For a college-dropout, the most depressing part of the school year was the beginning. All those cars and trucks on campus, parents loaded down with furniture, clumps of nervous students wandering the streets, and the banners everywhere: “Welcome to Tar Heel Country!” It was all so hopeful and exciting. Energy remained energy, even if it was the kind you didn’t want, pulling locals like a magnet, like a spectacle; and I was never good at carnivals. All that color and festivity, the crowds and whirling rides that sent me running for the bushes, where I vomited, watching, in tears.
Of course Sid wanted to go to Chapel Hill all the time. A couple weeks ago I’d moved into his ramshackle apartment in Carrboro, a town I’d always viewed vaguely as Chapel Hill’s unruly younger brother, the less-established, whiskey-drinking type; though in certain corners you could see its yuppie aspirations, its aims to please the older brother.
“The whole place is taken over,” Sid told me. “With people who need my help.”
“So you want everyone at your mercy,” I said.
“No.” He gave me a look. “I want to save them.”
Some evenings, Sid dragged me across the border, like it was possible to pry open the good in me. He struck up conversations with people on the street, hoping they’d ask him where to eat or how to get to some obscure campus building. “Do you know why Chapel Hill’s called Chapel Hill?” he asked all of them. “There used to be a chapel. On a hill.” He spun around on the sidewalk and pointed in the direction of the Campus Inn, where the chapel apparently used to be before someone realized the worth of the location.
Sometimes, hazy-eyed and oblivious, people asked me questions: me, who stood scowling at the sidewalk, dressed in a black-hoodie, the strings tied tight beneath my chin. I just nodded in the wrong direction so Sid had to run after them and explain my “mistake.” He came back smiling. He liked being that kind of hero.
It was hard living with a positive person. I went to my mother’s looking for cynicism, for someone like me or worse. Instead, I found my parents on the couch, looking guilty and ruffled, like they’d thrown on their clothes when they heard me pull into the drive.
My parents were divorced. They weren’t even living together. There was a point in September when I realized everyone was having more fun than me.
“Just like old times,” Dad said, grinning.
“Except we don’t live here,” I told him, standing in the doorway.
“We can pretend for a minute, can’t we?” Dad asked my mom.
“Just for a minute,” she said. Mom liked this sort of control. Her family popping in.
I sat in a chair across from them, positioned myself in a way I could dig my nails into the cushion and no one would notice. My parents smiled around the room. I waited for their eyes to clear. I waited for them to snap out of it.
Mom pointed at her bookshelf. “Don’t books lined up like that remind you of teeth? All jagged and mean.”
Dad laughed. He had his arm around her.
“Why do you want to see that?” I asked. “They’re just books. They’re allowed to be just books.”
“I don’t think that’s allowed,” Mom said, and they giggled together again.
“Everyone’s acting so mature,” I told Sid later; we were at the grocery and I was going down the aisles. Sid kept disappearing and then showing up with some ridiculous box of food-shaped chemicals. I pushed all his Little Debbie Snack Cakes and Gummy Worms to one corner of the cart.
“Maybe you should take some drugs,” Sid suggested. “Cloud things up. Give yourself some perspective.”
“I’m a banker,” I told him. “We’ve got to be neat and orderly. We need to have things under control.”
“You can count when you’re stoned, Raimy.”
“It’s more than just counting. I’ve got to type things into the computer.”
In the frozen foods aisle, a man looked confused, and Sid asked if he could help him. The man said he couldn’t find the frozen fruit. So Sid went slowly down the aisle. I had to wait for him. He looked carefully through the glass.
The only person in my life worse off than me was Jenna, who just came back from a summer studying abroad in Paris and found everything in North Carolina hopelessly dull. There was a fountain in Carrboro she liked to come over and sit by. She said it was “vaguely European.” It had some old-fashioned stone women standing around the bottom. Usually the water wasn’t even on.
“I hate those banners too,” Jenna said. “They have them all over campus. Welcome, welcome, welcome. It makes the school feel like a processing plant. Year after year, more come in, more spill out.” We lay on our backs along the brick wall, knees in the air. The sun seared down and lit up our faces.
“At least you’ll spill out eventually,” I said.
“I’ll be all misshapen. I’ll pop out of a mold.”
“Only kids can be original,” I said. “I’m already defined. Banker. Girlfriend. It happens with school or without it.”
