Writing a Scene About Happiness
I’m sitting at the keyboard in mismatched pajamas, unshowered, braless, trying to make this memory work on the page. He interrupts, comes downstairs to make breakfast and asks if I want an egg. He’s frying one for himself to put on a croissant, one of a dozen we bought wholesale, too many for the two of us to eat. I couldn’t tell him no as we stood in the store, but now I have time to consider the question, myself, if a croissant will satisfy me this morning, on my third cup of coffee, finally feeling ready to write.
I look back at the monitor, ignore the pop of the oil in the pan, can’t ignore the smell, the feeling of air burning. I tell myself I’m writing an essay about happiness, the pursuit of, the embodiment of—a single scene.
We’re eating a late dinner across the street from our hotel, and the spread is weak. Halfway through the appetizer, we’ve already forgotten the name of the place. You sigh and say, I’m tired of mozzarella and prosciutto. Never mind the pasta that tastes like it must have come from a box; the sauce, a can, not actual tomatoes. If it did, those tomatoes were shipped into the city in an oversized cardboard crate packed a few hundred miles away, like the meat they truck in, thaw, and serve at the McDonald’s down the street, the continent’s largest. In Rome, of all places—you thought that was funny.
Well, at least we know it’s possible to have bad pasta in Italy, you say, raising your glass of red wine. I meet you in the air.
We’d fallen for it—bought a bottle from the menu, neither the cheapest nor the most expensive, acknowledging its placement in the middle of the list as a calculated scheme. We ended up in this shitty restaurant on a whim, ditched the Rick Steves Guide to Rome for the first time all week and picked the cafe with the most appealing sign, mistaking the quality of its advertising for the authenticity of its goods. In an attempt to salvage this, the last meal of our honeymoon, we decide to just get drunk.
After settling the bill, we leave the restaurant with a mission: to buy another bottle. We want to drink something exquisite, or maybe something cheap, in the dark and under the streetlights. We’d heard a guide call attention to them earlier in the day, part of improvement efforts in the 20th century, evidence of Rome as one of Europe’s most modern cities. That surprised me, standing among the ruins.
On the curb outside the restaurant you take my hand and say, thank you. I’m not sure why.
And now we’re tearing across the street, running through traffic, looking for the convenience store near here we’d seen a couple of days ago. When a vespa nearly clips your right side, we double over in laughter right there in the street. I help you up. You take my hand. I think we’re running ourselves in circles. We’re running ourselves in sharp angles down alleyways, and fast. We’re mapping out diamonds, side by side.
A fluorescent bulb lights the entryway into what seems like the only open shop in the city. We wander inside, greet the clerk, pausing directly in front of the wine case. When prompted, the clerk recommends a seven euro white. We don’t question this.
At the register, he asks in strained English if he can tell us a joke.
We glance at each other, nod. Then, the man grabs your wrist and walks toward you, smiling.
Though it’s late and dark and we are alone on the street, I find nothing sinister about the clerk’s laugh, maybe because he is jumping in place, shifting his weight from one foot to the other with short hops. After several seconds, he stills his body and raises his eyebrows, expecting that we have understood. He lets go of your hand, but sensing our confusion in the silence that follows, takes it again and points to me with the other.
This is your girlfriend? he asks, finger moving from the direction of your heart to mine. The clerk is still smiling.
…this. He points to me again. This is your girlfriend, no?
Who is this? the clerk demands, pointing to my face, sweaty, the August evening no cooler than the afternoon.
This is my wife, you say.
No. She has to be your girlfriend.
The man is grinning. He is grinning as if these words are all part of the joke, this big, messy attempt at humor. He’s doing it again, grabbing your hand and skipping in place—a pantomime, an imitation. And I recognize the movement now. This is our laughing, our running, our holding of hands.
He repeats, she has to be your girlfriend, slapping his knee. Because wife means something else to men of his age.
We laugh to show our appreciation, walk back into the darkened street. I know we’re both thinking about the exchange, how the words of our union are still brand new. I turn to you, teeth a shade of deep purple-gray that you notice because I’m smiling, and leaning in close, I say
He’s gone back upstairs, pan cooling on the stovetop. I still my fingers over the keys, anticipating how I’ll need to end the sentence, repeating to myself the words I said as we left the shop:
I hope we are always this happy.
I walk to kitchen, fill my cup with coffee, and return to the couch. Setting it aside to cool, I relax my shoulders and begin to revise.