The Struggle for Happiness is a collection of loosely interwoven stories that explore the condition of a series of finely drawn characters and their various desires-desires for love, belonging, home, and happiness. Ranging in tone from utopian visions to stark realism and populated by a unique collection of women-from the guitarist whose supposedly dead lover turns up at one of her concerts, to the professor who has lost her ability to trust in anything; from the psychic at a popular gay resort, to the critic and would-be writer-the pieces in The Struggle for Happiness are sure to delight and astonish longtime fans of Ruthann Robson and new readers alike.
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About the Author
Ruthann Robson is a professor at the City University of New York School of Law. She has been recognized by The Village Voice as the nation's "leading authority on lesbians and law." She is the author of four books of fiction, most recently Another Mother and a/k/a and five books of nonfiction, including Sappho Goes to Law School. Her book of short stories Eye of a Hurricane was the winner of the Ferro-Grumley award for Fiction. She was twice a Lambda Award Finalist and has been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award.
Read an Excerpt
The Struggle for Happiness
By Ruthann Robson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2000 Ruthann Robson
All rights reserved.
The beautiful days are the worst.
The bitter blue of the sky. The sun glaring like an interrogation spotlight: Confess every crime; betray every accomplice. The innocent green of the trees hiding the terrible spores and pollens and industrial chemicals that make me sneeze and ache and cry.
Although for a moment, sometimes, when the temperate breezes have massaged me into a state of relaxation, the sky and the sun and the trees all possess a majestic clarity. But resplendence is always sharpened by impending loss. Witness Alexis. She had never looked more desirable than the last time I saw her, our belongings segregated into hers and not-hers in our on-the-market apartment. The apartment had also never looked more inviting, its countertops gleaming from Windex and the lack of clutter of daily living.
But this is more serious.
This is the planet.
Though most people don't see it; don't perceive that the earth is dying, gasping and thrashing.
Maybe it's the pleasantness that prevents people from comprehending. Days like these, perfect as five-for-a-dollar postcards, lull people into thinking that everything is fine. The sky is nothing other than wallpaper: embossed with clouds and uniformly blue. The sun a gently swaying chandelier; the trees coat racks of green jogging suits. Instead of sharpening perceptions, people get dull. Insensate. That's what beauty does. I should know. I wrote a book on it: Aesthetics and Argument in Women's Literature.
I also used to teach a course by the same title. And one called "Identity in Twentieth Century Manuscripts." And one named "The Sex of Text." And every fifth semester, in the democratic departmental rotation, I would be assigned "Survey" or even "Composition." Although it didn't really matter what the course was titled. I always taught the same thing, only the context varied. Literary criticism according to Derrida. Take a text and twist it inside out. I guess I was effective, or at least entertaining. I was a popular professor. My enrollments and student evaluations told me so.
Despite all the pronouncements about the death of deconstructionism, it was thriving at what we called Cool U.
And I was thriving.
Although, of course, I didn't think so.
I thought I was riddled with neuroses. In another era, I would have used words such as angst and existential. In this era, no labels were necessary. In fact, no labels were permitted. To describe was to court imperialism, annulling all the referents that went unexpressed by one's statement. I achieved an enviable level of vagueness, but I used very important and precise words in discussing this vagueness.
But my main weapon in my struggle to be happy was my secret box.
Handmade paper, ten by twelve, and a cover with flaps lovingly diapered over the exposed slits. Baby blue, like worn and well-loved jeans the moment before the knee is about to rip. And as soft. Even the nubs are soft. Inviting as any fantasy: A lover (in her torn-at-the-knee jeans) sits on a couch; my face is on her thigh, my cheek rubs against the pulls in the warp of the thin denim.
It was expensive, purchased at one of those trendy papier shops, and it wore a deep blue velvet necklace to conceal its cleavage. It was difficult to violate its virginity with the first piece of paper, but eventually I stuffed it with a motley assortment of mementoes that might convince me I was valuable, appreciated, and loved. There were thank-you notes from students, expressing their feelings that I had made a difference in their educations, if not their lives. There were a few photographs of me in the company of people who were prominent and smart and voguishly controversial. An acceptance letter from a semi-prestigious journal and my first and second book contracts. An anniversary card from Alexis.
