The Art of Happiness

 

The first kitten, Catalie Portman, lasts four days and six hours before you coax her into the crate and drive her back to Forever Friends Rescue. She stays silent, even when “Who Let The Dogs Out” blasts on the radio and you know it’s another sign that she’s not the right one, even though four days and six hours is the record, and Forever Friends says twenty three cats is too many to try out for adoption and maybe you should go somewhere else for the next one.

5B isn’t any quieter without the ghost of a cat but it feels like it is—more empty and lifeless than normal. You take off your Yankees cap, run your fingers through uneven brown hair, pull sweatpants over ratty basketball shorts, letting out an exhale. Enough air for you and everyone not there, like Mom, probably at knitting club or doing power yoga, even though she hates both, because they’re better than being in the ivy-covered brownstone on 155th in case Dad is there. And Dad, probably yelling at some intern about how not refilling the paper clips reflects a deep personality flaw and reveals her utter incompetence, not letting her squeak out that it was Hannah’s turn that day. And Erin, oh Erin. You hope she is thinking of you, wondering where you are, pink iPhone in her hand, about to text you, beg you to come back to her.

The biting wind and February frost almost convince you to curl up on the bed, sleep through another Sunday, wrapped up in fuzzy blankets and Snickers wrappers, but you know your therapist Jenna will know you skipped coming in because it was a Bad Day, not because you had to go to brunch or the dentist or Zimbabwe. She’ll tell you, again, that socializing and leaving the house are the best ways to Actively Fight and Distract Yourself and Feel Better. You don’t understand how feeling numb outside is much better than feeling numb in bed, warm and cosy.

You remember the first day you went into her office, through halls made of glass, spending six and a half minutes walking to the door, reaching your hand out, dropping it, and stepping away. Finally going in after the short girl with dark braids and purple lips. Sitting on the waiting room couch that was so plush you sunk down and couldn’t have left even if you changed your mind, which you were sure you were about to. Following the tall, blonde Jenna into the small beige room with a bookcase, a low, black couch facing two windows, and a single, orange chair.

She tells you it’s normal to be lonely, but that most people occasionally have other emotions. You say you do have other emotions. She says sadness doesn’t count. You don’t say anything. Because neither Prozac, or Parnate, or Cymbalta, or Paxil, or the Elavil worked and most left you awake, staring at the ceiling as the clock ticked 2, 3, 5 am, dizzy and headachy. Gaining weight. Feeling guilty all the time because you couldn’t get out of bed, didn’t want to do anything but sleep, not even watch TV which was saturated with too much romance that sent you into thoughts about Erin and every mistake you made, every perfect moment together, the weight of missing her pushing tears and sobs out of you until you hyperventilate, heart pounding, can’t breathe, why can’t you breathe, what if this is your last breath and no one finds you for days and oh my gosh you’re going to die, can’t breathe, can’t breathe, can’t breathe.

Jenna asks about Catalie Portman. Suggests you try another cat. Reminds you to exercise, eat healthy. You feel the comforting weight of the Snickers bar in your jacket pocket, can’t wait for the 55-minute session to be over so you can sink your teeth into it. Decide that maybe 23 cats mean the cats aren’t the problem and maybe they aren’t the cure you’re looking for. Jenna asks for the Happy List where you’re supposed to write down all the things that you appreciate, that make you happy.

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1. Fuzzy blankets when the apartment gets chilly at night 2. Homemade Oreo Cupcakes (you don’t write down that you ate all 12 in one sitting) 3. Sleep 4. Blue flowers in the window display on 96th 5. Not having to live with Dad anymore. Five for one week is a lot, at least for you, even though Jenna doesn’t count sleep since it’s an “un-activity”. As you reach the 50th minute, Jenna asks you to try for 6 next week, to do at least two things besides going to work and getting groceries and looking at cats.

When you get back to the apartment you microwave a cup of macaroni, eat it sitting on the white marble countertop, The Great British Bake Off on in the background until you’ve finished, and the remaining pasta is cold, and you’ve been staring at the bubbling blue paint above the stove for so long your eyes sting from dryness.

You move to the plain, green couch in the living room that is only slightly more forgiving than the floor. Stare at the bookshelf that takes up an entire wall. Art and art history and art theory and the rest random, old library books you bought because you felt like you should have more, and they were only a dollar each, maybe two, and you think the smell alone is worth it. Stare at the ceiling fan that starts on its own. Don’t get up to turn it off when it does, just watch the dusty, white blades spin around and around and around and lift the top sheet of the empty easel in the corner whose paint brushes you threw away one Saturday in May.

