"Happy birthday!" said the passing co-worker, as he spotted the balloons adorning my neighbor's desk. "How young?"
A lackadaisical "twenty-five" was my neighbor's response.
I couldn't help raising an eyebrow at this information. He was a few years younger than I would have expected. A wearily apathetic man with a receding hairline, his Asian features were otherwise ambiguous enough that he might have been ten years older or five years younger. Rather, it was the details of his life that suggested that he had to at least be older than me.
"It only gets better!" assured the passerby. He patted the birthday boy on the back before walking off, whistling a tune seemingly to smiling cartoon buddies that he alone could see. But I had not been the only one listening in with interest.
The lady seated behind me twisted her head around to chime in. "Wow, twenty-five and you're about to be a father!" she exclaimed.
His wife, you see, a fellow employee, was due almost any day now, hence our surprise at his age. Although he was a little younger than me, he seemed further along the road of life. Granted this new perspective, I considered that I was wasting my vital years--albeit we worked the same job--but, no, I would not have traded places with him. I wasn't ready yet to stand where he stood. And I didn't know the half of it yet!
A significant pause later, after our female co-worker had already turned back to her work, my neighbor finally responded. "It's not my first," he uttered, without averting his gaze from his computer monitor.
The lady whipped back around as she again spoke my thoughts aloud. "You're twenty-five and supporting a family of four on two graders' incomes?" she gasped, jaw agape.
As I said, we worked the same job, so I had some idea what he earned, and the math just didn't compute. So how were they managing?
"She lives with her parents. The baby stays with them." His delivery remained lethargic and matter-of-fact, but he had to have known that his explanation would only raise more invasive questions.
I thought about jumping in at this point. The conversation was progressing in a dangerous direction, and the woman, eyes lit up and mouth grinning with amusement, looked eager to push it toward its explosive climax. I can't say I wasn't also intrigued, but I didn't want to remember having been the guy who did nothing when this family became breaking news the day after.
Alas, I couldn't think of anything meaningful to add. I didn't have enough life experience to be taken seriously on this topic. I convinced myself that maybe this self-examination would be cathartic for him.
"So you and your wife don't live together?" the lady prodded.
"I have my own place," he confirmed.
At this point, I made my only contribution to the dialogue: "Sounds hard."
I'm far from being a master of psychology, but, since I lacked the credibility to comfort him directly, I thought that, by sounding overly pitying, I might encourage a contrary reflection within him.
"Nothing I can do about it now," he replied. Not at all the response I had hoped for or anticipated.
It didn't sound like a joke to me, and his neutral expression remained unchanged, his gaze still fixed on his work. But the lady could stifle her hoarse laughter no longer.
"Are the in-laws cool?" she asked.
He shrugged. "Meh."