I was ecstatic to be moving out of my mom’s house and relieved that I could begin digging my way out of debt, but I wasn’t happy I would be living in Ohio and peddling mortgages.
“It pays the most,” I said when he asked me why I took the job. “But, trust me, I’m already looking for something else.”
The pilot turned off the seatbelt sign and the engine noise leveled off as he broke out into laughter. He thought this was hilarious.
He closed the Travel + Leisure on his lap and tucked it into the pouch on the seat in front of him. “I wanted to become an actor but I’ve been selling cars my whole life. I own three dealerships, a beautiful home in Dallas, a vacation home in Florida, and I put all my kids through college. Hell, my youngest boy just graduated from Princeton.” It didn’t make an ounce of difference to me but out of respect I continued nodding. “My point is . . .” I wasn’t sure he had a point. I wasn’t sure he was sharing all this with me for any other reason than that he was old and wanted to hear himself speak. “You may be successful selling mortgages,” he said. “Then what?”
I had already told myself, “I’m only doing this for two years,” so I shrugged and acted as though I was compiling a playlist on my iPod, hoping it would end our conversation.
“That’s something I’ve noticed.” I could feel him staring so I looked over. His neck was craned as if he couldn’t get a good enough look at me. “I noticed it in the young guys who work for me,” he said. “You guys aren’t motivated. You walk around thinking it’s someone’s job to hand you something.”
He was trying to put me into a bucket I didn’t belong. “I can promise you no one has handed me anything.” I was thinking about a conversation I had earlier in the week with a friend whose parents were badgering her about quitting her job and moving to Mexico. “Have you ever thought not everyone wants what you have?”
He looked confused. “Don’t you want your kids to have more than you had?”
The beverage cart was coming our way and I wanted a beer.
“This country’s going to hell!” he yelled, as I reached in my pocket for my credit card. “You watch . . . Occupy Wall Street . . . Most of you don’t want to occupy a damn job!”
His reaction stunned me, but I could hear a woman laughing on the other side of the beverage cart. The man on my right didn’t bother looking up from his Kindle. It was my turn so I asked for a Bud Light and handed the attendant my credit card.
“And you, Sir?”
“Diet Coke,” he said, calming down, though his neck was still red when she handed us our drinks.
“They don’t want to grow up,” said a woman from across the aisle. I assumed the obnoxious laugh was hers. “Not my son, but some of his friends—25, 26, some of them are 27 and still living at home.”
She looked at me and I finished the sip of beer in my mouth before politely telling her. “They’re not able to find jobs.”
“That’s a bunch-of-bull.” He was turning red again. “There are jobs for those willing to take them—you can’t start at the top.”
“They don’t understand that,” added the woman.
“We don’t understand?” I stared at her. “Oh, we understand. The environment you gave us is shit!” I unloaded on both of them.
The old man looked surprised. “Hold on there, just ten minutes ago you were telling me you’re ready to quit.” His eyebrows hiked up. “Hasn’t even worked a single day yet.” I felt like the chalkboard screeching beneath their nails—and I was damn near ready to force-feed him his magazine. “You can’t be successful if you’re not willing to make the sacrifices.”
The man on my right sat forward. “What is success?”
“What kind of a question is that?” the older man snapped as if responding to him would be a waste of his time. “You set out to achieve something and you achieve it,” he started to raise his voice.
“So you’re successful because you achieved success?” You couldn’t miss the mockery in the tone of his voice. “Buying a big house, a vacation home, a fancy car, that’s not achieving success, it’s purchasing it.”
The older man rolled his eyes. “Bashing the rich will get you nowhere.”
“It’s not wrong to have money.”
“No one said it is.”
“You are and if you’re trying to make me feel guilty,” he shrugged, “I don’t.”
“Money comes with success,” I said, knowing if I had boatloads of cheddar I’d spend it.
“Money isn’t the issue and most of us aren’t after success.” He tucked his Kindle into the pouch. “What we are after is for others to make us feel successful. Setting out to have others call you a success is not success, it’s a waste of time.” He looked at me. “You’re too young, but he knows just what I’m talking about. Most of our adult life is spent trying to arrive somewhere.
