Pull the Happy Out
copyright Barbara Allen 2009
It's hard living the way we do. That's why, no matter how bad each day is, I try to find at least one good thing about it. I call this “pulling the happy out.” Other people might think of it as “looking on the bright side,” but our life doesn't often seem to have much of a bright side. Sometimes the happy might be a meal that our mother finally doesn't burn or a morning when our father doesn't yell too much. There are other times when the only happy the day holds is the way the sun is shining. But whatever the happy is, I find it, pull it out, and hold onto it for dear life, trying to make it through just one more day until I am finally old enough to move out and leave this place forever.
As the days go by, it gets harder and harder to pull the happy out. I worry that maybe I won't make it, maybe before I turn eighteen I will die in that fire that Cindy always talks about, the one she fears will start in all this clutter. Or perhaps I will develop a serious illness and the symptoms will go unobserved by our mother, too absorbed in her soap operas to notice. Or our father will use my head next time, instead of the cat's.
The hardest time to pull the happy out is during one of our regular flea infestations. We have dogs and cats and dirt, so of course, we have fleas, sometimes worse than others. I hate a lot about the way we live, but the fleas are what I hate most. I can't stand the way they cluster on my socks and cling to the hems of my pants. Even though I carefully brush off my clothes before I leave the house, sometimes I even see a flea on myself at school, hopping cheerfully onto my bare arm during class. I pluck it off quickly, before anyone else notices, and ruthlessly pinch it to death between my fingernails.
The fleas seem to be everywhere. I find them floating in my milk and in my weekly bath water. I even hear them at night, snapping and popping as they leap with abandon through the piles scattered everywhere in our house.
Despite the fleas, I still struggle to pull the happy out: I get a good grade on a paper at school, Cindy and I share a funny joke at the bus stop, we have spaghetti instead of shepherd’s pie one week.
Then, one morning, I can’t do it. It is the day of our school spring concert and students are supposed to wear their nicest clothes for the performance. Most of my clothes aren’t very nice, but I find a dress that will probably be okay and a pair of pantyhose without any runs; it’s a midweek concert, so I am hoping my hair doesn’t look too bad yet. I am about to leave the house for the bus stop, when I happen to glance down at my legs. They are completely covered with fleas.
That’s when it happens. I flip out. I start hitting my legs, slapping the fleas, shrieking in a voice I don’t even recognize as my own:
“They’re all over me! They’re all over me!”
I can’t stop. My slapping gets faster and crazier, my voice gets higher and louder. For the first time in my life, I realize that I have been holding on, holding on by just a thread, and now I am in danger, real danger, of letting go. I am not going to die in a fire, or be killed by my father; I am going to lose my mind instead. I am going to go crazy before I can ever leave this stupid house.
“Stop it!” My mother’s voice cuts through my flailing and screeching. “Stop it!” she says again. “What’s wrong with you?”
What’s wrong with me? Her words work like the slap that cures hysterical people in the movies. I am standing here, covered with fleas, and she wants to know what’s wrong with me?
My agitation subsides as a righteous anger flares up in its place. I stop hitting my legs, stop shrieking, and with a shaky breath, pull myself together. I pick up my books, which have been flung aside during my assault on the fleas, and leave the house, slamming the door behind me.
There is nothing wrong with me.