Sunday November 14, 2004
I am not a sad person. I have never been a sad person. But have I ever truly been a happy person? If I am a happy person, wouldn’t I know? But how do you know something like that? What are the signs, the symptoms of happiness?
These are the cold, cruel thoughts that ricochet through my head, leaving Swiss cheese holes and torn bits of gray matter in their wake. This is the jagged-toothed self-doubt that gnaws at me like a dog with a bone. This is the fallout from my little epiphany bomb, dropped that sad day as I stared at the lifeless face of Greg’s grandfather.
On the dawn of my twenty-ninth year, my eyes were opened to the revelation of my own eventual demise, my finite mortality reflected back at me from the grave. And those thoughts were not buried alongside Charles Elton Hendricks III. They infected me, they infect me still—growing, feeding, eating away at me like a necrotic wound.
Frustratingly, the thoughts that ping and pierce my mind like little bits of shrapnel, are neither helpful nor actionable. They come at me in the form of useless bumper sticker sentiments like:
Life is short. Live it.
Are you Carpeing your Diem?
Don’t worry, be happy.
But I am happy, aren’t I? I mean, I’m pretty sure I’m not unhappy. Doesn’t that count for something?
I shake my head and frown as I turn the corner and walk further through the neighborhood of mid-century ranch-style homes. On my left, I spot the remains of some poor, dead creature flattened in the middle of the road. I hold my breath, not wanting to breathe in the carrion scent that calls to the buzzards circling above. Thankful that I have my dreary thoughts to distract me from the morbid tableau, I quicken my pace until I’m far enough away not to smell the rot when I take a deep breath of the cool, crisp air.
If happiness is not binary, not black and white but rather a spectrum of gray, then what shade of gray am I? Am I charcoal, gunmetal, slate? Maybe my happiness is taupe. Is taupe even a shade of gray, or is it more of a beige? Hell, maybe my shade of happiness is beige. For fuck’s sake, please don’t let my happiness be beige. If I could choose, I’d opt for a heather-gray sort of happiness, flecks of light and dark blending together to form my own personal shade of middle of the road. But what is that emotion, the one in the middle? When you’re neither overwhelmed with joy, nor drowning in sorrow, do you simply wallow in some muddy shade of numbness?
Oh Jesus, talk about wallowing. I roll my eyes and laugh out loud at my whiny inner monologue. I cross a footbridge over the creek and move deeper into the small city park nestled within the urban neighborhood, and ringed on the far side by the freeway.
Clearly, I’m in a funk. This is nothing new. It always happens when Greg goes away on business. I suck at being alone. It’s a character flaw. Alone, I tend to retreat into my head, and that’s only ever a good thing when I’m writing. This time, though, seems worse than usual. Just one week into Greg’s two-week stint in Singapore, and I’m already going on daily hours-long walks so I don’t suffocate as the walls close in on me.
I hug my jacket closed as I approach a bench near the edge of the water. It’s Beatrice and Samuel Dickson’s bench, dedicated in 2001, or so the little brass plaque screwed to the green metal slats reads. Settling onto Bea and Sam’s bench, I let the quiet babble of the brook soothe my addled mind.
After a moment’s repose, I pull my notebook out of my satchel, click my pen into writing mode, and hover the tip over the page. Nothing comes. The black ballpoint leaves little tick marks on the crisp white paper, but no words make their way onto the page. After too long waiting for inspiration to strike, I give up and rip the page out of the binder—when you’re blocked, no writing is just as much garbage as bad writing. With a huff and grumble, I wad up the page and stuff it back into my bag, then pull my feet up onto the bench and hug my knees to my chest, gently rocking myself as I take in the scenery.
It’s too late in the year for most of the birds, but the crisp, chill wind blowing through the spindly branches of the dormant trees is enough white noise to distract me from my dreary state of mind. And down on the leaf-strewn ground, a ginger-toned squirrel busies himself with the task of finding and burying pecans for foraging later in the season.
At the sound of a shrill whistle behind me, the squirrel scurries up a nearby tree. I yelp and cover my head with my hands as I twist around to identify the source of the unnatural sound.
Shielding his eyes from the glare of the afternoon sun, Jake stares up at the tree where the squirrel fled. With his long hair down past his shoulders and wearing his old leather jacket over a ratty Megadeth t-shirt and aged black jeans, Jake looks much like he did when I first met him over a decade ago. Still tall, dark, handsome, and cocky; and the ensemble makes him look about ten years younger than his actual age. It’s a good look for him, and popular with the ladies. With another shrill burst of breath between tongue and teeth, he whistles long and loud as he turns his face down to ask me, “Did you see the testicles on that big, brassy son of a bitch?”
