The Misfortune Cookie

“The Misfortune Cookie”

by Brandon Kidd

 

Kevin Watson sat before the remains of his dim sum developing indigestion. For once, he was grateful he had eaten alone. The faint blue printing on that tiny strip of paper stared back at him brighter than a Las Vegas billboard. He gulped and read them once more: “A new acquaintance will bring you disaster.”

What kind of a fucked up fortune was that!? He expected something banal like, “Your efforts will bring good results” or distinctly Confucian: “Good things come to those who wait.” Not this. Who was this stranger? Where would this fateful meeting take place? What form would this disaster take?

Kevin’s palms started to sweat and then he heard the voice of Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise… in his head. Having grown up on Star Trek The Next Generation reruns, the voice of Kevin’s conscience now sounded remarkably like Patrick Stewart. And why not? Captain Picard rocked! Adventurous, brave, principled, but also diplomatic and philosophical —boldly go where no one has gone before (but never needlessly risk your  crew). And what did Captain Picard say to Chief Engineer Watson about this evil fortune cookie?

“Meaningless! A quaint but antiquated tradition designed to occupy superstitious minds. Pay it no further heed, Mister Watson.”

Aye-aye, sir. But still, Kevin couldn’t help wondering. Could this new acquaintance be Sophie, his blind date from Saturday? He thought things had gone well. He’d made plans to see her again this Saturday. It had been his first date in over a year and he liked her. So far.

“Maybe she’ll turn out to be some crazed psychopath who sends me dead squirrels in the mail. Maybe she had twelve other blind dates that week. Maybe we’ll get married only to have her leave me ten years from now for our nineteen-year-old pool boy.”

Kevin didn’t know. But as he sat there, leaning forward in his chair, loosening his tie with moist hands and staring at a couple half-eaten dumplings, he knew this: that fortune cookie had just cost the waitress her tip.

Kevin was twenty-eight years old. Last year he’d finally landed his first real, permanent full-time job since leaving school. He was now a professional computer programmer. He coded software for libraries. He was good at it. He liked it. He felt it was important work. It paid well enough for him to live on his own and grow a condo down-payment fund. Now who was this new acquaintance who was going to come along and screw it all up for him?

He gasped. Maybe it was his new boss, Mike —excuse me— Mister Hargrove. Kevin didn’t like Mike Hargrove. He was a year younger than Kevin and about one quarter as intelligent. He was certain Hargrove was one of those guys in university who spent his time rewording Coles Notes and copying snippets of code from the internet to complete his assignments, who crammed for every exam then promptly forgot everything from the course by the next semester, who spent his hours outside class “networking” by joining every team, club, society and association on campus, scanning people at social gatherings for who might be useful at some point in the future, collecting email addresses and business cards like a pig sniffing for truffles. No, Kevin didn’t like Mike Hargrove. And now, thanks to this stupid fortune cookie, he was going to worry about getting stabbed in the back by the guy every day this week.

Kevin reached for his wallet and left his fortune on the table. It wouldn’t matter if he took that little slip of paper with him or not, after one reading its words were tattooed on his brain. He counted out enough money to cover his bill and though for a moment before leaving a twoonie for the waitress. It wasn’t her fault fate had decided to play chicken with him.

“Have nice day,” she chimed with an elastic smile as Kevin left.

“Fat chance,” he thought.

Kevin was an unimpressive figure by many measures, certainly in comparison to the parade of other businessmen in Hugo Boss suits and Prada shoes zooming around Downtown Toronto in shiny new sports cars. He walked back to his office in an old pair of running shoes, wearing a wardrobe by Mark’s Work Warehouse, carrying a backpack by Mountain Equipment Co-op. He was of less than average height and built like a scarecrow but nevertheless reckoned himself not bad looking. He had short brown hair which he cut and styled himself, a clear complexion (on good days), and a small nose which made him look several years younger.

Walking down University Avenue on this bright, breezy spring day Kevin should have been enjoying himself, breathing in the clean air off Lake Ontario and wondering whether there was still ice on the lake back home in Winnipeg. He had moved to Toronto for university and stayed there afterward, working a long string of nerve-wracking contracts before finally landing a permanent, full-time job. But Kevin hated Toronto. No, to be accurate, he hated Torontonians —of which there were two distinct types in his opinion.

There was the native Torontonian. They were born here and alternated between attitudes of superiority and entitlement. They also spoke twenty percent faster than non-natives. Generally the native Torontonian was only suspicious when speaking to someone of the second type, the new Torontonian.

The new Torontonian, one who has managed to establish himself in this city despite the myriad obstacles, is assumed by the native to have done so only by screwing over someone else. Native Torontonians believe, if only unconsciously, that honesty is the sacrifice demanded from newcomers by the gods of The Big City. They are, therefore, distrusting of anyone who wasn’t born within the service area of the TTC. This uneasy dynamic existed between Kevin and his boss. Hargrove exemplified the native Torontonian.

Kevin was not jealous of Mike Hargrove. He had no desire to screw him over or possess anything of his —his athletic six-foot-two frame, his extroverted personality, his $40,000 smile or his seemingly endless network of “friends.” What Kevin resented was that Hargrove thought he was jealous of him. Kevin saw this as the absolute pinnacle of arrogance. Hargrove thought so much of himself he automatically assumed that everyone around him wanted exactly what he had. Furthermore he thought so little of everyone else that he assumed they couldn’t possibly be happy and therefore must be deviously plotting to topple him from his castle of self-satisfaction and claim what he had for their own.

As he approached his office, slaloming between sidewalk vendors, Kevin recalled an exchange from earlier in the month. Hargrove had cornered him at the fax machine.

