I’ve been working on this guy for about a month now, and I’m excited to explain the motivation behind it. I’ve been making so much headway with short stories this summer (and so little progress on Dreamscape) that I decided to begin writing them under a theme and put them together as a collection. The book will take time to complete, but this short story is the very first in the expected layout of the coming collection…
A single ray of light slipped through the shades over his office window and illuminated the keyboard in front of him. John ignored the minor nuisance, instead focusing his energy on finishing up one last design before he left work. It was already after five.
In the back of his mind, submerged thoughts tasted the implications of that decision; it was after five o’clock on a Friday evening, and he was not only still at work, but was willingly so. For a twenty-six-year-old man, that was decidedly uncommon. While his conscious efforts went into placing the navigation menu of the webpage on the screen before him in just the right spot, he made excuses for that being the case. It wasn’t as if he had no friends; that was certainly not the case. If he wanted to, he had no doubt that any one of several girls he knew would like to go on a date with him that very evening, in fact.
But no. Instead, he sat hunched over his desk, trying to finish one last thing at the job that he without a doubt enjoyed.
John put the finishing touches on his design, moving the banner image to the left 13 pixels. He leaned back in his chair and exhaled while running his hand through the freshly-shorn hair on his head. He wondered idly if his decision to get a haircut the day before would provide any sort of relief from the summer heat.
Computer put to sleep and his jacket in hand, John left the office. He was the last one—by almost an hour—so he locked up on his way out. Standing just beyond the threshold, he paused and looked up at the sky, gauging the clouds with a hand shading his eyes from the lurid sun. Only a few white puffs floated overhead, and he guessed that there would be no precipitation any time soon.
He decided, just as he was putting his car into reverse, that something wasn’t quite right. The maelstrom of a conversation going on in the back of his head suddenly charged forward, and he found himself immersed in a bewildering cascade of conflicting interests and arguments. His hand froze on the shifter and he took a deep breath.
“What am I doing?” he asked the steering wheel, or maybe it was his hands on the wheel. This is stupid, he thought. Why do I feel like this?
With only a moments’ hesitation, he fished his phone from the right pocket of his pants and sent a text message to his three closest friends, suggesting a throwback night. They would know what he meant: whenever one of them was feeling nostalgic, or needed advice, or simply wanted to have a guys’ night, they always did the same thing. Ever since high school, that tradition was to go to the park near his friend Luke’s house with a couple six-packs of nice beer, drink, and talk.
Sure enough, in less than a minute he got a response from Luke, saying “beers in the park at 10.”
He stowed his phone, settled his tense hands and rioting thoughts, and drove home.
* * *
Luke was already at the park when John walked into the pool of light surrounding the tables next to a sandpit and swings. Concentric orange rings played across the cement below his feet and reflected from the bottles of beer he carried in two six-packs.
“Hey,” he said, setting the beers on the table.
Luke grinned—he was always grinning—and clapped him on the shoulder. “Good to see you, buddy. What did you bring tonight?”
“Some chocolate stouts, and this new IPA I found.”
“Oooh, sounds good to me. So, what’s the occasion for the evening?” His brown eyes glowed in the ruddy light of the overhead lamps, and it made his light brown hair look like the russet hues of autumn.
Before John could answer, he heard the familiar baritone of Andy call from behind him. The man himself followed after a minute, and John found himself standing and shaking hands with the only other one of his friends with a stable career.
Andy looked every bit like the successful, happy man that he was. He stood a solid two inches taller than John’s own 5’10”, he had clear blue eyes, thick almond-colored hair, and a smile so disarming that it simply wasn’t fair to the average person. He was still wearing a pale yellow shirt and blue tie, clearly a remnant of his day selling luxury sedans downtown.
“Hey, guys,” Andy said, and glanced toward the beer. “Excellent, you always know what I’m feeling like, John. Nothing would hit the spot right now like a stout.”
“Good to see you, man,” John said, and meant it. If there was one friend he had who might be able to really understand him at the moment, it would be Andy.
