He’s standing uncomfortably close, inches from my face. It’s closer than is reasonably comfortable for most people. Entirely too close for someone like me, who has intimacy issues. He’s broken the barrier, that safe distance I keep around myself in situations like this – most situations anyway. He won’t let me look away, won’t let me break eye contact. Every time I move my head, he moves. Every time I look down, he bends at the waist, cranes his neck and looks up into my eyes. And his voice, it’s too direct, penetrating. He won’t let me brush him off.
“You’re getting screwed,” he says. It’s a statement, not a question or an inference. It’s plain as day. Straight fact. “You’re getting screwed,” he repeats. And in that moment we’re not standing in a crowded kitchen, at a casual summer time house party on a Friday night. My wife is not standing to my side awkwardly trying to make small talk with his wife and they are not trying to make it seem as though they don’t know something is happening. I’m not leaning against a stove and he is not inserting himself between me and the butcher’s block, into my personal space, into my head. We are Matt Damon and Robin Williams in the impossibly large office of a community college professor. I am Will Hunting and he is Sean Maguire, telling me it’s not my fault. All the abuse. All the scars, the excuses, the disappointments and broken dreams.
“You are getting screwed,” he says, this time with a bit more force. There’s certainty in it, and maybe some compassionate anger. I try to deflect like Will. “I know,” I say and try again to look away. I’m beyond discomfort, beyond that naked shifting feeling I usually get when someone tries to pry me open like a can of tuna. I can feel my heart beating hard and I want it to stop. But he won’t let me. He won’t let me deflect him. He won’t let me off the hook. He puts his glass of wine down on the counter, his hands on my shoulders. Our noses are almost touching now.
“You are getting screwed and you deserve better.” A tear forms in the corner of my eye. I can’t back up anymore. There’s no place for me to run. My legs, my butt, all are pressed hard against the stove. My hands on the cool burners. My head drops, my back arches forward in release. And I begin to cry. Not sob. I let a few tears stream down my cheeks. My wife’s hand traces my spine and she turns to face me. Curtis’s hands stay on my shoulders. “You deserve better than that and I want to help you,” he says and its as if the scar-tissue scaffolding that’s been propping me up for as long as I can remember has turned to dust leaving the raw exposed meat in a puddle somewhere inside me. I have given up deflection. I have given up stoic resolve. I have admitted, to myself and those touching me, those closest to me know without me having to say anything. I turn to my wife and there’s a tear in her eye, a smile on her face. Genuine compassion. Genuine feeling and an understanding that the struggle is taking a turn; that I’m ready to admit something I have never – not in my entire life – been able to admit.
I can’t do it alone. I need help. And now I have it.
This was not the moment I had expected to have when I pulled up to our friends’ – Kevin and Jeni – house that Friday evening. I had expected it would be like any other house party in the suburbs. The kids would play in the yard. The adults would sip beer and wine and talk without talking, keep the evening moving forward without sharing or letting on. There would be some food, some talk about sports and the weather, summer plans and probably a few jokes. My wife would chat excitedly with her friends about the latest news and gossip. I would do what I always do – stand around with the guys on the back patio and listen to them talk about their golf games, their stock portfolios, their great success. I had gotten pretty good at it over the years, gotten pretty good at having those kinds of conversations without reference. I don’t play much golf. I didn’t have a portfolio or a serious adult job. I made in a year what most of these guys made every couple of months. And, truth be told, I didn’t understand how I could be their friend. We didn’t have much in common, apart from the community of wives.
I always felt a little inferior. Or a lot. English major. Writer. Journalist. Editor. Not personal finance guru or software salesman. Not an engineer like my dad. I didn’t have a house, let alone a yard or a real means of getting one. I didn’t have a nice car or take a guy’s trip every year. I had not, at that point, managed to take my family on vacation. My wife made more money as a first grade teacher than I did and our kids went to day care. I felt like an outsider on a good day, but managed to get buy with beer and self-deprication, some witty jokes and an anecdote or two about the people I had met through my work at the magazine or my past at a newspaper. But, like I said, that was on a good day. And this particular Friday had not been a good day. The magazine wasn’t making the money it had. Some people had left. And my boss had called me into his office as I was on my way out the door for a talk. It’s never good when your boss schedules a meeting for the end of the day on Friday, even worse when he doesn’t mention what its about.
“Craig,” he told me, “I think you know that we’re having a hard time making this thing work…” That was how it began and what followed was a fifteen minute kick in the gut. I wasn’t fired, absolutely not. I was the heart and soul of the magazine. Everyone knew it. Everyone knew how hard I was working, that any success they had was because of me. I was too valuable to let go, he told me. But I knew there was something else. There was a ‘but’ coming and I knew I wouldn’t like it.
“But, we can’t keep it going and continue to pay you the way we have.”
