Whatever Makes You Happy

Fiction
Anna Chieppa


090206 Snow Fall
Photo Credit: Steve James

It is snowing outside. He is sitting in his living room with a drink, remembering it all.

Someone was giving a party in a flat in East London and he’d been dragged along by a colleague of his, an Italian guy soon disappeared with some girl into a room at the back. Around midnight he was drinking on his own, drinking and watching, bored to the bone. It was a student’s place: an industrial loft with tall windows overlooking the wet street and guys with rimmed glasses and hooded jackets mooching around, packs of cheap beer stacked on the table and joints travelling across the room. He was planning to leave and then he saw her come in: a tall girl wrapped in a green coat, long hair and a mouth lacquered in red. He stayed some more. After all, he had nowhere else to go.

The girl greeted some people and went over to the table covered with a cloth that hung too low on one side. A glass had been knocked over, spilling a pool of wine that dripped onto the cloth and the floor. She took care not to stain the cotton-knit fabric of her dress and, after picking up a plastic cup, she stood by the wall, gazing around. He took a large swallow of beer. Getting drunk on lager was hard work for someone like him but in the kitchen he found the dregs of a bottle of gin and that gave him the right amount of Dutch courage to approach her. She was from Moldova, a sociology student and a waitress in a restaurant in Fulham.

I’m an engineer, he said, I work for the London Underground.

They drank beer and talked about London. She had dark eyes and long hands that wouldn’t stay still.

There’s a point between two people, he will say to her months later, when you reach a crossroads; if you take one turn something will happen—love, sex or whatever has to happen between two people—but if you take the other one it won’t.

And later on, in retrospect, it was clear to him that that point of the crossroads, that opening of possibilities or nothing, clicked when she leaned on him—the black of her eyes, the red of her mouth—and said: tell me the things that make you happy.

The things that make me happy? He asked, stumbling over his words.

Yes, she said, tell me what makes you happy, what makes your days special.

They were sitting on folding chairs opposite each other and he stared at the snacks and the drinks on the table and thought hard but couldn’t answer. He didn’t really believe in happiness. Relative well-being, usually achieved through hard work, did exist, but happiness was a fragile structure, unlike the constructions he liked to build.

I work long hours, he said, there’s not much time for fun.

There isn’t, she said.

I’m sorry, I can’t think of anything to tell you. Nothing major that is. But what about you.

What makes me happy, she said, is walking in the woods behind my house, in Moldova, picking blueberries. There’s a spot in the woods where the trees almost reach the ground, making a roof, we sit under the trees, in summer we eat blueberries until we get a stomach ache and rock ourselves to sleep.

She talked and grinned. Blueberries are so expensive here, she said, in my country they’re free, that’s happiness to me.

Her eyes shone like black pools. He was holding his breath, hypnotised, unable to bear that she had stopped talking.

What else, he asked, what else makes you happy.

Watching the sea, she said, watching the sea at sunrise makes me happy. Waiting for a lover makes me happy.

I see, he said, nodding, rinsing his mouth with the beer.

They went on drinking together until three in the morning, when there was no drink left in the flat and a few guys hung around looking for the last can of beer that wasn’t full of cigarette ash. It would have been acceptable to put the girl in a cab and wave goodbye, but he’d already reached the famous crossroads, because now he liked blueberries too.

I’ll come with you, he said, and then I’ll go home, but he was already kissing her in the cab, her lips pressing on his neck, her hands delving into his lap. They drove cutting through the empty lanes and the drops of light trembling on the wet asphalt. All around them was the city, a frantic heart pulsing in the night.

I love London, she said in a whisper, her breath steaming up the window, her eyes fixed somewhere he could not locate, somewhere beyond the string of narrow houses and trees lining the street.

He said Yes, I love it too, and he locked her mouth with another kiss.

