Be honest with yourself; you have a problem.
You spent all those years saving and planning and preparing for the moment when, come that first Monday morning, you could ignore the hour and roll over and sleep until only your aching bones could force you from your bed. Now, you have nowhere to be.
You can enjoy the sunrise from the patio chair on your back porch instead of squinting into it from the backed-up line of morning traffic. You can brew fresh coffee and drink it while it’s hot in a fragile, ceramic mug—a mug not intended for transport, a mug meant to be used while sitting still and contemplating its contents.
Think about it: you can drink your coffee in the nude if that’s your prerogative. You do whatever you want. There’s no dress code anymore. Pants are optional. You no longer have to worry about picking up your dry cleaning, about pairing the right shoes with your suit, or whether pinstripes are still in vogue. You can lounge in a bathrobe until the sun sets if that’s your choice.
But you—you have found it difficult to reprogram the habits you’d spent decades establishing. The alarm still blares at its regular time, and you obey its command to rise and begin your day—a day completely free from constraints by a company who now pays your pension. Some days you forget this and walk to the bathroom to begin your regimen of daily grooming only to pause, toothbrush in hand, and remember that you don’t have to go to work today. Not today, not any day, because you’re retired now.
The possibilities of your open schedule regularly excite and overwhelm you. Sometimes you stare into the fogged up mirror and squint, hoping to soften the reflection of a face mapped with creases. You search the eyes staring back, looking for a hint of that vibrant version of yourself who once overflowed with energy and zest for adventure, but you haven’t known that part of you in a long time. It seems to have faded after all these years.
But this is not a time to be melancholy; you should be happy, relieved—proud. You’ve worked hard. You’ve earned this freedom, this season of rest and exploration. Go! See the world. Rediscover yourself and your passions. Take up a hobby: painting, writing, maybe woodworking. Start a simple project. Build a shelf and leave it empty—a place to collect new treasures of the life you’ve just begun, souvenirs of all the places you’ll go.
And you can go anywhere you want now. You could reach out to your friends and plan a grand trip. What about Wilma and George? Those two haven’t slowed down, even in old age, and they keep inviting you to join their escapades. Last year it was a castle tour and a trip to the beach. This year it’s an Alaskan cruise. You’ve always wanted to see the northern lights—why don’t you call them and agree to tag along? Someone can water the plants and bring in your mail, there’s nothing holding you back.
Oh, but there is. You’re still thinking about work. Don’t do this to yourself. Remember that morning traffic you griped about for years? About the idiots behind you and the morons in front of you, how you complained that everyone drove like they were half dead or half wishing to die? How your blood pressure spiked the minute you hit the freeway? You don’t have to make that drive ever again if you so wish. You could go driving for fun. Take the back roads with the windows rolled down, palms riding the breeze. You can look at the trees, how they’re changing, adapting to the cold they know is coming.
Don’t think about work. That chapter is over, and you did well. They threw you a lovely retirement party, remember? Everyone from the office came, sharing kind sentiments of their appreciation for your years of service. You smiled and shook their warm hands, but part of you couldn’t help but wonder if they were just itching for this day to come. The day you would finally leave so they could tear the place apart: rip the old wallpaper from the lobby—the wallpaper you had personally picked out—set fire to the filing cabinets and digitize everything like they’d been pushing for, “revamp the vibe” of the whole office.
You saw their plans to erect a stone fireplace in the lobby, along with a coffee bar and in-house barista. You hope whoever takes over your position has discovered fairy dust to sprinkle over the accountant so he can perform a magic trick with the budget. No way they’ll find the funds for that, because it sure wasn’t there when you wanted to hire live music for the Christmas party. No, some young gun in a smart watch told you they could stream Christmas music and put the money toward the open bar. Priorities.
You won’t admit it to yourself, but you worry about the place since you’ve been gone, that the new hires won’t be trained properly, or that no one will care for the clients like you did. You liked the way things had always been done—the rows of files with names on each tab and the physical paperwork with handwritten notes scribbled in the margins. It was all there, everything you needed to know, right in front of you.
