"What do guys like you think about?" She pulls a cigarette out of the pack and hands it over to me without asking. I take it, start to make some remark about how I really shouldn't be smoking, and then don't. She knows I really shouldn't be smoking, because I've told her probably a hundred times. She knows as well as I do that I shouldn't be smoking, but she still hands me the pack, because the truth is, I always take it.
"What do you mean, guys like me?'"
"You know. I mean, I don't want to say old, but, you know..."
"Older. You're married, you've got kids, you've got everything figured out, right?"
"Yes. I have everything figured out. That's why I'm hanging out after my shift at Target--my second job, by the way--sneaking a cigarette with a girl half my age."
"Is this the kind of thing you think about?"
Honestly, I do my best not to think about it, but that admission seems a little too bleak, even for this conversation. Our conversations always tend towards the slightly desperate, probably because that's all the middle ground a girl like her and a guy like me have.
There's nothing going on between us. I'm happily married, and she thinks she's in love. For all I know, she is in love, but I wouldn't put money on it. It's easy to think you're in love when you're that new at life. Or hell, maybe it's just easier to be in love, when you're that age.
We started our post-work conversation one night because we were discussing old movies on our way to clock out for the night, and it carried out into the parking lot. She smoked a cigarette before she got in her car to leave--her boyfriend didn't like that she smoked, so she didn't do it at home--and I stayed to finish talking about Ridley Scott.
The next night, the same thing happened, and it became a sort of ritual. Eventually, I took one of her proffered cigarettes, and the ritual was cemented--her last cigarette of the day, and my only cigarette of the day.
"I think about Harry Potter a lot," I tell her, before I realize what I'm saying.
She laughs. "Oookay."
I force myself to laugh along with her, hoping the conversation will move on.
"So, like...what? His glasses? His scar? If you say his cute underage body, this friendship is over."
"Well, forget it, then," I say, still laughing.
"Nothing. It's ridiculous. Mostly, I spend my time thinking about bills and my health and boring adult shit like that. I worry about if my kids are going to grow up to hate me, or if they're going to grow up and I hate them."
"Can you do that? Hate your kids?"
"I don't know. I mean, you deal with the same customers as I do--you think these people have parents who love them?"
She stomps out her cigarette. "Hard to imagine anyone loving some of the people we deal with."
"Exactly," I say, dropping my cigarette to the asphalt and carefully smashing it. "All right, kid. You working tomorrow?"
"Nope, not again until Tuesday."
"I guess I'll see you then."
"Wait, hold up--tell me about the Harry Potter thing."
"It's really nothing."
"It didn't look like nothing when you said it--it looked like an answer. And while I'm sure you do think about all that other stuff, too, the Harry Potter thing seemed like it was more of an honest answer."
"It was just stupid."
It feels idiotic, but I know if I continue to dodge, it'll end up being a much bigger thing than it needs to be. "My kids love those movies, you know? Even the later ones, that seem a little too dark for kids that young. They watch them all the time. You seen them?"
"Yeah, I've seen them a few times."
"It starts out with Harry Potter under the stairs, living with these horrible people. And then he goes to school, and there are all these people who are complete assholes to him: Malfoy and his friends, Snape, whatever. And then he always has to solve mysteries and keep from dying. As the movies keep going, all these people he cares about die.
"The thing my kids focus on is how he has to defeat whatever evil thing is in that particular movie. But what I can't get over, what I end up thinking about when I'm getting dressed for work, or when I'm leaving my real job and driving over here, is this: that kid's amazing before those movies even begin. Just staying alive up to the point where the movies begin, that took more character than I think I'll ever have. And maybe it's just because I'm soft. I've got a pretty good life, all things considered, but there are days I struggle to keep going. I can't imagine trudging through the regular mundane crap, combined with all the other stuff Harry Potter has to deal with."
I see the concern on her face, and I realize she doesn't understand. Hopefully, she'll never understand. "When you say there are days when you struggle to keep going..."
"Not like suicide, kid--don't get yourself worked up. But just...getting out of bed. Facing another day of the grind. Living out the rest of a life that I've mostly wasted."
"Geez, dude, it's not exactly like you're on your death bed. There's still time."
"'There's still time.' That's like the mantra of the chronic life-waster. You wanna know a secret? There's not still time. There never is. You want something, you better go fuckin' get it. Don't wait, don't tell yourself that there'll be time to do it later. Because you'll wake up one day, you're 43 years old, you've got kids, a shitty job or two, and you realize that whatever you wanted to do with your life, it should have already happened."
"Are you not happy with your life?" She takes out her cigarettes and hands me the pack.
"Are you happy with yours?" I look at the pack of smokes, decide that one is my limit, and wave a hand of decline.
"I mean...I wouldn't exactly say I'm happy with it. But it's okay, and it's still in progress."
"Which is fine, man. And honestly? If life is fine, you're doing pretty damn good. There's way worse than fine. I love the absolute shit out of my wife and kids--I wouldn't give them up for anything. But that doesn't mean I don't wonder about what could have been. If I hadn't been so lazy and so scared, what would life be like?"
