When the fat family moved, I became the old man of my cul-de-sac. Fifteen years prior, I’d been the new kid on the block, a buzz-cut bounder in my late twenties with a flashy BMW and a willingness to check every box on my builder’s option list. Eighty-eight homes in the subdivision and mine was the last to go up, sold at the highest price in arrogant defiance of my father’s rule-of-thumb that you should always own the cheapest house on your block for resale’s sake. But as the years flew by and I dutifully followed Thoreau’s decree to be what he called “new wine in the old bottle”, my neighbors drifted off in dribs and drabs. The recession of 2008 blew many of them away, short-selling if they were lucky and enduring foreclosure if they weren’t. Then one day I looked around and I realized that I was surrounded by strangers a decade or more younger than I was, raising children on tight budgets and carefully washing their pre-owned Toyotas on Saturday. They staged parties and cookouts to which I was pointedly not invited. Seemingly overnight, I’d become the “horsey people” from Updike’s Couples, the staid holdouts to whom the social rhythms and beating hearts of the hood were a complete and utter mystery.
Perhaps it’s not accurate to say “the fat family”. Not because they weren’t fat. They were spectacularly, gloriously fat. The husband and wife were both pink and plump from wrist to cankle like prime pigs when I moved in though they were scarcely any older than I was. They had a daughter who cleared two hundred pounds before she cleared the age of ten. Around that time the husband lost his job and had to take a temporary gig as a Wal-Mart greeter. Not surprisingly, the wife packed his bags for him shortly afterwards and it became just her and the daughter. She didn’t seem to age; you don’t really get wrinkles if every inch of your skin is under a Nissan GT-R’s worth of boost pressure. By the time the daughter was a teenager I couldn’t tell them apart. They even dressed the same, in a style I nicknamed Country Kitchen. Periodically, the husband would stop by for visitation, levering his sad big body out of his Saturn Ion in such a manner as to effectively broadcast his misery to all and sundry inside Neptune’s orbit. Sometimes he would have to wait until his ex-wife shooed-out her date from the previous night. Yes, she had boyfriends. It must be amazing to be a woman. If I go three days without using conditioner on my hair I can feel my visibility to the fairer sex evaporate like fog on a sunny Ohio morning but this chick had ’em lined up like Cedar Point’s Millennium Force despite not being able to fit in the seats of said roller coaster or, indeed, any other roller coaster I’ve ever seen.
The fat family’s house was purchased by an upwardly-mobile young couple whose every aspect seemed calculated to both raise my envy and irritate my pride. She was Generic Corporate Blonde, pantsuited but trim and muscular in the mandatory fashion for director-level advancement, steering a Prius in distracted fashion, early to work and late to return. He was a dark-haired version of the fellow who plays Jamie Lannister on GoT, striding out to his brand-new 528i every morning in a manner that indicated his eagerness to take on the world and beat it. No kids, no parties, no raised voices, not a hair out of place. Ah, but there was trouble in paradise.
The wife’s working hours got longer and longer. At least she was also coming home for long lunchtime meetings with the husband. Except she wasn’t. That was a different blonde in a different Prius. Danger Girl and I had to observe them with an uncomfortable amount of voyeuristic attention before we could tell the two of them apart. Eventually we concluded that the new girlfriend’s Prius was slightly older, but the new girlfriend herself was slightly younger. For maybe six months the two blondes in their Priuses circled my neighborhood in similar but slightly offset orbits, never occupying the same space at the same time. Then the day came when we realized that we hadn’t seen the wife in a while.
Don’t let me give you the impression that my neighbor, whom I’ll call Ted, was necessarily at fault for this. I saw his life as through a glass, darkly. When we spoke it was guarded, polite, and sparse. For all I know, his wife had fallen under the spell of a charismatic boss long before Ted found her replacement. Robert Cray’s song “Foul Play”, which was released in 1987, accurately foresaw the damage that our brave new world of mixed-sex workplaces and ever-lengthening hours would cause to even the strongest relationships. Whether your wife professes to adore or despise her male boss, he has her attention a lot more often than you do, and that’s three-quarters of the battle right there. The vast majority of women with whom I’ve had any kind of forthright discussion on the topic will readily admit to at least one stint of boss-fucking in their past. Unpleasant but true.