 

“Hey there, Kev!” he said, landing a slap on Kevin’s back.

“Hi,” Kevin replied with no more cheer than professionalism demanded. After his promotion, Mike Hargrove insisted everyone address him as “Mister Hargrove” in order to engender the necessary “aura of authority” required to successfully manage a team. Although he remained on a first name basis with a select few and still called everyone else by nicknames which ranged from flirty to offensive. “Kev” was among the more tolerable ones, so Kevin accepted it but resented the politics of it all. He skirted the drama by simply not using Hargrove’s name at all. The fax machine moved slower than rush-hour traffic down Front Street.

“How’s the new workstation?”

Since his installation as manager, Hargrove had reorganized their office into cubicles of adjoining desks and Kevin, among others, had lost the privacy of an office in order to “facilitate better communication and teamwork.” Kevin had already objected to the new arrangement once saying that it affected his concentration. The objection received no response.

Hargrove didn’t want to hear what Kevin really thought, but nor could Kevin bring himself to lie about this situation and say he was happy with it, so…

“Oh, as well as can be expected,” said Kevin.

The fax machine continued to struggle connecting. Goddamned dial-up! Energize, damn you!

“Good! Glad to hear it.”

Hargrove interpreted everything positively. Kevin reckoned that if he’d said, “No one likes the new arrangement, myself included. It’s the absolute worst idea in the history of the universe.” Hargrove would’ve replied with something like, “Wow! What great feedback! Way to come out of your shell and assert yourself, Kev!” He then would’ve strutted over to his office —yes, he still had an office— and shot out an email saying how proud he was of how well everyone had made the adjustment. Sociopath.

“So, Kev, are you still trying that whole on-line dating thing?”

During the brief time they’d worked on the same team Kevin made the mistake of sharing with Hargrove some details of his personal life; he now paid for that mistake on an almost daily basis. Fortunately, Kevin knew a foolproof method for diverting Hargrove’s attention: give him an opening to brag about his own life.

“Yup. How’re things with you and Cindy?”

“Oh, things couldn’t be better!” Hargrove beamed. “She’s on assignment right now in Milan covering fashion week. But she should be on the runway if you ask me. She’s got a figure on her that could rival any of those models. We’ve got plans to go up to the cottage for four days over this weekend. Oh! That reminds me…”

Hargrove leaned in to Kevin and lowered his voice.

“Here it comes,” thought Kevin. “The ask.”

“I told the director at LCS that we’d have the new module ready to show them as soon as I get back. Can you do it?”

The fax machine was finally transmitting.

“My deadline is still a week away.”

“True, but in these tough economic times we should work extra hard to impress our clients. We wouldn’t want to lose any accounts.”

The fax finally finished transmitting that invoice, having stalled just long enough to allow this oh-so-pleasant conversation to take place.

“Uh…” Kevin mentally weighed his work load and, “Well, since you’ve already told them it’ll be ready I guess it’ll have to be.”

Kevin took up his papers, and turned to his boss with a tight smile stretched across his face.

“Alright! You’re a superstar, Kev!”

Hargrove gave him a shot in the arm as he marched off to his office having successfully ensured both his professional reputation and his long weekend plans. At the expense of Kevin’s. Jerk.

 

Kevin entered his office building and briskly swiped his keycard at the lobby elevator. Those four days that Hargrove spent balling his girlfriend amid the sound of loons in the Muskokas, Kevin spent coding at his desk twelve hours a day for four days straight. At least the office had been empty. The elevator opened and Kevin pushed the button for the sub-basement level. In the recent past Kevin had thought of their basement office as cozy. Now, as he descended into the bowels of The Big City he felt more like he was falling through several circles of Hell on his way to be tormented by Hargrove the Horrible, Lord of the Basement.

Ding!

The elevator opened and Kevin stepped out. It was quiet in the office. Too quiet. And it was Thursday. If Hargrove wanted him to work over the weekend he’d probably approach him about it before the day was through. Kevin began plotting how to get to his desk in a way that was least likely to attract attention when—

“Hey, Kev!” came at him from behind accompanied by the requisite shoulder slap.

“Hi,” said Kevin as he thought of a way to keep moving. “Would you like any coffee? I’m getting some.”

“Nah, I cut out caffeine. Bad for your mojo. Know what I’m saying?”

“No, and the last thing I want to hear about is your mojo,” is what Kevin wanted to say. Instead he grunted a reply and reached for the percolator.

“Say, bring that into my office when you’ve got it fixed up. I want to introduce you to someone.”

Kevin spilled his coffee and blurted out, “Huh? Meet someone? Who?”

“Just come on in. You’ll see.”

Hargrove strutted into his office, arms swinging like a football player leaving the field.

“This is it,” thought Kevin. “This must be the disastrous new acquaintance the fortune cookie spoke of. They’re hiring someone new, I’m going to have to train him, he’ll sabotage my work and this time next year he’ll be the new Hargrove.”

There was no sense putting it off. Kevin shotgunned half his coffee and marched into his boss’s office to meet his destiny.

 

“Kevin Watson, meet Darryl Lambert.”

“You’re giving me a book?” Kevin said quizzically, staring at the dog-eared paperback in his hands.

By “introduce you to someone” Hargrove apparently meant give him a title by this self-help author. And what a title: “Owning Your Power: How to harness ancient wisdom and unleash your inner superhero.”

“I’ve read all of his books,” Hargrove said, leaning over his desk and gesturing with his hands for emphasis. “He’s amazing —he totally transformed my life. I’ve even gone to a few of his seminars —he’s been here in Toronto a couple times now. This book is his best. I really think you could get something out of it.”

