Soon to be 40, I’ve been wracked by a sense of disappointment, fear and aimlessness. Flipping through a high school yearbook 20 years after graduation, I realized the life I thought I’d have is much different than what it became. Here is a fictional short story.
We live in suburban house, like the one from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. We bought it a few years ago after outgrowing our starter home. The kids needed a safer neighborhood, better schools and more room to runaround. The dog and cat now have a backyard. Previously our dog had to be walked in the park twice a day. Now he frolics happily on a 1/2 acre of land. The cat mouses in the shed, never happier after being liberated from a screen patio in our old place.
It will last us until retirement, a wonderful place to make lifelong memories, raise a family and host holiday gatherings. No longer do the den and kitchen bleed together with hastily arranged furniture. No longer do four people share one full bathroom upstairs and a half bath next to the kitchen. Now we actually have a guest room!
Before Christmas I heard from my old friend Brad from college. Almost 40, he’s still doing the apartment thing. Sure, he doesn’t have the space demands of a growing family. And he doesn’t necessarily want to live in a suburban cul-de-sac with a basketball hoop on his lawn, either. He could care less about playgroups, dinner parties and a safe place to power walk.
But as he nears 4 decades, he does wonder what’s come of himself. He has to travel for every holiday to see family or else he spends them alone. When I visited him 2 years ago, I got the impression his apartment – much like his existence – was one permanently stuck in transition from a difficult early adulthood to something yet unknown. As I slept on an old couch, I heard Brad’s ornery neighbors arguing across the courtyard. Another neighbor’s dog barked non-stop. The next morning we had to visit a nearby McDonald’s to talk because the groundskeepers’ mowers started roaring at 8:30 AM. Brad said it would continue for up to 2 hours.
I made partner at the professional practice 2 years ago. It was the crowning moment of my career, some 15 years in the making. I coasted through my undergraduate education and thoroughly enjoyed my master’s degree in public policy. Then I got a reality check upon graduation: for 5 years I slogged through 6 day workweeks with little sleep. Even then, demanding clients called on Sunday, making sure they were getting their money’s worth.
Luckily I was taken under the wing of a senior member of the firm. Kenneth assured me there was a light at the end of the tunnel. We’d meet at a restaurant after my semi annual evaluations. I remember those dinners like yesterday, particularly the ones after I received some tough reviews. Gentle and soft spoken, Ken had a way of motivating me through those hard moments when I questioned why I even bothered with this line of work. He steered me back on the right course.
He knew how much emotion I invested in my work, how much I cared about doing the right thing, how much I needed positive moments to maintain motivation. My promotion to partner came completely out of the blue. He called me into his office with three others and handed me a contract inside an elegant leather binder.
Kenneth shook my hand and beamed, “Congratulations, you’ve made partner. Your years of hard work, dedication and excellent performance have paid off. On a personal note, I’m happy to have witnessed your progress. You’ve been like a son to me. And you should know those nights we spent talking about our projects, lives and goals were special. I’ll be retiring soon enough, as you know. But I’m happy to see such a capable man pick up where I left off.” I remember shedding a tear of joy, then the usual enthusiastic hand shaking and profuse “Thank yous” ensued.
My wife surprised me outside the office. Before she could utter her usual girlish “Congrats!”, I gave her the most heartfelt hug and kiss I had given since our wedding. She had been there for me every step of the way; loving and supportive, encouraging but realistic, firm but validating. That night we went to dinner and cheerily brainstormed ideas for the rest of our lives.
I met Adelyn in graduate school. We bumped into each other in the cafeteria one day between classes. She was about my height, brunette, and fit. But I saw her brown eyes first, meeting the gaze of my pale blue counterparts across the room. She was studying psychology, hoping to become a counselor, teacher or professor. I joked I’d need some counseling in my future line of work. She appreciated my wit and self-deprecating humor, using the opportunity to sneak in some compliments that would have otherwise been far too forward.
Effervescence defined, she almost always wore a smile. She was beautiful whether she wore sweatpants and a t-shirt or a sexy black cocktail dress. We were a cool couple at parties and among friends. And yet our private time was more gratifying. Adelyn and I would walk and talk in the park for hours, sneaking into the woods for a passionate make out session in anticipation of further relations later that night.
We moved in together after graduation, sharing rent in the usual apartments people in their mid twenties get. At first the relationship plateaued: my long hours at work and her demanding days at the outpatient clinic frequently left us exasperated. The laid back date nights we enjoyed at university were replaced with takeout and bad DVDs. No matter, we had each other.
Then things got better: I became an associate and my hours steadied. She left full time work at the clinic and joined the staff at the middle school. While Addy missed the patients and relationships she built in solo practice, she knew the school job was better. She made more money, was less stressed and suddenly had time to pursue other interests.
Now things were like they were before: just us, minus the uncertainties and stressors of our mid twenties. We took the opportunity to get married and plan the next chapter of our lives.
