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Katy Orville clicked off the television as The Oprah Winfrey Show ended and the local news came on. She lay for a moment, red curly hair hanging over the end of the couch, and listened to her roommate Rebecca's fingers clicking on her computer keyboard at the desk in the corner. Rebecca Treinen faced into the shadowy nook with slumped shoulders, as if being punished for bad behavior.
"What would Oprah do?" Katy asked aloud.
Rebecca gave no response. The clicking of the keyboard continued, echoed by the taps of raindrops on the windowpanes.
Katy shortened her question. "W.W.O.D.?"
"Hmm?" Rebecca finally said, still facing the monitor.
Katy could see an edge of the screen and knew her roommate was doing her online banking. Rebecca's straight brown hair was a curtain of disinterest in W.W.O.D., and hid her face from Katy's view.
Katy popped another couple of M&M's into her mouth. "What Would Oprah Do? If she were us."
"Isn't that supposed to be 'What Would Jesus Do?' " Rebecca asked, hand now motionless on the mouse, her back stiff. The banking news was undoubtedly bad.
Katy sat up, then frowned as she saw the way her pale thighs spread against the cushion. She tugged down the cuffs of her shorts, trying to hide her thighs from her sight. "Maybe Oprah is a modern-day messenger from God."
Rebecca spun around in her desk chair, her Pantene-polished shield of hair swinging to the side, interest engaged at last. Or maybe it was to avoid further perusal of her bank statement. "That's it. We're canceling the cable. We can't afford it, and it's rotting your brain."
"Certainly she's a child of God, as are we all," Katy said with deliberate, wide-eyed naivete, as she rolled closed the bag of M&M's. She shoved it into the small drawer in the coffee table, hoping she'd forget it was there. "Oprah says that God is love. Oprah herself is a pure embodiment of love. Therefore, Oprah could be considered an incarnation of God."
Rebecca's brows lowered into a straight line. "Your logic is flawed. Oprah is hardly a pure embodiment of love, nor is she the only source of that emotion. Even if God could be defined as nothing other than love, the argument fails."
Katy waved away the protest. "Logic, shmogic. I am a follower of Oprah and demand respect for my religion."
Rebecca raised a brow, then turned back to her monitor. "Maybe you should pray to Oprah to find us jobs."
"Maybe I will."
Katy plopped back against the cushions, temporarily defeated, and propped her feet on the coffee table to consider new approaches to the battle plan of life, with or without Oprah's divine influence.
She was a technical writer, Rebecca a software engineer, and a month ago both had been laid off from their jobs at WxyTech Industries. "Wixy" was circling the drain of bankruptcy, sending its employees down the tubes ahead of it like dead bugs in a tub.
It was a situation with haunting tones of Katy's past. Once upon a time, welfare and food stamps had been humiliating necessities for her family. Every time her mother had used them, Katy had vowed that she herself would never be dependent on them as an adult.
No matter how self-sufficient Katy became, though, she had never been able to shake the fear that the wolf of poverty was prowling around her door. The loss of her job brought back all the old feelings; she could almost hear that wolf snuffling at the crack under her apartment door.
The only way she could block the wolf from her mind was to watch TV and eat M&M's. They kept her from thinking too much. A psychologist might say she was in denial, refusing to face reality.
So be it. She'd had a lifetime of reality.
She needed to get a new job, but the thought of going back to the cubicle, of returning to the land of Dilbert, gave her about as much delight as contemplating another Seattle winter: her mind filled with visions of gray drizzle, and a superstitious dread that the light would never return to the world. Although lucrative, technical writing was as mind-numbing as reading an owner's manual.
She'd once been glad to sell her soul to the devil of boredom in exchange for financial security. But the devil, damn his polyester hide, had proven himself a cheap cheat when it came to exchanging jobs for souls, for here she was, unemployed. When it came to pinching and stretching, she was tops: by living frugally and in a bad part of town, she'd managed to pay off both her car and her student loans, and sock away close to $5,000 in rainy-day funds. But she could still hear that wolf.
She really didn't know what she wanted to do now; all she knew was that she wanted to pursue a passion, like Oprah advised. And live comfortably, without fear of poverty. Maybe even have enough money that she could someday buy a house of her own, with a window seat where she could sit and read, and a yard where she could put a fountain and goldfish.
Oprah would know how to get all that. Oprah wouldn't be sitting on the couch like a slug on a rotten potato, waiting for the salt shaker of life to come shrivel her into a gray ball of mucus. Oprah would get out there and...and...
It was time to summon the goddess. To go directly to the oracle. She would burn a bag of potato chips at the Altar of Love. She would visit oprah.com.
"Can I use your computer when you're done?"
"I'm done now," Rebecca said, clicking out of the banking site and heading for the kitchen.
Katy waited until Rebecca was out of sight of the monitor, then started to type in the URL to Oprah's site.
