The Good Life
It was a bright, sunny, perfect day. Of course it was; it was always a bright, sunny and perfect day. Daryl lived in San Diego, California, and as far back as he could remember there had never been three consecutive days of lousy weather. Sure, a thunderstorm here and there, the occasional blink of wintry winds and then (and he knew it) the inevitable return to sunlight and warmth.
Once when he was twenty-one, Daryl went to see his cousins in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and stood shivering in the frigid Minneapolis Airport garage while his eldest and most scatter-brained cousin absent-mindedly ran her fingers up and down the length of her car keys and turned every which way looking for the car.
“I could have sworn it was Row K, or was it row L? I do recall it was a letter near the middle of the alphabet.” No reply was given from the man now trembling, arms wound tight around his waist, breath visible in the air, nostrils freezing up and consolidating in such a way that he never knew possible.
No, Minnesota would never do, nor the rest of the Midwest, nor even the chilly East Coast, for Boston Winters were far from welcoming. Most of all, Daryl hated snow and the inconvenience of removing it and driving over it and frequently he wondered why everyone didn’t move to southern California or Miami or somewhere deep down south.
But Daryl was no longer concerned with matters of winter, or the people who had to suffer through it, or the people who couldn’t afford to come down to San Diego to visit him. Daryl had a second date to catch down at the beach. It was the middle of February and Daryl was heading for a date down at the beach. He smiled to himself. He toyed with the idea of calling one of his cousins. Isabel maybe. Just to say, “Hey, I’m heading to the beach, just thought I’d give you an update, oh and have you cleared your way out of the driveway yet? I just checked the Minneapolis forecast and it says you were hit with another foot and a half.”
Daryl did not call Isabel, nor did he call her younger brothers, but he did pile some belongings into his Mercedes Benz, including a beach blanket, an umbrella, and a cooler full of refreshing beverages. While he waited for his date to arrive he sipped on the root beer. It refreshed him, and as he rubbed his tongue to his satisfied pallet he thought about the housing market in San Diego.
His date was stunningly attractive, of course she was, they always are when you’re a multi-millionaire at thirty-one. She greeted him with a quick hug, grabbed a drink, and lay flat on the blanket. He noted with satisfaction the radiant way her bright green one-piece bathing suit caught the sun.
“Green’s my favorite color,” he told her conversationally, and when she opened one eye to give him her attention, he quickly pointed to her swimsuit. “My cousin’s in fashion, she advises which brands to get and even has a say in the colors, she’s always very well attuned to what’s in, what’s daring and what’s new.
His date shrugged but smiled a little. Her red lips looked fuller with the lipstick. Her blonde hair caught the sun perfectly; he half expected it to catch fire any second, it seemed to be catching so much light. “When I was young I wanted to do something in fashion,” she confessed, “This was when I was twelve or thirteen, so really young. Then I went into retail. It blew; they paid me $5.75 to pack bags for a bunch of very ungrateful people. My boss called me toots, not once but twice, and a customer once asked me to bed in the middle of the order.”
Daryl tested out his new laugh, a light twofold chuckle he once used at a friend’s party, and thought sounded pleasant and carefree. “I never worked retail.”
“I’m not working retail again,” she assured, and ran her long, thin fingers through her sunlight hair. “I haven’t worked in thirteen years and it’s gone perfectly well for me.”
He pulled himself a little closer to her and waited a minute, staring off into the mild waves and watching several young teenagers flailing about in the water, one of whom tackled one of the others. He waited for them to resurface.
“So what I’m wondering, and you’re probably wondering the same thing about me, is how does someone who doesn’t work, who won’t work again in their lives, afford this kind of lifestyle? And I’m not judging, mind, Christine, because I’m in the exact same boat. I would never live in a climate where it hits forty degrees, and I’d never settle for one of those warm but unsafe environments like New Mexico, Arizona, or the bad parts of Florida. So it makes sense I’m here, and I’m sure it makes equal sense to you that we’re here, that this date was able to happen.”
She looked up sharply at him and wrinkled her brows. She did not understand.
“It’s not everyone who gets to live like this,” he concluded. To further his point, he gestured out toward the clear blue water, the cloudless sky, the fancy little restaurants visible in the distance that served twenty-five dollar pizzas and fifty-five dollar lobsters.
“My grandfather died when I was sixteen. I have no brothers or sisters, and he didn’t particularly care for my dad. There was nowhere else for the money to go but to me.”
