[Original Novella] The Lonely Road, Part 1

“Dating’s an astonishingly expensive hobby, when you tally it all up.” Diane looked up from her coffee at me, eye roll pending clarification. “That’s an ugly way to look at it” she grumbled.

“It really is though. Look at all the costly, big-ticket items I don’t actually need to live my life. A nice car, a house, fancy clothing. I only need that stuff to impress women. If I were content to live out my life as a bachelor, I could do so on a tiny fraction of my current income.”

She at last rolled her eyes and heaved out a disgusted sigh, resigned to having this conversation again for the umpteenth time. “You’re looking at it wrong. All those things are just milestones in life. Achievements you should have aspired to anyway for reasons other than romance or sex.”

With my ambition to start my own business now up in flames, it was unclear to me why I shouldn’t just give up. Live out the rest of my life in the cheapest studio apartment I could find, getting high and playing video games until my junk food diet and lack of bodily movement stops my heart.

“Nobody’s out there looking for somebody who only grew up because they had to” she explained. “Nobody wants a man who resents needing to improve and uplift himself. You’re supposed to just…already be that guy. You’re supposed to already have that stuff.”

What, just because it would work out nicely for her life to meet a dude that’s handsome and loaded? She nodded in seeming affirmation. “Isn’t that basically just the grown up version of every little girl’s fantasy?” I asked. “The one where they get to be a princess just because a good looking prince who owns his own castle comes along and-”

She pinched the bridge of her nose the way one does in response to an ice cream headache, gesturing with her other hand for me to stop talking. That’s never worked before, I don’t know why she thinks it will today.

“What happened to the abolition of gender roles?” I continued. “Women can be whatever they want, but men still have to be providers? I mean, I’m sure they don’t use that specific word. But they expect suitors to be wealthy and accomplished despite women displacing men in high paid positions at a historically unprecedented rate. That’s a recipe for disappointment.”

She began to make some glib throwaway joke about how I’m the disappointment, but perhaps due to sleep deprivation, it didn’t quite come together. She laughed anyway. “Feminism doesn’t mean you can be a broke ass bum and still get laid. It’s not magic.”

I complained that it’s a raw deal. That for women, things have changed radically for the better. But for men, things have stayed more or less the same, because successful women don’t want to settle for the men they’ve replaced. Diane repeated it back to me in a comical nasally voice and called me a whiner.

“You must like something about me. We dated after all.” She was quick to jump in and remind me that it was only one date. “You’re interesting! I like your mind. Watching you transplant your life here, chasing your dreams, has been an inspiration. You really are charming in your own strange, proprietary way.”

She trailed off, so I filled in the silence. “…But I need more money.” Diane shrugged. “You’re trying to make it sound like women are gold diggers. Like your car and home are what they’re after. What they’re after is a man with a future. Someone that’s proved he can earn. Like the bird from that old meme, who builds a nest so Becky will give him sum fuk.”

I smiled despite myself. As usual Diane found a way to word it so that I couldn’t disagree without feeling wildly unreasonable. I don’t yet know if that means she’s right, or just good at argument. “Tell me what to fix, then.”

She looked caught off guard. “Hey, don’t do that to me. Don’t put me on the spot and ask me to evaluate you like that.” I promised I was made from tougher stuff than that. “Give it to me straight.” I demanded. “Brutal honesty.”

She slowly breathed in, lips pursed, eyeballing me head to toe. As much as possible given that we were both seated, with a table between us. “You need a new wardrobe.” I balked. “What’s wrong with my clothes? Do you know how much these cost?”

She pointed out that I’d asked for brutal honesty. So I relented, and invited her to continue. “I’m sure they cost plenty! But you dress in a way that would impress men, not women. Is it men you’re after?” I shook my head.

“Alright, then you need a new wardrobe. You have more gay friends than any straight guy I know, you have no excuses. Ask one of them to pick out some clothes for you.” I pulled out my phone and made note of it, sending a text to Anthony asking when he was free to go clothes shopping with me. It’ll be nice to hang out one more time before I go. Still no idea how I’ll say goodbye.

“Next up, chew with your mouth closed. For one thing, you have bad teeth. For another, what are you? Six years old, raised in a barn, or both?” Had to give her that one, it’s a bad habit. My teeth really are noticeably crooked too.

Much to the consternation of my parents, having paid big bucks to the orthodontist, my teeth just kinda settled back the way they were after the braces came off. I added that note under the first and prodded her for more. She looked hesitant. “Come on” I urged. “You promised.”

Diane shifted uncomfortably in her seat. I asked if my car was the problem. “No, for fuck’s sake, your car is fine. You always find some way to bring that up, have you noticed? You’re so convinced it’s all about possessions.” I reminded her clothing counts as possessions.

“Yeah but nobody you take out to dinner is gonna ask to see the price tags on your clothes. It’s more about general aesthetic presentation and convincing her you’re competent. You have your shit together. You can groom yourself properly, you can tie a tie, basic adulting.”

Man I hate that word. “Adulting, huh. That’s actually the main reason I asked you to meet me today.” Her expression shifted from irritated to concerned. “Is it something to do with the startup?” I nodded, and searched for the words I wanted. Not finding anything suitable in a hurry, I just blurted it out.

“I’m giving up. The numbers don’t work out. I’m not in the red yet, but there’s no point waiting for the inevitable. By calling it quits early I can avoid going into debt.” She seemed even more aghast than I was. She’d always wanted to see me succeed, being the motherly type.

“What about your savings? You had more than ten grand squirreled away from the crypto boom a few years ago, last I knew.” What little the government let me keep, after taxes. “I didn’t want to blow all of it on keeping the dream alive for another couple months, because I knew I’d need some left to move back home if things didn’t work out.”

She frowned. Here comes the judgement. Here comes the disappointment. May as well get used to it coming from her, before I’ve got to face my parents. “Some people would say that was planning for failure” she remarked.

“Yeah? Well, it’s easy to play armchair quarterback when you don’t have any skin in the game.” It came out a touch harsher than I intended. She did look a little bit wounded, but I’d not crossed any line so terrible that I should bother apologizing.

“So…that’s it? You move here, you get your own business off the ground…with my help, I might add…then what? You give up on your dreams and run home, tail between your legs?” My turn to wince. She made it sound like I wanted it to turn out this way.

“…Yeah, I guess that’s about the size of it. I tried, okay? I really gave it everything I had. But not everybody can be a winner. Now that it’s finally come crashing down around my ears, I don’t want to fight anymore. I’m tired, Diane. I just…I want to go home.”

A white sedan startled me, zooming past at what must’ve been fifteen to twenty miles over the speed limit. I cursed him briefly, but then wondered if perhaps I was the real idiot for not doing the same. At three in the morning, the densely forested highway was so empty that I’d stopped bothering to keep an eye out for other cars in the rear view mirror.

Even a minute later, my heartbeat hadn’t slowed much. I popped another caffeine pill, the most likely reason for it. My eyes felt dry and helplessly wide. The weight which normally pulls your lids down when you’re tired was instead pinning mine firmly open. It was a struggle even to blink.

Stay Tuned for Part 2!

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