Whatever Makes You Happyby Lisa Grunwald
What does it take to be happy? How happy is happy enough? And what does “happy” mean, anyway? So asks Sally Farber–wife, mother, daughter, friend, working woman, and lover–in this wise and funny novel about a woman’s search for happiness in some of the right, and a few of the wrong, places.
Summer in the city looms long for Sally… See more details below
What does it take to be happy? How happy is happy enough? And what does “happy” mean, anyway? So asks Sally Farber–wife, mother, daughter, friend, working woman, and lover–in this wise and funny novel about a woman’s search for happiness in some of the right, and a few of the wrong, places.
Summer in the city looms long for Sally Farber when she sends her two daughters off to camp for the first time. Suddenly freed of her usual patterns in a city that becomes a grown-up’s playground,, she embarks on a journey unlike any she’s ever had–filled with guilty pleasures and guilty pains.
Caught between the past (cleaning out her childhood apartment as her demanding mother offers edicts from South Carolina) and the future (facing her first semi-empty nest), Sally finds herself unexpectedly involved with a powerful, unpredictable man.
And as she researches a book whose very topic is happiness, she must weigh the relative merits of prescriptions for its attainment offered by Aristotle and the Dalai Lama, Freud and Charles Schulz, scented candles and Zoloft, her mother and her best friend. The answer comes, in the end, from a surprising discovery, in this rich and original novel about how we can find, and ultimately embrace, both happiness and love.
From the Hardcover edition.
The New York Observer
“Grunwald tells the story with a wit. . . that never quite conceals the sting of wisdom just below. Perhaps it's no surprise that by the end of her well-turned and winning tale, we see and feel, as Farber does, that the pursuit of happiness is really nothing more than a recipe for misery.”
Pico Iyer, Time Magazine
“From Aristotle to Edith Wharton, from laughter therapy to bedoom farce, this novel is a dictionary of delights.”
Cathleen Medwick, O, the Oprah Magazine
"Sally's quest for personal fulfillment allows Grunwald to muse on the roots of happiness, mining sources as diverse as Aristotle and Charles Schulz to present a porvocative array of answers. Whatever Makes You Happy is a satisfying portrait of upper-middle-class angst. But it is also the tale of a woman's pursuit of a life philosophyand through that search, readers may discover stepping stones for their own."
Alissa Quart, More Magazine
“Grunwald's interweaving of scholarly quotations about happiness and excerpts of real-life research on the matter cleverly ground this novel, in which the main character is on the verge of spinning out of control as she searches for her own brand of happiness. Chock-full of penetrating and wry perceptions, this novel is recommended for all public libraries.”
“Attempting to fool everyone, but especially herself, into believing that she’s only ‘researching’ the pursuit of happiness, Sally Farber searches for that ephemeral quality in all sorts of droll places–from the writings of Voltaire to the Laughter Institute to the bed of a famous artist. To no one’s surprise, she learns that what does not lie within remains elusive without. And as Lisa Grunwald’s odyssey of slapstick erudition unfolds, Sally seems stubbornly fated to remain without her heart’s desire, until the very last page is turned. This book comprises the best of both reads: a serious romp, and a saucy philosophical sashay.”
Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean and The Breakdown Lane
“Smart and exceedingly charming.”
“Grunwald explores the meaning of happiness, drawing inspiration from poets and pop icons…readers may find themselves considering what underlies their own happiness–and what they would risk to find more.”
Praise for Lisa Grunwald
“Her poetic gift for language, her sympathy for her characters, and her knowledge of how their emotions grow, shift, and collide all work together to help realize the large ambitions of this novel.”
–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times, about The Theory of Everything
“Beautiful, bizarre, and breathtaking . . . Harrowing in its pace, fearless in its depiction of the most tender emotions, this is a novel of exquisite grace. . . . A mesmerizing celebration of family love in all its sweetness and ferocity.”
–TK, Chicago Tribune, about New Year’s Eve
- Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.
