Living in the Niche
Wilton Soal was a minority of one. Nothing he liked ever stayed available for very long. If he found a favorite restaurant, it would close for lack of business within a year. If he particularly enjoyed a television program, it was canceled for low ratings during its first season. If he asked the manager of the clothing store why he’d stopped selling those shirts that fit so well, or the grocer why she no longer stocked those tiny fruits with the shiny violet skins and the aromatic tartness, the answer was always: “No one was buying them.”
The online group devoted to Soal’s favorite brand of mechanical pencil went from 300 members to 50 members to one. Amazon popularity for those lovely octagonal tumblers plummeted; eBay auctions expired without bids, which at least meant that he could get them cheaply for a while. Eventually, even their sales on Craigslist went dark.
For a while he thought that he just had spectacularly bad luck, like an evil spirit that would thwart him in anything he did. But when he experimented by gambling, he found that he won and lost at ordinary intervals like everyone else. Casinos were fun that way: they never singled him out for bad treatment — except that, if he found a casino that was gorgeous, they’d change the décor the following month because nobody liked it.
For a while he thought that he just had spectacularly bad luck ...
Cynically Soal suspected that he could make money by betting against himself. If he sold short on the manufacturer of a frozen dinner he relished, he might make a profit. But when he tried it, the results were inconsistent: true, the particular frozen dinner would be discontinued, but that was because of the smart business decisions of management, which replaced it with a better seller. Profits improved, and the stock price rose. Only when the company had bet its entire fortune on the thing Soal most wanted could he make a killing by investing against it. Once in a while, this happened.
He thought about gambling on elections. No political candidate he supported in the primaries ever won the nomination, and no party he supported ever won the election. If he gambled that his favorite candidate would lose, he’d probably win the bet. But he discovered that the sort of people who would engage in that type of transaction didn’t like it if you consistently beat them. They’d stop taking your bets, and hint darkly that worse things might happen.
Soal came to wonder whether he was merely doomed to love what everyone else hated, or was weirdly causing the unpopularity of products and candidates through his own desires. Perhaps his desires themselves were toxic. He tried an experiment. Psychology books said that you could change the way you felt about something through association: if you repeatedly experienced two things together, eventually your reactions to them would be similar.
The summer Wilton Soal was twenty-seven, the band Grandeur & Majesty released a new album, Leveling the Killing Field, which threatened to go platinum. He had never heard a single G&M song in his life, so he bought a copy of the new collection and made a point of listening to it repeatedly for several days, always when he was eating his favorite snack of popcorn sprinkled with cumin or playing his ancient copy of a beloved computer game. By the end of the week he was able to hear and appreciate the subtle references and rhythmic jokes, the homages to earlier music traditions, the sharp observation of human foibles and the unforgiving attitude towards hypocrisy. He found himself whistling songs from Leveling while he was exercising and singing them in the shower. Grandeur & Majesty were geniuses! He couldn’t wait for their next album.
Within ten days, Leveling the Killing Field dropped off all major charts. By the end of the month, radio stations stopped playing it and hits on the band’s iTunes page stopped altogether. By the end of the year, the band split up.
This put everything in a new light. Wilton Soal had discovered the ability to change the hearts and minds of thousands, maybe millions. Far from being powerless, he was possibly the most powerful man on Earth! But he felt like a thief, a destroyer, even if all he’d done was to manipulate his own feelings.
Could he use his power for good? Soal wasn’t sure what good and evil meant in matters of pure taste, although he thought he could believe in them in the context of politics. Could he trick himself into liking what needed to be opposed? He doubted that he could take something he already hated, such as platform shoes or the Christian Coalition, and so warp his sensibilities that he came to love them, solely for purposes of destroying them. But maybe someone else could.
Wilton Soal had discovered the ability to change the hearts and minds of thousands, maybe millions.
He hired The Amazing Lazlo to hypnotize him into a sincere love of platform shoes. Lazlo had him gaze into a candle and spoke softly to him for a few hours, and when he was done, Soal was convinced that women wearing five-inch soles were the most beautiful creatures on Earth, and he fretted that the experiment would be successful, and that he would never see one again.
