Manage Expectations 397

make small talk or pretend to enjoy it. I wanted to be alone with Lisa. I wanted to connect with her.

When the first drip of sweat rolled down my forehead, I jumped up. I couldn't take it.

"I'll be right back," I said. I needed to sarge—not because I wanted to pick up women, but because I wanted to get into a positive state and talkative mood. Otherwise I was going to just crack sitting there so awkwardly.

As I ordered a drink at the bar, I smelled lilacs behind me. I turned around to see two women in black evening dresses. "Hey guys, let me get your opinion on something," I began, with a little less enthusiasm than usual.

"Let me guess," one of the women said. "You have a friend whose girlfriend is jealous because he still talks to his ex from college."

"Like, every guy keeps asking us that," her friend said. "What's the deal?"

I grabbed my Jack and Coke and shuffled out to the smoking patio— the site of my pickup battle with Heidi Fleiss. With some trepidation, I delivered the spells opener to a two-set sitting on a bench. Fortunately, they hadn't heard it.

"Hey," I said afterward. I really wasn't feeling it, but I wanted to push myself to be talkative. "How long have you guys known each other?"

"About ten years," one of the girls said.

"I could tell. I have to give you guys the best friends test."

"Oh, we know that one already," she said politely.

It had finally happened: The Sunset Strip was sarged out.

The community had grown large and reckless; too many competing businesses were teaching the same material. And we had saturated more than just Los Angeles. PUAs in San Diego, Montreal, New York, San Francisco, and Toronto had been reporting the same problem lately: They were running out of fresh girls to sarge.

I walked back to Lisa and her friends. "I'm wiped out," I told Lisa. "I'm going to head home. But I'm driving to Malibu tomorrow to surf. You and Sam should join me. It'll be fun."

She looked up at me, and we connected for the first time all evening. For three extraordinary seconds, the rest of the club disappeared. "Yeah, all right," she said. "Sounds cool."

"Great. Meet me at the house at noon." Connection over.

When I returned home from the Whiskey Bar, Isabel was waiting for me. I was never going to get any sleep.

"Didn't I tell you to call first before dropping by?" I asked.

"I left you a message."

There was nothing wrong with Isabel. Five years ago, I would have given up writing for a year just to sleep with a girl like that once. But she offered nothing. She was all holes: ears to listen to me, a mouth to talk at me, and a vagina to squeeze orgasms out of me. We weren't a team; we were just a distraction for each other, a way to feel less lonely for a few hours in a big, uncaring world. We never had conversations; we had conversations, where we just filled empty space with words. At least, that's what I thought. But sometimes, simply through the act of having sex with a man, especially if that man is a little more emotionally distant than she'd like him to be, a woman can develop feelings. She can start wanting more.

"Are you still seeing other girls?" Isabel asked in the morning, rolling on top of me and looking aggressively into my eyes.

It was a loaded question with only one right answer. I gave her the wrong one—the honest one. "Well, I met a girl named Lisa, who I'm developing feelings for."

"Well, you're going to have to choose between her and me."

In the past, I used to fall for ultimatums. But I'd since learned that ultimatums are expressions of powerlessness, empty threats designed to try to influence a situation someone has no control over.

"Just by asking me to make that choice," I said, "you're setting yourself up to be the loser."

She dropped her head onto my shoulder and cried. I felt bad for her. But that's all I felt.

An hour after she left, Sam and Lisa arrived. Mystery sat at the computer, typing furiously. He looked up at Lisa, who was wearing a Juicy Couture linen pullover with the hood over her head, and tried to neg her. "What kind of get-up is that?" he asked. It was the only way he knew how to relate to a beautiful woman.

Lisa slowly scanned Mystery's get-up. He was wearing a robe, boxer shorts, black toenail polish, and slippers. She gave him a withering look and sneered, deadpan, "Right back at ya, babe."

Lisa was neg-proof. Next to her, other girls seemed like incomplete human beings. For most of their childhood, females are conditioned to act subservient to male authority figures. Once they grow up, a certain subset of them—many of whom end up in Los Angeles—move through the world psychologically stunted, constantly dumbing themselves down in the presence of the opposite sex. They believe that the techniques they used to manipulate their fathers will work just as well on the rest of the world, and often they're right. But Lisa wasn't a doormat designed by the expectations and desires of the men in her life. She lived the advice that most women hypocritically give to men; She wasn't afraid to be herself.

Mystery was silent for once. He cleared his throat; announced, a little too loudly, "I'm busy"; then turned away to continue typing. I was sure he was posting in Mystery's Lounge, letting off steam after the previous day's house meeting.

Before we left for the beach, I showed Sam and Lisa the photos I had taken the first night Lisa slept over, when we had played dress-up with the wigs.

"Look at that," Sam said when she saw the photo of Lisa and me staring into each other's eyes, just before we didn't kiss. "I've never seen Lisa look so happy."

"Yeah," Lisa said, her lips spreading into a toothy smile. "I guess you're right."

Sam ran upstairs to use my bathroom while Lisa and I loaded the surfboards into the back of the limousine, which doubled as my surf car. As we drove to Malibu, I noticed Sam leaning over the seat divider to whisper something to Lisa, which wiped the smile off her face in an instant.

They looked at each other hesitantly.

"What?" I persisted. I really wanted to know. I was sure it was about me, and I was sure it wasn't positive.

"It's not important," Sam said. "Just girl talk."

When I surfed in the past, I usually hung out close to the shore, riding the smaller waves while the more experienced surfers paddled further out for the big ones. I thought I was better than them because I got more waves. But after helping Sam and Lisa get comfortable on their boards, I paddled out with the expert surfers to try and catch a big wave.

As I waited, I looked on with envy as the surfers on the inside—closer to shore—caught wave after wave. After twenty minutes, the water finally swelled behind me and I began to paddle. As a wall of blue grew in my peripheral vision, my body tensed: I wondered if I could handle a wave this big. It grabbed my board with a crack, like pealing thunder, and I leapt to my feet. The blue stretched far overhead. I cut through the open face all the way to the top of the wave and maneuvered to shore. I felt alive, exhilarated, ecstatic. I didn't know I could do it before: I didn't think I had the knowledge and the skill to take a wave like that. For the first time since junior high, I felt like writing poetry.

