One day, I finally got tired of my mistakes. That's when I met Gloria.
I wasn't stupid, and I was an adult, but I was so careless and clumsy in social settings - either at work or out in public - that I always felt out of step. A combination of nervousness and dyslexia caused me to speak words out of order. My sentences often made no grammatical sense. I used words incorrectly. I never observed social niceties. I sounded like an idiot wherever I went. It escaped no one's attention, and ostracized me from most social circles and prevented me from advancing at work.
The few friends I had - most of them leftover from college - said to me: "You're such a weirdo," "You're the strangest person I've ever met," and my favorite, "We like you, but stop saying stupid things." These friends of mine weren't jerks, only ordinary, nice people pushed to the brink by my strangeness. My only real defender was my cousin Rob, who I suspected felt sorry for me.
For example, if I met a nice person at the local bar, I inspired disinterest. People generally didn't smile at me because I didn't meet anyone's gaze. Girls didn't smile at me. People saw me and didn't have an impression. Generally speaking, people were confused by me and wanted to be as far from me as possible. I developed a slight stutter, and it got to where I could not speak in public without feeling like a pariah. I tried meditation practices, but nothing seemed to work.
At work, I felt overloaded and underpaid. My boss, Richard, bullied me ceaselessly. It seemed the harder I worked, the more he loaded onto me. No matter how much I tried to be nice to him, or communicate how hard I was working, he kept singling me out. I felt at the brink of quitting my job.
When Rob told me he'd hired a company called Life Editor International to help me, I thought he was joking.
"Is that a real thing?" I asked, amused.
"Stop rushing to judgment." he said patiently. "It's not a joke. It's a real service."
I learned from Rob that Life Editor's mission was to match individuals - in this case, fastidious image and life consultants - to specific people in need of correcting their behavior. Rob knew I was a good guy, but he judged me like the others did. He felt I needed a more cautious, measured approach to my words and deeds, and according to him, Life Editor was my solution. He handed me a card and told me to call the number listed on it.
"Call this number. I've already set you up with someone." he said. "Don't let me down."
I called Life Editor the next day and a stern-sounding woman immediately answered. Her diction was clear and succinct.
"Hi... is this the Life Consultant company?" I asked sheepishly. I already began to tremble as my social phobias kicked in.
"No, this is not the 'Life Consultant Place.' This is Gloria with Life Editor." she answered plainly, after an uncomfortable silence. "As you might know, we're the world's first service dedicated to correcting clumsiness and carelessness in everyday life."
She went on.
"Your name is Pradeep Vishwana, is that correct? Shall we begin?"
"When?" I asked. "Now?"
"Start by telling me your occupation..." she asked. "...in less than two words."
"I'm a Software Engineer." I answered.
"You didn't listen to me." Gloria said. "What do you actually do in your profession? Two words or less."
"I code...?" I answered.
"Very good. You code." Gloria said, sounding pleased with herself. "But don't say it like a question. You must pay attention to the words you use when speaking to others, but you must also pay attention to how to say what you say. In the next day, you will unlearn everything you know."
"I don't understand." I said.
"I'll teach you to speak and act in a manner that makes you appealing to others." she answered. "In order to correct your defects, I must start with the mundane. I must follow you through your everyday routine, your phone calls, and everything else you do at home. I must find the problems and imperfections and iron them out, and apply them to a wider context."
"Let me call you back, Gloria." I said. I wasn't amused by Rob's practical joke. I planned to call him next and chew him out. This wasn't funny.
"No." she said. "You cannot call me back. If you don't agree to this now, this number will be permanently disconnected and your contract with Life Editor will be terminated." said Gloria plainly. "Your cousin will not receive his return deposit."
"This is a joke, right?" I sneered, gripping my phone a little tighter. "How much is this costing me?"
