How in the world did it all go so fast, he wondered as he sank deeper into this depression. So quick. All those years of my life.
The twenties. The thirties. One more year, and I'll be forty. What the hell happened?
What the hell did I do with all those years? No wife. No kids. No six-figure income. No six-figure savings.
Nothing but this government job, the car and the mortgage payment.
What the hell happened?
He realized he could've asked himself these same questions two years sooner, while still fresh from his tenth-year anniversary in government service a little over two years ago. But Claudia entered his life then and for the first six months of the relationship, he believed there was going to be a wife at least. Maybe even a kid. Or kids.
There was no reason to be depressed about anything. About pushing forty. About plodding on a mid-level government job.
He was happy. She was happy. A year passed. Late into the second year of the relationship, Claudia started falling behind in it. He tried to figure things out. But she changed, became less intimate towards him and there was nothing he could do about it.
What it is, he learned not long after it was over, is she fell for another man. She had simply left him for another.
And there it was, the answer to 'what the hell happened?' Part of it anyway. The last two years of his life. Two years which, when he thought about it, might as well be the last ten or fifteen years of his life. For they had all come and gone pretty much the same way for him as far as those things were concerned: money, relationships, control over one's destiny especially in such a highly charged power-conscious white-collar place like Washington.
For several weeks after Claudia, he struggled to stay level-headed. Everything was going down, accelerating to a low he was afraid he might not be able to pull himself out of by himself: his self-confidence, his interest in his job, the value he placed in friendships, family, relationships.
He went out with a couple of friends to some house parties, singles events in town and as far as Baltimore; met some new people and had several dates. He went out with three women, all of them divorced. The first one he spent the night with after the first date. The second one he actually didn't ask out. She invited him over for dinner at her condo in Fairfax and kept him all night. The third one he took out to a restaurant in Old Town, Alexandria, shook hands with after the date and didn't call again.
He was doing fine trying to get out of the Claudia-rut. Then he had his thirty-ninth birthday. This was a week ago, and he'd been depressed ever since. He tried to get drunk twice but he was never good at this. He hated the headache and the sick stomach he got with it and so the farthest he got after three shots of bourbon each time was get dizzy, and he simply fell asleep. He called in sick at work early in the week and stayed in bed till two-thirty in the afternoon.
He did the same thing today and he wasn't lying about being sick either. When you can't think, can't get sexually interested, can't feel hunger of any kind - physical, emotional, spiritual, you are sick.
Life holds no interest to you at the moment, much less work, shuffling paper in that government office, wading through that endless bureaucracy. You won't be any good to anybody for anything out there and vice versa. So you stay home. Work things out.
It was after one o'clock in the afternoon and the most he had done for nourishment over an hour ago was a cheese danish he picked up at a Seven Eleven the night before but didn't eat, and a cup of coffee. He felt weak, stressed out but he wasn't tired. No. He wasn't tired of living. He felt he had a lot of living to do yet but just couldn't seem to get started with it. Get in full gear.
He will, though. Just as soon as he got out of this rut. This middle-age angst.
He knew he was just hungry: his physical well-being was becoming an easy prey to this depression and he's not helping his body fight it by starving himself. And the fact that he didn't feel hungry kept him locked in under this condition. But he wasn't totally helpless. He still had enough of a sane mind left to reason with and to say to himself:
Why am I letting this get to me? What am I going to do next year? When I hit forty? This is stupid. The whole world is full of forty-year old and older people and I don't hear of mass starvation going on anywhere.
Yeah, but we're not talking about any of them, the depressed part of him countered. We're talking about you. You, Louis McGhee.
I know what it is, said the sane part of him. What brought this whole bullshit on. It's breaking up with Claudia. I could've turned forty last week, maybe even fifty and I wouldn't be in this rut. Not if I were in a good working and happy relationship.
Yeah, but you're not, said the bad part of him. Not now.
Oh, fuck, said all of him, and he went out of the two- bedroom Rosslyn apartment without even thinking about it and where he was going.
