I lost my job in January. The television show I was working on was canceled. I've been raised to believe that losing your job is a bad thing, but I am more relieved than disappointed. I've been working seventy hours a week for the better part of a decade. I've spent more time in my office chair than I have in my bed. My wrists twitch. My back throbs. My butt hurts. When I close my eyes, I see a blinking keyboard cursor. I'm twenty-eight years old, and far too many of my memories involve me sitting in my office after midnight, tasting every quarter-filled coffee cup on my desk until I find the one that is still a little warm.
Now I'm off work and I don't care. I may not be a coal miner, but work is work, and I need to stop doing it for a while. I don't know what I want to do next. Everyone says I should make lists of what my priorities are and see where that takes me. It's nice sometimes to be told what to do. I try making lists of "important things," and "life goals," and "meaningful values." I take long walks, praying for epiphany. Epiphany does not come, so I get pizza instead.
Being unemployed makes everyone around you nervous. Nobody knows what to say to you. At parties and dinners, making small talk, you're always supposed to be doing something, or at least up to something. "So what are you doing? What are you up to?" they start to ask, once a few weeks have passed.
I tell them I'm "off work" or "taking time off," terms I've come to resent because they remind me that I'm supposed to be "on." Years ago, people would call this "taking a vacation," which had a nice, assertive ring to it, but nobody I know calls it that anymore. The first place I vacationed was Florida, to visit my grandparents. It blew my eight-year-old mind. The snowstorms and school-yard fights of my typical New York February were far away. My family rented a convertible and drove around as an actual family for once, listening to bad radio like Lionel Richie. But down in Florida, I learned, Lionel Richie sounds good! I'd get sunburned, and my grandmother would call it "healthy color." I would sleep on the world's only comfortable cot, listening to the ocean through the window screen, and my head would sing: Yeah! Jambo Jumbo!
"I'm Jewish," I say to myself one day. "I'll end up retired in Florida anyway. Why not get a head start and check it out?"
My friends say the whole plan sounds neurotic. My family agrees, and also wants to know if I have a date yet for my sister's wedding.
"This is what it is," I tell my friend Jill, who I met, of course, at work where else do you meet people these days? when I used to be a joke writer for David Letterman, and Jill was a segment producer. "I move down to Florida and test out retirement early. I get to relax in the only place I've ever actually been relaxed. And while I'm there, I get to see what retirement is like forty years before I get there. I get to see if working hard is worth it. Maybe I meet a bunch of wise elderly people who inspire me and I somehow figure out a way to write a book about it. I've read Tuesdays with Morrie. I know how it goes."
"You're kidding me," she says.
"Everything is so accelerated lately," I say. "Maybe I've crammed a lifelong career into seven years."
"Sweetie, you go insane when you're not working," she says. "You gotta go back to work."
"I don't," I explain to her. Instead of actually doing work I can at least tell people at parties, when they ask me what I'm doing, that I'm "writing a book." Then they will say, "Oh, wow, a book, that's great." I could drag it out for years.
Americans are surviving longer and longer these days. Between the Bronze Age and 1900 about 4,500 years our life expectancy extended twenty-seven years. In the last hundred years, thanks to medical advancements and better home care, our life expectancy increased the same amount. Replacement body parts, the Human Genome Project. We're going to live a long time. I don't want to get ready for those final years the way I get ready for a dental cleaning, maniacally flossing for two days to make up for months of neglect, then acting surprised when the hygienist says my gums are infected. What's neurotic about being exceedingly prepared?
My first step is to somehow find a way to live in a retirement community. My grandfather tells me that it is unlikely I'll find one that will allow me to move in. Most Florida retirement communities have strict fifty-five-years-and-up policies. I ask him if any of his elderly friends have empty Florida condos I can squat in. I have always thought that my grandfather's wellspring of unconditional love is bottomless, but this request manages to scrape rock. He is nice enough, though, to set me up on a meeting with a New Jersey neighbor of his who keeps a condo in Boynton Beach, Florida. Unfortunately, she tells me, with a Dominican nurse sitting imposingly behind her like a bodyguard, that she is selling the condo any day now; it won't be available.
I join Roommate Finders of Florida for one hundred dollars. I tell them I want a roommate over the age of sixty-five. They don't seem troubled by the request. Perhaps that fact should have troubled me. A few days later, they call back and say they've found me a roommate in Boca Raton. Her name is Margaret. She is in her mid- to late sixties. She lives in Century Village, one of the largest, most famous retirement communities in the country. It caters mainly to lower-middle-class Jews from the Northeast. I've heard of it before. It's one of these fully loaded communities: swimming pools, tennis courts, a huge clubhouse full of meeting rooms and social events, and more than five thousand condominium units for retired people.
"One question," they ask. "Do you have a problem with cats or birds?"
"Not enough of one," I say.
The night before I leave Los Angeles for Florida, I throw myself a going away party at a tiki bar. A handful of my closest friends in the city show up. After two years here in Los Angeles, I'm still amazed by how few people I actually know well. It's not like it used to be, when we were in our early twenties and everyone would stay out late all the time. We'd all buy each other shots and then vomit together in the streets. Really great times. These days it seems like everyone is staying in; small dinner parties or just crashing out on the couch watching Six Feet Under. I wonder how much I'm really going to miss any of these people.
For my last night, though, we rage for a few hours like the old days. People give me AmberVision glasses, adult diapers, "Sexy and Sixty" cuff links. We drink piña coladas. Naturally, there are many crude jokes made about me romancing old women. The next day on the plane, I'm glad I got drunk at my party and I'm glad I am hungover. It blunts the edge as my plane descends toward South Florida, as I wonder what the hell I am doing, looking out over the paisley landscape and beginning an early retirement.
Copyright © 2005 by Rodney Rothman