"Step One: Try everything else before you come crying to us."
The Perfect Strangers Club is a dating service for people who hate themselves. Of course, it doesn't promote itself like that. It's supposed to be a "transformational dating experience" and that sounds peachy at first, but everyone knows it as the dating service of last resort.
The system is pretty extreme. It works like a twelve-step program. Except when you're done with it, you should be a completely different person, or at least have a soul mate. And it's not that the program actually believes in soul mates. It just assumes that if you change with someone enough, you'll inevitably have an intimate connection, like two pieces of candy that melted into each other in a hot car.
Does it work? I've heard a lot of different things. Some people find they get matched with people they really like. At some point, they just start ignoring the program, date like normal, and have relatively successful relationships that fizzle and die in a couple months. Some people walk away without a soul mate, but at least completely transformed, as promised. And they're emboldened enough by this to tackle the mainstream dating world on their own again. There have been a couple suicides, but that's to be expected.
When I joined, I'll admit now, I hadn't actually tried everything. And maybe that was part of my problem. While I had tried all the major dating websites like OK Cupid and Match.com, and even had a couple friends try to set me up with blind dates, I hadn't tried some of the smaller dating websites or the more obscure methods on the checklist. I wasn't about to send away for a mail-order bride or attempt an arranged marriage. Some of the checklist options were so obscure, I doubt anyone else ever really did all these things. #63: Ask out everyone on the subway/bus. #117: Date a second cousin. #234: Bring someone home from an orgy. #256: Try being gay (or, if you are gay, straight) for a week.
After filling out some preliminary paperwork, I waited in an office full of desperate singles. It had that sanitized doctor's office smell, but it was overlapped by an assortment of overwhelming perfumes and colognes, laid on too thick to bear. I found it hard to believe all these women hated themselves too. They looked normal, generic, perfect fives if I'd ever seen one. I would have been satisfied to be matched with any one of them. But I got Tammy.
The receptionist came into the waiting room with a handful of papers. Her hair was firetruck red, and pinned back in a bun. She wore a black pantsuit, black dress shoes with silver buckles that matched her belt and buttons. One of her socks was dark blue, like she couldn't find the matching black sock and didn't give a damn.
She started calling out names. "Cheryl." The names were read like a bored child asked to read aloud for the class. "Ken." She played like a grainy old cassette tape, long since discarded in favor of sweeter digital voices. "Annette."
As she called off names, people rose from the grooves in their seats and approached her. They were handed forms with brief introductions to their matches, which they signed, handing the salmon copy over to the grainy receptionist. She collected them with as much zeal as she had handed them out, and the clients left in pairs. After a couple dozen names had been called off, I found myself as lonely as I'd arrived.
As the mirthless receptionist sifted through her pink pile, confirming signatures, I approached her. "Umm..."
She looked up. Her eyes were the color of mush. "Audrey, I presume?" She handed me the form on a clipboard. "Yeah, we were a little uneven today, so they matched you with me." She stuck her hand out. "Tammy. Pleasure."
"Step Two: Bare your soul. This is the only way to know if you're a lost cause."
She wouldn't let me into her apartment while I waited for her to change. So I just stood in the hallway, outside of 26A, scuffing my toe on the dingy carpet. It was so thin and worn it felt and looked more like a packed dirt floor. All the other Perfect Strangers had gone straight from the waiting room and on to their date. This was what I'd been expecting to do, but Tammy didn't "feel herself" in her work clothes, so we had to make a pit stop at her apartment. I know women usually take a while to get changed, but she was taking a lot longer than I expected for someone who hated herself.
The form I'd been given said she'd been working as a receptionist for Perfect Strangers Dating Services, Inc. for three years, since the company's founding. She went to community college for a semester, but never went back because it "wasn't for her." I was surprised to see that she was 23; she seemed too disenchanted to be so young. Besides that, I wasn't expecting to be matched with someone seven years my junior. Some of her hobbies included web design, clubbing, and rock climbing. I didn't fully believe the rock climbing bit until she finally came out.
Her hair sat wavy on her shoulders, and was more overwhelming now that it was down. It was like an assignment a school kid had turned in that was so bad the teacher just opened up her pen and doused it in red ink. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Her black leather jacket clung to her bosom, but ended just above her belly button, giving way to a low-cut white lace shirt underneath, which she tucked into a black skirt. The skirt ended too abruptly to reveal white fishnet stockings on legs that went on forever and eventually ended at a pair of black leather high heel boots. The overall effect was dumbfounding. I wanted to lick whipped cream off of any part of her. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
She lifted one leg, grabbing her boot and readjusting it. "Ugh. I hate heels. Let's go before I change my mind about this."