As I triumphantly carried my board to the beach, I realized it was time, with girls, to take the big waves and stop messing with the mushy little inside ones, to go for the best rather than the most. I deserved it.

When we returned home, I pulled Lisa aside.

"I'd like to take you out for sushi on Saturday," I said.

It was so AFC of me. I was asking her out on a date.

She hesitated for a moment, as if she were deciding the best way to let me down easy. She pursed her lips and squinted. Then, finally, she spoke. "Okay, I guess."

"You guess?" I couldn't remember the last time I'd asked a girl on a date, and she was giving me attitude about it?

"No, it's just that_" She stopped herself. "Never mind. Yeah, I'd love to go. I was wondering when you were finally going to ask."

"That's better. I'll pick you up at eight."

The girls left, and I went to the kitchen to saute a chicken breast. The remains of countless meals made by scores of guests had congealed into a black crust that coated the stovetop. As I waited for my food to cook, Tyler Durden came in through the patio door, wearing running shoes and a Walkman. He lifted up his T-shirt, examined a roll of baby fat on his belly, and took his Walkman headphones off.

"Hey, man, I heard what happened with Mystery," he said. "I'm really sorry about how things turned out. Let me know if I can do anything to help convince him to stay in the house."

"He's very stubborn. I doubt there's anything you can do."

"If he leaves, there's no Project Hollywood anymore," he went on. "I guess it would sort of become the RSD mansion."

"I guess so." I scooped the chicken onto a plate and grabbed a fork and knife.

"By the way. I bought a Style shirt on Melrose today. It looks just like something you would wear. I have to show it to you."

"That's great, but kind of weird." There was something I'd been meaning to discuss with Tyler Durden for a while now. "I'd like to talk to you about paying a small rent or part of the utilities. You've been living here for months now, and we made a rule the day we moved in that long-term guests should contribute to the house."

"Sure, man," he said. "Just bring it up with Papa."

His words were agreeable, but not his body language. He shifted his head uncomfortably while he spoke, as if he didn't know where to look, then wheeled around and left. He always seemed to go unnaturally out of his way to make sure he wasn't actively involved in any house issue, drama, or meeting. Behind his smile I sensed something—not unlike what I'd felt when I'd kissed his girl in Las Vegas. By asking him to pay rent, I'd become a threat to him.

I took my food to the office area of the house, turned on my computer, and checked Mystery's Lounge. I wanted to read the masterpiece Mystery had been so furiously working on that afternoon.

MSN GROUP: Mystery's Lounge SUBJECT: Mystery Moves Out AUTHOR: Mystery

I will likely be moving out of Project Hollywood next month because it is no longer a suitable place for me. The invasive social environment has made living here uncomfortable.

As far as lifestyle goes, Project Hollywood is a bust. I don't see living here to be a positive experience for anyone. If and when my overpriced bedroom is made available, your unsavory roommates (Save Style) will, at some point, undermine your happiness. This is something they have demonstrated on more than one occasion.

In my specific case, aside from the issues with having a competing business running out of the same home I live in (one of many breaches in trust between Papa and me], house members think that it's appropriate to intervene in my private sex life. This is an intolerable situation for me. I've been told that my ex-girlfriend, who has demonstrated numerous times that she is untrustworthy, will be allowed back in the house in two months.

If she comes back (which Papa hopes), then this forces me out of the house because I do not want such a toxic person near my friends or me. Unless the restraining order Katya is threatening to file against me keeps her out of my house, such involvement in my personal affairs will likely cause irrevocable bitterness.

As for those who say I need psychological help, the greatest solution to depression is not paying some stranger to listen to you or taking drugs, which is just a short-term fix for when things hit rock bottom. The long-term fix is a positive social environment filled with friends who will listen and share your challenges. That is what Project Hollywood was supposed to be. If anyone would like to talk to me openly about the situation and why I do not endorse living here, call me. I don't want anyone else to get ripped off and hurt as I have been. Know the culture before making any decision to move here.

P.S. If I move out, I will be selling my bed. I've only slept with ten girls on it so it's very clean. It's a California king-sized bed. The price is $900 cash and does not include comforter or sheets.

Here is a list of who's been bedded on the bed:

1. Joanne the stripper

2. Mary the blonde model

3. The hot bartender from the Spider Club

4. Sima the ex-girlfriend from Toronto

6. Gabby the gabber

7. Jen the nineteen-year-old hottie

8. Vision's cousin (I know, but I still enjoyed her)

9. Twyla the personal assistant

10. The six-foot tall model I scared away (third base only)

I think that's everyone. It's a great bed. Firm. Eleven happy people. MSN GROUP: Mystery's Lounge

SUBJECT: Field Report—Mystery Meets His Future Wife

AUTHOR: Mystery

I have met my future wife. And I have decided not to tell you about her. She is that important and that classy. She is my dream girl (at least I think she is so far)

Unlike the last girl, I will not make her public. This time I will start from scratch and not undermine my relationship by sharing it with you guys. I will be more loyal to her than to you because the bros before hos ethic only applies if you think of the girl as a ho.

Here is all you need to know: I met her briefly when I was in Chicago, doing my last workshop with Herbal. I met her for seven minutes and then number-closed. We have spoken on the phone since for hours and hours. I love her personality. And, yes, body-and face-wise, she is a 10. I have talked with her mom on the phone, and she likes me too. This girl is coming to Los Angeles to visit me for a week. I bought her a flight. My family will be arriving the same week and they will meet.

Though we have only been in each other's presence for seven minutes, I predict that I will marry her, live with her, and possibly have kids with her. How is that for a prediction, huh? From the world's greatest pickup artist.

You won't see her winging my workshops because I will refrain from exploiting her unless she wants to help out for shits and giggles. She is untouchable to this paltry gang of misfits. She isn't a party girl like the last five girls. She may look like one (mmm) but she is perfection, at least to me. My friends will meet her soon.

As for all the other PUAs, stay away from her because you know I bite.

Love, Mystery

Mystery sulked through the trash-strewn house in his robe, telling anyone who would listen about the former student who was stealing his business and the bitch who ruined his life. Any attempt to get him into therapy was dismissed with a long-winded explanation of how his emotions and actions were evolutionarily justified. The window of vulnerability and honesty that had opened when he broke down in the house meeting had closed. His frame had reasserted itself; his mind had rebuilt the tortuous walls separating rationalization from reality.