 

The night rain had stopped and the moon was a slice of silver behind shreds of clouds. She lived in a council estate in Ravenscourt Park, a grey stucco building with a row of doors facing the balcony that continued along the whole fa├žade. They held hands along the slippery staircase, where urine pooled on the concrete floor and pornography screamed from the walls. Once in her bedroom he fought to adjust his vision to the darkness, fumbling for the wall switch. The girl grabbed his arm.

Don’t, she said.

Her breath was on his throat, raising a corner of his scarf with each gasp. He kissed her on the mouth and she pulled him to a mattress on the floor and he kissed her hard and she led his hand to her breast. Her shirt didn’t have ordinary buttons, but tiny metal hooks that he couldn’t grasp hold of. It took so long to get the thing undone, he was afraid she would fall asleep.

He navigated inside her, embracing her, kissing her, but between her legs she was as dry as salt. He put great effort into it, he kissed her neck, he licked her breast, rocking back and forth, rocking sideways. He went on automatically for a long time, in and out of a drunken doziness, her body still cold beneath him, her eyes shut like seashells upside down. The darkness had grown softer and the interior of the room was now visible: a few photographs on the walls, a slim wardrobe next to a desk with a pile of books. He could not say how long had gone by since their bodies had started pounding on the mattress, but it felt like a hell of a long time, and he grew desperate and then drowsy.

The girl opened her eyes and patted his chest.

Want a cigarette? She asked.

Are you calling for a break?

She laughed as he crawled onto the mattress, sliding the condom off and folding it neatly before dropping it onto the floor. He was panting.

All right then, he said. Too much to drink tonight, sorry.

She lit a candle and stood it on the floor, so that he could see more of the place now, as the candle threw a flickering glow around the room. He sucked the smoke in. The room was tiny, just a few feet between the mattress and the door, and there were speckles of paint everywhere: on the door, on the white desk, on the floral walls.

I paint, she said in response to his gaze. I’d like to be a painter one day, make a living out of it.

The smoke was making his eyes water and he stubbed his cigarette out in the saucer that she handed him. All right, he said, I’ve gotta go to the bathroom.

The corridor was as cold as stone and mould had spread over the green tiles in the bathroom; rust stains were encrusted at the edge of the toilet bowl. He quickly scrubbed his hands with a bar of soap and when he was back in the room the girl was smoking another cigarette and drinking from a can of beer.

Want some? She asked.

He took a sip and sat next to her on the mattress. His feet were black from the dirt on the floor and it was clear to him right there that he would never love this girl; he could never love someone who lived in such a dump. He was that way. There was no future for him with a girl like this and it was as certain as the hangover he would have in the morning.

He drank some beer and said: I’m moving to Helsinki in two months, for work. I’ve got a great opportunity over there.

He sounded like a job ad but he was telling her just in case; he wanted to warn her that anything more than a one-night stand was impossible between them, that they were destined to failure, to nothingness, like other human beings out there, like all the women he’d met before her, but she looked puzzled and he blushed.

The girl was sitting against the stained wall, smoking. Her face looked angular now, sinking into the shadows that had formed shapes across her chest, down to her dark nipples, and he wanted her again. He wanted to pin her down, pull her hair, fuck her.

Sorry I gotta go home, he said, drinking some more beer, and they exchanged phone numbers at the door.

It was good to meet you, she said.

He tried to say something, but what. His fingers itched. The candle was still burning and hot wax was melting onto the floor and his eyelids were drooping with tiredness. He leaned on her to kiss her face, but the girl clutched him and he didn’t dare move. They held each other tight. He could hear his heart, so close to hers, drumming fast and loud, a human noise that filled the space and made him ashamed, while somewhere far away the Piccadilly Line got rattling.

All right, he said when she set him free to step outside.

The street was deserted and grey, with the lamps posts and the silhouettes of buildings almost invisible in the mist. It was early morning and the chill bit into his face. The washed-out picture of a missing girl was hanging at the entrance to the tube. It was raining again.

