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Thesis Proposal

By Kevin Durr

I am a terrible typist. I never took the course in junior high when everyone else did, so to this day my technique remains atrocious. Sure, over the years I've developed a general idea of where the keys are, but I've never stopped using just two of my ten fingers, hunting and pecking in furious abandon. People who witness me in action have a tendency to remark that I seem to hit the keys randomly and much too hard, to which I reply that it's my established method, what I've in a sense perfected. Which is more admirable: to perfect a flawed technique, or to remain in perpetual conflict with it? Regardless of the answer I've accepted my methodology and every mistake that follows. Either I miss the desired key entirely, causing a word like think to come out thonk, or strike a tight group which includes the one I want: thinjko. A compulsion to fix these mistakes manually as they occur rather than holding off until the end creates an over-reliance on the delete key. Thus I spend far more time going backwards than forwards. Building any sort of momentum becomes impossible. And for the record just because I'm stating a fact does not infer that I'm proud of it. I'm merely trying to explain the inherent problems in my modus operandi.

I was in the computer room working on my thesis proposal, some formalistic comparison of Hitchcock and DePalma which seemed like a good idea at the time, when I first saw her. Actually, I heard her before I saw her, because she saw me first and knew who I was. I was glaring into the computer screen, slamming away in fine form, when I heard her say hello, and then my name. Her voice suggested established friendship, but when I looked up I found myself staring into large unknown eyes. I said something back, which was probably hello. Then, having no idea how to advance the situation, I waited for her large unknown mouth to speak again. She wasn't really looking at me, but instead was staring into my desk, when she said you don't know who I am, but I know who you are.

Her name, she said, was Stephanie, and she knew me because she worked on the school newspaper that I wrote film reviews for, and she was hoping to do her thesis the next year with the same professor that I was, but had decided this at the last minute and was way behind, and wanted to ask how I was going about my proposal, because they were due tomorrow. She said this all lightning fast into my desk and quivered as though intensely nervous. Even her voice trembled, rising and falling like she couldn't locate the right decibel level. It seemed that at any moment she might burst into hysterical laughter or tears.

Immediately a desperate need to help her, an instinct perhaps, kicked in. Although I had no idea how to set up a thesis proposal, I tilted the monitor so we could view it together in comfort and proceeded to show her anyway. I pointed out many things. I stressed certain details twice. I gave extensive background information. I made up possibilities I'd not yet considered just to share them with her. I explored the larger breadth of the thing, spoke of specific fact and general theory, and the empirical versus the scientific. I did not want her to leave. Mercifully having run out of material, I began to ask her questions. The first was the obvious one about the subject of her thesis. It was some vague overly intellectual thing about a school of literary critics and how they approached a set of women writers from some country and a certain aesthetic strategy that they all liked to employ. Fascinating I said, and how did you ever come to choose a topic like that, please pontificate. Then I asked her about the professor we both hoped to work with, why she decided to pick her and the circumstances thereof, and isn't it just the most bizarre coincidence that we should have settled on the exact same one, small world, and all that. Fate can certainly twist itself into some pretty neat shapes, I blathered, and any elaboration she could offer me on the subtle machinations of life would be greatly appreciated. During this last bit I closed my eyes, horrified at what was coming out of my mouth, but helpless to stop it.

She nodded at most of this, trembling away, then thanked me and disappeared down the aisle. Although I attempted to resume typing I found it impossible to concentrate on my previous work, as if somehow she herself had become the new subject of my thesis. Her name was Stephanie, and she had large eyes, and a large mouth that trembled as she spoke, and a body that trembled along with it. Despite the attributes of the body in question I found myself focused on the mouth. It had an interesting rhythm to the way it changed expressions, which was more often and more sudden than with most mouths, and without following any logical patterns. Then the eyes came back to me, how they darted around, how they didn't address people as she spoke to them, or at least they didn't address me, which seemed understandable all things considered. Then the body came back to me as well, and I knew I had to talk to her again. Finally I decided that after twenty minutes I could approach her without seeming desperate, so I watched the clock, brainstorming for an avenue into thesis proposals I hadn't already exhausted, until I ventured from my desk armed with an inquiry into the nuances of the margin, either one inch or an inch and a half or even some drastic variation of the two, but I couldn't find her. Throughout the evening I invented further excuses to maneuver through the computer room, either under the guise of searching out a friend, or grabbing a smoke, or performing a urination. But she was gone.