Though he wasn't upset with me, I felt guilty. The compromise that was effectively pushing him out of the house had been my decision. So much for my Solomon-like wisdom.

To make matters worse, Katya was twisting the knife. She'd given her landlord sixty days notice, and planned to move into Herbal's room once she was allowed back in the house. Her revenge, then, was complete.

That Friday, I drove with Mystery to pick up his sister, mother, and nieces from the airport. They piled into the back of the limo and surrounded him with the love he so desperately craved.

We then headed to the United Airlines terminal. Mystery had one more guest coming in for the week: Ania. She was the girl he'd met in Chicago, the one he'd claimed online would be the future Mrs. Mystery, the ultimate rebound. One of Mystery's specialties in sarging was what he called hired guns, such as bartenders, strippers, shot girls, and waitresses. Ania was a coatcheck girl at the Chicago Crobar.

We pulled outside the terminal and waited. "Get ready to meet my future wife," Mystery announced to his family.

"Don't scare her away like the last one," his mom chuckled. She seemed to have learned that the secret to surviving the stresses her husband and children had put on her was to never take anyone or anything too seriously. Life was an in-joke between her and God.

We recognized Ania the moment the automatic doors opened, revealing a short woman with bottle-blonde hair, a bosom disproportionate to her body, and a shrunken-apple face that betrayed, like Patricia and Katya before her, Eastern European origins.

Mystery greeted her, grabbed her bags, and brought her to the limo. Outside of a meek "hello," Ania didn't say a word during the entire trip home. Instead, she sat passively and listened to Mystery. She was just his type.

She may not have been a party girl like Katya, but Ania came with her own baggage, which arrived unexpectedly at the airport the next day. His name was Shaun.

On Saturday we discovered Shaun standing outside the house, dialing Ania's cell phone every five minutes. Ania had never told Mystery she was engaged. And, clearly, she had never told her fiance she was flying to Los Angeles to visit a pickup artist she had met at work. Shaun had evidently checked her voice mail, discovered messages from Mystery, and decided to fly to LA. to confront his rival.

The irony wasn't lost on Mystery. "I understand what Shaun's going through," he said. "I'm like Herbal to him. He wants to kill me and take his woman back." He paused for a moment and adjusted his posture into what would have been an alpha male pose if he had any pectorals. "I'm going out there to talk to him."

As Mystery swaggered outside, I waited in the living room with his sister and mother. We sat on the upholstery—so filthy now even the stains were stained—that was the backdrop to the tears, girls' bottoms, and house meetings that had been consuming my life for months. I felt a need to escape this trap I had set for myself; this trap Mystery kept setting for himself; the traps we all constantly set for ourselves, over and over, and never seem to learn from.

"You realize," I told them, "that Mystery is just building himself up for another fall with this girl."

"Yes," his mom said. "He thinks it's all about the girls, but it's not. It's about his low self-esteem." Only a mother could reduce a person's entire ambition and raison d'être to the one basic insecurity fueling it all.

"What worries me is the violence," I said. "He's starting to think that violence is a solution to these problems, and it's a dangerous way of thinking."

"Butting heads with someone never works," his mom said. "I always say that you don't have to do the direct approach. You can just go around because there's always a back way."

"Now I know where he got Mystery Method from." In three sentences.

his mother had unintentionally summarized Mystery's entire approach to meeting women: the indirect method.

Martina knitted her eyebrows and shifted her weight on the couch. "His depressions get worse every time," she sighed. "He was never violent before."

"Well, I remember one time when he was angry, he slammed a door and killed his pet rat," his mother said. "But I never saw him get mad about anything else. Even when the cat died, he just said, 'That's life.'"

"What I think is happening," Martina said, "is that with our father gone, he's starting to realize that Dad was never as bad as he remembered. So now he's allowing himself to be more like Dad."

I reflected back on my conversation with Mystery at the Trans-Dniester border. He'd made his dad out to be a monster. "So your dad wasn't as bad as Mystery always said?"

"The problem is that they were too similar," Martina explained. "Dad could take over any room he walked into. He was very charismatic but also very stubborn. They never got along. Mystery would always do things to antagonize Dad. And Dad, instead of acting like an adult, would blow up at him."

"We'd have to put them on opposites sides of the table," Mystery's mom cut in, " and if one so much as looked at the other wrong, a fight would break out."

"And now that Dad's gone," Martina said, "Mystery needs someone to take all his anger out on. So Katya has taken the place of his father. She's become the villain responsible for all the messed-up emotions he's feeling."

Now was my chance to bring up the question I'd wanted to ask ever since Mystery's breakdown in Toronto, the question that would free me of the inexplicable obligation I felt to save him from himself.

We talked it through for a half hour. The answer, Martina finally decided, was to let him run free; to give him a chance to make something of his talent and genius; to give him time to quest after two 10s who will love him as much as they love each other. And to hope that he made some progress toward his life goals before the next crash, or the crash after that, or whichever crash would be so destructive he'd have to return home for good. He was walking on quicksand with helium balloons in his hands. In that respect, he was like all of us, except the air in his balloons was escaping faster.

We cut our discussion short when Mystery strode into the kitchen.

"Done," he said. "I had a long talk with Ania's fiancé at Mel's. I told him it was too late for him to fix things with her. Ania is now my girlfriend, and we are in love with each other. This is turning out to be the best pickup in the history of Mystery Method."

Martina gave me a knowing glance. Mystery's mother crossed her arms over her chest and chuckled to herself.

He slammed a tape recorder down on the kitchen counter. "I recorded the whole conversation," he said. "Do you want to hear it?"

Besides, I had a date with Lisa to keep.

I picked Lisa up at 8:00 PM and took her to a Japanese restaurant called Katana. It was one of the toughest dinners of my life. We'd spent so much time together already that I literally had no more material left. I was forced to be myself.

"There's something I've been meaning to ask you," I said as the heat lamps on the restaurant patio scalded our scalps and the sake warmed our stomachs. The question had been giving me insomnia for weeks. "What happened to you after Atlanta? We had plans and you broke them."

"You were rude on the phone," she said. "And I didn't think we had definite plans anyway." So it had been her version of cat-string theory, punishing me for bad behavior.