I wanted to bring Tammy to a charming, family-run Italian place down off Chickasaw, the kind of place that knows me by name, but she insisted on having her choice of dinner venue. My GPS instructed me to turn right off of Orange Blossom at a dingy bar called The Junkyard Saloon. The main parking lot was full, so I went down a little dirt path next to the bar that lead to a dirt clearing with more parking space. There was a big metal building from which I could hear screaming and cymbal crashes. When I stepped out of the car, the music reverberated through the soles of my feet.
"Fun fact: this used to be an old Speak Easy back in the day." She gestured to the side of the building where "The Dungeon" was spray-painted across it. "Now they have local shows, all week. I saw Crimson Valkyrie last Tuesdayfucking spectacular."
"Huh. Never heard of them," I said. "What kind of music do you listen to?"
"Oh, you know, mostly metal. Thrash, hardcore, black, that sort of thing." Her heel caught on a tree root as we were walking to the bar, and she cursed.
"Oh. Well, I like soft rock, smooth jazz. I usually listen to Delila on the radio most nights."
Tammy snorted. "Fucking pussy."
I was suddenly very apprehensive about baring my soul for this person as we entered The Junkyard.
"So," she began as we took our seats at a booth in a smoky corner of the bar. She took her time getting settled, producing a cigarette and lighter from seemingly nowhere. "I was born in Maine. Yourself?"
"I, uh..." I couldn't stop staring at the flare at the end of her cigarette, wondering if she knew there were laws against smoking, even in out-of-the-way bars like this where the only customers were probably prostitutes at worst and bikers who ate their cigarettes when they were done at best. But no one seemed to be saying anything. "I was born here. Orlando. When did you move down here?"
"When I was nine. Family relocated, not my choice," she rushed through, like reciting lazily memorized lines. "You're a paralegal. School?"
"UCF. I was in the top"
"Does this count as 'baring our souls'?"
Tammy stopped, sucking in nicotine and chewing on my words. I withdrew into myself as her eyes pierced through me. They were as smoggy as the bar. I considered a quick apology, to acknowledge that brazen looked much better on her than it did me. It was easily the biggest part of her sex appeal.
She exhaled, smoke distorting her image. "You want to get right to it then? Okay." She dove into her personal history, starting from when she was a toddler living with her mother and uncle in a trailer park in Maine. Her uncle molested her when she was six, and continued to do so until she was eight and her mother caught him in the act. She had him arrested, but died a year later of throat cancer. Tammy was shipped to Florida to live with her estranged father, who raped her within a year of her living with him. Living in rural Florida with no friends or family nearby, this went on for five years. When she was fourteen and learned sex ed in school, she got very scared by the idea of being pregnant with her own brother. She seduced a twenty-year-old man online and convinced him to help her run away. She lived with him until she was almost seventeen. After being abused by him, she left him to live on the streets. She survived mostly through prostitution, though she occasionally stole bikes and disassembled them to sell the parts. When she turned eighteen, she was discovered by some counselors from a homeless shelter, who brought her a sandwich and coleslaw in a paper bag. While living at the shelter, she was able to get her G.E.D. and a regular job. Since she wasn't an addict like many others at this shelter, the transition to independence was a swift one. Since then, she'd been living and working on her own for four years.
After saying all this without hardly a pause, she put her cigarette to her lips and took a long drag, as if that was how she came up for air. She carried all this trauma on her shoulders as though it were light as air. Where others might need a lifetime of therapy to overcome the emotional and psychological damage done by so much abuse and hardship, she trudged along, plowing forward with a stubborn focus I have rarely seen in others.
She exhaled, another cloud curling around her face like oil swirling in a puddle. "Well?"
"Don't be," she said, leaning back and crossing her legs. "My experiences have made me a terrible person. I accept that. And now I'm ready to put myself behind me."
"I don't know what to say."
She patted the table gently. "Your soul. Lay it out. C'mon, then I can kick your ass at pool."
Tammy's biography was a hard act to follow, but I did my best. I started telling her about my performance in elementary school, how it lead me to be tested for the gifted program. I got to about middle school and my pubescent awkwardness before she started making her way toward a vacant pool table. I tried to tell her about high school as I followed her, recalling all the clubs I was involved with, before my enthusiasm fizzled out entirely. My story wasn't even worth telling up to present. She seemed to already know me. The only thing keeping her from telling me to shut up already were probably the scraps of pity she felt for me having such a bland upbringing.
I watched on in silence as Tammy set the balls and broke. She handed me the cue.
"Well?" I asked.
