by J.A. Pak
Back in college, I had a friend I saw once or twice a year who’d always end up asking me, “Are you happy?” It took everything I had not to scream, “What kind of crap question is that?” It was absurd & irrelevant. Vapid & facile. And really, what was the point in asking anyway, I’d wonder.
Occasionally, you enter a difficult period in your life and what you want without knowing what you want is a genuine friend. Adolescence is often one of those times.
When I was stuck inside my cloudy adolescence, a generous older woman saw my need and became my friend; our relationship was just like something out of a novel. I’ve always wondered if this wasn’t my grandfather too, his guiding hand extending even into my life because how I met her was extraordinary. One day, I was reading the local newspaper and she was inside—she was directing a children’s musical she’d written—in the photo she was surrounded by children—and I thought, I’d really like to meet this woman, be a part of her life. A few months later I was.
She had this life spirit that was like a joyful carousel and I loved carousels. What a life I’ve had, she’d say, full of ups and downs, wars (personal and national) and devastating heartbreaks—but I’d do it all over again, she’d tell me. She loved life thatmuch. She’d call me her alter ego, which seemed wrong to me because I would neverlive it all over again. And I hadn’t even had my first heartbreak. (That is, my first love affair.)
And then she died.
Many years after, I had this singular moment of understanding. It was Valentine’s Day, I was alone in London (I was living in England at the time) and I was truly happy to be alive. It was inexplicable because nothing extraordinary had happened. I’d finally visited St Paul’s Cathedral, following a circular path inside until I was somewhere up in the middle of the dome. The day was cold & windy and I was wearing my new Miu Miu skirt & matching coat which I’d bought online at a huge discount (which is another kind of happiness). For lunch, I’d stopped briefly at a chain coffee shop and eaten a packaged sandwich sold to me by a typically indifferent teenage boy and I was making my way back to the hotel when this singular, magnificent joy possessed me. In the middle of Fleet Street. And I thought, so this is what it’s like, to feel happy to be alive. For the first time in my life since childhood, I wasn’t preoccupied with the future or the past; there were no second thoughts, no anxiety about what I should have done or should be doing. I was just alive and being alive was happiness.
Sometimes, I’m possessed by a similar joy while playing the piano. I’ll be playing the Goldberg Variations, wandering into a passage I’ve played innumerable times and there’s this unexpected awakening, this moment of unsurpassed beauty, the beauty of pure life, and the knowledge that nothing else is important as this. I try to hold that but the human mind seems incapable of holding clarity. Other things become important and I think nothing else matters but money, acknowledgment, success, word count, what to make for dinner today, tomorrow, the day after, life fractured into a million forgettable trivialities.
*‘Happy’ is from Middle English, meaning lucky. More and more I understand the Chinese obsession with luck. The goddess of fortune rules all things. And perhaps the goddess is fond of numbers, the esthetic qualities of eights (888) and infinities (∞), roundness a vessel of fertility, a subset of creativity, my roundness.
Bio: A recipient of a Glass Woman Prize, J.A. Pak’s work has been published in a variety of publications, including Olentangy Review, Luna Luna, Thrice Fiction, Atticus Review, Quarterly West, The Smoking Poet and Art/Life. “Happy” is part of a WIP.