claim that there are two simple steps to getting a woman to fall in love with you.
First, he said, you have to be tragic. A woman, he had carefully explained, was for all practical purposes just a mother waiting to happen, and upon discovering a mysterious, heart-broken soul most will attempt to do the motherly thing and save it. At this point he had leaned in over their kitchen table, half-whispering, “This is an insider’s secret, but I’ll share it because I’m a good friend and because you’re no real competition anyways: Don’t be obvious about it. I mean, just barely hide the fact that you’re sad and lonely. Put up a transparent front. Then, when she sees the tragic truth of your life, she thinks she’s the only one that can help you, because nobody else knows you.”
There was a strange logic to it that was a little sickening, though Wade’s vibrantly colored breakfast cereal kept him distracted. They were off-brand Fruit Loops, if you can believe that – still the same sugar, wheat, and assorted artificial colors and flavors that the originals were made of, only in a plastic bag instead of a cardboard box and therefore half the price. Wade was silently cynical about it. Packaging’s all that counts nowadays. Nathan (that’s Wade’s roommate, for the slow) is packaged thus: he stands about 5’8 with red hair and a goatee, almost abnormally thin. He wears thrift store suits and writes extraordinarily bad political and social manifestos, then e-mails them to his friends. He calls them “rants,” and is mostly oblivious to the fact that everyone deletes them on sight and nobody gives a damn. He has a history of depression that seems to be at least partially fabricated to pick up chicks.
Secondly, Nathan had instructed, you have to have a few dates’ worth of conversation material. Pre-plan jokes. Pre-package conversation topics. The truly enlightened social master must control the flow of conversation and make sure he has memorized a veritable army of clever and/or funny comments to conquer her inevitable thirst for witty banter. Make sure you’ve got enough to last you at least three or four dates, he specified. After that, she’ll probably sleep with you. And then you will have won.
Wade’s single, and Nathan is glad to toss him tips over breakfast, which they typically eat together before going their separate ways each morning.
Not surprisingly, Nathan is also single.
But about the time Nathan was working out the finer details to his supposedly award-winning lovers’ strategy, Wade was starting to doubt that he would remain that way. Nathan spent increasingly more time talking to this girl on the phone at night. He had announced that her name was Molly, and she sounded like a nice enough girl from the plentiful descriptions provided.
And this is a guy that can work a phone conversation like nobody’s business. Nathan works for the phone company as a low-level operator. He and Wade secretly know that it’s because he’s been fired from every other job in the area, but he claims it’s because he loves to help people connect. He confided in Wade on his second day on the job that there’s something magical about the way a girl in love whispers her name into a payphone when making a collect call to her lucky man.
Wade has never subscribed to this theory of connection, but he knows better than to tell Nathan this.
It has been a few months since Nathan first explained his patented two-step methodology and, as far as anyone knows, he has yet to meet Molly face to face. He still routinely talks about her. Usually he hangs up the phone in his cramped bedroom, triumphantly strolls three feet across the hallway to Wade’s, and stands in the doorway, updating him on Molly’s latest charmingly deep insights. Wade, at this point, is trying to get some sleep, and for the most part ignores Nathan. He works early.
In the morning, Wade walks through sliding gates that lead through barbed wire fences. Two armed guards nod at him and usually smile, depending on how tired they are. This is how Wade is packaged: White dress shirt, sleeves already rolled up, pseudo-nice tie, khaki pants. He’s got short-cropped black hair and a perpetual five o’clock shadow. He looks tired regardless of the time of day or how much sleep he’s had.
He sleepily walks down the hallways he knows by heart, grey and cold, lit by an unceasing line of square lights set into the ceiling. This is the Greendale Correctional Facility. Wade is an inmate psychologist.
