After so many years taking the same route to work the drive had become instinctive, so much that there were days I would park in my usual space and suddenly realize I had no memory of the intervening forty-minute trip. I was in a similar condition when I hit that pothole, so much that for a couple of seconds I was in danger of losing control. At least traffic at that given moment wasn't bad, if it had I definitely would have either killed myself or someone else. I still had several other commuters honk their horns at me with a couple waving their middle finger as they hurriedly passed by. Just when I thought the episode was over, I felt and heard the left front tire pop like a cheap balloon.
I spent the better part of thirty minutes installing the spare tire on my little mid-sized sedan. When I finally arrived at the offices of Smith and Bradley Accounting, I was greeted with the disapproving glare of Brenda Phillips. She was a Human resources office manager extraordinaire, a woman who through accident of birth missed her chance at working for the secret police of some totalitarian country. Then again, she was a totally dedicated company person who ate, drank, and shit the corporate line.
“Hello Mr. Morgan,” she said walking towards me in the corridor while lightly tapping something on her computer tablet. “Glad you could join us today, the Friday staff meeting is already in progress, the senior partners have some exciting announcements about the upcoming corporate retreat. But I guess you'll have to read about them in the handout since they frown on anyone coming in after the meeting has started.”
Truthfully, I felt bad for Brenda. She was a petite, almost fragile looking lady who could be irritatingly intelligent, both drawbacks in an office environment that up until a few years ago was dominated by a good-old-boy male culture. Back when she started working at Smith and Bradley, I remember hearing some of the guys make jokes about her stature, which was quickly replaced with whining about how much of a bitch she was for making them look bad in some fashion. Making matters worse, she was a single mom whose ex-husband had skipped town and refused to make child support payments.
To adapt and survive, she was forced to become the person she now was but the price was the utter contempt of just about everyone she worked around both male and female.
“Good morning to you Brenda,” I said through clenched teeth, “if you check the messages you will find one from me saying I had a flat tire on the way to work and that I would be late.”
My response sent Brenda's fingers flying over her tablet then using her right hand to press the Bluetooth device she was wearing further into her ear. “Well now, that is an entirely different matter,” she said after listening to my message. “Steven,” she almost whispered conspiratorially, “I suppose you have this flat tire still in your trunk?”
“Yes I do Brenda, and I can drop it your desk if you need proof.” I said sarcastically trying to hide my growing anger.
From the look on her face it was easy to tell I had failed in that matter. “No need,” she said before quickly turning and rushing off, probably hoping to find another employee coming in late that she could report. Watching her walk off I couldn't help but laugh, fifty years of hard struggle by women to be accepted in a male dominated world and the result is often people like Brenda. When my small dose of dark humor had passed I had a small bout with the inherit hopelessness of the human condition. With her gone and not being encumbered by having to attend the Friday staff meeting I finished making my way to my cubicle and quickly settled into the relative comfort of the numbers appearing on my computer screen.
As strange as it may seem, there was actually a time I loved my job. Back before the original partners of the firm sold out and caught the first plane they could to someplace tropical there was a camaraderie no other firm could touch. Like the rest of the American business world, while the name “Smith and Bradley” was kept the new owners wanted production and we became a glorified sweat shop pressured to crunch numbers like some factory in Asia with quasi-slave labor.
If I thought about it too much the worst thing about this new way of doing business was not the increasingly rare pay raises, the cuts in health benefits, or the people like Brenda who are seemingly tasked with finding something bad on any employee who makes a mistake, it was the corporate retreat she mentioned. The senior partners rent some cheap auditorium at a second-rate hotel then create an atmosphere where everyone sure as hell better look like they are having the time of their lives listening to them give exciting speeches about how they are going to screw us over while they get huge bonuses. Those assemblies had all the charm of some strict religious cult gathering or Nazi rally. The worst part was seeing many of those about to get screwed strangely happy at being part of such an amazing organization. There was some small relief that the corporate retreat was a problem for another day so I submerged myself into my work and passed the rest of my time trying not to think about person missing from the cubicle across from me.
The one saving grace that protected me from those like Brenda was that I said little at work, kept my head down, and hardly ever left my cubicle. Seventeen years had passed by with me going largely unscathed while others, all younger and convinced they could out game the firm, were now stocking shelves at Walmart. Then there were exceptions like my boss, David Wright.
“Hey Steven,” he yelled from across the room as I was trying to hurry out at the end of the day.
“Heard you had a flat tire this morning,” he said walking over to me.
