The Last Flight of the Bumble Bee

Los Angeles.

Early afternoon. The expanse of gray clouds finally concede defeat to the unwavering force of the sun. The patio is awash with warm, yellow light as the sun’s rays  give life to a slumbering urban ecosystem. The birds begin to chirp more fervently. Butterflies take flight in search for food. Plants stand at attention as if part of a military garrison prepared for inspection. And one, solitary yellow jacket springs forth to perform its daily routine.

Today, however, is unlike any other, for, unbeknownst to our hero, today’s flight will be its last.

To its surprise and wonder, the bee struggles to lift off. The gleam of its yellow stripes reflecting the sun’s rays are of little consequence in its attempts at propulsion. It remains close to the ground, achieving a series of protracted leaps rather than actual flight. Each movement upward wages a losing battle against the force of gravity pulling it down to earth. Determined and singularly focused, the bee continues to attempt flight despite the steady decline of its probability of success.

It ultimately succumbs to reality, resting for a moment on the warming concrete. The bee begins to pace here and there, back and forth. It appears to be on a mission, searching for a misplaced article carelessly left behind on a previous visit. Within moments, however, it becomes disoriented. Walking in circles, aimlessly, as if drugged or feeling the intoxicating effects of cheap wine. Its movements slow. Its energy fades. It stops.

Its wings slowly unfurl in one last, vain attempt at flight, at life. Its body curls. The once gleaming yellow stripes darken to a drab orange as life recedes.

It dies.

The Grind

Los Angeles.

It is quitting time for LA’s 9-5ers, but Oliver’s day is just getting started. He pulls up to the address of his first passenger, just as the sun begins to sink below the horizon. Classic rock blares out over the car speakers while his manicured hands firmly grip the wheel. His designer sunglasses perfectly contrast the understated cool of his form fitting sweater and distressed jeans. A toothpick dangles precipitously from his lips.

In LA, everywhere is an audition. It’s Friday evening, so even Uber drivers need to look the part.

He Said

Los Angeles.

Nervous, chatty, but not uncomfortably so. He can’t believe that it’s going so well. He’s tried Match time and time again, but he was always too old, too square, too this, or too that. He can’t seem to make heads or tails of the L.A. dating scene.

But here he was making her laugh. She, who appeared so young and so beautiful, actually seemed into him. Saddled up in the corner of the bar together, he was using his best material and it was working.  He had pulled his most engaging stories from the well, and he was beginning to worry that the well was about to run dry.

But so far, so good. She was smiling, leaning her body closer to him, laughing harder at his jokes than the punchlines warranted: all good signs. Signs that he hadn’t seen in such a long time.

Since transferring to the LA office several months ago, his life has been a blur of client meetings, awkward dates, and stalled traffic on the 405. Just the other night at home alone in front of his computer, he considered calling it quits. People have been going on dates and falling in love for centuries, all without the help of the internet. Maybe he should erase his profile, close his laptop and do it old school.

And then her photo popped up on his screen and he decided to give the digital age one last try.

He longed to run his fingers through the long jet black hair cascading over her shoulders, and something in her eyes made him think that maybe she wanted it too. But this is only their first date and there are things that a gentleman simply does not do. Being too forward and letting her know what he was feeling in that moment might scare her off. He had been the victim of his own eagerness often enough to know when to put on the brakes. He was content in simply being in her presence and imagining the places he would take her on their second date, third date, hundredth date.

Pulling himself back into the moment, he asks whether she’d care for another glass of champagne. It’s getting late, she replies, and she has probably had enough champagne for one evening. She then looks away and something in him sinks. His previous trepidation comes rising to the surface. Unsure of what to say to salvage the moment, he closes his tab and they exit.

They are silent on the walk to her car. At the curb’s edge, they hug goodbye, but he is sure not to linger for too long. It felt good to finally touch her after wanting to do so from the moment he first saw her, but he kept the exchange brief, respectful. Their embrace was friendly, but not too intimate, just as he had planned.

“I had fun,” he offers. “We should do this again sometime.”

“Certainly. You have my number.”

She Said

Los Angeles. 

“I feel like there are just a bunch of murderers and creepers on the internet.”

“Yeah, that was the internet of the 90s. Tons of sane people connect online nowadays. You should give it a try. I mean… it can’t be any worse than the losers you usually date.”