Absent the influence of his pantsuited spouse, Ted started to… change. He let his hair grow out in charismatic waves, well short of, say, Father John Misty but considerably more free-flowing than his old corporate-standard look. The BMW disappeared, replaced by a half-decade-old F-150 crewcab. But what I really noticed was that Ted was smiling during our increasingly less-brief and less-guarded discussions. There was a human being inside that plastic shell and he was fighting his way to the light.
Prius Girlfriend’s omnipresence diminished first to ubiquity and then to mere itinerancy. Ted’s hair got longer. I started to see his old friends appearing on the property, often with beer in hand. In the evenings I heard music, the Nineties rock that probably served as the soundtrack to his fraternity days. The F-150 would stay in the driveway without moving for days at a time, then it would disappear for similar periods. Ted’s garage started filling with furniture. Prius Girlfriend became rare, then entirely absent. I wasn’t surprised. Men in the first flush of middle age have to learn the difference between a wedge woman and a second wife. The wedge woman gets you out of the first marriage, but the qualities of a first-rate wedge woman — licentiousness, combativeness, a knack for intercourse in parks and party bathrooms, the kind of bad judgment you can smell at a distance the way a wolf smells freshly killed meat — don’t make for a good spouse. It’s nobody’s fault.
When I came back from Thailand there was a “For Sale” sign on the lawn. Danger Girl made a couple of inquiries. There had been a solid offer made and accepted on the first day of listing, at a price that made me think I might not die broke after all. This morning, when I went out to leave for work, Ted was milling around outside.
“I had to sell the house in the divorce,” he told me, then he paused for a moment before continuing. “Actually, I quit my job a while back. I don’t have any place to go. Don’t want any place to go. You know that they make tents you put on your truck? I was thinking that I’d do that and just travel around for a while.”
“Nobody who has faced death ever wished they’d spent more time in the office at the time,” I replied, knowing that the triteness of the comment probably blotted out its truth. And I resolved to tell Danger Girl about Ted’s crazy idea. But when I came home this evening, having taken my son to a BMX clinic before helping him chew locust-like through a bag of five hamburgers, I saw that Ted was just putting the finishing touches on a very competent test installation of a truck-bed tent. He’d actually done the thing. Sure, there was a bit of the Huckberry-catalog-cover-page aspect to the whole handsome tableau, but this didn’t look like mere posturing to me.
“I hope he finds what he’s looking for,” Danger Girl said.
“Don’t go getting any ideas about running off in that tent with him,” I very carefully did not reply. Ask my fat Wal-Mart greeter of a former neighbor if you’re not sure, but trust me on this: women are allergic to neediness or weakness the way their over-pampered children are allergic to peanuts nowadays. I might have to stick around the house for a while just to make sure nothing happens. There’s something very attractive about a model-looking dude with shaggy hair, a pickup truck, a tent, and no particular place to go. I don’t mean that it’s attractive to women, although it probably is. Maybe I mean that it’s attractive to me. All those times I said I was going to disappear in search of adventure, only to find myself back in Powell, Ohio by nightfall, the end of the week, or the first of the month. I want to believe that I am the kind of man who could just travel the country in a tent-equipped truck, but I’m not.
And this handsome son of a bitch just up and does it, you know? He opted out. Said goodbye to the Bimmer and the wife and the house and the job. Just turned and walked away from everything that we’re supposed to do, everything we’re supposed to have, everything we are supposed to want. I’m not really in the business of envying other men. I don’t give a shit about your Lambo or your Seeking Arrangment or your Vanguard Funds but this has me a little choked up. I’m gonna have to be there when he drives away.
Shine on, you crazy diamond. Godspeed, Ted, and good night.