Rebecca suddenly emerged from the kitchen. "I'm going to run down to the grocery store. Need anything?"
"No, don't think so," Katy said, spinning around in the desk chair to put herself between the monitor and Rebecca. Not that looking at Oprah's site was shameful, like browsing porn sites. She grinned blankly as Rebecca put on her shoes and got her coat.
"What?" Rebecca asked.
"Nothing!" Katy turned back to the screen.
"Whatever, weirdy girl. Be back in a bit."
Rebecca made a noise, and then Katy heard the door open and shut. She relaxed, and focused on the screen in front of her.
Oprah's site had links to a newsletter, message boards, "O Groups," and on and on. Even a link to "Oprah's Angel Network."
Ha! Oprah was a goddess. She had her own angels!
Katy wandered through the site, a veritable bible of the Oprah way of life, and eventually stumbled on a section for "Discovering Your Passion."
Seek and ye shall find!
Katy glanced at the clock. Rebecca would be back soon. She clicked on "Print" for a page of instructions for creating a Life Map, an exercise that promised to help you "discover what you want for yourself and your life."
The printer finished just as Katy heard a key in the door. She shut down the computer, gathered up her papers, and slunk toward her room like a teenage boy with a copy of Penthouse. Some things you just couldn't let other people see you doing.
It was 2:30 A.M. by the time she finished, sitting cross-legged on the floor of her room. The Life Map was a collage of images and words taken from magazines and catalogs: anything that had felt "right" to her, she'd obediently torn out and glued onto a massive sheet of taped-together printer paper.
Among the images were a castle; a silver-haired man in tweed selling cologne; nearly nude males posing in Jockey underwear; a Jaguar sports car; a particularly luscious-looking roast duck in cherry glaze; Rapunzel Barbie; half a dozen British actors in period costume, including several pictures of that delicious Ioan Gruffudd, who played Horatio Hornblower in the A&E movies; an iguana; and an abundance of flowers.
Among the words were twenty-four (her age), sexy (she wished she were), chocolate (self-explanatory), and "I can't believe" (the rest of the phrase had been "it's not butter").
She rubbed her bleary, stinging eyes, and looked over at the picture of Oprah she'd torn from an old People and tacked to the wall. There was a candle burning in a glass votive beneath it, turning the photo into an impromptu shrine.
"So what does it all mean?" she asked the photo.
Oprah said nothing, silently resplendent in the vanilla ball gown she'd worn to the Emmys to accept a humanitarian award. One hand was raised as if bestowing blessings on the world.
Katy scratched herself through a hole in the armpit of her Wonder Woman sleepshirt. She didn't know what this collage was supposed to have taught her about herself.
She looked at all the pictures -- at the castles, the handsome men, the beautiful clothes, the beautiful food -- and an unexpected sadness crept into her heart. She had none of these things. Her life looked nothing like her Life Map.
The collage was all a fantasy -- a fantasy in which she had the breasts of a Victoria's Secret model and could attract Jaguar-driving men who ate roast duck. In her fantasy, she wasn't a flat-chested, bird-boned, frizzy-haired geek.
She sniffed back self-pitying tears.
She had been born at the very hour that Lady Diana's wedding was being broadcast around the world. As Diana had been reciting Prince Charles's stuffy string of names, Katy had come screaming into the delivery room. She used to think that meant she was destined for a fabulously romantic future of her own.
Ha-ha. The joke was on her.
Katy wiped her nose with the back of her hand, then looked again at the photo of Oprah, disappointed. Oprah's diamond earrings sparkled, her smile warm and friendly. The oracle was unperturbed.
"Easy for you," Katy said to the photo. "Barbie's bust has nothing on yours. What are you, a double D?"
She blew out the candle and stood up. Time for bed. It had been a stupid idea, anyway.
She was walking down a hallway, toward a doorway through which light softly glowed. She came through the doorway into a dining room, its walls painted in a buttery gold harlequin pattern, an elaborate gold chandelier over the center of a long, dark wooden table. Candles were burning everywhere, just like in the scene from Great Expectations where Pip meets the disappointed elderly bride, Miss Havisham.
Or like any of those "filmed at home" segments on Oprah, where every guest seemed to live in a house filled with lit candles. Did Oprah have any idea how expensive that would be for the average woman?
At the head of the table sat Oprah, in her vanilla ball gown. To her right stood Ioan Gruffudd. He was wearing a black, tailed formal jacket and a pair of white Jockey briefs, and nothing else. Katy tried not to look at his cotton-covered crotch, although she wanted to. Very much.
Oprah gestured to the seat at the opposite end of the table. When Katy hesitated, Ioan came down and pulled the chair out. She sat, sneaking a glance at his bare chest. His dark brown eyes met hers and he smiled.
She blushed, and looked away.
"Can I offer you something to eat? To drink?" Oprah asked.