Four days out of every week, Wade sits in a small room with a small table and two small chairs and talks to the same inmates about their problems, which are also mostly small. Inmate #19243 is very rude to Inmate #53425, for instance, often making crude remarks about #53425's weight despite his obvious insecurities revolving around his appearance. They are cell mates. #53425 is named Zane, and this is really bothering him. Wade takes copious notes, jotting down odd mannerisms and small sketches of robots and army tanks while Zane tells Wade about this one time when his parents took him to a Weight Watchers meeting when he was eleven years old.
“How’d you feel, being the only kid in a room full of overweight adults?” Wade asks, drawing zig-zagged lines from the rectangular eyes of the robot on his notepad. (These represent laser vision.)
“A little…disgusted, I guess.”
Zane is a large man, sporting thinning brown hair and deeply inset brown eyes, and expansive arms, massive python-like structures probably capable of slapping through cinder blocks like paper or tossing a man across the room like some bull tossing a midget rodeo clown into a bleacher section of cheering rednecks. The guy is out of shape and overweight, sure, but his size alone would be intimidating if his personality weren’t so harmless. Wade is proud of this observation and the similes he draws from it.
Zane’s in prison for shoplifting. He jacked a television from an electronics store by throwing a brick through the front window, a real grab-and-go job that would’ve worked if he weren’t slow and there hadn’t been a squad car within ear shot of the store’s alarms. The television wasn’t even for him. It was for his grandmother, a bedridden though incurably sweet woman whose TV had taken a dive a few days prior. For a convict, he comes across as pretty innocent.
“Zane, did you know that disgust is not an inherently human trait?”
He shrugs, scratching his head, and sort of squints, as if trying to concentrate overly hard. “I don’t think I’m sure what you mean.”
“What disgusts little kids? Pretty much nothing. Babies, for instance, will get into anything despite what it is.” He looks at Zane, waiting for some sort of recognition that he is following.
Zane nods. Wade continues:
“Alright, well, people start out without any real conception of disgust. They learn it as children from the facial expressions of their parents, then develop it as they grow up.”
“Yeah. This is going to sound like typical psychologist filler, but at the end of the day is it possible that you’re just looking for acceptance? A way to be comfortable with yourself? You’re disgusted at being put in a place where the implication is that something’s wrong with you and needs to be changed. You’ve learned to hate the way people assign point values to each other.”
He was quiet a long time, and nodded thoughtfully. “And what about my roommate?”
“Wanna know the truth?”
“He’s just a bastard. Plain and simple.”
This is true. Wade’s education has taught him that popular psychology has it that a child learns remorse at approximately 2 years of age. At this point in their development, they should be able to recognize their own wrongdoing and feel guilty about their actions. Zane’s roommate, Inmate #19243 (Wade doesn’t even care about the guy enough to remember his name) is 32 and has not even the tiniest bit of moral fiber.
“You’re welcome, Zane. Have fun on work detail. Interstate 42 today, right?”
Wade’s days are spent with inmates and his nights with Alice. She is beautiful; short blonde hair, cut close to her chin, sparkling sanguine blue eyes. She’s a nursing student where Wade finished school not so long ago, and works in an upscale Italian restaurant as a waitress when she’s not learning how to mend the wounds of the masses. She is funny and quiet and a little awkward at moments. She is sincere unless style dictates that she be aloof and unattainable, which she is at all the right times. Wade’s mother has met her and enjoyed her company. They drank coffee. His mother says she has the “total package” and asks probing questions regarding her on the phone.
Tonight, Wade and Alice sit on the hood of Wade’s Buick and stare self-consciously into the stars. Neither of them is really sure exactly what they’re supposed to be looking at, and it occurs to Wade that they’re probably only there because they’ve seen it before on television, and they’re trying to make sure they get that sort of happy ending. She sighs and looks down at the city. They’re parked in the grass on the top of a hill, under a tree. If it were a location from an 80’s teen movie, it would be called “Makeout Point” or “Action Hill” or something equally obnoxious.