Platforms retained their popularity. Apparently something in his heart knew the difference between genuine affection, even affection derived from deliberate association, and feelings imposed by someone else. He thought he loved platform shoes, and he experienced pleasure when looking at them, but there was some distinction, opaque even to him, between observable and genuine feeling.
But this was a new experience. Something that pleased him was popular, pleasing others too! For the first time in years, he could talk with people about a shared enthusiasm, argue and sympathize and agree to chat later; and he could expect to meet another member of this club if he walked down the street. Was this what normal people felt like?
Of course, there weren’t many extended conversations you could have about platform shoes. The various fashion boards and blogs were nice that way, and Soal did find himself making new friends, but it was hardly something on which he could build a whole life. But what if he picked something with broad appeal and more general interest?
He studied the newspaper, skimmed Tweets and Facebook postings. He decided that the movement for 100% renewable energy had many motivated supporters; bloggers who liked it seemed to talk about nothing else. Soal himself had always thought the movement to do away with all fossil fuels within ten years bespoke an inability to perform basic arithmetic. Left to himself, he would never have joined it. It was perfect.
The Amazing Lazlo needed an entire day to overcome what amounted to a discomfort based on an intellectual quibble. He charged more than double, irritably remarking that Soal didn’t hypnotize well and that the effort had drained him of the ability to do any creative work for at least a week. “Whatever,” Soal said, and paid him.
As before, Lazlo had worked a miracle. Soal still doubted the mathematics of the movement (apparently Lazlo had not altered his ability to reason) but he found that he no longer cared about the logic of it. Even if the movement was futile, he wanted to try.
His life improved dramatically. He had a community, things to share with others, a sense of belonging. He volunteered for a lobbying organization to change state energy policy, working ten hours per week passing out leaflets, raising money, contacting members of the legislature. It was while knocking on doors that he met Diane Forest.
He had a community, things to share with others, a sense of belonging.
She was just his height, thin as a sapling, with lank, mouse-colored hair that kept falling in her eyes. She wore old jeans and new T-shirts with slogans on them, and sneakers with lightning bolts on the laces. She was passionate about climate change, enthusiastic about her favorite TV reality shows, and opinionated about local pizza parlors. It took two days of canvassing together for Wilton Soal to fall irrevocably in love.
In his twenty-eight years he’d never experienced infatuation like this; talking to Diane was as hard as ice skating. He stammered, he paused, he got lost in his grammar. It amused her that he was so tongue tied, and she made him practice getting whole sentences out.
“I — the pizza, I — well —” he would begin.
“There are two possibilities,” she’d say, smirking. “I liked the pizza or I didn’t like the pizza. Pick one.”
“I didn’t like the pizza.”
“Excellent, but you have no taste.”
Or one time: “You know, that show — um, the reality —”
“I like reality shows or I don’t like reality shows.”
“I don’t like reality shows.”
“Definitely an improvement, and definitely clueless. You don’t like anything good.”
“I like you.”
She grinned. “Okay, maybe you have some taste after all.” She took his face in her hands and gave him a quick, hard kiss, snorting and laughing the whole time.
He asked her to a movie and a public concert, to lunch and dinner. They met on weekends, or went out after an afternoon of stuffing envelopes. He was careful to pick things he already loathed, and she relished them.
One Saturday afternoon, walking beside the river with Diane, holding hands and eating ice cream cones he thought were too sweet and cloying, Soal thought about how he might ask her over to his apartment. This brought on a whole new wave of stammering, and he waited for her to start teasing him.
But she was brooding. “Wil, I think something’s wrong with me.”
“How do you mean?”
“I can’t get anyone to return my phone calls. Friends from school I’ve known since I was six, people in the Movement who’ve always asked after me — it’s like no one wants to talk to me anymore. I’m being unfriended on Facebook left and right. Even my mom is giving me the cold shoulder. Have I started behaving like an asshole? Do I suddenly smell bad? Tell me the truth, Wil. I’m getting seriously bummed.”
