Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Finishing School

I was scanning through some poems and stories that I had saved in a file that I had forgotten about.  I found the following story.  After reading it, I thought that it worth posting for all those people who may be experiencing a mid life crisis, or searching for Mr/Mrs Right, or just unsure of their direction.  It doesn't offer any solutions but perhaps offers some solace in the fact that there are so many other people looking for the same thing, and that there are some who have found an answer.   

Note; in the original the character William states there are six billion people on the earth.  I changed it to seven billion for this post.  I am not sure if I wrote the story that long ago or just didn't know the population of the Earth.                                                       

                                                                The Finishing School


Christine raised herself on her tip toes and gave Jared a kiss on the cheek. As she pulled back, she caught the flash of disappointment in his eyes; the familiar look that said he was hoping for more than just a peck. It wasn’t that Jared was unattractive; he was certainly as good looking as any of the boys Christine had dated in college. In fact, on a different night in the same circumstances, she might have invited him up to her apartment. As she moved away from him and up the three stairs to the door, Christine half turned back to him.

“Thanks for the lovely dinner and the movie. I had a really nice time”. Her accompanying smile and the glint in her eye was not lost on Jared. He spun back to his car, now less concerned that he only got a kiss. He knew women and he understood their subtle signs; he had the green light to call again and perhaps that date would end more to his liking. Upstairs at her apartment door, Christine felt relieved that Jared was content with the goodbye ritual she used for the boys she could tolerate seeing, at least once or twice.

Inside her small but clean apartment, Christine fell into her monthly self discussion concerning her dating partners. It wasn’t as if the boys who asked for dates were ugly. In fact, she had often been asked by one of her girl friends if she would be OK if they dated one of her castoffs. And it wasn’t as if some of the boys weren’t intelligent, or sweet, or sensitive or any of the qualities that she kept on her mental checklist. No, the basics were covered; she was enrolled after all, in a prestigious university. But something was missing. The question was, missing in them or in her.


Christine glanced sideways at the “soccer mom” driving the SUV in the next lane. Will that be me in 5 years, she asked herself. Do I want that to be me? Suddenly, her car started bucking uncontrollably. Christine eased her vehicle into the parking lane as best she could, pulled hard on the parking brake and checked the side mirror so she could safely exit from the car. Despite having no mechanical aptitude, she did what everyone else does when their car won’t go; lifted the hood and peered into the engine. Everything looked to be in its place, not that she would know the difference. Leaving the hood up, she walked to the passenger side of the car and leaned against the door. After about 10 minutes, she started to think that no one was going to help her despite the smiles she was throwing around to any eyes that looked her way.

“Excuse me miss, can I help you?”

Christine walked around to the passenger side of the car from which the voice emerged. The voice belonged to a smiling middle-aged man, mostly dark hair wearing a business suit without a tie, nice face. A warning light with accompanying picture came on in her mind, her mom wagging her finger at Christine telling her to avoid strangers, especially smiling men. But his smile seemed real, not fake, or worse, leering.

“Yes, I would appreciate some help”, she responded, matching his smile with her own.

The man parked his car in front of hers, then walked back to her car. He repeated the futile ritual of gazing at the engine, then admitted that he was really not very handy with cars. He said it apologetically, but his tone suggested he was not ashamed of his mechanical shortcomings, only that he wished he could be of more help.

“Have you called anyone yet?” he asked. “You may certainly use my phone” he said as he handed her his cell. “By the way, my name is William.”

“Christine”, she said with a nod of her head, “thank you”. She spent the next ten minutes calling the three people she thought might be home and able to help her. Without her realizing it, he had led, no, more like guided her back to his car. She hung up on the third and last unsuccessful call and fell back into the soft leather seat.

“No luck?”

“No”, answered Christine, “just message machines”. They sat quietly for about twenty seconds, then he turned full around to face her and said “I am not in any particular hurry; but I eventually need to be another fifteen or so blocks from here. I can drive you somewhere if you wish, depending on where you are going.” His tone was casual as if her answer, one way or another was OK with him. It was a tone unfamiliar to her. Most of her conversations, especially with men, always had a hint of something underneath, whether it be a whiff of superiority from her teachers, sexual from her dates, or condescending from her parents. His tone, his very demeanor said that she could allow him to help her or she could refuse; whichever her decision, it was her choice and that choice would affect his self-image in no way.

“I am on my way to the university”, Christine stated. “Is that near where you are going?”

“It is a bit past my destination,” responded William, “but not so far that I can’t take you”.

For the first few blocks, they rode in silence. Christine surreptitiously watched him maneuver the car through traffic. His driving was smooth and assured. The car seemed to move as if it was a natural extension of his body.

“What are you studying?”, he asked. It was a version of the same question she had been asked dozens of times, yet from William it was somehow different. She started with her stock response but then found herself telling him, not just about what she was studying but why she chose those subjects, what they meant to her and where she wanted them to take her. Twenty minutes later, as they pulled into one of the university parking lots, she suddenly realized she had spoken non-stop since his question. And, she also realized that she didn’t want to get out of the car.