“He and I,” he paused. “We’re the same. A lot of people thought I was successful—at least until I tried killing myself.”
The woman’s eyes bulged. The older man looked away, grabbing his magazine. The fact that he was sitting there and hadn’t killed himself dampened the effect it had on me.
“If I’m bothering you,” he broke the silence, “I see a few open seats,”—he had glanced toward the back of the plane—“if you want to move it won’t offend me.”
I almost laughed. The man by the window snorted and slapped his magazine closed. I wasn’t on a side, but he had pissed me off when he twisted my words earlier, trying to make me seem lazy. “Maybe you can buy him out,” I suggested.
He undid his seat belt and got up. “Move!” he said, and we let him out. I happily took his seat by the window.
The younger man sat back down in his original seat, raked his hand over his face and looked across the aisle. The woman had headphones on and a book out.
“I’m sorry,” he said, looking at me, but I didn’t need an apology and shook my head.
An attendant was standing a few rows up. “Excuse me, Miss. Could I bother you for a Bud Light?” He glanced at me. “Or something else?”
“You already upgraded my seat.”
When he stared at me I told him, “I’ll take a Heineken.” He only ordered one. “Get yourself one,” I said, feeling somewhat uncomfortable with a stranger buying me a drink.
“I would, but I can’t.”
“You don’t have to buy that. What you said didn’t bother me.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m dead sure.”
The attendant came, swiped his credit card and handed me the beer.
“Success,” he said, shaking his head as she walked away. “It’s always about money.”
It bothers me when people try painting everyone with one brush. “Not everyone,” I said.
“I didn’t say everyone. But to the majority, having more of what others desire is success and we all want more money.” I appreciated the free beer but I was hoping he didn’t see it as an invitation to lecture me. “Where I went wrong, is where most of us go wrong,” he said. “We value money over time. I always hear people saying they wish they were doing this or wish they were doing that.”
“We have to choose money over time,” I said, “unless you’re loaded, and sorry, most of us aren’t. I can’t walk in a store and buy food with my time. And I promise you, no one is going to let me pay my student loans with time.”
He laughed. “You are paying back your loans with time.” He pointed to my lap. “Your iPod. My Kindle. It boils down to one question: Does having the ability to spend more money fulfill you more than what you experience when devoting time to what you enjoy?”
I shifted towards him, but I didn’t have an answer. I just sipped my beer and listened as he carried on about how he had lived his life filling it with “things” and how it grew to disgust him.
But when he started talking to me about college and how it isn’t as good an investment as everybody says it is, I interrupted him. “It’s the best investment available.”
All I could think about was how much money I owed and how long it would take to pay back my loans. This was all I ever thought about. As far as I was concerned, college had better of been a goddamn good investment.
“College is a great investment when you manage it right, but if you don’t manage it properly it’s a horrible investment. There are countless students building up enormous debts to begin careers where the future revolves around waiting for the weekend.”
“I don’t know. I haven’t started my job,” I said, feeling like he wanted me to say something.
“College is a funny business,” he went on. “I don’t remember too much but what I do remember is the drinking, my first one-night stands and the cramming I did before tests. I memorized material long enough to produce the grade expected of me to get where I needed to go next.” He paused for a sip of water. “What college taught me is that I can tolerate boredom.”
I laughed. “People go to college to get better jobs,” I said. “People take different things away from their experience.”
He nodded but I could tell he didn’t agree. “It’s not part of any curriculum—elementary school, middle school, high school, or college. We like to think we’re living our lives in pursuit of experiences, not just chasing money. But we aren’t—and we aren’t teaching our kids anything different.
“From the youngest age, we teach our kids how to separate fun from work. I’ll bet you a hundred dollars there were times while in college you said to yourself, ‘Sit down, study this, and then I can go drink?’ Finding work that we enjoy doing is not what the majority of us do, because the majority of us don’t associate work with fun.”
I agreed with him and nodded.
“I know why I chased money. I was unable to think in terms of what I wanted to do,” he told me, and I gave him an odd look. “It sounds strange, but a lot of us are like this.” He paused, taking another sip of water. “Have you ever noticed what people tell you when you ask them what it is they do? Most people answer with what their profession is or where they work. They never actually tell you what it is they do.”