I blink, stunned. “Huh?”
Not waiting for an actual answer, Jake stretches his left arm out to brace on the back of the bench, then with a swing of his weight to the right, he leaps over the back in a single bound, and flops onto the seat beside me with a harrumph. “That squirrel’s balls were huge. Like, a third of his overall body weight. Can you imagine if humans lugged around cahones like that?” Jake chuckles as he stretches out and lights a cigarette. He offers me a drag, as he always does, and I refuse, as I always do. With another low whistle, he shakes his head and clutches at his crotch as he posits, “It’d be like sporting a pair of watermelon in my Fruit of the Looms.”
I blink again, and Jake chuckles, succeeding once more at his favorite pastime, the Stun-Ari-Speechless game.
“Well,” Jake crosses his long legs at the ankles and blows a puff of smoke into the wind before asking, “How’s it hangin’?”
The sound I make resembles “meh,” which earns me a cockeyed scowl from Jake.
“I’m gonna need more words outta you, sister, unless you want me to do all the talking.” With a cocky grin, he pauses to give me a window to start talking, which he promptly closes with, “Did you know that Brass Balls up the tree there has a bone in his penis. A legit ‘boner,’ the lucky little fucker.” He chuckles to himself, before continuing. “Actually, most mammals have a baculum; that’s the Latin name for penis bone.” Another brief pause for a puff of smoke. “In fact, humans and spider monkeys are the only primates who don’t—”
“Are you happy?” I interrupt.
“—have a boner bone.” Jake finishes, then frowns. This time, he’s the one who’s stunned speechless.
I stare at him, intent, waiting for an answer.
“Happy?” With a shrug, he mumbles, “Sure,” then takes another drag off of his cigarette.
“How do you know?”
Jake cocks his head to the side to give me a proper scowl. “The fuck are you talking about, woman?”
“How do you know that you’re happy? It’s a simple question.” I hug my legs tighter to my chest and rest my chin on my knees, watching him as he considers his answer.
And consider it, he does, furrowing his brow as he takes a long drag on his cigarette. After a moment, he offers, “I don’t know, I mean, I’ve got great friends, a pretty decent band, I can pay my rent each month, I’ve got my health…” After a long exhale, he cocks an eyebrow and adds, “Plus, I’m ridiculously good looking, practically drowning in eager pussy, and I’ve got a girlfriend who can suck the chrome off a trailer hitch. Happy doesn’t begin to cover it, darlin’, I’m fuckin’ ecstatic.”
I roll my eyes, “Deep thoughts with Jake Sixkiller. I should have known better.”
Jake chuckles, but soon his expression grows serious. He extinguishes his smoke on the sole of his boot, and turns to face me, assuming the thoughtful pose of a therapist on the clock, “What’s brought all this up, little sis?”
With a huff, I rest my cheek against my knees. “I…it’s just…I’m not…I don’t…”
This time it’s Jake who waits, statue-still as he watches me closely, his keen eyes taking in every stammer and twitch.
“I don’t think I’m very happy.” I sigh, and Jake frowns, so I quickly add, “but I don’t think I’m unhappy either. I think I’m…neither…which is what scares me. It’s like I’m, I don’t know, just sort of existing without…feeling, like I’m numb. Which seems like utter bullshit, right? I mean, I listen to your list and I nod and I say to myself, ‘yep, yep, uh huh, me too.’ I have a great family. I have Greg. I have you. I have a roof over my head and I don’t have to work some shit job to pay for it. I have my health. I have…plenty. So why am I not, you know, more…happy?”
“Maybe you’re about to start on the rag. Cuz, you know, sometimes you get a tad bit…emotional, and—”
“One more word and I swear I’ll punch you in your goddamn squirrel sac, Jacob Mitchell Sixkiller. I mean it.”
“Right,” Jake smirks, “because that’s something a menstruating woman would never ever threaten to—”
“Jake.” I frown, and he drops the sexist dickhead act, nodding to me in deference. I continue, “I think I’m going through a mid-life crisis—”
“Twenty-nine is only mid-life if you plan to die at sixty, little sis. Don’t get ahead of yourself.”
“Semantics. My point is, I’m going through a…thing. I’ve been taking stock, and while I have all these things in my life that should be enough to make me happy, all I can seem to focus on are the things I don’t have, the things that are missing. I mean, not…things…just…like…”
“Like what?” Jake prods gently. With a snap to his spine, his head rockets forward, and his eyes bulge out as if he’s been slapped and goosed at the same time. “Oh fuck me, are you talking about babies? Are you trying to get pregnant? Is that what this is about?”