Alice does have one serious character flaw that keeps Wade from fully committing – in certain moments her actions accidentally reveal that the fabric of her delightfully enchanting exterior is held together by thin strands of behavior that sometimes strain to the point that they may snap. Example: One time, when discussing unrequited love, she told him, “You are what you love, not what loves you. I decided that a long time ago.” Taken by her genuine depth, her words stuck with him for some time until he watched Nicolas Cage say them in the movie Adaptation, and felt more than a little disappointed. In the last few months, he has caught her stealing good things to say from one epic drama, two comedies, one Bruckheimer action flick whose primary plot devices were exploding fuel barrels, and three Ben Folds songs.
It is slowly becoming impossible to tell how much of her is carefully (though perhaps subconsciously) constructed for maximum cuteness.
He does not call her out on it because he is pretty sure that he loves her. It’s tough to be sure because the only real gauge he’s got to measure this possibility by is what he’s read, seen on Friends, or been told. But still, he’s pretty sure.
Alice looks back to him, tilting her head slightly sideways, and smiles thinly. She pulls her legs close to her, hugging her knees. “Wade, I think we’ve gotta talk.”
Wade frowns instinctively and lets himself fall backwards on the hood of the car, laying on his back, arms crossed over his chest. Nathan has warned him about that sentence before and its varied implications, none of which are positive. Nathan advises feigning ignorance. “Sure. What about?”
She sighs, biting her lower lip, a behavior arbitrarily associated with nervousness. She looks away, back to the flickering lights of downtown. “I don’t think this is going to work anymore.”
Denial: “What isn’t?”
“This. Us. It just doesn’t…seem right anymore. I keep waiting for it to become something more substantial, but it’s all looking at stars and talking about deep things.” She looks at him, palms up, her body language begging for him to understand her point of view.
He sits up, balling his hands into fists and then shoving them down his jean pockets, looking away.
Anger: “What’s wrong with that?”
Her voice drops in volume. “We couldn’t do that forever, could we?”
He starts to respond, then stutters and pauses, thinking for a moment.
Acceptance: “Yeah, I guess I sort of thought we could.”
They don’t say anything for a long time.
Wade is pissed off and brutally disappointed when he gets home. Alice’s presence is what he wakes up for. He’s supposed to have a girlfriend. He knows finding love is vital to happiness; this has been ingrained in his mind since middle school. If there’s a road map for a successful life, a companion is on it.
He slams the door shut behind him and throws his briefcase on the couch near the door. He shakes his head, then lets out a guttural yell, the visceral, anger-projecting kind that apparently penetrates thin apartment walls, because Nathan timidly peeks his head from the door of his room. His cell phone is pressed to his ear, and he puts his hand over his mouth as he talks into it, but Wade can still hear him say, “Hey, I’ll call you back.” Nathan turns the phone off and slides it into the back pocket of his blue dress pants. They’re frayed at the bottom, where they meet his black shoes. “Hey, is everything alright?”
Wade grips his hair, shaking his head furiously, and purses his lips in an effort to keep from yelling. He takes a deep breath and then shakes his head again, looking at Nathan. “She dumped me, man.”
“Oh, man, I’m sorry. Sit down.” Nathan takes the tone of a sensitive aunt, motioning towards the couch, and runs to the kitchen. He returns seconds later with two beers, one of which he tosses to Wade. He sits down in an armchair across from Wade.
Wade catches the beer, cold and wet against his palms. He opens it, listening for the refreshing hiss of escaping air when he twists the cap. He takes a drink, calming down, and says, “It seems so out of nowhere.”
Nathan nods knowingly with the understanding gaze of a man thoroughly familiar with the politics of love. He takes a long sip of his beer, then sits back, crossing his legs. “Were you tragic? Did you have a good script worked out before your dates?”
Wade rolls his eyes, then leans forward, resting his chin on his hands and his elbows on his knees. “Of course I didn’t.” He sips the beer like an elixir, looking at the floor.
“Well, dude! There’s your problem! How is that something you could ignore? I told you very plainly how to win with her. Look at me and Molly. See how well it’s going?”