After her very brief (hostile?) introduction to the world of online dating, she now finds herself pacing in front of a recently opened cocktail bar on Melrose feeling not quite cool enough to walk inside. Besides, she doesn’t want to get there too early (read: on time). It’s always better for a girl — rather, lady — to make an entrance.

She finally enters and sees him sitting at the bar. She instantly recognizes him from his profile picture, although he does look a bit older in person. But that’s probably for the best. Her friend was right, it would be nice to date a man with a job, for a change.

They shake hands and she takes a seat beside him. Instead of her normal whisky soda, she orders a glass of prosecco, because that’s what ladies drink. Not accustomed to going on real dates, her carefully chosen dress, hairstyle, and makeup make her feel as if she is only masquerading as an adult. It is only a matter of time before he artfully and devastatingly uncovers her ruse.

But for now, she is actually enjoying herself. Yes, he is a little awkward and a little chatty, but she finds him sweet, funny.  Maybe it is the two glasses of prosecco and the empty stomach talking, but she is starting to feel a connection. She is being flirty without even trying — something that is generally not her way.

Then suddenly and inexplicably, he seems distant. Her once engaging interlocutor has become the same self-absorbed, inattentive guy that she has dated all too often in the past. Had she been living in a prosecco-fueled alternate reality that is just now beginning to loosen its grip, allowing her to see his true colors?

Just to be sure, she respectfully declines his offer of another round of drinks. She wants him to understand that she is refusing another drink, and not refusing him. She holds his gaze for a moment before demurely averting her eyes.

But it is too late. He has already lost interest. He abruptly closes the check and heads for the door. To his credit, he at least gives her the courtesy of walking her to her car: quite possibly the longest, most awkward walk of her life.

At the curb’s edge, they hug goodbye. A brief, formal hug, much like hugging your uncle at Christmas.

“I had fun,” he offers. “We should do this again sometime.”

(She’s heard that line before.)

“Certainly. You have my number.”

Wisdom

Washington DC.

The sun is bright, but beginning its descent towards the horizon. The courtyard lays empty, quiet. The faithful have not yet arrived for mid-afternoon prayer. The mosque’s elderly caretaker takes a seat on the stairs. His long tunic creates a cascade of light blue as it drapes to the ground. Atop his head, his gleaming white taqiyah is bordered by the tiny beads of sweat on his forehead. It has already been a long day, yet there is still much work to do.

He takes a moment to discuss the affairs of the community with the young mother standing before him. Her long black dress and dark green headscarf offer protection from the sun’s rays, but not its heat.

But it isn’t the temperature that concerns her most.  She has just collected her adolescent son from school. While he attends a good school and maintains good grades, she worries that he is more interested in the comic book heroes on his t-shirt than growing into a man of faith and community.

The caretaker patiently listens to her concerns. They discuss enrichment programs, mentorship opportunities, community service. She has tried these strategies before, all to no avail. Playing basketball with his friends is all that occupies his mind these days.

The old man takes a deep breath and stands. The boy shyly looks up at him, bracing himself for admonishment from yet another elder. He looks deeply into the child’s eyes. He then smiles, knowingly, and says, “Give him time. You will be surprised at what this young man is capable of.”

With that, he excuses himself to prepare for afternoon prayer.

Friendship

(This is an alternative version of the longer “Friendship?” post below)

Washington DC.

The workday is done. Finally.  It has been a long day. A long week. A long winter.

The sun is shining and there is a warm breeze in the air. The season’s first bursts of pollen ride the currents of wind in through the restaurant’s open windows.

The man in the European cut suit quickly turns his head from his companions. He sneezes. The brief interruption does nothing to deter the martini-fueled networking taking place at one end of the mahogany bar. The conference at the neighboring hotel has just let out and the participants frantically exchange business cards and discuss potential trade deals with faraway lands.

Two old friends enter the restaurant and briefly survey the territory. Weary of business negotiations and shop talk, they bypass the two empty stools at the bar and make their way to the inviting patio just outside.

Wrought iron tables and chairs dot the abbreviated landscape. Potted plants and miniature evergreen trees separate their tiny, concrete oasis from harried pedestrians and the bustling street.

The women settle deeper into their chairs as the young waiter sets their cocktails before them. In silence, they observe the tranquility around them and allow the concerns of life — career, spouse, kids — to slowly melt away. They raise their glasses “Cheers,” and revel in their brief, yet long awaited, reprieve from the real world.

Friendship?