I frown. No. It’s not. In fact, in the month since the funeral, as I’ve assessed my wants and needs, the thought of having a child with Greg never once occurred to me. And now, facing the concept head on, it still doesn’t entice me. I slowly shake my head, no, and Jake seems to exhale a slow breath as he recovers and relaxes.
Rugrats are not what’s missing in my life; that much I know. I’ve never once felt a twinge of want for babies. When the Fairy Godmother of Maternal Instinct started bonking ladies on the head with her Wand of Baby Want, she must have missed me.
But the fact that babies was the first conclusion that Jake jumped to is telling. At twenty-nine, I’m supposed to want kids, aren’t I? That’s the norm, that’s the life path most taken, but here I go to beat feet through the bramble and bushes off to the far left, wanting not babies, but—
“Then what is it that’s missing? What are we talking about here?” With a silent tilt to his head, he implores me to continue, to share my deepest thoughts.
In that moment, I want to tell him everything. I look into his warm eyes and I see my best friend and closest confidant, the person I’ve shared just about everything with over the last decade. I want to stare him straight in the eyes, not flinching or stammering as I open my mouth and spew the truth of what I’m feeling like a geyser, saying to him, “I want to live. I want to breathe free. I want to explore my limits. I want to try new things. I want to taste and smell and touch the world around me. I want to see it all with fresh, open eyes.” I catch my breath, the excitement bubbling through me even though I’m only saying these words in my head. With new air in my lungs, I raise my imaginary voice even louder as I boldly declare, “I want to fuck and suck and scream and come. I want to travel the world and dance naked in the rain and howl at the moon. I want to love and lust and laugh, I want to hurt and scorn and cry. I want to feel…everything.” Shit, I think I’m tearing up. I turn my face down, busying my hands by tugging at the laces of my boots, tying them into double knots.
Jake reaches forward and clasps my fists in his. “What’s going on? What aren’t you saying?”
I panic. What can I say? I can’t tell him any of this. Every time I open my mouth to speak the truth, I see a flash of images: Greg’s face on the day we met; his smile on the day we married; the look he gives me when he makes love to me; the way he grins as he kisses my forehead before he leaves for his long trips…
Everything I’m feeling now is a betrayal of him. Doesn’t the mere fact that I want more than what I have suggest that what I have is not sufficient, that Greg is not enough? I snap my lips shut like a child about to cross her heart and throw away the key that will unlock all her secrets. There is no way I can voice any of these thoughts or desires. In fact, I’ve already said too much. Jake isn’t just my best friend, he’s Greg’s as well. The two of them have been practically inseparable since they were fourteen years old. What sort of nonsense was I thinking when I called Jake and asked him to meet me, explaining that I needed to talk. I can’t talk to him about any of this stuff. I can’t—
“Ari Beth, babe, talk to me.” Jake’s thumbs stroke the backs of my hands and his eyes are filled with worry as he tries to coax me into clearing my chest.
I can’t bear that look in his eyes, so I open my mouth, stammering through a vague, “I don’t know, I guess I just want…new…experiences.”
“Experiences?” Jake queries.
“Yeah, experiences.” I sigh, wanting to end it there, but knowing from twelve years of friendship, that there is no way Jake will leave this alone. So I expound with yet more vagaries. “Don’t you ever feel like you’re missing out? Like you’ve missed out? Like you took a wrong turn somewhere and now you’re on the wrong road and you’re miles away from where you want to be and you’ve had your face stuck in a map the whole time, so you haven’t even been looking at the scenery as you’ve gone by.”
Jake blinks, frowns, and reaches his hand up to feel my forehead for a fever.
I can’t help it; I chuckle at the gesture. “I sound crazy, don’t I?”
Jake’s face relaxes into an easy smile and he holds up his fingers a pinch apart to illustrate that, yes, I do sound a little bit crazy. I chuckle again, but it’s a hollow sound and Jake hears it, too.
With a slow shake of his head, he gives me a subtle shrug and admits, “I’m sorry, little sis, but I don’t really know what you’re talking about.”
Of course he doesn’t. I’m talking to a man who has never said “no thanks” ever in his life. Jake is a marvel to me, always has been. Fearing nothing, he will try anything at least once. We are opposites in that way: him guided by curiosity and a live-fast-die-young approach to life, and me ruled by fear. Since the death of his family when he was just a kid, Jake’s thrown caution to the wind, living life to its fullest, fully aware that it could end at any moment.
