There is this picture I used to carry in my wallet,
back when I used to carry a wallet. A very old picture of me
kneeling on a New York City street holding my niece who looks
tired and aggravated. The lady behind the camera was my mother
and the girl standing behind me, cropped off here, was my
sister. It was my high school graduation and what struck me
about the photo was the little girlís expression but,
additionally, my own. It took me about a half hour to find this
photo, looking through bunches of old photos while being
hammered by phone calls Iíve yet to return and emails Iíve yet
to write. It occurred to me, digging through Yesterday, that in
none of those photos did I appear to be happy. None of them. Iím
not terribly photogenic and have never enjoyed having my picture
taken, but also, Iím not quite sure that Iíve ever been happy.
ďHappyĒ seems kind of relative, and we each define happiness in
I like to leave my house around 5:30 and chase the sunrise down a winding country road populated mostly by alpaca and bunny rabbits. I donít have a real bike, I ride something that looks like a $25 hundred racing bike but is actually a pretty cheap Schwinn. But it gets the job done. I am perhaps the happiest when Iím out there, in the middle of nowhere, just me and the roadkill watching the sunrise and sucking down crisp mountain air. I donít think Iíve ever truly adjusted to the altitude here, so uphill can be a real challenge. Still, a day without riding is, for me, like root canal, as I know the rest of the day will be about ringing phones and deadlines and emails. So thatís my little worship time with the alpaca: a time when I can ponder things like what is happiness, and does anyone actually have it.
The most striking thing about those old photos wasnít that I looked unhappy but that nobody else in the photo seemed to notice. I think we live life in phases: childhood, where weíre too stupid to realize our parents are insane and our lives are horrible, young adulthood where weíre incredibly arrogant, rejecting everything mama taught us and making a mess of our lives, and then you have that 40-60 range where youíre the busboy clearing away piles of dirty dishes your first twenty years of adult life left behind. Cigarette put out in the scrambled eggs. Looking at the photos, I had a visceral memory. I didnít just look unhappy, I was unhappy. I was flat-out miserable. But nobody seemed to notice or care, so long as I was where they wanted me to be and I was doing what they wanted me to do. This is likely the plot of the next novel in a line of novels Iíll probably never publish: an examination of this phenomena, of people choosing not to see how utterly miserable you are.
I had no intention of going to my high school graduation. I didnít see the point. I wasnít there a whole lot. By senior year I was interning at Marvel and only showed up for school occasionally. I'm not in the yearbook. I skipped the prom. I had maybe one or two friends and Sabrina Galen, the very tall girl I used to call ďFred,Ē whom I had a huge crush on. The only reasons I even went to graduation was because I was the only kid in school who (admitted he) could play piano, and my music teacher threatened to fail me if I didnít come to the ceremony and play the school song. If Iíd had my way, Iíd have played the stupid song and headed for the subway. They could mail me the diploma. The ceremony had nothing to do with me. It was for my mother. My wedding had nothing, not one thing, to do with me. Weddings are for the bride. I was just the guy who showed up. There were any number of other guys there, wearing the exact same suit, who could have stood in for me if I got tied up in traffic.
Stronger Than Paxil:: My morning ride.
For most of my adult life I have done things I didnít want to do
and gone places I didnít want to be because of some date on a
calendar or some tribal ritual or another. Iím at these places,
with these people, and I look exactly as I do above. I am
absolutely miserable. And these people who insisted I be there
donít notice or care. Which makes me wonder why these people
would want me around. I obviously donít want to be there, Iím
not having a good time. Or I am faking having a good time
because I donít want to hurt someoneís feelings. But my idea of
a good time is to be completely and utterly alone, out here with
the alpaca. If these folks actually knew me theyíd know that.
Going to parties or receptions is an absolute nightmare. Having
people in my house, gasp, in my house? Why not just waterboard
me. Iíd tell Rumsfeld anything he wanted to know if he just
camped out n my living room for a week.
Back then, there really wasnít language for this business, but today we call it ďSocial Anxiety Disorder,Ē (click to play audio) which is just lipstick on the pig Depression. I suffer from depression. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by people and just canít be around them. A side effect of this disorder is people being mad at me all the time because I donít call or I donít write or I donít come to their party. Because the paraplegic won't go bowling with you. My in-laws seemed offended and my wife routinely upset because they were all extremely social and they assumed I didnít like them. I liked them just fine. I have a disease. CLICK TO PLAY VIDEO ABOVE
I never received love from those people. I received tolerance. They kind of put up with me for her sake. But, in all the years we were together, I never, not once, received a phone call from anyone in that large family. Not one "How ya doin'?" not one invite out for coffee. It wasnít even that they didnít like me. They didnít know me. They didnít care to know me. They werenít trying. We were just stuck there, like that awkward pause at the checkout waiting for your card to go through. No one, not my family, not hers, ever once stopped to notice how miserable I was. Nobody, even once, bothered to ask if anything was wrong.
Itís not the end of the world, Iím functional, I get up and comb my hair. But my idea of happy involves quiet and wide-open spaces. I have six TVs in the house but rarely turn them on. I have a telephone but only out of protest. People see me eating alone at a restaurant and park themselves and their noisy kids right next to me. Thirty empty tables, but The Flintstones pitch a tent at the next booth over. I prefer eating alone. If I wanted company I am blessed with more friends here in town than I can count. I am not on Facebook. I don't own a smartphone. I am not LinkedIn. I can be around people, but I canít stay at their house and Lord knows they canít stay at mine. I need my own hotel room and a fast Internet connection. For every hour I have to endure the crush of family and friends, I need two hours absolutely alone.
Robert DeNiro had this great line in the film Heat, where he said, ďI am alone, I am not lonely.Ē And Iím not. For reasons I canít explain, I have lots of friends. I have no idea, none, why they like me. I never invite them over. People think Iím gay or a reprobate preacher, got me a girl stashed down here. Thereís nobody down here but the squirrels who keep chewing their way into the eaves and keep me up nights. And theyíre on my list.
This sadness is like luggage you carry around without realizing it. You donít even notice it until one day you look around and realize you havenít spoken to your girlfriend in two years and thereís dust covering everything in the house. Itís one of those things you donít even notice until you start flipping through a photo album and it just leaps out at you. How did people not notice? Couldnít they see it? Didnít they care? I was so miserable. I hated being there, having my picture taken. Making a record of my being dragged to this place or that event and, so long as I showed up, everybody was happy. But me.
An Actual Smile:: Chris, age 13, in the Adirondacks with Stephanie, 1974.
I donít know if Iím happy now, but I feel like I am, at least, eligible to be happy. I am, at least, a lot less miserable. After the marriage, I gave myself permission to stop going places I didnít want to go and stop doing things I didnít want to do. This is an intrinsically selfish way to live, I suppose, but I know of many guys, married guys most especially, who would much rather be anywhere else but the in-laws making small talk. My Thanksgiving ritual involves lounging in my underwear watching a Star Trek marathon and eating an entire Pepperidge Farm chocolate layer cake with my bare hands. Things Men Do. Or what they would do if the sisters werenít always making us go somewhere and do something.
Christopher J. Priest
19 September 2011