This was the part he hated the most. This was the ball buster. This was the sound of his master's voice, blasting through 450-watt sub-woofers.
Something like molten lead poured down Ryan's throat and crushed his vocal chords. The silence, the blatant pause in the evening's glorious social flow, drew everyone's eyes to him. Why, he wondered, is it so acceptable to ask someone you're meeting for the first time what he does for a living? Why is that not considered intrusive and rude?
Kelly, his girlfriend of eight months, kicked him hard under the table, and gave him that Honey-he- asked-you-a-question look.
He was defeated before he ever walked onto the court, you see. All around the table these guys, the one with the gel in his hair and the expensive-looking belt, and all the others, had gone, one by one. "I'm a doctor," "I'm an attorney," "I'm a computer company executive." With each response Ryan shrunk further into his chair.
And then it came.
"So, Ryan, is that it, Ryan? Yes, what do you do?"
If only that guy knew. If only he realized, in his fancy shoes and perfectly-tailored pants, what a delicate issue that was. Ryan was almost thirty, and all the noble plans of his youth had faded into the gloom of reality. Although resigned to it, he still entertained those intermittent bursts of confidence, the ones that make you swear it's not too late. This week, he would promise, I'm getting my act together. This week I'm going to break out of this rut and do what I need to do.
But this week is the Real World marathon, it can't be this week. Maybe next week.
Next week comes around, and next week is just not a good week at all. Too much going on. The band finally got a gig at the Midtown Tavern, so there's rehearsal, promotion, lots of drinking. In fact, next week sucks more than this week and last week combined. No, it's definitely not going to be next week.
Ok, the week after, without question. But the week after is just a shit week at work, just non-stop stress, barely time enough to eat and punch the hell out of the pillows on the couch.
Thud! Kelly delivered a serious blow to Ryan's shin. It was so well-executed she must've meant it to hurt. He had to speak.
"I'm an assistant manager at an Office Depot," Ryan mumbled. The words just fell out of his mouth like Chiclets out of a gumball machine. She kicked him, and then "Blah."
"Oh," the well-dressed man said. "That must be quite challenging."
"Yes, and do you know what else?" Ryan responded. "I'm going to kill you while you're walking back to your car."
Well, he didn't really say that, but he thought it. Here's what he really said:
"Yeah, it's challenging, a lot of inventory, customers, paper, so much paper, stacks of it, blah, blah, blah, doh-dee-doh, ahem."
Something like that. He definitely cleared his throat at the end of it, to let everyone know he was finished.
"The corporate office has their eye on him for their executive training program," Kelly chimed in. "They see him as a potential regional manager."
"Well, good luck with that," the well- dressed man said. "That's exciting."
There was a brief lull, followed by Kelly's friend Sharon standing up and clinking her spoon on her wine glass.
"Speaking of exciting, Troy and I have some news for you all," Sharon exclaimed. Troy, her husband, sat next to her stroking his beer, trying hard to hide a proud grin. "Troy just made partner! At twenty-eight, can you believe it? It's one of the best firms in town, and he's a partner!"
Everyone clapped and hooted and hollered, and someone shouted "You the man!" Ryan clapped twice, hoo-ray, and stood up.
"Where are you going?" Kelly asked, tugging on Ryan's pants.
"To the restroom. I'll be right back."
It was getting late, and the restaurant was noticeably less crowded than when they arrived. Most of the patrons were drinking and smoking, exchanging casual conversation, laughing at one another's jokes. The walk to the restrooms at the back of the establishment wasn't long enough for Ryan, who wanted to take in more of the evening, to observe rather than participate. The eyes that glanced at him and darted back, recording just a segment of the journey, seemed friendlier than the ones back at his table.
To his dismay, the restroom had an attendant, so Ryan knew that as soon as he was done he would be guilted into tipping the guy for squeezing liquid soap into his hand and turning on the water. But when he was finished the man, an elderly gentleman wearing a black tie and pants, with a patch of gray nestled in his balding head, just looked at him.
"What's a matter, I'm not rich enough," Ryan asked him as he stood in front of the sink. "Threads are too cheap? What's up?"
"No, that's not it, man. You just look like you're not in the mood to be bothered. I can read people."
"Yeah, I guess you can," Ryan said, embarrassed. "Rough night. I can't just keep putting myself in these situations that I don't want to be in. It's sick."
"Well, you certainly don't have to do anything you don't want to," responded the attendant, as he offered Ryan a cigarette from the box on the counter. "You're taking years off your life, my friend. The world on your back's about to break you in two."
"No shit. It's time to start living for me."
"It's the only person you should be living for, except the Man Upstairs. But that doesn't mean you don't need to sacrifice in life. Don't get me wrong. Sacrifice is always part of the deal. You might sacrifice happiness now, for happiness later. You might sacrifice comfort now for the spoils ahead. I've never known anyone at the top who wasn't real familiar with the bottom before he got there -- we're talking first-name basis."
"Word," Ryan said with increased exuberance.
The man looked at him dubiously. "Son, I'm old enough to be your father."
"Oh. Sorry." Ryan began washing his hands. "So what's your story?"
"Me? I'm just living," the attendant said.
"And how's that working for you?"
"I can't complain. I didn't accomplish everything I set out to, but I tried, and I came damn close. I gave the earth two children, and a woman loved me, once, and I drew cartoons for a small paper in Charleston for about a year, before they had to let me go."
"You were a cartoonist?"
"Uh-huh. Just that one job, where I got paid for it, but I've done it all my life. I keep working at it, even though the opportunity for me to make a living at it has come and gone. I still want to get better, you see, and draw something that I can compare to that old stuff and say 'Damn, I've come a long way.' But you never reach that magical point where you can stop because there's no more to be done. There's always more."
"Beauty lies not in perfection, but in the struggle," Ryan said.
"Who said that?"
"Me, just now."
"That's good," the man said, smiling. "I think I'll use that."
Ryan shook the man's hand, looked in the mirror, and loosened his tie. He then ran his fingers through his hair and put the cigarette in his mouth. He was ready.
With the spring working its way back into his step, Ryan approached his table. Guys were giving Troy, the young partner, the glad-hand and slapping him on the back, while the women, including Kelly, were chirping away at the radiant Sharon. Ryan stepped up behind Kelly and heard her say "I'm so happy for you -- it's everything you wanted."
With that, Ryan backed away slightly, turned around, and headed for the door. Kelly called out after him, something like "Ryan, what's up?!?" but he couldn't really hear her. The din of the nearly empty restaurant was deafening.
The doors burst open and Ryan emerged into
the cold night of the city, stopping just long enough to
light the cigarette the man from the restroom had given
him. Kelly drove. No car. He would have to walk. That's
ok. All night he had been hoping for a longer walk.
Which way? Left? Right? Left, yes, let's go left. The
buildings to the left are much more interesting.
© 2001 Christopher Harne, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
"A Longer Walk" is about the pressures we tend to apply to ourselves throughout the course of our lives, pressure to succeed, pressure to outperform others. I hope it captures a significant step in a man's life, a movement away from the victor-less battles of youth and toward the hopeful perspective of the restroom attendant.