As junior year waned I remained haunted by our meeting. Her face became increasingly hazy until I could no longer paint an accurate picture of it, not inside my own head, and certainly not when I attempted to describe her to a friend or a casual acquaintance. But I was sure that I might be in love with her. I spent the following summer selling business journals over the phone to accountants. Most of them I contacted worked for small businesses, described to me as any company that made between five and one hundred million over the fiscal year. During a single-day contest I pocketed an extra twenty bucks because I sold the most subscriptions to the Journal of Construction Accounting (and Taxation). One has not lived until experiencing the unique inflection with which each of our southern states imbues the mysterious term dry-wall. Later I won another twenty dollars for my work with the Journal of Cost Management, setting the single-day summer record in the process. This journal was hot, especially its discussion of activity-based management versus activity-based costing, and how one might go about the setting-up of various in-line systems. I developed a specific way of moving my hand through this segment of the script. I would slide it through the air in a broad horizontal stroke while I said the first part, then turn my palm up and agitate it in front of my face as though I were Italian, when I got to the in-line systems. I had no idea what I was talking about and it occurred to me that on a telephone my calculated gestures were in vain, like Keaton trying to resonate over the radio.

The job was tedious, and I hated it. I spent all day dialing phones. My supervisor, whom I dubbed Mr. Upstairs after the boss in On the Waterfront, disparaged my efforts. It was his contention that despite my periodic sales success I simply never made enough calls, because at least forty dial-outs an hour were expected, about ten more than I would average. I argued that I couldn't dial fast enough. You were supposed to reach the point where you didn't have to look at the numbers anymore, a skill that seemed frankly beyond my nature, because any no-look attempt would invite that horrible three-beep sequence which introduces the much-too-loud voice that says I'm sorry, your number can't be completed as dialed, please hang up and try again. It wasn't until the last week that I discovered these were in fact considered dial-outs, so in retrospect I could have made as many calls as anyone else. There were certain individuals who should have told me, but I've never been one to name names.

Although the actual job did nothing for me I'd become fascinated by a woman who worked in the next room. She was older, and sophisticated, an artistic type I decided, enthralling to look at. I devised countless reasons to sojourn past her cubicle. My throat would be left parched by an extended sales call and necessitate a trek to the water cooler, or I would need to confer on a few sales details with a colleague, or I would be consumed with the posted statistics and the pesky fluctuations of my dial-out rate. Each unique journey would grant me a quick half-glimpse of the back of her head. I loved her black hair, long and thick, and the way it fell across her back. Even from behind I could tell that she was beautiful. But every so often, once out of every ten trips I later estimated, she'd be facing outward and the startling glance at her breasts would force me to interrupt the day's regularly scheduled programming until further notice. There was no doubt in my mind that I could be in love with her.

I didn't know her name but referred to her as My Teacher. The origin of this I explained to my co-workers again and again, as though they chose not to understand. The theory was that such a woman could take a young kid under her wing, so to speak, and teach him many things, and in the process thrill to his vitality, and man, was I feeling vital. What I puzzled over was how to approach her. I devoted countless dial-out time to this dilemma, until finally I made the simple decision to walk right up to her and profess my curiosity, gambling that she'd find it charming. I'd suggest that she tutor me in high culture: the symphony, the theatre, foreign films, ballet and opera; all of it intellectually engaging, a time of great personal growth and enrichment, until soon she'd see the inherent limitations of all this high-brow nonsense and include herself in the curriculum. I settled on an arbitrary day later in the next week to launch my preposterous program.