“So, just listen the next time you ask someone what it is they do. Listen to hear if they’re defining what it is they do or merely telling you the definition of an occupation.”
He coughed. “Take me for example.” He coughed again then cleared his throat. “I wanted to become a CEO. I wanted to be the guy making all the decisions. I wanted to be the guy with the beautiful wife and the big house. I wanted vacation homes like that guy,” he said throwing a thumb over his shoulder. “I fell in love with an idea and I thought Accounting would help me make it a reality. I was told Accounting is the backbone of business and knowing the nuts and bolts is the way to move up quickly in any organization.
“Instead of using my energy to find what it is I wanted to do, I looked around for examples of people that represented what I wanted to be. The thought process is backwards—you don’t pick a profession based on who you can be . . . but I tried, and in the process I denied an opportunity to achieve my own success.”
I understood what he was saying, but not entirely. “What if your goal is to be a CEO?”
He shrugged. “People are going to choose to live however they want,” he replied. “I’m only saying that there is a difference between doing something and being something. All doctors help people, but how a doctor sees himself helping patients is what he does. All chefs appreciate food and cook with fire, but how a chef sees himself transforming a meal is what he does.
“I was in my mid-twenties when I realized loving what you do and loving what you are, are two totally different things. I was at home and a family friend asked me what I did and how my job was going. I told her where I worked, some of the large clients I had worked with, and what we sold ourselves as doing for our clients. And she told me how wonderful it was to hear how well I was doing, and how she had only wished her son had pursued something similar to what I was doing.”
He laughed, cracked a smile then told me something I’ll never forget.
“Compliments kill people,” he said. “I used her words to make myself feel like I was doing something; although I hated almost every day of my job. But as long as I had others willing to value me higher than I felt about myself, than I did too.” He reached for his water. “It’s easier for us to manage appearances than it is reality. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing than when asked what you do, you’re not going to willingly inconvenience yourself by telling someone how you see what it is you do. You’re going say what you are and move on. We tell people what we are because what we do depresses us.
“We should be thankful so many of us are similar, because otherwise many of us would have no way of validating our professional lives. I accepted living this way because I thought I hadn’t reached the level of success I was after.”
He finished his water and glanced up front, then over his shoulder toward the back of the plane. There were no attendants walking around so he tucked the cup inside the pouch.
“People like to say, ‘I’d never kill myself,’” he mumbled. “And I said the same thing. But what most people don’t realize is that you aren’t some sad man moping around. It comes on slow and, like most men, it wasn’t my nature to show sadness in public. I could afford the best food, best clothes, and best women. I could afford to entertain myself with alcohol and weekends filled with pleasure. I could afford to cope.”
I laughed. “Sounds to me like you worked hard and played harder. Sounds like that good life.”
“That’s not living the life,” he said. “I was wasting my life. When I knelt down that night I didn’t see it as killing myself.” He stopped, noticing the woman from across the aisle taking her headphones off and tucking her book away. She left—I assumed to go use the restroom—and he finished, “I was already dead—kneeling down was easy.”
I took down the rest of my beer while he sat there not saying anything, clearly not appreciating my joke. Then out of all the things he could have said, he asked me if I wanted another beer. I was planning to go out and get wasted later that night anyway, so I decided I wasn’t going to stop him from saving me a few extra dollars.
“I need to use the restroom,” he said and got up. “I’ll bring it on my way back.”
While he was gone, the woman returned. “Is he still bothering you?” she asked, sitting down across the aisle.
“No, he’s not bothering me.”
I wasn’t convincing enough. “If he’s bothering you, just tell me,” she said.
“He wasn’t bothering me to begin with,” I said, not wanting her to have a centimeter of satisfaction. “Why, is he bothering you?”
“Who’s bothering who?” He was standing in the aisle with my Heineken in his hand.
I looked at the lady who quickly pulled her book out and put her headphones back on. “Man, you and I gotta fly together more often,” I said as he sat down, handing me the beer. “Heck, a few more of these and I’ll be ready for the night.”