When the receptionist turned the page on the big break room calendar, alerting everyone in the office that it was your last month there, they’d already begun the work of transferring files to the database and destroying the paper copies. You could hear the shredder running constantly, like a buzzing gnat in your ear. As if there wasn’t already enough change happening all at once, they’d even begun scheduling clients for appointments over the phone or video call, in order to “improve convenience” and “streamline office function.” How can any of that be an improvement?
The new director would tell you not to stress, that this is the direction the world is moving in, but no, no, no—there’s so much you lose when the clients aren’t there, face to face. It’s just not the same. To be able to grasp their hand and smell their cologne and see the emotion in their eyes—that’s how you’d build relationships, trust. When clients would sit down across your desk, they’d forget about the tedium of paperwork, wait times, and fees. You’d just have a conversation. They’d tell you about their kids, or their family vacation, or a business they’d just started, and you’d listen, really listen, to the people you saw as more than simply a number, a case, or a billable interaction. How could anyone recreate that experience over the phone?
You have to stop. Did you expect to be there forever? Do you have such an inflated sense of self-importance that you really don’t think anyone else is capable of doing your job? That your approach, your ideas, your systems are dogma?
You need to relax. These are the years you’ve worked for. That career your younger self scraped and climbed and clawed to achieve wasn’t just to fund your present: you were paying for your future, and that future is now.
So, finish your coffee, put on some clothes, and go for a drive. Yes, that’s right–it’s still early, the day is yours. The radio is playing some throwbacks to the generation of shaggy-haired rock stars, and you crank it up and roll down the windows. An early morning commuter beside you is carelessly smearing concealer under her tired eyes, guiding the steering wheel with an elbow. Others are trying to scarf down bagels without dropping globs of cream cheese on their freshly starched dress shirts. They glower at you, obviously in self-loathing. You are free as a bird, and they are probably late for work. Either that or they just hate your loud music.
You drive toward the warmth of the morning sun and pull off the exit and into the familiar dimness of the parking garage on 4th Avenue. You find a spot—somewhere new. That designated space near the front is no longer yours. The slam of the car door echoes across the cement parking deck, and you feel that familiar flutter in your stomach as you begin the well-worn trek to the building you’ve collectively spent more hours in than at your own home. But you’re only going through the motions. You have no responsibilities here anymore, no one relies on you; you’re just curious to see how things are going—to put to rest the notion that the company is suffering without you.
You stride past a bookstore, a salon, and the old hardware store proudly boasting its sixth decade of business, then round the corner to the street with the building where you no longer work.
And you almost don’t recognize it.
Neon orange traffic cones line the sidewalk in front, and strips of caution tape stretch across the door. Black char has stained the brick above the windows like warpaint, and the air smells like burnt plastic.
You fumble for your phone and dial the main office, but it just rings and rings. You call the new director, chest heaving, but no one answers. You drag your hands down your face and chew your thumb nail down to a stub. Then, reluctantly, you acquiesce to the convenience of smartphones and mash the round icon that seems to have all the answers. You search online for news posts with information about what happened. Images and videos of flames and smoke billowing out of the window send a knife to your insides, like it was your own house you were watching go up in smoke. Apparently, a gas leak from a new fireplace installation caused an explosion, though no one was injured.
“I knew that was a bad idea! I knew it!” People pass you on the street, ignoring your outburst. “They’ve gone and actually set the damn place on fire!”
You want to throw your phone against the pavement or heave it at the already broken window of 107 4th Avenue, but what good is that.
Your chest deflates with a heavy exhale, and you turn away from the carnage and walk back down the street. As you pass the row of businesses and shops, a gray-headed couple exits a store and holds the door open for you, smiling, thinking you mean to come in.
And why not.
You shuffle to the back of the store where the shelves are stacked with slats of wood–raw pine in all different sizes. One aisle over, tins of stain in dark walnut, golden oak, and red-brown mahogany line the industrial shelves in neat rows. A wall of brackets and metal hardware displays its endless selection of bronze and brushed nickel. You’ve never built a shelf before, where to start?
You pull out your phone and scroll through your contacts until you see the G’s. You hit “dial” and wait, inspecting a tin of dark wood stain labeled “espresso,” when he finally answers.
“Hi George, it’s me. I’ve been thinking. I’ve always wanted to see Alaska.”