Daryl suddenly became conscious about his looks; he no longer had the upper hand. He hesitated and decided against asking for figures, he didn’t want to know if he would be the financial burden in the relationship. He desperately wanted to believe he would be the reason fancy dinners and plays and trips to Hollywood would be possible, not that he was a mere contributor.
“Fifty-seven million dollars,” she spat out, monitoring his face for signs of expression, but his lips remained one tight line and his eyes never widened even a little. “CEO for most of his life. A good man.”
“You must miss him terribly,” Daryl sympathized, but his date was already looking out toward the water.
“I’m ready to go in,” she told him, “but first I’d like you to answer the same question.”
He became relaxed. He lay back so his head was touching the blanket; he scratched at his carefully trimmed beard. “It’s investment,” he explained. “The first stock I ever bought was some penny stock you’ve never heard of, a little company headquartered in Cincinnati that sold batteries. Just batteries. And at seven cents a share I was able to afford 100,000 shares. That’s seven thousand dollars worth of stock. Imagine my surprise when it jumped to twelve cents in ten days time. Well, I sold, made an easy five thousand dollars just sitting on my ass all day and watching the Chargers blow another playoff opportunity, and I thought to myself, this is something I can do. Boy, you would not believe the effort I put into this; I bought books, I consulted so many brokers, but none of them seemed competent enough. Finally I invest in a little stock called Apple.”
He took the time for her to make a little exclamation of shock, but she did not. She merely indicated that she owned some apple technology herself. He continued.
“I was a millionaire in two months flat, a multi-millionaire in under four months, and though I probably should have milked that cow for all it’s worth, I stopped when I hit five million. That’s a little promise I made to myself. Now I check it every day, and I’ve considered re-investing. I do think there is the unfortunate possibility that my wealth may run out before my life does, so to speak. Living here and all. My cousin, Isabel, says that in Minnesota I could live like a prince until I was 200 on that money. But this is San Diego.”
She seemed unimpressed as she put her drink back in the cooler and started to rise. He quickly stood up first and gave her a hand. He was careful to assist her with only one arm and in an extremely nonchalant way, revealing his strength and leaving his right bicep slightly curled even after she was up.
Daryl was a good-looking man, young, spry, with a hairy chest and bright green eyes. He looked good in the water too, and could do a back-stroke like no other, and could hold his breath for a good forty-five seconds. This sort of versatility was why Daryl thrived: even when he wasn’t at parties, even when he couldn’t let his fancy suits and impressive possessions speak for him, he still had his body.
A good date, he concluded, as he watched Christine ride the waves and imagined that the feather—light shape of her body gently swaying in the water and being ridden by each consequent wave was actually a hundred dollar bill, snatched up in a San Diego Breeze.
The date went well, but afterward Daryl had very little to do (he wouldn’t invite her back to his house until the third date), so he decided to call his favorite cousin, Isabel, and see how everything in Minnesota was coming along.
While he did this he stood out on his patio, admiring his wide backyard and watching the squirrels flitter up and down the long oak trees.
Isabel had a soft and gentle voice and seldom articulated properly, so a lot of phone calls involved Daryl asking the same questions over and over, ear pressed to the phone, volume cranked up to the maximum. Today was no exception.
“Daryl,” she answered, “it’s good to hear from you. I was just shoveling.”
He laughed. “You should come down to San Diego some time.”
“It’s been five months of this, I think I can handle the last few weeks. Besides, San Diego isn’t exactly within my price range.”
“Naturally I’d pay for the expenses,” Daryl reassured. “And if you ever wanted to come live here, I’m sure I could pay for at least the first year of an apartment.”
“Don’t do that,” she said, “you’re always doing that. It makes people uncomfortable. It’s like my mom always said, it’s not healthy.”
Daryl’s aunt Rhoda was a peculiar and stern woman. Standing at just under six feet with menacing black hair and tight lips, she used to scare Daryl when he was young. The unflattering words Daryl’s father spoke regarding her sister didn’t do much to help.
When Daryl was ten and living in New York, he once volunteered to help his aunt with the grocery shopping. He dutifully ran up and down the long aisles, collecting items and piling them into a little basket. When the basket was too heavy, he’d run around the store looking for his aunt, who took the groceries from him with a curt nod, added them to the cart, and told him where to look next.
