“The problem with you, Atticus, is that you work too much,” Albert said in a declarative tone, a little bit after 7:30 p.m.
“No, I don’t!” Atticus responded, indignantly.
“C’mon! Look at you, you look ghastly! How many hours have you spent in the office lately?”
“Unlike others, I don’t count the hours. I do what I have to do.”
“Listen, you need a break. You’re stressed out,” Albert insisted.
“No, I’m not,” Atticus vehemently denied, this time without looking up from the file that lay open in his lap.
“Soooo, are you calling yourself relaxed then?”
“I didn’t say that. I’m just as busy as usual, frustrated as usual, but otherwise fine, thank you. I’ll get better. I just have to get through the next few months. I’ve told you we’re hiring a new doctor, right? By this time next year, me and Anthony will be somewhere in French Polynesia sipping on Mojitos.”
“The Mojitos are in the Caribbean, my friend. Have you tried to meditate? It might help.”
“Meditate?” Atticus harrumphed. “Meditation is for those who hate looking lazy, but who adore being lazy. No, I did not try to meditate.”
“Ohm, ohm, ohm,” Albert tried to liven the atmosphere. “Too bad, you should give it a go.”
“Listen, I enjoy my work. I really do. Not always, but more often than before. In fact, more than I have in ages. I’ll take a break—I promise, one day. Just not now.”
“Yes, please, one day, not longer, just one day. If that. “Not-now,” “not-yet,” “one-day,” Albert started to imitate Atticus. “Ever since I’ve known you, it’s always been about the business: building the business, growing the business, turning the business into a brand. You’ve never been anywhere, never been married, no kids, never had a stable, long time girlfriend, and lately, you don’t even have a short time emergency kind of girlfriend. Are you under some dry spell or what?”
“As if marriage, children and women are the only path to happiness…” Atticus protested.
“No, there are others: cold beer, fresh oysters, sex….also unknown to you… Com’on, you need a kitty to feel pretty.”
For a second, a smile danced on Atticus’ face. But just for a second. Then, the miracle disappeared.
“Listen, I’m not going to shop for a woman if that’s what you’re suggesting. And sex is not something I can plan for, Albert. I’ll get to it, one day…”
“The Hell it’s not! If you’re a man, you have no other choice than to plan for it. Women don’t just fall right into your lap. You must put yourself out there, make yourself available, give bullshit, take bullshit, plan for more bullshit… So, unless there’s a reason you’d rather not acknowledge—” Albert paused “—like, I don’t know, maybe you’ve changed your preferences?” he trailed off with a quirky smile.
“Are you suggesting I might be gay?” Atticus offered.
“Bisexual then?” Albert said, arching an eyebrow.
“Great! Bisexual now! No, I’m straight, Albert. As straight as a man can be.”
“Straight and single? Uh, nice alliteration but bad combination,” Albert tried joking.
“I do turn my head on the street when I see a beautiful woman walking past me, if that’s your concern. It’s just that by the time I get off work, not many do. I barely have time to wink at a woman, let alone go on a date. I have patients booked months in advance, I do pro bono counseling twice a week, I organized two charity events with Suicide Prevention Australia only in the last three months, I teach psychology courses at two different schools. I’m tied up right now. I can’t afford wasting time on dinners, shopping, constantly rambling just to impress her. Women are suckers of time. And they always complain it’s not enough.”
Albert shrugged his shoulders: “Get a busy one. This way she won’t interfere with your schedule.”
“You don’t understand, do you? By the time I get home, I’m too exhausted to even have a decent conversation.”
“Decent conversation? Who mentioned anything about conversing? What’s your alternative to a girlfriend anyway? Coming home, plopping down in front of the telly, cracking open a beer, falling asleep on the couch, alone, just to wake up all the same. Even Bill Gates has himself a woman — for conversing, of course. I’m sure he’s pretty busy too…”
“Any woman you date, sooner or later wants to marry you, Albert. It’s not all fun and games.”
“So? You’re over forty. And when a man is over forty, he’d better be married or at least divorced. Otherwise, something is wrong with him.”
“Who says that?”
“The matchmaking services.”
“Don’t laugh. They charge double those guys.”