Wade takes another drink, then stands up, shrugging frustratedly. Nathan’s relationships are magical in theory and lectured about thoroughly but rarely come to any sort of fruition in the classical sense. Wade is tired of interaction that scores high point values and leaves one feeling dull and utterly used. “Come on, that’s stupid! You still haven’t even met Molly. For all I know, you’re just making her up so you don’t sound pathetic and lonely. “
Nathan holds a halting hand up, sitting up. “Ok, whoa, hold on. Now you’re crossing lines.” He pauses and his facial expression changes. He looks like a cocker spaniel puppy that’s been scolded for eating social studies homework. “…You’re just jealous. Have fun being pissed off and alone. And next time you get dumped for being clueless and having no self-awareness, don’t expect me to listen to you.” He gets up, slams his beer down on the coffee table beside the armchair, and storms towards his room indignantly. As he steps through his bedroom door, Wade sees him reach into his back pocket to whip out his cell phone.
Wade feels guilty, tries to stop him, and then sighs, walking into his own room.
He continues to drink.
It’s 3:47 AM, and Wade’s sitting in a wooden chair near his open bedroom window, crossed ankles resting on the open pane. The wind blows through the opening, gently gliding across him. The room is completely dark aside from the city lights coming in through the window. He taps a half-empty liquor bottle on the side of his chair. He has been thinking for the last few hours. On impulse, he reaches over to his nightstand, nearly falling out of his chair, and grabs his cordless phone receiver. He dials a few numbers, yawning in the darkness.
A pretty sounding female voice answers the phone: “St. Mary’s Crisis Hotline, how can I assist you?”
The reality of the call hits him like a punch line, and he almost laughs but is able to compress it into a sniffle. He’s only half aware of why he’s calling this number at all; synapses are misfiring, impulses derailed and rerouted by alcohol. “Hey, have you got a few minutes?”
The woman on the other end of the phone answers, “Uh-huh. I’ve got all the time in the world. What’s the matter?” The voice is calm, unimposing, and sounds like optimism embodied.
“Alright. Here’s a story and a question.” He takes another sip from his bottle, then sets it in his lap. “A little over a year ago, I was real upset. This was before I met my girlfriend, Alice. I’d just been fired from a job at a psychiatrist’s office listening to people whine like you’re doing right now.”
“Yeah, so I was real upset. And I opened my window, thrusting my whiney little head into the cool night air, and you know what I did?”
“What’d you do?”
“I yelled at the city outside. ‘You have one year,’ I said. ‘Do you hear me? One year. You’d better show some improvement. I’ll be perfectly honest with you – right now, I’m not impressed. You are no longer an asset to this company. If you can’t get it together by next November, you’re fired.’ Like I said, I was pretty upset. You know how they fired me at that psychiatrist’s office?”
“By fax. They faxed me a pink slip. And do you know what month it is?”
“That’s right. December.”
“Did you fire the world yet?”
“No. That’s why I’m talking to you. Given your unique position, you might be able to help me out.”
“Alright, I’m here to help.”
He pauses, taking another drink. He searches his recent memory for the reason he originally called, the question he wants answered. “I need a reason to live.”
“Ok, well…what’s your name?”
“How old are you?” she asks.
“Twenty-seven. How old are you?”
“I’m not allowed to talk about myself.”
“Well, Wade, with suicide cases, most people don’t seem to understand the permanence of their actions. While their problem may seem huge at the time, it will in all likelihood go away, and suicide is forever. It affects everyone around you.”
“Yeah, you’re missing the point. I didn’t want reasons not to die. I have no intention of dying. I just want to hear your best excuse for being alive. The reason is that I think I had this idea about having a cool job and a love interest and stuff, and as of earlier this evening it doesn’t really seem to hold water. So I just want another persepective.”
She doesn’t say anything for a few seconds, but he hears her inhale audibly. There’s a faint sound of computer typing in the background. “Personally, I think everyone has to find their own ways to be happy. For me and most of the people that work with this service, that’s through God. We are affiliated with the Catholic Church, as you may know.”
