He was doing his breathing techniques when his heart stopped again. The purpose of the exercises was to lower his heart rate, but apparently he had mastered the technique so well, he was almost killing himself. Lying on his back in his bed, nothing beating inside of him, he waited for darkness and then the revealing white light. Instead he felt something kick in, felt life rush through him, an electric, hot current. He sat up gasping for air, his hands at his throat.
"Charlie?" Donna asked. Her eyes were closed and she seemed half asleep.
He coughed a little, and sucked in another deep breath. "I’m fine," he managed to whisper, although she hadn’t asked how he was doing.
He had started the breathing exercises after returning from the agency’s annual executive retreat for emerging thought-leaders held in a resort town in the Black Forest whose name he could never pronounce. The year before, the agency had been purchased by a German media conglomerate that firmly believed in training and career development for its key people. One of the seminars was on "thought cleansing," and it was taught by a former monk who had written a book, The Corporate Buddha. The breathing exercises were a form of meditation and should ideally be performed while hooked up to an oxygen tank. Unfortunately, Donna wouldn’t let him have an oxygen tank in bed, so he limited his routine to taking very deep breaths until he almost died.
He sat on the edge of the bed for a few minutes and waited for his heartbeat to return to what he felt was a normal pace, then went downstairs to the basement to do forty-five minutes on the treadmill. He ran ten-minute miles, an easier pace than usual. He was breaking in new orthotics for his feet and wanted to take it a bit slower. He also wanted to check his voice mail, which he couldn’t do if he was running like a maniac.
While running, he reached for his headset, and carefully dialed his cell to check for messages. Surprisingly, there were only four. Three were inconsequential, but the last one was from Ursula in Berlin saying Helmut was coming to Chicago and wanted some time with him. Helmut was the chairman and founder of the media conglomerate, a complex man, both charming and abrupt, who did not suffer fools well.
Charlie considered calling her back, but decided to run another mile. He preferred to be at his desk with all his weapons handy when dealing with Berlin, not half naked on a treadmill. Besides, he had slept well, a rare occurrence, and wanted to keep going.
During his cool-down walk, he left several messages for his direct reports, reviewing the agenda for that day’s staff huddle, prioritizing action items, and making recommendations for where to order in for lunch. He preferred the more human touch of voice mails over e-mails when communicating to his team. Besides, he couldn’t use his BlackBerry while running on the treadmill. He had tried once and nearly fallen off.
After his run, he did some stomach crunches, then headed for the kitchen and breakfast: Cheerios with skim milk, topped with raisins, blueberries, flaxseed. Ten minutes later, he was upstairs in his home office checking e-mail. Not counting spam, he had only seventeen new messages, an unusually light number. He sent short responses, including one to Ursula about his schedule, then jumped into the shower, running the water as hot as possible.
Afterward, he stood dripping wet in front of the mirror, steam rising behind him, and took stock. Years ago, Charlie had the depressing revelation that it was impossible to look good naked after forty. Despite his best efforts, his body reinforced this conclusion. Though he was relieved to still have most of it, his once-black hair was more than a little sprinkled with salt. He also possessed a slight paunch, sagging shoulders, and only a hint of biceps. He comforted himself with the fact that he still looked fine with clothes on and, at fifty years old, he made a point of wearing as many clothes as possible.
While toweling off, he performed his morning mole check. He had detected a potential problem on his left shoulder (two weeks before he was pretty sure it was on his right shoulder) and had been carefully monitoring it. It was still in the pre-mole state, just a faint shadow, but he knew it was there and it worried him. Recently, a man in the creative department at the agency had been diagnosed with skin cancer on his foot and was forced to have a toe amputated. The specter of an amputation haunted Charlie, so he kept a close eye on this migrating mole. As soon as he felt the shadow was officially transitioning into something substantive, he would not hesitate; he would see a specialist.
When he finished in the bathroom, he walked over to his new humidifier and lowered his face into the rising jet of steam. The wet, moist air felt good and he took several deep, head-clearing breaths. While he had often slept with a humidifier on, he had recently become addicted to a new deluxe model, the Rain Forest Deuce, which offered twice the humidity. After only a few days, it seemed to be making a difference with his chronically aching sinuses, clearing out his cavities and generally making breathing easier. He deeply inhaled one last time, made a mental note to buy a smaller unit for business travel, then returned to the bathroom to dry his now-damp face.
When he reentered the room, he was startled to see Donna sitting up in bed, her arms folded in front of her, her eyes slightly open. Charlie could tell by the tilt of her head and the way she was breathing that she was still asleep. Throughout their marriage, she had been a turbulent sleeper. When they were younger, she frequently walked in her sleep. Once she had reached the alley behind the garage, and another time, wearing lingerie he had bought her, a neighbor’s porch. Fortunately, her nocturnal activity had decreased over the years and was now limited to her sitting up in bed, or occasionally strolling about the room.
"Donna," he said soothingly, "go back to sleep." Sometimes this worked, sometimes it didn’t.
This time it did. She gently lowered herself back down and onto her pillow.
He moved to the bed and looked down at his wife of thirty years. She was still pretty in a simple, natural way that other women probably envied, and that he probably took for granted. As he watched her sleep, her face calm, her eyes closed, he felt a sense of loss, and a sad shadow crept over him. He stood there and tried to make sense of it, but the feeling faded.
He pulled the sheet up and over her shoulder, then dressed quietly and went downstairs. As he waited for Angelo, his driver, he gazed out the window. The block was dark and quiet and still and he let the solitude wash over and hold him. He had been on the swim team in high school, a diver, and he likened this moment to standing on the board, arms at his side, while everything below him waited. He stood there wrapped in the stillness, until he heard Angelo pull up, the headlights of the town car straining against the dark. Then he picked up his briefcase and glanced down at his watch. For once, Angelo was right on time. It was four A.M.
Excerpted from The Pursuit of Other Interests by Jim Kokoris.
Copyright © 2009 by Jim Kokoris.
Published in November 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.