"If you fail, you owe us nothing." Gloria said. "I feel you are a lost cause, Mr. Vishwana. If you decide you want to follow my instructions, your life will change forever. You'll have friends you never thought you'd have. You'll get dates every week. You'll make more money at your job. You'll never struggle the way you do now. Would you say that's worth the cost?"
I mulled over it, still unconvinced this wasn't an elaborate joke.
"Yeah, come on over." I joked. "Let's start today, shall we?"
"Very good. I will see you in thirty minutes." Gloria said. "Goodbye, Mr. Vishwana."
I laughed as she hung up, but I wondered what I'd gotten myself into. I tried to call Rob next, but after I dialed, I remembered he'd planned a road trip with his wife up to wine country for the weekend. I left him a rambling message about Life Editor, then midway through my message, hung up, defeated.
God dammit, I thought, as the doorbell rang. I started feeling like an idiot. I looked at the clock. Even if Life Editor was real, and not a joke - or if it was an elaborate joke - someone was at the door.
A flood of panicked thoughts surged through me. I'd forgotten to send out my rent that month. I'd forgotten to RSVP to my colleague's baby shower. I'd neglected to text my boss back about a coding project that I'd not turned in on time. My life was a mess. I needed to answer my front door. It was my only way out.
Through the door window's curtain, I spied a squat woman with thick, curly hair and brown skin. She wore thick red glasses and carried a small cream colored clutch. Though she looked like an ogre with a pinched face, her glasses gave her an air of credibility.
"Good day to you, Mr. Viswana." she said as I opened the door. "It is a pleasure to finally meet you."
"Yeah, hey." I answered, looking her up and down. She looked at me disapprovingly.
"Ask me in." she ordered. "That's always the first thing you do. Next, ask me if you can take my coat and purse, then show me to the guest room and tell me where the bathroom is. Can you remember all that?"
I repeated what she asked me as best I could, and when she was done using the bathroom, she plodded out into the middle of the front room and pulled an iPad mini out of her clutch. She began tapping things out on the screen, touching the stylus against her glasses every so often, as if lost in thought.
"You have no feng shui here." she said. "Get that worked out immediately." She took a second to look over at me.
"I want no excuses or extraneous words from you, Mr. Vishwana." she ordered. "If I ask you to do something, I need you to do me a kindness and just do it. No flack!" she ordered, aiming her iPad toward me like a pointer. "I'm keeping notes on you! Use the restroom, then come back out here and sit down. You have broken ten separate rules since you answered the door. We will go over each one."
I wanted to kick her out, but I couldn't deny the appeal of what Life Editor offered. Would I really have more friends if I simply did what Gloria asked me to do? That is what Life Editor promised. I'd have friends. I'd have dates. I wouldn't be lonely anymore. I wouldn't have to worry about ever embarrassing myself again.
I'll see this through, I decided, while using the bathroom. Gloria was a little weird and brusque and reminded me of a small gnome one might find in an English garden, but I'd do what she asked. I wanted to speak to others without messing up my words and confusing people. I wanted to keep my commitments for once. I wanted to be a more direct communicator. I couldn't do that alone. I wanted to be in step with the world, no longer a social pariah or an awkward mess. Maybe Gloria could help me! Maybe her extreme 'manner' was simply an indictment of how awful I was. Maybe, just maybe, I'd become a better man.
Once we sat down together, Gloria and I went over a list of things I'd done wrong. I hunched. I stuttered too often. I allowed her to walk ahead of me in my own home. I spoke too much as she walked through the house, thus forcing her to slow down and listen to me. I never offered her something to drink. I didn't maintain eye contact with her. I didn't ask her if she had any trouble parking. I didn't ask her about traffic. I hung back when I should have kept up, and I showed too much eagerness when I should have hung back. I was doing everything wrong, in other words. I was a prime Life Editor contender.
"Put simply - you're a mess, Mr. Vishwana." Gloria told me, as if reading my mind. I was a mess.