He went to the Iwo Jima Memorial park and sat on a bench near the Netherlands Carillon tower with a clear longshot view of the Lincoln Memorial across the Potomac. It was the normal end-of-August weather as expected in the area: warm, not hot, summer afternoon. Comfortable. A good day to be outdoors especially for working one's way out of a depression.
About all he did for some twenty minutes was breathe, consciously trying to get as much oxygen to his brain as he could while trying to clear his head and start thinking normal again. In another minute, it occurred to him that he really needed to nourish his body if he wanted to reason with himself. He got up and bought a chili dog and soda from the truck stand near the Marine monument.
He ate greedily after the first bite, suddenly recognizing his physical hunger. He would have finished the dog before he got back to the bench hadn't it been for an Arlington Police car that appeared in the area followed by a number of other occurrences that literally jolted him out of his gloom into the sanity of the realities at hand.
First, he saw a man about his age but whose desperation in life obviously went beyond worrying about aging, tear a handbag from a young mother who was minding her toddler at her side. The man bolted in his direction, shoving people out of his way. But then one person, a woman in jeans and running shoes, stood her ground and surprised the man with a crushing high sidekick to the cheekbone when he tried to get past her.
He fell on his back, rolled over to a crouching position on his knees while holding his face in his hands, dazed and not believing what had happened. The pain he felt set off a rage in him that brought him springing up at the woman who quickly took a defensive position and again found an easy target this time with the front of his face for what appeared to be a black-belt class roundhouse kick.
Again, he went down. But this time he was twice as mad and so was up twice as quick as before. He lunged at her and caught one of her legs with both hands. He straddled her on the grass and pinned her down with one massive hand pressed against her chest to deliver a deadly blow with his other hand to her face that would have probably killed her.
This was when Louis McGhee went crashing down with his thirty-nine year old body, all one hundred seventy five pounds of it, on the man coming from one side. The two of them struggled violently against one another as they rolled away from the woman who got back up on her running shoes, cool and unruffled, and even had the mind to pick up the handbag she saw on the ground and return it to its owner.
At this time, the police car had pulled up to within a few yards of the scene and two officers rushed out to help Louis subdue the criminal. When, at last, the man was in handcuffs standing helplessly between the two policemen, Louis took a good look at him.
The man didn't look like a bum, or a mugger. A dope addict, maybe. But those types are hard to tell. Anyway, except for his generally unkempt appearance due to his uncombed hair and wrinkled clothes, he could have been any regular working class character, a Washington bureaucrat even, like Louis McGhee, especially that they couldn't have been more than months apart in age.
Louis wondered what sort of a man he was, truly was, before he became this one now being led into the back seat of a police car. What had happened to him in his forty years of life or thereabouts? Had this man ever loved and been loved in return?
What's the most amount of money he ever had to his name? Did he ever father a child? And did a woman ever leave him for another man?
Louis never got to the last bite of the chili dog. But from the time he freed his hands of the food to the time the police car drove the man away, everything that happened and everything that went through his head pulled him out of his rut. Part of this too was when he faced the brave fighting woman to express his absolute awe at her courage and ability, and recognized one of those three women he had dated recently, the third one. The one he only shook hands with and didn't call again.
It had been nearly a month since that seafood dinner he took her to in Old Town and he could still remember, vividly, the mood of disinterest he had for the evening which he tried to hide and did so successfully, he hoped. He couldn't quite put a finger on why he felt that way. But he knew it wasn't necessarily Colleen Maloney or anything about her, especially on seeing her now and learning of one side of her he never in a million years would have imagined. It could've been that after the two previous dates, he dried up of the enthusiasm for intimacy of any kind particularly while he continued to battle this midlife depression.
Colleen Maloney was more embarrassed than anything else for the action she took and for having been discovered with her knowledge and confidence in the use of martial arts. But Louis McGhee did well in alleviating her embarrassment by talking about self-defense especially where it concerns women, very objectively while complimenting her for her courage and ability in it. She thanked him for having rescued her from what could certainly have been a serious physical injury, let alone a great damage to her confidence and self-esteem.
Taekwondo, is what it is, she explained to him about her martial arts training. His, he told her, is pure street fighting involving raw guts and straight boxing which he admitted to her he did some when he was a kid, at school and in his neighborhood.
