tagNovels and NovellasThe Outsider Ch. 09

The Outsider Ch. 09


Chapter 9 - Two conversations

The following morning, to the surprise of everyone in the English literature course, "Mr. Know-it-all" sat next to the girl who had pinned him with that nick-name. Of course, the rest of the class and the professor had no way of knowing what had happened between Mike and Ruthie over the weekend and had incorrectly assumed that the two students bitterly disliked each other. Strange...it turned out that was not the case at all. From their initial argument the couple realized that had a lot in common and each could find friendship in the other. Not only did they sit together in class, but they also ignored the other students and left together when the session ended.

During their second week together, Mike and Ruthie ate together in the cafeteria whenever possible. The only times she did not eat with Mike were the days she had class right after work and there was no time to sit down for lunch. On those days she continued to stash fruit in her backpack for the afternoon, but she did that considerably less now that she knew she had someone to sit with at dinner. Her days of trying to avoid the cafeteria had ended. Quite to the contrary, she wanted people to see her, just to show everyone: "see? Now I have someone to eat with too...so screw all of you!"

For Ruthie having a companion at the dining table was a real treat, a break from the humiliation she had endured over the past month of being cold-shouldered by the other students and forced to eat alone. For Mike the situation was more complicated. He did have people with whom he normally ate: his political friends and a couple of co-workers from the Parking Department. On the days Ruthie had to grab her fruit and run he could still hang out with his friends, but for the other meals there was no question that she took priority over everyone else. There were a few times he invited her to eat with his group, but it was clear that she was uncomfortable trying to make small talk with people she did not really know.

Over the next several days Mike had to figure out how to strike a balance between not offending his friends and giving priority to his...girlfriend...if that's what she was. He wasn't sure about that part yet. It was obvious that in her own way she deeply cared for him: that she was glad to see him whenever they met up, happy whenever she was with him, and never eager to say goodbye. As for his friends, he never actually told them that Ruthie was his girlfriend, but instead left them to make their own assumptions about the relationship.

Certainly from his end, the feelings of love and sexual desire were very strong, apart from his desire for having a close friend. Having her scantly-clad body in his arms or close by was a huge temptation for him. He badly wanted her. He suspected that sex would have to wait, but at least he wanted to establish that she was indeed his girlfriend by kissing her or holding her hand when they walked. She clearly did enjoy hugging him and having his arms around her, and yet...she never gave him any hint whatsoever she wanted him to go any further than that. Mike was not one to push with physical contact, because he was afraid of "blowing it" with Ruthie if he was overly insistent. He also was well-aware that he had no first-hand knowledge about how to seduce a woman, given that with Lisa things had just come naturally and at a very early age. He understood that his first relationship was unique and the experience would give him very little guidance for handling Ruthie.

Ruthie's attraction to Mike was growing as well. Now that she had someone in her life with whom she could confide, she wanted to be with him whenever possible. During the afternoons she did not have class, she'd accompany him to lot Econ-A when he went there to ticket. She continued to study by herself in her "private spot" while he ran his machine, but the point was for her to be close to him. At the end of the afternoon she followed him back to the Parking Department Office, went with him to dinner, and then accompanied him to the library to study. In the library she was quiet and absorbed in her reading, but on the way there and back she was happy to chatter away about rock formations, evolution, and paleontology, often citing recent discoveries about things such as Chinese dinosaurs or Cambrian-era soft-bodied marine organisms. She would talk about Latin American authors when she was not talking about ancient life. Little by little Mike coaxed her to talk more about herself, especially about her family members in Culiacan and the Mexican portion of her background.

From the beginning Mike knew that his relationship with Ruthie was not "typical". Her feelings towards him were different from what a person normally would feel for either a boyfriend or a close friend. The best way to describe Ruthie's emotions towards her companion would be very intense affection. In her own way she did love him and felt uneasy when she was not with him. She would have been extremely jealous and hurt had she seen him with another woman. However, that affection was not the same as romantic love, which was why she wanted him to hold her but would have been nervous about him trying to kiss her. By the end of their second week together she felt that she and Mike belonged to each other, and yet she still would have felt uncomfortable defining her role in his life as his "girlfriend".


