Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Mr. President Will Be Just Fine.

Have you ever heard someone say, “Everything happens for a reason”? Think about it for a second. What a blatantly vacuous and empty statement. Can you think of a grander non-sequitur? What an enormous effort to say absolutely nothing at all. The only emptier statement I have ever heard is, “It is what it is.” In both statements the orator is saying to essentially abdicate all rational thought and reaction to an event because one has no power over it. “It is what it is” essentially means to suck it up and stop thinking.

I’ll tell you something. Everything happens because you permit it to happen. It happens because you either make it happen or don’t allow it to happen. You get a job because you worked hard and have previous experience; you get a sweetheart because you went through the right channels to meet each other and you have the qualities that the other person is looking for you; you get in a car accident because you either weren’t paying attention or you were texting or you were driving too close or whatever the reason may be. However, all of these circumstances don’t just happen for some esoteric reason. They are the simply the product of existence.

So when I tell the story you’re about to read, the last thing I want to be told is that it happened for a reason. It did not. It happened because I refused to acknowledge the blatant red flags that waved in every direction. It happened because I wanted to believe I had hit the jackpot. In the end, it taught me to embrace the people I love and let them know how much I truly cherish their friendship. If that’s what I walked away with, that’s great. But the event did not occur simply for me to learn that. It happened because I allowed it to happen.

I was still living in Washington D.C. at the time. My friend Chris had just been hired to be the personal assistant of an executive at XM radio. His name was Zack Taylor, and he was the Director of Creative Media. Or something like that.

The three of us met up at JR’s, one of the bars along 17th street. Zack was not necessarily the most beautiful thing I had ever encountered, but he was charming and had a certain charisma about him that was appealing. He and I kept locking eyes, and there was a palpable attraction between the two of us.

Within a week we were dating.

It was fast, but he had shown such devotion to me. He had taken me to some of the finest restaurants in DC, which we had been escorted in a limo to every single one. He took considerable amount of liberty to fit me into his busy schedule. As an exec at XM, he was traveling all the time. Chris, his new personal assistant, and him were flying all over the country. They had been to New York, Miami, and Las Vegas yet I still felt as if I was the number one priority.

Our conversations weren’t always magical. He was somewhat awkward, pretty shy and very quiet about his family. But the life of dinner cruises and constant limousine service seemed to make me look over that.

He’d tell me about how he was planning a new radio show with Ellen. He’d share with me the stock information about his company. He’d let me sit on web conferences between him and the senior executive staff at XM. He’d get a phone call from Ryan Seacrest and this was a normal day. Sure, I didn’t really like him that much, but this kind of life sure beat every other guy I had dated.

It was a forgetful statement, but I had once mentioned to him that I had never been to Orlando Studios. Two days later we were there. He bought us first-class plane tickets and reserved the largest suite at the Portofino, a luxury hotel right beside the park. A 12-seat stretch hummer picked us up at the airport. Instead of driving to the Orlando Studios like commoners, we had a private boat take us through one of the canals. We dined at the best restaurants between riding roller coasters and playing games.

Strangely, even to this point there had been no intimacy between us. But as I thought about this, I just let the thought slip away as I sipped on Jordan Cabernet. It’s funny how much the mind can hide if you really want it to.

We returned to DC and it was my mother’s birthday. Zack wanted to come to dinner with the family. I was concerned since I didn’t like the idea of introducing my family to someone I had been seeing for maybe two weeks. But he insisted, and I allowed him to come along.

We ate at the Capital Grill, one of those swanky DC steakhouses. There were 12 of us. Zack shared his stories of dining with Madonna and flying to London to meet up with Elton John. He was entertaining, charismatic and he fit in with the family just fine. The bill came to $600 before gratuity. Zack stepped away to use the restroom, and moments later the waiter came to the table announcing that the bill had been taken care of. My mother was stunned and to this day she describes her 56th birthday as one of the most unforgettable dinners of her life.

The very next weekend he told me he wanted to take me somewhere. It was to be a surprise, but he told me to pack with summer clothes. We got to the airport and we suddenly were on our way to Miami. Everything was happening so fast and although there wasn’t an incredible connection between the two of us, I just let it keep going. Sitting under palm trees with someone you’re indifferent to seemed far better than laying next to a dumpster with someone you’re in love with.