When I was feeling what I called under-appreciated, I could lift the lid of my baby-blue box and have a tangible argument that my feelings were a brand of self-pity rather than a glimpse of truth. It had not been enough when I was denied tenure. Or not denied, according to the chair of the committee, but advised to withdraw my application. I don't think I consoled myself with the contents of my box even once during those dreadful two years when I felt that everyone at my second-rate university thought I was third rate. But after another—more traditional—book and another application, my baby-blue box could boast the formal university letter awarding me tenure.
It felt like failure, of course, but it was success.
It all changed with the accident.
Not that it was an accident. To call it an accident negates the intentionality involved. The gross negligence, as my attorney would say. The sheer cruelty of it.
To call it an accident makes it seem sudden. Like a lightning bolt on a crystal-clear day. Or like an automobile driving through the plate-glass front of my favorite bookstore, where I had been standing on line, waiting to purchase the newest translation of something or other. Like a rat bite.
Instead of a seeping reality.
I had expected Alexis to come up here once in a while. To bring me some lasagna and gossip from the city. It isn't a far drive, not really, or that's what she used to say when she wanted to escape the cement summer of the city. That's what she had argued when she had wanted to buy this cottage as our vacation home. I had wanted to be on the beach, preferably in a gay resort: to be surrounded by surf and sand and women holding hands. She had snorted, as if I was being impractical. She said something about tax rates and disaster insurance costs. The numbers were on her side; they always were. I didn't even argue. I let her win.
"Isn't it lucky we got the cottage in the country?" she said after the accident. After we were splitting up and splitting everything. After the doctors said I needed to live in a more pristine climate, away from the city if possible.
"The beach would have been better," I said. I no longer wanted to let her win.
Still, I suppose I thought it would not be a far drive now; I suppose I thought she would want to check up on me. But she hasn't been here even once. She did help me move out of the apartment and arranged for some of her students to help me move in here. Move my clothes and my books and my desk and my computer. Which was nice of her. Very nice. It was amicable, really. She got the proceeds from the apartment and I got the country cottage. She got an offer from the mathematics department at a more prestigious university and I got disability payments. It all seemed so sensible, so fair, so fucking rational.
I'm sure I depress her. Hell, I depress myself. It's better not to think about her. Forget any speculations: Forget shoe; forget other foot; forget if.
It isn't as if the accident were her fault. It was just synchronicity.
I didn't used to believe in such things as the possibilities of patterns in nature. Not patterns. Not nature. I was poststructuralist, postromantic. But sitting on my deck all day watching the squirrels weave through the woods has changed my perspective about a lot of things. Including Alexis.
I'm glad she left me.
She is a selfish, shallow twit. Smart, certainly, but without depth. When I tried to talk to her about environmental degradation, she exhaled that superior-sounding sigh she had perfected in our years together. I think that was the last time she telephoned me. The irises had just been starting to unfold their brief but purple existence. I was talking to her on the portable phone, sitting on the deck, enjoying the sun.
She laughed, a sour little laugh, and told me I should think about other things.
Like what? Like the day I won't be able to slide the sliding-glass doors open and get out on the deck at all? Like this morning, leaning on the bathroom wall so I wouldn't fall and trying to pull my pants down fast enough so I didn't piss all over myself? Like trying to open the refrigerator?
I didn't say any of these things, of course.
Not because I wasn't thinking them or feeling hateful enough to say them, but because I didn't want her pity.
Didn't want to imagine her getting off the phone and turning to her new girlfriend, the artiste, with a significant tear gleaming in her left eye (her left eye always teared first) and getting comforted. Like she was the one who was sick.
It was probably that day or the next that I finally called Helping Hands, as suggested by my new physician and my social worker. I didn't want strangers in my little house, but I realized that Alexis wasn't going to be here to help. And even if she were, she had become a stranger, so what was the difference?
Linda was a student, she explained. Mountain Community and Technical College. Doing an internship at a home-service organization, Helping Hands. Working nights as a security guard, Protection Unlimited.