“And they pay? Pfff!” Atticus laughed again. “Have you heard of: ‘Good things come to those who wait?’ Or ‘Keep your options open?’ What do they suggest to you? Once you walk down the aisle, it’s all ball and chain, my friend. You know that. Next worse thing, you’re having a wailing, money sucking prick running around the house, leaving his footprints and hand prints all around. No, no, no, I’m not getting into such a mess…Women screw up your life, then kids come along to finish the business. You commit yourself to a banana-pancake lifestyle wanting nothing more than to be left alone, with your own thoughts, for one goddamn minute. And for what? For two minutes of pleasure? Give me a break, I’d rather have a cup of tea.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa… Two minutes? Yeah, in your case, a cup of tea might be better.”
“Ha-ha, good joke!” Atticus scoffed.
“I wasn’t joking,” Albert said, turning his head from side to side. “You don’t even exercise anymore. No sex and no gym. Single guys like you do both. Married men do none.”
“I do exercise.”
“I walk,” Atticus defended himself. “Twice a day, fifteen minutes: from home to the office and back. And this doesn’t even count all the walking I do inside the office. Did you know you burn as many calories walking as having sex in the missionary position?”
“Who lied to you? The Happy Bachelor Club? Give me a break!”
“Relationships are difficult, you know that. “Happily ever after” might be a nice idea, but does it pan out in real life? Not really. It’s not that I don’t want a family, Albert. I do. But I can’t give up my work,” Atticus wailed, looking up at Albert with tired eyes. “Enough about me. When are you going on holiday?” he tried changing the subject.
“I don’t. Not yet. But you do. Next Tuesday you go on holiday,” Albert replied with a detached air, not a muscle moving on his face.
“What? Me? I don’t go anywhere. I told you I’m very busy.”
“Sorry, let me rephrase it: you’re going on a—” Albert paused, giving Atticus a half-amused, half-mischievous look. “—how should I put it? You’re going on a working holiday.”
Atticus, who was looking through some files in his cabinet, suddenly turned around. The drawers rolled out and bopped him in the back of the head.
Albert continued undisturbed: “The story is quite simple. You know my wife, Reyhan. She has a friend, Zoey. Zoey was my patient. Really interesting lady. A few years ago, she moved to Turkey to take care of her grandma. Let me tell you, we all love our grandmas, but this girl didn’t love her grandma, she adored her, idolized her. One month ago, her grandma passed away and now my wife is worried sick about her. She wanted us to fly to Turkey, so we can see Zoey, make sure she’s alright. Can you imagine? I can’t go to Istanbul. Not now! Mom needs me. She hasn’t been feeling well for a while. But— ”
“But?” Atticus asked. He didn’t like where all this was going.
“But you can. Please, Atticus,” Albert pleaded.
Atticus didn’t say a word. Istanbul? Albert couldn’t be serious!
“Stop grinning at me like a simpleton,” Albert said, fiddling with his pen. “I suppose I should have expected you to raise some sort of resistance. Afterall, resistance to change is very common in older, never-married people.”
“I’m not old. I’m forty-three. Forty-three is not old.”
“Oh, it’s old, believe me. When all you did was work, work and work some more, it’s old.”
“What about you?” Atticus snapped. “After we graduated, all you did with your life is get a short, frumpy Turkish wife, have kids, more kids, never enough kids,” he said, raising his voice while gauging his friend’s reactions. But Albert didn’t seem the least bit offended.
Atticus continued: “The wisdom in life is to eliminate the non-essential, the excess. Something you have yet to learn, Albert.”
But Albert still didn’t bat an eye. He simply smiled and waited. Atticus might not have been the smartest one about those things, but he did shoot from the hip. He liked that.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Atticus finally said rather crossly and in a dry tone. “I’m already behind with my research paper.”
“Behind? You have six months till it’s due.”
“Yes, but I promised myself I’ll get it done by next week.”
“Next week? Are you nuts? Fifty thousand words? You can’t get it done by next week.”
“I can and I will,” Atticus said in a determined voice.
“You are nuts,” Albert sighed. “Then what? Another project?”
“No, maybe, who knows…”
“Do you know how you sound? You sound like a drug addict, like a compulsive gambler.”
“I fail to see any similarities.”
“You fail to see many things. That doesn’t change the fact that they exist. Listen, I’m not here to have an argument with you. But it’s important to me, it’s important to my wife, it’s important for Zoey, and who knows, it might be important for you, too. You won’t be taking a break from your work. It will be, like I said, a working assignment, a working assignment abroad. You go there, talk to her, make sure she’s fine, and then you come back. Com’on! If you go, next week you’ll wake up to a beautiful day in Istanbul,” Albert said gaily.
“Beautiful? It will be minus whatever. The sky will be gray and the streets will be either covered in snow, or muddy from the rain. Nothing beautiful about that,” Atticus grumbled.