"I was being cocky funny. I wanted to see you."

"Whatever. You were rude. You were being too-cool-for-school and so laid-back and aloof about things that it was a turnoff. I thought, 'I can get anybody, and all of a sudden this guy is acting like Mr. Cool?'"

As we talked, I tried to figure out why I liked this girl so much, why after meeting so many people she had become my obsession. A cynical part of me said I was simply falling for the female equivalent of the tactics we use. The secret to making someone think they're in love with you is to occupy their thoughts, and that's what Lisa had done with me. She had blown me off and rebuffed me physically while stringing me along with just enough encouragement to keep me chasing her.

On the other hand, I wasn't a plower. If a woman I didn't care about had played this hard to get, I would have given up long ago. Of course, it was also possible that my obsession came from a misogynist, alpha-male streak I'd accidentally contracted as a side effect of sarging. Lisa was fiercely independent, someone I looked up to rather than down at. So perhaps the caveman in me just wanted to sleep with her and, thus, conquer her.

And then there was always the remote possibility that she had managed to touch a part of me that I kept hidden from everyone, even myself. It was a part of me that wanted to stop thinking, to stop searching, to stop worry ing about what everyone thought of me and just let go and be comfortable and free and in the moment, the way I felt surfing that big wave in Malibu. And every now and then, when Lisa and I both dropped our defenses, I felt like that with her. I felt alone, together.

We drove back to my house. Lisa slipped into a white T-shirt and boxers, and we lay in bed as we had so many times before—under the covers, on separate pillows, heads turned toward each other, but no part of our bodies touching.

I wanted to continue our conversation from dinner. I wasn't trying to seduce her anymore. I just needed answers.

"So what made you drive up the hill the other day to see me again?"

"While you were gone, I realized how much I missed you." I loved watching her lips part over her front teeth when she talked. It made me think of salmon on rice. "My friends were making fun of me because I was counting down the days until you came home. I actually went grocery shopping while you were gone so I could cook you food. I don't know why." She hesitated and smiled, as if she were offering information she'd never planned to divulge. "I bought a fresh piece of swordfish and had to throw it away because it went bad."

A warm flush of confidence filled my chest. So I still had a chance with this girl.

"But it's too late," she said. "The window was open with me, and you blew it."

David DeAngelo would have said to go cocky funny here. Ross Jeffries would have said not to buy into her frame. Mystery would have said to punish her. But I had to ask: "How did I blow it?"

"First off, you didn't call me when you came home from Miami. I had to go to you."

"Hold on. I thought you were blowing me off. You never even called while I was away."

"Well, your voice mail said you were out of town and you weren't returning calls, so I didn't leave a message."

"Yeah, but I would have returned your call. I wanted to hear from you."

"Then you came to the Whiskey Bar and hardly talked. And the last straw was when we went to your house to go surfing. I told Sam I was starting to like you again and she said, 'Get over it. When I went up to his room to use the bathroom, I found a used condom on the floor.'"

My brain leaped up and slapped itself. I had been careless: I'd forgotten to throw away the condom I'd used with Isabel. So that's what Sam and she were whispering about in the car on the way to Malibu.

"So then why did you agree to go out with me tonight?"

"You asked me out on a proper date. And you were a little nervous, so I figured you must really be into me."

I propped myself up on the pillows. I was about to say the most AFC thing of my life. "Let me tell you something. The pickup artists have a word they call one-iris. It's a disease that people get when they become obsessed with just one girl. And they never end up with this girl because they get too nervous around her and scare her away."

"So," I said. "You're my one-itis."

We were looking each other in the eyes now. I could see hers sparkle. I knew mine were sparkling. It was time to kiss her.

There were no lines, no routines, no evolution phase-shift—I'd tried them all unsuccessfully anyway. I leaned in. She leaned in. Her eyes closed. My eyes closed. Our lips met. It was just like I'd always thought a kiss was supposed to begin.

For hours, we lay there making out and dissecting the connections and misunderstandings of the past few weeks.

While Lisa slept in the morning, I crept downstairs with my phone book. I called Nadia and Hie and Susanna and Isabel and the Jessicas and every FB and MLTR and other acronym I was seeing and told them I had started spending time with someone I wanted to be faithful to.

"So you're choosing her over me?" Isabel asked angrily.

"It's not an intellectual choice."

"Is she better in bed or something?"

"I don't know. We've only kissed."

"So you made out with some girl," she said, with a weak attempt at a cruel laugh, "and you want to get rid of me now."

"It's not that I want to get rid of you. I'd still like to see you, but as a friend." I could hear the word pierce her heart like a dagger, as it had my own heart so many times before I'd joined the community.

"But I love you."

How could she love me? She needed to go fuck a dozen other guys to get over her one-itis.

There is a downside to casual sex: Sometimes it stops being casual. People develop a desire for something more. And when one person's expectations don't match the other person's, then whoever holds the highest expectations suffers. There is no such thing as cheap sex. It always comes with a price.

I had violated one of Ross Jeffries's only ethical rule of seduction: Leave her better than you found her.

Steam rose from the water into the starless L.A. sky as Mystery and I sat opposite each other in the Jacuzzi. He draped one pale arm around the edge of the hot tub, and with the other took a birdlike sip from a glass that contained an orange liquid and ice cubes. It seemed like a cocktail, which was strange because Mystery never drank alcohol.

"I gave Papa my notice," he said. "I'm officially moving out next month."

He was abandoning me, just like he had during his breakdown in Toronto. Now I would be stuck living with the happy couple who had forced him out and the clone army being built in Papa's room,

"But you're letting your enemies win," I said, picking a cigarette butt out of the Jacuzzi and dropping it into an empty glass. "Just stay here and hold your ground. Katya wouldn't dare set foot in the house if you were here. Make a stand. Don't leave me alone with these guys."

"No. The anger and resentment I have is very great—great enough for me to move out so that I don't have to see them ever again."

He took another small swallow from his glass. "What's that you're drinking, by the way?" I asked.

"It's a screwdriver. I think I feel a little tipsy. You know, I've never been drunk before. I always avoided it because I didn't like my father. But now, with him gone, I figure it's okay to try it."

"Well, dude, now is a bad time to start. You're unstable enough as it is. You don't need to add alcohol to the mix."