And sometimes she was pretty tired. Once she fell asleep on my couch, still wearing her green uniform. And I let her sleep there. While I maneuvered myself through the sliding-glass doors onto the deck and sat in the sun, looking at the weeds grow around the tomato plants. On a good morning, I could get myself into the garden. It was hell bending over without fainting, so I would lie down on one of the boards between the rows of plants and pull up those dreadful things Linda told me were called purslane, dropping them into a bucket. Then I'd slide forward and weed some more. It wasn't relaxing, but it kept me from thinking about next summer's garden and how I would ever manage to plant anything.
An hour of weeding usually sent me to bed for the rest of the day. Once, I fell into bed before I could manage to take a shower. I woke up smelling like tomato plants, the summer sun slanting deep in the hollows of the mountains.
On a really good morning, I can drive. I get myself over to the Nissan pickup, then scramble in the door. I catch my breath and always count to ten before I turn the key. Backing up is a real drain on my energy, but once I'm on the road, usually everything is fine. It's the destination that is the biggest problem. How to slide out of the truck in the grocery store parking lot while looking natural? I'm terrified that someone is going to come over and ask me if I need help, but no one ever does. I always try to park close to a grocery cart, so I can use that for support. And I always bring my three-pronged cane, hooked on the metal cart like an explanation to all those unasked questions.
And yes, it usually sends me to bed for the rest of the day. I am careful never to buy anything that needs to be cooked that night. I plan ahead and buy something from the take-out deli in the back of the store.
And yes, I always wonder whether I will be back as I look at the produce section for what might be the final time. The apples gleam green and red and yellow, absolutely resplendent.
I have taken to lying to Linda. About going to the grocery store, because she will yell at me if she figures out I've made the ten-minute drive to the Grand Union. But about other things too. Things that don't matter. Not to her. Not to me. Telling her that Alexis just telephoned, for example. Or that my parents are dead. Or that a black squirrel ate a nut right from my hand.
It helps me pass the time.
It helps me convince myself that I am still interesting, still fascinating. That I still have a life worth living.
It helps me to ignore the carcasses of my frost-crucified tomato plants, their withered limbs hanging on the galvanized steel of their cages, begging me for a decent burial in the compost pile.
It helps me to ignore the songs of the birds, entreating me to fill the squirrel-proof feeder with sunflower seeds, now on sale in those inconsiderate five-pound bags at the Grand Union.
The cold weather is descending rapidly. It seems unnatural. I guess because I had never stayed here except in June or July; for me it was a place of only summer. Yes, there had been that one Thanksgiving—the year I was waiting for the decision in my first tenure application—Alexis and I had driven up here. Snubbing the Grand Union, we had brought all of our groceries from the city: a kosher roasting chicken, rosemary and lemons, oysters and bread for stuffing, and some exotic gravies. We had made a delicious dinner, pretending in some subtle way, I suppose, that we were in the French countryside. Provence, perhaps. Though without the sun. It was so gray that the security lights stayed on all day, their motion detectors activated by the leaves whirling in the wind.
We drank a woody red wine and read our books. I recall I was reading the newest translation of Helene Cixous. I don't remember what Alexis was reading, though it was probably some book of equations. I do remember that I looked up from my pages and right there at the sliding-glass door had been a pair of eyes looking back at me.
"A mink!" I stage-whispered to Alexis.
She put down her book. "I don't think so," she said. "It might be a rat. But I think it's just a squirrel."
It didn't look like the squirrels in the city, I thought, at least the ones I saw in the little triangle of dirt called a park that huddled near our apartment building. Those animals were smaller and had vague tails. They also ran around in circles, which Alexis said reminded her of me. I thought she was teasing, but she began to say it every time we passed them. She said it so much I started to hate those damn squirrels.
"Squirrels are gray," I reminded Alexis, not wanting this beautiful, sleek creature to be the same as those city animals she used as an excuse to mock me.
"Maybe it's a mutant," she answered. By now the animal had scampered off the deck, past the garden, and back into the woods.
