Read an Excerpt
The Rat Race
Like a rat in a maze, the path before me lies.
SIMON AND GARFUNKEL
You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?
The timer clicked, the TV screen fluttered, and the speaker blared the morning news.
'Morning already?' groaned Larry. He rolled over and squeezed the pillow tightly over his ears, not seriously thinking he could muffle the announcement of another day in the rat race. Then the aroma of coffee from the timer-operated percolator lured him toward the kitchen.
Six hours of sleep may not have been the house rule growing up, but success at the end of the twentieth century demanded a premium from its active participants. A rising star like Larry couldn't squander time sleeping.
Curls of steam rose from the bowl of instant oatmeal; the microwave had produced predictably perfect results in perfect cadence with his thirty-five-minute wake-up schedule. Slouched in his chair, propped against his elbow, Larry noticed the computer screen staring back at him. Last night he balanced his checkbook after the eleven o'clock news, and, weary from the long day, he must have neglected to switch it off.
His wife, Carol, had a welcomed day off, so she slept in. Larry went through the rote motions of getting the kids off to school. After the two younger children had been dropped off at day-care, he was alone in the car with Julie. Twelve-year-old Julie seemed troubled lately. 'Daddy, do you love Mom anymore?' she asked. The question came out of the blue to Larry, but Julie had been building the courage to ask it for months.
Their family life was changing, and Julie seemed to be the only member of the family diagnosing the changes. Larry reassured her he loved Mom very much.
Carol didn't plan to go back to work when she first started on her MBA degree. Bored with her traditional, nonworking housewife role, she just wanted more personal self-fulfillment. Her magazines conferred no dignity on the role of mother tutor. Although her family satisfied her self-esteem need for many years, other neighborhood women her same age seemed to lead glamorous lives in the business world. She couldn't help but question her traditional values.
'Maybe I'm too old-fashioned---out of step with the times,' she thought to herself.
So, two nights each week for three and a half years she journeyed off to the local university, a big investment---not to mention the homework. By the time she walked across the stage to receive her diploma, Carol was convinced women had a right to professional fulfillment just as much as men.
Larry, a tenacious, carefree sales representative, advanced quickly in his company. Fifteen years of dream chasing rewarded him with a vice-president's title. The pay covered the essentials, but they both wanted more of the good life.
'I've been thinking about going back to work,' Carol told him.
Larry didn't protest. She earned extra money as a bank teller at the beginning of their marriage, and the money helped furnish their honeymoon apartment. By mutual agreement, Carol stopped working when Julie was born, and ever since they had been hard-pressed to make ends meet.
Even though his own mother didn't work, Larry knew things were different now for women. Still, he had mixed emotions about sending their two small children to a day-care center. But since money was always a problem, he just shrugged and kept silent when Carol announced she had started interviewing for a job.
Larry clearly understood the trade-off. More money, less family. More family, less money. Yet, they really wanted the good life.
Their neighbors bought a twenty-four-foot cabin cruiser. Larry was surprised to learn they could own one, too, for only $328 per month. By scrimping for five months they pulled together $1,000 which, when added to their savings, gave them enough for the $2,500 down payment.
Larry loved cars. His gentle dad had always loved cars. If a shiny two-door pulled up next to him at a traffic light, Larry's heart always beat faster---he could just picture himself shifting through the gears of a fancy European import. By accident he discovered that for only $424 a month he could lease the car of his fantasies---a racy import! Leasing never occurred to him before. Carol desperately wanted to vacation in Hawaii that year; her Tuesday tennis partner went last spring. But they couldn't do both.
'If you go along with me on this one, I'll make it up to you, Carol. I promise!' Larry told her, his infectious grin spreading across his face. She reminisced how that impish, little-boy smile had first attracted her to him. He had been good to her, she thought. 'Okay, go ahead,' Carol told him. His dad always loved Chevys. Larry's tastes had evolved with the times.
Carol dreamed of living in a two-story home with a swimming pool, but, with the car and boat payments so high, it remained a dream for years. Larry slaved twelve- and fourteen hour days---always thinking of ways to earn more money for Carol's dream house. When Carol went to work, they added up the numbers and were elated to see they could finally make the move.
The strain of keeping their household afloat discouraged them. There were bills to pay, kids to pick up from day-care, deadlines to meet, quotas to beat, but not much time to enjoy the possessions they had accumulated.
Words from a Simon and Garfunkel song haunted Larry's thoughts: 'Like a rat in a maze, the path before me lies. And the pattern never alters, until the rat dies.' He was trapped. Carol pressured out---she just couldn't take it anymore. She believed Larry had let her down. He was supposed to be strong. He was supposed to know how to keep everything going. But Larry was just as confused about their situation as she was.
As the U-haul van pulled away from the house, Larry couldn't quite believe she was actually doing it---Carol was moving out. She said she just needed some time and space to sort things out, that she was confused. The question Julie had asked a few months earlier burned in his mind, 'Daddy, do you love Mom anymore?' Yes . . . yes, he loved her, but was it too late? How did things get so out of hand?