Not that he didn’t value the opinions of his other two oldest friends. Reen, the fourth guy in the group, arrived no more than five minutes after Andy, and they all settled down at the picnic table under the lights and brought out bottle openers. The night air echoed with snaps and hisses as beers were opened, and conversation started over three stouts and an India Pale Ale.
The first topic, as usual, was romance. They moved from the table to the top of the nearby hill reserved for sledding during the winter. Andy, of course, announced that he was thinking about taking things to the next level with his long-time girlfriend, Alesa. He’d already bought the ring, and was only waiting for the right time to ask her.
Luke was the first to voice an opinion, and John found it as no surprise that he was against it—though he tried to hide that fact. “Whoa, man. Marriage? We’re only three years out of college!”
Andy rolled his eyes. Luke, as the only one of them without a stable job, was constantly trying to stay relevant in the group, and was petrified by the thought of any one of them moving past him. “Three years, yeah. And Alesa and I have been together for five. I know she’s the one, man, and I’ve never been at a better point for it than now.”
John leaned forward, took a sip of his IPA, and said, “Oh?”
Andy looked to him, but turned back to Luke before speaking, as if he felt the need to explain himself. “Listen, she and I have been together for a long time. It’s been a thought in my head for a while, but I always wanted to make sure I could give her the stable home she deserves. Now’s that time. She just got a raise, at the bank, and I had a great quarter at the dealership. We’re financially stable, and ready to move on.”
John watched Luke wilt under the logic of Andy’s decision, and felt happiness and pride well up in his chest. One of his closest friends was getting married; yet, at the same time, the hollow feeling from earlier in the day returned. He had a career, was confident and outgoing…why couldn’t he be in a similar situation?
Reen was unaware of his thoughts, and leaned across him to shake Andy’s hand, all smiles. Of course he’s happy, John thought, he has a girl, too. Reen and Kaitlyn were years behind Andy and Alesa, and much less serious, but in John’s eyes that made little difference.
Andy, being the person he was, shook Reen’s hand with a firm grip and proceeded to ask him how Kaitlyn was doing.
“Oh, she’s great,” he responded. “As she reminded me on Monday, next week will be six months for us,” he added, laughing. John joined Andy and Luke with a half-hearted chuckle, but snapped his teeth shut after only a few seconds.
“What are you doing for the occasion?” Luke asked. John could see his own frustration glimmer behind those brown eyes: Luke hadn’t had a girlfriend since college. Still, he remained the loyal friend he was and asked the question out of courtesy.
Reen lit up, and with obvious excitement laid out his plan for the following Wednesday. “I’m going to surprise her a work, pick her up. Then, I’m going to take her to Lane’s, because she loves jazz so much. We’ll get dinner, have a couple martinis, and then head to the East Ridge. I got a room for the night.” He beamed at them all, hoping for the response that he accordingly got.
“That’s genius,” John said, at the same time that Andy nodded emphatically and Luke exclaimed about a room at the East Ridge Hotel. John agreed with Luke, but also knew that getting a room at the most luxurious hotel in the town was a fantastic gesture, and celebration of the day.
Reen shrugged. “I’ll admit, it wasn’t completely my idea. I asked my sister for help, planning it out.”
Andy laughed and said that all the best plans usually have some sort of feminine touch in the groundwork. The rest of them joined in with a round of chuckles, before Andy turned to Luke and asked after his own pursuits.
Luke shifted, obviously a little uncomfortable. “Anything new, you ask?” He grimaced, and took an ample swallow of his beer. “No news with girls in the way you meant, no.”
They all made noises of commiseration.
“There’s news in another way, though,” he said, then hesitated. “I might be moving. To Pennsylvania.”
They made significantly louder noises at that pronouncement.
Luke hunched a little on the rock atop which he was perched. “It came down the pipes about a week ago. My sister found a job opening out there. She told me about it, I sent a resume, and they want me to fly out for an interview. It’s…kind of an important job.”
Reen leaned forward. “What’s the job?”
“I’d be stepping into an upper-level management spot at a shipping firm out there. White-collar type stuff. My own office and everything.”
Andy was the first to congratulate him, and the first to say that if the pieces line up and he gets the job, that they would all be missing him. “You’ve been the “fun guy” in the group for a while now, Luke,” he said.