The long and the short of it was that I was going to be expected to pull double duty, to cover the work left by someone who had the good sense to jump ship and for my efforts my salary was being cut. I would have twice the responsibility and instead of making $40,000 a year, I would be making $35,000. It was another thing, another kick in the gut that was following a long string of kicks to the gut. Childcare for our two sons already ate up most of my salary. Then there was rent, groceries, gas, insurance, phone and cable bills. We were just barely, and not really, getting by. Paying off the mistakes of our first years of marriage ate up a huge chunk of everything else. This wouldn’t work. Making less money, any less money, would be catastrophic. And I was stuck. There was no other job for me at the moment. No other options. And I couldn’t stand the idea of looking at my wife and telling her that one more thing had happened, that one more disappointment was coming her way. I felt less like a man than I ever had, less able to provide for my family, less like a person than I could have ever imagined.
But I was dumbstruck.
Instead of telling the boss to shove it, to take his condescension and stick it where the sun don’t shine, I demurred. I feigned enthusiasm. I feigned understanding even as I realized I was less sure about my life than I ever had been. I think I even shook his hand before I got in the car and drove to meet my wife and kids at yet another party, yet another gathering of the people who were living reminders of my own personal sense of failure.
I pulled up to the house and turned off the ignition. I sat in the car for almost ten minutes rehearsing what I would say, what I would do. I might have chosen to not tell my wife. That had been an option at one point in my life. But I was too raw, too struck by what had happened. It was worse than getting fired. It was proof that I could be taken advantage of. I came to the realization that I had to tell her, to rip the bandage off quickly. I thought maybe there was protection in cooperation, maybe she would blame me less if I brought her in as soon as possible. And if I told her at a party, then we couldn’t fight about my inaction, my failure to stand up for myself, for her, for our family.
I got out of the car and walked purposefully to the garage door – quickness steeled my resolve. I opened the door and saw her standing there, looking beautiful, sipping a glass of margarita and chatting with her friends. I hesitated. I hated the idea that I might break this woman’s heart. Again. She was and is everything to me. I nearly couldn’t do it. I didn’t even go inside, just leaned through the doorway and called her name. She turned and smiled. I told her we needed to talk and we stepped into the garage.
I told her everything and waited for her justifiable anger, but it didn’t come. She wasn’t mad or broken or hurt, not outwardly anyway and that broke my heart worse than anger. We can all deal with expected things, but perhaps the hardest thing to deal with is when the people we love do something kinder, better than we expect. Compassion is jarring, but it also has to do with expectation. What does it say about me that I expected her to be angry? It says I didn’t have enough faith in her to understand, I didn’t have enough faith in her to love me. She gave me a hug and reassured me that we’d make it, then she said, “You should tell Curtis.”
My friend, a former mime turned speaker and consultant who had been there before- Curtis Zimmerman. Not a guru, but a guy who grew up rougher than he should have – than anyone should – who had turned a good attitude and hard work into a life worth writing about, a life I helped him write about, and the man now standing uncomfortably close to my face.
“How much do you need to make every month?” he asked me. I had wiped the tears from my face but could still feel them there, like phantoms of my own weakness.
“How much do you need to make every month to pay your bills?”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes, what do you need to break even?”
I did some quick math, a number after childcare and everything else and spit it out.
“Done,” he said. “I’m going to pay your bills for the next six months. You can stay home with the kids and come in to my office one day a week to help me with some projects. We’ll cover your bills so you don’t have to worry, but you have to walk into your boss’s office on Monday and quit your job. You’re getting screwed and you deserve better than that. I believe in you. I believe you deserve better.”
The shock of the moment was such that it didn’t seem real. I looked at my wife and she said with her look that she agreed with him. His wife too smiled at me. I felt this incredible lightness, a weightless feeling that I had and have never again known. My wife handed me a beer and Curtis patted my shoulder.
“Call me Monday when you’ve done it and we’ll work out the details,” he said as if he were used to changing someone’s life, as if he did this kind of thing every day, which, knowing him as I do now, I suppose he does.
It didn’t seem like he had to think about it, consider anything. He made his mind up at some point during my story that he was going to invest in me in a way I didn’t feel I’d deserved, decided that he needed to create a change in me. It was something he felt the need to do. I can’t be sure he knew then that years later I would still look at it as a transformative moment. Looking back, it rivals the day I met my wife, the days my children were born, the day I paid off all our old debts, as one of the defining moments of my life. And I know that I will spend a lifetime trying to repay him. It was the true beginning of one of the most important relationships in my life, the moment I felt like someone worthy of another person’s investment of time and, yes, money, but also their passion. It was the day I realized I had a friend I could take anything to, a person I would invest myself in without thought of gain. It was the day a mime became my mentor and it was one of the best, most important days of my life.
“Now,” he said, finally breaking eye contact, “this is a party, so let’s have some fun.”