(This is an alternative version of the shorter “Friendship” post above)

Washington DC.

The restaurant bar is buzzing with post-conference networking overflowing from the large hotel nearby. French windows open up to the bustling street and the business suits on their way home from work. A cool breeze wafts in.  Wrought iron tables and chairs fill the rectangular concrete patio that, for the moment, separates the restaurant patrons from the reality of the world outside.

Two old friends enjoy a sundowner and update each other on their lives.

Deborah raises her glass. “Cheers to making it to 50!”

“…in one piece!” Helen adds.

Their glasses clink. With eyes squarely on her friend, Deborah slowly moves her martini to her lips and swallows. Helen takes a polite sip from her cocktail. She carefully sets the glass on the table.

Deborah is visiting from Seattle to give the latest installment of her ongoing self-empowerment seminar.  As she does each time work brings her to the East Coast, she has scheduled time to meet with Helen, her best friend from college.

The two women face one another, each with their very age appropriate haircut to showcase their very age improbable blonde hair.

Deborah looks fresh, accomplished in her starched, pink button down shirt, designer jeans, and the post-chic eyeglasses she purchased last week, just for this occasion.

Helen, on the other hand, is draped in a cashmere poncho, her grandmother’s gold earrings, and jet black Louboutins. Moneyed, yet understated, as has always been Helen’s way.

Their relationship has ebbed and flowed, as if with the seasons, or the phases of the moon. Neither woman is quite sure where things stand at the moment. They search each other’s face for clues.

“It’s great to see that after so many years,” Deborah offers, “both of us finally have the life that we’ve longed for. Me with my speaking engagements and book deals. And you with your very successful and loving husband and three wonderful children… Your youngest is starting at Dartmouth this fall, correct”

“Brown” Helen counters.

“Right. Brown. Simply Wonderful. You must be so proud.”

“Yes, who would have thought all of those years ago that life would have turned out so well for both us” Helen replies with a smile, hollow yet convincing.

***

After years jumping from job to job, Deborah has spent the last two decades building a name for herself on the self-help circuit. She has travelled around the country and spoken to crowds big and small. Her name has been atop bestsellers lists. She counts Dr. Phil among her mobile phone contacts. She rode high on the self-help wave of the 90s and was the go-to guru on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

But that was then.

Book sales have faltered over the years, as have her speaking fees. Her audience has become increasingly older, as Deborah struggles to remain relevant in the world of microblogging and instant digital gratification. She feels too young to retire, but too old to start all over. Again.

When a small, non-profit asked her to give a talk to their Washington DC staff, she jumped at the opportunity, despite the fact that they could afford only a small honorarium. It had been such a long time since her agent had had any good news for her.

“I’d be happy to reduce my fees,” she told them, “because of all of the great work that your organization does!”

Knowing, deep down, that it was herself that she was trying to convince.

***

“We must do this more often,” Helen proposes. “Once or twice a year is hardly enough.”

Helen has been dreading this day ever since their last meeting nearly one year ago. When she first met Deborah as a freshman at Vassar, she was full of hopes and dreams. She was to become a human rights lawyer fighting against inhumanity and injustices around the world. She imagined one day working for the United Nations or perhaps being appointed as Ambassador to a faraway country that could benefit from her experience and expertise.

Then, one day, nearing graduation, she met Luke.

It was immediately evident to anyone who met Luke that he was going places. Tall, bright, and handsome, Luke had always had his choice of women, and he chose Helen. She became swept up in the momentum of his life. Always along for the ride, but never in the driver’s seat.

By age 23, they were married.

By 24, she was pregnant.

Luke lived in a whirlwind of real estate developments in Dubai and energy deals in Eastern Europe. He spent long nights at the office and often called her to say good night from the airport lounge. Helen resolved to be the stability, the counterweight that she felt that their three children needed. While she had never intended to be a stay-at-home mother, she never found the task to be entirely disagreeable. And she always felt that she was reasonably good at it.

A part of her had always known about the other women.

She had never had any proof, but she didn’t need proof for what she knew in heart to be true. So when Luke told her a year ago, on the eve of her last meeting with Deborah, that he was leaving, she wasn’t surprised. She knew that in the end, Luke was a decent man and would make sure that she was taken care of financially. She wouldn’t live the life that she had known with him, but she would be comfortable.