Soal stopped walking. Diane kept going a few steps, but when his hand slipped out of hers, she turned and looked at him. Her face became alarmed. “What’s wrong? Are you all right?”
He swallowed, and noticed that the awful ice cream was starting to drip down his fingers.
He whispered, “There’s nothing wrong with you, Di.”
She rolled her eyes. “Easy for you to say.”
“No, I actually know. I have to tell you a story.”
They found a bench that needed refinishing and sat down carefully to avoid splinters. Soal told Diane everything: his disappointments, his experiments with gambling, the Amazing Lazlo —
"Tell me the truth, Wil. I’m getting seriously bummed.”
She stopped him, appalled. “You mean you needed a hypnotist to convince you to believe in the Movement?”
He grimaced. “If I had come to like it naturally, by now it would have no supporters and be permanently dead. Anyway, you need to keep listening.”
When he’d finished, she spent a long time looking out at the river. Then she said, “You claim that my sudden loss of friends is your fault?”
He nodded miserably. “I like you, therefore nobody else does.”
She shook her head. “You realize how crazy that sounds, not to mention narcissistic?”
He shrugged. “It fits with everything else. I have an unbroken record, years of it.”
Diane brought her hands up as if to gesture while speaking, then let them drop back onto her knees with a soft slap. She stood up and walked quickly to the river, then up and down the bank, shaking her head and talking to herself. Soal stayed on the bench, watching and wondering whether this was the last time he was ever going to see her.
Finally she strode back, not as quickly but with clenched fists. She sat down hard on the bench and glared at him. “So, great. What do we do?”
Soal looked at his knees. Diane said sharply, “Hey. Look me in the eyes.” He looked at her eyes, which were an angry brown. “What do we do about this?” she repeated.
“So long as I find you attractive and pleasant, you will repel everyone else around you.”
“Even my mother?”
“For crying out loud. So …”
He took a deep breath. “So, I have to stop liking you.”
She raised an eyebrow. “What, you can just turn it on and off?”
“No, and Lazlo won’t be any help either. You need to do something to make me hate you.”
She snorted. “Such as?”
He thought about it. “Um, ridicule me? Sexually humiliate me? Steal from me? Hit me?”
She looked disgusted. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“It’s the only way.”
“Screw that. I’m not going to do any of that stuff, and besides, it wouldn’t work.”
She looked disgusted. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“How do you mean?”
“It’s obvious. If you know I’m sexually humiliating you in order to manipulate your feelings so that you won’t like me, will it change your feelings?”
“Oh, I hadn’t thought of it that way.” He considered. “Probably not.”
“It’s good of you to stick by me.”
A small explosion of laughter escaped her. “‘Stick by’ you? What, exactly, is there for me to stick by? We’ve been on, let’s see, five dates, I’ve kissed you three times — not, I notice, that you’ve ever kissed me — and you’ve mentioned on six occasions, if we include just now, that you ‘like’ me. Sorry to break it to you, but that’s not going to make a person stand at attention while going down on the Titanic. It’s just that I refuse to behave like an asshole just to get people to stop treating me as if I was behaving like an asshole. I mean, how twisted is that?”
She closed her eyes for a second; he had the impression that she was counting to ten. Then she opened them and said, more quietly: “So, tell me this, Wil: does the fact that my own mother won’t return my calls mean that you maybe more than just like me?”
He swallowed. “Yes. Yes, I —” He swallowed again.
“This is why you get tongue tied, isn’t it?”
He nodded, his lips tight.
She said, “That’s very sweet, and there’s lots I could infer from it. But I don’t want to infer. I need you to say it.”
He took a deep breath and said, “I like you more than any other person I’ve ever met.”
She smiled. “That’s better. ‘Like’ as in doughnuts? ‘Like’ as in drinking buddies?” His eyes dropped again. “Look at me, please.”
He looked up. “‘Like’ as in girlfriend.”
She sighed, more in relief to get over a tough task than in actual happiness. “Well, that took long enough.” She gave him another quick kiss.
“Do you ever kiss softly and slowly?” he asked.
She rolled her eyes. “Try giving me a reason.”