“Something like what?” Kevin practically growled, glaring at his boss from beneath a heavy brow. Kevin thought this was it. The fortune cookie was right. The weight of his boss’s pomposity was going to crush what was left of his withering patience; Kevin was going to scream at his boss what he really thought about him, and promptly lose his job.

“This guy is positively un-real!” Kevin said to himself. “Not only does he think he’s the slickest thing since teflon, and that everyone around him wishes they had it as good as him, he also thinks he’s doing the rest of us a favor by throwing self-help tidbits our way! I don’t think I can take this!

Then the Captain spoke up, “Patience, Mister Watson. Knowledge is power. Don’t rush to judgment so swiftly. Hear him out.”

“Alright,” Kevin concluded. “If I start feeling like I wanna knock his block off, I’ll just nod and try to hear music.”

“Kev,” Hargrove said, hands tented in front of him, eyebrows knit in concern, “I care about you. I see how hard you work, and you do good work, but dude… I can tell you’re not happy. And I was like you once. I worried about everything and refused to let myself feel good no matter what happened. I mean, last month for example, you rawked that new release for LCS, man! And you did it early! But… were you happy about it? No. I tried to high five you on that and you left me hangin’ until I wouldn’t let you leave the room. That kind of thing worries me.

“And another thing —not that I wanna get too personal— but…” Here he leaned forward a little more and lowered his voice, “It’s been forever since you got laid hasn’t it? I mean, you don’t have to say anything, but I can tell —everyone can. And I know how that feels, dude. Like I said, I used to be the same way. Hell, back in school I had dry spells that lasted for months. So I know how much that can affect a guy. I’m worried that you’re not getting what you can out of life —what you deserve out of life. This!” Here he pointed to the book Kevin was holding, “will get you what you deserve out of life. It worked for me. It’ll work for you too. I guarantee it!”

Hargrove leaned back, smiling, and put his hands behind his head, swiveling in his desk chair.

Kevin went through a wide range of emotions as Hargrove delivered his little pep talk, but not the range you might expect and not the range he’d expected either. He looked into Hargrove’s sincere expression, saw the conviction in his eyes along with a bit of —could it be?— genuine concern and… he bought it.

“Huh…” Kevin thought to himself as he sat there with this book in his hand. “Maybe Hargrove isn’t as crazy as I thought. I mean, the idea that he would help me in anyway certainly goes against how I had him pegged. Maybe this whole ‘happy about everything all the time’ thing isn’t just an act to cover his insecurity. And maybe —just maybe— Hargrove wasn’t totally wrong. I mean, I’m not all that happy most of the time. Maybe I could be.”

Kevin sat there for a second, processing, and read the title on the cover once more: “Owning Your Power: How to harness ancient wisdom and unleash your inner superhero.” Then Kevin looked up and took in the picture of his boss. He had to admit, if anyone in the office looked and acted like a superhero, it was Hargrove. He had a job and a salary that a professional ten years his senior would envy. He drove a brand new Porche. He had a trophy girlfriend that could make any red-blooded hetero male sit up and beg. He worked out all the time; the six-pack abs and seventeen inch arms he sported at the company pool party wouldn’t look out of place in a fitness magazine. He never drank any coffee but had endless energy. And he smiled all the bloody time. Kevin just assumed that he was faking the positive attitude —putting on a show— at least some of the time but… what reason would he have to fake anything? Why shouldn’t he be happy? Hargrove had it all.

Kevin resolved to do some more thinking on the subject, to sniff the Kool-Aid before gulping it down.

“Thanks. I’ll start it tonight,” he said in a calm, measured tone.

“Awesome! Let me know how it goes.”

 

Possibly the greatest conundrum of human existence is that we live in a realm of desire, all action is motivated by it, and yet most people fear their desires. It is the fear that holds them back from pursuing their desires with enough energy and perseverance to achieve them. Ask yourself, “Have I ever wasted time and energy second guessing my actions? Have I ever observed the success of others and, instead of celebrating their accomplishments and genuinely inquiring as to their success strategies, reasoned away the causes of their success as luck, inherent ability, or nepotism? Do I ever generate reasons for not pursuing things which I know will improve my happiness?” If you find yourself answering “yes” to any of these questions, then good for you!

Why is this realization a good thing? First of all, you’re being honest with yourself. Second, you’re not alone; most people on the planet fall into the same traps and never even realize it. And third, by admitting to falling into these negative mindsets, you’re already one-third of the way to overcoming them. The next step to overcoming these negative and self-defeating mindsets is learning to identify various delusions as they creep into your thinking, delusions such as the phantoms of luck, inherent ability, and nepotism. Identifying these delusions is the work of the next few chapters…

 

One thing Kevin prided himself on was his ability to learn. And if achieving a happier life was something he could learn, as this book claimed, then he wanted to try. And he had the perfect opportunity: he was seeing Sophie again on Saturday for their second date!

 

Kevin met Sophie through an online dating service and couldn’t believe his good luck. She was a half-Polish, half-Italian gal working in government administration at City Hall —part-time, but she had hopes. She was two years younger than Kevin, read as much as him, loved Asian cuisine as much as him, and she was even a sci-fi fan. Her favorite starship captain was Janeway, but the feminist in Kevin could allow her that. And she was gorgeous!

Well, maybe not gorgeous in that “size two is the new size four” sense. Sophie had hips. But she was Kevin’s height —major plus— with long, straight blond hair, perfect peaches and cream skin, and bright blue eyes. She wore super thick glasses, but still looked great in them. And no body’s perfect. Kevin thought she was a knockout.

