When I finished law school, I sat down and wrote, with relief, pages about how much I hated law school. I never said that before. It was ok to say it, finally. Because it was over (and we “did it,” not to say I didn’t know how much I hated it before, but I never sat and told myself, “It’s ok to hate this.” It was easier to pretend I liked it than to break down halfway through). This is what happened though–
Everything is curated (even on Instagram, or especially on Instagram). We make the reality we have to live bearable by sharing the moments that are.
During law school, I didn’t cry about law school. But when I slipped in the hallway and got a splinter stuck deep in the bottom of my foot, I cried. I sat on the bottom step of the stairs and wept like my soul died. My parents were home and crowded around me and begged me to tell them what was wrong. Endless, immense crocodile tears. It wasn’t the splinter that hurt. It was three years of sleeplessness, loneliness, being berated and humiliated, weeks of 16-hour days studying in a dark basement, missing family functions, skipping the birthdays of friends, knowing I would walk across a stage and regret everyone I didn’t see and didn’t do, realizing I would never stop remembering the feeling of emptiness when I received my diploma. But I didn’t cry about law school.
When I was nine, after my grandmother died with Alzheimer’s, I remember my mother sat in our kitchen, talking to my brother’s girlfriend about old women she saw at church. My mother served communion, and she said she noticed every old woman who came up to her, lifting hands for the Eucharist. Suddenly, then, my mother was crying, talking to this almost-stranger-girlfriend about something so irrelevant, and I didn’t know why. And I was a child, so I wondered: Why did she cry? What was it about these wrinkled old women who lifted their hands to my mother. It’s taken me splinters and cupcakes and other strange reasons to cry to realize we’re always crying, to whoever will listen, at the closest thing to what we actually want to cry about. Now, I know she couldn’t stop seeing her mother’s hands in the hands of the old ladies at church. She was crying about the hands she’d never hold again, or she was crying about the last time she held hands like that. She was crying about a woman who didn’t even remember her before she died (and she died because she didn’t remember how to eat or swallow or breathe).
That’s why we call everything that’s a reminder a trigger. Because we’re all carrying so much pain and acting like it’s ok, so we’re maybe a thin strand of hair away from crying at a splinter or the coffee running down our arms. Or an old woman’s hands. I spill my coffee on my blouse, and I cry.
Last week, my mother was crying at lunch because I’m moving away, but it seemed like she was crying because I asked her a question that wasn’t related to moving away, but the question reminded her that I’m moving, so she wasn’t crying about the right thing, just something related. Then, later, she choked up in the hallway when I asked her a question about a bedsheet. So, I tease her about empty-nesting and being emotional. I tease her because I don’t know how to feel the sadness she is feeling. Or I know how to feel it, but I don’t want to. I, too, have loved something that keeps on leaving (loving something ephemeral is the same feeling as wondering who is the god of happiness – is it Eutychia, Belun, or another, I’m still trying to figure it out). So, the sadness will come later, at a spilled cup of coffee, or an old woman on the street, or a video I see on the Internet of someone petting a dog, or a baby sleeping with a kitten (the way I held my foot and sobbed, as I sat on a stair in my parent’s house and pulled a splinter out; it did hurt, the splinter, deep in the pad of my foot and bled as I pulled it free – that’s not the point; the point is that it hurt so bad, and it hurt so much that I remembered how much everything else hurt, too; so, I sobbed unnaturally long and hard (for the children in detentions in California, for the juvenile delinquents, for the way my mother saw her mother’s hands, for the way my grandmother died of Alzheimer’s before she learned my name and because I never had a grandparent who I can say remembered my name. And is this relevant? Not at all but there are so many accumulations of pain we wonder what actually makes us cry)). I never cry. But happiness isn’t a story, so here I am talking about crying instead of how happy I am (I am happy, so happy).
But I cried in a pool at my thirtieth birthday party, and I cried on a rooftop at the beach, and in the middle of a street, and on a porch in Washington, D.C., and in a lawn chair in Virginia under the stars, all in August or September. And even though I wasn’t crying about anything important, I think I’m still crying about law school. Three years of solitude, what it’s like to come out of loneliness. To have company and to feel love. And it reminds me that happiness is a circle that meets pain at the end, so I’m watching Nanette knowing exactly how she’s manipulating me because she told me she would. And I know every time I’m being manipulated, and I say, “It’s ok, I like it.” I do like it (crying and happiness, I mean, and manipulation, if it means I can have both).
But, in the end, I’m not sure I like crying in the dark in the pool at my own thirtieth birthday party because my sister said something to me that made me feel like I would never feel joy again and the feeling of possibly never feeling joy made me long for it (already) and the longing is what made me cry, not what she said, so I’m drowning the tears by jumping off a float into the dark, and it’s the first time in a long time that I’ve never been alone, and I don’t know how not to be. And, now, I’m wondering if it’s not that being online is better than reality, but that we feel better there, just because it’s safer: we don’t see anyone cry if we make them. When I wrote “online” I meant to write “alone,” and I now I wonder if the mistake means they’re the same. There are a thousand ways around the sun but none of them have been tried. But we’ve tried every filter. And that’s why happiness isn’t a story. Or maybe it’s the only story. It’s the only one we share, anyway.
I’m in a cab to a friend’s apartment in Harlem in 2016, coming back from a debate between Bernie and Hillary and one other Democrat I’ve already forgotten about, and I’m taking a picture out the cab window. The picture is of a bike chained to a pole outside a laundromat, and I’ve already forgotten if it was actually a laundromat, but I remember the neon lights. I wonder if I would remember anything else, if it wasn’t something I saved. I’ve been packing for five days, and I’ve been throwing everything away. After I filled eight trash bags, I wondered if now I’ll finally forget everything. I’m still trying to re-create love stories from things I posted on Facebook, instead of learning to love anew, and that’s why happiness isn’t a story. It’s only Spotify playlists that a man sends you when he thinks of you. Or doesn’t think of you but thinks of himself and thinks that’s a part of himself that will tell you something about him without telling you anything about him at all. And it’s a strange place to wonder where you are. Between the past and the present, between what you want to cry about and what you’re actually crying about, between what you want to talk about and what you’re actually talking about, between what you want to share and what you actually share.
And I’m sitting here believing that happiness isn’t a story but knowing, actually, it’s the only story.