She paused for effect, looking past me, then blew a cloud of smoke in my face. "You're a perfectly loathsome human being." There was no malice or resentment in her words. Just a statement, so simple, as if it was the only obvious answer.
"So are you," I said stiffly. I was confused. I thought perhaps this was supposed to be a part of the seduction process.
"Step Three: Skin yourself down to your race and gender. This is the canvas on which you will paint your new self."
"So what do you hate most about yourself?"
This was the second date. Again, Tammy picked the place, this time a laser tag venue called Hard Knocks. It seemed to have taken first-person shooters to the next level, offering unnervingly realistic combat simulation.
"I don't know, I guess, maybe, that I'm not very assertive." I stumbled over my words as I watched her inspect her weapon. It resembled a military-quality AK-47 so closely that I flinched when she pointed it at me as I tried to eat.
"Good." She was looking down the barrel of her weapon at my face. "Then that'll be the first thing to go," she resolved for me.
"I'm sorry," I said, "I don't think I understand what we're doing at this step."
"Simple," she said, lowering her weapon and putting on her flack jacket, "just forget everything you ever knew about yourself. You're a single white male, looking for a good time. You're a baby again, an animal."
I dabbed at my pizza with a napkin. It was easy enough to say that in such an abstract sense, but there was no clear way to apply it.
"Eat, fight, fuck," she declared.
"Those should be your only motivations anymore. Eat. Fight. Fuck."
"That doesn't sound like me at all."
"That's the entire point." She watched me as I continued dabbing my pizza, soaking up excess grease. A silence passed between us. I felt the burning contact of her hand as she slapped away my napkin from my hand. "Shit, man! Eat!"
Startled, I lifted the slice to my mouth and took a huge bite.
She twisted her mouth to the side and puckered. "I guess we need to put a little distance between us and our old selves." I kept chewing, trying not to gag on the grease now swathing my tongue. "I know," she announced. "Nicknames. I'll be Tam from now on. How about you? Your name doesn't really translate well into a nickname, huh?"
"I've always liked Gary." The words came out garbled, like they were swimming through a thick fluid to get out. I rushed to cover my mouth as I gagged again.
"Guy. I like it," she said. "Kind of a tabula rasa of names." She rubbed her chin, smiling. It was such a strange expression to see on her face, it looked like she had transformed into a new person.
I didn't try to correct her. She seemed really attached to the idea now, and I'd have to fight her to have it any other way.
"Alright Guy, so what say you we work on that assertiveness problem right now? We're not leaving this place until you beat me in a one-on-one round."
I didn't even try to explain to her the difference between assertiveness and combativeness. She was already on her feet, retrieving her gun.
"What do you want out of this?" I asked Tam.
"Same thing everyone else does. Some kind of happiness. Whatever that is."
"No, I mean what's the point of having me beat you?"
"Oh. Well, you'll see, I'm sure."
The combat scenario was set in a convincing cubicle farm. It reminded me of the desk job I worked while I was putting myself through college. The memories weren't really very enjoyable ones, so I stuffed them into the back of my mind, on a high shelf far out of reach.
I thought beating Tam would be a breeze. An hour shooting at each other, I would at least get one or two more hits than her, right? But she dodged my shots skillfully, with the ease of a trained soldier. She fired from cover, somersaulted from one location to the next, and seemed to never miss a shot. It was like someone was behind her controls and knew all the secret attack combos. Or she had military experience she had failed to mention to me.
By the end of the escapade, the score was 153 to 2.
We had a couple of rounds like this, which left me feeling more and more like a little boy with one shriveled testicle. "I can do this all day," she said, as she lit a cigarette between rounds. I was still panting, a burning sensation rising in my gut. As we entered the cubicle farm again, I was suddenly transported to that old job. I pictured Tam transformed into Craig, my old supervisor, shooting down all my proposals for improving business and employee morale.
"Not enough funds, Audrey."
"We don't have time for this project."
"Ha, we have better things to do."
Suddenly I was scoring. Bewildered, this seemed to break Tam's concentration. She was still making some hits on me, but not nearly as many as before.
My fury multiplied as I recalled how he had stolen Julie, one of my co-workers, as if plucking her from my embrace. Before I knew it I was climbing on cubicle walls, knocking over props, firing relentlessly onto Tam. She stopped even trying to dodge and just stood in the open, arms slack to her sides. The round ended like that.
The rage seeped from me like water through a clogged drain. Watching me, she just smirked.
"Step Four: Burn your wardrobe. Change your general appearance until you are unrecognizable."
I didn't expect Tam to take this next step so literally. She showed up at my doorstep, her stop-sign-red hair lopped off, like a three-year-old had gone at it with scissors.
