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|Publisher:||Baker Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)|
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A harsh reality is better than a false fantasy. Life is not a fairy tale.
The Science of Bliss by Dr. Margaret K. Maguire
Life is filled with irony. I mean, I wrote the book on bliss, and currently I am the most miserable person I know. Probably I'd be the most miserable person you know as well. Which is why I have been perfectly content to hole up in my tiny apartment for the past two months and binge-watch romance movies while simultaneously gorging on eggnog ice cream. There's the science of happiness, and then there's reality.
Unlike life, heartwarming television movies never let you down, and there is no unexpected twist in which the heroine looks like one big cosmic punch line. The hero in a TV movie never leaves our heroine for the mean girl — the mean girl actually gets shot down. There is no crisis too great that it cannot be overcome by true love. And everyone lives happily ever after. Isn't that how life should be? Truly blissful?
"In a Hallmark movie," I say to the cat, Neon, "your ex never tells you that his new girlfriend's hobby is aerial dance or that she's a professional trapeze artist. It just wouldn't happen."
Neon raises his head and looks at me questioningly. The cat generally stays near the door across the sparsely decorated apartment. It's as if he instinctively knows my failures might be contagious. My living room has a barren, college-dorm feel, which serves as a constant reminder that I didn't make the time to buy a condo with the royalty windfall from my book, that my hard-won title of doctor hasn't translated into practical motivation. The walls are a stark white, and there's a white processed-wood TV shelf against the wall by the door, a navy rocking chair my parents handed down to me, and the white vertical blinds that came with the place. Nothing screams home. It's like a lab experiment.
I set another Diet Coke bottle on the lonely IKEA coffee table. "Well, it wouldn't," I reiterate.
Neon meows. Even the cat is annoyed with me.
I scoop up a giant spoonful of ice cream and let it touch my tongue and linger momentarily, then devour it as though I haven't seen food for weeks. For one incredible moment, I feel only unadulterated joy, and Jake Stone's epic departure is not fresh on my mind. Dirtbag.
There is nothing more fantastic than the sappy, sugary-sweet love of a television movie followed by a creamy chaser of gelato. My life's work — the scientific study of how people find joy in life — isn't proper science. I see that my research is all unfounded now. Perhaps to find the secret of happiness, I should have studied miserable people and found out what they were missing. True bliss, it seems, is found in the avoidance of ugly truths and evading reality. Reality bites.
My phone trills and Jake's handsome face lights up the device. Argh. Why does he have to look so good? This would be so much easier if he were troll-like in appearance. I debate answering. Do I really want to hear anything he has to say?
Curiosity rules out.
"Hello," I say in a clipped business tone.
"Maggie, hi. I'm so glad you answered."
Silence. Inwardly, I'm congratulating myself on my self-control because I really want to resurrect my nana's barrage of Italian swear words.
"So, I know it's awkward that I didn't invite you to the wedding, but we didn't —"
"We?" I don't know why, but the word set me off. "There's no we, Jake. There's you and this ridiculous acrobat you've decided to marry on some wild whim or early-onset midlife crisis. We would be the couple who were engaged for one year, an appropriate, reasonable length of time to plan a wedding."
"You're still mad."
"I'm angry. Dogs get mad. People get angry. You made the university question my judgment. My chances of getting to work for Dr. Hamilton are nil." Dr. Hamilton is the renowned expert in the science of happiness at NYU. He takes on very few neuroscientists, and without my university's glowing recommendation, the chances of me going anywhere have evaporated, along with my dignity.
"So it's my fault you'll never work with the esteemed Dr. Hamilton?" Jake asks. "See, Maggie, you're so miserable to be around, and you take no responsibility for your own failures. It's comments like those that make me necessary in your work. You can't be Eeyore and go preaching about the science of happiness. We'll talk to the university together when I get back. We are fantastic together. As a working couple."
"Is there a reason you called, Jake?" Besides wanting to create a reason for justifiable homicide?
"Maggie, you're a terrible speaker. You excel in your data gathering and research, but you need me to sell it. You always have. You're a scientist. Don't let your feelings cloud your judgment. If you ever want to get to NYU under Hamilton, you need me."
I pull the phone away, stare at it, and slap it back to my ear. "This is about your job?" I mean, one assumes when you dump your boss in front of the entire tenured faculty, you're going to accept that you must look elsewhere for work. Am I right?
"Think about those awkward speeches you've made on the speaker circuit. People were walking out in droves."
My TED Talk did okay without you. Half a million books sold in twenty different languages! I need you? The data tells a different story!
But I don't say any of this because some part of me — some icky, feeble part of me that I clearly need to shed along with the gelato weight — must think his version of the truth is genuine. He's rendered me a complete cliché. Kicked to the curb for a younger, hotter, more inane version of myself, and I never even saw it coming.