They spent some time talking, walking leisurely near the Marine monument. He felt differently this time about her and it was as if they never had that first date. Not only did he break away from his depression (though only temporarily, he wasn't sure) but he actually felt attracted to her. It wasn't sexual but it was a liking enough for him to go beyond a handshake with her.
He invited her for a bite of chili dog but she declined, saying that she already had lunch before she went on her daily midday walk and that she was already late going back to work. Before she left, he told her he'd like to call her again.
"Sure," she said, "you have my number."
He spent the rest of the day feeling better than before he left the apartment. He went and finally got a car wash, something the late-model Accord hadn't seen in months, took some smelly outerwear from the closet to the cleaner and did a load of laundry at home.
He even cooked dinner - nuked chicken, vegetables and steamed rice. After dinner, he settled in the living room, turned the tube on for company and called his brother Leon in Pittsburgh.
Leon was forty-four years old, had three kids - one from the first marriage, two from the present. Leon was having a happy second marriage which was looking to its tenth anniversary this year and Louis was happy for him. Very happy for him for Louis looked up to his older brother; always had since they were kids. But Leon, on the other hand, wasn't happy for him. Hadn't been for the past few years because he knew his younger brother wasn't happy with himself. With his life.
Louis would call him occasionally to keep in touch, give an update, talk to the kids too, and invariably though half-knowingly dump on him, all the time.
This time, Louis opened up by talking about helping catch the purse-snatcher in the park and the karate woman who turned out to be somebody he knew but didn't like very much before but he now felt attracted to somehow and would like to know better, maybe.
Leon sighed in Pittsburgh, thinking: God help this poor brother of mine make some sense out of his life. He asked: "Howabout Claudia? Any chance of getting back with her?"
"I don't think so," Louis replied quickly. "That's all over with, as far as I'm concerned."
He watched a little TV after talking to his brother, still feeling good, at least not depressed, and contemplating on whether or not he was ready to go back to work the next day. Then D. T. Macduff, a friend he'd known for three or four years called.
D. T. stands for Donald Troy but the man never wanted to be called by any of these names. He preferred, instead, to be called Mac.
Louis McGhee had tried many times to get to like Mac Macduff more than just as a personal acquaintance but an honest-to-goodness friend, but he couldn't. Mac was one of those types of people he knew with whom he would go out for a drink or to a party but wouldn't care if he never saw or heard from again. And he knew exactly what it was, at least one reason he didn't care much for this friendship: Mac didn't do too well with women.
And Mac didn't because of his old-fashioned mannerisms and too conservative appearances in the way he dressed and fixed his hair - flat on each side, a split high almost middle of his head and a lump of hair sitting on one side of his forehead. He also wore glasses.
Louis had actually tried, out of his good intentions to help the guy, to fix him up a couple of times. But each time, Mac lasted only for one date with the girl and she didn't want to see him again. The girls had politely told Louis the matchmaker afterwards that they had a nice time but that that was all there was to it.
The chemistry just isn't there, each of them told him word for word.
Louis had wanted to tell Mac for a long time now what's wrong but didn't know how. Mac was forty-two years old and, not surprisingly, had never been married. He was likeable enough in some ways because he was friendly, unaggressive and thoughtful. But, ironically, these same attributes even seemed to work against him. So how the hell do you tell a guy like this, Louis had said to himself more than once, how to improve his social image from that of a eunuch-type schoolteacher to that of a socially competent and strong presence especially in the company of women?
Mac's call was about this Caribbean cruise he had been pushing for more than a month now. It's great, you'd have a wonderful time, he had pitched to Louis, adding that he knows so because he had been in three different ones.
"I put us in for a double cabin in that seven-day cruise you said you might be interested in," Mac said on the phone. "That's what I want too 'cause I haven't been on that route. So, what do you say?"
Louis did express interest in the idea of a cruise when Mac talked to him about it the second or third time but he hadn't really given it any serious thought at all. Even now, his tendency was to turn the idea down for some distant future when he absolutely had no idea what to do with some eight or nine hundred dollars and seven days off. Still, the thought of going away, just to be out of town, out of Washington, and away from the whole federal bureaucracy for a while appealed to him. He couldn't turn the idea down completely.
