When’s the best time to have a breakdown?
Were someone to rank the worst times to have one, six hours before your 50th birthday might top that list.
John was having precisely that. A breakdown of the existential kind. At Lincoln Park, New Jersey, at the Sunset Pub & Grill. The restaurant, a favorite among aviators, was right next to the general aviation airport runway. The watering-hole lived up to its reputation as a beautiful place to watch the sunset while painting the sky with a palette that changed colors with the seasons. One could also celebrate feats of engineering and human ingenuity in the small planes and helicopters that took off and landed as they practiced their pattern work.
It was also a great place to eat and catch up with old friends, which was what we were doing. John, Raj, Mona, and me.
We were a close-knit group of four friends who had stayed in regular touch ever since we’d graduated from college. We tried to meet at least once every two years, usually at one of our homes. When work or life took us to each others’ cities, we had an open invitation to a spare bed of some flavor. A great meal, a stiff drink, and old-world camaraderie were always guaranteed. We shared experiences and stories as we moved jobs and careers across countries and continents. We traded joys and sorrows as we dated, got married, had children, cared for, and sometimes lost parents, grew in our careers and waistlines, and settled into our respective suburban existences across the world.
This time, our excuse for catching up was John’s 50th birthday, which we were hoping to ring in at midnight. In exactly six hours and twenty minutes.
As we suspected, and later learned, a birthday was the very last thing on John’s mind. John’s wife initially wanted to have a large party calling a few dozen of their friends, many of whom were ours too, but John would have none of that. A few months earlier, John had undergone angioplasty for a block in his heart. It was in his left descending artery— one that doctors cruelly called ‘the widowmaker.’ John was reasonably fit, and so, we were all surprised. The doctors attributed it to stress and its unhealthy companions.
As far as we were all concerned, his 50th was a huge reason to celebrate as he found the arterial block in time, addressed it, and lived to see fifty in reasonably good health. After much convincing by his wife and us, John reluctantly agreed to a quieter event— catching up with just the three of us. We should have guessed then that something else was bothering him. There was a slow but rapidly increasing hum of discontent.
“Kai, this is a lovely place,” John said, looking at me and pointing in the general direction of the sounds of banter around us. “But, is this even a reason to celebrate? I mean, if you think about it, all that’s happened is that the Earth has gone around the Sun fifty times since I was born. That’s it. There’s nothing else to it.”
And as if to illustrate his point, John walked around the three of us at our outdoor table with his half-finished glass of Guinness in hand, distracting our attention from a Piper Archer that had made a textbook perfect landing on Runway 19.
“And why fifty? Why this obsession with multiples of five and ten? Why not seven? We should have celebrated my forty-ninth birthday before I went into the hospital. And next, my fifty-sixth. And then…”
Raj cut him off just as John’s voice was embarking upon higher octaves.
“All right. We now know that you remember your multiplication tables. It’s the least we’d expect from a successful investment banker—the ability to count. Why tens? There are many reasons for adopting the decimal system, starting with the number of fingers we have. Or as they’re often known, digits…”
“There he goes on another tangent,” Mona groaned.
Raj, a Physics professor at Oxford, had a reputation for knowing something about everything, but this was certainly not the right time or occasion for a discourse on the evolution of number systems. Raj also had a bad reputation as far as his sense of timing was concerned. He almost seemed oblivious to the context of things. Knowing him as well as we did, we accepted that it was his price for brilliance.
“Raj, let’s discuss numbers another time?” Mona implored. “For now, a couple of things. First, John, could you please sit? Between those planes taking off and landing, my almost perfect margarita, and your impersonation of planet Earth orbiting the Sun, I’m starting to feel like I’m on a theme-park ride. And second, we thought this is what you wanted and finally agreed to? A tetra-celebration.”
Over the years, the four of us had gotten used to prefixing our catch-ups with the word Tetra. Tetra-vacations, tetra-dinners, tetra-anything were all the subject lines of emails exchanged. Even our WhatsApp group was called Tetra. It was our unique word from the name of a short-lived rock band we’d formed at college. We were high on ambition but short on talent.
“Yeah,” I chimed in. “What’s up? Something’s eating you. And knowing you as well as we do, it appears it’s been eating you for a while now?”
John (thankfully) sat down again, took a quick breath, and let out a prolonged sigh. One of those sighs that sound like someone has the weight of the world on their shoulders and hopes they can breathe it away or into submission.
“You’re right,” he said. “This has been bouncing around in my head for a while now.”
“What has?” the three of us asked with our eyes.
“My life,” John continued. “Of late, I seem to be questioning everything. I’m pretty sure that when we were at college if you’d asked me what I wanted, this is not what I would have described.”
“This?” Raj asked.
“Yeah. This. A life that feels like a personalized version of the script for Groundhog Day—doing the same thing day after day after day after day.”
Mona, feeling another Earth impersonation coming from John, cut him off.
“John, that’s pretty strange coming from you. If you ask anyone who knows you, they’d say you have everything—a great life, a loving family, an upward career, talented and grounded kids who are doing well at college. Anyone would be envious. And hey, you even have a 50th birthday celebration with all this,” she said as she stretched her hands to include the landscape around us. “You’re lucky that you are younger than the three of us. Remember how it was when each of us turned fifty? We celebrated over tetra-Zoom calls. We had no other option.”
