This is a bleak short short story about failed lives and middle age angst.

"We should have a lot of things," I said. "We've got too much of what we want and not enough of what we need."

One night as my friend Ron and I sat waiting for our pizza in a booth at LaBarbara's, a stunning woman walked through the door. We both turned to look. She wore a small red dress that clung possessively to her shimmering skin. Her pouty lips and wide crystal eyes were framed by short golden locks that flipped in toward her chin and bounced as she walked. The woman smiled slightly at us as she glided by our table, moving with the grace and self-confidence of a pizza parlor queen, in her wake a whiff of perfume mixing seductively with the mozzarella and marinara. I think she sat down by herself at the table behind us, but I didn't turn to look because I always try to mind my own business.

LaBarbara's was the home of the best pizza in L.A. Ron and I would go there at least once a week, even though it was on the other side of town. On the night of the shimmering woman we were yawning and chatting about sports and our jobs—as usual. We were both just starting professional careers and were optimistic about the future. When our pizza finally arrived, conversation temporarily ceased while we hungrily grabbed for our slices and devoured the pie. I could tell Ron was really enjoying his meal by the tiny droplets of perspiration forming on his prematurely balding scalp and trickling down his forehead.

"Mmmmh," he grunted through his pizza-stuffed mouth. "This is great pizza."

"I'd love to open a pizza restaurant," he said a few minutes later.

"Why don't you?" I asked.

Ron swallowed. "Too risky. Most restaurants fail before they even get off the ground. Besides, it's too much trouble. You have to develop a business plan, get financial backing, find a location and so on. Maybe someday…"

"Oh please," I said. "You're pathetic, Ron. You've got to follow your dreams, and do it now, not someday. You're not getting any younger you know. How sad it will be to look back on your life and regret not taking any risks, not doing what you really want to do because you're afraid you'll fail, or some other vague fear…

"It's not vague," Ron interrupted.

"I'm serious," I said.

"So you think I should open a restaurant tonight?" Ron asked gravely, mocking the earnestness of my diatribe.

I was not to be deterred. The doubts, frustrations and humiliation of my own life came pouring out like projectile vomit. "Wake up Ron," I almost shouted. Wake up from that daily routine that has you sleepwalking to your grave. This is it. This is all there is. These are our lives—the only ones we get. In the wink of an eye we'll be dead. If you're going to do something, do it now. Right now. There's no ‘someday.'"

As I raved on, Ron began to chew more slowly. I noticed he was staring at me with a strange expression. But I couldn't stop. I was sweating now. Spit and bits of pizza flew as I ejaculated my impassioned platitudes.

"Here we sit like cowering dogs, afraid of being kicked by life one more time. We can't let fear rule our lives. We must seize life, Ronny!" I pounded the table. "Live our dreams! Grasp at opportunities that may never come again."

There was an intensity now in Ron's eyes that sort of scared me, so I paused to catch my breath. Feeling a little foolish all of a sudden, I was about to dismiss the whole thing with a little joke and change the subject when Ron took a gulp of Diet Pepsi, wiped his mouth and stood up without a word. As he left the table I had a feeling I knew where he was going.

I once worked with a guy named Charles who was always shooting off his mouth about stuff he knew nothing about. Sometimes when he was spouting some ridiculous nonsense, people in the office would get exasperated and challenge his outrageous statements, or just tell him to shut the hell up. Then, with a puzzled expression, surprised at how seriously people were taking him, Charles would backpedal. "I was just talkin'," he would say. "Be cool, man. I didn't mean nuthin' by it. I was just talkin'."

At that moment in LaBarbara's I felt like grabbing Ron by the shirt and saying, "Stop. Please don't listen to me. She's way out of your league. You might embarrass yourself. I'm not responsible for what happens. Seriously Ronny, I was just talkin'"

But Ron was already gone.

I sat alone eating my pizza. I'm a big talker, I thought. Talk talk. That's all I do.

A few minutes later Ron came back to the table. He looked a little down.

"This is really good pizza," I said.

"Yeah," said Ron flatly. "It's good."

A minute later I heard him mutter almost to himself, "I'll never do that again."

I just nodded.

Many years later, gray and paunchy, I stood with Ron on the deserted sidewalk outside a closed down LaBarbara's. He had become a successful lawyer and I was now an executive for an entertainment company. It was a cool, damp West Los Angeles night and the streetlamps formed circular pools of light in the mist. We stood with our hands in our pockets, stubbing our toes into the concrete and drowning another small disappointment in small talk. We intended to meet for dinner at LaBarbara's, and had arrived on this sad Sunday in January to find it closed down.

"How could this happen?" Ron whined.

"I don't know," I answered. "I guess it was just another great restaurant swallowed by cut-throat competition. The restaurant business is dog eat dog in this city you know…"

The thick quiet of the night was interrupted as a car full of noisy kids sped by, the radio blaring.

"What do we do now?" Ron asked despairingly.

"I don't know. I'm not that hungry anymore."

"Me either. I guess I'll just go home. Is there anything on TV?"

"That Lakers game might still be on," I offered.

Ron brightened slightly. "Yeah, the Lakers. Who are they playing?"

"I don't remember. It might be the Clippers."

"Yeah, the Clippers," said Ron, retreating back into disappointment.

We stood there a while, staring at the dark building that used to serve the best pizza in L.A.

"We should have wives," Ron said sadly.

"We should have a lot of things," I said. "We've got too much of what we want and not enough of what we need."

We lingered silently for a few more minutes, then said goodbye and went home to watch the last quarter of a basketball game on TV.

May 2003


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