“What was that all about?”
“Nothing,” I said.
He looked across the aisle. “Excuse me.” He reached and tapped her shoulder, forcing her to remove her headphones and glance up from her book. “Am I bothering you?” he asked.
“As a matter of fact, you are,” she told him. “I want you to leave that young man alone.”
“He can speak for himself.” He paused. “But if you have something you want to say, you should say it. Otherwise . . .” and he looked over his shoulder toward the back.
She gave him a nasty look and put her headphones back on.
“Is there a problem, Sir?” a flight attendant asked.
He shook his head carelessly and the attendant looked at me. “No problem here,” I said, and he moved along.
“If something bothers you, you have the right to say something,” he said, getting back to everything but suicide. I thought his attempt is what he really wanted to talk about. Yet he kept going off on wild tangents.
“Like I should’ve said something when my boss called me into his office, telling me I need to show them I still wanted to be there. I should’ve walked out and never looked back. You know, I should’ve tried talking to my parents, but I knew what they’d say—the one thing I heard my entire life: ‘It’ll pay off in the end.’”
My stomach was growling. “Excuse me,” I said, as I saw an attendant passing by with a box of pretzels. “Could I please have a pack of those?” She pulled one from the box and handed it to me. “I apologize, what were you saying?”
“I had a choice to make. I could quit or I could adjust my attitude,” he said. “I thought I should quit but none of my friends seemed to be struggling, and what would I do?” He shrugged. “I had never really taken the time to think about what it was I wanted to do. So I kept myself busy and made sure I always had something to look forward to. I went out every weekend and sometimes during the week too. Women were the best distraction,” he said. “I could wine and dine them while most of them crumbled in my hands. The best looking ones are usually the ones who believe they deserve to be wined and dined too. But after a couple of years, I got tired of it.”
He sounded like a fool. “What kind of man gets tired of waking up next to good-looking women?” I asked suspiciously.
“Do you think I spent the amount of money I did, dressed the way I did and took them to the places I did without knowing what it would get me?” He paused but I didn’t say anything—I had gotten used to him not waiting for a response.
“As sick as it sounds, there are plenty of women out there who don’t mind being a transaction. They valued my money and I valued their looks. I admit, I used them to help me get through one week and into the next,” he said. “At a certain point though, you begin feeling lousy spending money for a woman’s affection.
“But, women,”—he started laughing but quickly restrained himself—“they’ll tell you they care about their looks so much because they want to feel good about themselves. They’re doing it for themselves . . . come on … male or female, we rarely do anything for ourselves.”
“What’d you do then,” I said, “just sit around drinking by yourself?”
“I stopped drinking all together,” he answered, which I didn’t believe. “I spent more time thinking about quitting and how I might spend my time. But, let me ask you?”
“Ask me what?” I said.
“What happens if a man pursues a less lucrative path?”
“I don’t know.” I honestly didn’t know what he was driving at.
“What happens is his marriage options dwindle, and at the time I saw marriage as a step I could take toward a healthier lifestyle,” he said. “I honestly thought settling down and marrying someone is what would make me happy. But I rushed myself into marrying an entitled bitch.”
I pulled the Heineken away from my lips, almost choking on the beer in my mouth.
“I don’t blame her,” he said, putting his hands up in defense. “I don’t blame her one bit for the expectations she had about what a husband should be. I assume she only thought it fair she get what her mother had—what some of her friends had.
“I’d never expect a woman to admit it, but as a sex, they’re overly interested in men who can provide them with things. Women demand successful husbands and are quick to ignore the psychological effect it has on men when the first thing they want to know is where he works.
“And we’re just as much to blame. We need to stop taking so much pride in telling women what we are and how much we make. We need to start taking more pride in what it is we do. It was my fault for marrying a woman like her.”
“Why’d you marry her then?” I said.
“What do you mean? I loved her. There were no problems between us until I felt I was sacrificing too much for this so called ‘American Dream.’ When I accepted the fact that the race most of us are running is one where winning is losing less, I sat down with my wife and told her I wanted to quit my job and delay our plan of having a baby. By the look on her face, you’d have thought I told her someone close to us had died.