—Old children’s song When I was ten years old, my friends and I would sneak out at night and meet in our building’s service courtyard to play spy games and exchange secrets. The courtyard was forbidden: it was dangerous; it was ominous. Purple shadows draped its brick walls like pieces of cast-off clothing. It was where the building sorted its trash and where God only knew what dangers lurked. It scared me into a hollow, cold silence, but I went anyway because I was in love with Michael Farber. He lived two floors below me, and I would have eagerly followed him into the heartless depths of a raging fire.
One night, near the dumpster, Michael found a blue plastic gem, a dime-sized circle with facets, like the kind that came in the gum-ball machines at the front of Woolworth’s and Lamston’s.
“A sapphire!” whispered Julian Becker, who lived three floors above me and was not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
“No, it’s fake. It’s only plastic,” I told him.
“You’re such a dweeb,” Michael said, with a certainty that Julian made no effort to contradict.
Julian was the extra boy, and Michael was the one I adored, the one who made me willing to brave my fears and the purple shadows.
“What are you going to do with it?” Michael asked me, putting it in my hand.
“Me?” I asked, flustered.
“You,” he said.
“You’re giving it to me?” I said.
“You could make it into a necklace.”
Tenderly, appraisingly, he touched the chain I wore on my neck.
Then came the bang of a heavy door and the shuffle of heavy footsteps.
“Enemy spy!” Julian whispered, exultant, and pushed Michael into the corner behind the dumpster that served as our usual shield.
Standing alone, I shivered and froze.
“Come on, Sally!” Michael hissed from his hiding place.
“Quick, Sally!” Julian whispered.
But I was too terrified to move.
“Hide, Sally!” Michael shouted, and then, with a courage that would continue to move me for years and years to come, he emerged from his own safe hiding place and pulled me into the darkness behind an empty, discarded stove box.
“Who’s that?” we heard a loud, harsh voice say.
The footsteps grew closer.
I clutched Michael’s arm.
“Who’s that at this time of night?” the voice said.
Michael put a finger to his lips.
Then the box was simply lifted away from us, as if a giant were moving a mountain. As we crouched, we stared up at a large black woman whose name was Posey Rivers and who was famous in the building for the flame-shaped scar on the back of her hand. Posey was the housekeeper for a family that didn’t have any kids, but we’d seen her plenty of times, and she seemed to know all about us, too.
Under the purple shadows of this particular night, she gathered Michael and me into a hug against her huge, warm chest, which smelled, splendidly, of French fries.
“It’s cold,” she said. “You all must be chilly.”
Neither of us said anything.
“November and not a coat on you all,” Posey scolded. “Your mothers are going to catch a fit.”
Michael and I looked at each other. Pressed against Posey’s enormous breasts, we were finding it hard not to giggle.
“I’ll bet your mama,” Posey told me, “thinks you’re downstairs at his place. And I’ll be his mama thinks he’s upstairs at your place.”
Again, we didn’t answer.
“Well, but Posey knew you were here,” she said. She turned to shout over her shoulder. “And you can show your sorry face now, too, Julian Becker.”
Timidly, Julian stepped out of hiding and grinned down at his feet.
“Oh, come on, I’m not going to bite you, Mr. Molasses,” Posey said.
Julian stepped toward us, and there was something about the shy, dim look on his face that made Posey start to laugh. Posey’s laugh was a hyuk-hyuk-hyuk affair, a tropical outburst every bit as big and broad as she was herself. And it wrapped around Michael and Julian and me with the sureness and strength of her arms, until all four of us were laughing together in the purple courtyard light.
In Posey’s fragrant embrace, I felt the promise of Michael beside me, a promise both calming and thrilling; and I held and would cherish the blue plastic gem, a token that, three decades later, I would still keep in a pouch in my purse. I was safe—vibrantly, exquisitely safe—and for years to come, whenever I thought about happiness, this was the moment that would come, first and least self-consciously, to my mind.
I’ve got the bowl, the bone, the big yard. I know I should be happy.
—One dog to another in a Mike Twohy cartoon Lying in bed with my husband one night, I am shocked to discover that I can’t remember the size or shape of any other man’s penis.