Back at home, she left her wallet for him on the kitchen table and told him to take a few dollars while she went to talk to her brother.
Slowly, Daryl eased open the section containing the money. There were many bills neatly piled together in sequential order. First a crisp fifty, and then the twenties, all the way down to the puny ones. Gazing in admiration, he took all the currency out and spread it out on the table. He failed to hear his aunt’s footsteps coming down the stairs and reverberating softly in the uncarpeted hallway. Slowly, reverently, he leaned over and smelled the fifty. He thought it smelled like a unique flower. He pressed his nose closer to it.
“What is wrong with you?” his aunt immediately scolded. “I said take a few dollars, don’t go scenting all my money!” She shoved a couple of singles into his hand and quickly stashed the rest back.
“It’s just paper,” she added in a harsh undertone, as a scared and confused Daryl gazed forlornly down at the powerful pouch of leather.
“This fascination with talking about money,” Isabel continued, “It’s ever since you were young. I know you’re proud and I know you earned this, but Daryl…”
He took his ear away from the phone. He walked slowly, thoughtfully around the patio and gazed at the cloudless sky and thought about the tedium of work and commitments and cold and mortgage payments and the eternal nagging nuisance of having to worry about money. Life was good. More than that, life could not be anything else, because Daryl took specific steps to eradicate anything that might pose a burden.
He put his ear back to the phone. “Thanks for your honesty,” he said simply.
She spoke some more but he was not listening. He felt the breeze ruffle his hair; he stood with his arms raised high. He imagined he was a king.
He grew up poor. Daryl would never ever admit it, but he grew up on an impoverished street in a rundown apartment in Queens, with his constantly bickering parents. His mother only went shopping when there were sales, and every day he saw the coupon book on the old stained coffee table.
Daryl resented his parents. His father for being a college dropout, his mother for being a domestic wife, and both of them for never instilling in him the proper thrift necessary to succeed.
Granted, in the end, all he needed was mathematical prowess, a marked interest in the patterns and fluctuations of the stock market, and maybe (and he shuddered to admit it), a little drop of luck.
His mother died at sixty of a heart attack and his father retired to a tiny town in Nowhere, Idaho, where he purchased a couple of horses and worked as an unsuccessful carpenter.
Daryl went no further in describing his background, and when Christine asked if he was a happy child, he usually told her he thought he was happy but that was only because he did not yet know what happiness was.
“I thought happiness was a state of mind. I was ignorant. Happiness is a quality of life. It’s proportional. How much joy I stand to derive from tomorrow stems from what I’ll be doing tomorrow. And I can tell you I’ll be at the beach again, here with you.”
Because they were two free souls, Daryl and Christine began to spend all their time together. He reached the point where it was okay to show up at her house unannounced and for his birthday she bought him a massage chair, and for Valentine’s Day, he bought her a diamond necklace. She sparkled with her necklace on, and sometimes, when she was in the right mood, she’d sit on his lap and he’d massage her shoulders while the chair vibrated rhythmically beneath them.
He concluded this was what life was meant to be, and if this wasn’t life, people were doing it wrong. Occasionally he thought about Aunt Rhoda, his mother now rotting six feet under in an unattended graveyard somewhere in Queens, his father tending to his acres of fertile grass, and his cousins stuck in the flat and frigid tundra of Minnesota. He did not pity any of them. They picked a life ill-suited for happiness. He picked the good life.
Because Christine was the only relevant person who lived near him, he thought of her most, and wondered if the commitment and tension of marriage might rip his easy world apart. He worried that learning to love her would not be worthwhile.
In late October, on a rare fifty degree day when Daryl was forced to close the windows in his house and turn up the heat in his car, Christine unexpectedly called it off on the drive back to her house after dinner. She told him curtly that the responsibility was too much, and she didn’t think she had the ability to focus on someone else as much as herself. She kissed him on the forehead and asked him to please understand that there was no fault on his part.
He did not cry, nor did he feel bad about it. A minor relief set in. He went to sleep that night smiling.
He woke up alone and cheery to another seventy degree day, and as he opened all the windows, played music, and made his way down to the beach, he was whistling.
Somewhere in the world the miserable and the deprived and the unmotivated were huddled in their unfulfilling lives, doing things they didn’t want to. Making sacrifices for the future, making sacrifices for other people and here he was…
It was another bright, sunny, perfect day in San Diego, California.