She followed me around my house for the rest of that day, monitoring my movements. Sometimes she sat in the corner of the room, reading her iPad and glancing up at me. Other times, she followed me from place to place, taking little notes on her device. She corrected how I held my hands when I answered the phone. She kept pushing my hunched shoulders back. She also wanted to follow me into the bathroom, but I locked the door on her so she couldn't get in.
"I know it's an uncomfortable subject, Mr. Vishwana, but there is also a right way to poop!" she said through the door. "Push it out with your diaphram, and sit straight up while you do it!"
You've got to be kidding me, I thought. I wondered how long I'd be able to deal with her as I sat up a little straighter on the toilet and followed her directions in spite of myself.
At the end of the night, Gloria stood in my bathroom door as I brushed my teeth.
"You are doing it wrong." she instructed. "You'll loosen your teeth brushing side to side. Brush them up and down."
She lingered near the bedroom door as I got ready to sleep.
"No, no, no." she said. "Left shoe off first, then the right. Put both of them in the closet." She went over everything I'd done wrong that day. Too many extraneous movements. Too much flack, she said. I washed dishes too forcefully. I didn't relax my face enough.
Despite her constant criticisms, Gloria made me tea that night, and even tucked me in.
"This is the last time you'll see me, Mr. Vishwana." she said, tucking the corners of the duvet. "You will be more receptive tomorrow, but I hope you're absorbing everything I told you tonight." She left the room momentarily and came back with a big satchel, one so heavy she had to lug it with both hands.
"Wait, if you're leaving, how will I remember what to do?" I asked, slurring my words as she approached the bed. I felt sleepier than I had felt in a long time. I felt too sleepy. She had put something in my tea, but I couldn't fight the fatigue. "Couldn't you just...." I yawned. "Give me a list to follow..."
"We prefer to take a more direct approach." said Gloria. She advanced on me, but I'd lost all feeling in my arms and torso. My eyelids fluttered. Just before they closed, I saw a flash of metal as Gloria pulled something long out of the satchel. By the time my brain sent the signal to my body, I was fast asleep and couldn't do anything about it.
When I woke, the skin on my face from my eyebrows up to my hairline felt strangely tight and sensitive. I was alone, but Gloria's voice whispered in my ear, along with a burst of static.
"I've placed a device near your aural cavity, Mr. Vishwana. You will now take instructions from me directly. I can see and hear you and everything around you. Get up."
I sat up quickly, alarmed. Her voice lingered near my head, but she was nowhere to be found.
"How? Where are you?" I asked. I wandered through my house and found no one.
Gloria's voice spoke inside my head again.
"Get up and get ready for work. Your shower should last no more than ten minutes. I've placed a list in your bathroom sink of places most men forget to wash. Wash those places. Once you are finished, you must apply a non-steroidal moisturizer to your skin near your temples.
I did what Gloria's voice asked. Rushing around that way felt unnatural and uncomfortable, but I followed each of her directions to the letter. As I got my shoes ready, Gloria said: "Please untie your shoes each night to save yourself time in the morning. In addition, your breakfast..."
"How do you know what I'm doing?" I asked wearily, rubbing my forehead. "Are you watching me?"
She ignored my question and continued in her officious monotone.
"I'll be frank with you, Mr. Vishwana. I don't think you can change. This is why we must accelerate your training. Do everything I say, and do not question me."
On the way to work, Gloria seemed to anticipate my driving style.
"Drive around this one." she said, as I trailed a slow car in the fast lane. "Don't hold the steering wheel that way."
"Why does it matter?" I said, exasperated, as I turned on my right turn signal.
"Every thing you do matters, Mr. Vishwana. Your body language, your driving, your expressions. They are all extensions of how people see you. Do what I say."
That morning at work, my boss Richard approached and asked me about the email I was supposed to send over the weekend. My first instinct was to stammer out an excuse and then rush to get it done, but before I could even speak, Gloria spoke inside my head. I tensed up and looked up at Richard. Could he hear her, too? Did he hear the voice of the strange woman?