On Tuesday Todd's mother, along with the dorm director and the RA from Mike's floor, showed up to pick up his possessions. The RA pulled down the police tape and helped the woman box up her son's things. Mike would have helped had he been asked, but Todd's mother gave him several very hostile looks, as though she blamed him for having a hand in her son's suicide.

Of course, Mike had nothing to do with Todd's problems, which actually had begun the year before he entered college. However, at the same time it was evident that he had stayed out of his roommate's life and had not done anything to intervene in his suicide. If anyone had expected Mike to "talk to" Todd, or in some other way provide him with emotional support, in that he most definitely had failed.

Finally Mike decided the best thing for him to do would be to get out of the room and wait until Todd's mother was off-campus before returning. He excused himself and went to work. As usual, he went to his favorite "pay dirt" spot in lot Econ-A, carrying his machine and 400 ticket envelopes in his backpack. By the middle of his second week ticketing the lot, conditions there were changing. Only half of the meters now were occupied by student vehicles, and of those, about half were paying. The remaining spaces remained open for visitors, which was the original intention for having all those meters in Econ-A. So now Mike was writing tickets for only 100 unpaid meters, not 400. However, he still continued to average between 300 and 350 tickets per shift, because he could write a ticket on any car parked at an unpaid meter every 61 minutes. Now that there were fewer violators, Mike could write multiple tickets on the ones who remained. Those tickets very quickly would add up. The real fun would happen in another month, because any student who owed more than $ 250 in unpaid tickets for more than 30 days could have his car towed and impounded. Already he was starting to figure out who his most likely victims would be. He also paid special attention to the car of anyone who had insulted him.


Ruthie showed up at 4:30 and sat down on her usual spot in the grass to wait for her friend to finish his shift. On their way back to the cafeteria Mike mentioned that his roommate's things had been taken out and that at least for the rest of the semester, he would have the room to himself. By that time he felt that he knew Ruthie well enough to confide something cynical that he planned to do. The university had offered him several sessions of grief counseling. Mike was not grieving over Todd whatsoever, but he planned to take advantage of the offer to let the counselor know that during the spring semester he would not be "emotionally ready" to have another roommate. That was total bull, because Todd's death barely affected him but, as he put it, "that's not something the university needs to know". Ruthie smiled, responding that if anything were to happen to Shannon, she would openly celebrate and put up party decorations to let everyone know that she was elated that super-bitch was dead.

As usual, they had dinner together in the cafeteria, but then they decided to return to the Student Center, because the university was having a festival of "cult" movies from the 1960's and 1970's. Among the movies were titles such as "Eraserhead", "Dr. Strangelove", "Slaughterhouse Five", "A Boy and his Dog", and "Zardoz". Mike had been curious to see "Slaughterhouse Five", but Ruthie opted for "Zardoz", based solely on the fact she liked the poster for that movie better than any of the others.

Mike and Ruthie left the auditorium with totally different reactions to "Zardoz". Mike commented that it was one of the most depressing movies he had ever seen. Ruthie totally loved it.

"What's there to be depressed about? That movie's simply telling it like it is."

"Telling it like it is? Floating heads and everyone's starving to death and guys on horses running around shooting everyone else? I didn't see the point of any of that...just a bunch of gratuitous killing for no reason. To be honest, I was disappointed that Sean Connery could have gotten himself mixed up in that crap."

Ruthie stopped in her tracks and forced Mike to turn around and look at her.

"That movie shows exactly what the future's gonna be. We're gonna end up just like that! There's gonna be most people starving to death in the ruins of our civilization, a few gang members running around killing everyone else, and the rich people holed up somewhere, thinking that they're safe, but really just waiting to die like everyone else. That'll be the future! I thought it was great, 'cause it told the truth!"