We were picked up at the airport in a limo, as usual, but our driver greeted Zack as “Mr. President!”. Zack, who was hardly humble, thought he was called this because of his role with XM Radio. However, the man was referring to the 12th President of the United States, President Zachary Taylor.

I thought it was odd that a man with a name like that wouldn’t pick up the reference. In all of his 29 years of life he had never realized he had the same name as a former President?

By this time, I was beginning to question things. I was curious why in three weeks he was able to spend so much time with me. A day hadn’t gone by where we hadn’t seen each other. We had been to Florida twice and been to dinner probably 10 times. Zack blew through money like it wasn’t even his. But yet again I forced these thoughts to go away and I just tried to live in the moment.

Our limo driver took us to a restaurant in Miami called The Big Pink. Zack was talking about how the Grammy’s were coming up and how he wanted me to come along with him. He said we’d be sitting with either Pink or Christina Aguilera. But I wasn’t buying it. Although it was believable that Zack worked for XM, it was hard to fathom him actually being friends with celebrities. He looked like a paler, scrawnier, younger version of Steve Buscemi. All the money in the world couldn’t make him look good enough to sit at a table with two of the biggest names in music.

Zack was beginning to sense my disbelief. I hadn’t said anything, but it was just obvious that I did not believe we were going to the Grammy’s. So when our limo driver returned us to the hotel—the famous “W”, by the way—he told me he wanted to work in the business center of the hotel to show me the itinerary for the big awards show.

While he was down working on the computer, I was up in our hotel debating what to do. Suddenly my phone began to vibrate. It was my friend Chris, the personal assistant who introduced me to Zack. “Chris, what’s up?” I asked.
“Where are you?” He immediately asked me.
“I’m in Miami with Zack. Why?”
“You need to get out of there. Right now.”

I was silent.

“Zack Taylor is not who you think he is. I just stopped by one of XM’s office and they have no idea who he is. They have no record of my employment and there is no job title for Director of Creative Media.”

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to admit it, but I had my suspicions all along.
“Seriously, I have already talked to the police. There is absolutely nothing they can do for me. You need to get out of there, because you really don’t know who you’re dealing with.”

Suddenly Zack walked in the room. “I’ll call you back,” and then I hung up.
“Is everything ok?” He asked me. He stood by the door holding the papers confirming our trip to the Grammy’s.
“Yeah, everything is fine.” I said. I’m not a good liar, and he knew this.
“Who was that?”
“I just called my sister to say we checked in.” He didn’t buy it.
“Really? Didn’t you already call her?”
“Zack I have a question for you.”
“Umm, ok, what is it?”
I remembered he had once told me he had played piano for 15 years. Since I have played piano my whole life I knew exactly the right question to ask to see if he was telling the truth.
“What is the third note in an A-major scale?”
Zack just stared back at me dead-pan. “What kind of question is that?”
“It’s a simple question. What is the third note in an A-major scale?”
“Why are you asking me this?” He shot back.
“Why don’t you just answer it, Zack?”
“What a ridiculous question.”

I wasn’t going to let him off the hook.

“Fine. What are the three notes in a C chord?”
"Dude, you’re being absurd.”
“No, Zack, you are. How about you name ANY chord you’d like. I don’t care if it’s a major, minor, suspended, ninth, whatever. Just name three notes that make one chord. That’s all I want.”

He was silent.

“You don’t actually play piano, do you?”
“Of course I play piano, you’re—”
“You don’t work at XM Radio, do you?”
“What are you talking about?! That’s ridic—”
“You’re name isn’t even Zack Taylor, is it?” I yelled at him.

We both stood on opposite sides of the room staring right at each other’s eyes. It was completely silent. The tension was nearly scratching at our skin.

I reached for my luggage and began grabbing everything else I could. “Where are you going?” Zack demanded. “I’m leaving.”
“You can’t leave, this is our vacation!”
“Zack, I don’t even know who the hell you are.”
Zack looked back at me, searching within himself for any bit of believable compassion, and said, “Yes you do. You’re just confused. Everything I have told you is the truth. It just seems too good to be true, doesn’t it?”