"Repeat what I say, starting now, Pradeep." Gloria's tone of voice shifted, and she began to speak in a strange voice, a voice that almost sounded like mine. As she spoke, I heard her words coming out of my mouth, in my voice. It took so much concentration to repeat her words convincingly, but I focused as best I could.
"Yeah, Richard?" I said accusingly, repeated Gloria's words exactly. "You've... you've gotten five of those reports in the past week. Are you really so hard... hard up for something to do?" I really struggled with my stutter, and he only looked at me like I'd told him a disgusting joke.
"Now laugh, and wave him off, and start working." instructed Gloria.
I couldn't believe I had just told off my boss. I waved him off and gave out a laugh, and immediately turned my back on him, pulled up my C shell and began typing. Richard lingered uncomfortably at the edge of my cube. He was angry, I sensed. I had the urge to immediately turn around and apologize to him. I knew I'd be fired if I didn't.
"Don't you dare turn around or speak, Mr. Vishwana. Resist the urge to say anything." instructed Gloria. "Keep typing, and ignore him."
Sure enough, Richard wandered away. I wondered how Gloria was able to see me, but something in me just surrendered to the absurdity of it all.
Later that morning, I was called into the management office and was immediately browbeaten by Richard while his boss, Mr. Carlyle, a man who I'd only seen once in my five years of working there, sat at his desk looking concerned.
"I will not tolerate insubordination!" Richard fumed, pacing behind his boss's desk. Carlyle looked at him, then at me. "When I ask you to do something, I expect you to do it." Richard said. "Are you listening, Pradeep?"
"I am doing it." Gloria said, in that strange subdued voice telling me she expected me to repeat after her.
"I... I am doing it." I repeated. Gloria went on in that weird voice, as did I. "I am absolutely doing everything you are telling me to do, and more. The problem here is..." Controlling my stutter was hard on my own, but by repeating what Gloria said, in her tone of voice, I was able to control it. I wanted so badly to look down, wring my hands, and skulk away, but Gloria switched to her normal voice momentarily in order to instruct my actions.
"Okay, Mr. Vishwana, keep eye contact with both of them. Watch the stutter! Sit up straight! Keep them engaged. Do not look down! Stay focused." she instructed. Though my eyes watered with the stress of the confrontation, I pulled in confidence from knowing that someone else was there with me in spirit, telling me what to do. Gloria subdued her tone again, and I repeated her words.
"I understand your concerns," I said slowly, as Gloria spoke the words to me. "I don't think it's productive to get angry at me." I said. "Every single minute I spend in here while you get angry, there are reports I have finished I could be turning in. I have several reports I could be working on to finish today. I'm always on time, and when I'm not on time, it's usually because I'm being interrupted by Richard here. I know how to do my job. Check my time logs. Check my productivity. Go ahead. I won't speak for anyone else here, and I don't think I'm better than anyone else, but I'm damned good at what I do."
As I spoke Gloria's words, I felt a surge of confidence rising up in me. Looking at both men got a lot easier. My stutter had melted away.
"You didn't hire me to be a diplomat." I said. "You didn't hire me to be a public speaker. You hired me to code. And I do that. I do it very well."
"Now look at the man at the desk." Gloria instructed in her regular voice. "And say the following:"
"I'm sorry to waste your time and drag you into this." I repeated, looking directly at Carlyle despite all my instincts to look away. "Work is getting done. This is a personal issue between me and Richard, and I am doing my best to keep focused on my work. Will that be all, or should we arrange a meeting with Human Resources?"
Carlyle relaxed and leaned back, smiling.
"Won't be necessary." he said to me. "You can head on back. Sorry to waste your time."
"Now stand up straight." instructed Gloria. "And walk out."
Richard tried to follow me out the door, but Carlyle stopped him.
"I'm not through with you." he said. Richard lingered back, looking weak and emasculated. "It's okay, Pradeep." Carlyle said to me. "You can close the door and finish up what you were doing. Have a good morning."