It only takes you three hours to fall asleep that night and you arrive at work a mere twenty minutes late. Your boss, Gerald, says nothing, just tightens his pink checkered tie and pushes his wire rim glasses farther onto his face, like he always has since you dropped the orange bottle one Thursday and he picked it up, read Zoloft, handed it back. You do decent enough work and don’t cause too much trouble and with the number of college grads with advertising degrees declining it’s not worth searching for someone to replace you. You could quit, too, but you’ve read enough pamphlets and self-help books to know big life decisions like that shouldn’t be made during a depressive episode, so you’re probably never going to work anywhere else.

You wish you knew before you got the job, armed with an art major and $2000, the latter being the more useful of the two, that Co-Assistant Art Director at Reach Agency was code for thousands-of- boring-odd-jobs-where-the-most-exciting-is-deleting-spam-email rather than stepping-stone-to- being-a-famous-artist-or-at-least-someone-who-doesn’t-spend-half-the-day-looking-for-ways-to- skip-work-tomorrow. Jenna says it’s good to hate work, or at least to have hate as an emotion. You say it’s not hate so much as indifference. Jenna doesn’t say anything.

After work you stop at Fur-ever Homes shelter, not because you want to be out of the house, nor have the 24th cat not work out, but because you don’t want to have to spend so much time in the silent apartment. A large lady with a pink ruffled shirt, caked on blush, and a pushed-in pug nose leads you back. Most of the cats are easy to walk past, except one, Fuzz Aldrin. 8 months. Fluffy grey the color of your dog growing up who succumbed to cancer because he was exhausted by trying to keep you happy and safe but there were too many tears to lick off. Too many dinners sprinkled with stale silence, a cup of contempt. Too many people yelling and sharp words that shattered inside you, too far down to be fixed by a cuddle, a game of fetch. You leave without Fuzz even though he has everything you want from a cat and maybe, just maybe, he could make you smile.

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You pick up the newspaper at the apartment entrance, recycle everything except the classifieds next to the elevator, scan it as the elevator ascends. Photographer wanted. Artist wanted. “Quit your job,” it tells you. You recycle that section, too.

Since you know Jenna won’t count The Great British Bake Off as one of the two weekly activities, you decide to make brownies. Dark chocolate with chocolate chips, the kind Mom used to bring to church and to potlucks as proof that you were one of those normal families that functioned enough to have time to bake.

Your phone buzzes. You drop the metal teaspoon when you see it’s from Erin. Hey. Do you still have my Harvard sweatshirt?

You wonder what this is code for. I miss you and want you back? We never should have broken up? I still hate you? You also wonder if she knows you used to sleep with that sweatshirt every night, at least until it stopped smelling like her, detergent and warm salt water.

I think so

Cool, can I come get it? I’m in the city Saturday

Yeah, of course

As soon as you realize you’ve hit the send button, the floor gets shaky and you drop the mixing bowl which shatters into thousands of pieces and all you can think is fuck.

You pick up Fuzz Aldrin two hours later, just as the shelter is closing, just in case he can cure you by Saturday. He doesn’t leave the plastic crate for thirty minutes, just stares at you in your polka dot boxers, tilts his head, wiggles his whiskers. Just as you think, at least it’ll be easier to take him back if he never gets out, Fuzz stumbles onto the stained blue carpet.

At first he’s quiet, like Catalie, just sitting on the foot of the queen bed and staring at you, eyes glowing in the dark, as you try to go to sleep. You roll over, trying not to feel him watching. A minute passes. A warm ball of fur spins in circles just below your bent knee, lies down.

And you learn what it’s like to fall asleep on a pillow that is dry and unseasoned. No salt or sadness. Just a blanket of purrs, a few soft twitches. You almost feel rested when your alarm goes off, the sun peeling back the darkness.

Fuzz is still sleeping when you slip out the front door, but you leave a bowl of what he will consider a delicacy and what you consider mush. When you go to the kitchen for burnt, over- brewed coffee at lunchtime, you say hi to Bri in HR instead of lowering your head and studying the peeling laminate tiles like you usually do. She smiles, and you wonder if happiness would have the same shine as her eyes.

Gerald lets you leave half an hour early, perhaps as a reward for showing up on time, so you take the B and walk nineteen minutes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where you spend twenty minutes in front of Madonna and Child by Duccio, wondering if you could have painted something remotely similar had you not given up your paint brushes for a nine-to-five black suit. You write the museum in your journal as one of the weekly activities, add getting off work early to the list of good things, and make your way back towards the subway.