“We could just quit everything.”
“Don’t say that,” I said. “I’m on the verge of falling over. I could just roll around on the ground.”
For so long, I counted on my co-worker Blake for a daily dose of torture. We hated the customers, we hated each other. We hated the memory: making out in the vault a few months ago like crazed, vicious animals. In the station beside me, he scowled when the door opened. He did things like repeat my name a million times in a gruff hearty whisper. Or he completely ignored me. He stared sulkily at his computer.
Then, suddenly, the cynicism drained from his posture. He came to work smiling: something that looked odd and quivery on him, like his face didn’t know how to support it. He laughed with the co-workers. He laughed with the customers. The new students who came in to open accounts: they had a lot of energy. I felt it, but I couldn’t bring myself to laugh with them.
“Next,” I said, handing one a receipt. “Next, next, next.”
Blake pointed it out in morning huddle. “Raimy’s got a rotten attitude.”
Everyone looked at me, and I shrugged. “I have a condition and I’ve accepted it. Apparently everyone else in the world was just going through a phase.”
Linda, the manager, gave me a sad look and then nodded at Blake. “Raimy, we’d like to give you therapy sessions,” she said. “We think we can help.”
I glared at the tellers. “What happened to cynicism! What happened to good-old-fashioned suffering!” I’d moved to the edge of my seat. I motioned with my arms.
“You’ve got an overly-romantic notion of things,” Blake told me, smiling sympathetically. “I used to be like that.”
“It’s a better way to be,” I told him.
“No, Raimy, no,” they all said at once. “No, no, no.”
When I got to the apartment that night, Sid was making dinner. He had on an apron; a handkerchief tied back his curly hair.
“Hello working woman!” he said in a high-pitched voice.
I sat on the counter.
“I did laundry today,” he told me. “I’ve been slaving over the stove. I deserve a raise.” He came over and kissed me a few times. “More,” he said. “More.” He kissed every inch of my face until I laughed and pushed him away.
“We can both be winners,” he said.
“Stop that.” I sighed. “The more people want me to be happy the less I feel capable of it. Don’t you want to throw things around?”
He threw a spatula into the sink. “God, that’s nice,” he said. “That makes me so happy.”
Mom wanted to have family dinners again. On Sundays. Like old old times. Dad picked me up. He was living in a hotel, extended-stay, and was very positive about it. “All those miniature appliances make me feel like a king,” he said. “I wish everything could be miniature. I could screw things up and just laugh about it.”
“What about a miniature bed,” I said. “That wouldn’t be so fun.
He looked at me. “Some people don’t mind having their feet in the air.”
“I don’t agree,” I said, crossing my arms. “I think you’re lying.”
Mom made meatloaf. I couldn’t believe the smiles on these people, on my parents.
“I’m enjoying this on two levels,” Mom said, serving us at the table. “It’s like living a life and a memory at the same time.”
When she sat down, Dad took her hand. They held hands on the table all through dinner, even though Dad kept dropping things, trying to eat with his left hand.
Finally I slammed down my fork. “You’re creating this!” I stood from the table. “You’re hyping it all up!”
Mom let go of Dad’s hand. She frowned at me. “We’re allowed to be happy, Raimy. What’s wrong with a little pretending.”
“You’re divorced!” I told them. “You’re sawn in half!”
“I don’t agree!” Dad said with a smile. “I think you’re lying!”
“Call me when you’re married again,” I told them. “Call me when you’re ready to admit everything’s as rotten as it is.”
It seemed happiness would take a lot of energy. I wasn’t willing to try it. Every morning, we sat in huddle and instead of doing sales calls and service plans, my co-workers asked me about my problems. About Sid. My parents. My living situation. After ten minutes of prodding, I started making things up. Sid rides bicycles in the apartment. My parents play dueling banjoes all night. I sleep on the bathroom floor. I like the tiles. The cracks.
“We know you’re lying,” Linda said. “But we’re interested in your lies.”
I studied Blake: his smile, the dimness in his eyes. This is the boy who last month ripped out strands of his hair. This is the boy who smashed my apple on the ground, over and over. “How did you do it?” I asked him.
“Who me?” he asked, looking around. “I’ve grown up. I’ve mastered my elements.”
Linda smiled. He was one of them. They were all one of them.
