To Be Happy

Natalie Gulgren

Water is inherently peaceful. When peace is sought, it helps to have a rhythm, a predictability. Water provides a steady rhythm. The ocean’s waves are constantly crashing in and rolling back out again. The river is always flowing, no matter its obstacle. A stream trickles every day over rocks, across the ground. Today the river was moving fast. It matched the color of the grey sky. The clouds were hanging low, they looked as if they might touch the surface of the water.

There were huge black rocks stacked on top of one another starting from the river’s edge creating a cliff where a young woman sat. The cold wind ran through her dark hair, asking for a dance. The girl didn’t move. Only her eyes flickered to follow the flow of the river as she watched. Her face lacked emotion. Her mind was blank. She usually felt this way. She often watched life happen around her. Even if it was happening right before her eyes, she felt removed from it. Like she’s not really there. She liked being next to the river. It was content with just being. She envied the river in that way. She longed to feel like the river. The girl had been sitting next to the river for quite some time now and knew she needed to go home.

Slowly, she stood, hesitant to leave. As she started on the path to lead her home, she looked back at the river once more and at the young trees surrounding her. A jarring force struck her to the ground. She yelled in surprise and began to frantically look around for some sort of explanation. Whipping her head, she found a young man lying face down on the asphalt with his bike on top of him. Once he realized what had happened he sprang to his feet.

“What the hell?” She yelled at him, still on the ground.

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry I didn’t see you! I looked down at my phone for like one second and I must’ve hit you!” He cried, his face flushed with embarrassment.

“Why are you on your stupid phone while you’re riding your bike? Are you an idiot?” She spat; anger boiling in her chest. She wanted him to know how stupid he was.

“I mean, um I guess I didn’t take that into consideration,” he replied, a little puzzled, “there’s usually no one out here so I thought it’d be okay. God, I’m so sorry. Here, let me help you up.”

“Fuck off, I can get up myself,” she said as she tried to stand up. Her head swam as she stood and she swayed a little, but she wasn’t going to let the idiot see her in pain. She looked at his face. It contained a huge cut in the right cheek from his fall. Her eyes traced the gash line and she noticed it extended from his mouth almost to his hairline. She noted his hair which was quite unusual. It was big and curly, but half of his head was shaved. She’d never seen that before. Her eyes wandered from his face and looked over to his bike to find one of his wheels was flat, the other still spinning. Turning, she started to hobble away, but couldn’t get away from him fast enough.

“Wait! Are you sure you’re okay? Do you need help getting home?”

“I’ll be okay as soon as I get away from you, seeing as how you almost maimed me with your bike.”

“Look, I’m really sorry,” he said as he grabbed her shoulder, turning her to face him, “I should’ve been looking where I was going, but I’ve never seen anyone else here before. What were you doing here anyway?”

“It’s really none of your business since I don’t know you and I hope to never see you again,” she said through gritted teeth, “by the way, you might want to check out your face.”

He watched her walk, more like stumble, away. He heard her mumble angrily under her breath and wanted to help her, but he knew she wouldn’t have it. He can’t recall ever meeting anyone as hostile as she was and wondered why she was so angry. Yes, he hurt her with his bike, but he sensed there was more. His hand reached up to touch his face and saw blood on his fingers. He walked over to his bike, picked it up, and started his long walk home.

The sun set and rose again to reveal a vibrant day. The sun was high in the sky. The river sparkled and shone. It reflected the sun. Little flashes of white light reflected off the ripples of the water as if the river was winking at its admirers. There was a restaurant a few feet away from the lookout, but no one pays attention to the river. They were too occupied with their food and their company. They did’t expect to see anyone there so they didn’t bother to look.

The young man stood looking at the river, dressed in black, smoking a cigarette on his break from the restaurant. Some woman had sent back her pasta three times because the noodles were the wrong shape or the sauce was the wrong color or there wasn’t enough seasoning. He never understood how people could be so picky. He thought you should take what life throws at you and roll with it. This philosophy can even include the little things, like pasta. He took another puff of his cigarette and as he exhaled he saw a familiar shape walking toward him. The girl who met his bike before she met him was walking in his direction. Even though she was looking down, he noticed the sour expression painted across her face. Maybe he could talk to her a bit and cheer her up.

“Hey, it looks like that ankle is feeling better, huh?” He chuckled and playfully punched her arm.

“Yeah, no thanks to you,” she mumbled, “why are you here? I come here to be alone.”

“I work at the restaurant right there and I come here to think too. Sorry, you don’t own the place,” he replied. Curiosity sparkled in her eyes as she looked up at him, finally something different than hate. Her shoulders shrugged and she sat down on the gravel, letting her feet swing in front of the black rocks. He took that as an invitation and sat down next to her.

“Your face looks better than it did yesterday,” she noted, “the cut doesn’t look as deep.”

“Yeah, it’s amazing what a little Neosporin will do,” he answered. Silence filled the next few moments. He began to say something, but she cut him off.