"No, thank you," Katy said, returning her attention to her hostess. Katy sat very straight, her buttocks on the edge of the seat. This was Oprah. This was The Goddess.
"Are you sure? It's no trouble. I have a chef. Ioan can fetch you something. Macaroni and cheese, perhaps? Mashed potatoes?"
"I can't eat when I'm nervous," Katy said. Butterflies were flapping up a tempest in the teapot of her stomach.
"Try to relax. You're here because I want to help you."
Oprah smiled. "O. Yes."
Ioan handed Oprah a large cylinder of paper, which she unrolled on the table. She took a tiny pair of reading glasses out of a silver tube and put them on.
Katy recognized her Life Map and cringed. "It's not very good."
Oprah looked at her over the glasses. "This is you, Katy Orville. There is no right or wrong. You are not being graded."
"Hmm, yes." Oprah sounded concerned. "I see."
Katy fidgeted while Oprah examined the collage, the narrow spectacles halfway down her nose, her head moving up, then slowly down again as her gaze moved over the paper.
Ioan stood with his hands behind his back, his gaze focused on some point in the distance. Katy was grateful. She didn't want him to notice the pictures of himself in her collage or the models in Jockey shorts. How embarrassing.
After a few minutes, Oprah took the glasses off her nose, folded them, and met Katy's gaze.
"Well?" Katy asked, unable to bear the suspense.
"It's clear enough."
"You want the fairy tale," Oprah said. "You want the castle and the prince. Gowns and banquets, and a gilded chariot. Or Jaguar, in this case."
"But it's silly to want that. I'm a grown woman, not a little girl," Katy said.
"You're judging yourself."
She flushed with shame. The Goddess had her there.
"Do you always say no to yourself?" Oprah asked.
"No...but -- "
"But?" Oprah cut in. "'No, but'?"
"But aren't you against rescue fantasies?" Katy rushed out, heart thumping at her temerity. How dare she argue with Oprah? "I'm not supposed to want Prince Charming to come sweep me away from my life. I have savings, I get my tires rotated, I even fixed the toilet when the handle got jiggly. I thought this is what I was supposed to be: self-sufficient."
"What of your spirit, Katy? Don't you feel something missing inside? There is an empty space where the joy should be. It's where you're dumping all those M&M's."
"I just really like M&M's," she mumbled.
Oprah gave her a steady, challenging look. "I used to say that about potato chips."
Katy fidgeted. She really didn't want to give up the M&M's. "Won't a new job fix any empty spaces?"
"Only if you remember your spirit when you seek it. No more selling your soul to the devil." Oprah tapped her bottom lip with her folded glasses, thinking. "Is it that you can't believe you can have a better life? Do you think you're not worthy of that? That somehow you fall short?"
Katy felt her mouth turn down unhappily, and she shrugged, afraid her voice would crack if she spoke. She was of average looks, with an average mind, so why should her life be anything but average? There was nothing special about her. There was nothing unique.
Oprah nodded, and pointed to the words "I can't believe" in the collage. "You can't believe that you can have those things of which you dream in your quietest, most private moments. That is what holds you back. You've got to believe in yourself, and go after your passion! With everything you've got."
"Even if it's British men in castles?"
"But -- "
Oprah gave her a sharp frown.
Katy pressed her lips shut.
Oprah released the Life Map, and it rolled itself back into a cylinder. Ioan picked it up, then pulled Oprah's chair back as she stood and gave Katy a serious look. "Live your best life, Katy Orville."
She swept out of the room, Ioan trailing behind.
Katy sat in confusion, then something brushed her ankle. She bent down to look under the table.
A giant iguana stared back at her out the corner of its cold reptilian eye, its mouth open, about to take a bite out of her leg.
She shrieked and jerked awake.
Heart thumping, she stared into the darkness, then glanced at her digital clock. Four A.M.
For a moment she could almost believe that Oprah really was a goddess, and had paid her a visit.
She rolled onto her side, snuggling into her comforter and pillow. Oprah's words repeated in her head. Go after your passion. With everything you've got!...Live your best life, Katy Orville!
What passion? To marry a nobleman and live in a castle? But that was silly. It wasn't realistic. It was childish. The stuff of fairy tales. Oprah would never advise pinning one's happiness on finding a prince to take away all your troubles.
Then again, wasn't it every woman's secret fantasy, which she'd never really grown out of? And weren't they all too ashamed to admit it? She wanted a real Prince Charming.
I can't believe.
But maybe, alone at four o'clock in the morning, she could let herself. She had enough money saved for a trip to England. She could buy some nice secondhand clothes, find a cheap bed-and-breakfast in London, and spend a month there looking for a wife-hunting lord with an estate. Someone with centuries' worth of money behind him and a burning readiness for marriage.
No uncommitted, impoverished losers for her. It was Prince Charming or bust. She just had to believe.
Copyright © 2005 by Lisa Cach