Their second date was at a Spring Rolls. Über- post-modern cultural fusion décor surrounded them —think, Buddhas wearing backwards baseball caps, while the sounds of Shakira floated in from the mall. They both ordered the green chicken curry and it was really good. The conversation had gone well. They made each other laugh.

At the end of the meal Kevin sat across from Sophie watching her spear the last of her deep fried banana and got thinking,

“What is my desire with respect to this person? How are my fears preventing me from achieving those desires? What delusions are standing in my way?”

Up to now Kevin had been treating this girl the same way he treated every other girl he’d dated, not that there had been legions of them, and things had gone the same way they always had. On their last date he had asked if she wanted to split their bills, because women should have the option of paying their own way if they want to, right? On their last date he had waited for her to make the first move with respect to any physical contact and didn’t have any expectations, because women like gentlemen who respect them as individuals, right? They didn’t even hold hands. On their last date he hadn’t gone overboard with his own appearance by buying new clothes or anything, because she would want to see “everyday” Kevin, right? And so far this date had been a repeat of the first. Don’t mess with success, right? But… was the last date a success? Did he get everything he truly wanted out of it?

Kevin looked down at his brown dress shirt and blue jeans.

“I dress like a communist,” he said to himself. Then he decided to experiment.

The bill arrived and when they both each reached for their wallets, Kevin objected,

“No. I’ll get this.”

“Oh, you don’t have to do that, I can—”

“No,” Kevin said, firmly while smiling and looking into her eyes. “The pleasure of your company is worth more than any curry dinner. I insist.”

What!?

Kevin shocked himself. He never would’ve said anything like that two weeks ago. His heart betrayed the smooth expression on his face, pounding like a jackhammer, but he remembered the words of Darryl Lambert:

Stepping out of your comfort zone will feel uncomfortable. Welcome these sensations as growing pains and watch for the positive results.

 

Sophie smiled, put away her purse, and looked up at him through those glasses with a gaze of —could it be?— interest. And what was that creeping up the pale flesh of her neck? Was she blushing?

“Have I ever made a girl blush before?” Kevin asked himself. He couldn’t remember. But it felt good. Then Kevin had an answer to the question he’d asked himself earlier. He knew exactly what his desires were with respect to this person. He wanted to get laid!

 

The next morning, as Kevin cooked breakfast in bed for his girlfriend (Could he say that word to himself yet?… Yes, he could) he felt better than he had in years. Last night, for maybe the first time ever, he simply went after what he wanted and he got it! He actually got it! And it wasn’t even that difficult. He had short circuited that part of his brain that would have said, “Well, shouldn’t you wait until the next date?… What if she thinks you’re expecting something after paying for dinner?… You didn’t clean your apartment… Are you sure she’d appreciate you doing that to her nipples?” He just did it. And yes she did appreciate it. Vocally. Kevin had never gotten such beautiful sounds out of a woman before. With every appreciative moan Sophie made, instead of asking himself, “Is this the sound of a woman faking it?” he heard a whole team of self-help gurus cheering him on.

“Good morrrrrning.”

Kevin heard Sophie cooing behind him as she wrapped her arms around his waist.  Kevin twisted his neck around and gave her a kiss.

“It is a very good morning,” Kevin answered.

“Oh, and you can cook!” Sophie beamed. “I love French toast. Thank you so much for this. And for last night. It was amazing.”

Kevin swelled with pride.

“Thank you.”

Then he turned toward her, kissing her again, deeply.

“You look so cute in the morning,” he said, looking her up and down.

Sophie’s arms were around his neck and then… yep. She blushed again. Seeing that rush of blood beneath the skin of her neck sent Kevin in for another kiss. And another. Then Kevin felt a rush of blood himself.

Miraculously, the voice in his head that would’ve been saying, “Are you pushing things too far? Are you overestimating yourself? Do you think she’ll want to?” was completely silent. He turned off the stove and led her back to the bedroom.

 

Their next date went even better. Kevin was more relaxed and Sophie seemed to feel more comfortable with him too. They were no longer on their best behaviour for one another, but were simply enjoying each other’s company. Kevin couldn’t wait to see her again. Every encounter they had ended with them making plans to see each other again.

One night, after attending an anniversary screening of Planet of the Apes together,  they tore back to Kevin’s apartment (it was always Kevin’s apartment, Sophie lived with her parents) and had the most passionate sex Kevin could remember —or imagine. It felt like a dream.

Afterward, Sophie rested on Kevin’s sweaty chest and sighed, “You might be the last man in the city.”

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“Oh!” Sophie looked up at him and, smiling, pressed her fingers to her lips. “I… didn’t think I said that out loud.”

“Well… you did,” Kevin laughed. “Now you have to tell me what you mean, because it sounded kind of weird.”

“Well…” Sophie said, resting her head back over Kevin’s heart. “Promise you won’t think I’m weird when I tell you, okay?”

“Okay, I promise.”

“Well… what I mean is… You have your own opinions.”

“And that makes me the last man in the city?”

Sophie laughed, “Well… yeah. Boys don’t know what they want, not really anyway. They follow their urges and what they’re told —by their parents, by other people, by… by television. Men can think for themselves. I see a lot of grown-up males walking around, but I don’t often meet any men.”

“Huh…” Kevin rolled her words around in his mind.

“I’m sorry,” Sophie yawned. “I’m probably not saying it the right way, but that was supposed to be a compliment.”

Kevin fell asleep thinking about that post-coital conversation with Sophie, but unfortunately forgot all about it the next morning.

