Weathering the High Life: A Short Story by Laura

Interest was soaring in the little company Jim founded on his tenth day out of jail. It wasn’t much, just a way to pay the bills with a little ad revenue here and a membership fee there, but once word spread that he was giving away free cameras as a promotion, all hell broke loose. People really liked their free crap, he discovered. You could get them to do just about anything once they had their hands on some swag, no matter how tacky or easy to obtain.
Now it was time to move on to the next venture, the next mountaintop, because he felt like he was starting to slide down his current peak and would soon be tumbling into the ravine. Any day now, opinion could change and the offers would start dropping until he couldn’t get arrested at a networking meet-up, and so the time to sell was now. But like any good gambler (and thanks to the time he’d spent on the inside, he was indeed a pretty good gambler), he didn’t want to fold too quickly, even if he was more or less bluffing.
In the meantime, there was nothing to do but wait, and continue to maintain traffic and exposure for his dumb little corner of the market. He didn’t have much to offer in terms of services, not being particularly gifted in programming or even writing, so he decided on a website that would mostly involve letting the users create their own damn content, bit by bit. That meant that he spent a lot of his time cleaning out the garbage, deleting threads and all that. People could be such dicks online. He didn’t use the website himself, because he wasn’t really that interested in the internet, and after working with the damn thing all day the last thing he wanted to do was spend his free time using it.
Everyone in jail said this was the way to make money on the outside these days, and even though the absurdity of taking financial advice from those guys was not lost on Jim, it would seem they knew what they were talking about. At first, of course, times had been tight. He didn’t know if the website would be worth his time, and had started working for a media agency instead for a while. But that was a bust, and while he was sorting through the rubble of that venture and planning his next move, his trickle of website traffic turned into a flood, something he had to scramble to keep from busting the gates of his site wide open. After a while there was no more time for other projects, because the site consumed him wholly.
He got to drinking a lot after the first couple of months, partly because he spent all his time at home and there wasn’t much else to do, but the stress of keeping up with the company 24/7 made him feel kind of like a TV doctor as well, strung out and delirious, working endless shifts that sometimes ended in frustration. Eating and reading about the sea made him feel better, and he’d gotten kind of into cooking for himself instead of ordering in all the damn time. He now could brag that he made a mean chili, from a recipe he developed himself with two kinds of beans and real chili peppers. Things like cooking and watching cable made him feel okay for a while, but inevitably, the project would call him back and he’d be stressed out and miserable again. It wasn’t all the time that he felt like crap, but it was enough that he’d started actually drinking during work hours, which made for some bad decisions on occasion.
While Jim sat on his apartment balcony one night, writing new business venture ideas in a notebook and sometimes checking his mobile device for new messages and notifications, drinking a whiskey in an emptied out jam jar he’d thought was nice, taking in the view of the opposing balcony where a woman was painting her toenails, thinking about himself as a pretty cool and accomplished guy, he decided there might be money in sandwiches. He’d always made a killer sandwich, everyone told him so. And nowadays, with so much attention focused on the food scene, it was easy to create a buzz around a new place. He remembered once passing by an enormous line of 200 people or more waiting to get into a little hole in the wall lunch place. He asked someone what it was about and they said the food joint was giving away free sandwiches for four hours. Jim almost considered waiting in line because he was fairly broke at the time, but instead continued on his way.
So it wouldn’t be that much of a leap to assume that his free camera trick could work for food as well. Once he spread word to the culinary blogs that his establishment was giving out, say, a free sandwich and beer for one day only, the crowds would come flocking, and his eatery’s name would be out in the press, and if he did his job right they’d all see what excellent food he served and come back again and again. He’d just have to try and keep his name out of it.
Jim sucked the last of the whiskey off his ice cube and withdrew the bottle from his side, where it was sitting on the balcony floor next to an ashtray and the stub of a cheap cigar he’d gotten at the corner store because he felt like one and was too lazy to go all the way to a tobacconist. It was probably intended more for use by marijuana smokers in need of a blunt wrap than cigar connoisseurs, but he’d gotten use to low quality tobacco products in jail and didn’t have very high standards anymore, not like he did before he went to jail.