“Thank you for the ride, William”, Christine said as she willed herself out of the seat.

“You are quite welcome; I enjoyed hearing about your studies”. His genuine answer and smile washed over her like a soothing balm. “Christine” he began, ”I don’t often meet young people who have such passion about topics other than the latest fad. You impress me. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you think I may be of some assistance, feel free to call me”. He completed the sentence by handing her his business card. Christine accepted it, thanked him again for the ride and watched his car merge into traffic and move out of sight.


A few weeks later, Christine found herself alone in her apartment for the second straight Saturday night. She had declined requests for dates, both tonight and last Saturday, and there was no pretending the twenty minutes she had spent with William was the reason. She liked herself when she had been with him, liked how she opened up about her interests in school and the future. His card was still on the table near the front door where she had originally left it. It was a typical business card, work phone, cell phone. Obviously she couldn’t call him at work now, but should she try the cell number? And then, if he did answer, what would she say? Hi, remember me, the girl with the broken car that talked your ear off. No, I can’t do it, she said to herself.

An hour later, Christine changed her mind. She dialed William’s cell number; after the third ring she realized she was holding her breath and exhaled just as he answered.

“Hello, this is William”.

“Hello, William, this is Christine. You may not remember me but..”

“Oh yes, hello Christine. How are you tonight?”

How are you tonight? How should she answer that? It was precisely the topic she wanted to talk to him about and precisely the topic that scared her to discuss. She resorted to platitudes and change of direction. “I am fine, thanks, how are you”, she responded.

“Very well Christine, thanks for asking. I was actually working on some business related items, but I could use a break. I often find my concentration is better if I perform certain types of work at home rather than in the office. When I’m at work, and I have an idea or realize a problem, I, of course, want to attend to it immediately. But in doing so, I sometimes rush to a solution without thinking the problem all the way through. At home, I write out the solution and read it over once or twice. If there is a flaw, I will usually notice it and resolve it. At work, I tend to act without full reflection and so the solution may not be a complete one.”

Christine suddenly relaxed. Whether consciously or not, William had put her at ease by revealing this little bit of information about himself. It was as if he had said, I am confident in discussing myself, you can do the same; no judgments, no hidden agendas, just two people talking about their lives.

And so she did; forover an hour! As if a dam had burst; she let out a torrent of feelings, ambitions, past disappoints, accomplishments. When she finally stopped, her cheeks were flush, her body trembled slightly. While Christine was not a virgin, she did not consider her sexual experiences completely satisfying and thus had not pursued the act as vigorously as most of her friends. As she caught her breath after this marathon of one-way conversation, she caught a glimpse of what she had been missing from those experiences.

They spent the next ten minutes in light banter. Most of the topics were driven by short, simple questions from William answered by Christine in half minute bursts. When they finally said goodbye, they agreed to meet for lunch the following Wednesday at a small café.


Christine arrived fifteen minutes early only to find that William was already seated at an outdoor table. She stopped to watch him as we waited for her. He was dressed similarly as the first time they met, casual business suit, no tie. He was people watching but in a way that she had never seen before. He seemed to be watching for a certain person, or more precisely, a certain type of person. In the few minutes she watched, it appeared he was unsuccessful in his search. Of course, that was only Christine’s opinion, but she thought enough of her ability to read people’s expressions to recognize when someone found something, and his expression never indicated anything other than an intense search. She resumed her approach; he noticed her when she was a few paces from his table and stood to greet her.

“Hello Christine, so very nice to see you again.” He extended his hand. It was the standard greeting, the offer of a handshake, but after her cathartic reaction to their conversation this past Saturday, his greeting seemed too casual to her, as if meant to contradict the deep emotions their talk had brought from her. Did he not realize how she was beginning to feel? She reached out her hand and he took it with both of his; the ring on his left hand practically screamed at her and she felt slightly faint. Of course, he was married; she hadn’t noticed that day in the car and the topic was never broached on the phone but Christine chided herself for not considering the possibility. What a naïve fool he must think I am she thought. But, when she looked up from their handshake, his expression did not confirm her fears.

“Hello William, it is nice to see as well.”

They sat, and almost in that instant, a waiter was besides them to take their order. Christine couldn’t conceive of eating anything but ordered a salad anyway. William also ordered light. When the waiter departed, an awkward silence descended about them. He seemed to be studying her as he had when he was people watching a few minutes ago. As if realizing she had caught him studying her, his smile softened and his eyes relaxed but his posture indicated he had decided something and was about to reveal the purpose to this meeting.

“Christine”, he began, “in our brief encounters, you have demonstrated a quality of character that interests me. While you are certainly a unique young woman, this is not the first time I have met someone like you in a place like this café.”

As William said these words, his eyes had remained locked on hers but now she saw him glance away; the waiter was suddenly at her side with glasses of water and their drinks. Christine scanned William’s face in an attempt to guess what he was about to say but to no avail. Would he now tell her about his wife who didn’t understand him forcing him to seek the company of younger, more responsive women? Or how his career had peeked quite some time ago, causing him to seek his conquests in other areas? Christine felt her stomach tighten in preparation of another possibility shattered.

