We Were Happy, Sometimes
by Jared Young
Remember that time?
We were eighteen, living together in R_____, in that apartment near the university. It must have been May, because the snow was gone and we were in the habit of taking the kittens outside and letting them play in the grass. May: right before we moved out, before you left for Australia, before I moved home. Our Christmas tree was still up, sitting in a sunless corner of our living room, bleeding tinsel and plastic needles, stripped of decorations by those furious, curious paws. More a decorative fixture, after a while, than a symbol of that fleeting happy season (that's what we had together, I think: a fleeting season of happiness).
I left you alone that Christmas, remember? Went home to see my friends and family, and left you by yourself, alone in a city where I was your only friend. Stupid, I know. One of the countless things I would go back and change if I could (those other things...you probably know what they are). I have spent Christmases alone, since, and accept it as a sort of karmic payback. Still, we talked on the phone every night. I was dedicated to you in that one way, at least. I called you collect and amassed the spectacular debt we would later (listed here in chronological order): (1) cower beneath, (2) flee from, and (3) weasel our way out of.
But that's beside the point.
The time I'm thinking about, we were walking to the store. It was raining out, hard. The kind of downpour that blurs flat surfaces, turns them into a haze of dancing particles. We fought that night. A big one. The second biggest fight we ever had. Or third biggest, if you count the one where you threw the monopoly board at my face. My method of collecting your Park Place mortgage was arrogant, you thought, and you threw the board like a Frisbee. But that wasn't really a fight, was it? We laughed afterwards, and you crawled across the carpet with me to pick up the pieces: the little equestrian guy, the old convertible, the Yorkshire Terrier. The next day, at the shoe store in the mall, you told your co-workers, and they agreed that it was hilarious. So, definitely not a fight.
The fight that I'm thinking of - our second biggest - was the fight where you said I was spineless. Not in those exact words, but that was basically your thesis. You made reference to the time we were walking through W_____ Park and saw those guys throwing rocks at the geese. No, I didn't have a problem with you screaming at them. My problem (as I've tried many times to explain) was with the foul language and threats. Don't mistake my survival instinct for spinelessness: the guys throwing rocks were big and dangerous-looking - bikers, probably - not a couple of twelve year-old kids, as you have repeatedly tried to convince me.
So, we were fighting about that, and then about other stuff. I probably said that you were crazy, laughed, shook my head, and you probably said that I was condescending, that I was arrogant and dismissive and stubborn, which was true, but I would never admit to it. But besides that minor stuff, we never said anything particularly cruel to each other when we fought. Yet we managed every time to hurt each other's feelings. The night I'm thinking of was no different. You started to cry and stalked off to the bathroom, slammed the door, locked yourself in. And because I was terrified by the meteorological force of your sadness - which you regulated with strangely named medications prescribed to you by a psychiatrist you hadn't seen in almost four years - I started to cry, too. We sat there, on opposite sides of the locked door, both of us crying. Dueling whimpers and wails, a contest of grief, which, like always, you won. I admitted to being spineless, and apologized for it. I apologized for pulling you away from those rock-throwing idiots, for not supporting your righteous profanity.
But all of this is beside the point. I'm just setting the mood.
The time I'm thinking about happened afterwards. After you unlocked the door. After we sat for a while on the hallway floor. After you balanced your head in my lap and put your stubby-toed feet flat against the wall, like a swimmer pushing on a turn. After I stroked your hair and kissed your ear (like a swimmer, too: stroking and straining my neck to find sweet air in that whirlpool swirl of cartilage and skin). After all that pointless enmity and remorse became instantly petrified. After it turned suddenly to lust. But not lust. Something less elegant. Something more dangerous. Something like that time shortly after we'd moved in - when we were still committed to christening each room with our singular mix of fluids - that you asked me to choke you. Something like that time I tied up your hands with the cord from the clock radio, and you bit my shoulder so hard it left a mark that looked like blurred text, like a faded tattoo that had once spelled out something clever. Yeah, something like that.
But, I digress. The time I'm thinking about happened in the silent, sweaty aftermath. After we decided that we were hungry. After we left the house wearing track-pants and no underwear and felt the wind brush thrillingly against those still-moist places where boys and girls are designed to fit together.
Remember that little convenience store on the corner?
We lived off that store. We bought everything there. Canned soup, microwave dinners, ramen noodles, two-liter bottles of Root Beer, cartons of chocolate milk, bulk-sized cans of powdered iced tea. Sacrilege not to take advantage when they discounted the barbecue chips. How did we survive? How are we still alive? Two kids left alone to fend for themselves, like orphans, like scavengers. Our kitchen counter was cluttered with dirty dishes; smears of food turned dry, flaked away like peeling paint, or, like rebellious teenagers, growing colorful punk haircuts and beginning to smell of strange funguses.
The time I'm thinking of is coming soon. It happened after the fight, after the sex, after we went outside and walked in the rain. It was the middle of the night, and everyone in the world was asleep: the whole spectacular display - the thunder and the lightning - all of it just for us. We walked through the apartment complex, past the tarpaulin-sealed swimming pool that, beneath the downpour, vibrated like a drum; out into the street and across the parking lot, past the phone booth where two months later I would call a taxi to bring me to the airport, and after that - after I piled my suitcases into the trunk and pulled away from the curb - you and I would never again live in the same apartment, or city, or country. But that taxi ride is far removed from the time that I'm thinking of. You weren't in Australia yet. I wasn't in love with someone else. We were still together, we were in the rain, we were soaked. We kicked through the rising puddles, made tidal waves with long sweeps of our feet. We held hands, and I pretended like I was going to push you in the water, and you wrapped your legs around my waist and screamed. It was loud. You didn't think so, but it was. You must have woken up the entire building.
(The time I'm thinking of is just minutes away.)
I can't remember what we bought at the store, just that we were wet, that we left brackish footprints on the tile floor, that the kid behind the counter gave us a dirty look. While we browsed the selection of canned pastas and instant mashed potatoes, that song played on the radio; the one about the old couple that gets lost in the desert. Remember that song? You hated it. And I hated it, too (but only because you did). While the song played we stood soaking at the counter and paid with loose change gathered from the dusty corners of our bedroom floor, from the pockets of dirty pants, from the pockets of our empty backpacks. We ran home with the plastic bags under our shirts, hiding our junk-food feast from the rain. Back the way we came: across the road, past the pool (thrumming like a machine gun). We ducked for cover in the entranceway of our building. As I fumbled to retrieve the keys from my wet jeans, I looked up at you.
This, right now, is the time I'm thinking of:
There you are, standing in a cone of fluorescent light, in the fog, hair wet and sticking to your cheeks, eyelashes dark and thick and garnished with tiny spheres of water that shake free when you blink. There you are, pale and flushed and shivering, looking like you've been crying, but smiling, and there's water dripping from the end of your nose and from the tip of your perfect chin.
You say, "What are you looking at?" and I say, "Nothing."
We were happy, weren't we? Sometimes.
About the author:
Jared Young is a Canadian writer currently living in Bangkok, Thailand. His work has appeared in various newspapers and magazines throughout the world, including Maisonneuve, Descant, and online at McSweeney's. He is also the managing editor of Canada's oldest and most distinguished fiction publication, LWOT Magazine (www.lwot.net), which next year will celebrate its centennial anniversary.