As usual, I was wasting my breath.

He took another sip, with a flourish this time, as if he were doing something glamorous and cool. "So Isabel stopped by here looking for you last night," he said.

"That's annoying. I tried to be clear with her about Lisa."

He leaned forward, stirring the foam in the water with the bottom of his glass. "You haven't even had sex with Lisa yet. So why not just have Isabel on the side? It's a shame to lose a body like that."

"No way, dude. I want to do this right. I don't want to lie in bed next to Lisa, feeling guilty for something I can't tell her about. It will break the trust we have."

I leaned over the edge of the Jacuzzi and dipped my hand into the pool. It was just as warm as the hot tub. Someone had left the heat on again. Our gas bill was going to be astronomical

"Do you know the story of the frog and the scorpion?" Mystery asked.

"No, but I love analogies." I jumped into the pool and treaded water as Mystery leaned over the edge of the hot tub and recited the story.

"One day, a scorpion stood on the side of a stream and asked a frog to carry it to the other side. 'How do I know you won't sting me?' the frog asked. 'Because if I sting you, I'll drown,' the scorpion said.

"The frog thought about it and realized that the scorpion was right. So he put the scorpion on his back and started ferrying him. But midway across the stream, the scorpion plunged its stinger into the frog's back. As they both began to drown, the frog gasped,'Why?'"

"The scorpion replied, 'Because it is my nature.'"

Mystery took a triumphant sip of his screwdriver, then fixed his gaze on me as I floated in the pool beneath him. He spoke slowly and deliberately, like the Mystery who'd first told me to snap and shed the boring skin of Neil Strauss. "It is your nature," he continued. "You are a pickup artist now, You are Style. You've bitten from the apple of knowledge. You cannot go back to the way you were before."

"Well, dude." I took a couple strokes backward. "That's very cynical talk from a guy who's talking about marrying and having children with a girl he just met."

"We're poly amorous," he said. "As a result, we have to cheat on our girlfriends. And if that threatens our relationships, so be it." He emptied his drink and held his temples, as if fighting off a dizzy spell. "Never underestimate the power of denial."

"No." I couldn't look at him. I wasn't going to let him ruin this. "I don't need any more advice."

I climbed out of the pool, threw a towel over my shoulders, and walked into the living room. Xaneus, Playboy, and Tyler Durden were sitting there. As soon as I entered, they walked up to Papa's room without even acknowledging my presence. It was odd behavior, but nothing unexpected after living in Project Hollywood this long.

I went up to my room, showered, and paged through a copy of the medieval legend Parsifal I had recently bought. People often read books to search for themselves and find someone who agrees with them. And, right now, the nature of Parsifal agreed with me a lot more than the nature of the scorpion.

As I interpreted the legend, it's the story of a sheltered mother's boy who meets some knights and decides he wants to be just like them. So he goes off into the world, has a series of adventures, and progresses from legendary fool to legendary knight.

The country, at the time, has become a wasteland because the grail king (who guards the holy grail) has been wounded. And it just so happens that Parsifal is led to the grail castle, where he sees the king in terrible pain. As a compassionate human being, he wants to ask, "What is wrong?" And, according to legend, if someone pure of heart asks that question of the king, he will be healed and the blight on the land will be lifted.

However, Parsifal does not know this. And as a knight he has been trained to observe a strict code of conduct, which includes the rule of never asking questions or speaking unless he is addressed first. So he goes to bed without talking to the king. In the morning, he wakes to discover that the grail castle has disappeared. He has blown his chance to save king and country by obeying his training instead of his heart. Unlike the scorpion, Parsifal had a choice. He just made the wrong one.

When I walked through the living room to get a drink from the kitchen, I saw Mystery nursing another cocktail in front of the TV. He was watching a video of The Karate Kid and crying. "I never had a Mr. Miyagi," he sobbed, wiping tears off his reddened cheeks. He was drunk. "My dad didn't teach me anything. All I wanted was a Mr. Miyagi."

I suppose we were all searching for someone to teach us the moves we needed to win at life, the knightly code of conduct, the ways of the alphamale. That's why we found each other. But a sequence of maneuvers and a system of behavior would never fix what was broken inside. Nothing would fix what was broken inside. All we could do was embrace the damage.

Lisa and I spent the next day together, and the day after that, and the day after that. I kept worrying that I was going to ruin it, that we were spending too much time with each other, that she was going to get tired of me. Rick H. had always said, "Give her the gift of missing you." But we couldn't seem to part.

"You are so perfect for me," she said as we lay in my bed for the fourth night in a row. "I've never had sex with a guy I liked this much before. I'm afraid I'll get attached."

Beneath that tough exterior, she was scared. All her push-pull wasn't a pre-planned psychological tactic; it was her heart warring with her head. Perhaps the reason she'd been so reluctant to open up was that she was protecting something fragile inside. Like me, she was afraid to actually feel something for somebody else—to love, to be vulnerable, to give someone else control over her happiness and well-being.

When I slept with all those other girls, I just had sex with them once a night—and, ifl liked them enough, a second time in the morning. But something amazing happened with Lisa when we had sex for the first time. After I had an orgasm, it didn't go down. It remained, as the old Extramask would say, rock-hard and luscious.

I did it with her a second time.

"Feel it," I said afterward. It was still ready to go.

We did it a third and a fourth time that night, and it never went soft. I couldn't understand it. My dick, which I had thought was a completely mindless animal desperate to stick itself in any hole, actually responded to emotion. It had feelings too. And it wasn't just built-up anticipation. It stayed up through three or four orgasms every time Lisa and I made love. We fucked in cars, in alleys, in restaurant bathrooms, and in the vending-machine room in a hotel hallway, where a maintenance man caught us and tried to extort twenty dollars from me.

When I'd gone impotent in the bathroom with the porn star, perhaps it didn't have anything to do with the whiskey. My body was responding to the lack of emotional foreplay: I neither cared about nor really desired her. And I'm sure she felt the same. It was just entertainment. Sex with Lisa was not entertainment. It was not about validation and ego-gratification, as with all those pickups I'd been so proud of. It was about creating a vacuum where nothing else existed except the two of us and our passion. It made the rest of existence seem like a distraction.