But he felt awful. What good was it to have a girlfriend, someone who actually liked him, if he was going to ruin her life in the process?
“Get that look off your face,” she said. “You’re not going to ruin my life.”
“A lot you know about it,” he snapped. “How are you going to escape what every other thing I’ve ever loved has suffered? Or are you saying that you don’t mind living an isolated life with only one friend?”
“Well, let’s talk about that. What efforts have you made to stop these things from happening?”
“What?” He squinted at her. “How do you mean?”
“Well, for instance, when you liked a political candidate, did you jump in and start working for her? Did you canvass, the way we’ve canvassed for renewable energy? Did you try to talk your friends into supporting her?”
He thought about it. “No, I guess I didn’t.”
She nodded. “I thought so. So we have no data about your ability to counteract this, what, this effect you experience through actual effort.”
After a pause he said, “I guess not.”
“Listen.” She tapped herself on the chest. “I’m not just going to give up or give in when your personal genie, or whatever the hell it is, decides to isolate me from the world. I intend to seek out my friends and relatives, do them favors, ask them to tell me their troubles, be the best friend I can. Let’s see the genie deal with that.”
“That’s a lot of work,” he said.
She sat up straighter and glared. “It’s what people do for each other. It’s how relationships are maintained. In fact —” she grabbed his hand, “— it’s how romantic relationships are maintained, too. If you want me, you need to work to keep me.”
"If you want me, you need to work to keep me.”
“And you’re going to need to work to help me avoid the effects of your, your aura or whatever. Introduce me to people you know. Proclaim my virtues online. Flatter me in public. Try to win over my mother.” She grinned.
For the next two weeks, Wilton Soal labored on behalf of Diane Forest’s reputation. He went out of his way to praise her cleverness, honesty and compassion to members of their environmental group. He met her friends and asked each one to recount anecdotes about funny or endearing things she’d done. He did meet Diane’s mother, and told her she must be the wisest parent in the world to have raised such a daughter. Diane guffawed at that one, but it was a forgivable bit of hyperbole from a man in love.
It didn’t help. People listened politely to what he had to say, or recounted the stories he requested, but Diane reported no change in their behavior. Her friends were still cold, her mother distant and disapproving.
They saw each other more frequently; they talked about everything. Diane told Wilton about the bully she decked in second grade, the week during her fifteenth year when she wouldn’t leave the house because she hated her looks so much, her fear of wind and men with briefcases, her anger that hummed like a constant background chord. Wilton told Diane of his repeated disappointments, his eventual expectation that nothing good would ever happen to him, his creeping shame and suspicion that he deserved it all.
She took him to bed on a cool, breezy evening, while the last light of sunset was still in the sky. It was his first time: miraculous, confusing, and terrifying; and without Diane’s sense of humor and clarity of thought, he might have collapsed into himself. She understood his fear as she understood her own, called it by its name, and together they faced the exposure to danger that is the definition of intimacy. The next morning, seeing her grin from the other pillow and her warm shoulder peeking from the sheet, he felt that he’d had the most beautiful night of his life.
That should have warned him. The next day, when they met for dinner and he kissed her, she shuddered and pulled away.
“What is it?” he asked, hoping he didn’t already know.
“I don’t know,” she said. “When you touch me, it’s like you’re covered in worms or something.” She paused, as if unwilling to continue, then forced out the words: “And when I picture having sex with you again …” She stopped and swallowed like a person trying not to throw up.
“Was it that bad?” he asked, despair rising in his chest.
“No,” she said. “It was sweet; it was lovely. I haven’t had that much fun with anyone in years. I wanted you to stay with me the whole day. I’m sure of it. I remember it that way.”
“Was it that bad?” he asked, despair rising in his chest.
“Then why —”
“It doesn’t feel that way now. It doesn’t make any sense; I can’t explain it.” She shuddered again.
“I can,” he said. He’d hoped, in the back of his mind, that sex with her, as experienced by him, would be different than sex with him, as experienced by her — that he could like the one without poisoning the other. But apparently there was only their sex together, and he could destroy that as thoroughly as anything else.