I arrived back to my desk almost singing.
"That was beautiful, Gloria." I smiled. "I promise, I'll do whatever you say from now on. I trust you now."
"I don't care about that." said Gloria. "Just stay attentive and do what I say. Don't lose focus."
In the lunch room, Gloria had prepared a list of football statistics for me to share with the sales team. She was quick. Every time, Brad, the top sales guy, quizzed me about a player's stats, Gloria lowered her voice and began spitting out strangely prescient observations and statistics. With her guidance, I tossed out a bunch of numbers related to first downs, total yards, third down conversions, sacks, field goals, touch downs, you name it. Before the end of the lunch hour I was surrounded by a group of salespeople who never gave me the time of day.
"Dude, Brown and Scott are toast. They won't last the season." I said. Every single word I spoke was Gloria's. It sounded strange coming from her, and even stranger coming from me. Sometimes she'd revert to her instructional voice to remind me to stand up straight, to avoid blinking too much, to maintain eye contact. Her instructions were relentless, but they kept me in line. She was a pro.
Tucker slapped me on the back as we left the lunch room.
"Dude, you oughta get up on our fantasy league, he said."
Gloria immediately jumped in.
"Smile while you're doing it, but punch Tucker in the stomach, Mr. Vishwana. Not too hard, but do it quickly." instructed Gloria.
I smiled and jabbed Tucker just above the belt.
"Stay on your toes, dude! I'll be comin' for ya. Haha!" I said. They weren't my words. They were Gloria's.
I hated fantasy football. I hated these guys, but in sixty short minutes, Gloria had convinced them all that I was one of them. Tucker didn't even look upset when I jabbed him in the stomach. He tilted his head at me and sauntered off. This is the language of apes, I thought. Apes and undeveloped animals. And it works. It fucking works.
By 6:30 pm that same day, people who'd never spoken more than five words to me all came up to my desk asking about what happened with Richard that morning. Apparently, no one liked my boss, and they were all waiting to see him humiliated. It was my instinct to confess every delicious detail from the office confrontation, but Gloria seemed to know this and told me to shut up.
"Quiet unless I tell you to speak!" she said harshly and angrily in my ear. "If they ask you about it, tell them that you and Carlyle solved some problems, and leave it at that."
More colleagues approached and asked me for details, so I responded, "Everything's fine. Carlyle and I solved some problems."
"What else?!" they pressed, hanging on my every word.
"We want reports from all of you before the end of the week." I said at Gloria's instruction. "Can you bring those to me by Friday? Thanks."
When I was alone again, I whispered low to Gloria.
"That isn't even true! Caryle didn't ask for reports! What if they find out I lied?? Jesus, what have you gotten me into?"
"Perception is everything, Mr. Vishwana." she said. "And the more you succumb to your urge to talk to me like a clumsy, scared loser, the more you're going to lose. So shut up, and get to work."
"Yes, ma'am." I said, and finished out the rest of my day.
The bar was unusually crowded that night. I normally would have drifted over to the bar, ordered a drink then slunk back against the wall, but Gloria had other plans for me. I'd already decided I no longer cared what on earth allowed her to monitor me so closely. Just to be sure, I looked around for a short, fat woman with dark curly hair and red glasses, but my Life Editor adviser was nowhere in sight.
"Keep your arms at your sides. Stand up straight. Don't fidget. Keep your head up." she instructed. "Now walk to the center of the room, to that group of girls at the big table."
"What?!" I whispered, panicked, as I caught the scent of stale beer and cologne.
"Walk over and do exactly what I say." she said. "Do not deviate!"
Following her exact instructions, I walk up slowly, and leaned down into their midst, grinning. I felt like a pervert. I wanted to run away, but Gloria persisted.
"What up, girls?" I said, feeling a lurching revulsion even as I said it. "What are you all drinking? I wanna get a round for your table to thank you for coming in tonight." It was especially strange to hear Gloria say the words - she, of the squat stature and bristly hair, talking like a cocky frat boy. I said her words anyway, hating myself as I said them.