This alarms me, but in a quiet way, as one might be alarmed to discover that the ceiling plaster is starting to crack.
“The ceiling plaster is starting to crack,” I say to Michael, because I suspect it is somewhat better than saying, “I can’t remember the size or shape of any other man’s penis.”
It is a Wednesday night near the end of May, the traditional month when Manhattan springtime mingles with end-of-the-school- year shock. Between us, the bedspread stretches, broad and neat, like an unmapped country. Around us, the world is in order as well. Our daughters are now nine and ten years old, and shed somewhat fewer possessions in their travels around the apartment. The books on our shelves are alphabetized. No uncapped pens clutter up the desk. The stacks of clothes in our dresser drawers rise in tidy, specific piles.
“It looks like the Mojave Desert up there,” I say, staring up at the ceiling.
“It looks like the Mojave Desert.”
To the left, over on his side of the bed, Michael cradles his favorite cereal bowl and clicks his teeth against the spoon with each precise yet slurpy bite. He looks up at the ceiling.
“Don’t you think we should have it replastered?” I ask.
His eyes return to the TV screen, where the daily fortunes of New York’s sports teams are unfolding in brisk succession.
“It’s really starting to bug me,” I say.
He turns to me now with a marital smile, a smile filled with wisdom and depraved acceptance, a smile that says: You know that’s not what it is.
In fact, he is right, and I smile back, but I don’t know what it is.
I suppose it might be the way he eats cereal.
Or the fact that, for the fourth night this week, the girls didn’t fall asleep until ten, thus narrowing to Ginsu-knife thinness the slivers of time I can actually spend with him.
Or the fact that I didn’t manage to get enough work done today on the book I am currently researching, a book that is called, not incidentally, The History of Happiness and is due, not incidentally, in three months.
Or it might be the Acme cartoon topography of tomorrow’s to-do list, which includes glue-gunning a costume for Emily’s school play, giving my editor an update on my book, starting in on the packing list for the girls’ camp trunks, and whipping up a bowl of hummus for Katie’s Ancient Egypt Day. I do not know how to make hummus, but I suspect that large amounts of mashing will be involved.
Let me hasten, really hasten, to say that I am not expecting the Fox 5 News Problem Solvers to show up at my door tonight. Or the Hundred Neediest Cases fund.
Still, if I’ve learned anything at all from the research I’ve done, it’s that happiness has less to do with what people have than with what they think they want.
But do I know, even secretly, what it is that I think I want?
For years, researchers have been devising ever less intuitive methods for trying to quantify happiness. They have created all sorts of measures—known by acronyms, of course—such as the PWI, or Pleasure and Well-being Inventory, and the SWLS, or Satisfaction with Life Scale. Factors that have been weighed in the balance include racial tolerance, unemployment, frequency of sexual intercourse, number of television sets per capita, hours a week spent gardening, and belief in God. And yet with the exception of people living in extraordinary poverty or experiencing cataclysmic misfortune, there is remarkably little proof that any external factor has any lasting effect on the levels of personal happiness that people report.
Even Aristotle, who never stood on line at Zabar’s and marveled at how it was possible to feel, simultaneously, so blessed by bounty and so insane with impatience; even Aristotle declared that happiness, to most people, was a constantly moving target. “Ordinary people,” he wrote, “identify it with some obvious and visible good, such as pleasure or wealth or honor—some say one thing and some another, indeed very often the same man says different things at different times.”
For the sick man, Aristotle said, happiness is health, and for the poor man it is riches.
And for the forty-year-old woman in bed with the forty-two-year-old man underneath the cracked ceiling plaster, happiness is, at the moment, only something she knows she should feel but for some dim reason can’t.
I take Michael’s dish to the kitchen for him and am sincerely trying to shake off my mood when the phone rings and the real fun begins.
“She’s dead!” a familiar voice exults.
“Hi, Mom,” I say.
“She’s finally dead!”
