Friday night, Duane Spence’s boss texted him from 9 to 10 o’clock about a bunch of urgent work related stuff that held little interest for Duane’s slightly intoxicated mind. His son, Jack, was home from college for Easter weekend, and he’d brought along his new girlfriend. They’d all gone to dinner, and Duane and his wife, Elyse both had a few margaritas. They’re not naturally social people, and they find that a little alcohol helps with that. He thinks a lot of alcohol helps more, but Elyse assures him that part is completely in his head. It had been a stressful week at work, and they’d both been eating healthy for a few weeks. They needed a break. And that was it, three hours away from work spent enjoying his family and getting a little buzz. Now here was work again on his phone pressing at the edges of his personal space. There’s a thing called work-life balance. Supposedly it’s real and actually important to some employers. Duane didn’t have one of those employers. He worked from the office. He worked from home. He worked from bed. He worked on vacations. He worked on weekends. He was completely unable to compartmentalize his job. Home stayed at home, but work would not stay at work. He went to bed while his boss was still texting, deciding he’d rather not deal with it that night. This was how his weekend started.
Saturday morning, he finished the text exchange with his boss. It lasted another two hours. During the exchange, He downloaded an app for his phone. He’d read about it in an article online a few days prior. It connects to all of the fitness tracking apps on your phone and gives you an estimated life expectancy. What it probably does in actuality is gather all of your information and sell it to advertisers, or worse, sell it to the Russians. After downloading the app and connecting it to all the relevant data sources, it returned an estimated life span of 62.6 years. Duane was 45.
62.6 was only 17 years away. 45 was supposed to be mid-life. Suddenly, he had missed the middle altogether. He was nearing the end. There would be no retirement, no travels, no finish line to look toward. The light at the end of the tunnel was gone. Now it was just going to be tunnel, tunnel, tunnel, urn.
He was prepared for mid-life. He was doing it correctly. He had a good marriage. Their only son was in his first year of college. They had a middling life in the burbs. He had a job that sucked enough to make him daydream of a better life, but not enough to make him do anything about it. He even had a shiny red convertible sports car. He felt that the experience of the car, more than the car itself, was the truest expression of mid-life. He could finally afford a beautiful car that could go 200 miles per hour, but he spent his time in it going 20 in traffic with his soul almost literally aching for speed. That’s what mid-life was. It was a slow simmering anxiety attack stuck in first gear in a vehicle that was made for speed. More and more these days the anxiety was becoming depression. The kind of depression that wants to stay in bed for a month but has to get up and go to work. He was full on ennui or maybe it was angst. He was too tired to look it up. He wasn’t too tired at that moment. He was too tired in all of the moments. This was the middle of his life. Then it wasn’t.
Elyse went to the hair salon after breakfast, then to her mom’s. Jack and his girlfriend went out for the day. They were all going out that evening to see a movie that Duane had been waiting on for months. He waited out the final stretch on autopilot. He alternated between staring blankly at the television, staring blankly at his phone and staring blankly at his tablet for several hours. He ordered in a sandwich for lunch and fed his tiny hangover with snack food he found in the kitchen. He considered having a few beers but ultimately decided against it. He wasn’t opposed to drinking alone. He’d spent much of twenties alone. During those years, he learned how to cook for one, how to curate an evening’s entertainment for one and how to maintain a steady buzz throughout an afternoon or even on occasion to drink himself to sleep without feeling guilty about it. He met Elyse when they were 29 and Jack was 3. They married when they were 32. At the time he was young, but now he knew that had been the middle of his life.
The afternoon passed as all Saturday afternoons do. The minutes blurred into to half hour blocks of television. Half hours became hours, and soon enough the sun was past its zenith and moving toward the horizon. They were finally all back in the same place, and it was time to go to the movies. Jack drove, as his car most easily accommodated four people.