 

* * *

 

A month later, Kevin caught himself whistling while fixing his afternoon coffee. And why not? He had a good job, a great girlfriend, his own apartment, and money in the bank. That was a hell of a lot more than most people in this city had. He felt great. He even found a way to deal with Hargrove always tightening his deadlines and he owed it all to the Chief Engineer of an earlier Starship Enterprise. Yes, that’s right, Mister Scott —Scotty!

A few weeks ago, while pondering how he could manage Hargrove at work, Kevin had a revelation. He suddenly recalled how Scotty, Chief Engineer to Captain Kirk, would always give Kirk inflated timelines for how long anything would take to get done. Then, whenever Scotty had the dilithium chamber recalibrated “early” he would be hailed as a miracle worker. Kevin had no desire to be known as a miracle worker, he just wanted to avoid working unpaid overtime, especially now that he had a girlfriend. Thank-you, Scotty.

“Girlfriend…”

Kevin quietly rolled the word around on his tongue like a lump of chocolate as he added some sugar to his coffee. He had worked so hard in university that he never had any time for dating. Since university he had excuses instead of girlfriends: “She’s not really into me… I just don’t have time… Maybe when I’m making more money…” But now he had a girlfriend. And not just a girlfriend, a good-looking, smart, funny, girlfriend who loved being around him. Kevin looked at his reflection in the mirror above the kitchenette’s sink. He was smiling. And he looked great. Who knew regular affection make such a difference? Suddenly life seemed easier, more fun. And then—

“Watson!”

Kevin heard his name shot from across the room. He turned around to see Hargrove hanging out the door of his office.

“Put down that sludge and get in here!” Hargrove boomed. “I need to see you. Now!”

Hargrove stalked back into his lair. Kevin wondered what could possibly be wrong. He did a mental rundown of his projects and deadlines. Everything was in order. Ahead of schedule, even. His hands started sweating. He put down his coffee, took two quick steps towards Hargrove’s office, and stopped. Then he squared his shoulders, straightened his back, took a deep breath, and went back for his coffee which he proudly carried into his meeting.

“What’s the worst he can do? Fire me?” Kevin thought. “That lazy ass needs me more than I need him.”

Kevin walked into his boss’s office and was about to take a seat when Hargrove said,

“Close the door.”

Kevin closed the door and took his seat. Hargrove tapped away furiously on his keyboard, not looking at him. Kevin waited patiently and sipped his coffee.

“Well,” Hargrove said, staring at Kevin, arms folded across his Abercrombie polo shirt. It was Tuesday, but for Hargrove it was always casual Friday.

“Well… what?” Kevin asked.

“You’ve been holding out on me,” Hargrove said, shaking his finger at Kevin.

“What’re you talking about?” Kevin asked, genuinely confused. There was no way Hargrove had figured out he’d been inflating his deadlines. Even if he had, what was the big deal? Everything was still getting done.

Then Hargrove cracked a smile, and leaned forward.

“I’m talking about a little something called ‘Owning Your Power,’ Mister Watson. You may not want to admit it, but I can tell you’ve obviously read that book and digested every word. Look at you! You smile more, you complain less, you work harder and uh… you have a certain unmistakable swagger.”

Kevin smirked and looked to his side.

“Oh, c’mon, Kev! Who is she? You can tell me. For the next five minutes, I’m not your boss, okay? I’m just one of the guys. C’mon! I’m dying to know. Is it Joan, that new girl in marketing? She’s hot.”

Kevin did a quick mental cost-benefit analysis. Telling Hargrove about Sophie couldn’t possibly cost him anything. And it might prevent rumors of an intra-office romance from spreading. Hargrove sat across from him, smiling from ear to ear and tented his eyebrows in anticipation. Kevin threw up his hands.

“Alright! You caught me. Yes, I’m trying out The Darryl Lambert Method and… yes, I’ve started seeing someone. But she doesn’t work here.”

“I knew it!” Hargrove said triumphantly. “Congrats, Kev! You deserve this.”

“Yeah, I’ve actually read a couple of his books now and I—”

“I don’t want a book report!” Hargrove snapped. “I wanna see pictures! C’mon, I’ll bet she’s a real looker.”

A tiny voice in Kevin’s head told him he shouldn’t indulge in this and start showing off his girlfriend like some new car, but…

“Why shouldn’t I show him her picture! I’m proud of her, dammit! And Hargrove should know that he’s not the only guy who can get a good-looking girl.”

Kevin pulled out his phone and flipped to a photo he snapped of Sophie whispering playfully into a six-foot-tall plastic ear. They went to the Ontario Science Centre together a week ago. He thought she looked particularly cute in this picture.

Hargrove looked at the photo but didn’t say anything.

“Her name’s Sophie,” Kevin said.

“Cool.”

“She’s an admin assistant. Just part-time for now but…”

“Uh huh.”

“She… speaks three languages, too. She’s really smart… And funny.”

“Okay.”

Kevin stopped rolling out his girlfriend’s resume and started wondering what was wrong. Hargrove asked to see her picture and a minute ago he was bouncing around with the excitement of a teenager.

“What?” Kevin asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Well… What do you think?” Kevin asked. “Isn’t she great?”

“Yeah, she’s alright.”

Alright!?!?

Kevin nearly delivered his boss a jab to the face right then and there.

“What do you mean ‘alright’? She’s gorgeous!”

“Good. I’m glad you think so.”

“But… you don’t?”

“Well…” Hargrove demurred, sitting back in his chair.

Kevin knew he was going to regret taking this conversation further, but he really wanted to know what was going through Hargrove’s head. Curiosity got the better of him.