“Oh yeah,” Raj added. “Don’t remind us about 2020. The year of the rat that ended up becoming the year of the virus. Don’t we remember it all too well even though it was three years ago?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” John said. “I know. And I don’t mean to sound ungrateful for all that. I know I’m fortunate. Very fortunate. For my family. For my career. For friends like you. For not celebrating my 50th in front of a webcam. I know I am blessed. I do. But something’s missing. The crazy thing is that I don’t even know what it is. It feels like a void—an emptiness that has been getting louder in my gut for some time now. The best way I can put it is that it’s a feeling that I should be doing more. More… More stuff, I guess.”
“Stuff?” I asked, confused.
“Yeah, stuff,” he continued. “I don’t know what it is, but I know there is something else out there that I ought to be doing. I can feel it in my bones. And it’s been eating me. Eating me on a regular schedule, each time I get my pay-check, and am reminded that I’m a corporate slave who has agreed to pay for his wages with his health and dreams. Turning fifty brought it up to the surface and…”
John trailed off before abruptly standing and declaring, “Sorry, but I need some air.”
He walked away from the restaurant and toward the taxiway where a couple of planes were doing their run-ups.
“Do you think he’s OK?” Mona asked, concerned.
“I hope so,” I answered, looking towards Raj.
Raj was silent. He was watching John walk on to one of the taxiways.
John was getting precariously close to a King Air that was also doing a run-up about two-hundred feet away. John had his hands akimbo and was looking up at the sky. He seemed oblivious to all the action around him.
A lineman came running out of a nearby hangar in less than a minute, animatedly waving his hands. While John couldn’t hear his words over the din of the planes doing their pre-flight checks, the message was clear. From the lineman’s gestures and raised voice, we gathered that John was asked to leave and head back to the restaurant.
Others at the Sunset Pub had interrupted their libations to see what the commotion was about.
John stepped off the taxiway and onto the adjoining grass strip sandwiched between the restaurant and the airport. He ambled aimlessly for a bit like a child sulking after being scolded. Finally, and to our collective relief, he walked back towards us.
A few other patrons’ amused expressions followed John as he came back and sheepishly seated himself in his chair. We’d decided not to ask him anything about his reckless stroll.
“A rouble for your thoughts,” I said, referring to an inside joke we had in college. It was about Russian hyperinflation during the Cold War and how some of our thoughts and ideas were worth little.
John’s slight smile indicated that he caught the reference.
“Nothing much,” he answered. “I’m thinking about something I’d last thought of when I was in the hospital—what my obituary would say. JOHN. Great husband, awesome dad, consummate family man. A good friend. And a banker par excellence. Wow. The weekend classifieds sound more interesting.”
As if to echo John’s mood, the sun moved behind a cloud at the same time that a silver-blue Mooney turned from base to final following a Cirrus that had entered the landing flare.
“Whoa,” Raj said as he mock-punched John on his arm. “Why are we even discussing obituaries five and a half hours before your birthday? And by the way, count yourself lucky in that department as well. I learned somewhere that John is the most prolific name among obituaries featured in the New York Times. So, you have an edge for being featured in the Times after you die,” he laughed, trying to lighten up the mood with his morbid sense of humor. We were accustomed to it.
John managed another weak smile. “OK. Add that then to that long list of things that I’m grateful for.”
“If I’m honest, and please believe me when I say that this is not fake empathy,” Raj continued, after a thoughtful pause, “I think I can relate to what you’re feeling, John. I’ve felt it myself. It felt discordant but less so now after hearing you talk about it.”
I was the first to speak after an awkward silence, “Seriously, professor? You?”
Many of us had always called him professor back in college, but the moniker recently gained new respectability and notoriety after the runaway success of the Spanish series La Casa de Papel aka Money Heist on Netflix. It was also a testament to the fact that great stories transcend languages, cultures, and boundaries.
“You’re at Oxford,” I continued. “The hallowed seat of learning. Young and curious minds hang on to your every word, and you are sought out for your cutting-edge research and scintillating talks. And let’s not even go into how you punched way above your weight when you got married. You? You’re telling us that you feel this way? C’mon. Get real.”
I regretted my words the moment I said them. Raj’s marriage had recently ended in an amicable but unhappy divorce. I was still good friends with his ex-wife, who I continued to believe was an amazing person.
“Yeah, I do. I can’t help it,” Raj snapped, choosing to ignore my flippant comment about his marriage. “Remember when we were young? I played the guitar then. I haven’t touched it in decades, but one of my favorite songs was “Time” by Pink Floyd. Unfortunately, one line from that song often plays in my head these days.”
“Let me guess,” John interrupted, “it’s the one that ends with thinking you had more to say?”
John and Raj began an off-key rendition of disconnected verses of the song when I interrupted them.
“Hey. Hey. Hey. I thought I was at a tetra-hangout, not Pessimists Anonymous,” I said, hoping to lighten the mood and simultaneously end the cacophony.
“That’s very easy for you to say,” Mona snapped, raising her voice.
“Whoa. Where did that come from?”
Mona had been silent for some time, but it was evident that John and Raj’s mood was contagious and spreading fast. All my friends seemed to be nurturing some form of existential angst.