 

On the following day he sent her a text message, and the day after he rang her. He didn’t know why he was ringing her, as though he’d hoped for something when he knew there was nothing to hope for, but with this girl it was like reaching for another drink when you know you are going to pass out. With this girl, it was like falling.

They met again. They drank wine in bars full of smoke, leaning over the flame of tea-lights arranged in the centre of little wrought-iron coffee tables, and she told him all about her life in Moldova, about the father that she hated, the ex that stalked her, and he listened with care, full of sorrow, cupping his hands around her face each time she lit a cigarette and calling the waiter from time to time to ask for another bottle.

Before he knew it, he was ringing every night and buying her flowers; he was buying her little books and wooden bracelets and a full set of kolinsky red sable oil paint brushes, the most expensive he could find in the art store downtown, because he’d gone goddamn crazy with this girl.

He moved to Helsinki in June and she joined him three months later, as soon as she got her papers in order. They were married by October. His mother rang to say that he was a fool, that she was marrying him to get a European passport. He hung up on her.

They stayed in Helsinki for two years, renting a flat with a view of the sea. They had a simple life, yet for a long time he believed that nothing was missing.

Because she couldn’t bear life in Finland, he applied for other jobs and landed one in Barcelona. That was the city where she left him, on a day full of snow like this, the first snow seen in Barcelona for over a decade. He walked back and forth to the sea all night, reading the note she’d taped to the fridge door, reading until there were only her words, stripped of meaning, and all that snow under the moonlight.

Sorry but I’m not happy anymore. I must go.

He’s back in London now. He is back to what he knows, work, more work, more planning and building, and although two years have passed since he last saw her, he can’t go near Ravenscourt Park yet, and he wonders how long, before he stops needing a drink each time he sees snow like this.

He drops another shot of gin into the glass and it is hard to believe that he was once at a party like that, that he took a cab with a girl he hardly knew, that he will never again hold her like that night, ever. He watches the snow falling to the ground, and while the drink stirs up memories inside of him, he recalls now, with clarity, what he should have told her that night, when she asked what made him happy and he couldn’t find the right words.

He recalls a time twenty-five years ago—he was a kid back then—it was summer at his grandparents’ village and his father had bought him his first fishing rod to go to the lake on the following morning.

He remembers that he was all night nestled up to the fishing rod in his bed, dreaming of fish, and at dawn he joined his father who was downstairs packing their lunch.

Hurry up, his father said to the boy, grinning, sealing the sandwiches with the aluminium foil, then going on to check the hooks in the tackle box. It’s the early bird that catches the worm, uh?

The boy nodded and went out to the porch, carrying the rod. The moon was still out, pale-white and flat as a coin, and the wind smelled of hay. He sat on the steps and pictured what was about to come, the drive with father, the calm and still of the lake, the carp that he would catch, like the one that Father caught last time, heavy and strong, all green and bronze on its belly.

Such an ordinary thing, he thinks now, but perhaps if he’d found the right words at the party, if he’d been able to tell her something about that day—the coolness of the air, the joy at his father’s voice, how light yet strong the rod felt in his hands—perhaps if he’d been able to tell her this, she would have understood something important about him, she would have loved him.

He didn’t catch any carp that day, and his rod would burn in the car accident that would kill his father three months later, but he didn’t know this while he sat on the porch. Back then he didn’t know lots of things, he certainly didn’t know about the girl and her betrayals, how much hurt one human being can inflict on another.

For a split second the memory of that day with father is filling him, holding him. The world has gone quiet and he is that kid again, getting ready to fish the big carp. He is by the window now, the cold glass against his forehead, and all the lost words are here, all that he was unable to tell her, all that he had forgotten about himself, all the words of hope and happiness are drifting in the snow, falling.

pencilAnna Chieppa is a writer currently based in Luxembourg. Email: anna.chieppa[at]gmail.com

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