Somehow, around ten o’clock, Greg ended up standing at the front door of the Fiddlesticks Nightclub down the clogged neon-lit arteries of the city’s downtown area. He assumed he could weasel out of it had he slipped a dummy in the passenger seat of a taxicab, but he couldn’t find one amid his sparse inventory, nor could he find a cab willing to cart one to the club for free. So he threw on his best buttoned shirt, gargled some toothpaste with some tap water, and hopped in his piece of junk station wagon. And that’s how he ended up at the front door of the nightclub. His wallet was empty, of course, but his friend Jeff made good on his promise. He stood there waiting for Greg with a five-dollar bill in hand.
“There’s a girl inside I want you to meet,” he said, as he slipped the bill into his hand.
Greg still felt darkly depressed over his eBay disaster and didn’t want to meet a girl for fear it would intensify the pain. He didn’t have much female experience to begin with, but he knew they didn’t gravitate toward guys on the verge of homelessness, so the last thing he wanted was to discuss not only his empty treasury but his life without a job or shred of survival ambition.
“Tonight’s not a good night.”
“Why, because you’re broke? Nonsense. There’s no reason you have to enlighten her on that secret.”
“But what if it comes up?”
“One word: misdirection.”
As depressed as he felt, a sense of laughter echoed from Greg’s lungs at the sound of Jeff’s response. After a moment’s thought, he figured it was worth a shot.
“Fine, we’ll see what happens.”
And that’s what he did; he saw what happened:
“Greg,” Jeff said, with a smile as fake as that of a Hollywood actor’s. “This is Mandy. She’s a masseuse over at the day spa.”
Greg extended his hand to the blond beauty standing at the bar. She took it. Some flowery-scented perfume emanated from her neck while some beer-scented breath emanated from her mouth. She wore an eager smile.
“Nice to meet you,” she shouted over the dance music. “Jeff told me a lot about you.”
“Really? Like what?”
“He says you’re studying to be the next Dr. Phil. I think that’s awesome. So many people in the world have so many problems these days that we need someone with expert advice to solve our issues with three minutes of counseling because who really has the time to sit down for more than three minutes?”
“Not I, certainly. Jeff, what about–”
Greg looked over to discover that Jeff had slipped away. He scanned the crowded room, but couldn’t locate him anywhere.
“Hmm,” he continued, “I guess he’s gone.”
“Better for us to get to know each other, right?” Mandy held her smile.
“Yeah. So you’re a masseuse, are you?”
“Yep, just got my license a couple of months ago. You’d be surprised what people will pay for a backrub.”
“More than is probably necessary. It’s actually amusing because the same people come back every week to have a procedure done, knowing full well they’ll be out of whack within a few hours, but they’re willing to shell out sixty, ninety, or even a hundred dollars a session just to feel a small spurt of comfort. I mean, a good friend could give the same quality back massage I give for free, but because I’m a ‘professional,’ they think they’re getting a bargain. All they’re really doing is wasting their money. Sure, they’re lining my pockets, which is great for me, but if they knew there were better therapists out there, they wouldn’t be so quick to come to me. Not that anyone needs to know that, of course.”
“So what classes have you taken to earn your Dr. Phil status?”
“Well, I’m taking sociology right now. That’s about it. Don’t yet know how to contact Oprah.”
Her smile weakened, but the upward hooks in the corners of her mouth lingered.
“That’s one of the basic courses, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, well, I’m still trying to finish my prerequisites. It takes a little time to build up the reputation I’m working for.”
“Well, as long as you get there eventually, right?”
“So what do you do in the meantime?”
“What do you mean?”
“For money. What do you do for income while you’re still in school?”
And this, of course, was the question he had hoped she wouldn’t ask but knew in his heart she would ask, anyway. The first thing he thought about was misdirection.
“What did you do for cash while you were in school?” he deflected.
“I worked at a pharmacy for four years, realized I wasn’t making enough to really be happy, so I quit and went to work at the day spa. That was six months ago. Now I’m a certified masseuse who makes lots and lots of money.”
“And you like money, don’t you?”
“It buys the things I want.”
And somehow this revelation made him even more depressed–if that were possible. Since childhood people had told him how important economic success was, but it wasn’t until now that he understood why. As he looked in this girl’s eyes, he realized it wasn’t having riches that would make him happy, but that having riches would make the woman happy. So the problem he faced wasn’t the lack of stuff he owned to fill his apartment, but the lack of stuff he had to impress this girl with. If he were rich, he would be problem-free. But, because he was poor, he was problem-consumed. If this girl found out the truth, he wouldn’t get past this initial conversation. And, even though that wouldn’t have been a problem five minutes ago, he didn’t want to blow his chances at having a future with her now that he was getting to know her. So he decided he would puff up his chest, make another attempt at landing a suitable job, and do whatever he could to get rich quickly. He decided the best road to take after tonight was to become a masseuse.