John sat on his own cold (and slightly wet) hunk of stone, drank his IPA, and nodded in agreement. This was often how conversations went when they engaged in this tradition, though generally not quite so alarming as an announcement of relocation to another state. It started with romance, and quickly turned to more serious matters. This certainly counted as a “more serious matter.”
He realized, though, that he didn’t really have a problem with Luke moving away; in fact, his gut told him, he’d been expecting Luke to depart from his everyday life for some time now. Nonetheless, he was obliged to impart his own wishes of luck, and say that he’d have to visit as often as possible.
His silence for most of the evening, and unusual hesitation before speaking on Luke’s pronouncement, did not go unnoticed, however. He could hardly express surprise at that—he was often the most vocal in their conversations—but he was still less than eager to dive into speaking about his own problems.
Reen was the first to note his uncharacteristic timidity. When the novelty of Luke’s potential departure faded, he leaned forward, grabbed a second beer from the six-pack (now only a three-pack) and tapped John on the knee with it before removing the cap with a subtle hiss. “What’s up with you, buddy?” he asked. “You were the one who wanted to do this tonight, and you’ve barely said a word.”
Andy and Luke were quick on the uptake, reaching for another round of beers and voicing agreements with Reen.
Still, John hesitated. How could he describe his dissatisfaction with his own life, when the three of them had just gone on at length about the various blessings that happened to fall into their laps? He felt guilty for introducing such a melancholy tone to the evening, but even in the darkness he could see their curiosity and concern, while they swigged beer to hide it.
These are my friends, he told himself, the three men I trust most in the world, and if there’s anyone who can understand this, it will be them.
Aloud, he said, “It’s…a weird thing, guys. I know this won’t make sense, but I just don’t feel right about my life, the way it’s going at the moment. I have a job, a great job. Sure, I don’t have a girl like you two,” he gestured toward Reen and Andy with his beer bottle, and the two exchanged looks. “But that’s not really a problem. I have a great family, and I have great friends.”
He stopped to suck down the last drops of his beer and reached for the last stout, letting his words hang in the air. When none of the other three spoke, he continued. “Something just isn’t fitting in right, and I don’t know what it is. I mean hell, I was at work way past five today, and it was my own choice. I shouldn’t have to put so much of myself into that in order to take my mind off of the bigger picture, right?”
Silence draped over them like the night shadows as a cloud passed in front of the moon overhead. Finally, Andy nodded.
“You’re right. I don’t think that’s how it should be.”
John didn’t know what to say, anymore, so he waited for the others to voice their opinions. Luke said that he was over-thinking things, and Reen was thought that he probably just needed a girl.
“After all,” he said, “I got my act together pretty quickly after I started dating Kaitlyn. Things went uphill fast.”
John supposed he had a point, but the nagging emptiness in his stomach whispered that it wasn’t really the case for him. Andy agreed with his gut, and countered Reen’s statement.
“John’s never been the kind of guy who needs to have a girlfriend to define his worth. I think it’s more likely that he’s got a problem with an existing relationship…” John blocked him out after he knocked over his beer. It clanked against the rock and dropped into the grass. He could hear its contents spilling.
He reached down for the bottle, hiding dark brown in the black of the night. His hand brushed through the grass, seeking the coolness of glass, the smoothness of its cylindrical body. The sounds of his friends’ conversation flowed past his ears, connecting lines and thoughts.
The gentle brush of the grass on his fingers made him pause and think, through the slight buzzing echoing in his mind from the alcohol. The grass was long, still growing in the height of summer. It was like his life, like all of their lives.
Like the grass that grows, he thought, so do we all. He found the bottle, finally, but his hand lingered in the grass, savoring its feel. The last part of Andy’s sentence penetrated at last into his conscious thoughts, and he heard him finish his sentence: “…a problem with an existing relationship, even if he doesn’t realize it.”
He thought back to his initial reaction to the problem, his immediate dependency on his old friends, and he thought that maybe, just maybe, the solution to it was rooted in outgrowing some parts of his life.