David wasn't a bad guy, he was in his early thirties and had enough of a talent at the subtle art of office politics that he was able to jump ahead of those with more seniority and experience and become head of my accounting section. His one problem was that he had reached a point where to advance any further he would need to rid himself of his human soul. I have to admit, despite my blasé and tired attitude part of me hated the bastard because I was fifty-five and considered over the hill by the management overlords.
“Yeah, hit a damn pothole.” I said putting on my best smile as David walked closer. “At least traffic wasn't bad this morning.”
“No problem,” he said with his voice taking on just the smallest hint of authority. “You did get through the monthly reports for Davis Mining today?”
“I also threw in the first monthly report on the new exterminating company account, and both have been emailed to your computer to review.” I said knowing how to play this game. Always add something unexpected when your boss wants to know what you have done.
“You're the best Steve,” he said clearly happy, “have a great weekend.” He quickly begins to walk away then suddenly stops, “Oh yeah, here's the monthly news letter we passed out at the meeting this morning.”
The firm newsletter is an obscenely glossy and over done mini-magazine that contains nothing but fluffy feel good pieces about how Smith and Bradley employees are making some kind of difference in the world. I again smile silently wishing David would suddenly lose all his hair, stuff the newsletter in my briefcase, and haul ass. Only when I walk out the employee entrance and breathe the fresh afternoon air do I again begin to feel like a partially free man.
Of course, being the weekend I knew as soon as I got home I would find a neatly typed and organized list of chores involving yard work or some form of inside home improvement. The comfortable suburban existence I was suppose to enjoy came at a price. In my mind it often meant working harder out in the yard than at my job so my wife, Elaine, could keep a lawn that was not only the envy of the neighborhood but consistently won awards from the homeowners association. With the summer months coming up Elaine was sure to have enough to keep me going all Saturday. The worst thing about it was that nearly everyone in the neighborhood appeared to enjoy being tied to their yards like medieval serfs. And like a good fellow serf, I figured I had no other place to go and nothing else I could do so I continued on to my car and began the drive home.
There was something paradoxically comforting about the usual afternoon traffic jam. With all five lanes of outbound interstate traffic clogged as far as the eye could see at least I didn’t have to worry about hitting another pothole and blowing the feeble excuse of a spare tire like the one that I had inadvertently slammed into that morning. Since leaving the Atlanta city limits behind, I had barely gotten above twenty miles per hour before having to hit the brakes.
In fact, traffic had been at a standstill for over ten minutes with the Barbara, the intrepid radio roadway reporter using every bit of her soft and sensual voice talent to make us believe that the various obstacles causing the problems would be cleared any second. Having seen the young lady on television there was no question as to why she had that particular job, her voice was a total match to her curvy and athletic body compete with blond hair and a smile that always had a come hither look. Just carrying a mental image of her body with that voice was the perfect remedy to placate most of the male and a good number of the female commuters stuck in traffic.
As I waited, I looked to my right and saw a man about my own age in the next car hanging onto the steering wheel with a death grip. His face was approaching the same color of red as an ambulance siren. It didn’t take a medical degree in cardiology to know he was a massive heart attack just waiting for a bit more of an excuse to happen. In the car to my left was a career-looking mom with two small children running loose inside. I tried not to stare after catching sight of her pulling the top off a medicine bottle, then flinging several of the pills into her mouth. Just the act of going choking down a few of those pharmacological wonders instantly brought a look of contentment on her tired face.
While the sight of Mr. Heart Attack and Ms. Heavily Medicated did bother me what concerned me most of all was my own total indifference to the entire situation. Deep down I felt no real difference between the number crunching sweatshop where I worked, being stuck in traffic, or reaching home where I was more a hired hand to my wife than an actual person. In stunned me to think that I could be just as happy in any of the three crappy positions. Sitting in the middle of all that traffic I couldn't avoid the question that had been hovering on the edge of my consciousness since I hit the pothole that morning. Just how many years had I wasted as my life passed me by?
I wasn't given much time to ponder my sudden realization, for reasons unknown traffic began flowing freely and while I had begun questioning the very basis of my life I did not want to impend any of the drivers around me because it would have been suicide. The funny thing was that my day of self discovery was not quite over.
Being that my spare tire was designed to last just long enough to get the car to a repair shop, I detoured from my drive home to get the blown one fixed. Sitting in the waiting area I had a choice of watching what was on the television, a late afternoon talk show on celebrity relationships, or reading over some of the work in my briefcase. Instead, I pulled out the glossy company magazine and began leafing through the pages.
It was all the usual mindless crap about Smith and Bradley employees volunteering their personal time for charitable causes. The authors of the articles always found a way to emphasized the people were doing their good works while off in the evenings or weekends, wouldn't want the help to think the company would do anything for free. But it was on the back page that I received the final blow of the day to the house of cards I called my life.