The following morning I arrived late, made the elevator, and discovered that the only other person in it was My Teacher. Immediately my heart began to race like I was standing in front of a class to deliver a presentation I'd forgotten to prepare. She looked me over, and wondered aloud if she'd seen me around the office. I stared at her. The elevator was five foot square, beet red, and I was clutching the large support bars behind me. The slow climb began. She asked what I was reading, pointing at the volume tucked under my arm. Quickly I unsheathed: Vineland by Thomas Pynchon. She looked that over, and remarked it seemed interesting, would I recommend him? I'd just started Vineland that day on the train but it was already annoying the fuck out of me, and the only other Pynchon I'd read was The Crying of Lot 49, so I assured her that was the place to start, his greatest work, canonical, blah blah blah, and while I was babbling I resolved in the future to come packing Baudelaire or D.H. Lawrence, eventually Henry Miller, and later, at my most cocky, Bataille. But I rallied, and posed this question: is there any particular literature that you might suggest? Without hesitation she revealed that her favorite writer was Charles Bukowski, launching direct into a tirade about his raw unrefined genius, is how I think she put it. The elevator was about to shudder to a stop; clearly this wasn't working. I'd created an image of My Teacher reading me John Donne or Lord Byron by a fireplace, both of us naked, but she seemed bent on destroying this conceit. The only title of Bukowski's I remembered was Twelve Jack-Offs in One Day, a reality I was hoping to, temporarily at least, escape. This turned out to be the only time I ever spoke to her.

School started up again and it occurred to me that Stephanie was somewhere around campus, and although I went everywhere with my head on a swivel, I didn't see her until the third week of school. It was night and she was on the other side of the quad, but I was sure it was her. What made me certain was the surge of emotion that ripped through me as though I was about to be hit by a car. Later in the week I passed through a crowd and experienced the exact same sensation, and knew somehow I'd seen her again. I spent the next few days mentally deconstructing this crowd scene from various angles the way DePalma would do, but it proved fruitless, if not absurd, and luckily later in the same week I caught her in tableaux. Talking on a pay phone and deeply engrossed in her conversation, the subtle glimpse of cheekbone that she offered me made all the difference.

The very next week I entered the dining hall and there she was, in plain sight, seated amongst a few friends. Unfortunately this conglomeration of females proved far too intimidating, and I whirled around like a toy robot and collided with two people behind me. I hustled out of there, praying that somehow she'd missed the spectacle I created, and had just about convinced myself of it when to my utter shock I spied her again, not one hour later. I was due in class and practically running when I caught the surprising image of her seated Indian-style on the campus green, with a bunch of other students around her, and apparently strumming an acoustic guitar. Who knew she was so musical? I arrived to Practice of Criticism feeling the excitement of seeing her twice within the same day, but as the lecture droned on I found myself analyzing these two newest sightings, numbers four and five, until I came upon a horrifying realization. Something was deeply problematic. Instinctively I questioned my hypothesis, but after further intellectual scrutiny I couldn't deny that the Stephanie of sighting four seemed to be a separate person entirely from the Stephanie of sighting five. The hair was different shades, with number five's slightly longer than number four's. Final deliberations edged me toward real panic, as I was forced to admit that I'd no idea which was the real computer room Stephanie.

I went about my business in confused despair until a week later I thought I saw her again. A girl I passed smiled and said hello, and although she looked like she could have been a Stephanie, I had no idea which one. Then I started to think that she was somehow different from each of the last two Stephanies. All I knew for certain was that based on the strength of my emotional response to her presence I was in love with her. The gloom I was experiencing was almost surreal in nature. I was becoming a shell of my former self. A life-sentence inside a panopticon seemed a picnic by comparison. I had no idea how many of these Stephanies existed, they seemed to be all over the fucking campus, and I harbored a paranoid delusion that they were working in concert. My greatest fear was seeing them together someplace, perhaps opening a wrong door and stumbling upon the inner sanctum where gathered around a long table they hatched their fiendish plot against me.