"Or a different brand?"
"Brand?" she laughed. "You mean breed, don't you, baby?"
"It's the wine." I giggled.
"Have some more." She rose to fill my glass.
"It could be a mink," I said.
"It wasn't." She shook her head. "Though I'm sure you want to think it was." She kissed me as she handed the wineglass back to me.
I vowed to do some research when we got back to the university.
"I didn't know you liked little soft and furry animals," she teased, but her voice was gentle. She reached for the bottoms of the aubergine silk pajamas I was wearing—an anniversary present from her—and untied the belt. My pajama bottoms threatened to puddle at my ankles.
She did that for the rest of the weekend. She would laugh and I would laugh and I thought that laughter would echo through the cottage and through our lives forever.
Or at least I didn't think it would stop so soon.
After I was advised to withdraw my tenure application, things got a little difficult.
But it was worse after I was granted tenure.
Throughout everything, I was popular as a professor; I still had a few students who wrote me thank-you notes; still had overenrolled classes and overflowing office hours. Though once I was tenured my students had to come to see me in another building. In the basement of another building. Nothing personal. A row of faculty offices was being made into an administrative suite. My office, of course, was in that row.
"Re: Restructuring," the memo from the chair of the department read.
I tried not to believe I was being punished for getting tenure.
My new office, windowless and small, was in the Sciences building, cuddled between the Zoology Lab and the Small Mammal Research Development Office. It was always empty in the corridor, in the early morning when I came to work, and even in the middle of the afternoon. In the evenings and on weekends, it was positively ghostly. It was almost as if I had the whole floor to myself.
I took me a while to arrange my books on the shelves. I put my blue box in a place I thought it would be safe and bought a fluorescently purple Indian bedspread to cover the metallic desk. I started toying with doing something creative, now that I finally had tenure. I was thinking of inverting narrative by rewriting that classic narrative of inversion, The Well of Loneliness. But I couldn't get past rereading the first three pages about the birth of the character I would call Stevie without succumbing to a desperate headache.
I thought it was The Well. Such an intimidating choice. Who the hell was I to try to render it as a poststructuralist text? But I had dissected my plan into pieces: I would set it in the United States, make its discourse of identity much more contemporary, give the beloved Mary a voice, and have it have a happy (if indeterminate) ending. My ideas sounded plausible inside my own head, but I could not get them to float on the computer screen no matter how long I tried to focus on the letters that stayed still only if I squinted.
Excerpted from The Struggle for Happiness by Ruthann Robson. Copyright © 2000 Ruthann Robson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Death of the Subject,
pas de deux,
Close to Utopia,
PART ONE: JOY,
PART TWO: WOMEN,
PART THREE: JOY,
ALSO BY RUTHANN ROBSON,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I serously hate this book.
'The Struggle for Happiness' is a collection of Robson's stories delicately and intricately tied together and published in one book. The first story is about a professor struck by an environmental illness who plans to sabotage urban sprawl. The reader will find himself or herself in the professor's head almost feeling hallucinatory. The passage from the story, 'pas de deux,' gave a beautiful comparison between ballet and lovemaking. Making love is like dancing. Only a few basic positions and all else is innovation. Derivation. Some intermediation. Reversals. And like dancing, with repetition comes perfection. Only after hundreds of glissades can the dancer make the glissade say something other than gliding... Only after hundreds of can the glissade communicate passion or love or betrayal or hope. Only after hundreds can the dancer make the glissade her own. Inflect it with her own interpretation. Add it to her vocabulary. And so it seems the same with a lover's breast. It takes hundreds of attempts. I have touched her breast hundreds of times. Fluttered her nipple between my fingers. Bent my mouth and sipped as if her flesh were marble fountains. Slid my hands into the river that rushed between her legs. And my movements are finally my own. I had been taught some of them by others, and some by her, and some I had known so long they seem simply natural. But now each is my own... The imagery and the comparison and contrast throughout this book is amazing yet mind boggling through its complexity - especially in the story, 'Women's Music.' You will not know for sure if the lover is dead or a ghost. 'Women's Music' strikes a chord and is haunting.