The Self-Improving Cipher

Ever since she could remember, he had believed himself to be superior. And it wasn’t just because he was a man and she a woman, but because, to him, in order to be deemed “self-actualized,” she needed to get on the same level as his own endless scholarly pursuits. The unspoken difference between them was that his father had the means to pay for those pursuits and Lauren’s did not. Lauren, in fact, didn’t even have a father. Or if she did, she had no idea where he was. He had been out of the picture ever since she could remember, though her mother was always certain to keep a steady stream of “male figures” revolving through her bedroom door to perhaps unselfishly give Lauren some idea of what a “paternal presence” meant. In other words, Mama was a rollin’ stone. 

Lauren met Wilhelm at what Tyler Durden would call a very strange time in her life. She had just dropped out of college in favor of taking advantage of a “rare opportunity”: becoming a literary agent’s assistant. She never dreamed she would actually get hired when she applied on a lark, and she didn’t want to pass it up, believing that such a role wasn’t a dime a dozen in New York. Wilhelm had berated her for this decision almost as soon as they met (through the twenty-first century means of “swiping right”), for she mentioned it to them on their initial “coffee date.” A cramped, horrid affair that took place at Joe in the West Village. She hadn’t chosen it, Wilhelm did. That should have been her first indication of his pseudo-pretentiousness that also played at being “normal” (read: broke). But she wrote it off, along with countless other warning signs. Like him accusing her of being stuck at a dead-end job when she should be re-enrolling in school to better herself. Or, at the very least, taking some continuing education classes.

“Self-improvement is the only true sign of being alive,” he declared.

Lauren sipped her coffee and nodded along while thinking, “Funny, I thought it was just a pulse.” 

Yet it was her own fault for persisting in seeing him. Allowing him to get into her head so firmly with his rhetoric about fucking self-improvement. As though every day she wasn’t doing that in her own small fashion. Not everyone could have his privilege. His luxury not only of finances, but of being the kind of extrovert who could “make things happen” with charm. A winsome smile and a “correct” joke to grease the wheels that would get him what he wanted—that was how he “self-improved.” Opening the doors to places that made one look more legitimate in their field. And it was easy to do when you had the right resources at your fingertips. 

But for all his talk of wanting her to do something to “expand” one of her skills, he himself never offered her a leg up in any way. No mention of assisting her in maybe paying for one of these classes that might make her hone her “craft” (the word she found most disgusting to describe writing). Guess he wanted to save all of Daddy’s money for his own self-improvement. That’s why it was telling that he never asked her for the favor all of the other aspiring writers in her life did: to pass along his manuscript to the agent she worked for. He didn’t need that favor. His father’s name was enough to get him access to whatever publisher or agent he wanted. Not that Millard Jones, Lauren’s boss, was in the business of publishing Daddy’s boys anyway. And everyone knew that Wilhelm von Reinhardt was a Daddy’s boy. The von Reinhardt name being manifest on buildings and wings of buildings throughout the city. There was no hiding who Wilhelm was, and if he truly wanted to hide it, he would have bothered to do a Nicolas Cage-inspired name change. He did not. For good reason. A name like that opened doors. To what now, you ask? Self-improvement.

It seemed to Lauren, however, that she was the only one who could see what all the “self-improving” was meant to mask. That he was a cipher. A total void. With no personality or character of his own. Which is why making the grand pronouncement of being an “artist” was the best route for him. That’s what so many non-artistic people lay claim to when they know they have no other “ready-made” identity to graft. And the more classes he took or certificates he “earned” (that means: “bought”), the more quote unquote layered this identity could become. The truth was, however, that a talentless hack would forever be a talentless hack—even if they made money off their “art.” It took Lauren too long to see this about Wilhelm, for she was, like many of his girlfriends before, allured by the world he inhabited. One that was filled with possibility and no sign of a “you can’t do that” in sight. That is, until Lauren realized the trappings of this world only applied to Wilhelm. She would never be given the same courtesies as him. And he would see to it that she wouldn’t. In his eyes, she was competition. 

Lauren was perhaps still too jejune to understand that she was just another experiment on Wilhelm’s path to being the perfect ever-self-improving “artist.” She was the Cicciolina on Wilhelm’s way to a Justine Wheeler. A woman who could really be a wife that supported the “artist” as opposed to an actual artist herself. Anyone else looking at their dynamic from an objective standpoint might have been able to tell Lauren all this, but she likely wouldn’t have been ready to receive the information anyway. No, it would take a full two years of being belittled and berated by him to finally cut the cord. Only after she had spent all of the extra money she might have saved to put toward buying an apartment or even publishing her own book instead toward an arsenal of useless classes that only sought to fill the pockets of enterprising hustlers calling themselves “established” and “expert.” 

It had been about three years since she had seen Wilhelm now, though she did catch a glimpse of his book in the window of Barnes & Noble every so often when forced to walk near Union Square. How quickly she had fallen off the ladder that had briefly given her entrée into his realm. And she had to admit his brainwashing still had its unexpected effects on her. For instance, one day, while passing by the New School on her way to her long-standing agent’s assistant job (by now she had been there for six years with no sign of a raise or promotion in sight), she saw a flier for a class that touted some bullshit about how to tailor your work to attract an agent or publisher’s attention. She paused briefly to look at it, seeing that she hadn’t yet missed the enrollment date. She then caught herself falling into Wilhelm’s trap. His voice still inside of her saying that she wasn’t “doing anything” or “going anywhere” if she didn’t take her work to the “next level.” But what was the next level, really? Having it read by people who wouldn’t understand it, would misinterpret it to the nth degree. Having an editor completely butcher her original words. Being at the mercy of trying to write something for money that the masses could “relate to.”

Well, she couldn’t relate to them, and she didn’t want to. Except perhaps on one specific thing: the majority of the people on this earth do nothing to “self-improve” in the way Wilhelm had dubbed suitable and necessary. For the most part, everybody is just trying to get by and finagle some modicum of “bliss”—whatever that might mean for them—once in a while. Lauren was trying to do the same. If that made her average or underachieving (code for: not rich enough to buy her way to the top), then so be it. Just like a smart person would never unlock Pandora’s box, Lauren was actively rebelling against unlocking her potential. Or at least “potential” as a man like Wilhelm viewed what that word meant: “self-improvement.”

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