The Low Season: Part Six of Ten

In Spring 2007 I published an essay called “The Low Season” in The Cimarron Review. It’s the story of how my wife and I paid for a month in Puerto Vallarta with money we made by attending timeshare presentations. Because I now live in Myrtle Beach, a place that exists largely thanks to the vacation industry, the time seems right to revisit the piece. So I’m going to serialize it here. One part every week for ten weeks. To start reading from the beginning, scroll down.

The Low Season

Part Six: The Workday

The next morning, the phone rings. I look across the horizon of the bed, over Kate’s shoulder, toward her travel alarm: 9:32. The ringing has temporarily silenced the debate between Kate and me over whether to follow through on this presentation or not. She wants to get the money and get it over with. I want to sleep off my hangover and re-book for this afternoon. I reach for the hotel phone. “Hola?”

“Señor, Joe! Buenas dias!” says a clearly not hung-over Eyder. “Ready for the tour?”

“You said ten o’clock, right?”

“The tour starts at ten.”

Kate slides out of bed and heads to the bathroom. I sit up too quickly, and the headache settles into my frontal lobe. Massaging my temples, I stretch the phone cord out to the balcony. Two cabbies are parked along the curb, smoking cigarettes under a tree. “How long does it take to get there by cab?”

“No, Señor Joe. I’m in the lobby. Waiting for you.”

“You’re downstairs right now?”

“Come down whenever you’re ready.”

I hang up, and I can hear Kate knocking her toothbrush against the sink. “Remember, this was all your idea,” she says. She rinses and spits. “You wanted to talk to the guy. I wanted to get dinner.”

She’s right, of course. And when we finally did walk away from Eyder to go eat, I was still trying to sell her. “We can’t afford not to do this,” I said. We were sitting across the restaurant table from each other. “I mean, the gig pays $120 an hour.” I dipped a chip into good guacamole. “Each.”

“If you’re so worried about money,” she said, “why’d you quit your job?”

“I quit my day job.” I scanned the menu, looking for Steak Tampiquena. “My job is playing music.”

Kate smoothed her napkin across her lap. “And how much does that pay?”

Everything and nothing.

Like so many skinny-legged suburban kids, my plan had always been rock superstardom. For me and my bandmates in Watershed, it almost happened. In our mid-twenties we signed with Epic Records. We moved into a Manhattan apartment. We limousined to parties where industry-types cupped their hands to our ears and whisper-shouted that we were the next big thing.  But our record didn’t sell, so the label dropped us.

That was ten years ago, and though Watershed has had success since, none of it is reflected in my bank account. I can’t afford to quit my day job. But before Kate and I left Columbus, that’s exactly what I did.

I’d been working as an admin at an architecture firm. This was just my latest stab at finding an acceptable, bill-paying plan B. I’ve also worked with the disabled. I’ve bussed tables and washed dishes. I’ve served up meatloaf to murderers in a psychiatric hospital. I’ve driven trucks and forklifts. I’ve bagged groceries and rounded up shopping carts. I’ve taken the LSAT and applied to law schools. I’ve thought seriously about joining the C.I.A.

Music used to afford me the luxury of absolutes. Even after being dropped from Epic, I was convinced that I’d still end up a rock star. But now, as I slide into to my mid-thirties, I can’t help but doubt a little. And that doubt is reinforced every time Kate and I get invited over to a friend’s house for dinner. When we see their three car garages and twelve-foot high ceilings and stainless steel mega-grilles, we think: Damn, they have such nice things.

It’s like there’s a success growth chart, and Kate and I, even standing on our tiptoes, don’t measure up. The chart tells us that at our age we should be neck deep in careers. We should be ascending to upper management positions. We should be receiving holiday cards from an insurance agent, a financial planner, a realtor—their professional smiles beaming from magnets stuck to a restaurant-grade Frigidaire.

Instead I’m typing-out two weeks notice and hopping into a van.

Kate feels this pressure too. She felt it, anyway. Back when she used to work sixty hours a week for a hip advertising agency, she would come home late, collapse on our ratty couch, look around our college-ghetto apartment, and give me a look that said, You’re gonna have to get a real job soon, buddy. Now she’s back in school, going after a Ph. D. in English, making a quarter of the money she used to, and yet she seems more comfortable in our apartment—and in our friends’ houses—than I do. Somehow graduate school has made Kate content with what we have; she doesn’t care about what we don’t.

I understand that Kate and I aren’t as successful as the commercials and sit-coms tell us we should be. So I lean on the idea that material wealth is bullshit, that my friends are anesthetized by their possessions. I tell myself that their TiVo systems and Home Theater Surround Sounds are nothing but table scraps the people with the true power serve up as distractions. Let them eat name-brand consumer electronics! I have to find wealth in my “freedom” from financial trappings. I have to think I’m better, or at least somehow more righteous, than my by-the-book friends. But most of all, I need to believe I’m happier than them. Because if I’m not, if I’m not happier, then what have I been doing all these years?

Now Kate’s looking into the bathroom mirror, fixing her lip gloss. Satisfied, she turns to me. “Okay, amigo,” she says. She’s got my toothpaste in one hand, my toothbrush in the other. “Time to go to work.”

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