"I don't know, Mac," he replied sluggishly. "I can't tell you right now. I got a lot of other stuff in my head right now. Ask me again later. Next week, maybe."
"C'mon, Lou. It's a lot of fun. You'll have a great vacation," Mac pitched again. "I'll tell you what, I'll call you early next week. The travel agency needs to know by the end of next week for cabin bookings."
"Yeah, yeah, Mac. Try me again later."
Monday the following week. He got out of bed, looked at himself in the bathroom mirror and decided that wasn't the right procedure in trying to get himself from his place of residence to his place of work. So, he quickly wiped out from memory the image he saw in the mirror, jumped in the tub for a ten-minute shower and looked again after drying up and getting his blood circulating.
There wasn't much change in the man in the mirror. The same thirty-nine-year old never-married unattached white-collar middle-class American male.
"Fuckit!" he literally uttered to himself. "I'm going to work today. You got work to do, mister," he said, pointing to himself in the mirror and plugging in the electric shaver. "You gotta eat, pay the mortgage and make the car payment, like it or not, or eat shit and sleep on the grates."
He got to work twice as late as he usually expected, ten or twelve minutes, because after shaving, he picked up a bottle of cough syrup instead of the after-shave lotion and slapped it all over his face and neck and ended up having to go back to the shower.
His boss came to him at nine o'clock to inquire first about his general well-being, remembering that he'd called in sick for a day two weeks in a row but not knowing that he'd been desperately trying to prevent himself from going nuts in the past few weeks. Then they talked about work.
Around eleven o'clock, his boss showed up again, this time in the company of three people, new hires coming on board, making the round of introductions in the office. After they got past him, his welcome courtesy and all, he sank in his chair behind his desk and couldn't get back to doing any work. He was pissed and started getting depressed again.
They'd done it again, he thought to himself, as he watched the new hires - a fat white woman, a fat black woman and an old black man - get introduced to the rest of the office. Done the same hiring procedure again: EEO without regard to race, age, sex and the whole nine yards, according to the law.
Well that's just fine. Can't argue with the law of the land. Only thing is, ninety percent of the whole building is already black and mostly women. And not only that: they're mostly fat and old and ugh-h.
He pined to himself in silence and went on to become totally depressed.
He knew it a long time ago. How working for a big government agency in its headquarters building in Washington, D.C. did not help cheer him up especially at a time like this in his life. Everywhere he went in the building, at each turn in the hallways, in the stairwells, in the elevators, he could only expect to see those types of people - the ninety percent in the building.
At first, before he became aware of what was lacking in his life at work, he never questioned why everytime he saw a young, attractive white female in the building, his eyes would follow her until she got out of sight as if he never saw such a creation. Now that he knew why, even if the young thing may not be all that attractive, he felt cheated. Cheated by those three big letters: EEO. And some anger rose in him, slowly, voicelessly.
There is, definitely, reverse discrimination going on here. It couldn't possibly be that in this one government agency, old women, fat women, homely women, black women, consistently beat their opposite female applicants for job openings, nine out of ten times, purely by virtue of their brains and abilities.
It was a little early for the lunchbreak. Besides, he wasn't hungry. He just wanted to take a walk, get away from the office for as much time as he could get away with. So he headed for the john, the one farthest from his office on the entire floor. On the way there, he ran into Alice Grabowski right by her office cubicle as she was going in.
"What's the matter, Louis?" Alice inquired, pausing at the entrance to her office. "Lost your wallet?"
"No. Why?" replied Louis innocently from the depths of his depression.
"You look like you did."
Alice Grabowski was a thirty-five-year old divorcee, childless, unattached, and like him was a twelve-year federal Washington bureaucrat. It was no secret to either one of them and, they suspected, to some other people in the office that given the right time and circumstances, the two of them could go for each other.
A possibility. But this had existed for sometime now, at least a couple of years, and had remained just that - a possibility.
"Do I?" asked Louis, looking awfully dumb to Alice and actually moving a hand to feel his wallet in his back pocket.