"Do you work here or something?" one of the more sullen girls asked, her brow furrowed. Under ordinary circumstances, I might have told the truth, then disappeared, but Gloria kept on me.
"Now stand up straight. Stop fidgeting. Relax your face muscles. Smile. Keep your eyebrows raised, Mr. Vishwana." I felt like a marionette on the end of her string.
"I am this bar, girls! It's lit up tonight, isn't it? I got no play with you all, I just want to spread the cheer, maybe even join ya for a bit."
A few of the other girls seemed to relax except for the sullen one, who remained skeptical. This is too weird, I thought. No man acts this way and gets away with it. As I finished my thought, two of the girls asked for lemoncellos, and another asked me for a midori sour. They were talking to me - like a servant - but they were talking to me.
"Gotcha!" I said, and raised my arm to get the bartender's attention even before I approached the bar. I ordered the drinks, brought them back and settled into an empty chair. Gloria immediately started talking, an endless stream of words that I had to repeat verbatim.
She had me say some pretty confrontational things. I had to tease them mercilessly. You've made me into a monster, I thought, as I grinned and let loose with little light jabs and insults at several of the girls. Then Gloria had me focus my sights on the sullen girl at the other end of the table.
"Why you so quiet, girl?" she had me say. "I bet you're shy. That's alright, I'm shy too. It's why I talk so much. I hate silences. I'm good at silences too. Watch."
Gloria had me sit, silent at the table, saying nothing.
"Keep your shoulders loose, and keep your mouth shut." she ordered. "Glance at each of the girls, but no more than three seconds for each of them. Now look at the brunette across from you, and do the following."
I let out an exasperated sigh, just as instructed, and said. "See? I can't do silences! That was so awkward!"
The whole table laughed. Two of the girls put their arms out near mine and kept laughing. One of them brushed a leg against mine.
"You're so much better at that than I am!" I laughed at the brunette across from me. "You've mastered long silences!" I looked around the table, fighting every urge inside of me to apologize for my boldness and run out the door into the cool night air. I wanted to leave, but there I was, at center table, surrounded by people. Gloria kept me on topics like cars, snowboarding and expensive condos.
"South lake is tight!" I exclaimed. While I talked, the other girls interjected with reactions and jabs of their own, but I barreled through it all like a juggernaut. I was like some used car salesman with the things I said. I kept expected them all to stand up and walk away, but to my surprise, they seemed interested in me.
I went on:
"They got like, twenty thousand expected this season alone. You ski? Do any of you snowboard or ski? Get the powder while it's fresh. Hey, hey - we should all do a ski trip. My cousin has a chalet we can use. Let's do it! Aw, come on. Don't be a puss. Just do it. Just do it."
"You're a jerk." said the brunette suddenly. I almost blurted out "I'm sorry" but Gloria interceded.
"Put out your hands like you're being arrested, and be dramatic. Hold your hands up and say: 'You got me!'"
I did it, and the whole table laughed at my antics. A few guys wandered up to the table to see what all the laughing was about. The brunette - who I found very pretty - stomped off angrily.
"Don't worry about her." Gloria said. "Look around you. You've arrived. Now keep cool. You'll be leaving in five minutes, and tomorrow, we're going to do it all over again.
And we did, again and again. Weeks passed. The routine was easy: abandon my instincts and follow directives. Say the words, perform the instructions, don't ask questions. Things I would never had said or done on my own, for fear of making people angry, or looking like a fool, seemed to lure more and more people into my personal space. Following Life Editor's instructions first felt like a juggling act, but over time, I got a sense of what behavior was acceptable and what was not.
The sales team spent more and more time at my desk, though I hated their company. Thankfully, Richard stopped hovering around my desk. Soon, we didn't see him at all. I knew he'd been fired, and afterwards Carlyle promoted me to senior engineer.
