"I'm sorry to bring you here like this."
"Not at all, my dear boy. Not at all."
"But, you see, I have to know... I have to know, and you're the only one –"
"I get it," the old man interrupted me. He puffed his cheeks weakly, like it took him great effort just to breathe, and then he leaned back against the armchair and his eyes turned to the crackling of the fireplace. "Ask away."
"Well... it's pretty simple, actually." I leaned forward. "What's it like?"
His eyes turned to me, and he almost smiled. "What's it like?"
"Yeah. Life. Growing up. Being old."
I paused. "Well, not that I'm calling you old, I just –"
"It's okay, dear boy," he laughed. "I am old. That's why you brought me here."
I said nothing. He arranged himself on the armchair like he had all the time in the world. Then his eyes went up to me again. "It's... hard."
I waited. I knew he wasn't done.
"It's the hardest thing you'll ever have to do, actually" he continued. "Harder than building all this fancy equipment you've built. Harder than studying all you've studied. Harder than winning all these scientific awards you've won so far."
He chuckled. "Nothing prepares you for it."
"What makes it hard?" I asked. "Is it the responsibilities? The body decaying? What makes growing up so hard?"
"No. It's not the responsibilities. Growing up is like looking both ways before you cross the street, then getting hit by an airplane." He lowered his head as if to put his thoughts together, then continued.
"It's the things you don't expect that catch you by surprise. Sure, it's scary to have a kid, and to get married, and to ask your boss for a promotion, and all these grown-up stuff we have to pretend we know how to do."
He seemed surprised. "Yes, pretend. No one really grows up, of course. We put on a face to the world, but at home, three in the morning, all alone watching TV, you're still sixteen. All of us are." He shook his head.
"There's nothing more heartbreaking than being a real person and sitting down in front of another real person, and then both of you have to act like fake people.
You sit across from someone two years older than you in a job interview and you both say 'Hello, sir' and 'Yes, I also think the Dow Jones has been fluctuating dangerously this last few days'
and 'Oh, absolutely, the 405 is a nightmare this time of day'. And all along you know you both laugh at poop jokes and fart sounds and you have all these hobbies and interests and you curse and say fuck and shit and asshole.
You're real people. But you act like robots. You have to put on the face, and they have to put on a face, and you have to pretend that nothing in life is ever fun, everything is productivity and seriousness."
"Is that what makes it hard?" I asked. "That everyone's just... faking their way through adulthood?"
"No. No, that's expected. It sucks, but we all know what we're getting into." He sighed. "No, what catches you by surprise are the little things about growing up. It's being stuck in traffic and remembering a day. Any day.
A locker room conversation in high school. A teacher. A friend of a friend. Something that happened long enough ago that it could order its own drink. It sneaks up on you, and you look at yourself in the rear view and you think, my God...
Where did it go? When did I become so old?"
"I remember college like it was yesterday.", he continued, "I remember my girlfriends and my friends and they used to drink and talk about sex and hanging out and now they all eat oatmeal and go to funerals. And I do that to.
And I like all of that. Well, not going to funerals, but oatmeal. Soap operas. Going to bed at nine. I like it."
"So what's the problem?"
"The problem is I'm still the sixteen year old. I'm still the college kid. My needs and wants have changed, and my body has changed, and my mind has changed, in a way, but I didn't change. I'm still putting on a face.
So when these thoughts sneak up on me – when a flash of a college party or a roadtrip or the feeling of falling asleep in the back of my Dad's car wells up on me... it breaks me. It breaks me because I don't think of it fondly.
I don't look at that young kid with affection and nostalgia, I look at him with envy. Envy, because he's got all of that ahead of him still, and he doesn't even know how lucky he is. He's me, we're the same –
but he's got the good looks and the health and all the years ahead of him, and I'm wasting away in an old apartment. And I hate that kid so much. Every time he sneaks up on me I hate him more."
I looked down, then up. "What about family? Kids?"
"They are great. They are amazing. But they go away. They're not you. In the end, you raise your sons and daughters for the world, not for yourself.
They have to fall asleep in the back of my car, and go to their college parties and all that... they don't exist for my benefit. No one exists for my benefit but myself. And I'm much too old to do anything about it."
I swallowed dry and averted my eyes to the fireplace. The old man leaned forward. "We always get the feeling that the good old days are either behind us or ahead of us. They're never our own days.
We were always born just a bit too late to go to Woodstock or to see Nirvana live or to see the Berlin Wall fall or to party Great Gatsby style in the 20's.
And then we get old and we realize we were born too soon to see the wonders of technology and the world reshaping and blooming into something new and exciting. But the truth is, our Woodstocks were happening all around us as we grew.
Our new and exciting world was some old guy's boring present, and our past will be some spoiled, arrogant kid's 'Good old days'. We were just too stupid to realize it when it mattered. So we let it slide away.
And then we ended up like me – sad and resentful of our younger selves for all they can still do and we can't."
Finally, I got up. I went to the old man and I knelt in front of him. "I'm sorry I brought you over."
"It's okay," he said. "I knew you would. After all, I did it, sixty years ago."
I looked at my own eyes. Despite the wrinkles around them, they still looked pretty much the same.
The old man shook his head and sniffed a tear away. "Now let's go back to your lab so you can send me back to my own time, so I can hate you in peace."
I hugged my own eighty year old version and leaned away and nodded. "I'll enjoy it," I said. "And I'll know I'm living in the good old days, I promise."
He got up with difficulty. "No, you won't," he said. "The good old days are only ever good when they're gone. That's what makes them good. When you're living through them, they're just... days."
He slow-stepped ahead of me towards the lab. Then he spoke without turning his head: "And days go by really fast, man. They go by really fast."