I’m vaguely aware of the same thing, so why am I so fucking reserved? Throw caution to the wind? Ha, what a joke. I wrap myself in caution, like it’s a fuzzy blanket on a cold night. All my life, I’ve taken the safe road, the path of least resistance. And where has it gotten me—chaffed and smothered by the boundaries of my safe little life.
I scratch at my too-tight skin like a methadone patient until Jake stops me, frowning deep when I pull my hands away and yank the sleeves of my jacket low over my fists. Hugging my arms around my legs, I start to rock myself again.
Jesus H Christ, I’m acting like a crazy person.
I shift positions, kicking my feet out in front of me to stomp my heels flat on the ground, stretching my spine ramrod straight, and clasping my hands tight in my lap. Jake frowns, clearly concerned, as he asks, “Are you okay, Two Shoes?”
Two Shoes, Jake’s nickname for me. It sounds like an Indian name, but actually it’s a reference to an Adam Ant song he used to sing to me, Goody Two Shoes. It took exactly one week working at my first job at the bookstore in the mall, Jake the pothead assistant-manager and me the hardworking high school senior who restocked the shelves three nights a week, for my name to transform from Ariana “Ari” Goody, to Goody Two Shoes, to just plain Two Shoes. The nickname stuck. Two Shoes is the name Greg knew me by when we first met. There are people in the various bands that Jake has performed with over the years who only ever knew me as Two Shoes. And I didn’t mind. It never bothered me. It had always been accurate; I was a Goody Two Shoes, and stubbornly proud of that fact.
But now, I’m not proud of it. Now, I do mind. Now, it does bother me. I don’t want to be a good girl, a goody two shoes. I don’t want to live a cautious, safe life just to get to the end and look back with regret at every adventure I didn’t take. I want to be more like Jake and Grandpa Chuck, to live a life of bluster, moxy, and gusto.
I clear the lump from my throat, and answer, “I’m fine, Jake. I’m just…fine.”
Jake watches me closely, his keen eyes taking in the full scope and measure of me, seeing right through me. His jaw moves into a rigid line, back and forth, like he’s chewing on the gristle of my lie and can’t quite swallow it.
I stare back at him, unflinching and unblinking. I don’t say another word. I don’t trust my voice to hold up much longer. Finally, with a huff, Jake shrugs and turns away from me. We sit that way, side-by-side, staring forward at the creek and the woods and the squirrels going about their business. Neither of us speak and the silence is like a weight on my chest. Sitting so close to my friend, yet sentenced to this strange solitary confinement.
I want to cry. I want to scream. I want to confess and lessen this burden. Instead I cross my legs and inspect my fingernails. With another heavy sigh, his silent yet vocal display of disapproval, Jake reaches into his back pocket and produces his pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He lights up and takes a long drag.
This time, for the first time in as long as I can remember, he doesn’t offer me a puff.
This time, I want one. “May I?” I ask, holding my hand out.
Jake glances over, clearly confused. “Huh?”
I point at the burning tip of his cigarette, my eyes imploring when I say, “I want to try it.”
“But…” I huff and twist on the seat to face him, waving a hand in the air, full of righteous indignation as I say, “You always offer—”
“And you always decline.”
“Well, this time I’m not declining, so gimme.”
“What the hell, Jake?” My voice ratchets up to a yell and my head snaps in a surly, daytime talk show display of spunky attitude. “Some friend you are.”
Jake sputters and turns in his seat to face me, his own righteous indignation flaring up like a flash fire. “Is this what you’re talking about? Is this the new experiences you want to try? Nicotine addiction? That’s just dumb, Ari.”
“If I’m dumb for wanting to try your cigarette, then what does that make you? I mean, besides a giant asshole.” I huff and cross my arms over my chest, pouting and pissed.
Jake slumps against the bench and hisses his breath out through his teeth like steam escaping a kettle. “I’m sorry. You’re not dumb.”
The last of my steam seeps out, too, and I sigh with more exasperation than I actually feel. “I’m sorry, too. You’re not a giant asshole, just a medium-sized asshole.”
Jake tries to hide the hint of a grin that curls the edges of his mouth. After a moment, he slowly lifts his arm, extending the hand holding the cigarette toward me.
I glance at him, surprised, taking a moment to realize he’s extending a cancer stick olive branch. I beam a thousand-watt smile at him, squealing like a kid on Christmas as I awkwardly accept the small gift.
Before he can even get halfway through his instructions for how I’m supposed to work the thing, I’ve stuck the filter end between my lips and sucked in a deep breath. Then I nearly cough up a lung and my breakfast…and last night’s dinner.
When I can finally breathe again without dry heaving, I hear Jake chuckling at my side. I raise my watery eyes to scowl at him.
“How’s that new experience treatin’ ya, Two Shoes?”
