It was ninety degrees in New York and everyone was happy. Vivacious kids shouted at a cheery vendor for cherry ice and the hearty proprietor waved his hand, ushering the kids beneath his canopied shade as he carved out bright granular chunks into pristine cups. A shirtless man with a ratty straw hat angled at a hard random slope strummed a banjo in the park and attracted admirers. Not long before, I ambled past the crackling reports of men slamming dominoes onto the artisanal concrete of fixed outdoor tables sprouting from a brick sidewalk. Even the squirrels were decent enough to leave people alone. It was the kind of summer day where the humidity stops just short of uncomfortable and the sweat feels more like a comforting film and the heat peals a pleasant melody into your pores. And there’s really nothing to complain about at all.
I was walking around Lower Manhattan with a big smile on my face. I had just bought David Lynch’s new book and had read the first few pages and was caught in a very giddy daydream, thinking about some funny characters on a story I’m now working on. That’s when I spotted one of my archenemies, one of the old ones from the literary days. She had once publicly announced that she would throw a fulsome fete if I successfully managed to kill myself (and she had never apologized for it). That couldn’t be her, could it?
The sun was pleasant and the laughs were infectious and my ears picked up the hilarious snippet of a woman describing her hookup from the night before on the phone. And the warm rays kept me giddy. No matter. Not important. Let my archenemy stray away. Now about this barbeque scene! Oh, my actor will love that twist! And if I make that narrative move, oh man, this is going to be so much fun to produce and edit!
And I carried on walking and I looked around and I listened and I marveled and I felt truly blissful. My smile did not wane. How could it? I was still in an incredibly marvelous mood. I’d had a very fun weekend, probably the most fun I’d had all summer, probably among one of the best summer weekends of the last five years if I had to be honest, even if I had not slept much. Wonderful people, everyone friendly, banter with good friends, strange and unreportable adventures. The sight of my archenemy dissipated from my mind completely.
That’s when I looked up and saw my archenemy go way out of her way to cross twenty feet through a thick throng of people, approaching me like a stalker who flouts a restraining order. She was gunning at me with an especially forced and artificial smile. It was the shit-eating grin of someone who wanted to announce that she was a conquerer, but who lacked finesse. I didn’t find her threatening or intimidating in the least. But I did see a sad look in her eyes that her fury could not entirely occlude, the lonely look you often spot in a bully’s adamantine gaze. I still didn’t know if it was really her. And I honestly didn’t care. I mean, I was just happy, truly happy. The hell of it was that she could have spouted off the nastiest invective in the world and I would have (a) probably been very congenial and (b) easily welcomed an opportunity to patch things up.
Finally the moment arrived. What did she say? She said, “Excuse me.” A soft voice. No plan. She didn’t say her name. She didn’t say mine. She didn’t acknowledge what she had done. Or even the many other times she dehumanized me. She didn’t even have the decency to cry “J’accuse!” and declare me the villain. What she probably saw was a very abstracted man lost in his own felicitous reveries, which seemed a damned strange target to impugn and which defied her easy thesis about me. I walked to the right. She then heaved her way there. And we faced each other and I said “Oop!” in the way that Nicholson Baker memorialized in The Mezzanine and we somehow walked past each other. And then I realized that it had been her.
Why had she done this? Well, that question is unimportant. That question is not the right one to dwell on.
What I felt at that moment was not anger, but compassion and pity. One of us was committed to natural connection, to embracing life’s funny knack for resembling a dreamstate. The other saw an enemy she had never had the guts to talk to and zeroed in and went well out of her way to act on a tepid hate. Something about seeing her do this made me realize that only one of us had grown and the other had stagnated. One of us was committed to wonder and positivism. The other was looking for a fight. And when people look for a fight, they are often doing this because they haven’t found the guts to confront their own fears and to stare down hard truths and to finally love the totality of who they are so that they can, in turn, love the totality contained in others.
And that’s the thing about happiness. It is a close cousin to maturity in the way that it sneaks up on you without warning. Months pass and you commit yourself to fully embracing who you are and you suddenly find that you can take more hits on the chin or even forgive someone who had been nothing but nasty and hateful and vituperative to you. And you wonder just who in the hell this new person is. Yet this is a self-examination that’s really not worth going into. The takeaway here isn’t that you’re better when you’re happy, although there is that. It’s that you’re kinder and stronger, kinder and stronger in ways that the unhappy bully never can be. And happiness really is the thing to chase. I really believe that this is the quality that will eventually restore America from its often harrowing fascist trajectory. It may take many years, but we will do it.
As I sauntered into the end of a glorious July afternoon, I knew now that only one of us considered the other an archenemy. I also knew that one of us would enjoy the summer and the other would not. Sometimes it’s just a question of how you decide to spend your summer day.