The back page was dedicated to wedding announcements complete with pictures, the first one was of a young couple with the groom a worker out of the Dallas office. The second picture was a middle-aged couple who worked out of Savannah, Georgia. I didn't know the guy at all, but the future bride had once worked in the cubicle across from mine. In time, we became best friends and then after many months of being teamed on company projects and learning much about each other, we became lovers.
It had been a little over ten years since I last saw Sarah Boone, since that moment we finally parted ways she had cut her dark raven hair much shorter. Maybe it was just the over done nature of the magazine, or my latent feelings, but her green eyes still gleamed with the same energy that had first attracted me to her.
The years had been kind to the face I had memorized during our all too few moments alone. Those encounters had all the aspects of a tasteless and tawdry affair from a novel or second-rate movie. The trouble was that both of us were going through extreme rough patches in our respective marriages.
Her husband at the time was a callous jerk more interested in reliving his college football glory days. While, my wife, Elaine, had just started her job as a real estate agent during one of the big boom cycles in area home building. Elaine had not just discovered her true calling but her reason to live and was making money hand over fist. It should go without saying that neither Sarah's husband nor my wife had the slightest bit of interest in including us in their lives. For those who have never have experienced the feeling of excessive loneliness it is a bitterly cold and corrosive form of torture that can wear away the strongest bonds.
What Sarah and I first found in each other was someone who just gave a damn. She was easy to talk to and I guess, she felt the same way about me. In hindsight it's easy to say the physical part of our relationship was just something we fell into, a recognition that we were not alone. To this day I don't know why we didn't take that final step and leave our spouses, like similar extramarital relationships it probably had something to do with the children. She had two boys while Elaine and I had a teenage daughter named Amanda.
During our rendezvouses we made plans for leaving and actually hovered on the edge a couple of times but never pulled the trigger. Barely a year after our affair started, Sarah's husband accepted a job in Savannah and as my bad luck would have it Smith and Bradley had a branch office there. In what had to be record time, management approved Sarah's reluctant transfer request and had her moved to Savannah even before her husband started his new job.
We stayed in contact through email and phone calls for several months, I even arranged a visit to Savannah once when my wife took our daughter with her to Miami for a realtor convention. But something had changed between Sarah and I, whatever magic we there once was had slipped away and I drove back home almost distraught.
It had been a shitty day all around, but nothing really different from most other days in my life. But finding out that Sarah had moved on to find some happiness was just too much for me to handle. The cold loneliness that was always nearby for me overwhelmed my defenses. I paid for the tire repair and drove the rest of the way home almost comatose.
The house was empty when I arrived home, Elaine had left an excessively neat handwritten post-it-note attached to the typed weekend list of mandatory projects saying she was attending a meeting with a new developer and would be home very late. Still working more on some subconscious autopilot I aimlessly strolled through the house that in truth had been deathly quiet since Amanda had left for college six years before. Both Elaine and I were insanely proud of her but she took after her mother was was now totally absorbed in her career.
It had been a day of revelations and as I walked around my suburban tomb I realized the house I was standing in was less a home and more an interior decorator's showcase desperately waiting for a photographer. Even better, the furniture, curtains, and paintings that hung on the walls were in such a pristine condition the only thing missing from making it a museum dedicated to some famous dead person were the velvet ropes used in such places to prevent tourists entering restricted areas. Standing there, I couldn't help but wonder that with all the mind numbing crap I had to put up with why I would come home to this life-sized doll house.
My old duffel bag was packed before I really had a plan. Minutes then ticked by as I dared to sit down in the living room and make a few critical decisions. When Elaine became a real estate broker we separated our retirement accounts leaving me a nice amount that I could use after paying a hefty fee for diving into way too early.
Amazingly while sitting there I felt the inertia of all the years I had already spent trying to convince me to stay. This little voice whispered the hard truth that while you thought yourself alone now just wait till you break your routine. That voice almost won, but I kept going back to that picture of Sarah in the company magazine. She had found something, whether it was happiness or just some convenient illusion I have no idea. What pushed me over the edge was a text message from Elaine saying we needed to meet at a nearby Italian restaurant to have dinner with this new developer and his wife.
I just couldn't face them feeling the way I did, so I tossed the duffel into my car and began driving west. Where I ultimately settle I have no idea, and will I pay a price for abandoning a stable but boring life? Yes, but I just could not suffer through another day of just existing, of playing a game that had become meaningless. Most of all, I just didn't want to think about Sarah and what I lost with her. To know you had a real chance at love and happiness but let it slip away is in many ways even worse than being alone.