* * *
Jeffrey had never worried about making a mark in this world or leaving a genetic legacy. He knew very well that outside of the retired teachers’ roster at Johns Creek High School in Georgia, he had no other identity. However, a few times he wondered if his loneliness made him invisible.
“Loneliness makes you rigid much like what old age does to the bones. You lose your inner soft core, like how a coconut ripens and becomes crusty. You are no longer nimble.” Jeffrey’s therapist had said. She was the only other person in his life who had that much of an influence as his mother. However, this woman was alive and well.
It was Friday morning. He woke up and walked towards the kitchen. He didn’t find the piece of paper that he was looking for underneath the single Coca cola magnet on the refrigerator. He had bought the magnet 20 years ago when he had recently moved to Atlanta. He walked back and looked for the paper on his bed, aiming his hand to reach under one of the pillows. He felt it, pulled it out and sat on the bed, feet dangling off of it.
He had a routine. He was boring but he did not like to get caught off-guard. Life is full of raw unstructured time. And his mom had prepared him well for the endless stretches of boredom that lay ahead in life. Most of us become autonomous only leading into adulthood. But, he had learnt to fill his time in his own way early on.
He looked at the list. A fresh list he made every night before he went to bed. For that day, he had included time to glean for the new place to eat that he usually did one day a week and included 2 hours for nap. “Sleep makes us more effective during the day. Stress hormones impair cardiovascular functions. And, sleep is restorative.” The therapist would encourage him. But sleep eluded him.
By 7pm that night he had to board a flight to Tampa. Liz, who lived in Australia with her third husband, was gathering everyone from around the world, all of them who were left, to celebrate Rosemary’s 93rd birthday.
He looked outside the window. He groped around for his cell phone, the only phone he now owned and slid onto the floor standing straight up. He thought of his mom while making his bed. He thought of how she made her hair at the dresser while he and his brother jumped on the bed. She would giggle and sport annoyance on her forehead while scolding them for disturbing the sheets. Beds that were well made symbolized a happy home she would say. Her dresser had three long mirrors.
He brushed, flushed, showered and stepped out of his apartment to head to the bank. He withdrew 800$ which he figured were enough for a 36 hour trip to the adjacent state. The teller asked him if he wished to enroll in automatic bill pay for his utilities and if he had given some thought about internet banking. He declined the idea.
He walked up and down Peachtree Street to buy his aunt a present. He had not bought anything for anyone in a while. He zeroed in on a store that seemed to sell trinkets.
Later, he walked long enough only to stop and eat at the first place he found. They were selling gyros. After lunch he drove home. He felt sick lying on his bed, a feeling he had every time he ate lunch at any other place other than the Fresh Market burger restaurant.
The doorbell rang. He lay still on the bed, in wait, hoping that whoever was at the door would go away. It rang again. He walked into the living room deliberately, staring at the blinds from inside. He was sure that the person would not be able to see him. It was a man. He seemed to be looking in all directions possibly praying for the door to open. He held his breath for a few seconds and the guy at the door was gone.
Later that evening, he left his car at the Park and Ride parking lot in the subway station and took a train to the airport. The flight took him to Tampa in 1 hour 20 minutes. He paid for the rental car in cash and reached the Grand hotel. He had called earlier that week to reserve two nights there.
The guy at the counter was a mix of so many ethnicities that Jeffrey could not settle down on one.
“Hello sir, welcome to The Grand hotel of Tampa. What is the name of the reservation?”
“Jeffrey Morris. Thank you.”
He took the room key card and for a few minutes silently suffered through the promotional pitch the girl at the counter next to the guy had for him. Buy a timeshare property and vacation all over the world like a Raja she had told him.
He stepped into the elevator holding his brown leather travel bag. As he walked to his room he wondered if the mattress would give him a sore back or a stiff neck.
As he tried unlocking the room, he heard a loud scream from inside. He saw a lady with wet hair, her towel wrapped around covering not so much of her. She had jumped from the edge of the bed where she was blow drying her hair and ran towards the door.
He quickly pulled his right leg that had entered the room and closed the door. He could hear a deadbolt falling into place from the other side of the door. When he remembered to catch his breath, he realized he was on his tip toes and his bag had dropped to the floor.
He went back to the lobby smiling but not embarrassed. The guy at the reception looked like he had expected him all his life. Jeffrey told him he will be receiving a call shortly if he hadn’t received one yet.
He got a new room on a different floor and a 50$ bar credit for all his troubles. He figured after he was done with drinking that it was nearly not enough. How much of a waiver would the lady get for the emotional trauma she just went through? He wondered how her face looked. He had hardly got a good glimpse of her.
Next day, he got ready and went downstairs to eat his breakfast, fully refundable thanks to the half dressed woman. He walked to the parking lot, sat in his car, looked at himself in the rear view mirror, wished he had been blessed with better looks, adjusted the mirror back into position and drove to the airport.
