Happiness You Have to Earn, Not Steal by Kristy Davis

 

Called in sick for work today. Then slept for fifteen hours, plus the two hours I stayed awake feeling guilty for calling in sick. Had dreams men were digging in my room. Not nightmares exactly, more like a matter of fact. Woke up feeling lonely and noticed I had bedbug bites again. This after I bought the one-hundred-dollar mattress covers.

When I first found out I had bedbugs, I was grateful. Here was an outside problem that matched my inner state. That man left me, and now my ankles itch.

 

He had gray eyes, gay hair and was growing old such that when he smiled his ears moved. When he tilted his head back and laughed, you could hear his teeth click.

I met him at work. He was my boss's friend, and he had introduced himself after somehow getting past security and showing up at our office. She told me it was like him just to drop by like that.

"I liked your documentary," he said to me. "Want to get coffee sometime?"

"He's much better looking after a haircut," my boss told me.

All I knew about him was that he was an actor. He played the bad cop. And I hadn't seen any of the shows he was in. I'd only had this job six months and had spent most of my free time reading, or lying on a yoga mat in my apartment, refraining.

 

The next day he called me at work. "How about Saturday," he said. "Noon. You pick a place downtown."

After work I ran six miles on the treadmill, gunning toward my own reflection. Tom Petty on headphones: She's a good girl, crazy about Elvis, loves horses and her boyfriend too.

Saturday morning I got up early. Swigged a Red Bull, took a long, hot shower, etc. Slipped on snug jeans, a good bra, a V-neck sweater (magenta), and hoop earrings made of glass.

He put an arm around me, kissed my cheek.

"Sorry I got lost," I said.

"That's okay, I'd have gotten us a table, but I didn't want to miss you."

 

I had mosquito bites, I thought. Lots of mosquito bites. And then the weather turned cooler, and I surfed the web and came across photos. I inspected the folds of my mattress. They weren't hard to find. The adult ones, copper-colored, like tiny pennies. The larvae, mucous-white sweater balls, moving.

Either I got them from a summer intern, or at a hotel in Virginia Beach. Could have been karma come around for stealing the sign that read "Feminine products located at the front desk." The friends I was with haven't called me since.

But I was born to deal with bedbugs. It requires constant cleaning of everything. All clothing washed on hot and dried on hot for twice the usual time. It requires throwing a lot of things away, something I'm good at. What you can't bear to part with goes into sealed plastic bags. Maybe you'll use it again after a year or two. Into a bag, my Raggedy Ann and longhaired Andy (thanks, Mom). Into a bag, my leather jacket, most of my boots. I was becoming the kind of person who thought she should wear boots.

 

"I like your boots," he said.

For the first time, I understood what it meant when people say, I met someone.

We ate blueberry pancakes, had coffee.

"Have you been to Wyoming?" he said.

I had not.

"Whereabouts?"

"I went to a national park or something."

We talked about magazines, movies, my boss.

"You don't know how lucky you are," he said, in the way that saying something true makes it untrue. "Your boss knows everybody. I know everybody."

"I know some people too," I said.

 

If you tell them, they start scratching unconsciously. They avoid you at work or don't call. My bar gave me a good shot of tequila for free. I'm a big believer that sometimes the worst luck can be the best luck.

But some of the things you're supposed to do make me feel like checking in. The books that were next to my bed are now in the freezer (sorry, Rick Bragg). Cups of mineral oil beneath bed posts. Tape on the edges of the bathroom mirror. Caulk to seal up cracks in the floorboards. I had to buy a metal bedframe from a guy whose email address begins with wavewhore. My clothes are in corpse-sized Ziploc bags on the kitchen table. I slept on the kitchen table. I'm addicted to doing laundry, and the thought of the Laundromat's being closed right now is causing me to sweat. I'm waking at dawn with a flashlight searching myself and my sheets.

 

"Do you smoke?" he said, as we stepped out into the fractured November light.

"Actually, I'm dying for one."

He dug in his pockets for a pack of Winstons, lit mine first. "Want to go to a movie?"

As we walked along the narrow cobblestone streets, he told me about all the crazy people he'd known growing up in the West: a musician who delivered pizza until his song "Mars is Heaven" became a national hit; the musician's girlfriend, who played the theremin; the diving coach who kept a live crocodile in the kiddie pool in his backyard, and who later took off to Mexico after his roommate found Polaroids of naked boys in their bathroom; the bishop who jumped off a viaduct after his real estate holdings tanked.

