“Setting the Trap,” New Era, Oct. 1983, 46
The dorm was quiet Saturday night because nearly everyone except Carol was on a date. She studied until 10:30 and went to bed.
A little past midnight the overhead light flashed on, and her roommate Natalie bounced in and gleefully announced her engagement to David. For the next 15 minutes she sat on Carol’s bed and gave a complete playback.
Finally she stopped, looked seriously at Carol, and said, “Oh, I’m sorry. How must you feel listening to me go on and on?”
“It’s not fair that I’m a junior and engaged and you’re a senior with no prospects. You must hate me.”
“I’m happy for you.”
“How can you be? This is your last semester. If you don’t find anyone now, what’ll become of you?”
“Don’t worry,” Carol said nonchalantly.
“You’re so brave,” Natalie said, “but don’t worry. Now that I’m engaged, I’ll devote my efforts to helping you find someone. Now don’t fall asleep because while I brush my teeth I’m going to plan it all out.”
As soon as she left, Carol’s smile vanished. What would she do if nobody ever asked her to get married? She never used to think about it, but lately it kept surfacing, like some Loch Ness monster in her mind.
A minute later, smelling of toothpaste, Natalie returned. “I’ve got it all figured out. You can date David’s roommate—his name is Tom. He’s a senior too, so he must be as desperate as you.”
Natalie spent the next few days coaching Carol, teaching her stock phrases designed to boost a guy’s ego. Carol didn’t find it strange that Natalie believed they were necessary to impress a guy, but what did surprise her was that for the first time in her life, she was trying to fit someone else’s mold, because she very much wanted to find a husband.
David and Tom were invited for supper on Saturday evening. Carol hoped that Tom would not be too much like David, who never seemed completely human to her. She could imagine that he was a cleverly made robot, and that someone plugged him in at night to recharge his battery pack. Also there was his smell—the aroma of the chemistry lab always permeated his clothes.
At least Tom was not a chemistry major, Carol thought. He was a civil engineering student specializing in concrete, one who had brought fame to the school by designing and building a concrete canoe which actually floated and had won a race against other colleges.
By the time Saturday night arrived, Carol was wearing Natalie’s dress, sporting her hair style, and mouthing the guaranteed phrases.
Finally the time arrived and so did David and Tom. Carol’s first reaction to meeting Tom was to inhale sharply, trying to find out if the rancid smell coming from the pair was from David or Tom. Was it nitric acid or sulfur dioxide, she wondered, trying to remember back to her high school chemistry class.
“Well, let’s get acquainted, shall we?” David said heartily, attempting to be warm and human. “Carol, I keep forgetting—what’s your major?”
“Music education,” she said, repeating the answer to the question David asked each time he came to pick up Natalie. It was his version of conversation.
“Oh sure,” he said with a superior grin. “You came to college to learn how to sing songs and play games—right?”
“Actually,” Carol said, fighting to maintain her pleasant smile, which Natalie stressed was a necessity for the evening, “it’s a difficult discipline.”
“Oh sure. I bet you have to learn how to use the pitch pipe, don’t you?” David said, laughing at his little joke.
Tom turned to her and said, “I’m sure there must be more to it than just singing songs.”
She liked him for rescuing her from David’s superiority complex. She leaned toward him and took a whiff. He was not the one who smelled like rotten eggs. It must be David.
“Yes, there is,” she said.
“Would you like to tell me about it?” Tom asked.
“Oh, there’s not much to tell. Besides, I’m dying to hear about your concrete canoe. I heard about you winning the race against the other schools.”
“Well, it floated. That’s one of the most important things you want in a canoe.”
“And you built it yourself?” she said, gushing the way Natalie had taught her.
“It wasn’t that hard.”
“Oh, I could never do anything as complicated as that. You must be so smart.”
Natalie winked at her to tell her she was doing well with Tom, and then she left to borrow something from another apartment. David sat down and played with his $700 programmable calculator.
A few minutes later Tom again asked about her major, and she offered to show him what she was doing that semester. She went to her room and returned with a tuba mouthpiece.
“Where’d you get that?” he asked.
“Brass workshop,” she said.
His eyes widened in astonishment. “You made that in a brass workshop?”
“No,” she laughed, “a brass instrument workshop. I have to learn to play every instrument, and right now it’s the tuba.”
She showed him how to hold his lips for the mouthpiece.
“I’ve always wanted to play the tuba,” he said.
“I brought it home for the weekend. If you want, I’ll bring it out for you to try.”
In a minute she was back from her room with the tuba.
“Play me a song first,” he said.
“This will be ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’,” she said, preparing to play. With some difficulty, she made it through.
“When I hear that song on the tuba,” he said, “I picture a two-ton lamb who roams the fields scaring the socks off the local coyotes.”
He’s got a sense of humor, she thought approvingly.
Just then Natalie returned, took one look at the tuba, and said icily, “Carol, could I have a word with you in private?”
They went to their room.
“What on earth are you doing?” she asked. “Do you think a guy will fall in love with a girl tuba player?”