Mike was surprised by Ruthie's vehement defense of a movie that he hated. He really should not have been so astonished, because the message of "Zardoz" fit perfectly with her world view. She explained that she was convinced that humans, as a species, were doomed to extinction in the near future because the conditions needed to sustain such a large population no longer existed on the planet. The laws of nature that controlled all other species that had experienced population explosions in the past also applied to humans. Those natural processes that had doomed every other organism, from trilobites to dinosaurs to passenger pigeons, would doom humans as well. The only real difference was that humans were probably unique in being aware of their own existence, and thus would be aware of the extinction as it was taking place. But, as she put it:

"Just 'cause we're aware of a natural phenomenon doesn't mean we can stop it from happening. When the end comes, some people will pray to God, some will be smoking whatever meth is left over, some will be going out like those Zardoz guys and killing everyone else...but none of it'll matter. In the end we'll all be dead because the planet can't sustain us."

Mike tried to think of a response to Ruthie's bleak view of the future. He was aware of the problems that some humans were causing others, but his education and experiences had convinced him that the big social and economic problems ultimately could be resolved with the right form of human organization, i.e. a government willing and capable of controlling the worst excesses of human behavior. The key was setting up a society that could effectively thwart humans' disposition towards greed, avarice, and violence. Whether it was gang members or Mega-Town executives, it wouldn't take all that much for a new social awareness to force a reorganization of the US government that would bring the worst members of its society under control.

Ruthie countered that it was far too late for any such "reawakening" to have any effect. For one thing, already there were too many people on the planet and the world had run out of resources that would be needed to provide everyone with a decent life. Even something as fundamental as living space simply did not exist. No social or political reorganization could change that reality, unless a large portion of the population could somehow be eliminated. Second, the most destructive groups of humans, whether they were Mega-Town executives or drug traffickers from Sinaloa, already had amassed too much power and wealth and were invincible. The only political change would be coming from corporate CEO's and mafia leaders, not from the idealists in which Mike placed his hopes.

Mike was aghast at his friend's hopeless outlook, but he was unable to come up with arguments to counter much of what she was saying. The conversation depressed him even more than the movie, partly because he knew she was right. At that moment he could perfectly understand why very few people could tolerate being around her, because even if a person got past her shyness and was able to converse with her, at times to talk to Ruthie Burns forced one to see how truly hopeless life really was. There were no illusions for her, nothing to give her any hope for the future. Most people couldn't handle facing that reality.


Wednesday afternoon Ruthie had her second session with her Dr. Hartman. She was in a much better mood than she had been the previous week, but she wanted to talk about "Zardoz" and how the movie supported her conviction that humans would be extinct within another generation or so. Of course, Hartman was much more interested in knowing what was going on with Mike, because ultimately that relationship would be a much more important influence on her client's state of mind than a movie that was 35 years old. However, the counselor figured that it would be safe just to let her talk, since apparently there was no imminent threat of suicide.

When Ruthie left, Hartman made some notes about the conversation and put away her case file. She sat down for a moment to clear her head for the next client. She rubbed her temples with her fingertips and whispered to herself:

"Jeesh, that girl's depressing."


In spite the fact indeed she was so depressing to talk to at times, there was no way that Mike would consider giving up on his relationship with Ruthie. She was the one woman who had paid attention to him all year, so it was not as though he had all that much to choose from. He reasoned that many of her pessimistic attitudes were likely to be tempered once she had some positive experiences to counter the negative ones she had endured up to the point they became friends. Furthermore, although Ruthie had such a dark outlook on life, she was intelligent, truthful, and had a way of perceiving things that often forced Mike to look at his own experiences in a different light.