There he waited for an hour along the side of the highway staring down at every plane that was heading onto the runways.
“I don’t know why I feel lonely. When I am watching TV or out in the park, the entertainment keeps me distracted. It is when I am by myself, something comes back to me. Most of the time, I am struggling to figure out what it is that I want to think about. Some days, I don’t want to be seen. Some days, I don’t want to be heard.” He told his therapist every time he went to see her.
“It is not a sustaining lifestyle, Jeffrey. Social isolation can be deadly. Go and stay back for a few extra days in Florida if you want to. Not many people can afford that luxury of time and money. True social connections can be uplifting to the inner spirit.” She would say.
In all the 43 years of teaching, he never took one day off claiming Mental Health Day. He knew so many of them who did, and he would think to himself that they rightfully did what they were suffering from.
He finally got the call he was waiting for from Sam. He drove to the arrivals section. Sam and Becky waved at him and looked at each other. He stayed in the car while they loaded their bags into the trunk.
“How are you, my little brother?” Sam said. He had been a car salesman, always eager to talk.
“I am doing alright, how about you both?” Jeffrey said as he handed Sam the print out for the directions to the Persian restaurant where they had to get to.
“You should come stay with us, you never visit us.” Becky said.
“I was hoping to see Maya too. What is she, 15?” Jeff was not even sure if her name was Maya.
“She is 19 Jeff, she is a sophomore at Ohio State!” She said.
“Take exit 32. Turn right on Twiggs street. It shows about quarter a mile before you take that right. So you need to be quick.” Sam never took his eyes off that sheet of paper as he spoke. They had a ride from the restaurant, they told him. They were staying at the same hotel that Liz’s family was.
Persian King, fine dining. The word fine dining did not appeal to him much. He wondered if Liz would pay the entire tab. After all it is her mother. How many families actually had people who reached that age without dying an untimely death? In some countries he had heard, most people don’t even reach the age of 16.
As they entered, he could see the old lady in a wheel chair with two balloons on either of the handles that are used to push it. When he walked up to her, she made him realize that he actually had never looked at old age so up-close. Years ago, he had helped her move from Minneapolis to Florida.
Stretching her fingers and arms with difficulty, Rosemary attempted to shake everyone’s hands to thank them for coming. She talked about having no purpose for the remainder of her life and how she felt like a burden to those who were taking care of her. Liz thanked everyone for coming and assured everyone that she would be picking up the tab.
Rosemary sat at the head of the long table. Liz sat next to her with her third husband, her son, her daughter and one of her ex-husbands. Billy Bob, Rosemary’s son had brought his grandson Henry who had brought his friend along. On the other side Jeffrey sat with Sam and Becky. The center director and a nurse from the nursing home that Rosemary stayed at were also there. The owner of the Persian King restaurant who was Rosemary’s neighbor for a more than 4 decades was there with his wife. And there was Billy Bob’s wife or girlfriend that sat at the far end of the table.
“Henry, have you met your great uncles, Samuel and Jeffrey?” Liz played the host. Henry was on the phone and responded to his great aunt by barely speaking up a hello. Crass and narcissistic, Jeffrey thought of young male teens when he had taught them all those years.
Billy Bob on the other hand spoke too much and too loud. It felt like he enhanced Jeffrey’s loneliness. Jeffrey felt more connected to the Asian guy who delivered him soup every night. He had felt a genuine concern for him and his family’s well-being.
They all ate relatively quietly for such a big crowd, most of them on their phones for the entire time. After lunch, Jeffrey gave Rosemary the basket of fake birds and eggs that he had bought, because he had remembered how her back yard was always filled with trees and the bird feeders attached to them. He left the restaurant while many of them were still eating. He told them that he was tired from all the traveling.
He drove to Williamsburg which was 45 minutes away. This was his little secret to spend some time in the town he grew up.
He parallel parked along one of the streets in downtown. As he walked around, he was not sure if he could just eat up with a spoon as he had thought. He rubber-necked around town staring at most street corners as if they cropped up without informing him. It was not a small town anymore. And as if to prove it, he ended up getting a ticket for jaywalking.
As he wrapped up his rendezvous with the police officer, he noticed a Chiropractor’s office at the corner of the street. He walked in wondering if it belonged to the same Charles Hall, his high school buddy.
“Oh my Lord, Jeffrey?! Is that you?! How have you been??!”
Charles moved over from standing over near the receptionist’s chair and gave him a big hug. The encounter made Jeffrey weak and underwhelmed with emotion.
Charles insisted that his old buddy drive with him to his house and meet his wife.
“We are going on a cruise for Thanksgiving. You should join us.” The chiropractor’s wife had said. They were also going to be hosting a lot of people for the International Latvia Theatre festival in December. She suggested that he relocate to Florida. He could move in with them with his stuff in the storage until he found a place of his own.