She looked suddenly furious. “No. Absolutely not. It’s bad enough that this demon of yours is telling everyone what to think about me. I’ll be damned if it’s going to tell me how I’m going to feel about what I do with my own self and who I do it with.”
He spread his hands. “I don’t see what we can do.”
She glared. “Neither do I. Let me think about it.”
Soal spent two days imagining how he would live without Diane. He pictured never having a life partner. He thought about occupations where celibacy was a job requirement. He thought about just being miserable.
On the third day, she phoned him. “Come to my apartment tonight.” She sounded firm rather than happy.
“Are you sure?”
When he arrived, she seemed as exhausted and desperate as he felt. Her hair was uncombed, her clothes were stained, and she had a wild look in her eyes. She gave him a long, deep kiss, then shuddered. “This isn’t going to be easy,” she said, her voice cracking. “But don’t back out.”
That night Diane Forest made love to Wilton Soal with stubborn intensity. It was awful to hold someone who couldn't stand the feel of him. He could see her take a deep breath and swallow each time he touched her, but when he pulled back, she growled, “Don't you dare stop.” For Diane, anger and desperation were poor aphrodisiacs, but she refused to be dictated to. He refused to desert her. It was difficult for either of them to caress, or to become aroused, or to climax, but they managed it and collapsed into an exhausted sleep.
In the morning, when he stroked her sunlit arm, she flinched again. He thought he was going to cry.
That night Diane Forest made love to Wilton Soal with stubborn intensity.
She put her palm on his cheek. “No,” she said. “We’ve improved. I’m sure of it. It still feels bad, but nowhere near like before.” She smiled. “I think we just need practice.”
Gradually, through repeated exposure and full awareness of what she was doing, Diane wore down her revulsion until it had vanished. After a few weeks, all that remained were the desire and enthusiasm she already had — and a stronger bond than she’d ever known before.
One morning over breakfast she said, “This is how we solve the other problem, the popularity problem.”
He looked at her. “What do you mean?”
“This is how I can date you without becoming a pariah to everyone else.”
Soal didn’t get it. “What, am I supposed to have sex with each of your friends, not to mention your mom?”
She snorted coffee through her nose, collapsing into fits of coughing and laughter. “No, you idiot. I overcame this effect because I was aware of it. I knew that it wasn’t coming from me, and I was determined not to be controlled. That’s all we have to do.”
He thought about it. “You mean, we tell people that I’m, um, cursed? That I have magical powers? That their thoughts are not their own? They’ll think we’re crazy.”
“Maybe. But it’s worth a try.”
They started with Diane’s mother. She didn’t believe them, but after an hour of argument she agreed to act as if it were true: as if her feelings about Diane were generated by Soal, and she needed to work to master them.
She recovered her full warmth for her daughter in less than a week.
Once they’d proved the concept, Diane and Wilton approached each of her friends, co-workers, and acquaintances individually. Some thought it was nonsense. Some simply walked away, never re-entering Diane’s life. (”No loss,” she said.) But most, after their surprise and skepticism, made the effort to fight the bad influence Soal exercised over them, and most succeeded.
Wilton Soal remained a minority of one — in most things. Newspapers, free medical clinics, and public parks still vanished when they began to appeal to him, but from Diane he now knew that he could reverse any of these changes as they happened. He could save a sandwich shop by advertising his own effect on it, telling patrons they were being manipulated by magic, exhorting them to fight back. It would be expensive and exhausting, but it could work.
Mostly he didn’t bother. He didn’t want to become a public figure, and working to keep the “Soal Effect” from isolating Diane (and later, their children) took every bit of spare time and energy he had.
You do what you can.
Nebula-nominated author Kenneth Schneyer lives in an alternative reality where the Beatles never broke up. By day he teaches legal studies and science fiction literature to college undergraduates. He is a product of the mysterious Clarion class of 2009, and you can find his stories in Analog, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and elsewhere. Born in Detroit, he now resides in Rhode Island with one singer, one dancer, one actor, and something with fangs. You can follow him on Twitter, on Facebook, and at http://ken-schneyer.livejournal.com.