"Are you ready?" she asked, her eyes wild and darting. I thought for a moment she might be on something, but perhaps this was just part of the new Tam, her trying out a new costume. I kind of liked it; her excitement was contagious.
"I guess I have no choice. What are we doing?"
She pointed her thumb over her shoulder at a truck pulled over on the curb, the color of which matched her hair perfectly. There was a blue tarp pulled over the bed, with white ropes tied across the top, looking like it was a patriotically-wrapped gift. I just looked back at her, raising an eyebrow, waiting for a better explanation.
"I already collected all my clothes." She pushed past me. "Where's your bedroom?"
I sighed at her barging in, but at least my apartment was clean and there was nothing to be embarrassed about. Except how generic everything was. Plain old couch, plain old end tables and coffee table, overpriced mass-produced paintings I bought from a man selling canvasses on a street corner in front of a run-down gas station, and, on the bright side, a respectable 48" plasma T.V. I rewarded myself with after getting my last tax return.
As Tam rounded the corner into my bedroom, she ran her finger over my polished dresser surface and looked at it. "You're pretty tidy for a bachelor."
"Thanks," I said hesitantly.
We paraded through the living room and down the hallway with drawers from my dresser and handfuls of hanging clothes, dumping them into the bed of the truck. After locking up, she drove us to the nearest Goodwill.
"Why didn't you pull up to the donation center?" I asked her as we parked in the front lot and climbed out.
"We're gonna grab temporary outfits so we can get rid of what we're wearing too." She looked over her shoulder at me. "I have other plans for our old clothes."
She grabbed a random t-shirt and a pair of jeans and went to try them on. I found a pair of size 38 jeans and started perusing the t-shirts, looking for one I might like, before realizing five minutes in that this should be something my new me would like. I found a black shirt that said "I lost my phone number, can I have yours?" After purchasing these and a pair of sneakers, I went to the changing room.
By the time I came back out, Tam was at the register showing the cashier the tags on her clothes as she tore them off. Her old outfit was in a bundle under her arm. She turned to me, grinning. She was starting to look happy.
We tossed our old clothes into the back of the truck and made our way north to Oviedo.
I watched on as a clump of ash dribbled onto the tail of a gray suit jacket and set it aflame. Inky smoke billowed into the air like roiling thunder clouds, smoggy and acrid from the assortment of dyes the fire was consuming. I had very little grief over sacrificing my entire wardrobe (most of it was old anyway), except for that jacket. It was part of the the outfit I wore on my first date with Julie nine years ago.
I didn't date much in high school, or even college for that matter, so when I hit it off with Julie after meeting her at my first job, it hit me like a sudden storm. She was playful, kind, had a sharper wit than anyone in the office, and she was mine. For a time.
Suddenly the jacket lit up and shriveled under the growing heat, transmuting into white smoke, crackles, and flecks of black ash. I watched it until it vanished, then took a swig of my beer. I tossed the empty bottle onto the top of the shrinking mass of everything Tam and I once wore.
I jumped when someone tapped my shoulder with another beer. "Isn't this refreshing?" Tam's voice still sounded like we were driving down the dirt roads that brought us here to this abandoned clearing. Audrey was not much of a drinker, but Guy turned out to be one. I took the beer and twisted the cap off. It made a crisp sound and cold air steamed out of it as if we were in a commercial.
Tam sat down in the folding chair beside me and leaned back, letting her chair fall to the ground so she could stare at the sky. I followed suit, splashing a little beer on myself as I landed.
Far away from the theme park lights, the night sky revealed itself as a thick velvet sheet covering the globe, with millions of little pinpricks in it through which stars, many long since dead, blinked in a celestial dance. It seemed they performed only for the lonely denizens of Earth, slowly revolving in the night sky in a seasonal cycle to guide lost ships home.
"Tomorrow we're going to do a ton of shopping," Tam announced.
I laughed. "I sure hope so, 'cause I don't have any clean underwear anymore."
She laughed vaguely, and poured beer into her mouth, focusing to swallow. "And I'm going to get a makeover. Not sure if you want to join me in that."
"Nah," I said, "if anything, I need to sweat and get some dirt under my nails."
Tam's jagged hair splayed out under her head like a sunburst as she stared skyward. I considered turning to her, running my fingers through that halo, pulling her close, and exposing to her my flaring passion, but I wasn't drunk enough just yet.
She turned her head in my direction, muddy eyes glistening. "What?"
"Nothing," I muttered, looking away, back to the infinite cosmos.
"Step Five: Sell or otherwise destroy all your possessions. You are no longer your car."