I began casually dating Megan, one of the pretty blondes from the bar. She was an outgoing and sarcastic woman who had just gotten her real estate license and was also a huge baseball fan and a lover of restoring old Trans-ams. Though I knew nothing about these topics, Gloria's encyclopedic knowledge of real estate and car-speak kept me in running order while Megan test drove me.
Megan was insatiably curious about what I knew. She loved how I dominated conversations, though had she known she was in fact being courted by a short, frumpy woman with red glasses, she might have thought twice about seeing me for drinks every few days. She quizzed me over and over again about her favorite teams, and about where to find the best old car parts, about how to maximize finders fees and such. I always had an answer.
I had other interests, unfortunately, so I dozed through most of our discussions, simply repeating the words and keeping my body language as I'd been instructed. I considered taking the success I'd already found and going back to 'being myself.' I was tired of surrounding myself with people and topics that held no interest for me, but Gloria insisted it was the price of success.
"Now that I have what I wanted, what is the use in pretending?" I asked. I begged Life Editor to let me off the leash, but they weren't having it.
"You'll be back to zero if you let a single aspect of your old self in." said Gloria. "You have a promotion, you're dating a knockout, and you are never alone. You owe it all to Life Editor. Let us keep helping you."
"But what if I find out she likes the same tv shows as me, and I want to share something truthful? Can't I speak as myself, ever? Maybe we could find common ground! Can't I slowly introduce the 'real me' so that I don't have to pretend anymore?" I asked.
"You're naive." Gloria warned, "If you do that, she will see right through you. Women are a lot smarter than you think, Mr. Vishwana. The point is not to compromise. Don't embrace your old self. He let you down. Where did he ever get you? Learn what I have taught you so well that it becomes you. I will have triumphed on the day when you can be the man Life Editor meant for you to be without instruction."
In that moment, I knew I would always disagree with Life Editor. I saw their services as a means to an end, and nothing more. They, however, saw their services as an end toward a permanent means through which to live the rest of my life. Did I want to be this guy forever? Could I live with the success and the compliments and the company, knowing that the things I did were things I didn't always like? Would I, as Gloria seemed to think, get to a point where I didn't know the difference?
Things finally came to a head on the night I invited Megan over for dinner and drinks. Gloria showed me the right kind of inane soft jazz muzak to play. She instructed me to dim the lights just so.
I'd already given up the fight about privacy - after all, Gloria had already shown me how to be the right kind of man in almost every aspect of my life. But sex? It was another matter entirely. I begged her to shut off whatever device allowed her to see and hear me, and to mute herself so that I could have some privacy with Megan. Unfortunately, Gloria refused, and that night, I found myself taking instructions from Life Editor on how to kiss, and more. I couldn't go through with it.
"Oh, is it me?" Megan whined. "You invite me all the way over here only to push me away? That's great, Pradeep. Just great."
"Just leave, then." Gloria instructed me to say. I looked over at the woman for whom I harbored almost no feelings. I watched her face drop, and her eyes go glassy, and in spite of everything, I decided I couldn't speak to her disrespectfully any longer.
"I won't tell her to leave." I said, full well knowing that Megan stood nearby and could hear everything I said.
"Who are you talking to?" Megan asked.
"Where is this attitude coming from, Mr. Vishwana?" Gloria scolded in my ear. "Do as I say. Tell her to leave."
"I won't." I told Gloria again, as Megan looked at me, puzzled. "Not this time." I turned to Megan. "I'm sorry, Megan. I am." I held out my hands. "I didn't mean to confuse you."
"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" Megan snapped. "You're sorry? What the fuck is that? Why not just tell me what the hell is going on?"
"She hates weak mean." warned Gloria. "She hates sissies."
"Just stay, okay?" I pleaded. I consigned myself to spend the rest of the evening ignoring Gloria's instructions. Tomorrow, I'd call and cancel my Life Editor contract. I'd pay whatever they asked. I was through with being Gloria's slave.
