Happy And You Know It
A Short Story
By Trevor Ziegler
It had been almost two months since Tommy left his job as a call-center representative at a local bank. He spent his days aimlessly trolling the Internet, searching for the “perfect” job, something that he slowly began to realize might not even exist. It’s not that Tommy was particularly picky, either. He just had no idea what he wanted to do. At three years out of college, his biggest achievements as a self-proclaimed adult had been moving out of his parents’ basement and accumulating credit-card debt. He was hardly living up to the standards set by the rousing keynote speech of the young-entrepreneur-turned-billionaire at their commencement ceremony.
He woke up Tuesday morning around 11 a.m.; earlier than usual. It took all the strength he could just to roll out bed and check his email for any prospective job contacts. None. He was used to the rejection at this point. It was almost as if he went through the motion just so he wouldn’t feel guilty in the event he told someone he had been productive that day. Tommy sighed and checked his Facebook page. He made a mental tally: six friends engaged, three promoted at work, seven on vacation at some sort of tropical paradise, and 39 had made their own dinners and felt compelled to share them with the world.
Tommy rolled his eyes at the computer screen. Throughout the years, social media had transformed into a place that further validated his descent into mediocrity. Everyone around him was slowly turning into what he called “real” people: the type of people with 401ks, benefits, company cars, and frequent brunch dates. They were the people who talked about work when they weren’t at work with friends. More importantly, they were the type of people that he believed traded happiness for a paycheck. They were trading it for an illusion.
But why wasn’t he happy? It was a question he had asked himself many times. Tommy wished he could be a real person, someone who could just throw on a smile and hide behind his 401k and fancy brunch dates. He imagined himself making quinoa patties with dill dipping sauce, and sharing a picture all of his friends could see with a caption reading, “Yum! Compliments to the chef (me lol)”.
Tommy finally decided to leave his computer and get dressed before he inevitably began second-guessing every life decision he had made leading up to that point. Sadly, this was something that occurred more often than not if he was on Facebook for too long.
A lethargic Tommy slowly disrobed, grabbed a towel, and proceeded to take a long shower. He didn’t even need the shower; he just figured it was something to do that would pass the time. Tommy had a full day of nothing ahead of him, and he was fully committed to taking zero advantage of it. Aside from the occasional sigh, only the sound of the shower water beating against the acrylic tub filled his empty studio apartment.
As he began to put on a dirty pair of basketball shorts he had worn a few days prior, Tommy stopped himself. He decided to actually go outside that day, straying from his normal daily routine of watching Netflix in between naps. This required he put on some big-boy pants, the type secured by a belt and not a drawstring. With the final buckle of the belt on his slightly worn thrift-store jeans, he already felt like he had accomplished something that day.
By the time Tommy stepped out of his apartment building, it was already past noon. The streets were flooded with professionals filing into the local restaurants on their lunch breaks. He got caught behind two young, well-dressed professionals discussing a major conflict that had presumably come up at their work earlier that day. Tommy was intrigued.
“I just don’t understand why anyone would do that. It doesn’t make any sense,” the man said to his female counterpart. Tommy decided the man looked like every Men’s Wearhouse catalog he had ever accidentally looked at. He hated him for this.
The woman chimed in: “I have honestly never been so angry at work in my life!” She was a shorter, attractive woman, but there was something about her Tommy found agitating. “I literally want to die right now; they can’t just take away Free Massage Fridays. It’s not fair,” the woman added.
And that’s why I hate her. Tommy put on his headphones as a silent protest to the conversation he had been subjected to, and decided he needed a drink. He walked another two blocks and spotted a new bar that he decided to give a shot.
The bar was completely empty, with the exception of the bartender and a girl sitting at the end of the bar, quietly drawing in a sketchbook. Tommy took a seat at the bar and ordered an IPA. As he waited for the drink, he couldn’t help but to glance over at the girl every so often. Something about her demanded his attention.