I half expected Tam to take this step to its suggested extreme as she did with the last one, but it seemed, for practical purposes, we needed to make some money. We'd broken the bank with our shopping excursion earlier in the week and had to make up for it. Thankfully, Tam seemed to have a knack for advertising.
"1-Day Only Yard Sale everything must go!" was the title of the Craiglist posting she made. In it she listed a bunch of the things that were being sold and welcomed hagglers. (She promised to train me with them.) The neighborhood was littered with professional-quality signs within a five-mile radius of my home. The parked cars overflowed into my neighbors' yards and driveways, onto the streets, blocking in their vehicles. When they hollered my old name from across the street, I just lifted my sunglasses and shrugged in reply.
After getting up at the crack of dawn to dump the contents of both our homes out onto my lawn, Tam and I slathered each other in lotion and kicked back in our lawn chairs and swim suits, basking in the mild morning sun. It was bearable for several hours, up until about 10 AM, when the Florida heat started to sink in, feeling like thousands of needles on the surface of our skin that we couldn't help but itch at. "It feels like my scalp is on fire," Tam said, scratching under her boyish styled hair, now dyed black and sucking up all the sun's heat.
Tam threw on a light sundress and I grabbed a couple of lawn umbrellas to shade our seats. By this time, the locals were just starting to roll out of their Saturday-morning slumbers and were arriving en masse. Before then, only the occasional elderly couple or dog-walker drifted by and bought a couple odds and ends, but after 10 AM, it was time for some fierce haggling.
"Just remember," Tam coached, "these are your things. You know what they're worth."
I was skeptical of this, until a middle-aged man approached me with a leaf blower in hand. "How much you askin' for this?" he asked.
"I'll take a hundred."
"Eh," said the man, lips furling to reveal a broken tooth, "I've seen used blowers like this in the papers for a lot less. How about fifty?"
"I'm no taking less than ninety for it," I countered. I then crossed my arms over my bare chest. "Unless you want to go get the Saturday paper, show me a better deal?"
He scowled under his breathe, going for his wallet. He fingered through his bills before looking up. "Eighty-five, and we have a deal."
And just like that, my leaf blower was gone. Some things I didn't think I had a price for, but when asked, a dollar amount sprung to my lips, as if summoned. This way, my lamps disappeared, my tiki torches, my toaster oven, my rocking chair, my big screen, everything vanished from my lawn. Being able to part with these things so readily, things I may once have regarded as priceless, put a lot of distance between us. It turned out everything did have a price.
Tam patted my behind as another barely-pleased customer drove off. "Looks like you're a natural at thiswho knew?" She handed me a wad of cash double the size of the one in my pocket.
By the end of the evening, most of our big-ticket items were gone. The jewelery, priceless heirlooms, electronics, appliances, lawn care equipment, fine china, all slapped with price tags and haggled out of our world. All that was left were a few knickknacks of the past, to be scavenged through by the overheated pedestrians and rubberneckers.
One elderly Hispanic man brought a little oak polished chest up to me, asking, "Como?" The front of the box was latched shut with a tiny lock. I wasn't even sure if I still had the key for it.
"Um, no, that's not for sale," I said slowly, letting him read my lips. "No sale. My mistake."
His frown lines dripped down his face, but he left my yard empty-handed. I sneaked the chest back inside while Tam wasn't looking, too preoccupied with a college-age girl, selling her used make-up.
That was Julie's box. I would sort through it on my own time.
What was left by sundown we threw in the truck for another cleansing bonfire. Our vehicles, we would trade in later in the week; our computers, we'd sell after we completed the next step. But for now, we just had to purge those last little totems of our past. We watched on and laughed and shared the characters we had met that day, and as the rumbling skies spit down on our smoldering remains, our cremated selves, we fell into each others arms to share warmth we didn't need in the lukewarm shower in the humid dead of night.
But at two in the morning, I went home to Julie. I sat in my empty living room that, even with lush carpets, still echoed back every creaking doorknob, every groan, every sniffle and sob, echoing her name back to me. Julie. Julie. Julie.
These were the little nothings she passed to me during the work day. These were the movie stubs, the basketball tickets, the memorabilia of plays and concerts we experienced together. And remembering it all, coming back to all those moments that were at once so precious and again so distant, I cried like a lost child knowing, knowing that Tam's touch would never electrify me the way Julie's did.
"Step Six: Murder your e-self. Cancel all your subscriptions. Your inbox and mailbox should be barren."