"Yes!" snapped Alice. "Cryinout loud, Louis, give a smile a little. Everybody knows it's Monday. You don't have to go around reminding everybody about it with a face."
"It's not intentional. I can't see myself," he said.
"Well, go look in the mirror."
"I'm just on my way to do that."
The two of them had a very open rapport. At times, it got so openly personal that there was practically nothing one didn't know about the other at work and even outside of work.
For instance, she knew about Claudia up to the time she walked out of his life. Likewise, he knew about this or that jerk she had gone out with or dated, unwittingly as she put it, regularly at one time or another.
He also knew about Penny, this friend of hers she described to him one time as either a physical fitness nut (twenty miles running a week plus two hours aerobic dance on weekends), a religious zealot (Catholic church every Sunday, confession several times a year), or both. Alice admitted, though, that she couldn't be without a friend like her. She had had lows in her life, she said, when she couldn't possibly have pulled through without her friend's help, without the support of Penny's strength of mind and spirit.
When she opened up like this, he took a moment to see how he really felt for her more than just as a government co-worker or a friend. He was attracted to her not only physically, he realized, and admitted to himself that he did have some caring, and sympathetic feeling for her.
The sympathetic part of it came when he, one day, saw her at a distance not looking too happy not just for the moment or the day. She gave him the impression that she wasn't happy with her life.
Well, hop in, lady, he thought then. Join the crowd. But he repented quickly for thinking this because that's when the caring feeling kicked in, telling him that's not something to take lightly.
He then looked at her long and hard from that distance and saw a young woman among many, thousands, millions, in today's society: single, divorced, unattached, seeking a new direction in life, plotting a new strategy, trying to come up with a Plan B, making adjustments or working on their anger, repairing their ego, coping with loneliness and at the same time watching their step ahead, especially with men, to make sure they don't walk in the same path or step in the same kind of hole they were even now still crawling slowly out of.
He did have caring feelings for her, he knew all along. But what to do about it he simply didn't have the slightest clue. Perhaps after a certain period of time, a day will come when it would have balled up so big inside him that he would just have to let it all out to her and the rest of the world.
Before proceeding to the men's room, he cued her in on why he was wearing a Monday face by asking if she'd met the three new hires. She said she had and she too hung her face just before going in to her office.
In the men's room, as he was zipping up at one of the urinals, somebody started snoring inside one of the toilet compartments. He hurried back to his office feeling sick in the stomach. How could anybody live on the air in that room and even be comfortable enough to fall asleep on the john, he asked himself in disbelief. Also, he wondered how much salary that one government worker was drawing from the U.S. government. He had to be a mid-level employee or higher because most of the people on the floor were. Which meant he must make between twenty-five to thirty dollars an hour, or an average of fifty-four cents every minute he spends snoozing on that john.
Eleven-forty-five A.M. Lunch at the cafeteria, a place many in the office referred to as the trash bin. Today, it was particularly so, he felt, for there was nothing in it he'd eat except for a slice of pizza and a make-it-yourself beef taco.
Some Monday it had been so far. Enough for one to change job or go on an unscheduled long vacation. And, sure enough, not ten minutes after he got back to his desk from lunch, Mac called.
"So, what do you say, Lou baby?" asked Mac vibrantly as if he sensed a favorable reply from Louis already.
"I'm going," Louis declared. "When do we leave?"
"Alright, Louis!" Mac cheered. "We need to purchase the tickets no later this Friday, a hundred percent payment. Is that okay?"
"No problem. Just get me on that boat, away from here as soon as possible."
He had never been on a cruise before. Never in his life had he been on a boat, a ship, big as this one he's on now with so many decks - seven or eight of them. It's like a tall building, a hi-rise, he thought as he leaned against the railing on the promenade deck viewing the scenery on the ship and around the pier. It was a bright early afternoon in Miami and the city skyline looked just like it's often shown in tourist magazines: light-colored, lively and clean, and not a drop of rain. Not in the farthest corner of one's imagination.