A month into the spring semester I was having dinner with a friend. I was visibly drained from seeing six different Stephanies that day, each time confident that I'd finally encountered the original. My friend asked me what was wrong, so I explained the entire thing, starting from typing in the computer room up until now. The story seemed to perplex my friend, who asked why these Stephanies bothered me so much, and I said it was because I was in love with all of them, or maybe with just one of them, although I wasn't sure which was the prototype. My friend hovered over her dinner, becoming more agitated by the second, and said I can't possibly be in love with this person, I don't even know her, I only talked to her for five minutes, and I wasn't any more in love with her than I was with My Teacher. She was very logical. So I forced myself to pause, as though legitimating her argument, before insisting that I had been in love with My Teacher, but was not anymore, and that I was in love with some person named Stephanie and several other people who walk around Boston reminding me of her. To this she performed what seemed to be a Herculean labor of strength, dredging up something from the hidden depths of resolve, and managed to ask what made me think that I could possibly be in love with this person, and I responded that because whenever I saw her, or any of the reasonable facsimiles thereof, everything else ceased to exist as though the scope of my universe had been reduced to one single thing: her. It took awhile for that to sink in, and finally my friend asked what I thought made me fall in love in the first place, and here I admitted that I didn't know. Then she quickly asked me if I was in love with anyone else and I said yes, but I wasn't sure how many.

It took me a full month to convince my friend to dine with me again. I had come prepared with a list of the top ten women that I was in love with, and I showed it to her, and she was most appalled. I defended myself by describing it as an organizational tool, pointing out how such lists were often recommended as a means to simplify the clutter of one's life. She looked at me and shook her head in slow disgust, only stopping long enough to explain that she especially hated the fact that I didn't call any of them by name, but had assigned them all nicknames instead. Here she'd opened the door for me to present a calm and rational defense. Aside from the fact that I don't know their names, the nicknames, I explained, refer to something specific about the individual, how I came to perceive them, how my mind and/or body was affected by their presence. I took my list from her and held it aloft like a visual aide. All the Stephanies were nicknamed Thesis Proposal. There was also, in no particular order, The Angel of Mercy, The European Social Problem, The Spiritual Healer, The Senator's Wife, The Waitress, Faith Peace and Justice, Rooney's Ass, Cleavage, and The Project. Every nickname was designed strategically to capture the essence of what made me fall in love with the individual in question. Then I laid the list down and reclined in my seat, my argument concluded.

My friend had in front of her half a plate of mashed potatoes, and she was slashing away at them with her knife as though carving a hunk of rawhide, and it was painfully obvious that she was beginning to hate me. But as I continued to watch her something else began to take shape, a notion that maybe, somehow, my friend was in love with me. She and I had been close for almost two years, had been in one class and countless bars together and both worked on the school's literary journal, and in all these various venues I cracked her up consistently. I probably should have seen it earlier, because the signs were suddenly there now that I did. At the very least it explained her immediate reaction. The hatred, and the knife. Profound disillusionment. You see, whatever had made her fall in the first place, assuming that she had, would have been contradicted completely by my recent behavior, because I knew her well enough to appreciate that in her right mind she'd never allow herself to be taken with anyone who'd approach women in this way, granting them nicknames and carrying around the lists to prove it. Furthermore, I understood completely how she felt, I practically empathized.

I also knew I had to intervene before she turned this hatred upon herself, so slowly I leaned forward, and suggested that we put too much weight on this emotion. I suggested that we expect love to be far deeper than it actually is. I paused and then added, look at how frequently it ends. And look at the way we frequently feel after it does end, like you can't fathom how you ever felt it in the first place. Does this seem to anyone like a sophisticated enterprise? Don't cry I said, because it's nobody's fault. If there's one boat we're in together, as people on this planet, it's this one. Look at me, I gently encouraged, and I tried to explain how I fell in love with Stephanie in the first place, as much as anyone ever can. It was because she told me you don't know who I am, but I know who you are. That was it. It was that simple. It was created by that moment. My own secret vulnerability had been located and given a gentle massage. As though I'd been searching all along for something I didn't even know I needed. Or if I had known I needed it, I would have assumed it didn't exist. Like the cabby who's finally told to follow that car, or the doctor who's finally asked if he's in the house.