“But in her defense, she had no clue about how I was feeling. I had been ignoring how I felt instead of trying to explain it to her. She took what I said and turned it into me not being happy in our marriage. All I wanted was for her to understand that my job wasn’t fulfilling and it never had been. She wanted to know how we would continue affording our lifestyle. I told her all we had to do was lower our standard of living. The baby would come when we were ready. She quickly let me know that was not the original plan, and it wasn’t. I don’t think she could have understood if she wanted to. Her life had already been planned out,” he shook his head, “years in advance.
“We went back and forth and it turned into a huge argument. We didn’t talk for at least a week. But I loved her and I wanted us to work. I didn’t think it was right for me to expect her to immediately change.”
I’d finished the second Heineken, making it three beers in what felt like an hour. I felt like I was talking with a friend at that point. “She punked you?” I said.
“You don’t punk someone when you’re in a marriage. We talked it through like adults,” he said. “I didn’t tell her at the time, but I thought I could slowly show her we didn’t need all the things we had or all the things she wanted. That was the hurdle I had to get her over.” He paused and with his head slightly down he whispered, “Women don’t marry men.”
When he turned and looked at me his facial expression was that of someone who thought he had formed an original thought. “Women marry lifestyles and the evidence is everywhere,” he stated harshly. “Inside department stores, how much of the store space is dedicated to women? Who screams and cries when given a blue box tied in white ribbon? Who is always saying the room would look better with this in it or that in it? You don’t know how many times I heard my wife say, ‘Ooh! Let’s buy this. This will be perfect for when our friends come over.’”
I laughed but he didn’t slow down or crack a smile.
“Whether it was a better home or car or jewelry or pictures of us on a better vacation, she wanted a certain lifestyle that she could show-off to her family and friends. I could never get her to see that. We always had to buy something else. It drove me crazy, but at a certain point you just give up.”
“Do you want a mint?” I noticed he kept swiping his tongue to wet the corners of his mouth. He started looking around for an attendant. “We should be landing in Chicago soon,” I told him. “They’ll probably be around to pick up trash. You might want to take the mint. I got gum, too.” He nodded and I reached inside my pocket. I was wondering how his ex-wife might tell me the story if she were sitting here. As much as he was blaming her, I wanted to blame him.
“All you had to do was leave her,” I said.
“I would have. But she got pregnant,” he said, tossing the gum in his mouth. “We had always agreed children should be planned—and not a surprise. She was on the pill!” he said with a few wild bobs of his head.
I put up and secured my tray table. A flight attendant in the aisle was coming towards us carrying a trash bag.
“My heart stopped the day she told me about the baby and life was complete hell after that. With a new baby at home, I had to work even harder and to my surprise, I also had to change who I was because what corporate America will never tell you is that it’s not enough to just do your job—not if you want the job of the person above you. I found myself adopting the behaviors and interests of my colleagues as a way to create conversation. I didn’t play golf because I enjoyed the fucking game, I played it because I needed them to like me and consider me for the promotion. I told myself ‘I’m doing it for my son.’ But you know, there is nothing that robs you of freedom more than children and debt.” He stopped and wiped the corners of his mouth. “Buying a home, sending your child to college, having a family, everything is expensive. My son ended any idea I had of leaving my job or my wife. But,” he said, and I handed him my empty bottle as the attendant came by and he dropped it in the bag, “my son was the main reason I kept getting up every morning—his smile became the smile I never had. I didn’t want to go to my job another day, but I cared about Phillip and his future. I was willing to do what it took to provide for my family—even if it meant crying at night.”
“How old was your son when . . . you know, when you . . .”
“You can say it,” he said.
He wanted me to, but I couldn’t.
“I was sad,” he said, ignoring my question, “and I hid it as long as I could, hoping it would pass. Some nights I’d come home and go directly to bed. I’d tell my wife I had to get up early. But when I started using that excuse when it came to having sex, she accused me of having an affair.” He made a face that told me even the thought of this was outrageous. “I had no desire to please her or myself. I had barely enough energy to make it through the day.