When he thought about the things he took for granted before his six years, he wondered how he even lived with himself. He was so spoiled, always requesting the high end vodka, as if the well wouldn’t taste the damn same. He would eat at these fancy-ass restaurants, getting appetizers and desserts as if it were no thing, treating everyone at the table, encouraging them to bring their friends and dates, and then also picking up the tab at the bar afterwards, and the bar after that. He would spend thousands of dollars on clothes, to the point where he couldn’t even remember where or when he got half of his shirts. He had so many damn ties, and half of them would go out of style before he even had a chance to wear them. Same thing went for shoes and slacks, and definitely for furniture. He was always redesigning his apartment to look like something he’d seen that he liked, and had gone through about three color schemes since he’d moved in there.
That was his old apartment, of course. Now he lived in a totally different part of town, one the old Jim wouldn’t have been caught dead in on a Saturday night.
People could be really cruel about things like jail time. Just because his job title was inmate doesn’t mean his life was all that different on the inside. He worked hard, had to pay for his time, almost like rent, and he ate shitty prepared food and watched TV before suffering from insomnia. The only thing that was really different was that in jail he had a roommate. He’d always valued his privacy, but to tell the truth, it was nice to have someone to talk to at the end of the day in a place like that. He probably would’ve gone mad without the company.
Now, shackled to his computer, he felt more alone and imprisoned than ever, sometimes. The courts had rejected his request for house arrest, which was probably a good thing, because serving his time like a regular Joe helped to restore his image somewhat in the aftermath of the whole thing. It went from scandal to yesterday’s news, which it probably wouldn’t have if the papers were talking about his grocery bills and how nice his apartment was and all that. During his trial, before he was locked up, the paparazzi were all over him about that stuff, snapping a picture and writing a damning headline if he so much as bought a roll of toilet paper. If he was eating a sundae, they’d probably write “Sundae blood money sundae!” Those goddamn pricks.
Ignoring the papers was impossible during that fucked up time. It was like there was a big red target on his head and the whole country was hurling judgment and criticism and epithets at him. It certainly seemed like the whole country, though the scandal probably didn’t register with kids under a certain age and those who didn’t keep up with the news, so at least that was a plus. Seniors especially seemed to be bothered, which figured because old people didn’t have anything better to do than bitch and moan and write letters to the goddamn editor.
Jim relit his cigar stub and released a heavy smoke-filled sigh as he looked at the woman across the way again. She was inside now, watching TV, and her robe was half open. He sucked on the glowing cigar stub while idly watching her breast rise and fall with each breath. She wasn’t particularly attractive or his type, but seeing a woman unaware of the male gaze upon her was a new experience for him. The women he’d associated with in his more naïve days were as artificial as they were cold, and he’d never been sure whether all their preening and posing was meant to lure him or his bank account. They’d only ever drink vodka tonics, purportedly because it wasn’t as fattening as other drinks. Then, after the club closed, they’d always want to go out for French fries and greasy appetizers. He never understood how that worked.
When he brought the whiskey bottle back up to his glass for another refill, he realized there was only a mouthful left in the bottle, so he re-extinguished the cigar, stood up with a grunt, and reentered his apartment through the squeaky sliding door. He reminded himself to put some WD-40 on that at some point as he went to the fridge and surveyed its contents. All he could find was a six pack of Miller High Life with one can missing. He picked it up by its empty plastic ring and hauled the whole thing back to the balcony. As he resettled down in his patio chair and cracked one of the cans open, he looked back over at the woman’s apartment he’d been staring at, but she was nowhere to be seen. Maybe she was in the bathroom.
Jim pulled out his phone and started flipping through digital photos until he got to the one he was looking for: Carrie, posing with him in Greece. She was the one he felt sorry about. Most of the other girls he’d been involved with were just that: girls. Not necessarily in age, although he rarely delved into the over-30 crowd, but in the sense that all of their ambitions, interests, and hang-ups seemed incredibly childish to him. So when the inevitable accusations started—he was more interested in work than them, he was unemotional, he messed around with other women—he could bolt and not feel too guilty. But with Carrie it was a lot sadder than that, and he found himself wondering if it was his fault, if he should have tried harder not to be such an asshole.