We each spent a week in solitude e-detectiving ourselves, finding instructions for closing our email accounts, Facebook and MySpace pages, burning social network bridges. Mildred at the Orlando Sentinel sounded crushed when I called to cancel my Sunday subscription. Good-bye law journals, farewell cooking magazines, auf wiedersehen strange scams and junk mail. But every time one message board or social network was eliminated, I felt a huge burden lift from my shoulders. All those social obligations and reading obligations and demands of my attention, gone. A clean slate. I felt like I would have time to do whatever I wanted, for once in my life.
But the amount of work I had to pour into this was asinine. I didn't know how Tam was doing it without the legal background I had. The research I had to put into annihilating some of these accounts was comparable to the work I'd done researching some cases.
While working on my mess, I thought to check out Tam's Facebook to see if she needed any help getting rid of it. I found her page, her profile picture an angled shot with her formerly unmistakable mass of fire-alarm-red hair. Either she needed help getting the page down, or she hadn't gotten around to it yet.
Her privacy settings were set low, so I viewed her wall before doing anything else.
"Can't believe you playing this again... when you gonna grow up? Call me" posted by Claire.
"You're ruining lives, I hope you know that" posted by Keith.
"When will you quit this PS Club?!" posted by Aaron.
There were almost a dozen messages like this. She hadn't mentioned having any problems at work, but then again, I hadn't asked. I failed to read between the lines at the time. I just figured, after the next step, everything would eventually just clear itself up.
"Step Seven: Your job is a major part of your old identity. Quit it. Do something else."
Tam had no heartache over leaving Perfect Strangers Dating Services, Inc. In fact, they seemed glad to see her go. But I had neither rage nor animosity toward my job. It took some prodding from Tam to get me to give up that stability.
"So you're thirty," she said to me, counting off fingers as she was listing all the little miseries in my life, "you're still a paralegal and you aren't going anywhere, you're job doesn't offer tuition reimbursement, you get paid practically in peanuts, and you hate your boss."
"I don't hate Rick," I asserted.
"Sure you do," she insisted. "I know he may be nice, and you may think he's your friend, but all these other factors imply that he just likes having a loyal workhorse. That's not a friend. You shouldn't be chums with a boss like that."
We were on our way to my office where, one way or another, I was walking out unemployed. But she kept insisting the terms should be mutually furious, and I just didn't see the point in that.
Tam waited outside as I entered the office. The smell of hot coffee jolted me, as it usually did every morning. Before the door even closed behind me, Rick swung around the corner of the hallway. "Audrey! Where have you been?" Before I could even spit out an explanation, he had his arm draped over my shoulder and was walking me in the direction of my office. I had no idea why he was taking me there; I was clearly not dressed for work. "You didn't return any of my calls, I needed your help on Saturday. And then you didn't come in the last two dayswhat's going on with you?"
I figured it would just be easier to come out and say it, but Rick didn't want to take me seriously. "Don't be ridiculous. Look, whatever you have going on with you right now, I'm sure we can work it out. What can I do to help?"
"No, I'm really quitting."
He sat on my desk, fingers criss-crossed over his lap, leaning forward and ready to listen, ignoring what I was saying.
"Did you hear me?"
"Yes. Go on."
"So what I'm hearing is, you're not satisfied here. Am I getting that right?"
Rick was wonderful with people. He had a devoted list of clientele, and no matter how distressed someone was when they walked in our doors, after Rick saw them, they always managed to leave dry-eyed and with a hopeful smile. Rick could not comprehend that there was no hope left for me, that this was not a crisis he could talk me down from.
He just focused on me, eyes round and calm. How could he be so attentive while missing everything?
"I'm just going to pack up my things here." I didn't really want my things; it would just be more fuel for the bonfire. I just figured this would make the decision clear to him. I try to start boxing up my things, but Rick hops up from the desk and blocks my way.
The creases on his brow were vague, like he wasn't used to scowling like this. "You at least owe me an explanation."
The entitled little shit.
I scowled back, jolting the sour look right off his face. I had much more practice than he. "I don't owe you a damn thing. Get the fuck out of the way and let me get my shit."
He collected himself quickly, reverting to his calm, practiced, crisis-handling state. "I can't let you do this Audrey. I know something's going on with you. You deleted all your email accounts, your social network profiles. I saw the yard sale last weekend. Something big is happening, and I don't want to see you destroy yourself. Please, Audrey, for the love of God, talk to me."
Maybe Tam was right. He never noticed how I never went out, didn't have a life, he never noticed before that I was always down on myself, always on the verge of blowing my brains out all over my workplace. He only cared now that his loyal work horse had gone lame, and wanted to save me from the glue factory just to squeeze the last few years of life out of me for himself.
I gave Rick a hearty shove and he wobbled backwards, his eyes flashing wide and his mouth puckering like an asshole. "Fuck you, Rick." The shove was limp. The words, without rage. "I don't even need my shit. Just burn it all."