I know without asking who the she has to be: Mom’s tenant for the last seventeen years, a tenacious Austrian analyst who had worked and lived the last part of her life in the apartment where I spent the first part of mine—the apartment in whose shadowed courtyard Michael and I had long ago played.
My mother, living now in a retirement community in South Carolina, has never been hard-hearted enough to raise the doctor’s rent. But she clearly is having no trouble now delighting in the woman’s demise.
“You go check it out,” she tells me excitedly.
“We’ve got to fix it up now.”
“I bet it’s worth a fortune.”
“And what are you going to do with the money you make? Bribe the nurses to smuggle in vodka?”
“Do this for me, won’t you, baby?” my mother asks me plaintively, and of course I say yes, because requests that come from retirement homes are not requests but commandments.
“What do you think she did to the place?”
“Listen, I have to go, Mom,” I say.
“Where?” she asks me petulantly.
“What do you mean, where? To bed, Mom,” I say.
“It’s only eleven-fifteen.”
“Past my bedtime, Mom.”
“You’re not going to watch Leno?”
“Mom,” I say.
“I’m sending you the keys,” she says.
“Fine,” I say.
“Federal Express,” she adds pointedly, her unprecedented use of overnight shipping the clearest sign yet of her urgency.
There is nothing in the world like a conversation with my mother to make me want to fling my arms around Michael’s shins.
“Your mom?” he asks when I come back to the bedroom.
“Of course,” I say, climbing into bed.
“Let me guess. You never send her pictures of the kids.”
“She bought Microsoft at seven twelve years ago.”
“Real news. The renter died.”
Michael clicks off the television and looks at me warily. “And your mom’s going to want you to handle it?”
I nod and pull the covers up to my chin.
I think about a purple light, a blue plastic gem, a courtyard. I think about the view from the window, the front hall closet, the bathroom tiles. I remember the walls of the hallway, which my father collaged with snapshots. Black-and-white for a few years, then color. A time tunnel, mosaicked by the past. I wonder if it is still there, or if the tenant painted over it, or had it scraped off the walls.
I know that my to-do list has just grown longer by countless items, but my mood is unaccountably brighter.
Michael sighs and gets up to follow his nighttime routine. I know the sounds so well. They are as mild and constant and comforting as the words of a lullaby: The eight squeaky steps across the old wood floor to the front door. The two snaps of the upper and lower locks. The twenty steps into the kitchen, all burners off, one light left on. The last look in at the girls, the redimming of their night-lights, which always, like an old worry, seem to grow stronger as the night wears on.
“Did the woman not have any family?” Michael asks me as he gets back into bed.
“So all this is on you?”
“It’s okay,” I say. “I can handle it.”
I slide down between the sheets beside him, like a secret letter slipped into the safety of an envelope. And dream of ancient places, where everyone is young.
So this is how it’s supposed to work in the mornings:
Up at 6:30, shower, coffee, wake the girls, make them breakfast, kiss Michael good-bye at the door, take the girls downstairs to the bus, come back up, drink coffee, make beds, read the paper, put up the laundry, and sit back down to work.
To which I can only respond: Oh, please.
If it works that way one morning in ten, it’s time for my own private Mardi Gras.
This morning, Mom calls at seven.
“Did you get the keys yet?”
“Mom,” I say, pulling on some jeans. “It’s seven o’clock in the morning.”
“I know. But I sent the package by the Federal Express.”
My mother has a tendency to overuse the definite article.
“Federal Express, Mom. Not the Federal Express.”
“They told me it would be overnight.”
“It’ll get here. It’s not supposed to come until ten.”
“You call me when it comes.”
By the time I hang up, the girls, hair unbrushed and possibly unbrushable, are engaged in an apartment-wide hunt for Katie’s baseball cap; the unsweetened, rejected cereals from the Kellogg’s variety pack are all I can offer for breakfast; and Michael is probably already taking his first patient’s pulse before I realize he’s gone.
The girls and I sprint to the corner.
“Don’t forget my costume!” Emily shouts from the window of the school bus, her hair slipstreaming into the air behind her as she turns to resume her seat.