“Well what?” Kevin pushed.

“Well… it’s not her, it’s just that…” here Hargrove leaned forward once more and lowered his voice. He looked directly at Kevin and said, “It’s you.”

“Oh…” Kevin said, deflated. “You mean, I’m not in her league.”

“No no no!” Hargrove shot back, waving his hands between them. “Well… yeah, but not in the way you’re thinking.”

“Huh?”

“I mean… I think you can do better.”

“What!? You’ve never even met her!”

“I don’t need to. You can do better. And if you were honest with yourself, you would think so too. I mean, look how you introduced her to me. All you did was show me her picture and you were all ready to apologize for her —’just part-time but…’ I hadn’t even said anything and you already started listing off qualities to try and impress me. Why should it matter that she speaks three languages or not?”

“Well… I just thought that was—”

“Kev…” Hargrove interrupted and lowered his voice again. “I’m still just one of the guys, right now, right?”

“R…ight.”

“Well, then this is me being honest with you as one of the guys.” He shrugged his shoulders and simply said, “You can do better.”

Kevin looked down at Sophie’s photo. Sure, she wasn’t the woman of his fantasies, but she was a great girl. She was no supermodel, but she was attractive. She wasn’t one of these gym goddesses with no waist, enormous boobs, and ghetto booty but she was healthy and funny. That’s what mattered… Right?”

“The question is,” Hargrove continued as Kevin looked at her picture. “Do you want to do better? Or do you want to continue holding yourself back from your full potential?”

 

You are the greatest obstacle to your own transformation. For every person who becomes the superhero they’ve always wanted to be, there are a thousand others who begin the journey but scare themselves into turning back or reason with themselves into accepting less. Make no mistake, anything less than the best is not good enough. The second you settle for less than what you deserve, you admit failure and acquiesce to defeat —you choosing to remain ordinary and deny the most perfected form of yourself. Everything is impossible until someone does it. That inner critic of yours will never be entirely silent. But don’t let him run your life and deny you what you deserve.

 

* * *

 

Kevin surprised himself. It was Canada Day weekend. He and Sophie had started making plans to go away together for this weekend. But Kevin broke up with her shortly after that meeting with Hargrove. She was upset and confused, but Kevin was convinced it was for the best. He’d been trapped in a “settling pattern” for so long he’d convinced himself that he was happy with Sophie when he wasn’t. And trapping her in that pattern as well wasn’t fair to either of them. It was best to end things early, not to string her along. But the surprise was what Kevin saw in his mirror that morning.

He was in his apartment getting ready to hit the beach. Had had his new two-hundred-dollar swimsuit on and was pulling his jeans on over it when he stopped and looked in the mirror of his closet door. Two months ago Kevin had started exercising. Three weeks ago, he really started enjoying it and bumped his routine up to five days a week. Two weeks ago he started paying for use of the gym’s tanning beds. He’d also started a new diet, the Darryl Lambert Superhero Diet. Last weekend he got his hair cut and highlighted professionally for the first time in many years, at a decent salon too. The results of all this had crept up on him.

He had stomach muscles, stomach muscles that he hadn’t seen since he was a teenager. His skin was clear, golden, and healthy looking. He now jumped out of bed at five-thirty in the morning instead of slamming the snooze button at quarter-to-eight. He’d given up coffee. His new hairstylist had shown him how to apply product to his new do and he thought he was getting the hang of it. Kevin stood for a second admiring himself, his jeans half way up his thighs, and struck a pose, cocking his chin and smirking like a GQ model. He looked great! His chest was filling out and his arms were looking more rounded. He would always be short but—

Focus on the changeable and the achievable. Anything else is a waste of energy and resources and not worth your valuable time.

 

In other words, Kevin was starting to reap the rewards of keeping his eyes on the prize. It was costing him a small fortune, and he hadn’t added anything to his condo down-payment fund in a long time, but it was worth it —he was worth it.

Kevin chuckled and started imagining how good he was going to look and feel six months from now but then,

“No. Time to stay in the moment,” he reminded himself. Hargrove was meeting him downstairs to take them to his cottage for the weekend along with a bunch of other people.

“Cindy’s bringing a bunch of her friends this weekend —all single,” Hargrove promised him across the water cooler earlier that week. “Trust me, you’re gonna be a purebred stud in a pasture of fillies! Bring rubbers, dude! And try to limit yourself to just one or two, okay? Don’t break our guest bed!”

A year ago, hearing praise like that would’ve made Kevin blush. Hell, he wouldn’t have even taken it in, he might have even thought Hargrove was teasing him. But yesterday he purred internally when Hargrove said that to him over coffee, and felt his loins twitch in anticipation.

Once again, Kevin’s life felt different. It felt like he was on his way somewhere, like he had a goal, like he had a purpose, like life was a game and he was a major player. For most of his adult life, and his entire life in Toronto, he’d made fun of the hipsters and the yuppies chasing after some version of consumerist bliss.

“Shouldn’t have knocked it until I tried it,” Kevin thought to himself.

He checked his watch, threw the rest of his clothes on, grabbed his packed duffle bag, and went down to the Starbucks in the lobby of his building where he’d wait for Hargrove —make that Mike— to pull up in his Porche with Cindy riding shotgun.

 

“Kev, you’re an inspiration.”

Kevin and Mike sat in the shade of a beech tree on a pair of Adirondack chairs, sipping vodka coolers and watching the girls toss a frisbee around on the sand.

“Really?” Kevin said, taking a swig. “How so?”

