It was a red couch. Clean lines, modern design. It sat in her living room, flooded with light from her big glass door. Faded in places, the leather worn soft from years of use. The seat was marred by primitive spirals in ball point ink, doodled by budding toddler Picassos not yet constrained by silly ideas like art belongs on paper. Sometimes our thighs or hands would stick, temporarily glued by dried juice spilled from forgotten sippy cups. The kids ran in and out, climbing all over it and all over us, naked, covered in mud from the backyard, warm from the sun. Hour after sweet, simple hour we sat and talked and laughed.
“Are you happy?” they ask. The question comes from concern, a need for affirmation, desperation for a guarantee that they will one day reclaim that word for themselves.
Happy, I ponder? And try as I might, I can’t make the word fit. I let it roll around on tongue, slow and mellow. It feels foreign, belonging to another time and space. Perhaps I left happy sitting on that red couch with my two soul sisters, warmed by the afternoon desert sun, knowing nothing of the seismic shifts to come.
Happy is a sweet, pretty word. It is the domain, I think, of people that have not yet had shit happen. Life is layers upon layers of brilliance and pain and loss and gain and grief and guilt and celebration and rapture. Happy does not have enough substance or grit to encompass a life torn down and an existence built from the rubble.
The ache never leaves, you know. You just tuck it away tenderly and hold it close because sometimes the ache is the only thing left of something that was once beautiful.
Sometimes I want to tell them things – the women who write and ask if I am happy, or if it was worth it, or if I would do it again.
I want to tell them that someday you might see him in some random coffee shop, enjoying an Americano. And you will exchange meaningless small talk as if you couldn’t trace the map of his scars with your eyes closed.
I might say that it will be all that you can do to stop yourself from reaching up to touch his cheek; your fingers aching for the memory of that eternal five o’clock shadow. You’ll want to tell him this, but instead you will fill up with unshed tears. They will build in your chest and explode – a million tiny pinpricks of painful light blooming outwards and trailing like fireworks across your skin. Because that touch will not be yours to have. Those tears not yours to cry. Those words not yours to speak. Not out loud. Not to him. Not in that random coffee shop over a steaming Americano.
And I would say that this ache is not the ache of mistake, or regret or quick – let-me-go-backwards-and-do-it-over-differently. Not necessarily. Sometimes it is just the ache of an unexpected reminder of what was good, and the nostalgia brought on by a table that holds one cup of coffee, not two. And you welcome that ache because you have learned to welcome all that is real and true, even when it hurts. Because it is yours to have and know and hold. Because what is real is also solid, regardless of all the rest.
And when you walk across the room to sit at your own table, only a few steps separating this life from that one, you will finally understand. Happy is no longer enough to contain the totality of this life that you have claimed.
Will you have happy moments? Oh yes. Moments of such pure and simple happiness that you will be made still and humble and profoundly grateful. Moments so sweet and so good that you will bubble over with childish giggles. But more often the moments will too vast to be contained. Moments so brilliantly beautiful that your heart will pound with their magnitude. So bittersweet that your heart will ache with their complexity. So life-altering that for a moment or two or ten, your heart will appear to stop entirely. Because this is life. The moments and the moments between moments and the moments after the moments when you see the world with clarity so brilliant it is blinding.
This life? Sweet baby jesus, it’s a wonder. It’s an intense, magical, steal the breath from your lungs, bring you to your knees roller coaster ride. It demands reverence and humility and penance and gratitude shouted loud from mountaintops. It will have you wailing at gods you don’t believe in, scratching for a hold in dirt too dry to plant yourself. It will bring you to the gift of your humanity and the core of your tenacity and the very center of your grief. It will leave you rejoicing in the kindness of strangers, in the devotion of friends, in the way your lover moves your body to rapture. It will teach you to stake fierce claim to what you know to be true and to be infinitely tender with your precious heart when your truth slips from your grasp.
And sometimes you will be blissed out. Or sad. Or pissed.the.fuck.off. And you will grieve. And laugh. And love. And experience ecstasy. And come face to face with demons and fight the battle of your life. And at some point along this wild ride, someone may ask you if you are happy.
And you’ll smile and say simply “Yes. I’m happy.” And you’ll dive into the depths of your magnificent life, knowing that you are so much more. And so much less. Just so much. So very, very much.
“The red couch is still in my shed”, she told me on my last visit to her home. “It’s totally trashed, probably ruined beyond repair. I just can’t bring myself to get rid of it, you know?”
“Thank you”, I said “That makes me happy”.