“When I started having thoughts about what it’d feel like to jump off a building, to drive my car off a cliff, to step off a chair, that’s when I knew I was more than just sad. I didn’t want those thoughts, I just had them—but I never believed I’d attempt anything.
“Then,” he said with his eyes widening, “I got news at work of my second big promotion. I didn’t call right away to let my wife know; I didn’t plan on telling her at all, but a colleague told his wife and his wife talked to my wife. When I didn’t bring it up at dinner that night she got mad and left the table.
“After I cleaned up, I sat down and played with my son. As I was playing with him, he asked me if I was going to the party. My birthday was coming up and I asked him, ‘A party for my birthday?’ He said no, a party for my promotion. He wanted to know what it meant to be promoted.
“I remember looking at him without being able to speak. I wanted to be alone so I told him to go upstairs. I got in the car and started driving. My wife kept calling but I never picked up. I thought about how I’d let the idea of success string me along. I didn’t understand how I could have a wife, a kid, a great paying job and feel the way I did. I mean, I’d made what I thought were reasonable decisions my entire life, yet I was smothered by my job, I could no longer make love to my wife, and sometimes I felt a resentment towards my son that made me hate myself. Anytime I did feel good, it was always short-lived.”
The flight attendant came over the intercom: the plane was making its final descent into Chicago.
“After an hour of driving around, I turned back and went home. I was tired of brooding over the past but I broke down the second I turned my car off in the garage. I couldn’t stop crying,” he said. “I sacrificed myself into a situation that I felt I could no longer change. And if I couldn’t change it, I thought why keep living through it. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my computer bag, unzipped on the passenger side. I reached in and grabbed the longest adapter cord. I slid my seat all the way back and pulled up the headrest. I tied it tight around the post and slipped my neck through the loop . . . I knelt down as far and as hard as I could.”
What he was saying wasn’t what I expected to hear. I had never heard of someone trying to strangle themselves in their car, but I imagined a panicking dog struggling to free itself but further tightening its own collar until it eventually strangles itself.
“When I heard my wife scream, I sat back,” he said. “She jumped in the car, crying hysterically, and slipped her fingers under the cord. I let her loosen it and she pulled it away from my neck.”
I was hoping his son was in the house asleep. “Was your son with her?”
He pinched his lips together thinly in regret. His nod was steady and controlled. I could see in his face the everlasting embarrassment—it would never go away.
“I didn’t tell him until last year when he turned sixteen,” he answered. “He lives with his mother now and there’s no telling what she tells him. I wanted him to know the truth. I wanted him to understand success is a human creation and if you don’t create it for yourself, it will slowly bleed the life out of you.”
I felt the plane landing. He took out his cell phone and turned it on.
“Are you getting off?” I asked, hoping he wasn’t and that his final stop was Ohio, or somewhere after that. I had a few things I wanted to ask him.
“I am. I’m visiting my brother and his family.”
“That should be fun,” I said. “Where are you from, anyway?”
“I grew up in Chicago, but I live in Texas.”
“We never got each other’s names.” I stuck my hand out. “I’m Ben.”
“Jake,” he said, shaking my hand.
“Would it be weird if I looked you up on Facebook?”
“No, that wouldn’t be weird, but I don’t have Facebook,” he said. “Can I give you my email?”
I nodded and he pulled out a pen and wrote his email on a napkin.
“Anything you want to talk about,” he said and handed me the napkin. “The best part of what I do now is getting involved in my students’ lives. Anything I can do to help, just shoot me an email.”
“Thanks.” I stuffed the napkin in my pocket, hoping I’d never need it. “And thanks for the beer,” I told him.
He stood up and moved into the aisle. “No problem,” he said with a smile. “I know you’re young and it’s fun, but don’t let yourself use it as a distraction. If you aren’t sure what you’re doing is what you want, then your option to abandon is the most valuable thing you own.” He pulled his bag down. “You know, don’t get out of college and start buying all sorts of things because you have some money. Value women who don’t need you to impress them financially and live below your means.” The line was filing out in front of him. “No matter what America tries selling you, don’t place happiness on the other side of success. You do that, and you’ll be all right,” he said and walked off the plane.
With my arms crossed, I peered out the window at a plane moving toward the runway.