And then, one afternoon, just when I'd forgotten all about her, Courtney returned. She pulled up to the house in a limo and leaped out, looking radiant in a blue dress and white shawl.

"There's blood flow to my pussy again!" was the first thing she exclaimed.

"Did you land that director you were chasing?" I asked.

"No. I got a new man in New York. And it's going to be his fault for making me a slut, because now I want it all the time."

She danced toward me, light like a ballerina.

"Well," I said. "We had a bet about your director crush."

"That's right. I guess I lost."

"So that means I get to choose the middle name of your next child."

She smiled and stared at me expectantly, as if I were supposed to just select one on the spot.

I shuffled through a list of possible names in my head. "How about Style?" I finally decided. "I'm going to be retiring the name anyway, so I might as well pass it on." I thought about the idea for a moment. It was really a stupid moniker. Then again, her daughter's middle name is Bean.

She squealed and gave me a bone-crushing hug. "You know, I've found you sexually intriguing these last few months," she said.

I swallowed and prepared to tell her about Lisa. Before I opened my mouth, however, she continued. "But I heard all about you and Lisa. I think that's great. So some good came out of having me in the house after all?"

"I don't even want to think about what went on in that house."

"Well, you look great. Getting laid has done wonders for your complexion."

"Well, that and rehab."

She winked at me and smiled. Her prayers had been answered. She was normal again.

"I'm going to get out of your hair and live at the Argyle hotel until I get my daughter back, which should be very soon," she said. "I came by to give you the money I borrowed from Mystery."

She handed me a check and bounded back into the limo. As I watched her leave, she unrolled the window and yelled, "And this one won't bounce."

I was really going to miss her.

A few days later, Lisa and I went to the Scientology Celebrity Center. We hadn't become Scientologists; we liked our income too much. Tom Cruise had kept his word and sent me an invitation to their annual gala. It was one of the most star-filled events I'd been to in Los Angeles.

After dinner, Cruise, clean-shaven in a perfectly pressed black tuxedo, walked toward the table. His approach was hypnotic: There was no doubt in his walk, no effort in his smile, no intricacy in his intentions. I stood to shake his hand, and he clapped my shoulder forcefully. I kept my balance. Barely.

"Is that your girlfriend?" he asked, looking Lisa up and down in anon-lecherous way. I couldn't imagine him ever being lecherous. "You didn't tell me how gorgeous she was."

"Thanks. I can't remember ever feeling this fulfilled by someone."

"So you got tired of picking up women?"

"Yeah, after a while it started to feel like filling a bucket with a hole in it."

"Exactly," he exclaimed. "Cameron Crowe and I, when we were doing Vanilla Sky, would talk about what a one-night stand is and what a fuck buddy is. And when you kind of get down to it, those things are a false intimacy. And they're unsatisfying. In a real relationship, sex means more. You just want to keep going, and you want to hang out all the time and talk about life. It's very cool."

"Yes, but the problem is that I don't want this to be the end of my journey in this subculture. It just reaffirms society's message of monogamy and true love conquers everything and all those Hollywood happy endings. It seems so cheesy."

"Who says it's cheesy?" Cruise asked, his eyes narrowing and his hands reaching out to attack me with a friendly gesture. "You know what? I got past that. Since when is it cheesy to be in love?"

He had AMOGed me again.

Ghosts.

We were just phantoms, drifting invisibly through a putrefying house that hadn't seen a maid or repairman in months.

Mystery wasn't talking to Herbal. Herbal wasn't talking to Mystery. Papa hardly spoke to anyone. And for some reason Sickboy, Playboy, Xa-neus, and all the other Real Social Dynamics worker bees had stopped interacting with Mystery and me. Even the junior PUAs who hung out in the house—Dreamweaver, Maverick, and other former students—didn't say hello when I passed by. If I tried to engage them in conversation, they were curt. They wouldn't even look me in the eye.

The only person who spoke to everyone was Tyler Durden. But interacting with him was never a conversation; it was an interrogation, like someone might have with an actor who wanted to play him in a movie.

"I really want to ask you something," he said one afternoon as he emerged from the kitchen with Sickboy. I'd always liked Sickboy. Despite the name, he was a well-raised, mild-mannered New Yorker.

"What do you have that enables you to get Lisa?" Tyler Durden asked. "Because I go out every night and work so hard on myself, and I know that I couldn't get her as a girlfriend."

What was amazing about Lisa was that despite her roughness, she was one of the most generous women I'd ever been with. She'd make my bed every morning; she'd cook meals and bring them up to my room when I was working; and she rarely came over without a small gift—a tube of Origins face cleanser, a bottle of John Varvatos cologne, a copy of Henry IV} Part I I'd been looking for. Perhaps I had found my Caresse.

"I guess I have life experience," I told him. "All you do is sarge every night. You're only working on one aspect of yourself. It's like going to the gym every day and just doing bicep curls."

His brows knitted, and his mind began turning rapidly. For a moment, he appeared to take the advice to heart. Then he rejected it, and his eyes began to blaze. If it wasn't hatred they contained, it was at least resentment.

He resented me because I still didn't see him as an equal, because he still wasn't cool in my eyes, because he couldn't pick apart the idea of coolness to a subset of behaviors he could model. Lisa dated me because, to her, I was cool. Tyler Durden would never be cool.

He chewed my ear off for ten minutes about how good he was in the field now, and how he didn't need routines anymore to get IOIs, and how celebrities always tried to get him to go to parties.

Finally, he turned to walk up to Papa's room. Sickboy remained behind, standing next to me. "Aren't you coming?" Tyler asked Sickboy, nodding his head upstairs as if something important were occurring there.

"I just want to say good-bye to Style," Sickboy said.

"You're leaving?" I asked. I was surprised Sickboy was even acknowledging my presence.

The door to Papa's room slammed lightly overhead. Sickboy looked up nervously.

"I'm out of this whole thing," he said.

"What whole thing?"

"This house is toxic." The words burst out of him, as if they'd been slowly forming inside like a blister. " There are so many cool things to do in L.A., and all anyone wants to do is sarge. I haven't even seen the Pacific Ocean the whole time I've been here. These guys are losers. I wouldn't introduce any of them to any of my friends back in New York."

"I know what you mean. Lisa can't stand them."