The girls’ morning departure usually provides me a moment of light liberation, and I mean to go quickly back upstairs to work. But instead I find myself standing to watch as their school bus pulls out and moves down the street. The large yellow rectangle shrinks until, like a tiny knot on a long thread, it is woven into the city’s fabric. Something like fear overtakes me, a hint of the separation to come. The girls will be going to sleepaway camp for the very first time this summer, and I will be left with Michael and a nonfiction search for happiness that I’ll have no excuse to avoid.
The play is You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and Emily has the part of Lucy, and I have been asked to provide something little- girlish, preferably with polka dots. Since inspiration struck a week or so ago, and I retrieved an old pregnancy shirt from the recesses of my closet, all I’ve done is put some pins in the hem. Back upstairs, I plug in the glue gun, without which I believe Manhattan motherhood itself would dissolve, and I heat up my coffee and settle down to work at the kitchen table.
Our walls could use a good paint job, and someday it would be nice to redo the cabinets, but the kitchen is in order, and that is not an insignificant fact. The kitchen is the largest room in our typically cramped Upper West Side apartment and is wired just well enough to support the necessary appliances for a mother and wife and freelance writer at the start of the new millennium. With its array of humming machines—aging PowerBook on the warped butcher-block table, fax and copier, scanner and printer, dishwasher and washing machine—the kitchen has in effect become the command post, the conning tower, of the vessel that I steer every day, despite the changing climate and occasionally uncharted waters.
On the walls are my children’s drawings, representing a host of styles and ages and who knows what budding resentments. On the counter is the costume. Also the latest chapter of my book. On the bulletin board is the calendar—cramped and colorful—with the milestones of a Manhattan spring laid out like the squares on a board game. Ancient Egypt Day. Field Day. Picnic. The play. The book fair, where I’m a cashier. And Michael’s hospital benefit. And my best friend’s sister’s wedding.
The spring sun throws a shimmering rectangle of light on the kitchen wall. At my elbow, an old measuring cup brims with a bouquet of colored markers.
Carefully, I drip an indelible line of hot glue beside the pins on the polka-dot shirt and then fold back the fabric to make a hem. Strangely, I am shortening this shirt so that my little girl—who did not yet have a name the first time I wore it—will be able to look like a little girl when she plays the part onstage. And more strangely still, when I am finished and I’ve put the glue gun away and taken the shirt to the girls’ bedroom, I stop and press it to my cheek. That is not one of my usual moves, and for the second time today, I find myself wondering what’s gotten into me—or what’s being taken away.
But Jimmy Shannon, my editor, is expecting my call this morning for a full update on my book. My book is supposed to be about how the concept of happiness has evolved from the moral standards of ancient Greece to the self-help books, Paxil prescriptions, and feng shui floor plans of today.
Here is what I’ve got so far:
I’ve got one chapter on the early Greek concepts of happiness and another on the idea of happiness as an American right.
I’ve got articles from professional journals ranging in topic from philosophy to marketing to mood drugs to God. “Hedonic Level of Affect.” “The Biochemical Aspects of Joy.”
I’ve got pictures and, in some cases, samples of a host of now-defunct products: a Happiness bicycle seat from the 1890s, a balding cure from the 1910s, a flatware pattern from the 1940s, a board game from the 1960s, a hair dye from the 1970s (“Just foam Happiness® into your hair”), and a Happiness toothbrush—I found it on eBay but don’t know its vintage—with two plastic breasts where the bristles should be.
I’ve got appointments to interview one clinical psychologist who is trying to prove that happiness is a genetic trait, another who studies addiction, and a peppy Boston woman who runs a place called the Laughter Institute.
I’ve got transcripts from speeches given at England’s University of Birmingham for the annual Happiness Lectures, a series endowed, in all earnestness, a quarter of a century ago.
None of which—witness last night in bed—has gotten me any closer to a permanent grasp of the concept. But hey, the day is young.