"You know something, Pradeep?" Megan said. "I couldn't put my finger on it the night we met, but there is something strange about you. I should leave."
"See?" Gloria said. "The moment she saw the real you, she ran. You should have listened to me and told her to leave. She would have stayed."
"I don't care." I told both Gloria and Megan. "You can do and say what you want, but I want no part of it any more." Both woman raised their voices at me, and I sat down, and put my head in my hands, and waited for it to go away. Weeks of exhaustion caught up with me. My shoulders dropped, and I tried the old meditation practices I'd long since given up, and found them working. Maybe it was the exhaustion... I don't know. Maybe it was what I'd been through, but soon, my tongue began to tingle, followed by my entire head. I didn't even hear the front door slam as Megan left.
I must have fallen asleep then, because when I woke up, I found myself lying on the couch, my head still in my hands. I felt strangely calm.
"Gloria." I said calmly. "Gloria. I know you're there."
"We're starting from square one, starting tomorrow!" she said, furious. "In one night, you've managed to throw away weeks of training!"
"Gloria." I said again, almost pityingly. "That's not going to happen." I took a deep breath, then spoke again. "Cancel my subscription to Life Editor. Don't wait for morning. Do it now. I'll pay the deactivation fee."
Moments later, I felt a sharp pain behind each of my ears, and the faintest buzz of static. Just like that, Gloria, the omnipresent voice in my skull, had swiftly departed, no doubt carrying her cream colored clutch and iPad. With her departure came the arrival of several new uninvited guests - in my inbox. The bills were astronomically high, and it looked as if Rob's down payment had been seized as well. I didn't even bother apologizing to him. After all, the whole thing was his idea.
At work, the sales team drifted back to their corner of the suite, and I took the position Carlyle had handed me and ran with it. I thought about what Gloria might say: "The moment they see the real you, they'll fire you on the spot!" That didn't happen, though. Business, I realized, is all about first impressions. I'd given them one hell of a first impression, with Life Editor's help, and once they had that, they stopped paying attention to me. Once you're in that tower, they all assume you deserve it, and they don't even try to unseat you.
I avoided the bar for weeks after my dust-up with Megan. I didn't want to face being me - being Pradeep Vishwana, lowly, shy engineer. I was quieter than ever before. I'd spent so long speaking someone else's words - awful words, confident words, arrogant words - that I never wanted to speak again. I was simply relieved to have no one to answer to, and I didn't care about anything else. It had a strange affect on me. I stopped making mistakes. My confidence wasn't that of bravado and bluster, but of quiet certitude. Oddly, I grew to like me.
It was at the end of this period of reflection that I decided to confront my fears and revisit the bar. I strolled in alone one night after work. I ordered a beer and glanced behind me at the center of the room. The giant table was empty, but down at the other end of the bar sat a brunette, her face in a book. I recognized her. It was the girl who'd sat across from me while I wore Gloria's leash. She'd stomped away, as I recalled.
She'd been right to avoid me. I didn't have any right to speak to her again, but before I realized it, I'd taken a seat next to her. She glanced over and exhaled loudly, rolling her eyes.
"The Prophet," I said, glancing at her book cover. "I should be taking those words to heart more often."
"What do you mean?" she asked, annoyed.
"Listen -" I began. "I wouldn't blame you if you walked away right now after how I acted. I'd walk away."
She started to get up, book still in hand.
"I have a crazy story to tell you, if you want to hear it." I waited as she stood for a brief moment, weighing my words. I could already feel the old shadow of social phobia pushing out from inside of me like a vengeful ghost. I waited for her expression to shift, as they all did, to one of confusion and disgust.
Instead, she shook her head and gave a slight smile, and slid back down into her seat.
"I'd rather read my pal Gilbran, here," she said, tapping her book. "But I don't know... you seem so...." She placed her book down at last and gave me a sidelong glance. "You know what? I'm in the mood for a story, and your eyes tell me you have a good one."