I catch the phone on the fourth ring, just as the machine tries to pick up. Juggling the thing in dishwater-soaked hands, I finally manage to pinch the receiver between my cheek and shoulder and breathlessly answer, “Hello…hello?”
Greg’s voice sounds distant, but 10,000 miles of separation will do that to a voice. “Everything okay? Sounds like you wrestled the phone from the jaws of a tiger.”
“Yeah, Austin’s changed a lot since you left last week. Tigers everywhere.”
That earns me a chuckle from the other end of the world.
“How’s Singapore?” I ask as I make my way back to the kitchen, scrubbing the sauce pan I’d used to make dinner.
“I haven’t had much time to explore, but so far my impression is that it’s big and crowded.” With a shrug in his tone, he tacks on, “You’d hate it.”
I smirk, but try to hide the irritation in my voice when I ask, “Why do you say that? You never know, I might love it.”
Greg scoffs, clearly skeptical, but wisely changes the subject. “So what are you doing, and more importantly, what are you wearing?”
That earns him a giggle. In my sexiest voice, I inform him, “I’m in the kitchen, bent over the sink. I’m wet…dripping, wearing your Slayer t-shirt.”
That gets me a low groan, like a tiger growl, and the rustling noise on his end of the line suggests he’s moving the phone from one ear to the other. “Which one?”
“South of Heaven, duh.” It’s my favorite t-shirt in the entire house. He knows this. “And I’m not wearing any underwear.” That part’s not true. I’m actually wearing my most comfortable granny panties, in addition to a pair of his old sweatpants rolled up three times at the ankles, and fluffy winter socks covered in little snowmen.
I can tell he appreciates my editorial decision by the hitch in his breath. “Keep talking. I need to hear your voice.”
And so I do. I tell him about my last few days—grocery shopping, trying to write, lunch with Jake, trying to write again, renewing my driver’s license, smoking my first cigarette—
“What?” He squawks, and I giggle at the strange, almost squeaky sound.
“Jake let me have a drag off one of his cigarettes.”
“Because I asked.”
“Because…I wanted to try it.” Before he can ask “why” again, I continue with, “It’s this new thing I’m trying, where I try new things.”
I can practically see the scowl on his face when he grumbles something incomprehensible under his breath.
Feeling an urgency to defend myself, desperately seeking his approval, I expound, “I’ve been thinking…the funeral got me thinking. I mean, you know, we’ve talked about this before—”
“Ari, he was ninety-two.” Greg’s pat response—math. We’d had this conversation a couple of times before. It always ended here, with Greg explaining that his grandfather had lived a good long life and thus my tears were misplaced. What Greg has never grasped, and I’ve failed to properly explain, is that my tears are not for Grandpa Chuck.
The thing is, it’s that very same math which Greg relies on as the basis for his logic that is the basis for my turmoil. On that day in October, I’d turned twenty-nine as I stared down at Grandpa Chuck in his cherry box, dead at ninety-two. We’re inverse, Grandpa Chuck and me.
It was then, the moment when I’d done the math, that my epiphany bomb exploded—a moment of clarity so bright it hurt my eyes, frying my retinas so that nothing would ever look the same again. Grandpa Chuck and me, we were inverse in every way. He’d lived a life filled with epic stories. Me? My life has been small and safe—all soft edges and sanitized surfaces. I have no stories, epic or otherwise.
Drying my hands on a dishrag, I switch the phone from one ear to the other as I walk the cordless from room to room, pacing as the walls close in, scratching at my too tight skin again. “I’m not talking about Grandpa Chuck. I’m talking about me.” I groan, “I mean…life is short, I want to live it.”
Oh great, now I’m speaking in bumper sticker sentiments. I half expect Greg to laugh at me, but all I get from his end is silence. I wait, hoping he’ll say something, anything, but there is only that heavy, thick silence settling like a dense fog between us. As if the 10,000 miles wasn’t separation enough.
“Greg?” My voice sounds meek, like the squeak of a mouse.
I search for something to say, finally settling on a new subject, “When are you coming home?”
He clears his throat, then answers in an even, emotionless tone, “I have a meeting with the site engineers today. I’ll know more then.”
I nod, even though he can’t see it.
“It’s getting late there. I should let you get some sleep.” That emotionless tone again.
I nod, then mumble a quiet, “Okay.”
“Good night,” Greg says, about to hang up.
“Greg,” I nearly shout.
“I love you.”
There’s a pause, a hiccup of time between when I say it and when he says it back, but when he speaks there’s the hint of his smile in his soft words and gentle tone. “I love you, too. Sweet dreams, sweet thing.”