When She Got Happy
Jun 29 ● BY Carly Rae Zent
She met a man at two in the morning at a diner, where her friends crowded a yellowing booth and ordered milkshakes and grilled cheese with slices of deli-style pickle on the side. He was pale and had hairy, skinny legs and a tattoo on his arm of his blue-and-green-eyed dog. It made him seem gentle. She had the impression that it would be simple to charm him by telling her quirkiest self-stories. He asked what flavor milkshake she was ordering. She told him, and he bought her a peanut butter and chocolate one with two straws. They sipped on it together at the counter. He told her he liked the way she looped her hair into two buns on her head. Cute.
Her friends were like curious ferrets, craning their necks together, peering over at them. Being with her friends often felt like being among animals. They showed off together, flashy and synchronized like fish. They clawed in play like lion cubs through post-adolescent life. They performed for each other the opera of nature, sharing the emotional arcs of their days, the wins and losses of every hour—narratives for the ages.
They were all white. But they were different: Q was leggy and spiritual. C was quiet and bounced between cafe jobs. J picked up her daughter from school every other Friday to keep for the weekend. But they all walked around, rejecting self-consciousness about the holes in their selves they couldn’t fill or understand. They turned the holes into party crackers to pass out, to pop open and present as confetti. A clique of women glamorizing their gaps. They talked about madness as a natural product of the world they lived in. Living ill, they felt, was revolutionary. Sadness was liberation. They were, at least, aware. They weren’t zombies. They bragged about the number of times they publicly cried for no reason. They made each other laugh with stories about the terrible decisions they made. They all dug deeper for something even grosser and harder and weirder.
When the man wasn’t paying attention, she gave her friends a little wink that made them lean into each other, giggling. They were delighted that something was happening to her, and that they could be a small part of it. You crazy, one of her friends mouthed at her. She felt seen and emboldened. She wondered how many chapters she could get out of this story, so she touched her knee to his. He blushed. She told him about the time she carried a live goldfish in a ziplock bag into the grocery store, and he practically opened his own chest and put his heart in her palms. It was almost boring, how easy it was.
He lived in a second-floor apartment, and they kissed in the elevator on the way up. The elevator had mirrored walls, and she looked over his shoulder at the reflection, watching herself with this stranger. Inside his room they had sex twice, although the second time neither of them finished. He said, “sorry,” and she said, “It’s fine.” She was catching her breath on his bed when she felt a wet nose nudge her.
“That’s Joey,” he said.
Joey looked just like the tattoo, with one green eye and one blue eye. He was fluffy and spotted brown and black. She scratched Joey’s head. He wasn’t scared at all of having a strange woman in his house. She felt like he liked her, and she was pleased, even though he was just a dog. Dogs do not want to fuck you, or to borrow your clothes. They just like good company.
She settled under blankets that smelled like the man but staler, the dog curled up at their feet. She lay awake while the man snored soft, little snores and unconsciously reached his arm out to wrap around her when she scooted too far away. Over the bed was a big picture window with curtains pushed to the side. It looked on a quiet street with tall lamps arched over it. One flickered every four minutes and twenty-two seconds (she counted). She gently moved the man’s arm and went to the bathroom, thinking she might throw up. Instead, she cried.
She must have woken Joey, because he nudged the door open and brought her a ball. She threw the ball in the living room. He returned it, slightly wetter. She threw it again and her affection for this dog grew with each stanza of this game. She was sniffling and grateful.
She lived so immersed in her murk, it was her friend. But at times it unexpectedly betrayed her, breaking the way she had constructed her moment to reveal something ugly. She was getting tired of it. More and more exhausted all the time.
She didn’t want the man to see her like this. She wanted him to only see her as a mysterious and charming tiger, so she left him a note with her phone number and took a cab home.
* * *
Out in the world, at diners and bars and other people’s homes, she felt unseamed. Those places existed, indifferent to who she was. She wanted to shout at them and mold them to her so she would feel more real. She filled her house with all the things that reflected herself. Paintings of sad, nude women made beautiful. A coffee table with magazines that reviewed books and art openings. A cookbook that she cracked open on a regular basis only to become overwhelmed and lay her head on the kitchen counter.
Every corner of the home comforted her with little implicit messages; you are tasteful. You are smart. You are depressed, but it’s glamorous. She tucked herself into a corner of her fashionable grey couch and basked in it. Back at the diner, with her friends egging her on, she felt caught up in a rocket of intrigue that never took off, and here she was, distraction over, alone. She cried again. She messaged Q and C and J. This was the context in which their bonds mostly existed, scrambling to put out each other’s emotional fires before another started elsewhere or within yourself. A message like this was like an alarm. Emergency: I’m sad and I don’t know why.