I walked around him, and when I reached for the door I stopped to say one last thing to him. I turned around, my hand still on the door knob, and noticed I left a few crumpled dollars and some spare change on the nightstand. “You can keep that.” I said as I nodded towards the money. “For everything you’ve done for me.”

And with that I walked out the door, terrified to turn around and look over my shoulder. My heart was pounding against my chest in a way I have never experienced. I didn’t know if he was going to pull a gun on me or come chasing after me. He did neither.

I took the elevator down and found his chauffeur still out front. To a certain degree I didn’t even know whether to trust the limo driver. I hopped in and told him to take me to the airport. “Are you sure Mr. President is ok with this?” He asked me. “Oh, I’m sure Mr. President will be just fine with it.”

And then we pulled off. I sat alone in the back of 10-person limo contemplating the bizarre experience that the past three weeks had brought me. I rolled down one of the windows and had one of those serene indelible moments that will forever be imprinted in my memory. The sunny Miami evening sky rained down on my face and I just stared longingly at the buildings off in the distance. You could have been killed, went through my mind. He could have seriously done something to you. He knows where you live. He’s met your family.

We reached the airport. As the son of US Airways employee, I was able to fly free. It was only a few minutes before I was listed on the next flight headed towards DC. I made it through security and immediately pulled out my laptop to begin writing about everything that had happened. I wanted to ensure that this story never was forgotten.

Suddenly a man walked right up to me. It was Zack Taylor.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Why are you doing this to me? I thought you and I had something real?” He said to me.
“REAL?” I distinctly said. I will never forget he had the audacity to say real to me after all the lies he had told me.
“You are going to try and say we had something REAL when everything you had ever told to me was a lie?”
“Stop being dramatic. You didn’t even let me show you our reservations at The Grammy’s. And how could everything have been a lie? I’ve taken you all over the country and you respond by calling me a liar? Wasn’t Orlando Studios real? Wasn’t our dinner cruise real? We’re even in Miami for Christ’s sake!”

I specifically remember the lady sitting next to me. She was the stereotypical Midwestern woman—overweight, 80s hair and an outfit that she found in a clearance bin at TJ Maxx. Boy was that awkward. I’m not sure whether it was more awkward for her or for me, but regardless this scene could have been in a comedy. She was sitting reading her People Magazine, and yet right in front of her was more drama than she had ever experienced in her life.

The next few seconds we just looked into each other’s eyes. Strangely, I felt nothing. No emotion in any direction. I wasn’t angry, sad, nor did I feel betrayed. Maybe it’s a human reaction in a place of fear to circumvent emotion. Maybe it’s just a survival instinct. But all I knew was that I had to get on that plane and I had to get away.

“Zack, it’s over. Chris knows. I know. Now just walk away before it gets worse. Walk away while you can.”

That was the last thing I had ever said to Zack Taylor. He took a breathe after I spoke, then he turned and walked away. To this day I don’t know if he made it on the plane or not. The suspense of that evening still terrifies me when I think of it.

Weeks later the police came back to Chris with the real story. His name was Stephen Dillinger and he was a con artist who had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraudulent credit card schemes. He had been all over the country, been through numerous court battles and even had a website for people to share there stories of how he had ruined them. I read account after account of both men and women that he had led into the same kind escapade with. Most of the stories were worse though—he had generally convinced his flings to sell them their car or join his “insurance plan”, from which he’d steal their identity and open tons of credit cards.

Somehow I had escaped that. I walked away from the ordeal with my credit untouched and only the three week memory of living the glamorous life. And you know what I learned? I learned that it takes ten seconds to get used to luxury, but it takes years to realize just how important friends and family are. I learned that riding in limousines and flying all over the country are such ephemeral experiences in the grand scheme of life. And, unfortunately, I also learned that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Things do not happen for a reason. This story was not crafted because some external observer was trying to use chicanery to teach me a valuable lesson. It simply was the product of my actions and decisions. Did good come from it? Of course. But it did not happen for a reason. It happened because I was too in love with materials and not in love with truth, value, reason or reality. And because of that, I walk away realizing the power of our decisions. Hopefully after reading this, you will too.