She was a natural beauty. Her fair skin seemed to radiate, even under the dim bar lighting. Her piercing green eyes remained fixated on the sketchbook as she continued to draw. A bomb could’ve gone off under her chair, and it probably wouldn’t have even stirred her. Her focus captivated Tommy. It had been so long since he had been that genuinely engaged in anything the way she remained captivated by her sketchbook.
After his first beer, he felt he had the courage to comment on a SportsCenter segment that was playing on one of the large flat-screen televisions. “Who cares if they’re juicin’; everyone just wants to see some home runs,” Tommy joked. The bartender, fixated on his iPhone, politely chuckled at Tommy’s attempt at banter before averting his attention back to the phone screen. Tommy took the hint and ordered a Bloody Mary out of spite. The bartender sighed as he scrambled to find the ingredients to make the drink.
Tommy smugly smiled to himself as he waited for his drink. In the corner of his eye, it appeared as if the girl at the end of the bar was staring at him. He slowly turned his head and saw her smiling at him. Unabashed by Tommy’s detection, she held her smile for a few moments before returning to her sketchbook.
What the hell does she want? Tommy took a sip of his Bloody Mary and blankly stared back at the television screen. He couldn’t stay mad at her. Those eyes. I wonder what she’s drawing. A thousand possibilities ran through Tommy’s head. Was she drawing him? Is that why she was staring so longingly? Perhaps she fell in love with him the moment he stepped through the door. I’m not ready for something so serious. He laughed to himself for jumping to a radical conclusion so quickly.
Perhaps she’s designing clothes. Her attire seemed to validate this assumption. It was unlike anything he had ever seen someone wear. It didn’t quite seem to match, and anyone else would’ve looked like an idiot wearing those clothes. Yet it seemed to complement her unique beauty. She was perfect.
His imagination began to run wild. Perhaps she was drawing her own made-up world; creating her own characters and stories. Perhaps this was her escape. What are you escaping from? Maybe he was one of those characters. Maybe she was creating a happy ending for him. Could she be his happy ending?
He was lost in an infinite maze of possibility. One more drink and I’ll talk to her. Tommy ordered another beer. Suddenly, the girl set her pencil down on the bar and intently studied her creation. She seemed entranced by what she had drawn. After a few moments, she smiled, gently ripped the piece of paper out of her sketchbook, and placed it on the bar. She slowly gathered her things, and before Tommy could say anything to her, she was gone. Oh well. Tommy took a sip of his freshly poured beer. He glanced over at the end of the bar where the girl had been sitting. What could she have possibly been drawing? Tommy could no longer contain his curiosity. He took a sip of his beer and walked over to what had been built up in his head as a masterpiece. Anyone who could spark my imagination without saying a word must be a genius.
Tommy took his final steps as he approached the piece of paper. He picked it up and examined it carefully. This is it? The masterpiece he had composed in his head looked more like the work of a fourth grader. The picture depicted two shoddily drawn human figures, holding hands and smiling in the middle of a field, one male, one female. A large anthropomorphic sun shone down on them in the corner of the page. Small modified “V’s” that could only be interpreted as birds scattered throughout the cloudless sky. The word “happy” was written in the bottom left corner of the page in small, barely legible handwriting.
Baffled, Tommy placed the paper down on the bar and sat back down. Could this have been a message for him? I mean, she was staring at me. He smiled at the possibility that he inspired the girl’s artwork, regardless of its obvious lack of aesthetic value.
But she had inspired Tommy as well. It had been so long since he had let his mind wander in such a way. Instead of wallowing in his apparent missteps, he created a world in which he meant something; a world he wanted to live in. She had made him a dreamer again. Perhaps this was what happiness truly meant to Tommy: the capacity to dream. It was easy to get lost in the superficial world that surrounded him. Without a dream, life became a chore and hope became failed expectation. Tommy finished the last of his beer, leaving a hefty tip for the bartender. He smiled to himself as he exited the bar. Happy.