Q: I pulled a tarot card for you and it was “death”. But, it can mean a time of renewal.
C: You’re probably just experiencing some sadness you haven’t let yourself experience in the past. Try embracing it.
J: My daughter texted me this gif of a monkey and chicken who are friends, hope it helps you as much as it helped me!
She allowed the texts to roll into her inbox, like waves, and rock her to sleep.
* * *
When she woke up in the morning, she decided she was done with anguish. She met up with Q and C and J for brunch, and as they scraped butter onto their English muffins, she said she didn’t care about the glamour of gaps anymore or the way that they united them as friends. She couldn’t do it, and she was going to be happy and put together from now on. She hoped her friends would support her in this journey.
They did not respond well to this news.
Q: Does this mean you’re going to have—healthy boundaries?
C: Does this mean you’re not going to tell entertaining stories that make light of your own traumas anymore?
J: What about binge drinking with us and making fun of people who don’t like the same movies? Is that also done for?
It was exactly what it meant, she explained gently, knowing it was hard news to hear. At that moment, the omelets and pineapple pancakes and shoestring fried potatoes were delivered on steaming plates. When the busyness of receiving food cleared, the faces of the circle of women around her displayed emotions like rage and fear and betrayal. They were like a pack of snarling coyotes. She saw that she wasn’t welcome at this table anymore. She couldn’t be a coyote with them. She left, her breakfast carefully packed in a styrofoam container, untouched.
* * *
She trashed her sad paintings and replaced them with art depicting flowers and clouds. She purchased throw pillows in bright colors and hung framed photos of her smiling family.
She called her therapist and canceled all her appointments. She said on the phone: I’m cured! Whammo! Great job! She started cutting up potatoes and tomatoes and chicken and storing them in plastic containers in the freezer to eat throughout the week. She woke up on time for work and gave her best, unintoxicated effort, and her boss was so impressed, she got a raise. She performed thirty to sixty minutes of moderate exercise three or four days a week. It was hard to be without friends for awhile, but she made new friends who exercised, too. Some of them even had savings accounts. They helped her create a spreadsheet with itemized monthly expenses and formulas that automatically calculated leftover funds. She watched her brand new account tick upwards.
* * *
C secretly reached out to her. She got the call during lunch hour. Don’t tell anyone, but I’m done too. I just want to be happy. She was thrilled to hear from her. She was surprised at the strength of the ache that affected her, seeing this familiar name again, listening to this familiar voice. C asked, What’s it like? How do you do it? She told C how wonderful her new life was. She was full of energy every day. She was working towards her career goals, and they felt within reach now. She always had healthy food to eat. She could buy a house in the next few years. She shared her exercise routine: how she started off slow but was running faster and faster. She was considering running the city’s Thanksgiving race.
C did not respond for a long time. When she did, she said, No offense, but that all sounds kind of boring.
* * *
She started to miss her old friends. Her new friends refused to call her crazy, even when she asked. They just laughed and told her to slow down on the martinis. She sat on her couch and everyone was very respectful about not texting past nine, a reasonable bedtime, so her phone was silent into the night. It felt a little empty in her home, and she didn’t know what to do with herself.
She also had a question that she didn’t think her new friends would understand. There was a phrase she always lived by — “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Now that she was comfortable, was it her mission to afflict herself?
* * *
She decided it was time to see her old friends again. On Friday night, she showered, then pulled her best dress from the back of the closet and shook off the dust. She strapped on a pair of moon-silver shoes.
A cab took her to where her friends usually met Friday night, and there they were, at the bar. Q taller than all of them. C wearing a dress that was too big. J answering every call on her cell in case her daughter had an emergency. They were preening, arranging each other’s hair and clothes. Trotting around, posing in their heels, dancing. She looked on with desire. She wanted to be an animal again.
She decided to play coy, to pretend she wasn’t there to see them. She ordered a margarita at the other end of the bar and started dancing by herself, sipping out of the glass and licking the salt with her tongue. It was difficult to slip into how she used to be, twisting and moving her arms like a musical jellyfish. But before too long she felt like her old self again. She even forgot what she was there for, a little bit. She was enjoying that lush swirl of alcohol and endorphins. But then she looked back again at her ex-friends. They were huddled together, a herd. All looking at her. Q mouthed words: Give it up. You’re not crazy anymore. You’re happy.
* * *
The encounter cut through her joy, so she sat down at a table in the next room. She pulled out her phone, just to have something to look at. There was a message lingering, unanswered, from the man she had slept with. Hey, beautiful. I had fun with you.