The movie was wonderful. Duane had always loved the escape provided by movies. Even in rowdy theaters, he could lose himself in the story completely. He came from a modest family who only went to the movies once or twice a year. It was a treat of the rarest form to experience a movie in a theater. His brother had a friend whose mom would occasionally take the boys to the drive-in. They also had an older cousin who sometimes took them to the movies. When he was 14, his mom took off every Wednesday during the summer and took him to see a movie at the dollar theater. He cherished each of those memories, and to this day he could usually tell you in what theater he had seen a movie, as well as who he was with. In his teens he got a job in an old one screen theater in his hometown. A few years earlier, it had been converted to three screens, the original one screen downstairs and two smaller ones upstairs where the balcony had been. On Thursday nights, the new movies came in heavy octagonal metal cans filled with reels of film. He would stay after the theater closed, all alone, sometimes until two or three in the morning putting the reels together into one big reel on the platters that fed into the 35mm projectors. More than once, he had invited his friends to come in, and he showed a new movie the night before it was released. In the years he worked at the theater, he saw every movie they showed, over and over, until he could quote them from memory. He soon discovered that he could trade free movie tickets with employees at other theaters and see any movie he wanted anywhere for free. This opened up hundreds of avenues of escape, and he took them all. In the intervening years, his obsession with escapism had not waned. Saturday night’s escape was needed and appreciated.
After the movie, as Jack drove them home, Duane found himself in the backseat, staring out the window at the evening skyline. They passed several buildings, and he could see into their well-lit office spaces. Looking upward, he saw floor after floor of the same pattern of fluorescent lights. He thought of the hundreds of people who work in those offices. He imagined himself in each office, then in all of them, toiling at whatever life sucking task is done there in trade for a salary. How many hours of life are exchanged every day in those places for a little piece of financial security? How monotonously similar are the lives of every person in every building, in every house or apartment and in his own home? He had traded his own hours for financial comfort until the hours added up to a whole lifetime, and the comfort was a bed of nails. A deep melancholy overtook him. The weight of the unbalanced trade of his life was such that he wasn’t certain he’d be able to pull himself from the car when they got home. He wanted to close his eyes right there and dream of a world where he wasn’t himself, or better still, to not dream at all. He just wanted to close his eyes and be nothing.
Sunday was Easter. The office was closed, which limited the burden of work for an entire day. It even slowed the email flow to a manageable trickle. That only happened four times a year. The family didn’t have Easter plans. They’d never really had regular Easter plans. In Duane’s childhood, Easter was a holiday celebrated with the whole family at his grandmother’s house. One of his niece’s had recently commented that if there was a heaven, it would be their grandmother’s house on Easter morning. It had been one of the big four holidays. Now it was one of the four days with less email. Duane and Elyse weren’t religious, and for years Elyse worked on Easter Sunday so her coworkers could be off with their families. For reasons they didn’t completely understand, Jack was religious. So they did occasionally have to attend a sunrise service to see him perform with the church youth band. In recent years Elyse was working a different job that allowed her weekends off. So she would make a ham, and they’d have her parents over for dinner.
This year though, there would be no ham. It would just be a normal Sunday, which meant watching all of the Sunday morning news shows, grocery shopping and running errands. Jack and his girlfriend were planning to leave early for the drive back to college. So they hadn’t planned an Easter dinner. Elyse had prepared Easter baskets for both of them. She was that kind of person, which is to say, the good kind. She cared for the feelings of people she barely knew, and tended to them with the same compassion she carried for her only son. Duane loved to witness it, even if he couldn’t duplicate it himself. It was the light of this little family, Elyse and Jack, that kept Duane’s darkness at bay. They had been partially broken since Jack went away to college, and these little weekend visits made them whole again.
The early drive back didn’t happen. The kids both slept until nearly noon, ate breakfast then left around 12:30. Because Duane and Elyse had waited to see them off before venturing out for their day, they were delayed in their routines as well. They did eventually get their day underway. They bought groceries, did laundry and even got in a nice visit with Elyse’s mom. It was a day of leisure mixed with just the right amount of necessary productivity to prevent the feeling of waste that comes at the end of some days. By nightfall, they were both ready to put a bow on the weekend, so they turned in early. Before he went to bed, Duane refreshed the app. Still 62.6.