“You’re a superhero! You’re got a new body, you’re getting tons more done at work, and—”

“Look out!”

Kevin sat up and caught the frisbee out of the air as it came swooping toward them.

“Oh, sorry about that!”

Laura, one of Cindy’s single friends came bouncing up toward them in her bikini. Tall and leggy with long, dark hair and a tan, Laura had a southern European or Latin look to her and she’d been all smiles for Kevin ever since she arrived.

“Thanks, Kevin,” she chirped, taking the frisbee back from him. “Are you gonna come and play?”

“Sure thing!” Kevin said. “Just lemme finish my drink.”

Kevin watched her bounce back to the beach. The vodka coolers combined with the hypnotic movements of Laura’s hips and he started to feel tipsy.

“And you’re totally getting laid tonight!” Mike whispered into his ear.

“Yes, I am,” Kevin said with a smile.

 

* * *

 

It was mid-August now and Kevin was living life in a much higher gear, or so it seemed. It was seven-thirty on a Wednesday morning and Kevin was in the office. He’d skipped leg day at the gym so he could get the data for a report that Hargrove needed for a meeting on Friday. The system was compiling and so was Kevin as he starred at the twirling hourglass on his computer screen, sipping an herbal energy drink. He and Laura were seeing each other regularly with no end in sight. Hargrove kept giving him more assignments at work, but instead of feeling put upon Kevin saw them as challenges and evidence that Hargrove valued him. He was spending a lot more time preparing meals and going to the gym, but he saw this as an investment in maintaining the body that he deserved. His new body, he was sure, was also a reason why he was able to keep Laura. He and Laura were seeing each other three or four times a week. And, yes, “seeing each other” included sex. He was also spending a lot more time on the TTC. Laura lived in Mississauga.

Last week his streetcar broke down and Kevin was late for one of their dates. Laura shrugged her shoulders and casually suggested, “Get a car.”

A car? In downtown Toronto? Just to drive to and from Mississauga? On its face the idea seemed crazy.

“Could I even afford one?” Kevin asked himself. “I wouldn’t be saving money anymore. I wouldn’t need the car for work… or shopping… and ninety-percent of the time the TTC is just as fast or faster… and my building doesn’t have parking nearby, but… Laura did make a face the other week when we had to stand on the subway on our way to the restaurant… I could finally make use of that parking space in my building that I’ve been paying for. Maybe I can afford one.”

Then the voice of Darryl Lambert cut in, “Kevin, can you afford not to have one?”

Hummmm…

Hargrove came into the office at nine-thirty and went straight over to Kevin’s desk.

“Hey, Kev! How’s it hangin’?”

“Lower than yours, Mike,” Kevin said with a playful smirk.

Not only was Kevin now solidly in Mike Hargrove’s First Name Club, he’d also gone from cringing at Mike’s penis jokes to trading them with him. “What’s up?”

“Well, I have another challenge for you.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, my meeting was moved up a day and I’m gonna need that report before tomorrow morning. Can you do it?”

“Tomorrow morning? No way, man. I started compiling the data two hours ago, but it’s still got half an hour to go and writing the report would take all day and all night if you needed it before tomorrow morning.”

Hargrove shrugged and said, “Sounds like a plan, Kev. You’re the best.”

He slapped Kevin on the shoulder and retreated to his office.

In Kevin’s mind Captain Picard battled it out with Darryl Lambert…

“Examine the evidence of this relationship objectively, Mister Watson. This is the fourth time Hargrove has done this since the start of the summer. You know he does this so that he can have long weekends; if he isn’t doing it to you, he’s doing it to someone else in the office. You don’t get overtime pay and you know that he’ll keep all the bonus money for himself at the end of the year. Tell him ‘no.'”

Then Darryl Lambert chimed in, “Kevin, why are you indulging in this kind of thinking? You’ve already got a solution to the challenge as presented and now you’re doubting whether you should use it? Don’t be negative. Don’t complain. Be a team player. Just do it.”

Kevin took a deep breath and called to leave Laura a message. They had plans to see a movie tonight and then go back to his place, but he’d have to cancel it he was going to be writing this report until midnight. To his surprise Laura picked up.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Laura. It’s me.”

“Hi!”

“Listen, I’m gonna have to cancel tonight. Some stuff changed at work and I need to write a report that’s needed for tomorrow morning.”

He could hear her exhale through the phone.

“Why?” she asked.

“Why what?”

“Why should we have to sacrifice our plans because something changed at work?”

“I… I told you, there’s a report that’s needed for tomorrow morning and—”

“That’s not what I mean. This isn’t the first time you’ve done this, you know.”

“Yeah, I know, but—”

“So this is the start of a destructive pattern, Kevin. You may not see it yet, but I do. You need to nip this in the bud before it gets worse. That’s the best thing to do —that’s the professional thing to do and…” another loud exhale, “I don’t know if I’m willing to put up with this again. I was looking forward to our time together.”

“Yeah… so was I but—”

“So do something about it. Be assertive. Get what you want. Call me back later, okay?”

“Well…”

She hung up.

This time Kevin’s own voice reacted, “What a bitch! So she’s had to reschedule plans a few times. So what? That’s life. And what she was ‘looking forward to’ was another dinner out and a show that she didn’t have to pay for. She may be able to call herself ‘a model’ but she’s broke. She’s in front of a camera for a couple days a month and the rest of the time she steams lattes at Starbucks. You’ve seen her apartment, it’s a shoebox and she shares it with two gay guys. This girl is obviously leading you around by your penis. Dump her!”