“So, you work at the restaurant? Is that really what you want to be doing?”

“No, it’s just to make some money while I think of my big idea. I’m planning on becoming a legend.”

“A legend? How are you going to do that?”

“I could do anything. I could start a band or invent a robot that can translate what dogs are thinking into English.”

“And why would anyone want that?”

“I think a lot of people want to know what their dogs are really thinking about. I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, but I’m going to leave a mark on this world. I want to be somebody important, to matter.” He hadn’t been looking at her this whole time, his eyes were fixed ahead on the evergreen trees that lined the shore of the river.

“Strangely, I know what you mean. I can’t believe I have something in common with you.”

Laughing, he asked, “What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know.”

“Yes you do.”

“No, I really don’t. You know the feeling of when nothing you do fills you up with joy? You’re not depressed you’re just not excited. You’re numb. I hoped I’d feel different after I graduated. Happy. But I’m not and I really just don’t feel like doing anything.” She looked down at his hands that rested on his knee. He held the cigarette between his fingers; still burning.

“Why are you smoking? I know it’s probably a big shock, but cigarettes kill you.”

“Really? I didn’t know! Thanks for telling me,” he said sarcastically, “I actually just don’t like myself enough to quit.” Savoring one last inhale, he then threw his cigarette on the shore, hitting the black rocks on the way. He stood up, brushed the dust off his jeans and looked down at the girl, still sitting. She had brought her knees to her chest and her chin rested on them.

“Why do you look so sad anyway?” He inquired.

“Nothing really. Just waiting to be happy.”

“Do you like lasagna?” He asked. She gave him a strange look.

“It’s incredible. Why?”

“Because my break’s over, but I could sneak you some lasagna and maybe it’ll make you happy, all right?” He smiled. She stood up and followed him around the back of the restaurant. He was right, the lasagna did make her feel warm, but like most things in her life, the warm feeling didn’t last long.

Their friendship grew like grass through a sidewalk crack; in between. They never planned a meeting, one would just occur. They would meet at that spot on his lunch breaks, after he was done with his shift for the night, or before the classes she took at a community college. Whenever they had time. At these meetings they talked about whatever was on their minds.

“I’m pretty pissed that humans can’t communicate through thought. Like we should’ve evolved enough by now so that we wouldn’t be talking with our mouths, but in our heads. Dolphins have sonar and we’re slowed down by words. It’s bullshit.”

“Why don’t you try me? What am I thinking of right now?”

“Strawberry jam.”

“Some jerk customer was yelling at me today for no reason. It’s not my fault we don’t serve squid.”

“Don’t take it personally. Don’t take anything personally.”

“Frogs scare me.”

“When I was a kid, I used to give the ground the middle finger because I just learned what it meant and I wanted to do it, but I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

“I want to live. I want to experience everything life can give me. I don’t want to look back on my life when I’m older and think that I could’ve done more.”

“Why do people in elevators try so hard not to make eye contact? I hate elevators. Every ding is a second more that I have to violently ignore the person next to me. Why is it normal in that situation to avoid human connection?”

Every time they spoke, they felt as if their conversations could last for hours. They sat overlooking the river on the rocks or on a nearby bench. They sat until everything around them turned black. Until the water of the river blended in with the black sky only to be separated by the shapes of the black trees. The moon served as the only form of light, illuminating the water and their thin faces. There were no stars, but the tiny city lights shining from people’s living room lamps and kitchen lights took their place. The young man loved to talk about his ideas. He felt as though he was finally being heard. The young woman loved to feel alive. She felt full when she spoke to him about anything, everything. She would think about their time together to get through her boring classes, her boring days. She always longed to be with him because without him she was empty. She knew that it was wrong, but didn’t realize it until later. For a while, she alleviated her numb world by injecting him into it, not knowing it wasn’t a long lasting fix.

“You know what I’ve always wanted to do?” She asked one lazy sunny afternoon. Her face was occupied by a wistful smile.

“What have you always wanted to do?” He said, playing along with her game.

“I’ve always wanted to climb down those big black rocks and put my hand in the river, but I could never do it. I’m too afraid of climbing back up,” she said, looking over at him with eyes as big as saucers.

“Let’s do it together! I’ll help you get back up, I promise,” he reassured her while standing up and pulling her up with him. Making sure to step sideways to avoid falling, he started his descent down to the river’s edge.


He tried to encourage her by outstretching his hand. Holding his hand a little too tight, they zigzagged carefully around the sharp rocks, slowing making their way down to the shore. The girl tripped a few times by stepping on her own feet, but every time she stumbled, he helped her regain her balance. They finally made it down to the tiny shore. The wind attacked the boy’s hair, yanking it in different directions as he laughed and spun the girl around. They danced and howled with the wind. The young woman stopped abruptly, remembering why she wanted to be there. She bent down and softly touched the river, pushing her whole hand into the chilly water, letting out a sigh as the let the ripples caressed her fingers. The water welcomed her as she became an extension of the river. Her eyes had been closed but snapped open when she felt water droplets against her face. The young man had bent down only to splash her with water from her peaceful river. She stood up.