She responded Me too. What are you up to?
He invited her out and she left to join him at another bar and told him that she’d been figuring herself out lately. He said, I don’t think that part of life ever ends, and she sweetly kissed him. They went back to his place again, had sex again, but only once this time before he fell asleep. She sat naked in the living room petting Joey. Joey brought the ball and she played with him again. His unfettered bliss helped her relax.
The man had explained to her that he saw Joey at a shelter and just “had to have him”. As childish of a sentiment this was, she knew what he meant. She really wanted to take this dog home, and it occurred to her, she could. It would be the wildest thing she could do right now. If anything could get her back to being the craziest cunt on the block, it was stealing Joey.
So as the man slept, she left a note on a magnetic dry erase board on the fridge: Thanks for the great night ❤. Leaving the heart made her feel as though she was winking at some guy across the bar and he was totally buying into the sexiness. Then, she hooked Joey’s leash onto his collar and walked right out the front door.
* * *
Joey seemed perfectly comfortable following her. He had a rounded spine that made him prance like a show pony and she let him sniff the side of the road a bit before tugging his collar. He got in the passenger seat of her car as though he’d ridden there a thousand times. She rolled down the window, and he stuck his head out, drooling all over the side of the car.
“I’ll bet he never let you do that. You’re gonna have the time of your life, Joey.” She pet him. He was getting sticky from his drool whipping backwards in the wind. They drove down empty streets. The sun was already coming up over the horizon.
She visited a drive-through and ordered a burger for Joey. He snapped it up in one bite like an alligator. She ordered herself a breakfast burrito, and then got a second one for C. She was sure she could get through to her. She drove over to C’s house and knocked on her door.
C looked confused when she answered, but she had bags under her eyes and alcoholic morning breath and let her in after accepting the burrito. “Thanks, I’m so hungover.”
Q and J were there too. J was groaning on the couch, skirts twisted around. Q was examining a fresh stain on her shirt.
Joey followed her in and started licking J’s toes. She tugged his collar to stop him, and he immediately made his way to the kitchen to start licking the floor.
The women tolerated Joey for awhile, and they were too tired to scold her, but they kept looking at her in some befuddled way. As if she were a foreign thing. She couldn’t believe they weren’t excited for her. She couldn’t believe they weren’t cheering her on, jealous that she had thought of it first. Steal a dog from the man you hooked up with. Best story of all time. Crazy.
She finally left. As they drove off, she told Joey, “we don’t need these people.” She scratched him on the chin, and Joey slobbered on her hand.
At home, Joey paced restlessly around the house. The man had told her Joey was only two years old and still hyper. She tried to get him to rest on the sofa, but after approaching for a good scratch, he would get right back up and return to circling the living room. He started knocking the magazines off the coffee table and chewing the covers off.
After a few hours of this, she decided he needed to get his energy out. She drove him to the local dog park, dropping by a drive-thru on the way to feed him another burger.
At the dog park, Joey went wild. She never saw someone make friends so quickly in her life. The dogs chased each other in circles for tediously long periods of time. Dog parents roamed with plastic baggies sticking out of their back pockets, baseball caps on their heads, and water bottles in hand to squirt into their pup’s mouths. They seemed to know each other. Regulars, maybe, and they stood near each other and caught up on pet training progress, or so she assumed.
She spotted the hands first. They had touched her, after all, brought her to climax. They were putting up posters around the dog park, stapling them to the trees: Lost Dog. Responds to Joey. A photo of Joey, tongue lolling. Eyes reddened by the camera. The man was a bad photographer.
She called Joey to her. The man was still far away, but he was coming closer, posters going up in a row, forming a path of Joey’s head leading right to them. Joey bounded up. She slipped his leash on and attempted to leave the park as casually as possible. But the man was nearing the entrance. He had a friend with him. They wore baseball caps, like the other dog parents. She was self-conscious of her bare head. Maybe it gave her away.
The entrance had two gates to the street, leaving a space. She quietly stepped through the first gate, closing it behind her. The man inched closer. The stapler had jammed, and he was whacking it. He was distracted. She opened the second gate.
The man fumbled, cursed. He dropped the stapler, which bounced on the grass. He bent and turned around to grab it. First, he spotted her, looked her in the eyes. Then he shouted. JOEY!
She was going to attempt to bolt with the dog, but it was useless. Joey was thrilled to see the man, and tugged away from her. She dropped the leash and ran.
YOU CRAZY BITCH, the man shouted after her.
She kept running, not looking back, even once. She wanted to keep the grin on her face for herself.