As much as he was looking forward to seeing The Bourne Ultimatum at the Cineplex with his friends that night, Greg had to decline the invitation. Now that he was a member of the early twentysomething crowd, he understood that sometimes responsibility overshadowed fun or desire or hunger, and heading to the movies now would’ve been irresponsible. Sure, he could rebel against the adult thing and go anyway because he loved The Bourne Identity and couldn’t wait for the sequels. But then what? His friends weren’t going to pay for his ticket. They were all bringing dates. They were already looking at nearly ten bucks for their tickets, times two, and another ten for their drinks and popcorn, times two, and no one was going to two-time his date by paying for Greg as well. Simple economics. He could go, but he would have to stand outside for two hours while his friends enjoyed the show. He wasn’t an idiot.
Turning down the invitation had to be the rational decision then. Because he was no longer a teenager, he needed to do the responsible thing, and the responsible thing for a twentysomething on this lively Friday night was to stay home and padlock his wallet. Unless he had imagined it, he kept a ten-dollar bill inside. He probably could have paid for the movie. But bills were due in a week. He had to make it last. He knew it was another step on the road to becoming a better man.
“It’s for the best,” he said to himself. He clicked his heels three times, just in case.
He figured he could make staying at home fun somehow. Maybe he could search the carpet for potato chip crumbs. He’d spent the last month staring at them, telling himself he’d get around to dealing with them, because he had to clean his place at some point, and he had to keep up the appearance that he was no slob. Maybe he could make a game of it, see how many he could scavenge in a minute and then try to beat that record. But then he thought about his stomach and how he’d probably need a snack later.
Of course, he’d never hear his stomach rumbling at the cusp of midnight. By ten o’clock on this lively Friday night where young lovers enjoyed each other amid the glow of Jason Bourne kicking ass, twentysomething Greg had already passed out on his couch from having cried into the crook of his elbow for an hour and a half, wondering if he would ever climb out of this black hole that had found its way under his feet. He was really looking forward to seeing that movie with his friends.
The sound of his phone was the only thing bringing him back to reality. It had woken him up. He’d almost let the ringing die out when he reached for it.
“Greg,” said the voice on the other end, “where are you, man? We’re still waiting to eat, and the movie starts in an hour.”
Greg was still on his couch, arm still crooked over his eyes. I’m broke, you idiot.
“The girls brought a friend of theirs, Rachel. She’s exactly your type. Exactly. You need to get here right now.”
He pulled himself to a sitting position, stared at the wall. Most of the girls he knew were not his type, at all.
“There’s still time to get here,” his friend said. “But hurry. Rachel’s hungry, and we promised you’d buy her meal, like you would on a date.”
Greg continued staring at the wall. It seemed his friend was giving him time to think about that. When Greg didn’t respond, his friend clarified the most important part of his message.
“We got you a date, man. Captain Riggs Steakhouse. Get over here now.”
His friend hung up. Greg sprang from his couch and raced to his bedroom, searching for his wallet. When he found it, he opened it for another look.
The same ten-dollar bill waited for him to make a move. The average meal at Captain Riggs Steakhouse cost at least thirteen and change, not including tip. And he’d still have to buy a movie ticket–no, two movie tickets–afterward. If Rachel were of any dating value, she’d want to see a new Jason Bourne movie, too.
He stared at his wallet. Then he stared at the wall. Then he threw his wallet at the wall.
Then he went back to the couch and belly-flopped the cushions.
The only thing permeating his dreams that night was the stark reality that he was getting too old for this growing-up crap.
The following Friday, with the ballpoint pen he had stolen from a box of Office Depot brand generics dying in his hand, Greg signed the three-figure rent check, careful not to gash the paper with the almost bone dry tip, and he wept to himself. As he ripped the sheet from his thinning checkbook, he was sure the tearing had split the structure of his wounded heart. Another lost chance at freedom, he thought.