"Scared of what?"
"Scared of whatever. Shit that seemed scary at the time, but now seems so stupid. Want some advice from an old man?"
She smiles. "Sure."
"Don't be scared. Whatever you're worried about, it's bullshit.
"Getting bad grades and losing my scholarship, paying rent, having money to eat? Those are bullshit?"
"Do you get bad grades?"
"And you're a good employee, so you don't have to worry about getting fired and losing your apartment."
"Right. But if I ran off to make a movie or-"
"Is that what you want to do? Make a movie?"
She rolls her eyes. "Well, no. But that's not the point."
"It's exactly the point. What do you want to do? If you didn't have to worry about grades or rent or whatever else."
"And you're majoring in accounting?"
"I can get a stable job in accounting and then do the special effects thing on the side. That's the plan."
"Why do you need a stable job?"
"Memory loss already? You are getting old. Rent, food, that kind of thing."
"I'm not trying to trivialize your feelings or your fears, but I promise you, you'll look back and you'll curse yourself for being a coward. Because someday, you'll be braver--life will force you to be, because that's how life works. The things that scare you now will be just another day, and you'll wish you had it to do over again with the bravery old age gives you."
"What about you, man? You're not scared of anything, anymore?"
"I'm still scared of everything. And it seems like the fears I have now are more legitimate than the ones I had when I was younger, but I bet they aren't. I bet in ten years, I'll look back at the shit that scares me now, and I'll just shake my head."
"So why aren't you out doing what you love? I assume working a second job at Target isn't your lifelong dream."
"Because I missed my chance, and I know it. It would be stupid for me to chase a dream that got away a decade ago. I have a responsibility, now. It's my job to make sure my kids have a chance."
"No offense, but that sounds suspiciously like fear hiding behind nobility."
"No offense taken--and you're probably right. But I don't have a wise old man telling me that I'm being stupid. You do."
She flicks her cigarette out into the night. "So what happens when I go dream chasing and fail? You gonna pay my rent?"
"I'll make you a deal: you take the leap, just go nuts and devote yourself to what you want out of life. Just go for it, right? If it doesn't work out, I have a loft apartment over my garage. It's supposed to be my office, but I barely use it. It's got a functional bathroom, and a little kitchenette thing. Yours. And I'll even go so far as to offer you food--we always have leftovers, it wouldn't be a problem to give them to you."
She laughs. "Yeah, right."
"I'm serious. You'd have food and a roof over your head, no matter what. No time limit, no questions. I'll give you a key right now, if it would make you feel better."
"I'm sure your wife would love that."
"She knows what it's like to lose dreams just as much as I do. She might not be thrilled with the idea, but I think she'd understand."
"You guys have conversations like this? About life being essentially over?"
"Nah, most adults don't admit that kind of thing out loud. They stick to the mantra: there's still time. Plus, she's a little bit happier, I think, because one of her goals was to have children, so she's got that."
"You didn't want kids?"
"Sure I did. I just wanted them after."
"Beats me. After I won an Oscar or a Grammy or the Nobel Peace Prize. After I had made my mark on the world. Look, I have to get going--I gotta get home before my kids fall asleep."
"Did we ever finish the Harry Potter conversation?"
"Probably not. Fighting the bad guy, fighting trolls, killing giant spiders, saving the world? Ultimately, I think that's easier than living your every day life where things are shitty and pointless and tired. Because when you have to go to battle with an enemy, at least you have a purpose. Real life is a lot trickier. You don't have an villain to defeat; you only have another work day to trudge through, and you get home and you think about how there's still time, and there are a million tiny obstacles that bring you down. Meals to make, home repairs to tend to, lawns to be mowed, sleep to catch up on. It's a slow kill, but in the end, it's just as effective."
"I'd hate to hear what you think about when your kids watch Dora the Explorer."
"Mostly, I just think about how nasty the boots on that monkey must smell." I glance at my watch. "I really have to get going. Maybe we can finish this talk Tuesday?"
She looks at her phone; at the time or a text message or who knows what. "Yeah, maybe so."
I turn and start towards my car.
I turn back, but don't stop walking. "Yeah?"
"Thanks for the talk, I think."
"Feel free to ignore it. Honestly, even at this age, I still don't know what the hell I'm talking about."
She chuckles. "I like that about you."
"See you Tuesday."
She doesn't say anything; just clicks the button on her keys to unlock her car. I turn back--no good issuing all this sage-like wisdom if I trip over my feet as I walk to my car. I hear her car door open and close, and hear her engine start just as I arrive at my car.
I drive home to my family, and when I arrive, the kids are still awake, which makes the day worthwhile.
Tuesday arrives, but she doesn't.
I find a note in my locker, scrawled in her semi-familiar handwriting. You better be ready to lose that apartment.
I tuck it into my pocket and hope that I remember to take it out before putting my pants into the laundry pile at home.
Posted under Short Stories on 9/15/15