Of course Addy wanted kids. I, on the other hand, was more ambivalent. I was the worrier, concerned with providing for a family for the rest of our lives. I also didn’t consider myself father material. But she changed my mind. She knew my self confidence touched baseline on many things, and fatherhood was one of them. Sometimes you need to hear it from someone else whom you love and trust before you can find it in yourself.
In the next 3 years we welcomed a boy and girl. I gave her Saturday off, taking the kids to the pediatrician, our adoring relatives or to other activities. Meanwhile, Addy’s Sunday crafting classes gave way to meetups with other Moms. I could tell she needed support from female friends as new mother. I could only offer so much in my capacity as husband.
The kids gave us both a different sense of purpose and meaning in our lives, not that we ever lacked one before. If we were unable to have children, our backup plan was to become more active in the local community and schools, volunteering as much as possible on behalf of others. That would give us something to do besides retreat into a bubble of selfishness, detached from the rest of the world.
But no worry, the children came and were in good health. And though we suffered the endless banality of things young parents do, somehow it worked. I regretted not being home to see them in the afternoon, but Addy’s school job meant she could meet them at the bus. And as much as she wanted to be the Super Mom, available on weekends for unexpected coughs and colds, she knew it was OK to let me tag-in while she recharged.
They were growing so fast, we knew the starter house we purchased after the wedding would no longer suffice. And I knew, after tripping over furniture and toys a few too many times, that we needed more space. After all, we were finally making good money. Our jobs offered good benefits, retirement and vacation time. The big house we bought in suburbia was an easy step to take, and it was entirely a necessity as well.
Brad, the chronically single male, never seemed to get it together. He told me once he suffered from bouts of anxiety and depression. He joked he had “ASS” syndrome, playing with the acronyms psychologists used: Anxiety, Sadness and Sleepy.
Perhaps he was borrowing a self deprecating mannerism from me? It was actually a bit too harsh even by Brad’s melancholic standards. On the surface, Brad seemed entirely capable of achieving everything he wanted.
After college we went our separate ways, emailing and meeting now and again. He went to Hong Kong for 6 years, joining a burgeoning online trading firm. I remember being skeptical of his career choice when he announced his departure one day. “You’re doing what?!?”, I exclaimed on the phone. I didn’t even know such a job existed.
When the firm folded he started his own business, working his ass off for another 6 years. He had his ups and downs financially. Sometimes he sounded really sad during the holidays when we talked on the phone.
His family didn’t quite understand his career and couldn’t relate to Brad’s self employment overseas. His father, in particular, didn’t get it. He was a career civil servant and a good one at that. But he lacked the compassion, patience and temperament of my mentor, Kenneth. His presence in my life meant so much.
When he returned stateside Brad’s family thought things would change, but Brad continued his solo journey nonetheless. Though they were grateful he was no longer a day’s flight away, his family was impatient for him to settle down, marry and start a family. Secretly, Brad told me he had struggled with mental illness for much of his life. Additionally, a healthy dose of social anxiety combined with horrific self-criticism handicapped him.
After all, he sacrificed his prime dating and marriage years to his job. While he dated in Hong Kong and back home in Los Angeles, he never quite had a worthwhile relationship. And he wasn’t even sure he wanted one. Even if his Adelyn bumped into him at the supermarket, he wouldn’t have said a word to her because he was constantly consumed in a world half in reality, half somewhere in a depressed state.
Brad wasn’t ugly. He didn’t look like George Clooney but he wasn’t the Elephant Man either. Once an athlete in high school, Brad had thrown himself back into competitive sports. He had a trim and toned appearance, perfect for the local road running circuit. While he wasn’t turning in competitive times, he was closing in on personal bests from his teens and early twenties.
I had run against Brad in high school before we met in college. He asked why I wasn’t competing anymore, perhaps trying to find something we could enjoy together. I told him I didn’t have time for it. And, although I was quickly developing a Dad-bod and could stand to lose a few pounds, I made peace with my running years ago.
In truth I think he did it because he needed something to do. He told me his motivation was to lose weight and get in shape, but I think it came from a much darker place. One night after a few beers, chiding me to join him the next day on a 6 mile training run, he confessed he was doing it to feel better about his younger self; to make his sports-minded father proud of him; to conquer intense anxiety he felt about racing; and to face the horrific self-criticism that motivated him. He was firmly committed, employing a personal trainer and spending up to 2 hours a day working out, 6 days a week.
Startled, I initially changed the topic to more pressing things. “Brad, what about your job, getting a house…and have you met anyone recently?” He said he felt aimless. He had no direction or real purpose. He wasn’t sure what to do, where to live and how to go about meeting someone. How could he do any of that while he was living off savings? Weren’t those things several steps ahead of the next one he needed to take? And what was the next step, for that matter?