Scrambling for an ounce of hope, some indicator that he displayed a shred of financial success, he looked around his dingy apartment, taking inventory of his sparse supply of amenities for validation: a chair, a nineteen-inch television, a two-cushioned sofa, and a coffee table all sat quietly, refusing to stare back. No magazines sat on the table, nor were there any extra pillows populating the sofa, and there certainly weren’t any remote controls matching the television. The desk he’d gone browsing for at Office Depot the other day, the day when he had stolen the pen, was still sitting on the showroom floor for all he knew. And now, judging by his current bank balance, it seemed adding accessories to his bare apartment would’ve been a task for fairy tales.
He stared at the numerical figure in that little rectangular box. There was no way a party could expect a payment so high. He tried to laugh. Tried to keep that optimistic perspective that his professors had told him about. But he couldn’t lie to himself. He knew this wasn’t funny. His tears of sorrow were growing to a boiling anger. The apartment wasn’t even worth half the price they wanted for it.
A punishing economy with no side-love for college students. It was a common theme that every person his age dealt with, but his theme was uncommonly harsh. His theme was chronic. Every time he thought he was close to financial advancement, the winds of reality swept through his living room and blew his livelihood out the window, laughing in its singsong fury all the way down the street. The bank register appeared to laugh at him, too, the way the pages flit open like a sly grin. He flipped it to the last record to see the horror of his past figures carrying the same denominations as this, many topping the upper end of three digits. A bead of sweat rolled from his forehead; this couldn’t have been fair.
Another bead of sweat–or maybe a tear–rolled from his eye as he recorded the rent’s value under his account total. The final balance came out thin–skin of his teeth thin. Once this check made it to the renter’s hands he’d become flat broke. And that would stick him with canned soup and water for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for at least a week. Good thing he still had four dollars left from that ten-dollar bill he’d kept in his wallet. He was starving by now.
As he sat thinking about where to go from here, he wondered if anyone wanted to buy his stolen Office Depot pen for support.
It was funny, really. Three years ago Greg had it all worked it out. The plan was to leave home, move halfway across the state, and attend the University of State to study philanthropy. From his education he would learn all he needed to know about entrepreneurships, tycoonisms, and dollar hoarding. They’d teach him business, microeconomics, and show him the cheat codes to every Tycoon computer game in existence. The plan was perfect. Fulfilling it would’ve made him more successful than his father. All it required was a small cash reserve for an apartment and a little extra for his summer semester’s tuition, which he had, with change leftover to buy a shiny top hat and flirt with any random cute girl that crossed his path. The American Dream, made for him, and set loose on Easy Street Highway. Flawless.
But then disaster happened: economic turmoil flipped its middle finger at him. Although he landed his apartment and paid for his tuition–with cash leftover to buy two tickets to The Bourne Supremacy–the open job market stood behind two massive iron doors and soldered it shut with melted locks. His perfect blueprint for managing some gazillionaire’s money had somehow gotten lost at the printer’s shop.
Greg spent his first month in the big city with the Classifieds on his lap, circling any insignificant, no-degree-required job he could find. The majority of available positions involved telemarketing or other tragic options that demanded unhappy people to fake a smile, even when no one was looking. None of that was his forte, but when the end of the month came, he knew he had to do something for income. With the market he craved somehow lost in shadows, he realized lowering his standards was the only way to pull it off.
He applied to a local temp agency for additional help, thinking it would never fail since it understood his urgency for employment and had the resources to stick him in a crappy position immediately. There wasn’t much glamour in a job like telemarketing, but it paid better than fast-food places, so he swallowed his pride, stuck out his thumb, and hitched a ride to Walmart–a common temp agency hub–for his interview. He would’ve driven himself had he not needed gas for emergencies.
After delivering a successful interview through fake smiles, he landed his first telemarketing job with a local phone company.
At first he assumed he could advance the ranks to become CEO of the corporation. Then reality hit him when he failed to make a sale during his first month. His employers furthered his understanding when they assured him he would go far–very far–as long as it was with a different company.
When another rent’s due date reached the horizon, Greg returned to the Classifieds. There he circled a job that didn’t have so many sales demands. When he told his friend about the job he’d found, he scoffed at him.
“Dude, I’ve found you one better,” his friend said. “Pays by the hour, but it’s generous. You just gotta be able to talk to idiots.”
Greg thought about the requirement. Then he nodded.
“I have plenty of experience in that,” he said.