Lunch with Imaginary Gary




AT PANERA BREAD I get the oddest looks while having a typical argument with my imaginary roommate. I mean, we're both dressed nicely, collared shirts and ties. His tie is a little goofy, with that old Enron symbol on it (I don't know what statement he is trying to make). But with all the usual restaurant commotion (yammering Bluetoothers, short-tempered toddlers), I don't see why Gary and I are the only ones getting double-takes, peeks-over-menus, and blatant-staring-at-from-children.

Our quarrel started after I walked out of a job interview this morning. The interviewer, a large suit with a little man inside, hardly asked me questions. Instead, he'd start with how the business was doing (a marketing firm, or something), but before I knew it, a maelstrom of expletives over poorly managed money and irresponsible investments filled the small office. I suppose I could have cheered him on, tell him how underappreciated he is. I didn't. I told him to get a tailor and left.

And from the moment I left that office, Gary has been tearing into me with supposedly perspicacious criticism.

"Adam, you have no right to sit there on your high horse," I hear him say. "And decide who's worthy of being your employer. You've been walking around with an empty briefcase—"

"It's not empty," I say, "I've got my resume in there."

"Just one copy? It's as good as empty," Gary stares at me from the empty chair across the table. "How can you afford to eat here, anyway?"

He can really be an imaginary pain in my ass.

Gary nitpicks at my inner thoughts just to piss me off. I wish he would find a job or get a cat, but he'd rather remind me daily how much I'm past due on rent. I ask him to keep the apartment clean in case I ever bring a woman over; he reminds me that my mom always helps tidy up on her visits.

Usually, I have the tolerance to put up with his antithetical observations, but today I couldn't do it. In the middle of the bakery-café dining room, I finally burst: "You don't contribute to society! You can't! You don't have a job. You don't even have to exist!"

We'd been attracting some bemused looks since we sat down, and this outburst may have verged on a public disturbance. A couple patrons step in: an elderly lady, the type to tip the barista with prayer pamphlets, and this eccentric teenager who reminds me of the lead singer of Weezer.

"That's just not true," says the Rivers Cuomo copy. "Everyone has a reason to exist."

"That's right," says the church lady, standing right behind Gary's chair but staring at me, as if she were his guardian angel. "You don't need a job to be an upstanding member of society."     

I couldn't believe they were defending him!    

Gary naturally rises to the antagonistic occasion. "Of course I have to exist. You know I wouldn't be here otherwise. How else could you project your insecurities and externalize your own self-loathing?" I almost feel like taking a swing at him now, but the last time I tried that I broke a lamp. He's got a quick dodge.

"People have roles, aside from careers," says the skinny teen, "The informed voter. The economy-stimulating consumer. Volunteer. Homemaker."

I turn to Gary and fretfully ask how those roles could possibly apply to him. For some reason, the patron saint of patronizers thinks I'm talking to her, despite the fact that I'm eye-level with her crotch. Anyway, as she mumbles some gibberish about taking care of her husband, Gary responds: "I vote! On what video games to play. Where to drink. What type of porn you should watch, and on what degree of core. I'm like a pro bono consultant. And, of course, I'm the leading consumer of your super-ego."

"— and that's why you have a reason to live," the old lady finishes.

"Me? Of course I have plenty of reasons to live," I say. I can see a man with a Panera name tag now taking notice from behind the counter. Gary shakes his head at me, motioning that I stop. I refuse. "I thought you two were trying to defend Gary!"

"Who? What Gary?" asks the teen.

"My roommate," I say, nodding across my table.

"Sorry man, but I don't see anyone," says the teenager, only adjusting his glasses to look more intensely at me. The woman slowly retreats.

"Ugh. Of course you can't see him," I say, and as the manager I approaches, I shout, "You all must be crazy. Did you think I was just talking to myself?"

The manager arrives at that moment to boot me. I want to keep shouting, but Gary says they were only trying to help. I'm hardly listening — I'm too impressed by how well this Panera Bread shift leader is handling such disorder. He doesn't flail his limbs and try to talk over me, but politely says, "The staff and customers would appreciate it if you allow me to escort you out." That's a professional.

As he walks me to the exit, I realize I have nothing to do. Maybe Gary would want to binge on some old Nintendo games until my next interview. Or maybe we could work out a good bar/Nintendo/porn rotation.

Walking with us, Gary is pretending to choke himself with his Enron tie, and has switched his button-down for a T-shirt that reads, "Adam's externalized self-loathing" (in small print).

At the door, I turn back to the manager to say, "Hey, I have to ask: Are you guys hiring?"

"Nice move," Gary says. "Now slip him the resume. That empty briefcase has proved useful after all."

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