An actor, a writer, a politician and a rich dude were sitting on the back portico of the latter’s mansion.
They quaffed a non-alcoholic concoction while looking out over an enormous aqua-blue swimming pool and a garden vista that stretched a quarter of a mile before being bracketed by a security-enhanced fence and towering evergreens.
On the surface of things, the rich dude’s existence was the best of all possible worlds and the others were content to bask in the glow and feed off the scraps scattered at the fringe.
The fact they’d known each other all their lives was the reason they were still so close despite their nuanced differences and divergent career paths.
What they were doing now was playing a familiar game that never bored them – comparing the thickness of each others’ skin.
Not in a literal sense, although that might have been fun. After a few bottles of wine at one long-ago social gathering, this had been suggested.
Get out the calipers and take a leaf from Shylock’s book. Cut off some flesh and measure the depth of the cutaneous level in millimeters.
Consistency should also be considered.
The inside walls may have become crustaceous as the result of being forged by boiling blood.
Each had chosen a profession particularly subject to criticism. Over the years, the reviews had been issued on their works and sometimes they weren’t so cheery.
Immediate raging anger had to be managed and subsequent simmering heat, that occasionally broke out into brush fires, extinguished.
The moment had come in their usual proceedings when quiet contemplation replaced boisterous bonhomie.
Each of the men was lost in thought as the sun set behind them, dispensing a roseate glow over the backyard and their own feelings.
The actor had been particularly bruised in his early years.
He had the “range-riding” good looks and outgoing personality that gained him entry into his profession in the first place.
But he possessed little of the emotional depth or theatre-school training to make his first appearances on screen more than ornamental.
Many reviewers, knowing potential star charisma when they saw it, were generous and forgiving.
Several others, hoping to exploit a weakness while trying to enhance their own reputations, and loving the whole sport of the matter, went for their elephant guns.
How he’d survived those years remained a mystery. There were days when he didn’t leave his home.
Deep in his psyche, his sense of inadequacy was allowed to kick up its heels.
There were people in his profession he couldn’t match in talent. Not now, not ever.
His success was a charade.
His only relief came from a more-than-occasional swig of alcohol and snorts and swallows of illegal substances.
He was saved by his agent, who gave him an assignment.
Henceforth, he was to act confident.
That was something he could attempt. An action he could follow through with.
At least it got him out the door and onto the red carpet.
Emotionally, the process of skin-thickening progressed beyond the amateur stage.
For the writer, the criticisms of his works were arrows that left ulcerous wounds.
Ten great reviews might come to his notice, but a bad one would insinuate his brain and dig for sustenance like a not-quite-dead skunk.
The problem was he knew his own weaknesses. His hot-button failings once touched, took a monumental effort of confidence-building to cover over.
The reviewers themselves were the objects of his personal scorn. Hours were wasted trying to imagine who they were, what they looked like and where their motivations lay.
Maybe he or she was a gin-soaked has-been who was taking out his or her frustrations with life on him.
Or a kid so young and inexperienced that striking a chord would be impossible.
Wooing a wife, raising children, the loss of one’s parents – all these things changed a person.
Such imaginings took him only so far. He knew his writing was at times pedantic. He wasn’t always sure who made up his audience.
He often-times scrambled to find the right word.
It was possible he’d never known it in the first place. If he did, it was well hidden now and shouting “olly olly in free” wasn’t summoning it back.
His drinking progressed beyond its muse-summoning beneficial stage to become an inspiration inhibiter.
His wife fretted over her inability to reassure him. Only the implacably-loyal family dog offered him solace.
There were others in his profession who were better than him. He’d never be able to match them.
Not now, not ever.
In the earliest stages of his career, the politician made an incredible discovery. Success in his chosen line of work very much depended on the thickness of his skin.
If he could stand before an audience and espouse a point of view, without flinching while holding firm to his principles, his chances at the polls surged in giant strides.
A politician’s life was one long series of flesh pressings, back slappings, accommodations, public debates, private schmoozing and media scrums.
The man or woman who could pull it off while still smiling had the best chance of connecting with the electorate.
He cleaned himself up, got sober, made restitution with his ex-wife, became a better family man with his new spouse and won public office.
Surface appearance was the message.
His thick skin deflected barbs and kept the bottled up chaos of his own uncertainties contained.
Of course, there were those among his colleagues for whom such toxic radiation had to force its way out, but somebody has to be a casualty.
They were his stepping stones.
His years in government were the most satisfying and rewarding of his life.
The contest on the porch always ended with the politician being crowned the winner.
There was no doubt whose skin was the thickest.
As it always did at this time of night, the realization crept over “Silky” Sullivan, the rich dude, that the sun was continuing its journey beyond the sight of anyone on his side of the planet.
The night creatures were announcing their presence with incessant chirps and whispering bats’ wings.
Mentally, Silky folded up the corners of his brain and put his three former egos to bed.
Alternatively actor, writer, politician and now “fat cat” and venerated senior citizen, he was quite pleased with himself.
The criticisms he still received – for his wealth; for the mistakes he’d made earlier in his several careers; simply for his inherent nature that some inexplicably found offensive – largely bounced off his thick carapace.
Still, there were times when he had doubts.
He knew he hadn’t achieved all he’d wanted to in his life nor risen as high in public esteem as might have been attainable.
His own reviews of his performance always left him feeling there was more he could have done.
It seemed such a pity.
There were others compared with whom he would never measure up.
Not now. Not ever.