Past the woman in athleisure holding twins, one strapped to her front, one to her back. Past the couple holding hands, despite the icy wind, the woman’s dark, curly hair peeking out from a purple

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hat. Past the man in a trench coat over a blue suit, hair slicked back, phone to his ear, briefcase in one hand.

You have almost forgotten why you stopped coming to the Met and getting off at 81st street but the crooked shutters high above the street have not forgotten. Have not forgotten the stillness, Erin’s coconut shampoo, her lips. Goodnight, whispered, a question. An invitation. One year and sixteen days later, a fact.

The shutters remind you, in whispers, all the way home. Past 69th and 116th, up the narrow sidewalk broken up by squares of dirt sprouting dead trees, tufts of grass, up five floors in the jerking elevator. Through the doorway where Fuzz sits, head still turned slightly to the right, admiring the pile of smashed cups on the hardwood in front of him.

The one you bought when you and Erin went to DC in March with a black and white picture of the Washington monument that you liked, and she thought was overly dramatic. The blue one printed with Starry Night that she gave to you on your birthday along with a bottle of whiskey and dinner at Eso.

Fuzz looks at you, proud of the mess, and you wonder how he knew to only break those three. You give him an extra big scoop of mush, scratch him behind the ears, throw away the fragments of what used to be your life.

Mom calls at seven because Tuesdays are golf nights and Dad won’t be home, not that him being there or not changes how she talks. “How are you?” she asks, which is code for, “should I be worried?” and “are you feeling suicidal?” and, because you’ve had this conversation more than any other, you know to reply, “doing well” which means “doing poorly, but not enough to burden you with it more than you already worry, although I’m not sure if you do worry because we never really talk about it.” You mention that Gerald let you off early for good behavior and she mentions that Becky from yoga invited her for cocktails and you both agree those are great things, how great it is that you are doing so great, and promise to talk again soon.

You lay on the bed, diagonally because you don’t get to—have to—share it with anyone, and watch the clock count to sixty, three times, and even then, you don’t have the strength to sit up, nonetheless stand, nonetheless try to quiet the voices and the memories and the numbness long enough to go to sleep.

Fuzz yelps and you hear a crash so you force yourself up. You grab the grey fleece blanket and tie it around your neck like a cape as you run into the living room. The easel is on its side and the last piece you were working on, a field of flowers, has escaped and sits in the middle of the floor.

The colors are still all wrong, the greens not yellow enough, the blues too purple. You had forgotten about this painting since you stuffed it behind the sketchpad after hours of mixing and remixing paint, never quite getting it right.

You pick up the easel, place the canvas back in front, and pick up a dusty brush from the shelf. Squirt paint onto a plastic palette and get hypnotized by the swirls of the brush bringing new shades to life. Fuzz climbs up the bookshelf until he is at eye level and sits, cocking his tiny head to one side as you stir. Your brush leaves a trail in the sky, the vibrant blue it had been hoping for. After that, you mix in more white and sponge on clouds and realize you don’t remember the last time you were outside and looked up.

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You also realize it is dark and you will have to remember to look when you go out to give the sweatshirt back tomorrow. When you look at the clock you realize it is past midnight.

You stand up. In the kitchen sink the brush bleeds blue. It dyes the water and the soap as you knead the bristles between your fingers. You put water in a mason jar. You don’t know why you even have mason jars except you feel like it is something people with apartments have.

This time you mix yellow and green and dots of other colors until you have a vibrant grass which you apply in swift strokes. Fuzz knocks over the water with one swipe of his paw.

You set the brush down to get paper towels. You clean up the blots of lightly tinted water, and pull the bookshelf over to cover up the rest. On your way back from the trash can, you stop. You sit in the old lounge chair across the room and your eyes scan the painting and you realize you maybe really like it. The contrasting of the blue and the green and the way you can focus on the brush strokes or the whole scene and either way you feel breathless.

You check your phone. 3 am. Fuzz is curled up on the window sill, asleep. You find another canvas and place it on the easel and get out another palate.

You text Erin, can’t do tomorrow. can’t find your sweatshirt

And you put the ragged thing in the musty hall closet, in the bottom of the blue, plastic bin to be hauled away to Goodwill or ThreadUp, tomorrow or the next day or the day after, and add Fuzz to the list of good things along with acrylic paint and blank canvases.

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