He doesn't stop here though. Apparently he hasn't completely destroyed me emotionally and professionally. "I'll be back from our honeymoon on the 27th. I'll see you in the lab on the 28th and we'll work on your presentation skills. Anichka is anxious to meet you. I think you'd be a great mentor to her."
Then he hangs up on me. He hangs up on me! I'm left shaking with rage, obsessing over everything I should have said.
I clamp my eyes shut and mumble some divinely inspired mantra to get his voice out of my head.
I am enough.
I am worthy of love and respect.
I choose success.
I forgive Jake as a gift to myself.
But it's no use. The murderous thoughts don't stop coming, and I'm pretty certain that my Lord Jesus along with all decent people would frown upon that. Without looking, I press the volume button on the television until the sickly-sweet movie channel, and not the positive thought mantras, quiets the phone call.
It isn't five minutes until my peace is once again shattered. My front door slams against the wall with a loud crash, and a framed photograph falls from the top of the TV. Ironically, the picture in the silver frame is of my two best friends, and they are now standing across my Kristen Billerbeck, The Theory of Happily Ever After living room by the open front door. A flash of blinding sunlight forces me to shut my eyes again, but there's no mistaking their distinctive forms. When I open my eyes the tall, muscular outline of Kathleen and the petite, girlish figure of Haley begin to take shape in shadows.
"Go away," I moan.
"Enough of this." Kathleen's bark is like a drill sergeant's. "Get up!" She's pushy like that. A personal trainer by day, she gives marching orders as if protests are not allowed. Usually Haley and I follow blindly, but not today. Today I want one more bite of gelato and to finish my movie.
As I lift the spoon toward my mouth, Kathleen yanks it away, and ice cream splatters onto the dingy brown carpet. Neon is there to lick it up.
"You're in my way," I say, trying to see the television screen. I try to watch around her, but Kathleen has a booty and fills out her yoga pants well, so I can't see around her Nicki Minaj impression.
I love my friends. They're amazing for being here and trying to rouse me from my binge-watching stupor, but I'm not ready yet. It's not time.
"I'm blocking the screen on purpose," Kathleen says, too loudly through my sugar hangover. "We've given you more than enough time to wallow. It's time to get up. Jake's moved on, and you've got no choice but to move on too."
I point at the television. "The hero just found that dog. Look how sweet. It just appeared like that, and there's no one to take care of it. He's going to take care of it because there's no one else to do it. Where are the men like him?"
"Are you crying?" Haley asks. She has the sweetest voice to match her tiny, pixie figure, and I wish I possessed an ounce of her honeyed charm. Maybe Jake would still be here. Maybe he wouldn't have been out scouting the circus talent that had come to town. "Maggie, this is insanity! This TV hero wouldn't take care of the dog if it wasn't scripted that he had to take care of the dog. Let's go."
Kathleen moves my legs onto the floor and scares the cat in the process. I do my best to ignore her, thinking she will eventually give up and leave me be. I try to explain the importance of the moment — the dog, the hero ...
"The hero is going to fall in love with the heroine because of the dog. Isn't that the sweetest thing? I mean, who doesn't love a dog?"
"You're going to get bedsores from that sofa," Haley warns, bending over me with her long strawberry-blonde hair that I've coveted since childhood. She pets Neon. "Maggie, whose cat is this?"
I shrug, but my eyes widen.
"You stole that little old lady's cat from outside, didn't you?" Kathleen's face settles into incredulous accusation.
"I didn't steal it. He meowed at me, and he wanted some attention, so I left the door open and he wandered in. There's raccoons and stuff out there. Maybe even a bobcat or two." Orange County, though in the heart of Southern California, was still very rural in places.
"There is a little old lady outside on a walker looking for that cat." Haley picks up Neon, opens the front door, and gently deposits him on the porch.
"That was mean," I tell her. I call to Neon, but he ignores me and shoots out of sight.
"Don't bother talking to her." Kathleen shakes her head and sighs. "She's gone. She stole a cat. What sane person does that?" She pulls my slippers off. "Just go get her packed. I'll force her into the shower."
"Shower?" I sit up quickly. "I don't want a shower! Oh." I zone back into the screen and try to block out the chaos around me. "Look at the dog. Who could give up a dog like that?"
"No one," Kathleen says gruffly. "That's a two-thousand-dollar dog. Only a TV movie thinks we will believe that a two-thousand-dollar designer dog is a mutt running loose in town needing to be rescued. This is fantasy, Maggie. Reality is better than fantasy. You said it yourself. Page 218." She points to my book on the shelf. "I looked it up."
"That thing," I tell Kathleen, nodding at the book. "What a bunch of Kristen Billerbeck, The Theory of Happily Ever After drivel. I can't believe people bought that book. The science is wrong. My premise was based on the falsehood that Jake was a decent man, that if you live your life right, God will reward you. The lie that there are any decent men outside of romantic heroes paid to play their part on the romance movie channel. Really, some people get Job's luck. No rhyme or reason to it."