"What it is," Mac explained as they watched another cruise ship just ahead of them pull off the pier gradually, "is a floating hotel. That's exactly what this is. Anything a hotel has, this ship has. It's got swimming pools, tennis courts, a gym, a running track, a casino, restaurants, a ballroom, a nightclub, beauty salons, a massage parlor, you name it. It even has a movie theater. The only thing it doesn't have is a parking lot."
Louis McGhee did need to get away. Away from home. And from work. He felt good when the plane took off at National earlier. In his mind, it was like coming out of a long hospital stay, or anything confining like that, as he watched the Potomac and the human society around it recede below him while the jet climbed into the clouds.
He needed to be in a different world, in a different time. The next few days provided these for him. And he was, in every sense, untethered from the world he came from:
bureaucrats sleeping in the john,
EEO and fat women,
his empty apartment,
the singles scene and all those lonely men and women constantly looking for love,
and everything else that constantly reminded him of his angst and drove him to depression.
There was only one thought that kept him linked to that world. This was the thought of Alice Grabowski, the girl at work he called before he left and with whom he got into their usual sparring mode for over an hour.
"This is the day, Alice," he announced to her. "You'll never see me again, so whatever it is you've been keeping from me all these years, here's your chance to let it out."
"I'll wait till you get to where you're going," she countered. "I don't want to ruin your trip before you even get on the boat."
They laughed and snickered, enjoying the banter. Two friends, comfortable with each other, but not quite enough for either one to venture beyond friendship. The nearest they got to doing so was one afternoon only a few days ago when she got serious talking to him about her family, how in particular it got started beginning with her grandfather and the steps it took him to marrying her grandmother.
They knew each other from childhood, she related. Everybody in the neighborhood saw early that they were meant for each other, especially when they got older. But he took it a step at a time, making sure they were really right for each other deep down inside for reasons beyond the circumstance of just growing up together. As a young man of sixteen, when he decided to really go steady with her, he bought her a necklace with her name in gold letters as a pendant. This to put a tag on her, sort of, and let the world know of his claim to her. He went on to buy her a ring, six years later, when she turned twenty, and they got married the following year.
He died a few years ago, Alice said. Grandma is now eighty-four years old, and still wears it today. The necklace.
How romantic, Louis said then, looking genuinely touched.
Remembering that, now he added that he would like to hear more of that kind of family story if she had any more. She said yes there's more, and just before they hung up, they made a date for her to talk about it and for him to tell her about the cruise when he gets back.
The many events that untethered him from Washington happened quickly one after the other from where he and Mac stood on the promenade deck, beginning with the ship hoisting anchor and shoving off to sea, followed shortly by the emergency drill which began in the ballroom.
It was a well supervised exercise. Everyone was handed a life jacket and taught how to float in it. A crew emergency specialist spoke on the dance floor in the middle of the passengers gathered around him in the ballroom. Louis and Mac arrived from their cabin on the D deck (third below the Promenade deck) early enough to find seats next to each other. From their position, they observed that people were grouped by age. At least those seated as far as they can see, two or three back of the front row.
They looked around them and quickly realized that they had ended up sitting with the seniors. Louis turned discreetly to the man next to him and saw that the man was asleep. He wondered why, lately, he kept running close to people who are asleep. He and Mac were more than happy to give up their seats to a couple clearly in their late sixties when the couple came wandering by looking where to put themselves.
They moved themselves inconspicuously across the circle to the group that didn't show as much gray and silver hair but didn't have punk hairdos either as did one of the other groups they saw. It was quite evidently the young middle-age group they blended into as Louis observed of the two women they stood next to and with whom they were to get acquainted later on along with a number of other passengers.
Sandra and Carol were sisters and looked almost like twins except for the difference in the color of their hair. Sandra had brown hair and Carol had blonde, but their hairdos were the same: natural split up the middle and swept back past their ears over their shoulders and gathered low behind the head by a string. They looked very similar with the pretty face outlined by that hairline. Mac told Louis later on that he almost instantly fell in love with them. Well, either one of them, he said. Except for one thing which they both agreed: they were a bit too chubby, not fat, but quite visibly overweight perhaps by as much as twenty five , thirty pounds.