And that’s precisely what Greg set out to do. The next day, he borrowed a phonebook from a neighborhood restaurant and scoured the yellow pages for a massage therapy school. On finding what he thought was the cheapest place–he called schools with only basic listings–he requested information about tuition, duration, and job placement. The school of his choice said it would offer classes in a month.
Greg had to make a firm decision: one month in his world meant the difference between sleeping in a room and sleeping in a gutter. Holding out that long would’ve been like testing the duration one could handle a dog biting him on the ankle. A prize might have been waiting at the end of the test, but the road getting there could’ve gotten him killed. Of course, he had no choice; he had to stick it out. That meant working anywhere, doing anything, and doing it for many, many hours a week. In the end, it meant having to withdraw from the university.
He resolved not to stay out forever, though, because eventually he would need his psychology degree, which he had switched to from philanthropy because he thought there was more money in it, and because he didn’t really know what a philanthropist did. But there was clearly no room for his college education in the meantime, so he elected to drop it.
When Monday came, his friend Jeff called to ask where he’d been hiding, but Greg never gave him a straight answer. He just claimed that he would return to class whenever he knew the time was right. The ambiguous statement didn’t leave Jeff all too satisfied, but Greg dodged his unrelenting questions by asking about the girl from the club, and whether he knew how to reach her. He hadn’t gotten the information from her personally because, just before he was about to ask, she was distracted by another girl’s shiny bracelet and proceeded to ask a million questions about it, which Greg found rather dull, so he left. Fortunately, Jeff had run into her a few nights earlier and got her phone number. He graciously passed it to Greg, who in turn stored it in a safe place.
The girl, Mandy, turned out to be easily reached. Every time he called, which he kept to a cool three times a week, she answered on the fourth ring, just before the voicemail kicked in. They typically spent twenty to thirty minutes talking about life, ambitions, and the money that came with serving both, and ended each call with an “I miss you,” or “wish you were here,” or something cheesy along those lines. On several occasions, Mandy tried to talk Greg into going out with her, most notably to fancy restaurants and comedy clubs, but Greg misdirected her seductions by insisting he was too tired that night and would try to go out later in the week. The only times he elected to be “alert” and “ready to go” were the times they agreed to meet at a park, or any place allowing free parking, free entertainment, or didn’t involve him coming to pick her up, or meeting her in the parking lot where she might see his car. Those times, of course, were the best times of his life.
But, as his entrance to massage therapy school drew closer and his wallet became increasingly weakened–which wasn’t saying much anymore–his ability to dodge the financial truth got tougher. There had been several occasions when Mandy insisted on coming over to see his place, but he insisted harder that his apartment was too messy from his mountains of possessions to stay comfortable, and that they would find more room hanging out at a hotel lobby wherever continental dinners were served and a complimentary viewing of the local news was offered. She always responded that she could help him sort things out, but he consistently retorted that there would be no fun in that, and that it would be more fun to take a walk somewhere, anywhere, instead. It gave him a slight thrill to know he was taking charge.
During this season of tactical evasion, he landed a job sweeping floors for a burger place. He did it for sixty hours a week and made close to two hundred dollars a paycheck. By every Sunday, he was exhausted, but he slowed the decent of his wealth, which was a milestone in his life. Whenever his battle to stop Mandy from coming over to his “messy” apartment failed, he relied on the pseudo truth that he was too busy making money to entertain her company. It kept him out of trouble.
Then, when massage therapy school started and he had successfully dodged Mandy’s every attempt to uncover his poverty, he breathed a sigh of relief. He knew that in a few short weeks he would be well on his way to financial freedom. All he needed to do was to keep working, keep her out of his apartment, and stay awake for each class. He also had to pass the final exam. The plan was foolproof.
Relief reached an additional height when he passed his class a blink of an eye later. Between working at the fast-food place and taking lessons, Greg had no time to do anything else. But it was worth it. When he received his certificate that stated that he could administer backrubs for money, he set out to land his first job. This time, no one could accuse him of setting fire to the business without giving him a fair chance. With the proper qualifications under his belt, they couldn’t turn him down. He ended up working at a downtown massage parlor for three days a week and returned to the University of State to fill in his remaining vacant days.
After three paychecks, Greg had enough to furnish his apartment with tables and chairs and anything else necessary to make the place seem livable. After his fourth paycheck, he decided he was making enough money to quit his sweeping job, which was great considering he hadn’t slept much in the last month. After his eighth paycheck, he concluded that he was able to fill his apartment with enough nice things to start inviting Mandy over. After his ninth paycheck, he realized he was in too far over his head with these crazy ambitions to really know what the heck he was doing with his life anymore. It was Mandy’s first visit to his apartment that he had this revelation: