by Nancy Ludmerer
When your twelve-year-old son asks why you aren’t happy, you begin by telling him he’s wrong. You shake your head and say you’re not unhappy but the minute the double negative escapes your lips you have to agree (although not to him) that you don’t sound happy and when he adds you haven’t looked happy in weeks you say you are but it’s not a you-look-happy happy.
Hours later, after he’s gone out, you look in the mirror over your vanity. You try to remember when the last time was that you were truly happy. Not a “this is all we’ve ever wanted is for you to be happy” happy, and not a guy asking you after sex if you’re happy happy, and not the glum expression you’d wear like a mask when your parents visited you at university to remind them about their personal responsibility for the Vietnam War and racism in America, hiding that you were really (really) personally happy.
It wasn’t even travel happy, when you walked through the mists to Mont St. Michel before the tide came in happy and celebrated with Cancale oysters, and it wasn’t strictly speaking a food happy, not a ripe plums happy, peaches, green grapes you burst with your teeth happy, nor camembert-brie-St. Andre happy, and not a please don’t talk to me while I eat this happy, and it’s not even holding your newborn happy, singing him songs you thought you had forgotten happy, seeing his midnight eyes consume you happy, nor is it racing to post-natal exercise with him in his carriage and an old lady passing by saying enjoy it, it will never be this good again happy, and it’s not the everything will be all right now that I’m on Zoloft happy, and it’s not the everything will be all right once the Zoloft is out of my system and I regain the feeling in my clitoris happy.
Instead of these it’s a single moment in 1970 after seeing the movie “Women in Love.” You were in a restaurant in the West 50s, thinking about how Glenda Jackson was considered a great actress without being classically beautiful. Eating chocolate fondue. Maybe it was the serotonin or Glenda Jackson but you turned to your companion, the French horn player, your soul mate (although at the time you thought him too predictable, lamented that you could finish his sentences), and said, “I am so happy.” But what happened after—whether because of the embarrassed look on his face or something about D.H. Lawrence or something else, still unknown to you—was that being happy suddenly became something lonely and solitary, something even your companion who knew you so well could not understand. Something you were not prepared or able to share with anyone after that, something so private it needed to retreat behind locked doors and reflect against blank walls, and something ephemeral so ephemeral that as soon as you gave voice to it, it vanished.