Ever the practical type I recommended Brad do a time and money budget. Then report to therapy to assess an obvious depression and anxiety disorder. Finally, he should get out and about anyway. He gave me a sheepish look, knowing the advice was right, but resenting hearing from it from someone who seemingly had the perfect life.
“You know,” he said to me, nodding in agreement after I encouraged him to get out more, “I kind of resent your life, what seems like a real American fairy tale. We chose different paths, and I’m having some second thoughts about mine. I know you had doubts while you and Adelyn were in the trenches of your careers after school. I guess what I envy, really, is that you knew enough about yourself to not let your insecurities rule you.”
“Oh…”, I stuttered, surprised Brad actually thought I was a fairly secure person, “…you actually thought I was secure in myself? It took quite a long time to find that. Sure, my family, Ken, Adelyn, they all helped. But I had my moments..”
In my early 20s I didn’t quite know who I was. I wasn’t the kid who wanted to be a doctor starting in 8th grade. I had no big business idea or entrepreneurial dreams. Nor did I have any inclinations towards what I wanted life to look like in my 30s, 40s or beyond. I suppose I wanted to be married and living happily, but I had no idea how to get there.
“Well yeah…” Brad admitted. “Of course I know all that stuff. I meant something different. I’ve never felt good enough for anyone, myself included. And I’ve read all those shitty online pop-psychology articles about self confidence and finding a meaningful life…they don’t quite do it for me. I suppose I’ve never known who I really am. As a consequence, unwilling to do what I really want to do and living with whatever happens.”
The game came back on, the home team ahead once again. We turned to the TV, stared for a few moments. Brad turned and said, “Aweseome house though, can’t wait to visit you guys one day.”
Leaving the bar I knew I wasn’t Brad but I could have been. But I had the life I wanted, a house in suburbia. A lovely wife and an amazing job. Two beautiful children who meant the world to me. Meaning, purpose and something to do.
I wasn’t sure what to say to Brad. Was it misfortune, bad decisions or just his mental malaise? There were some obvious things he could do differently, ways he could prioritize his time to have exactly what I had. But I also knew he had chosen a different path that might not ever lead to the life I had, at least not right away.
And it would have been fine, except he realized what was motivating him was something nearly the opposite of passion and curiosity. Well, maybe those two things initially, but not now. He wasn’t like Addy and I who did the usual professional thing. In some respects I admired him for that because he took that risk.
But the loneliness and isolation in his voice and feelings were deafening. I struggled to identify the obvious conflict in front of me: was it bad luck, poor choices, mental illness, fate or the act of an unfair god?
None of those, really. It was Brad against himself. In the course of some reflection I realized the main difference between us. I was less at war myself, whereas Brad constantly battled himself. Yes he had some complicating factors beyond his control. But he made them no easier to manage with an unrelenting emptiness temporarily filled with dashes of achievement and a few pinches of hope and promise.
I had everything I always realized I had wanted. That didn’t mean the future would be eternally positive and without struggle. I might end up with Brad’s existential depression should my life suddenly turn negative on a dime; in which case I would long for the freedom Brad has but rarely exercises. As I think that thought, I know I am more or less locked into my life, with a wife, two children, a professional career and a nice home depending on me. There is more security but less room for change should things go bad.
I suppose my wife, children, job and home came at the cost of other experiences I could have had and other ways I could have spent my time. Had I gone to Hong Kong, like Brad, I would have returned to the United States with conversational Mandarin, travel across East Asia and the experience of participating in a newfangled industry. I could have stayed single, lived leisurely in an apartment and worked on my 5K time, joining other weekend warriors on a quest to revisit tumultuous teenage years of immense physical energy but profound mental immaturity. What better way to make peace with the past?
Yet the fact remained I knew I would have never been happy doing what Brad did. And I couldn’t say I was envious of his admittedly unique life because it wouldn’t have been right for me. I am more at peace with my past than he is, maybe because the future for him is much less certain. It could be something or nothing. At least I have something to look forward to.
Addy and I will grow old in our house. The kids will go to school and hopefully finish college like we did. They’ll bring girlfriends and boyfriends home to visit and maybe get married themselves. One day grand kids will appear at the door, climbing up the furniture to sit next to us.
Our children will ask us what we are asking our parents right now: a litany of banal questions and trials all parents in our neighborhood face, and yet refer to the older generations for their wisdom and guidance. Perhaps there will be further meaning in our own present struggles when it’s our turn to help the next generation with theirs.
As for Brad, I’m not sure what’s in his future. There are no easily prescribed answers. I would hate to see him waste away in his present state, with little direction for the rest of his life. He’s not that old yet and it’s not too late for something like I have. Before Brad makes any rash decisions he needs to really figure out who he is.
Then, one day, maybe years from now, we can fondly reflect on our two very different lives knowing we went about them happily and voluntarily.
And yet, never have we been so unsure of myself.