Jimmy has told me to call him at exactly nine, but at exactly nine I am surfing the Web for hummus recipes, discovering, to my great dismay, that I should already have been soaking chickpeas in water for an entire night. So when the phone rings at a quarter past, it’s Jimmy, sounding wounded.
“Cookie!” he scolds when he hears my voice. “Why do you keep me waiting?”
This is a quaint echo of our long, erratic, savage romance. It seems that, nearly twenty years later, he is still most compelled by the absence of me.
I try now to remember what Jimmy looked like naked, and I startle myself by succeeding.
“Cookie! When do I see some glorious pages?” he asks. His voice still cajoles: shameless, British, and naughty.
The History of Happiness was his idea, the fourth in a series I’ve written for him. My first was called The History of Anger and was an unexpected hit, principally because its publication coincided with O. J. Simpson’s arrest. The History of Jealousy followed, also a big success, probably because it coincided with O. J. Simpson’s trial. And then, two years ago, came The History of Love, which absolutely bombed. Despite my worst fear—that people only want to read the history of unpleasant emotions—Jimmy has been insistent that I try happiness next. The fact that the Dalai Lama has published a bestselling book called The Art of Happiness does not deter him but rather leads him to believe that the subject has legs—albeit legs covered by a long orange gown.
Now and then, he’ll call to give me updates on the numbers.
“The Lama is holding steady,” he’ll say.
“How am I going to compete with the Dalai Lama?” I’ll ask.
“Oh, you’re going to leave him in the dust.”
“I’m going to leave the Dalai Lama in the dust?” I’ll say.
“Bury him,” Jimmy will say.
And periodically he will call to ask for new pages.
“I’m not ready yet,” I tell him now.
“Don’t be absurd! I haven’t seen anything new in three months! You’ll come in next Thursday.”
I rub my forehead. “Not next week, Jimmy,” I say. “It’s May. It’s the end of the school year.”
“Ah,” he says. “The chicklets.”
“And my mother just unloaded her old apartment on me.”
“I’ll be sure to tell Barnes and Noble.”
We compromise with Wednesday, June fourth.
“Remember,” Jimmy says. “There will be a quiz. The subject is happiness. Hit the books.”
And I do hit the books. Or, more accurately, the Internet. At the Columbia University website, I call up the library search engine.
search for . . . and in the space, I type the word happiness.
Search for happiness.
I laugh to myself.
I push the submit button and watch the browser’s icon turn.
Search also under:
Is this a recipe? Or a menu? Or neither? Are these synonyms? Or not quite?
I find myself staring at the word joy. I let it conjure for me. It calls up the days on which my children were born, and the day on which I married. Joy summons up arrows of light bouncing off waves on Cape Cod, and the feeling I get when I open our front door after a long time away.
And then pleasure. The word invokes vanilla ice cream over hot blueberry pie, and diving into a swimming pool on a scorching day, and having Michael, ten years into our marriage, intently, and for the first time, kiss the back of my left calf.
Mental health. Could I come back to that one?
And cheerfulness? That is, perhaps, Michael’s most special talent, with all his days of endless patience and goodwill toward men—and toward marriage.
But contentment. Is that happiness? Or is that only resignation wearing a funny hat?
I work, making notes of more books to pursue, for at least half an hour.
The Federal Express guy rings the doorbell at exactly ten o’clock and bestows on me, in one tidy gesture, the keys to my mother’s apartment and a dusty and dangerous summer.
Well, if I can’t be happy, I can be useful, perhaps.
—Louisa May Alcott At its very best, the apartment in which I grew up possessed a certain bohemian charm. What my parents lacked in good furniture they generally made up for in decorative flair. What they lacked in marital harmony they generally made up for in aesthetic accord. When I was a child, the apartment housed numerous collections, among them half a dozen large, framed vintage posters, as many antique grocery-store signs, various jars filled with Cape Cod seashells and beach glass, and a prismatic array of flea-market pitchers, filled with the flowers that Dad always hung up, prematurely, to dry.