The night after their discussion of the merits of "Zardoz", Mike and Ruthie had their first in depth conversation about their lives in high school. Ruthie went on and on about various books she read, and to a lesser extent talked about her cousins. Her uncle (on her mother's side) had immigrated to Salinas 20 years before and had worked in construction until the recession of 2000-2001. He managed to get a job at a large hardware store and since then had worked his way up to being the supervisor of the lumber department. He and his wife had four children: a boy called Gerardo, two girls called Rosa and Susy, and another boy called Alex. Rosa, the oldest daughter, was the one who Ruthie knew the best because they were the same age.

Ruthie's uncle, aunt, and cousins were Catholic, which caused problems between them and Ruthie's mother, who had been taught that the Pope was a servant of the Anti-Christ. It also caused Ruthie's mother to be somewhat distrustful of the influence the cousins might have on her daughter, but the family's circumstances forced the girl to have more contact with her cousins than she would have wanted. Before she changed her work schedule, Ruthie's mother had her stay at her cousins' house after school, where she was able to play video games and watch TV. Once Ruthie's mother was able to arrange being home in the afternoons, Ruthie's after-school time with her cousins came to an abrupt end.

During her first year in Salinas, Ruthie was ruthlessly targeted by bullies, both boys and girls, while she was in the eighth grade of middle school. Once she entered high school the solution was for her oldest cousin Gerardo to walk her to and from her classes. Just a month after Ruthie entered the ninth grade, he broke the nose of a guy whose girlfriend had punched her, which sent a clear message that anyone who messed with Ruthie would have problems with Gerardo. She knew that she was very lucky for having him to protect her, because otherwise she probably would have had to drop out and be home-schooled.

When the conversation shifted to Mike's time in high school, there was no way that he could avoid talking about his relationship with Lisa, because his social life pretty much consisted of Lisa and nothing but Lisa. He tried to keep the details about his ex-girlfriend to a minimum, but Ruthie pressed him for information. Finally he lost his patience and curtly answered:

"Look. Lisa's living in Chicago. We broke up last year. She pledged a sorority and is dating a guy from a fraternity. The last time I ever saw her was in December."

"...and so that's the reason you didn't go back to Chicago? 'Cause you broke up with Lisa?"

"That's the reason...I mean...if you really want to know the truth, we didn't exactly break up. She treated me like total crap, she dumped me last Christmas, and the guy she's going out with now used to be one of my friends from Chicago."

"How'd she treat you like total crap?"

Mike could feel that he was digging himself ever deeper, but at that point in the conversation he realized that he needed to tell Ruthie the entire story of what had happened to him in Chicago: going there because of the lower tuition cost, how Lisa had changed over the fall semester, how he tried to force her to return to California to salvage the relationship, and the grim break-up that followed a very tense Christmas.

When he finished, Ruthie looked at him with an incredulous expression:

"Mike, I want to make sure I understand something. You filled out a college application for Lisa without telling her what you were doing?"

"Yeah, 'cause I knew when we got back here we wouldn't have that much time."

"And if you weren't telling her, how'd you get her information? How'd you know what her grades were...and stuff like her Social Security number?"

Mike hesitated, but finally he admitted that he had collected Lisa's personal information by going through her computer and notebooks when he was in her room but she had fallen asleep. Ruthie's face was even more incredulous.

"...and you're telling me you had no clue why she was so pissed at you? What gave you the right to go through her papers?"

Mike blushed and stammered: "I...I suppose I shouldn't have done it, but I...sort of just wanted to have everything set up and..."

"...then her dumping you is exactly what you deserved! I think she was fucking nice about it! If you loved her, how could you do something like that? She wasn't yours! She didn't belong to you! How could you do that to her?"

"I was just trying to get us back home...that's all I was doing."

"No! You were trying to get yourself back home and get your old life back, and force her life to fit with what you wanted for yourself! You thought you could cancel out everything that happened to her in Chicago so she could be with you. You can't do that. There's no going back. Once things change, you can't change them back!"

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