“You know Albert, I’ve known you for a long time, but sometimes I don’t think I understand you.”
Albert gave out a loud hearty laugh.
“You shouldn’t even try. Just trust me on it. Just go. There’s no good getting used to loneliness, my friend.”
“There is no one to cover for me,” Atticus bleated on.
“No one? What about Doctor Jacobs? Doctor Erin? Doctor Liebernstein? I’m sure any of them would be more than happy to.”
“But they don’t know my patients, Albert. Not as well as I do.”
“Here we go again. No one does a better job than you do, right? No one is as competent, as diligent, and as perfect as you are. Is that what you’re saying? Is that the issue?” Albert said, getting tired now.
“Don’t say that. It’s just that I never let anyone take over any of my tasks. You know that. I’m happy to help others, just not the other way around. I’m just not comfortable with it,” Atticus desperately tried to justify himself.
“I wonder why that is. Do you realize that in the last ten years you’ve fired fifteen secretaries and that other five left by their own volition? You drive everybody who works for you insane. Because anybody who works less than twenty-four hours a day like you do is a disappointment. If it were up to you, we will all die here, chained to our desks, walking home like zombies chewing over the events of the day, while making mental lists of the next day tasks,” Albert said, getting quite worked up. Why did Atticus have to be so damn difficult?
“That’s not true,” Atticus protested. “First of all, I fired sixteen, not fifteen. The one you saw on your way in, today is her last day. Secondly, it’s because they are lazy. I don’t imagine things, Albert.”
“You think everyone is lazy and everyone thinks you’re crazy. Listen, you work hard. You deserve some time off. When was the last time you had a holiday?” Albert asked with affection in his voice.
“I don’t know. Does it matter?” Atticus answered evasively.
“Some say it does.”
“Nowadays all people want to do is to go on holiday, retire,” Atticus complained. “No one wants to work anymore. I don’t need a holiday. I’m just fine. Maybe next year. I’ll think about it,” Atticus finally conceded. He knew Albert would never understand what he was trying to accomplish. Nobody did.
“Too late. The thinking is all done. I bought the ticket already,” Albert declared enthusiastically.
“You did what?” Atticus nearly fell off his chair, his mouth gaping open. Even his dark, thick rimmed glasses fell lopsided as if they were as stupefied as he was. He pushed them back up on the bridge of his nose and cleared his throat: “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
“It’s first class…”Albert teased.
“There is nothing first class about leaving warm summer days behind for freezing cold ones,” Atticus let out a wail. It had already been a very long, cold and damp winter in Melbourne. He didn’t need to traval halfway around the world for more of the same.
“I have news for you. The temperature in your office is twenty-one Celsius all year around. You don’t care whether it’s sunny or freezing cold outside. Stop finding excuses. You’re boarding next coming Tuesday at midnight. Arriving in Istanbul at two o’clock, Melbourne time, still Tuesday. Look at the bright side of things. You’ll gain a day. Now, everything you need to know about Zoey is in this file,” Albert said, laying a thin, pink file with only two sheets of paper inside on Atticus’ desk.
“Midnight? Is it a direct flight at least? I hate wasting time in the airports,” Atticus asked, his mind still trying to find a way out.
“No direct flights, my friend. You’ll have a stopover for three hours in Doha.”
“Three hours? That long? Is it the shortest flight you could find?”
“Yes, it is,” Albert answered patiently.
“What about the seat? I can’t stand the middle row. I have to be in an exit row. This way I don’t have to wait for everyone to get off.”
“You’ll be the first one to get off that plane. I promise you that. If not, God help the stewardess.”
“What about the menu? Is it fixed? You know I can’t stand ethnic food,” Atticus said in a flat voice.
“You’ll order whatever you like. Stop worrying about everything. You’ll be just fine. Do you want me to give you a ride home?”
“It’s eight, Albert. I don’t stop working until dinner time.”
“Sorry, I thought it’s past dinner time.”
“Not for me. Plus, I told you, I walk home.”
“Yes, part of your exercise. I forgot. Anyway, thank you, my friend. She’s quite a case. You’ll enjoy her. You’ll see.”
“They all are… Especially your wife’s friends,” Atticus said, pulling a mournful face.
“We all are, my friend. We all are. Rug up! Make sure you have fun and are naughty. Doctor’s orders. It’s gonna be great. No reason in the world why not,” Albert replied sagely, waving on his way out.