By eleven, the city streets are balmy and fine, and despite the needling from Jimmy, I walk to Mom’s apartment with unexpected brio. My old building, which is sandwiched between two grander ones on Central Park West, is just at the edge of our neighborhood, and so I have passed it many times, especially heading east through the park, or visiting my friend T.J., who happens to live on Central Park West too. Today, though, Mom’s building is my actual destination, and I find myself stopping at the entrance to examine the fluted column that I used to play on every morning, waiting for my school bus. There wasn’t much of a game. I would stand on the column’s base and try to move from corner to corner without falling off. In the days when my father still waited with me, he’d find some reason to look away while I climbed behind the column, and then he’d call my name, pretending that he thought I’d dis- appeared.
“Don’t scare me like that!” he would say as I would pop out from my not quite hiding place to see the mock relief on his face.
Standing by the column now, I remember my giddy pleasure at the pretense of his glee.
It has been twenty-one years since his death, and nearly twenty since I have had any reason to enter this building. What I discover when I do is that our once comfortable, not to say seedy, West Side apartment house has been transmuted by time and pretension and faux-marbling techniques. Gold-painted griffins now frolic on the ceiling. Tapestry-like panels hang grandly from high wrought-iron bars.
I know the elevator buttons, the elevator door. Upstairs, the floor has been recarpeted, but the smell is exactly the same: it is the hallway smell of Jewish cooking, ammonia, and stale, trapped seasons.
At the front door, I find myself fumbling for Mom’s package. The note she’s tucked in with the keys is hatcheted by her underlines:
Sally. Please go over first thing, and call me as soon as you get there.
I know the view of the park from the seventh-floor window; the single L-shaped bathroom that I shared with my parents for all those years; the smell of my mother’s lavender soap; the safety of the locked front door; the chipped wood floor by the dining room table; the wide living room with the low radiator that steamed up the windows in winter.
Quickly, I turn the key in the lock and step inside the apartment. The lights are off, and a person has died here, so it’s just a little bit spooky. For a moment, I feel that I might turn the lights on and find myself tumbling into the past.
It turns out that that’s only partly true. Time has clearly frozen here. But it has frozen several times, so wandering through the rooms is like discovering successive strata in a rocky plateau, and the bottom layer—the layer I knew—is not immediately visible.
Riotous flowered wallpaper covers the hall where Dad’s collages once were. But that is only one manifestation of the doctor’s apparently madcap style. Here, in the front half of the apartment, where she must have seen her patients, is 1920s Vienna, with leather couch, kilim rugs, crystal sconces, and dusty books. Here, in the back rooms, is 1970s Museum Gift Shop: plaster cherubs, heroes, and winged horses overwhelm the bathroom and hall. Our two small bedrooms have been combined into one, and a small Venus de Milo is perched there before a gray, stained mirror, looking particularly mournful. This room also features a single bed, a medicinal smell, a box of rubber gloves, a digital clock that looks as if it was among the first ones manufactured, and a series of clip-on lamps that were obviously less and less successful in warding off the encroaching darkness.
I wander, holding my breath somewhat—as if it is water around me, not air—back out into the front room. One of my parents’ large framed posters still hangs above the fireplace. It is a poster that I stared at often and remember well: it always confused me when I was a child. The poster advertised a French house paint called Nitrolian and showed a painter covering some steps with red paint while holding a can of paint that showed a painter covering some steps with red paint while holding a can, and so on.
The chaos of the apartment, however, makes the poster look simple by comparison. In this room alone, there are five separate bookshelves—of varying depths, widths, heights, colors, and textures. A manual pencil sharpener is bolted to a windowsill. A paper cutter with a rusty, raised blade is perched on a rusted blue file cabinet. A half dozen other file cabinets offer a haphazard history of twentieth-century office design. In the kitchen, two round fluorescent lights converse with each other in buzzes and blinks.
Back in the office, I look through dusty windows out onto Central Park, where a flock of pigeons circles the playground, just as the birds did when I was a child. I can feel my father’s presence, and the ache that goes with it. I sit. I try not to feel too much. But I am dizzy with the past.