“He seems interested in it.”
“Oh sure, he’ll say he’s interested, and he’ll let you make a fool of yourself, but let me tell you, when it comes to taking a girl home to meet his parents, it won’t be the girl with the tuba. No sir!”
“Tubas aren’t feminine! You can play the piano or the violin or the clarinet for him, but the girl who plays the tuba will never marry.”
If there had been anyone else waiting in the kitchen, she might have argued with Natalie about the tuba, but she felt a deepening interest in Tom, and in the worst way didn’t want to harm her chances.
“What should I do?” Carol asked.
“I’ll get David to put the tuba away. Here, you put on this crocheted shawl of mine and go in there and imply you made it.”
“Just go in and ask him how he likes your homemade shawl. Say to him, ‘Alhm made this shawl.’”
“I don’t want to lie.”
“It’s not lying. There’s a lady down the street, her last name is Alhm, and she made it, so you can tell him that Alhm made this shawl.”
A few minutes later Natalie coached Carol in the kitchen with the shawl.
“Are you cold?” Tom asked, looking at the shawl.
Carol wasn’t sure what she should answer so she looked at Natalie who nodded her head. “Yes, a little.” Then her conscience got the best of her. “No, not really.”
Natalie looked sharply at Carol and waited.
Finally she did it. “Alhm made this shawl,” she whispered.
“I can’t hear you. What did you say?”
“Alhm made this shawl.”
“Really? You made it?”
She looked down at the floor and knew she was blushing, and then shook her head and said, “No, not me, a Sister Alhm made it. I don’t know anything about crocheting.”
Natalie cleared her throat and asked to see Carol again. They both returned to their room.
“Why can’t you just do what I say? Then he’d fall for you. Don’t you like him?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Then just do what I say.”
“I’ve never lied like that. It makes me nervous. And I don’t like the idea of putting up a phony image.”
“Everyone does it—it’s a part of life to hide things from others. Listen to me. I can make him fall in love with you if you’ll just cooperate. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes, but who would he love?”
“He’d love you.”
“Which me—the real me or the phony one?”
“What does it matter as long as he asks you to marry him? Okay, we’ll forget the shawl, and I won’t ask you to lie. I’ll go in and ask you to drain the spaghetti, and David and I will leave to borrow some dessert goblets. You say to him, ‘Tom, this pot of spaghetti is so heavy. You’re so strong. Could I get you to lift it from the stove and help drain it?’ And after he does it, you tell him how wonderful he is.”
“I’ve drained spaghetti by myself since I was ten years old,” Carol said quietly.
“I know, but men need to feel strong and masculine, especially these days when they’ve been replaced by electricity. Besides, what’s the harm? Men are supposed to be strong, aren’t they?”
A few minutes later Tom lifted the large pot off the stove onto the counter next to the sink.
“You’re so strong,” Carol said, nearly choking at the words. She dumped several pitchers of cold water on the noodles to rinse them out, and then asked him to tip the pot so the water would run out.
“How’s that?” he asked.
“A little more.”
He tipped it too much, causing the noodles to rush into the kitchen sink, at the same time spilling water all over their shoes.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Don’t worry about it. Just think of the mess I would’ve made if I’d tried to do it myself.”
She went to her room, found another pair of shoes for herself, and decided the only thing she had that he could wear was her ancient slippers with the bunny face on each toe. They were well worn with all but one of the button eyes missing and one bunny ear gone.
“Golly, look at them,” he laughed as she brought him the slippers.
“I got ’em as a joke my first semester here. I’ve worn them for nearly four years now.”
“Poor bunny rabbit,” he said, looking at the one eye on one of the slippers. “Do you ever write imaginary talks?” he said. “Brothers and Sisters, each of us in life is given a new pair of bunny slippers. But what do we do with them? For some of us, the little ears have come off, and we haven’t got around to sewing them back on. Brothers and Sisters, what have you done with life’s bunny rabbit slippers?”
She smiled and told him he was clever. She wanted to say more but was afraid it might be the wrong thing.
They had left the water on to let the spaghetti rinse itself out, and soon heard the water overflowing onto the floor.
Tom turned the water off and scooped the noodles out and plopped them back in the pot. The entire drain pipe was crammed shut with noodles.
Just then David and Natalie returned with the dessert goblets.
“Why are you both looking down the drain?” David asked.
“It’s clogged,” Tom said.
“Let me take a look,” David said, scooting Tom and Carol out of his way. After carefully examining the situation for a while, he summed it up, “There’s noodles in your drain pipe. That’s your problem.”
Carol backed away from David. Maybe it was hydrochloric acid she was smelling.
“Somebody forgot to put the stopper in the drain,” David said ominously.
“I always put the stopper in the drain,” Natalie said self-righteously.
“Well, somebody forgot,” David said. “If the stopper had been where it belongs, the drain pipe wouldn’t now be full of noodles.”
Natalie and David looked with silent accusation toward Carol.
