“Anything you need from us?” Liz asked Joe while packing up her things.
“Oh I just sent you the draft for the new ad. Mind looking into them tonight? I could sense that you’re heading somewhere though.”
“Oh, I’m sorry Joe. We got a reservation at Harvey’s. I thought Simon already told you,” Liz said apologetically. I could tell that she was sincere. She has always been a no BS kind of girl.
“Nah that’s okay,” replied Joe. “See you tomorrow then. I’ll be on my way in a minute too.”
“How about you? Anything you need from me?” Joe turned to me.
“Oh nothing really,” I replied. “Go on. It might take me till sundown to finish this article.”
That was a typical afternoon for us in the office. I usually come in late and therefore stay late while the others go on with their nightlife. Except maybe Joe. He stays with me once in a while, brews coffee, and chats a little. He says he enjoys his job and doesn’t really have anything else to do at home. For a long time, that puzzled me though. He does great in his job unlike me who always have to struggle with deadlines. He could go to a Caribbean cruise anytime and not worry for work. That’s how great he is. He is enjoying things; I get it. But even exceptionally efficient and passionate professionals don’t spend the extra time they earn by working more, I once thought.
Joe always comes in cheerful. He always seems to have woken up to a good morning. He’s not the type who demands attention though. He takes whatever recognition is thrown his way and goes on. He doesn’t talk a lot about his personal life but you won’t really see him as someone who keeps a lot of secrets. His life is too plain to be of anybody’s interest he once told me.
I let go of the article that afternoon. “I don’t wanna starve to death” was my last message to our editor before I closed my laptop without turning it off, grabbed my bag and jacket, and prayed that it wouldn’t rain. I knew she was cool about it. Writing that article was just doing a favor for her.
Joe got to the park at a quarter past 5 pm. He saw Meg standing near the pond looking at the children feeding the ducks potato chips.
“Hey, how’s your day? I brought some chips,” Joe said with a smile.
“Are you kidding me?” Meg responded in disbelief. “Joe, you were unreachable for three weeks and here you are offering me chips?”
Joe looked at Meg calmly and said nothing. He didn’t know what to say.
“I had enough of this Joe. You come and go and I’m always clueless of what is up with you” she continued. “We’ll date and stuff for a couple of weeks then you’d be away for a month or so. I just can’t take any of this anymore. I am done with you. Let’s end this,” she said with finality.
Joe simply stood in his place looking down and let a minute pass. “Alright then,” he said. “I know how hard it is to keep up. My fault. You deserve more than this. Just… go on.”
“Joe?!” Meg asked in frustration but could not continue. She didn’t know what to say. She turned away and left. Joe sat at the nearby bench.
“Fancy meeting you here” I said quite loudly as Joe was looking away. He smiled and gestured to offer a seat. “So why are you here?” I asked. “I was starving so I dropped by that fast food across the street.”
“I met Meg,” he said.
“Oh Meg! How is she?” I asked. “It has been a while since I last met her.”
“We broke up.”
“Oh.” I was dumbfounded. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Nah it’s okay. She deserves someone better anyway.”
“Hey don’t say that. You are being hard on yourself” I said. I was not merely consoling him. Joe is a great guy.
“I’m not as cool as what you think when it comes to relationships Fred. I’m quite difficult.”
“Does that explain all this going solo thing?” I asked. “You never join any of us. Not that I’m taking it badly but man, you come and go even when you are most welcome.”
Joe smirked. “I guess that’s just how it is,” he said.
“That’s sad Joe. Don’t be like that. We may never be your close friends but we can offer company.”
Joe smiled at me then looked away again.
“I once had friends. Real close ones. They were Matt, Riley, and Timmy. We met in college as freshmen. I guess birds of the same feather do flock together. We were an awkward bunch and everybody called us the geek squad for we were geeky one way or another. But more than that, we were all sort of bipolar, depressed, or whichever applies. We never really bothered knowing.
Matt was the mathematician. He was already taking advanced classes in calculus while the rest of us were struggling with our algebra. He would always make solving for x seem like a piece of cake and Timmy would hate him for that. Of course it was not a serious kind of hate; they were partners in crime. Most afternoons when we didn’t really plan of hanging out some place, Matt would rush home. He was raised alone by his mom and Matt gave back by being available to her for just about anything whenever he was free.
On our third year Matt’s mom was hit by a car. No witness came out. His mom stayed in the hospital for a couple of months in coma.
Throughout the years we managed to keep our emotions on check. We were depressed almost all the time but we found ways to get by for we understood each other. But when Matt’s relatives decided to pull the plug we saw how the light in Matt’s life went out. Just a week after the interment, Matt hanged himself in his dorm room.”
I went cold when I heard the story. I couldn’t speak. It was the first time Joe shared something about himself not to mention that he did it with no trace of hesitation. Joe went on.
“Riley was the pop culture geek. He could’ve effortlessly thrown a pop culture talk show anytime if he wanted to. With sufficient funding of course. He could have beaten the ratings of all that popular magazine shows. He was that great.
He was also gay although not really as out and proud as the ones you see in the gay pride parade. We never saw him wearing any feminine article but he confidently talked about his sexuality. He was really funny.
He had a boyfriend on our fourth year. Timmy and I thought that finally one of us was going to be cured from all the depression shit. Riley seemed really happy. Until one day his body was discovered in his car. Drug overdose. The whole thing turned out to be a game for the guy. Riley was brokenhearted.”
I stared at Joe. I could see a distant look in his eyes although he was staring at the dark water of the pond. I was there with him but he was alone again.
“Tim and I promised each other that we’d survive. That we’re not gonna end up like our friends. That we’ll accomplish geek squad’s mission to dominate the world and all that crazy stuff. Tim and I graduated and landed good jobs after some tries. Once in a while we’d set a formal meet up with a list of activities that we’d do in a day or two. We became best of friends. Until last year he passed away due to lung cancer.”
Joe looked at me and forced a smile. I could see tears forming in his tired eyes but he was holding it back. I couldn’t imagine how hard it must have been for him to stay the way he is. He is a real tough guy.
“I have to live with it every day,” he said. “Gotta go on living. Make everyone’s day relatively happier than mine. Would you like some chips?” He offered.
“Yes please,” I replied. “Would you take a bro fist?”
“Thanks Joe,” I said for I couldn’t put what I felt into words. -aB