“Yeah. I don’t know. That doesn’t necessarily feel right to me. I mean, no offense. I just…I thought I knew her, that’s all.”
“Alice.” He’s not satisfied with the belief that he understood and trusted Alice. He thinks, unfortunately, aloud. “But I mean, what does that even mean? I don’t think it’s any different than your commitment to God, I decided a while back. It’s impossible to know if you know someone, you know? It’s a matter of faith.”
“How is it a matter of faith? Knowing a person is really just knowing a set of facts and personality traits.”
“No, there’s something inherently more to it. You’re believing your savior died for your sins, you’re believing your good deeds amount to something, you’re believing Alice is the girl you think she is. It’s all the same.”
“By that logic, you could argue that everything is a matter of faith. If you want to see leaps of faith everywhere around you, then you will.”
“So? What’s wrong with that? Maybe it’s even the same with what you spend your life doing. If you believe that it’s worthwhile, maybe that can help you be happy.”
“What do you do for a living, Wade?” That she works his name into conversation as many times as possible is not lost on Wade. He’s aware that she’s been trained to do so, probably by a psychologist like himself.
“I’m a prison psychologist. I thought it was great when I started. You know, lots of repeat offenders have serious mental and emotional issues that need to be worked out. I wanted to help. But it gets old, so I think I must be missing the point or something. My roommate, he loves his job. He’s an operator for AT&T.”
“Ever think about getting a job with him?”
“Briefly, but I don’t like the idea of it. I think AT&T tells us to ‘reach out and touch someone’ and we only buy it because we don’t know what a touch is supposed to feel like.”
“I don’t know if I agree, Wade, touch is –”
He continues to interrupt. “ – I mean, when Samuel Morse started all of this wire-based communication, did he know that people would be using it to deliver bad news and solicit phone sex? Would Alexander Graham Bell have been so excited about the first phone if he knew generals would use them to order airstrikes on civilian populations— Mothers and daughters, entire cities of children, big happy droves of them playing kickball, suddenly obliterated by whistling metal explosions?”
“You’re just rambling now. Have you been drinking?”
He stops, leaving them in silence for a second. “I think phones are overrated, that’s all.”
“Wow. I can see what you mean.”
“But Nathan, he doesn’t think so.”
“…I’m sorry, what did you say his name was? Your roommate?”
“Nathan. Nathan Dorsey.”
The operator doesn’t say anything for a moment, then coughs. “Wade, I think you’re a smart man with a good head on your shoulders who is going through a difficult time. I believe that you are struggling to find your place in the world and a way to be comfortable with yourself. You have to know who you are and how to relate to others around you before you can feel comfortable in society. I don’t know what this will take. It is your responsibility.”
The problem, as Wade sees it, is that the whole system of human relationships and self-perception is utter bullshit. He hopes he won’t feel so cynical in the morning. “Thanks, ma’am. What’s your name, anyways? You’re allowed to tell me, right?”
“Yes, Wade, I am. It’s Molly. Have a nice night.”
She hangs up the line.
In January, Wade quits his job at the prison and takes up a new one as a middle school guidance counselor. These kids are under more pressure than one might immediately expect. Several are abused physically and sexually, more than one thirteen year old is already acquainted with substance abuse, and one overweight kid is being forced to attend a Jenny Craig program by his mother.
Wade does not feel content. However, he is content with the understanding that he doesn’t have to feel secure. It’s probably not going to be alright any time soon, but maybe enough of it will be, and he’s comfortable taking his time to figure things out. In the meantime, he’s sitting in a ridiculously overstuffed Lazy Boy chair and tossing pieces of hard candy over a wooden table at Jeffrey, a kid whose cocker spaniel recently died. The lighting in the room is a sickly yellow pouring from fluorescent light bulbs long past their time. When Jeffrey asks Wade why the lights are all yellow instead of white, Wade says they’re not yellow.