"That drivel, as you call it, is paying your bills, and the science isn't wrong. You simply applied it incorrectly to your own life. Common scientist mistake, from what I understand. Operator error. But if your readers find out the truth of how you've been living? That money is going to dry up faster than a bottle of Evian dripped on an LA sidewalk."
I scrunch up my face. My friends have way too much energy. "You need to go. Really. I'm happy here."
"What are you eating?" Haley takes my ice cream and sniffs it. "Is this gelato?"
"Do you know how many calories are in gelato?"
"I know that I don't care how many calories are in gelato. Have you ever had eggnog gelato on homemade banana bread? Because I'm here to tell you there is nothing outside of this house that compares with that kind of bliss. I have no current plans to leave this heaven that I've created."
"This heaven, as you call it, smells like soured bacon. This is no paradise. This is a precursor to a Hoarders episode. You are one movie away from a fridge full of expired meat and cat bones under a pile of old newspapers."
"Maggie," Haley says more gently, "you need to take a shower because our flight leaves in three hours." She leaves the room, and soon, to my dismay, I hear water running. I'd make a break for it, but like a linebacker poised, Kathleen is ready for me by the front door.
"Our flight?" My heart starts to pound as I realize my friends really might make me leave. I straighten my shoulders. "I can't go anywhere. I have to see how this movie ends. It premiered last night." I lean in toward Kathleen. "That means it's new."
Kathleen rolls her eyes. "It ends like they all end. The couple falls in love, they keep the dog and any orphaned, unloved children they happened to pick up along the way. Oh, and if there's a real Santa in the mix? He will mysteriously disappear on Christmas Eve. The end. Let's go."
Haley comes back in the room. "Come get in the shower. We really have to get moving, Maggie. What should I pack for her?" she asks Kathleen.
"She needs at least a couple of suits and one fun, sexy dress." Kathleen laughs. "We both know she doesn't have one of those. Just get her fanciest dress. I'm sure she wore something to one of her nerd events. Oh, and find her some shorts if she has any."
My jaw drops. "Really?" At the same time, Kathleen's totally right. The last dress I wore was for the global summit on happiness science. "Sexy is all about intellect. The brain is the sexiest part of the body."
"Sure it is, Maggie. That's why the men are lined up outside the science departments trolling for hot chicks."
"I'm not going anywhere." I burrow into my sofa and flop the throw blanket over my feet.
"We're going to have fun if it kills you!" Haley claps her hands together like she's playing a princess at Disneyland. "It's a 'New Year, New You' cruise."
"For singles," Kathleen adds.
"A singles' cruise? Ugh. It's even worse than I thought. You expect me to go from bingeing on romance to a singles' cruise with no warning?"
My friends are wonderfully devoted, but this time they're expecting far too much from me. It's not just the breakup. It's the reality that all of my work may be completely inaccurate. My unrelenting pursuit to the secret of life — and happiness — has been fruitless, and I've been walking in a great scholarly circle.
"We are going to have a blast," Haley sings in her typical cheerleader voice. "You've been a hermit long enough, and it's time to move forward." She twists a red tendril around her finger and stares at me. "Jake is moving forward," she says softly.
"Well," Kathleen says, "technically Jake moved forward before they broke up, but that's another story. It's no reflection on you, Maggie."
"But it sort of is, isn't it? I mean, he's getting married this weekend and has managed to convince my entire department that he's the resident expert." I stuff another shameful spoonful of ice cream into my mouth.
"They'll see through him eventually, but you've got to fight, Maggie. You can't just let him win." Haley puts her hand on my shoulder. "That's not the Maggie we know."
He already has won. He's happy and I'm miserable. Doesn't take much data to figure that one out.
"His joke of a wedding," Kathleen says, "is the reason we're not going to be anywhere near this town this weekend. You're not going to be near a cell phone, a computer — anything that allows you to stalk him on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, or any other form of social media. Our queen of effervescent bliss will return home triumphantly, and we are here to make sure we have a front row seat for it. Living well is the best revenge, and this" — Kathleen waves a judgmental hand around the room — "is not living well."
I seriously love how my friends believe in me and my hackneyed science that probably has a million statistics wrong with it, and they still love me. Logically, I know that a guy who would drop me for someone barely out of her teenage years who hangs on silk scarves and twirls, deserves her. I don't think she deserves him, but that's hardly my problem. I need my heart to catch up with my head, that's all. So far the only remedy — which I could probably not prove scientifically — is more fattening desserts and sugar-coated dialogue. If someone must investigate the science of gelato and romantic movies, I volunteer as tribute.
Excerpted from "The Theory of Happily Ever After"
Copyright © 2018 Kristin Billerbeck.
Excerpted by permission of Baker Publishing Group.
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