"It's a joke," he continued. He sighed the tension out of his shoulders, as if relieved he'd found someone normal, someone who understood, someone who wasn't entirely brainwashed. "They bring girls back to the house all the time, but the girls get creeped out and leave. Tyler Durden can hardly get anyone to return his calls. I don't think he's been laid in two months. Papa's had sex with probably one girl in the last year. Mystery can't hold onto a girlfriend to save his life. And when Xaneus came here, he was a cool guy. But now he seems fake. All he talks about is sarging. You're the only guy I want to model. You have a great lifestyle, a good job, and a cool girlfriend."

Flattery will get you everywhere. "I'll tell you what. I'm going to give Lisa a surfing lesson tomorrow. Why don't you join us? It'll be good for you to get out of the house and see the ocean."

MSN GROUP: Mystery's Lounge

SUBJECT: Field Report—Life at Project Hollywood

AUTHOR: Sickboy

For those who don't know, I've been sleeping in Papa's closet at Project Hollywood. Today was the best day I've ever had here, despite all the crazy drama that has been going on.

I woke up earlier than usual and went surfing in Malibu with Style and his girlfriend, who is really an amazing person. Seeing how cool they get along is really inspiring. He's one of the few people I've met in the game who has something great to show for all the effort he's put into it.

The surfing was amazing. I was so happy to go because I haven't gone yet this summer. I recommend taking up the sport to anyone who's never tried it. As soon as you hit the water, your mind clears and it's almost impossible to think of anything else. It's truly a relaxing experience.

Afterward, we ate at a fish stand right at the edge of the Pacific Ocean and had a great conversation about music, friends, traveling, life, and careers.

When I returned to the house, I did some work. Then I watched The Lost Dragon with Playboy, whom I've become good friends with. During the movie, Herbal and Mystery talked outside and settled their differences. Though Mystery's still upset at Katya, he said he wouldn't hold it against Herbal for falling in love with her. And Herbal said that if Mystery paid for the damages to his room, he'd forgive Mystery for his behavior. Thank God. It's good to see this thing ended in a sane way. Mystery will be moving out of the house tomorrow anyway, which I think is a shame.

At about 2:00 A.M., Playboy, Mystery, and I sat in the main room smoking a hookah, listening to music, and talking about our goals in life.

I didn't have a single conversation today about sarging, pickup, or the community. My day was filled with real conversations with real friends. I didn't need to fuck some L.A. bimbo from the Saddle Ranch for validation. In fact, I didn't do a single set all day.

These are the days that make life worth living. These are also the days that will miss when I move out of Project Hollywood.

-Sickboy

I sat uselessly in the living room and watched Mystery pack the last of his possessions: the platform boots, the ridiculous peacocking hats, the pinstriped suits he no longer wore, the lunch box with his picture emblazoned on the front, the hard drives filled with lesbian porn and episodes of That 70s Show.

I couldn't help feeling that maybe we'd made the wrong decision.

"So where are you going?" I asked.

'I'm moving to Las Vegas. I'm going to start Project Vegas. I've learned from my mistakes here, and Project Vegas will be bigger and better. There are hotter women in Vegas, and great opportunities for doing casino magic. I'm going to fly my brother-in-law to Vegas to record his songs, with me singing. Imagine"—he ran his hand along the air as if reading aline of type— "the world's greatest pickup artist releases an album of love songs. Who wouldn't buy that?" Mystery's manic sense of possibility was back. "Ania will be living with me there. And, since you're my best friend, once I get it set up, I'd like you to join me. We'll build it right this time. We will be in charge, and we'll carefully screen everyone we move into the house."

'I'm sorry, man." I couldn't just follow him around every time he fucked things up for himself.

"It'll be Mystery and Style, just like the old days," he persisted. He opened the front door of the house and carried a suitcase onto the landing as he delivered one of the many great aphorisms that he used to turn defeat into triumph. "Where there's a problem, there's an opportunity."

"I can't go through this again." The words, apologetic, came out accusatory.

"I understand," he said. "Sometimes events turn sour, and we follow bad threads in our lives. I want you to know that, even though we haven't seen eye to eye lately, I will always be your friend, for life and a day. You don't have to manage your relationship with me. Enjoy your girlfriend, and we will always have time to hang out together. You are the most important man in my life."

My face swelled and my eyes tingled with the first flush of tears.

"Try not to queer that up, okay?" he smiled weakly, choking back emotion himself.

A cab pulled into the driveway and honked, and Mystery slammed the door shut on Project Hollywood. The blank whiteness of the door wavered in the mist of my eyes. I felt like I was losing a piece of myself. For a moment, I couldn't figure out which of us was the bigger fool.

Within a week, Katya had moved into Herbal's room and Papa had moved two PUAs into Mystery's old room. One of them was Dreamweaver, a former student of mine; the other one I'd never met before. Papa planned to move a third PUA into Mystery's closet. With the influx of new, younger residents, Project Hollywood looked more like a frat house every day, though most frat houses were cleaner.

Without Mystery sitting in the living room, ready and willing to share the details of his latest drama with whoever passed by, the lack of communication in the house became even more uncomfortable. Whenever I walked through the living room, I'd find new roommates lying on their bellies on the carpet, playing video games. They never looked up or said a word, even when I greeted them. They weren't PUAs; they were vegetables. If someone had told me two years ago that this was the lifestyle I had to look forward to, I would never have joined the community. I would have realized that those who live by the joystick are doomed to die by the joystick.

At Papa's twenty-fourth birthday party, not a single woman showed up—let alone Paris Hilton, who, needless to say, had never come to party at Project Hollywood as Papa had hoped. His only friends were PUAs. And, for some reason, they all ignored me. I couldn't understand it.

In the week that followed, Tyler Durden, who'd never been directly hostile to me, started writing posts attacking me online. I decided it was time to have a talk with him about everyone's strange behavior in the house. I navigated through the overflowing trash bags in the kitchen; walked through the backyard, where just a small puddle of sludge lay at the bottom of the hot tub; and knocked on Papa's back door.

I found Tyler Durden sitting at a computer, posting on the seduction boards.

"I want to talk to you about what's been going on lately," 1 said. "Everyone in the house is acting weird—even weirder than usual. And you seem to have a chip on your shoulder. Are people pissed because I've been hanging out with Lisa too much and not going out sarging?"