Throughout the evening he found himself emerging from thoughts and fading back into them as he sipped on scotch from his friend’s elaborate alcohol collection.
On his way back to the Grand, Jeffrey passed by an ice-cream shop. He wet his lips and adjusted his glasses on his nose and made a U turn the first chance he got.
“Give me the best flavor you have!” He asked the girl at the counter with well-meaning patronization.
As he sat on a bench and ate, he felt different. Anyone could just simply walk into his life and start living like him without missing a heartbeat. After all, it has been a routine he was following for 10 years since he retired. He knew the person who made his coffee every morning, the one who made his lunch and the guy who delivered food to his house most nights of the week. But, today he felt like he wanted to get caught off-guard.
Back at the hotel, he found a different concierge. He asked her for a change of room, specifically 407. He felt a little apprehensive that it might still be occupied. In case she asked, he had prepared to lie that staying on the 10th floor made him sick. But no one, especially those in the hospitality industry, asked questions anymore.
He walked into the room with his bag. He set it down and sat at the same corner of the bed where he saw the lady the previous night. It had been a while since he saw a woman half dressed. What was Katherine doing with her life now? After she left him two years into the marriage without explanation, he kept making two cups of tea in the morning for a very long time, mostly out of habit he had told himself.
Marriages are not redeeming. He had heard that Liz’s daughter took a divorce because her husband would not keep a clean house; she complained that he never put back the cups or dishes where they belonged. But, aren’t wives supposed to be enablers?
He thought of the first day he and Katherine had seen each other at a party. How they had stolen glances at each other for two full hours as if devouring each other’s bodies before she finally made a move. He did not want to help himself tonight. He wanted to respect himself. Instead, he reached his right hand out and felt the soft bed. He moved his fingers across to touch. There was nothing in the room to return the sensation. He had no one.
He fell asleep sitting down against two pillows and woke up Sunday morning with a stiff neck.
At the airport he paid the extra fare to get himself upgraded to First Class. The lady next to him smiled at him as he approached his seat. She had no ring on her finger. Strange, he never cared much about anything before this trip.
With a sense of urgency, he thought of all the things he would have to do before he would move to the Sunshine State. He had made up his mind sometime during the previous night. He started writing down everything that needed to be sorted out.
He had to start with cleaning all the shelves in the apartment. He had to get rid of the big bags of oatmeal and rice that he bought from Costco. What was he thinking, buying in bulk for a single guy like him?
He wondered if he could ask the girl who lived downstairs if she would be interested in the tread mill. She had no modesty he had thought of her when he came across her on the stairs. A Tasmanian devil gave her company. Better to have none than be with such a dog he had thought.
He made a plan of giving all his old clothes and electronics to the folks who cleaned around the neighborhood and mowed lawns. The last time he left stuff at the curb for people to take he got a citation for littering. He had been a victim of unreasonable citations. He laughed at that thought.
He decided that a trip to the doctor should be on the list. He needed to get this morning fatigue checked out. The doctor’s office had a poster that always gave him smile. It was a joke from the New Yorker. “Bob, it’s just a paper cut, but just to be sure, let’s do a lot of tests.” It had said.
Next on his mind was the tattoo. He had always wanted to get the “Eye of Horus” one. Now was the time in his life he would do it. A while ago, he had found out how much it cost to get one. 450$. What would he do with all that money in the bank anyway?
Early next year, he contemplated visiting Paris and a few Eastern European countries. Their accents are so intriguing. He remembered one of the exchange students he had. Liis Variku, the 18-year-old from Estonia, the one who wanted to go back and teach English because her country had a shortage of English teachers. He would stay back in Paris just because he could. Just like how his therapist had suggested.
As the flight approached Atlanta, he saw the lady next to him started to unwrap a vanity case full of makeup brushes and equipment he was not familiar with anymore. He secretly watched the entire production of the session. The way she meticulously made her way from brush one to 7 amused him. He was happy about his decision to fly first class.
Jeffrey got up to wash his face, half inspired by the lady sitting next to him and half because fatigue had been bothering him. He washed his face with cold water and stared at himself in the mirror. His eyebrows were standing up and he gently made them sleep into position using his index fingers. He looked around; the bathroom was as big as the one in his apartment. He should go to Paris flying first class he decided.
Jeffrey never made it to his seat or his to-do list. He collapsed on his way back from the bathroom.
“Loneliness is tied to higher rates of premature death according to research. You are on the social perimeter. Don’t go into self-preservation mode. People might openly say that they are hungry, thirsty, hurt or happy but they cannot even confess to their parents or their closest friends that they are lonely and depressed. People assume a lot of stigma around loneliness. When we are born, we are alone. But, human life is full of connective abilities. No one has ever been able to figure out life all by himself.”