Happy - Bruce Meyer
My wife and I compete to see who can do the best at the crossword every morning over breakfast. We have two subscriptions to the same newspaper. Breakfast is coffee and a kind of high noon showdown over the breakfast table. Some couples say too little to each other as they begin their days. We say too much. The crosswords are not necessarily cross words, but they are pointed, barbed, and at times meant to sting, at least in our intonations. I like to think that the morning crossword is a way to get our brains going to for the day. Me and my wife were arguing about the word “psithurism,” a Greek word meaning “the sound of wind through trees.” The word sounds like zither which, perhaps, is a great-grandchild of the Aeolian harp, a stringed instrument played by the wind. I tried to tell her when the word came up that I once lived on the top floor of an apartment building on the Detroit River. My building’s roof terrace was surrounded by an aluminum rail, but the uprights weren’t locked down properly and when a storm came up, my bedroom was like the inside of a guitar, a sound box, that only served to amplify the music of the balustrade. But before I could even get to the part of the story where I talked about the wind, she shushed me. She never even let me get to the part where the superintendent wanted to have me locked up for wrapping yellow nylon cord around each upright because I said the railing played music all night. That’s when the building management company sealed off the roof to tenant access. P-S-I-T-H-U-R-I-S-M. First, she said, “Shut up.” That was harsher than usual because on a good day she would put her index finger to her lips like a librarian and on a bad day she would say, “Be quiet,” in a scolding voice. She added, “I don’t know why you invent words like that,” and as if to assert her superiority had to suffix that statement with her inability to fathom that anyone could attribute any odd piece of jargon to the Greeks because none of the ancient ones were still alive to say otherwise. “That’s why we don’t bother with ancient Greek words today unless we really need them. And we don’t.” So I said, “Like what?” and she answered, “the philosophy of happiness, eudaimonia. Fourteen down. There. I just gave you one.” “We don’t think much about happiness. And I already had that, for your information. In fact, our age seems to think that happiness is an overrated experience.” I was not going to give her the pleasure of winning the point. I’m a bastard first thing in the morning and I will argue a point to death just for the sake of the battle. Happiness is a war that is easy to start and even easier to lose. She stared at me over her reading glasses. “Other couples argue about important things – money, children, relatives, the division of chores, shopping, the color of walls and carpet, places to vacation. They argue about responsibilities,” she said. “Every damned morning you’re arguing philology.” “Well,” I said, to get her goat, “you’re the Classics scholar. Why don’t we argue about happiness? You, of all people, should know these Greek words backward and forwards, and before you say no to the proposition that happiness is overrated here’s why. As a Philosophy professor, I can posit that two academics should never marry. If two parties argue about happiness ad infinitum there can not be reasonable opportunity for them to experience happiness, at least not in a broad, extended sense, and ipso facto at least one should, by virtue of the nature of debate, come out on top. The winner is happy. Maybe not the loser, but at least one person achieves a state of eudaimonia. Therefore, two academics can never be happy arguing the nature of happiness.” I felt as if I had just won the point when she began to cry. She looked at me through her tears. “You’re so bloody competitive and cerebral, too. A relationship, happy or otherwise, isn’t about who wins or loses.” “Is it about how one plays the game?” I asked. That made her angry. “There is no damned game. Don’t you realize that? It is hell living with you. You’re an asshole who thinks he knows more than me yet when it comes to the Greeks you bloody well don’t.” “That’s because I’m an epistemologist, not some toss-off Socratic sphinx who does nothing but ask people questions until they get one right and knock off the bugger on the outskirts of Thebes, or whatever place it was where Oedipus had it out with the quizmaster creature.” Then she went silent. She grabbed my copy of the crossword from my hands and wrote in psithurism with her ballpoint. “There,” she said, “you win. Happy are we?” I had read somewhere in one of those relaxation therapy magazines I picked up in a dentist’s waiting room that a smile changes the whole ethos of a room. Ethos. That’s a word she’d love. The article stated that if one person smiled at another, not only would the other person smile back as a kind of phatic response from the Greek phatos meaning “spoken” but the resultant unspoken bond forged between the smiler and the smilee would, at that moment, precipitate a change not only smilee but in the smiler who would feel joy and happiness from initiating the gesture. And I didn’t want to lose, at least not on her terms where she claimed I won and then sulked about it, because that’s a form of defeat, and I know it is a form of defeat because she got her own way by belittling me with her own expression of tragic downfall that evoked a catharsis in me. Right out of Aristotle’s Poetics. She wins. I lose. I hate losing. Fear of losing is the plague of males in my time because we not only experience defeat but the kind of self-knowledge of defeat that rubs elbows with humiliation, deserved or undeserved, and a sense that out of that humiliation rises a dreadful inadequacy either of e.q. or i.q.. That fear, that ludophobia or fear of losing at a game, whatever the game is... is what makes men stupid. And I am sick of losing especially when my wife wins because I have to admit that she’s won, and that makes her smarter than me and the lesser partner in what, under happy circumstances, should be an equal partnership. And I am a big baby. So, I smiled at her. I just sat there, looking at her until she noticed me, and she shook her head. “What are you smiling at? Are you smiling to mock me? Are you smiling to make me angry, because if you are, you are doing a good job at it. You’re not going to get your copy of the puzzle back, and I’m not going to give it back to you because I’ve finished both mine and yours to teach you a lesson. It’s like snooker. I get to keep shooting until I clear the table because you lost out on the Greek word for the sound for wind, which was the clue to fourteen down.” But I kept smiling. She bowed her head. She wanted to concentrate on her breakfast, which was now cold because the crossword had taken so long as a result of the extended debate about the nature of happiness without giving proper examination to the question of whether we were happy, or are happy, or could be happy. And the longer I stared at her accomplishment, her prize, her victory, the happier I felt. And then I said the words that I truly meant and that as soon as I said them I wished she had realized how much I meant them. “You make me happy.” She slammed her pen down on the kitchen table, got up, and walked out. At first, it felt wonderful, that strange, almost exotic sense of elation. I felt as if the day was going to be special because somewhere inside me the sun was starting to shine and warm every inch of my being, and I didn’t give a damn that she’d beaten me at the crossword or at games of the past where she proved that I was especially good at losing and she, especially good at winning.
But as the daylight began to spread, I felt the wind racing to blow the clouds away, and I could not control the overwhelming wonder of finding such joy with so little effort and so little to lose and the painful emptiness that ached deep inside me throughout the day and well into the night because she wasn’t there to share that happiness with me.
Bruce Meyer has published books of poetry, short fiction, flash fiction, and non-fiction.