"That's part of it," he said. "But a bigger part of it is that no one in this house likes you. Everybody thinks that you're a snob and that you're responsible for a lot of trouble in this house, because you talk about people behind their backs." Though these were strong words coming from Tyler Durden, who had never said a cross word to my face before, his voice wasn't venomous. He spoke almost obsequiously, as if he were trying to give me constructive advice from one PUA to another. "I'm just saying this because I'm your friend, and I don't want to see what happened to Mystery happen to you."

I didn't know how to respond because I was so taken aback. I had no idea the other guys in the house felt that way.

"Yeah," he went on. "Did you notice how Extramask used to be your friend, but then he started avoiding you? Well, that's because he didn't trust you. Dreamweaver told me he hates your guts. Maverick hates you too."

I thought about what he was saying. Maybe he was right. The enthusiasm I had brought to my first encounters with fellow sargers had dissipated as I saw routines sold instead of shared and perfectly normal men turn into creepy social parasites. So, though I was always friendly to everyone, maybe they were picking up on the fact that I was growing disillusioned with the community.

On the other hand, as Juggler had always pointed out, people tended to feel comfortable around me. I'd always been friendly and easy to get along with, even before I'd joined the community. I had no enemies, or so I thought.

When I left the room after another hour of talk, my head was spinning. I couldn't understand why these guys, who I'd spent the better part of two years getting to know, hated my guts. What had I done?

The answer, I soon found out, was nothing.

When I saw Playboy in the living room packing his books into boxes, I asked the usual: "What's going on?"

"I'm moving out."

First Extramask, then Mystery, then Sickboy, and now Playboy. I was on a sinking ship.

"Do you have a few minutes?" he asked. "I want to get something off my chest before I leave."

Playboy brought me into his room and shut the door.

"They're trying to freeze you out," he said.

"Who's trying to freeze me out?"

"Papa and Tyler Durden. They're using tactics on you."

"What are you talking about? What do you mean by tactics?"

"Wow, you really have no idea what's been going on up in Papa's room. Tyler Durden is telling everyone to ignore you. He wants you to think that everyone hates you. He's trying to make you uncomfortable in the house."

"Why would he want to do that?"

"He wants to take over. And he can't have you here because you threaten him."

This explained the head games Tyler Durden was playing the other day, the reason he was trying to make me think everyone was against me. He was attempting to drive me out. He was running game on me.

"He sees you as a threat to his power because he can't suck you in. You're not weak like Xaneus," Playboy continued. "He sees you as a threat to his finances because you want him to pay rent. And he sees you as a threat to his women because you made out with that girl he picked up in Vegas. He thinks that if he lets his girls get near you, they're going to lose attraction for him."

"He's still upset about that?"

"Yeah. But I think the main problem is that Tyler and Papa associate you with Mystery, and he's their competition. They have a gang mentality. They think in terms of alliances. So they pushed Mystery out, and now they're pushing you out. They want to make the whole house an office and dormitory for Real Social Dynamics."

"I don't understand. How could they have pushed Mystery out? He dug his own grave."

"But don't you see how they helped it along? How Papa invited Katya to sleep at the house and then brought her back after Mystery kicked her out? They were baiting him." Each sentence Playboy spoke was like a strip of gauze being removed from my eyes. "Everything Papa said in his room during the house meeting, he was instructed to say by Tyler Durden. He's a follower. And I made a mistake by going along with it too. If I could do it all over again, I'd vote for Mystery to stay. This house was his project. Even if his behavior was out of line, he had a right not to want his ex-girlfriend here."

I had played right into their hands. They were such masters of social manipulation that they had set up the meeting so I thought I was in charge. Papa even kept calling me the house leader. And thus, they'd managed to make it my decision to kick Mystery out. So much for the whole win-win idea.

"They played me like a puppet," I said, shaking my head in disbelief.

"They played me, too. That's a large part of the reason I'm leaving. Tyler Durden can get those guys to do whatever he wants. He's not motivated by girls. He's motivated by acquisition and power."

How could I have been so blind? In Las Vegas, I had even told Tyler Durden point blank that he was the kind of person who liked to rise to the top of a situation by eliminating his competitors. And he had agreed.

"All they do up in Papa's room is hang out in the bathroom and plot," Playboy elaborated. "Every word that comes out of Tyler Durden's mouth is calculated. Every post he writes is to serve an agenda. That guy's mind is all gears, turning and manipulating. He sees everything in life as a set. They even talk about 'guy sets' up in Papa's room now. They have routines worked out to make students give their workshops better reviews and routines to control guys in the house. Every time someone new comes up to their room, they inoculate him against you."

We had created a dangerous precedent by studying how to control social situations in clubs. It had led to a mindset that everything in life was a game that could be manipulated to a player's advantage with the right routines.

But there was one thing I still didn't understand. "If what you're saying is true," I asked Playboy, "why was Papa avoiding me and Mystery before there was even a plan to freeze us out of the house?"

"That came from Tyler Durden too," Playboy said. "He didn't want Papa representing Mystery's business as well as his, so he turned Papa against Mystery as soon as you guys moved in. Then, once Mystery and Papa started bickering, he told Papa to avoid you guys completely and use the back door to enter the house."

So many connections were firing in my head as Playboy spoke. All the weirdness that had been taking place in the house since day one had been orchestrated by a little man in the closet, the wizard of Project Hollywood. I felt like such a chump.

"The biggest mistake you and Mystery made," Playboy concluded, "was having Papa move into this house."

There was a lesson here, perhaps the last one this community would teach me. And that was always to follow my instincts and first impressions. I hadn't trusted either Papa or Tyler Durden when I'd first met them. I found Papa spoiled and robotic, and Tyler Durden soulless and manipulative. And though they'd made great leaps forward when it came to fashion and game, Mystery was right: The scorpion can't deny its nature.

Yet, at the same time, Mystery and I weren't entirely blameless. We had used Papa as a patsy to sign the lease and pay for the most expensive room. We had never attempted to befriend him or treat him as an equal.

When I was checking e-mail later on my computer in the office area of the house, I noticed a program called Family Key Logger. I would have ignored it if it weren't for the paranoia I'd developed as a result of my discussion with Playboy. So I Googled the name of the program. When 1 saw the results, anger swung through my body like a wrecking ball

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