“Yeah, but at least she’s interested in your penis,” he thought, weighing the other side of the situation. “This time last year, you wouldn’t have considered this girl to be in your league and now you’re thinking about dumping her!? That’s self-sabotage and you know it! And what does it matter what her job is? She just said that she enjoys being with you and now you’re judging her. You want this girl. Now do what you have to in order to keep her.”

Kevin took a deep breath and marched over the Hargrove’s office. The door was open and Kevin heard snippets of the conversation as he approached:

“Yeah… yeah this weekend is set. I moved the meeting to tomorrow morning… Yeah, sure I’ll have the report before then.”

Kevin paused then knocked. Hargrove spun around to face him.

“Got a minute?” Kevin asked.

Hargrove held up his finger and said into the phone, “Yep… Yep… For sure. I gotta go, okay? Yeah, see ya.”

He hung up and asked, “What’s up?”

“I can’t do it. I can’t finish the report before tomorrow morning.”

“Why not?”

“Okay, now what?” Kevin thought to himself. “What would work?”

Then he had the answer. Kevin smiled and leaned over Hargrove’s —Mike’s— desk.

“I just got off the phone with Laura, man. She’s pissed that I’m gonna have to cancel plans again. Look, I was given a deadline of Friday. I can get it to you Friday morning. Just don’t make me choose between my work and my girl, man.”

The buddy angle. Kevin expected a slam dunk.  He expected Hargrove to live up to The Bro Code that he was so fond of quoting. He expected “wink-wink, nudge-nudge,” backslapping and a friendly, “You owe me, pal.” Instead Hargrove folded his arms, leaned back, and looked over at Kevin in the manner of a Dragon’s Den judge.

“This doesn’t work for me, Kevin.”

Kevin straightened up and asked, “What doesn’t work?”

“These excuses. Deadlines change. That’s a reality. We all have to balance work and our personal lives. The report is now due at midnight tonight. Anything standing in the way is your problem, not mine. Man up, Kev. This is what it’s like when you want to have it all.”

Hargrove turned to his computer and Kevin left, retreating to his cubicle with Mike’s —Hargrove’s— last words ringing in his ears:

This is what it’s like when you want to have it all…

He sat down and looked around his desk. The countdown on his computer was nearly finished; the data he needed for the report had nearly compiled. On his desk was a stack of well-thumbed Darryl Lambert paperbacks. He realized, suddenly, that those books were all he’d read since the spring. How did that happen? The new Terry Pratchett hit the shelves over a month ago and Kevin still hadn’t placed a request for it at his library. He reached for his Lambert library, planning to flip through the pages and land on something to help him work through this challenge, but his hand froze. Instead he reached for his phone for inspiration and began flipping through photos.

There were plenty of him and Laura to choose from. Laura was a real shutterbug and needed a constant stream of photos for her Instagram feed (even though she only had a couple hundred followers). Here was the picture he took of her on Toronto Island Beach. Here was the one of her posing in front of that mural on Bloor Street. He kept swiping and suddenly realized that he wasn’t in any of these photos.

“Well… of course you’re not,” he said to himself, “you took them.”

One time when Kevin tried to take a photo of both of them, Laura said, “Oh, I don’t like those squishy arms-length selfies. I can’t use them on my IG feed. Not professional-looking enough.”

There were a couple photos of the group from Canada Day weekend where everyone was pictured, but other than that there was zero photographic evidence that Kevin and Laura even knew each other.

This is what it’s like when you want to have it all…

Kevin kept swiping on his phone and stopped when one of him and Sophie appeared. Posed in one of those “squishy arms-length selfies” they were grinning like idiots on the glass floor of the CN Tower together. A cheesy date, maybe, but he felt on top of the world that night. Kevin smiled. Swipe. He and Sophie on the subway after a date. Swipe. Sophie with pasta sauce all down her chin at The Spaghetti Factory. Laura didn’t eat pasta. Neither did Kevin anymore. Too many carbs.

“So, this is what it’s like when you want to have it all…” Kevin thought to himself. “Except pasta… And coffee… A savings… And… when did I decide I wanted to have it all?”

None of Lambert’s books said that. Hargrove never put it in that language before today. But that’s what was underneath all of it. Kevin could see it now. That was the unspoken, unwritten phrase before every bit of advice that he’d been cramming into his brain these past several months.

If you want to have it all, think this.

If you want to have it all, eat that.

If you want to have it all, say these things.

But Kevin never wanted to have it all. “I wanted to be happier,” he thought.

By wanting to have it all, Kevin had beaten into silence that voice that told him what he wanted for himself.

He opened his desk drawer and reached for another herbal energy drink, but put it back. He hated those things. They tasted like cough syrup mixed with salad dressing. He’d been drinking them for months now but for the first time he wondered,

“How did I ever swallow this shit in the first place?”

Kevin felt something tugging at him, like a fishhook was caught in his solar plexus. He closed his eyes and drew a breath that filled him to his toes. Then he thought about heading for the coffeemaker for the cup of java he’d been craving for months, but when he opened his eyes he found something that would make him feel even better.

The countdown on that data compilation was nearly finished and the dialogue box on his screen presented an option to him: CANCEL?

“Sounds good to me,” said Kevin quietly.

He clicked the button, dumping the data for Hargrove’s report. Then he cleared his desk, dumping Darryl Lambert into the recycling bin. Then he pressed redial on his phone, and dumped Laura, who sounded more disappointed than upset.

Kevin flipped back through the photos of him and Sophie when his computer beeped at him and presented another good suggestion: RESET?

“Time to warp out of here,” he said to himself. “Set coordinates for reality.”

He smiled, clicked the button and left the office.

Engage!

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