"The West: home to eccentrics," he said. "Imagination unparalleled."

 

The thing that bothers me most is that everywhere reminds me of him. At least I belong to Brooklyn. Its bugs are sucking my blood.

 

"I'm old-fashioned," he said. "I'm buying the tickets, but you'll have to show me how this machine works."

We sat together in the dark, expectant.

"This is a scary movie," he said.

Does this count as a date? I thought.

 

Threw out my running shoes, threw out my cigarettes. I'm sleeping in my workout clothes, long-sleeved this, long-legged that. And socks.

I'm dressing like I'm on Sesame Street: blocks of color, cotton shirts, faded pants. I have five changes of clothing, one for every day of the workweek, along with a new pair of shoes that I keep in a sealed plastic bag.

 

The SoHo Grand: Sweeps of cloth, blaring lights, a photograph of Kurt Cobain with alien eyes wearing a leopard print coat. In the lobby bar, we were tucked into leather chairs, our table lit by a library lamp. Glass bowl of mixed nuts, wine.

He opened a door in me but never walked through. At least that was my impression later. Also this: maybe men are more fragile than women.

"What kind of feminist are you?" he said.

"The kind who thinks a woman should get paid as much as a man," I said.

"I think they should get paid more," he said. "They do a better job. Are you the kind of feminist who won't let a man pay for dinner?"

"Hell no."

Upstairs in his room, he said he had something to show me. What he had was cocaine. A lot of it. He crushed the packet with a beer bottle from the mini bar, poured the blow on the table and handed me a rolled-up twenty.

 

No way I'm moving out. These motherfuckers are not going to win.

 

We didn't have sex that night. Closest we came, we kissed. "My body is separate from my mind," I said. We talked. We talked all night.

He took off my boots. I put them back on.

"I didn't even get to see the color of your bra," he said.

"It's black," I said, picking up my purse.

 

Every weekend is a HAZMAT operation. I've spent close to a grand on plastic bins, super-sized Ziploc bags, mattress covers, vacuums, vacuum bags, brooms, gallon jugs of ammonia, Good Night Spray, mineral oil, mops, diatomaceous powder, DEET.

For me, nicotine gum.

 

Sunday morning. I waited on the fire escape, smoking, until his cab pulled up.

"Let's take a nap," he said. He fingered a book on my shelf. "Have you read this?"

"Not yet."

"Where's your bed?"

I pointed at the yoga mat on the floor. "Just kidding."

"Take off your clothes," he said.

"You first."

 

Missionary Style—and he's a talker:

"Are you happy right now?" he said.

"Happy isn't a word I use."

 

"Do you believe in God?"

"I'm an atheist who prays."

"I do," he said. "Old Jack believes in God."

 

"Do you dye your hair?"

 

"How long have you lived here?" he said.

"Five years."

"Five to seven years—that's when you decide whether to stay."

 

Me, I'm ready to jet. I'm ready to rock and roll right on up and out of here.

 

Four-and-a-half rows of fluorescent lights, I sit in the middle. Cubicle walls aren't high enough. Did you know Buddhist monks don't have sex? I know why because I Googled—it's like a porcupine in a rat's hole, easy to get in, hard to get out.

Click, click, clicking. My horoscope says I've been stealing happiness. Now I have to earn it. Since I can't quit my job, I'm going to quit reading my horoscope.

I overheard my boss on the phone. She said, "I asked her if they were still dating, and she told me, 'No?'" I felt like a mouse she let into the room knowing her cat was lazy. She didn't know I'd scurry right up into the cat's jaws.

 

Stringing together the moments. But I've worn them out. It's like you can't have the same fantasy over and over. The history teacher isn't enough. Add a midget.

That sunny November day. His name sounded like a song. The jacket he wore. Who smokes Winstons? He spilled wine on my sweater. In nightlight he looked silver. He was good. Cocaine was fun, but I lost my watch.

“The first time someone shows you who they are, believe them,” Maya Angelou said. I don't like her.

 

What happened—something stupid. He took me to a party, told blowjob stories. I said I'd rather walk; he got in a cab. But right before he quit caring, we were standing in a circle. His friend was standing next to me, talking. Then Jack was saying to me, "Oh look, you're falling asleep." But I wasn't tired, and I wasn't bored, and I wasn't being rude. I had closed my eyes to hear.