That afternoon, Blake found me in the break room. He extracted from his pocket an orange bottle of pills. “I’d give you one,” he said. “But I was never good at sharing. Happiness doesn’t make you good at that.”
“Don’t you miss being crazy?” I asked.
“That never really goes away,” he whispered, slipping the pills into his pocket. “I just know how to keep it in a ball.” He pointed to his adam’s apple and croaked. “I can hold it in my throat.”
“Everyone wants me happy,” I told Jenna. “It’s a conspiracy.”
I’d stopped by to help decorate her new apartment. She was living alone in a tiny place off campus, and her bedroom was incredibly bright: all yellow walls and huge windows.
“You should hear my boyfriend on the phone,” Jenna said. “Every day he loves me. I can’t stand the word anymore. Not even in French.”
“People should expand their vocabulary,” I agreed. “Certain words are like water. They just run down the body.”
“Hope, trust, love,” she said.
“Get rid of inspirational messages. Get rid of Be a Better Persons.”
We tacked black sheets on the walls of her bedroom, doubled them up over the windows. Then we lay on her bed together.
“That’s more like it,” I said, soaking up the darkness, feeling encompassed by the room like a night burnt around the edges, surrounded by the pulsing day.
“That,” she said, “is very European.”
From the street I heard music, some loud crash, a person screaming. I went upstairs and found the hallway full of smoke and laughter. A couple guys yelled enthusiastically when they saw me. They lifted beers in my direction.
Sid and a group of people occupied the living room, grinning like mad and walking around slowly, shakily, each with a can poised atop his or her head.
“Don’t make me laugh!” Sid shouted thickly at me. He came to a stop and someone crashed into him, and then everyone crashed into everyone, and a shower of beer and aluminum poured to the floor. Some beer got on my pants. Sid got on his knees to examine the damage, and I pushed him away. I went into the bedroom where a half dozen kids sat in a circle on our bed, passing around a joint.
One guy saw me and said, “It’s an air freshener, man.”
“I’m calling the cops!” I held my phone high above my head like a talisman until they got off the bed. I followed them into the living room.
Sid turned off the music and had this helpless look as his friends left, grumbling and knocking into each other in the doorway.
“That was my September Party,” Sid slurred in my direction.
“Nobody celebrates September.”
He tried walking toward me and crashed into a bookshelf. “Raimy,” he said. He sat in the middle of the singed, beer-stained carpet. He lowered his head. “You are a no fun zone. You are a no fun zip code.”
The next morning during huddle, I gave my co-workers something. The party. The zip code. Blake kept his eyes on me, and there was an intensity to them: it had come back, slightly, hidden behind his lowered lids.
“This guy’s an idiot,” he said.
Everyone agreed. Sid was part of the problem. My parents were part of the problem. My co-workers didn’t believe in happiness out of chaos; they wanted happiness out of stability. I got a lecture about it. Small satisfactions. Showering in the morning. Smiling at a customer. One at a time.
After my therapy session, I followed Blake into the break room. I wanted to see what he really thought about happiness, the kind people kept telling me about, urging me toward: the smiling kind.
“Everyone’s working toward the same thing,” I said. “The same feeling.”
“Depression’s usually something to move away from.” He kept his back to me. I watched him load the coffee machine: pour the grinds, get the water. I watched the jerk to his movements, the quickness, the pauses, like a struggle remained: an irritation, a resistance.
“Throw out the pills,” I said. “Be miserable with me. Like old old times.”
He turned around and blinked calmly, but his arms were still angled, his shoulders scrunched near his neck. “How miserable?” he asked, like he wanted a promise. Like there was a level of misery that could be worth more than anything.
Slowly, we grinned at each other. He took out his pills. He held the bottle next to my ear and shook it. “I’m only half-taking them anyway,” he whispered, and then he put them on the counter. “I guess I’ve missed you. I guess that can happen when a person’s sitting beside you.”
“But we hate each other.”
We kissed fiercely for awhile, pushing and pulling, like we could rip things to pieces, create something new, something smaller, something harder. Then we stared at each other, breathing heavily and feeling our lips, those fat muscles, for cuts. I took his pills across the break room and threw them in the trash. Then we straightened each other’s clothes, in preparation for the customers, for the others. We went out to the lobby like we barely knew each other. Like we didn’t mind being happy for awhile.