The message delivered, there really wasn't anything else for me to do there, so I walked out.
"I didn't hear any explosions," Tam said as she matched my stride down the sidewalk.
A cigarette was hanging from between her pouting lips. I snatched it from her and took a drag. I was surprised how naturally this came to me, how I didn't choke on it like a high school kid. It felt like I'd been doing this my whole life and never realized it.
Tam's new career choice was to become a writer. She said she could harness all the internal suffering in her life and probably come up with a masterpiece. My bank account was shot from all the shifting sands of every step of the program, so while I hadn't chosen a career, I at least needed to get by for the rest of the process. So I headed into the Perfect Strangers Dating Services, Inc. office to fill the fresh vacancy, while Tam holed herself up in her my house with an antique typewriter.
"So you're dating Tammy now?" Clarence, my new coworker, the guy who processed the data from the surveys, shook his head and laughed. His New York accent peeked out in places, like he'd painted over it with a carefully-crafted Texan accent and the paint was getting old and chipping away in places. "You poor fool."
"It's Tam now," I informed him.
"She's addicted to Strangers, you know."
"Step Eight: Violate all your central values. Your moral system will disintegrate from there."
"You're addicted to Strangers." The words came out in the gray area between question and accusation.
She was typing away, click-click-clickety-click, at her typewriter. It dinged like a microwave, and she pushed the platen over for another round. The top of her head looked like a slice from a cloudy night sky.
"You lied," I said.
"I never said I'd never done this before," she clarified.
"No, you lied about your past." All the abuse, the homelessness, all of it lies. Another life she had woven for herself. Her own little phony memoir. It turned out I had no idea who she was to begin with.
"Oh, that," she said. "Technically, it wasn't a lie. It was the new me from after last time."
"There isn't a step to rewrite your history." I was now over her shoulder, my fists shaking little balls, fingernails cutting my palms.
"There is if you do it right," she told me.
I tried to slap the typewriter from under her fingers. The sudden contact bruised my hand; it was much heavier than I thought. It took a slight adjustment, both hands shoving, but the typewriter clattered to the ground quickly enough to have the desired effect.
"What the fuck, Guy?" she explodes.
"You don't have any suffering to write about. The only suffering you've experienced is everyone else's," I snarl. "You're just a shell, Tammy, a succubus. That gobbles up other people's unwanted lives so you can live them for yourself. You're not trying to rebuild yourself, you're a consumer of souls."
"Well what difference does it make?" She stood up, meeting my height. The smell of the typewriter had rubbed off on her and it felt like there were mothballs shoved in my nostrils. "You hated yourself anyway, what do you care that I helped you along, putting the nails in the coffin?"
"Because you lied. Because maybe someone could have loved me, maybe I could have loved me. I wasn't a loathsome human being, and neither were you."
"Really?" Her shoulders fell back and the creases in her face fell away until she looked almost childlike, the skin of her face a blank sheet of paper. Tabula rasa. "You mean, you liked...?"
"You really want to know suffering, Tammy?" I was moving so close to her that she stumbled backwards over her chair. "Do you really want to know what it feels like, to wake up every morning and know that you are a worthless human being?" As she landed on her side with a grunt, I threw her flimsy folding chair across the room. It clattered against the wall, sounding like it had exploded into a thousand splintering metal pieces.
I looked down at her. "I can make you suffer. I'll give you your damned novel."
"Step Nine: Abandon, neglect, and abuse all your friends. Be sure that none remain."
The nice thing about hating yourself, is that you generally don't have any friends around to disappoint. By the time I'd reached this stage, my only problem was the constant phone calls from Rick. He left message after message, begging me to call him, telling me not to do anything drastic, like I was going to jump off the roof of a hotel or something.
Tam spent all day in front of her typewriter, a corner of it dented from where it fell, matching her bruised eye socket that now looked like the maw of some deep pit with a puddle of mud at the bottom. The writing was mostly gibberish. When she thought I wasn't looking, she would cry all over her keys like they were her ball and chain, her black bangs forming a mournful veil.
"Step Ten: Disown or generally lose contact with your parents. This is their fault, after all."
Rick shouldn't have been a problem. I should have taken care of my phone back at step six. This didn't occur to me until I got a call from my mom, wondering where I'd been the last two months and why I hadn't called.
Like with Rick, I preferred the more non-confrontational method of severing contact with my parents. They couldn't contact me online, and they wouldn't be able to surprise me with a visit before I reached the last step of the program, so all I needed to do was eliminate this last line of contact and let the relationship run its natural course, dying with a whimper like the rest of my past self.