The last part of the drill was getting out to the side of the ship where the escape boats hung and being shown how to get on them. Everyone moved in the manner they were instructed by the crew in charge not with any sense of urgency at all but, instead, with an air of social amusement. While they waited to take their turns at one of the exit doors to starboard, a man Mac nearly mistook for John Travolta came to stand between him and Louis. Mac who was no taller than five eight was looking high up to the man who had to be at least eight inches taller, when they got into a friendly conversation.
"This is pretty exciting," John-Travolta look-alike said, smiling down at Mac. "Don't you think this is pretty exciting?"
"Absolutely," replied Mac.
"I think it is. I admire those old folks - retirees I guess, what else could they be? - come out here and experience all these, travel and have fun. Look at them, how they're having fun." The man directed their attention, including that of Louis on his right, to the senior group going through the exit doors.
"I see them," said Mac. "I see them. You're right. I'm glad for them too."
"I would like to be able to do this too when I retire," said John Travolta. "But I hope I won't have to wait till I'm that old. I want to enjoy life while I'm still younger, you understand what I'm saying?"
"Absolutely," said Mac. "But you probably meant to say you want to 'continue' to enjoy life while you're still younger."
"Hey, that's a nice way to put it. I stand corrected. I like that. You're very smart. And very perceptive. I'm Gene Caruso. What's your name?" Gene Caruso extended a hand to Mac.
"I'm Donald Macduff. I go by Mac."
They shook hands and said their pleased-to-meet-you's. Mac then turned to Louis and introduced the two of them.
"You two traveling together?" Caruso asked, sizing up Louis after stealing a quick glance at Mac.
"Yes," replied Louis.
"Yeah?" Caruso echoed, inching away a little from them, Louis noticed.
"Yes," Mac repeated.
"Hm-m, that's... that's nice."
"Whatabout you?" asked Mac. "You with anybody?"
"U-uh, no. Well, yes... yes I am. "
"Listen, Gene," Louis interrupted, "we're not gay."
"What?" Mac gasped.
"He thinks we're gay or he's thinking we're possibly gay."
"No, I'm not thinkin' nothin' of you guys," Caruso argued. "You're just guys. I see two guys and... and that's all I see."
Mac had broken out laughing even before Caruso had finished what he was saying.
"I don't see anything wrong with two guys traveling together," Caruso persisted. "So, what are you - cousins? Co-workers? Friends or neighbors? I don't care. It's none of my -"
"Don't sweat it," Louis interrupted. "I don't blame you. Nowadays, it's hard to tell. There's so many of them. Different types. Some of them can look straight as a guy can be. So, where're you from?"
"New York. Actually, I live in New Jersey but I spend a lot of time in the Big Apple 'cause of work. I do a lot of work there. I have done a lot of work there. Right now, I just finished one of my project assignments there and I decided this is a good time to take a vacation."
"What do you do?" asked Mac.
"I'm a civil engineer. Specialized in highway engineering. Surveys, topography. And where're you guys from?"
"Washington, D.C.," replied Mac. "Actually, we're from Virginia. One of the capital area suburbs."
"I understand. I've been to the capital area. Nice place. I like it there. Work for the government?" Gene Caruso addressed the question to both by turning to each side of him partially as their line began to move towards the exit door. All the seniors had gone out first.
"No, not me," Mac answered first. "He does. Poor thing."
"Please, don't remind me," Louis agonized. "That's why I'm taking this cruise. To get away from my government job. Have some time off."
"That's exactly the same thing with me," said Gene Caruso. "I just finished working on a major bridge repair project in New York and you wouldn't believe the kind of bullshit I had to put up with for the last eight months with the contractors and the government. I couldn't wait to get out of there. Get some time off like you said."
Louis eyed Gene to see more closely how Gene's language fit his personality and physical appearance. The man certainly didn't sound Washingtonian, he thought, didn't sound like a federal bureaucrat and didn't look it either.
"Have a good trip, then," Louis said, feeling glad, as they went through the exit door to starboard at the same time with Mac right behind them. "Enjoy."
"Hey, I intend to, man," said Gene Caruso. "You guys do the same."