Occasionally I write letters to a few of the very few people I remember from my previous career as an American. Less occasionally, some of them write back. After I’ve read their letters I’m always glad that they are where they are at, and I’m not. Most of them are married. Most of them have children. All but one of them have gobs more money than I do. Frank is the exception, who, like myself, is unmarried, has no children, and lives on an island.
I live on this beautiful island in the Gulf of Siam, with a population of twenty thousand people and fifty million coconuts. Frank lives on Manhattan, where there are several million people, many of whom behave as if they’d been crossbred with coconuts and fallen out of a tree.
He works in West Side restaurants, drinks a bit too much, reads a lot, listens to classical music, clutters his letters with arcane Latin phrases, and still owes me a thousand bucks from fifteen years ago.
Otherwise, Frank likes to sit in Central Park watching the world go by, feeding those damn rats with wings, and daydreaming about what might have been if only this had happened and that hadn’t.
He never complains though. In fact, I rather think Frank enjoys his role as a sophisticated, highbrow lowlife. He’s a romantic. Success would ruin him. (Need I mention that Frank is an Irishman?)
A fellow named Fred also writes to me. He’s one of the married-with children-and-gobs-more-money-than-I-have characters. Fred writes about his family. He’s always got a kid graduating from high school “this year,” another in college, and a third “active in field hockey and computer graphics” who seems to be forever twelve years old. Fred thinks she’s precocious.
Financial expenses are the main topic of Fred’s letters. His recent communique concerned the burden of school tuition. “Most of my time is spent trying to figure out how to pay for all this.” He works fifty to sixty hours a week peddling industrial real estate, and his wife works four days a week doing God knows what. Fred never says what sort of work she does, but whatever it is, she does it four days a week.
I suspect he just wants to remind me that everybody is below deck pulling an oar–except for yours truly.
Fred writes letters that would be incredibly boring if you only read what was on the lines and missed all the really cheeky stuff between them. He mentions that he’d had dinner with a couple of high school classmates of ours. “John and Kevin came over to the house with their significant others a few weeks ago.”
“Significant others” is the vogue term for a mate that has no legitimate claim on either your cares or your cash. It encompasses homosexual, as well as heterosexual partnerships. In rare cases a household pet may be involved. In any case, it’s one of those silly cockeyed expressions that Americans use in their tongue-biting attempt not to discriminate amidst the variety of human relationships. You’re okay, I’m okay, everybody’s okay. Gosh darn it… let’s all have a big hug.
I haven’t seen or thought of John and Kevin for ages. Fred writes that John is a lawyer who represents wrongfully terminated employees and sexual harassment complaints. Kevin is a stockbroker. “I wouldn’t say either of them is particularly happy, but they don’t seem to have any better options–similar to my situation.”
At that point, it occurred to me that I should stop reading his letter for a moment and peel a few onions. My heart was laden with rue for these old pals of mine. But, the very next sentence took me in tow. “Seems like middle age is about deciding to chase dreams, like you are, or to put personal goals aside in order to fulfill family and social responsibilities.”
If that’s Fred’s pearl of wisdom, all I can say is, “Don’t eat his oysters.”
Obviously, back in between the lines, Fred isn’t trying to rouse my envy. He’s well beyond the point of even dreaming that there’s some poor slug out there worse off than himself–aside from, of course, the suffering refugees of Africa and Asia. (Thank God for the solace they provide.)
No, Fred says all this so that I’ll feel guilty about living in a rustic bayside bungalow on a beautiful tropical island, halfway around the world from the often frigid, stress-choked climate of Midwest America. According to his gospel, I should be alongside him struggling in the trenches of family and social responsibility campaigns.
Well, I haven’t got a family, and as far as society goes…
We each made our choices. No one put a gun to Fred’s head and said, “Listen up bright boy. Either you drop out of college, impregnate a shoe salesman’s daughter, get married young, sire two boys, adopt a girl from Venezuela, go to night school, and spend the prime of your life hawking industrial real estate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin or I’ll shoot.”
Nope. No one ever said that to Fred. He did all those things of his own volition.
As my dear old grandmother used to say, “You made your bed; you sleep in it.”
She was one tough cookie, that broad.
Granted, Fred is in a miserable rut from which he sees no way out for at least another ten to fifteen years. What annoys him is why everyone else isn’t just as miserable. Oh and hell, never mind those blasted refugees. They don’t count; Fred didn’t go to high school with any of them. They’re not in his yearbook.
But damn it, that guy in the bungalow on a tropical paradise island–he’s in the yearbook. We were roommates. Why is that guy so happy?
Fred got better grades. He was better looking, a better athlete, and much more popular. Now he’s bitter and resentful.
Yet Fred probably spends fifteen times as much money a year as I do. I know some fellows who spend a million dollars a year. From what I hear, they’re pretty miserable as well.
I’m content with a thousand bucks a month. I certainly wouldn’t object if someone came by and said, “Here’s a million dollars, spend all of them in the next year and don’t moan about it.”
Everybody needs a challenge once in a while, and that one appeals to me.
First off, I’d fly to Bangkok and book a suite at the Oriental Hotel. I’d call room service for a bottle of Dom Perignon, hors-d’eouvres, and a tailor. Get myself fitted for an assortment of silk shirts and light cotton suits. Then I’d call Fred and invite him over for a week. All expenses paid.
Guess what he’d say?
“You must be joking! I mean thanks for the offer, but do you think I can just drop everything and go to Bangkok for a week? What are you, nuts? I’ve got a family, a job… got no time for some dream vacation. You’re lucky. I’m sorry… middle age is about…”
Funny thing is, that nearly everybody I know in America would respond, more or less, the same way. Everybody, that is, except Frank. Frank would say something like, “Ah, fidus achates, dum vivimus, vivamus!”
And I’d say, “Speak English you crazy bastard. Will you come or not?”
Well, he’d come. He’d have a great time, and I’d have a great time being with him. He’d be just as much at ease in Le Normandie restaurant ordering a fine vintage wine and savoring pate de foie gras as he would be sitting on a park bench with a can of beer and a ham sandwich.
When it was all over he’d say, “Thanks a million ol’ pal,” and he’d fly back to his island still owing me a thousand bucks.
But, Frank knows how to have fun, and there just aren’t many people left in this world who do.
Not for any amount of money.