Nevertheless, she cried. But they weren’t tears lamenting the demise of her marriage. Rather, they were tears to mourn the life that she had never had the opportunity to live. Of course, it would be easy to blame Luke (and she did), but in the end it was she who had put herself in the passenger seat and settled in.

***

“So should we ask the bartender for another round?” Deborah asks.

“No,” Helen says earnestly. “I think it’s best if we just settle up.”

The Weekend

Washington DC.

It’s lunchtime on Thursday and Michael is fresh from the barbershop. With earbuds in place, phone in hand, he discusses plans with his best friend.

The weekend quickly approaches.

Waiting at a downtown intersection, he pays no attention to the passing business suits and conservative dresses, who have been granted a brief reprieve from their offices. More important matters occupy his mind.

The weekend quickly approaches.

He and his best friend, John, brainstorms ideas: Carl is having a housewarming; Michelle wants to go dancing; The weather is supposed to be nice: they should spend some time outside.

But Michael is only interested in spending time with him.

Their friendship was years in the making. They met shortly after college. Michael: new to the city; John: an eager tour guide. Bouncing around to parties, going to concerts, checking out the latest celebrity chef restaurants, they became fast friends.

In the beginning, Michael never thought much about their relationship. DC had been such a strange and lonely place his first few weeks that he was simply happy to find someone he connected with.

With time, however, they grew closer, and Michael was no longer able to deny the truth that was there before him. He could no longer bear to hear yet another story of John’s latest conquest. He thought about John whenever they were apart, and wondered if his friend did the same. Slowly and without realization, he had convinced himself that John’s poor treatment of the women in his life meant that he was searching for something greater. Something deeper.

Something entirely different.

Their conversation continues, but Michael’s thoughts are elsewhere. He realizes that it doesn’t matter what they do or where they go, as long as they are together.

With an uncharacteristic awkwardness, he ends the conversation and hangs up. This longing that he feels has gone on for too long, and the weight of his unspoken secret is too great. He resolves in that moment to lay all of his cards on the table, tell John how he really feels, and let come what may.

Michael continues toward his destination. Suddenly, the realization of what he has decided to do hits him. His heart sinks. He stops dead in his tracks.

The weekend quickly approaches.

Modern Family

Philadelphia.

She rides atop her daddy’s broad shoulders. Her hair long, full, neatly combed into two large, symmetrical puffs. From this height, she gazes far and wide along the narrow streets filled with pedestrians, cars, and bicyclists. The rising temperatures have persuaded hundreds to venture out of their homes and offices. The streets are alive with movement unseen since winter descended upon the city several months ago. Amid all of the hustle and bustle, the to and fro, she has the best seat in the house.

Her father loves nothing more than to show off his baby girl. His first, but undoubtedly not his last. The weight of his daughter at this moment is nothing compared to the weight of the responsibility he carries with him at all times. His family means everything to him, yet he still questions his ability to be a good husband. A good father. Yes, he has role models who continue to light his path, but there are a great many things that man must learn on his own.

He proudly struts down the thoroughfare, his left hand wrapped securely around the knee of his princess and his right in the grasp of his queen. Her grip, in turn, confident, yet loving. As she walks, the sway of her locks keeps rhythm with the gentle sway of her dress.

She too draws love and a sense of security from her young family, but nevertheless remains wary of the world around her.  She has read enough news reports, attended enough demonstrations to know that the safety and security that she feels at this very moment is superficial at best. Naive at worst. She is confident that her husband will do everything in his power to protect her and her growing family, but she also understands the limits of their reality. As a student of history, she knows that peace can be shattered in an instant, without warning and without provocation.

But today, at this moment, their world is at peace. Things are exactly as they ought to be. They continue their journey, cautiously embracing the uncertainties of tomorrow.

Ladies’ Man

Washington DC.

He was young. Fashionable in the way that youth are fashionable. Attractive, but not traditionally so. He was the type of man to whom women found themselves inexplicably drawn. But for him, women were just pieces in his game to be used for what they offered and then cast aside.

He stood at the front of the bus conspicuously counting his stack of bills. Where did the cash come from? Was it given to him? Had he earned it? Who carries that much cash nowadays?

His bright red down coat was out of place among the warming temperatures and the budding leaves brushing against the window pane. His confidence unyielding. His stop approaches, yet he cannot be bothered to ring the bell himself. Surely someone else will perform the task for him.

The wire is pulled. The bell rings. With his purple gym bag slung over his shoulder, he exits.