Absentmindedly, I open the nearest file cabinet, which is labeled “A–C.” Inside, I find perhaps a dozen files, a bunch of loose pennies, several dozen paper clips, and a few balled-up receipts.
In the second file cabinet, mercurially labeled “A–D,” I find more files, some pens, scissors, pencils, more pennies, a hammer, a florist’s smoky green vase, and a file folder filled with blank notepads.
Reflexively, I scoop up the pennies, place them in a dish on a corner of the desk, add the first drawer’s pennies to them, grab a pad, and get to work seeing which pens still write and which ones don’t. I don’t know why I do this, but I find it somehow calming.
I scribble meaningless zigzag lines across the slightly yellowed paper, wondering when these pens were last used, and what words, if any, they wrote. Fifteen minutes pass this way in still and musty silence, and in the silence, I recognize something I haven’t felt for years: the nearly exotic, potent blend of privacy and youth.
“Why didn’t you call me?” my mother asks when, coming back into my own apartment, I pick up the ringing telephone.
“The phone’s been disconnected,” I tell her, and in fact it probably has been. But in truth I completely forgot to call her once I was in the apartment.
“You could have called from your cell,” she says.
“I know, Mom,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
“But you went?”
“Of course I went.”
And so I tell her what a mess the place is. I describe the cherubs, the file cabinets, the rust, the dust, the chaos.
“This is a huge amount of work,” I say.
“Oh, you can do anything, baby,” she says, which may seem like a compliment but is actually more like a threat.
“You know, Mom,” I say, “in my spare time, I’m actually trying to write a book.”
“What do you think the apartment would go for?” she asks, with the kind of zealous indifference to my professional life that I’ve always found too exhausting to fight.
“It’s smaller than I remembered,” I say.
“Things look bigger to children.”
“Didn’t this woman have any family?” I ask, even though I know the answer.
“None,” Mom says. “But thank goodness I do.”
“Mom,” I say. “Are you happy?”
“What makes you happy?”
“What makes me happy?”
“It would make me happy if you would do the apartment.”
“No, I mean really, Mom,” I say.
“Are you getting deep?” my mother asks, as if deep is a synonym for itchy.
“Sometimes,” I say, “I just feel, I don’t know—”
Sad? Confused? Nostalgic? Lost?
Did she ever lie in bed with my father and try to remember other men? Had there been other men to remember?
“What?” she says again, and I shake off this rogue impulse to tell her what I’m actually feeling. Nothing good ever comes from that.
“It’s a lot, you know,” I say instead. “With the kids. And with the book.”
“The kids are going to be at the camp. You’ll have nothing but time on your hands,” she says.
The kids. The camp. The time on my hands. It occurs to me that there is a camp packing list and that I haven’t purchased a shoelace. This is my barely convincing rationale for a thinly disguised diversion. Truth is, the trunks will not be picked up for another month, but the simplicity of following someone else’s to-do list seems suddenly alluring. And so, burying my happiness research beneath the Camp Sha-no-Wah handbook, I opt for an online shopping spree, and—bypassing an ad for the perfume Clinique Happy (slogan: “choose happiness”)—I load things by twos into the virtual shopping cart, pausing only to consider colors and sizes and openability of bottles and tubes. Katie and Emily have had plenty of nights away from home but never more than one at a time.
I contemplate the packing list, which is really a delicate ode to all the things that can go wrong. Bug bites, bee stings, sunburns, blisters, headaches, head colds, and let’s not forget lice. I’ve had eleven years of doing the maintenance work on my girls’ bodies. It is both liberating and harrowing to imagine them doing it all themselves. What are the chances, for example, that Katie will suddenly learn that hair brushed on Monday doesn’t “last” until Wednesday? I will probably be brought up on charges by the maternal court if I don’t insist on radical, camp-friendly haircuts. But the girls will surely resist this, and my insisting will make them miserable, and on the eve of our first long separation, I want no more sadness than necessary.
Which brings up a question for my book: How necessary is sadness to the experience of bliss?
But I don’t have time to pursue this, because I have to clean the broccoli.
From the Hardcover edition.
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