“As I was saying,” he continued, “I spend a portion of my time seeking people, especially women, like yourself. You might say it is a hobby, but I also consider it very important work. You see, I am part of an organization that recruits and trains, or more precisely, untrains people so that they can experience successful and productive lives.” As he finished the statement, William leaned forward as if to physically enter Christine’s mind to gauge her reaction to his words.

“Are you suggesting that you are part of a society that knows the secret of life?” After all the weeks of build-up in her mind she couldn’t believe it had all led to this; another crackpot organization with the “secret of life.” Christine’s tone, both sarcastic and disappointed was not lost on William; his arched brow indicated his understanding of her reaction but his continuing smile assured her that her reaction was not unexpected.

“Well, I wouldn’t go that far; this is not for everyone. Not that it might not work for everyone but just that not everyone is willing. You see, Christine, there are many people who do not want to be happy. I know that sounds ridiculous but it is true. Many people go through life believing they don’t deserve happiness, or just expecting the worse from others and themselves. Also, some of the very institutions which claim to have our best interests at heart, actually work to encourage us to expect less than we deserve or to settle for less than we might need.”

“But surely you’re not suggesting anyone can attain complete self fulfillment or find the perfect mate, are you?” asked Christine.

“Yes, and no.” said William. “What I am suggesting is that you have to understand what you want before you can work to realize it. Did you ever hear that saying, “be careful what you wish for, because you might get it”. That comes from the belief that we really don’t know what we want, so that is why when we get what we think we want it doesn’t make us happy. And, that is because we spend most of our lives being told by others, parents, politicians, pastors, partners, what we should be doing, what we want, what will make us happy.”

Lunch arrived. Christine reflected on William’s words while the waiter placed their meals on the table. Her initial reaction had faded. But she still wasn’t sure if her interest lay in William’s words or the messenger.

Once the waiter departed, William began again.

“Christine, it is my impression that you are on the right path; in our discussions, you have expressed your interests with great passion. But you do lack an understanding as to what you need for a partner. You see, it is the belief of our organization that most men and women need a partner to be happy, and that in experiencing the contentment of a true partnership, they are able to be successful in their lives. You’ve probably heard the saying, behind every great man there is a great woman; well, we believe, without the gender bias, that this is not just a saying but a guiding principle. But, paradoxically, it is not about finding the perfect mate.”

William stopped speaking for a moment. Christine noticed his eyes had left her face and were focused somewhere in the distance behind her. A smile flashed across his face then he was back with her.

“Sorry,” he said. “A pleasant memory just strolled through the café”

“As I said, it is not about finding your Prince Charming. Christine, if I were to say to you that I have hidden the best tasting piece of candy you will ever have somewhere on the planet and give no map for guidance, would you even begin the journey. Yet, we are told and believe that somewhere amongst Earth’s seven billion people is our one true “soul mate” and off we go searching for him, expecting to find him, anguishing in the frustration and then wondering why more than half of us end up in unhappy relationships.”

“But I don’t understand”, began Christine. “First you say that people need to find the right partner, and now you say that person doesn’t exist. It sounds like you are leading me to believe that I must settle for something less, yet you decry others who say that very thing.”

William smiled, much more broadly than before. “Yes, that is correct. You are beginning to get a glimpse at the “secret.” The problem is the mindset that either we accept the idea that Mr Right exists, somewhere, or accept that the perfect person does not exist, therefore we must settle for less. Taking the first path means either denying the sheer mathematics of finding that needle in the haystack, or evolving a set of criteria so stringent that success is impossible, especially when you understand that the perfect mate for you, today, may not resemble even slightly the perfect mate for you in twenty. Taking the second path starts you on the road to settling for less which ultimately leads to complaints of a mid-life crisis, or empty nest divorces, not to mention, permeating your expectations at they relate to the rest of your life’s goals. As I said earlier, we “untrain” you to eliminate this mindset. Once you are free of its trap, understanding yourself becomes easier which leads to a clearer picture of what you need for a partner. I use the analogy of walking in three feet of water compared to walking on land.”

They had finished their meal. Christine’s mind whirled with the understanding that some of these thoughts had emerged in many of those one-way conversations she had had with herself so often in the past few years, especially on those after-date nights, and she realized how right she had been to recognize the existence of a void, how right she had been to not settle as so many of her girlfriends had done. She looked forward to future meetings with William though for a much different reason than before. And so, when the waiter asked if the couple were interested in dessert today, she rewarded herself by having two.


Christine gently rocked the stroller as she sat, legs outstretched, on the park bench. The sun seemed to shine just for her today, alighting on her body, gently warming it in the cool spring air. The baby was asleep, contented, while her older brother played and laughed in a nearby sand box.

A group of chattering college students approached from Christine’s right. She half spun on the bench, scanning their faces, listening to their words, noting the body language, searching…

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