Tom took a large knife and stuck it down the drain pipe, trying to cut the noodles into little pieces.
“No, no, that’s not the way!” David barked. “If we’re going to do a job, then let’s do it properly. We’ve first got to remove the trap down below. Let me show you.”
With a flair for the dramatic, David opened the cupboard below the sink and pointed. “You see that bend in the drain pipe there? That’s what we call the trap. Do you see it there, Natalie?”
“Oh yes,” she said, “there it is. Oh, David, you’re so smart. How did you ever know about that? I’ve never noticed it before. So that’s the trap.”
“I’ve got a pair of pliers in my car,” Tom said.
“No, not pliers,” David said, on his knees looking at the trap. “Pliers would be the very worst thing to use. Let me give you some advice. In plumbing, if you use the wrong tool, you can harm your threads. Do you know how many people end up buying new fixtures because they’ve harmed their threads?”
Carol wanted to put her hand on Tom’s arm and tell him she didn’t care about plumbing threads, but she didn’t say anything. Natalie hadn’t coached her about what to say when the drain is clogged.
“You know,” David continued, “it’s a good thing I always carry a set of tools in my car. Natalie, will you take this key, go out to the car, open the trunk, and bring me a pipe wrench?”
“I can get it for you,” Tom offered.
“No, no. Natalie and I are a team, aren’t we, dear?”
“With you telling me what to do, we are.”
“While you’re doing that, I’ll clear away this junk down below so we can get to the trap.”
“You’re so smart,” Natalie said before leaving.
A minute later she returned with the wrench.
David, whose head was in the cupboard, pushed himself out, took one look at the wrench and scowled. “No, dear,” he said, his voice grating, “this is a crescent wrench and I asked for a pipe wrench. Can you go out again and get me a pipe wrench?”
Natalie smiled faintly and looked as if she were going to cry.
“Now what’s wrong?”
“I left the keys in the trunk.”
David sat up on the floor and stared at her. “Why would you do a dumb thing like that?”
“I had to go through the entire tool chest, and I must’ve set the keys down while I was looking.”
“You left the keys in the trunk and then closed it?”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Sorry isn’t going to open the trunk, is it? Without the keys, how am I going to get back to the lab and check my experiment? Well, we’ll just have to get the keys, that’s all.”
“I’m sorry,” Natalie pleaded.
“I have to watch you all the time, don’t I?”
That’s when Carol realized that if you play the role of being less than you are, then before long people will treat you that way. Suddenly she didn’t want to play the games Natalie had set for her, even if it meant that Tom was turned off by it, because she realized that she was important and if she didn’t treat herself with respect, nobody else would.
From now on, I’m going to be me, she thought. And if that turns the guy off, then that’s tough.
Natalie started to sniffle. “I’ve ruined the whole evening, haven’t I?”
“Maybe next time you’ll remember to make sure you have the keys with you when you close the trunk,” David continued.
“Yes, dear, I will.”
“Well, it’s water under the bridge, isn’t it? We’ll have to take out the back seat, crawl in through there, get the keys, and fix the drain. We might as well get going.”
“I don’t think I want to go out and watch,” Carol said.
“Aren’t you going to help us?” David said.
“I don’t think so. We’ll just stand around watching you do everything, and I don’t want to do that.”
She realized that Tom was looking at her with a bewildered expression on his face.
“The least you can do is come out and show some interest,” Natalie said. “It’s your fault the drain was clogged anyway. The least you can do is show appreciation to David for making things right.”
“Maybe David will need some help,” Tom said, trying to smooth things over.
“All right,” she said, walking over to the tuba.
“I hope you aren’t planning on taking that outside,” Natalie said.
“I am,” she answered.
“You’ll never get married,” Natalie whispered as she marched past her. Carol followed after her playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
To watch David giving a detailed description of everything he was doing one would have thought he was the first man on the moon.
Tom and Carol sat on the hood of the car and traded off playing the tuba. Every few minutes, Natalie would look up from her reverential attention to David’s work and give them a withering glance because they were not paying sufficient homage to his efforts.
After David had retrieved the keys, fixed the drain, and cleaned out the trap, he decided to return to the lab to check on his experiment. Natalie left with him.
Carol and Tom sat in the kitchen, talked, and played the tuba.
“You know,” Tom said contentedly, “this is a picture, isn’t it? Me here in these bunny slippers, you playing songs on the tuba. I think I could do this forever.”
“That won’t be possible,” she said, finding enough courage to tease him.
“Next Wednesday I have to turn in my tuba, and it’ll all come to an end.”
“And then what?” he asked, looking as if he had a little more than tubas on his mind.
She looked at him for a second, smiled, and said, “The trombone.”
“Ah, the trombone,” he repeated with a grin. “One of my favorites.”
Two weeks later, if you had been standing on the shore, you might have marveled at the sight of the handsome couple in a concrete canoe, the guy paddling slowly along the shoreline while the girl happily played a love song on the trombone.
Well, it wasn’t actually a love song. It was “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” But it was played with deep feeling.