“I’m good, let’s go.”

“C’mon you can’t handle a little fun?”

“I’m ready to go now.”

“Look, I’m sorry. Let’s just stay here for a few more minutes.”

Ignoring him, she stomped toward the wall of black rock. She wasn’t sure why that splash bothered her so much. All she could think of was how he couldn’t respect her wish to be with the river, uninterrupted. She tried everything to climb up the rocks as fast as she could as he watched her struggle. She used her hands and her feet to navigate around the pointy rocks. She winced as she scraped her hand on a rock or two. When she reached the half way point, she took a misstep, and fell all the way back to the shoreline. The young man ran over to her, worry shooting through his body. The young woman rolled to land on her back, her eyes toward the hazy sun. She lifted her hand to cover her eyes only to discover them coated in red scratches. The young man sat by her side and tried to assess her for any injury. All he found on her body were some scrapes and bruises.

“Oh God, are you okay?” He yelled, panicking. She didn’t respond as she slowly sat up and looked at his face, the cut from the day they first met completely healed. He was attractive, she had never noticed. She felt different when she looked at him this time. She felt nothing.

It had been days since he had seen her. Dread inhabited his body like a disease. The thought that she didn’t trust him anymore constantly swam in his mind. He didn’t want to lose her. It was so hard to truly connect to someone like he had to her. Even though he was always surrounded by people, he never could think how they do. He understood how she felt because he used to feel the same way. Like life is meaningless; happiness is unattainable in day-to-day life. He wanted to help her wake up. He couldn’t stand to see her go through life in a daze. Life is colorful. She could see that if she’d just look above the fog. There is so much beauty, so much light.

Every day he sat and waited. At his lunch break, after his shift of the night. She never showed. Worry became the most popular use of his imagination. What if she never comes back?

As he sat at a green picnic table, his knees bounced and he picked at his lunch; not eating much. The grey clouds were high in the sky—motionless. They looked as if they were frozen. The sun was just behind the thin veil of the clouds. The river moved slowly. Because the young man was looking down at his shaky hands he didn’t see the girl as she approached the picnic table. Only when she sat across from him did he look up and meet her stare. Her face contained no look of anger, but maybe a slight aggravation. A few silence filled moments passed; not unwelcomed. They gave him time to gather his courage.

“How are you?” He felt like he was asking a stranger. This had to be the most formal start to a conversation between the two of them.

“Better. My bruises hurt for a few days, but they’re healing well.”

“That’s great, I’m really happy to hear that. I should’ve helped you up those rocks like I said I would. I’m sorry I was such a jerk.” She nodded as she listened.

“Yeah, you kind of were,” she replied, laughing a little. She felt his eyes on her, but her gaze was on the river. It was always a reminder of independence. He studied her features; her golden eyes, long nose and full lips. Her hair pulled back into a pony tail. He gently grabbed her hand. Feeling his touch, she turned to him.

“These last few days without you have been hell. You make me so happy. Let’s go away together, start a new life. I don’t care where as long as I’m never away from you, I’ll be happy.”

“What are you saying?”

“Yeah! We could go anywhere you want, New York, Chicago, L.A. We’ll get shitty jobs and a tiny apartment, but it’ll be worth it ’cause I’ll have you—we’ll be what makes each other happy.” This sudden offer shocked her. She pulled her hand out of his tightening grip and spoke so low it was almost a whisper.

“I can’t.” Hope tumbled from his eyes, replaced by despair.

“Why not? I know I make you happy.”

“You’ve made me feel something.”

“I helped you. I’m the reason you felt something other than emptiness.’

“You’re right. You’ve helped me feel each moment again. I’m still trying to figure it all out, but I know that I don’t need you anymore and I never should have. People shouldn’t need each other.”

His shoulders slumped, pulled down by the weight of sadness. She continued her soft gaze at him. She felt warmness towards him still, but she didn’t want what he wanted. She didn’t want to feel like a part of her was missing without him next to her. She wanted to feel whole all by herself.

“My lunch break is over. Can we talk about this later?”

“I don’t think there’s anything left to say.” He nodded and slowly stood, knowing on some level that she was right, but not wanting to acknowledge it just yet. Taking one last look at her, he turned and walked back to the restaurant feeling a mixture of understanding and gloom.

She watched him go and rose, walking to stand near the look out. Once again, she looked at the river but instead of feeling jealousy, she felt contentment. The river doesn’t need anything to make it flow. The water runs freely of its own accord because it can. That’s what a river does. It made her think. She breathed in the thick air, stretching her arms out wide. No one can make me happy. No one but myself. Don’t put the key to my happiness in someone else’s hand. I am happy. She repeated to herself. She repeated it again and again until it echoed through her brain. Until it dripped from her skull, running along her spine. Until it ran in her veins, out through her fingers and toes. I am happy. And she was.