It had to have been serendipity that I walked into the AT&T store, to run into her. The A/C in the building had apparently died, and the loose strands of her hair that had escaped her pony tail over the course of the work day were plastered to temples, but she was as beautiful as I'd ever remembered her being.
We had not seen each other for years, but she recognized me. "Audrey!" She practically jumped over the counter at me.
"Oh... it's GuGary. It's Gary now."
"Yeah, I'm getting a name change," I said. "Getting a lot of things changed, actually."
"Oh. Gary," she said, taking a moment to contemplate my choice. "I always liked that name. It suits you well." That she thought it suited me, Audrey, the old me, well, this did not bother me.
Our conversation fell into a natural rhythm, like a riverbed dried up during a drought and refreshed with new rains, flowing freely and washing all the dust away. I asked her to lunch. She told me she got off at six, that she'd call me when she was ready. I said, "You have my number." We laughed.
We ate at the little Italian place I loved so much, Napoli's. I let her order a Stromboli for us to share.
I joked that she was so skinny I don't think she can handle that much grease. She poked my belly and said I looked like I could handle any of her leftovers. We laughed. We laughed through the entire meal. We laughed over dessert. Our hands fit together like a couple of lost puzzle pieces, our lips like well-trained dancers. I forgot about the betrayal, I forgot about my heartache. My past was dead to me. I just wanted her now, in this life.
When I dropped her off, when our hands and lips finally unlocked at her doorstep, I could hardly bare to have her leave my sight, I had longed for her for so long. She closed the door behind her, and I sat in my Jeep, swimming in the new-car smell, and it took a long time for me to pull out of her driveway. And when I finally did, I found myself circling past her house again and again before finally shaking myself from this trance and heading home.
When I got there, Tam was passed out on her typewriter, snot and tears crusted on her face. I moved silently past her, to the box of memories I had of Julie, hidden under my bathroom sink.
"Step 11: Relocate. Whether moving across the hallway or across the country, your old home is stained by the old you."
When Julie opened her door to leave for work in the morning, she found me waiting for her in her driveway. She approached the passenger side slowly and peered in. I had one hand on the steering wheel, the other arm draped over the little locked chest of memories in the seat next to me.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
"I want you to run away with me, Julie."
She threw her head back and laughed, then peered back in the window at me. "Are you crazy? You're crazy! I have work!"
"Fuck it," I told her. "You spent all last night complaining about that job anyway. Come on, let's get out of this town. Let's put us behind ourselves."
She grinned like she was being a naughty teenager. "Oh, okay," and she climbed in.
I had honestly expected her to be a lot more difficult to convince than that.
In the first few hours of our trek, I shared with her all the mementos from our past. All of our firsts together, and most of our seconds and thirds too. "I can't believe you held onto all of this," she said, taking handfuls of the notes and tickets and menus. "After all these years."
"It was the only part of myself I couldn't let go of," I told her. Her eyes seemed to get soft like balls of butter as I said this.
"I'm so sorry," she sighed. "About everything. I know we didn't talk about it last night, and I'm glad we didn't, but I was awful..."
"Don't mention it," I interrupted. "That was part of my past I buried with the rest of myself."
She seemed happy to change the subject. "So this big transformation you keep going on about, what gives?"
So I told her, about how miserable I was ever since I lost her, how I couldn't stand living with myself, how I couldn't handle the loneliness anymore, so I became desperate and tried a radical dating service that forced me to change everything about myself. How this was the last step, driving off into the sunset and rebuilding my life, and how I wanted it to be with her.
She wanted to know all about the changes I had made. I went over what I did for each step, how Tam prodded me along. How I quit my job and told Rick to fuck himself. As I got further along in my story, her face became increasingly sullen. I didn't tell her about step eight. She clearly wasn't ready to hear it.
"Well what about your partner, Tam? Shouldn't you be driving off with her?"
"We didn't really click like we were supposed to," I lied. "Last I saw her, she was passed out on her typewriter looking like a miserable old dog left to die on a curb." I laughed, and immediately regretted it. Julie was not following.
She turned away and leaned back in her seat, facing straight ahead, looking out over the long highway ahead of us. "Pull over."
"What? Come on, Jul"
"I said pull over." Her crystalline blue eyes cut me like they were made of diamond.
And I did. I pulled over on the busy Florida highway and watched her climb out of my Jeep and slam the door. She turned around and peered into the window at me, as if trying to figure out who this stranger was that she had climbed into a car with some hours ago. She shook her head. "I don't even know who you are anymore."
As I watched her walk down the highway in my rear view mirror, the heat bubbling up from the veil-black asphalt gobbled her up, until I wondered if she had ever been there at all.