Carrie was the type of woman you couldn’t find online. He’d tried. He wasn’t that big a fan of online dating, but nowadays it was hard to get out and find somebody in real life. Before, there were events and cocktail parties every day of the week, and everyone he knew was already going out for coke-fueled nights on the town so it was easy to tag along. Most of those friends and colleagues were history now. Either he was on their shit list, or they were too embarrassed to be seen with him. Same thing went for the girls in his black book. Carrie was the one woman he hadn’t tried to reconnect with after he got out, because he felt like he’d put her through enough already. Usually when a woman said she wanted to marry him, it was a red flag that she was after his money or especially needy, but with Carrie, he actually believed her. Of course, he wigged out and pushed her away just the same. Sometimes when he wasn’t chasing after some woman’s online dating profile version of herself, he turned to internet porn. He certainly felt above it, and only indulged once a month or so, but in the same way courting someone online gave him a thrill of connecting with somebody voyeuristically from a distance, porn let him back in on the world of sex without having to establish actual, humiliating communication. Opening his next can of High Life, he looked back at the window and saw the woman was back, watching TV and reclining this time. He couldn’t see much except the top of her head, but her presence put him at ease.
As the night wore on, Jim kept thinking about his idea for a sandwich joint, and how a simple, honest job like that would do wonders for him. He’d have to pay off his investors before he started sinking money into a new venture, of course, but that had never been a problem in the past. And getting funding for the new place would be a piece of cake, with all his connections in the restaurant scene. Maybe he could even talk his current investors into accepting an ownership stake in the new business in lieu of cash. He might have to set his prices higher at first, but as long as he paid attention to his branding and kept an eye on the trends, he could pull it off. If people were convinced that his sandwiches were a status symbol or a luxury item, they’d pay whatever he wanted them to. But that would only be until he got an established customer base, and then he could lower prices, or even better, spin off a cheaper version of the same brand.
He hoped nothing would go wrong with the site tonight, so he could finish his five pack in peace. Tomorrow he’d have to bust his ass to make up for all this lost time, but until then, he was on a break. If something bad did happen, he’d hear it soon enough from his primary investor, who acted more like his parole officer sometimes. He rattled the last of the beer in its can and swigged the dregs, swallowing with a foul face. He wasn’t a huge fan of cheap beer, but that’s about all they sold in the deli downstairs, and he was trying to save money. He still splurged on the odd import at restaurants and bars, but now he saved it for special occasions.
Expensive beer wasn’t the only thing he’d cut back on. When he went shopping for the house or for food, he used to buy the upscale version of everything, not because it tasted better or lasted longer, but because he thought he was supposed to. He was always reading suggestions in magazines and newspapers, and he had to apply that knowledge somehow. When he reached for the $30 bottle of imported balsamic vinegar at the grocery store, it felt more like he was making the correct choice than being extravagant. And when he made reservations for opening night at some new restaurant, it was because if he didn’t, he’d be left out of a lot of conversations. And when he spent a fortune renewing his wardrobe every season, it’s because everyone he surrounded himself with knew when you were wearing last season, and judged you accordingly. His very existence was subject to scrutiny by at least a hundred people, and breaking those ties would mean losing everything. Or so he thought.
The last High Life can was starting to get light, and Jim wondered if he’d missed last call. He could usually get away with buying beer at the deli past the cutoff time, but he wasn’t sure if he needed to keep drinking. He looked over at the woman in the robe again, and saw that she was pouring herself a glass of wine. That settled it. He threw on his jacket and jetted downstairs to procure more beer.
Back on his balcony, he opened a Stella Artois, which was the highest-end beer the deli had to offer, and kept watching the woman. She drank slowly, which he liked. There was just something so appealing about a woman who only drank occasionally. Nothing could be further from what he was used to, namely party girls with insatiable appetites for booze, cocaine, and expensive weed. A lot of the guys in prison had similar stories, but most of those involved hookers. Not that there was much of a difference.
He realized he’d been staring hard at the woman in the robe, and that she’d walked onto her balcony and was now leaning on the banister looking back at him. Startled, he waved. She smiled and waved back, then took a sip from her wine glass. An odd thrill went through Jim, and he found himself wanting a cigarette for the first time in months. He found an old, half-empty pack that he kept for emergencies in a desk drawer, and brought it outside.
Lighting one of the stale cigarettes with his blue-flamed cigar lighter, he wondered if the woman was still looking at him. He looked back and saw that she was still standing there, but now she was looking down at the street. A fight was breaking out on the sidewalk, and other people were gathering around to watch the action. Jim puffed on his cigarette nervously and took a big swig from his Stella bottle. When he looked back up, the woman had gone inside and was closing her blinds.
Jim’s heart sank. Maybe next time.

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