He caught himself staring blankly at his coffee, wondering how long he’d been sitting, cup in hand. The last sip must have been hot. He could still feel the blister on the tip of his tongue.
Like a Picasso, a dark sadness hung on his face. He hated the look. “Definitely his blue period,” he mused, half smirking at his reflection in the bathroom mirror.
He mostly avoided reflective surfaces. Feeling depressed was terrible enough; he didn’t need to see it. He didn’t need to be reminded of it.
His cat circled impatiently, rubbing against his calf. “Time to eat,” he purred . . . . “Snap out of it!” he meowed.
On days like today, he was grateful for his cat. The cat’s well-timed reminders kept the man from the doorknob and belt, and the dark thoughts that tied everything together.
He whispered, “My demise will have to wait; there’s a cat to feed and a litterbox to clean.”
His apartment was a shambles. It mirrored the cluttered chaos in his head. Based on experience, he knew a good house cleaning would lift his spirits.
He often wondered how external feng shui works its magic on the mind. “I’ll have to google that,” he says in the direction of his full-bellied cat, who bathes contently in a patch of sun on the kitchen floor.
The sink is full. There’s half-eaten food caked on dishes, the remnants of last week’s menu. Why not just clean up after each meal? Especially knowing that cleanliness and order helps quell his anxiety.
“Why do I let things pile up?
What keeps me from staying on top of things?
Will I ever grow out of this?
That last question bounces around the inside of his skull like an unselected lottery ping-pong ball.
Will I ever grow out of this?
Of course, he didn’t know the answer to that question. He remembers a bright era of pre-affliction, which gives him hope. He thinks “if I magically went from being happy to being depressed, why can’t I miraculously go from depressed to happy?”
Unfortunately, there’s a history – a consistent footprint on the ladder of his family’s DNA. In a sense, he’s been branded, and sometimes that feels so fatalistic, he just wants to give up.
“I know I could do this if things would just slow-the-fuck down,” he muttered. Head bowed, sitting at a dimly lit kitchen table, teetering on the edge of a midlife meltdown.
With more than 30 years in the industry, you think he’d be brimming with confidence. For most, that kind of experience leads naturally to calm assuredness. But with experience comes expectations, and those expectations smother him like a blanket of boulders.
He feels incapacitated by his experience, not buoyed by it.
He fixates momentarily on his wife’s furrowed brow and imagines himself tiny, wandering through those deep valleys of disappointment.
At work, he’s surrounded by the young and hungry. Buzzing with ambition, their bright voices float on currents of frenetic energy.
Was he ever that exuberant (about anything)? He struggles to remember his younger self, but it’s like painting with numbers without the numbers.
In his cubicle, yellow sticky notes pop off the edge of his monitor. A sleek uninviting flower, daring him to delve in – begging him to fail. Tossed to the corner of the desk, a coffee-stained and panic-scrawled legal pad.
His “to-do list.”
After a full day’s work, that list somehow gets longer, not shorter.
Early in his career, he’d slide into a work groove and rip through his “to-dos” effortlessly, like a sickle through the wheat. But nowadays, he’s easily and willingly distracted. His ability to focus comes in short bursts only, and the mental elasticity of youth is frustratingly absent.
His focus is hampered further by a barrage of instant messages and multiple meetings a day. As a result, he always feels two steps behind in a mad dash to a deadline.
He wears his age like an ill-fitting suit, and he struggles to keep pace with his profession.
He lifts his head and speaks again.
“Honestly, I don’t think I can do it anymore. I’m sorry, because I know that puts us behind the eight-ball financially, but every day’s a struggle, and I’m barely keeping my head above water.”
He wasn’t being lazy. He was being honest.
He remembers when success was all the motivation he needed. He remembers plowing through whatever work stress he encountered, because on the backside of that stress were people who depended on him. For 25-plus years, that was all the motivation needed to keep at a job he never truly enjoyed.
Now that his kids are grown and on their own, he faces an increasingly stark scenario. Deadlines approach, the work pace quickens, his ability to keep up wanes, and the desire and motivation needed to plow through it all has vanished.
He concludes that what’s required of him, and where he is philosophically (at sixty), have diverged irreconcilably. He feels this in his bones and in his gut every morning when he wakes.
And there’s a nagging sense of entitlement, that at this phase of life he’s earned the right to slow down — to take his foot off the gas — to smell the roses. He romanticizes about a job that doesn’t follow him home every night. A job that ends when the day ends and doesn’t occupy his mind ceaselessly.
At sixty, he has no interest in climbing the corporate ladder. Instead, he wants to set it ablaze, sit cross-legged on his cubicle floor, and watch it burn to ash.
At sixty, he has no illusions about discovering job satisfaction. That boat has sailed, and there’s no sense lamenting he never got on it. Instead, he’s looking for balance.
He’s looking for “just enough.”
Just enough to pay his bills and free up some time.
Just enough to sip coffee in solitude, and not worry about work.
At sixty, he sits at a dimly lit kitchen table, looking for a way out.