Happiness Is Only Sometimes
“When were you happiest?” my 2nd grade teacher asks the class. “That is your homework assignment.”
I draw pictures of planets on my notebook while Mr. Fehlschlag talks. Glancing outside to the too-bright day, the field and the sky where I can’t see any planet but our own.
“When I got out of this class,” the girl next to me says, too quiet for our teacher to hear her clearly.
“You don’t have to decide now,” he tells us.
I cover my face with my notebook when I laugh and try hard to think of things that make me happy.
The first that comes to me is my cat Butterscotch, named after my favorite ice cream, that I’d always have on my birthday. Then one year she was the present, a tiny orange fur ball with a sky blue ribbon around her neck, mewling out for someone to take care of her. It was hard for my dad and mom to hide her like any other present, so she was just there. Completely unexpected, and you know, at first, I didn’t even want her? I started crying and asked them to “Take it back.” “It wasn’t on my list,” I cried. In fact, none of the things on it had appeared there that day. No iPod, no Wii, not even the pink ballerina dress we saw in the window at Macy’s. Just the same old ice cream and a new cat to match.
I don’t remember when it changed, when I forgave them, who gave Butterscotch her name, or when the blue ribbon was exchanged for a sky blue collar, but we became inseparable. I didn’t even go to school one day so I could play with her. I only went back when they threatened to take her away if I didn’t. I cried the whole way. Mom and dad fight about me more than anything else. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll make them divorce.
Then one day the assignment had come and gone and I had nothing to show for all my daydreaming. The letters on my report card get closer to the end of the alphabet till dad is fighting with me directly.
“How are you ever going to get into college?”
“She’s only 7,” my mom reminded him.
“And a half,” I said.
He ignored us. “How are you going to grow up and get a good job? How are you going to be happy?”
When he yelled, I felt like he was going to trade me in for another kid. But when I was playing with Butterscotch in the sunny backyard instead of doing my homework, I was already happy.
“It’s ever since we got that damn cat,” he says to mom, looking around for Butterscotch as though with the desire to subject her to the same line of interrogation.
“You know, Julie,” he says. (That’s my name.) He says, “I think it may be time to look into boarding schools for you.
“Dan,” my mom says his name.
“No, I’m serious. If we’re going to get real about your education. Hell, maybe even military school. The farther the better,” he growls.
“Dan Schaffer, you shut your mouth,” mom orders like she’s his mom, but it’s already too late.
I run to my room where Butterscotch is sleeping in her bed. With tears in my eyes I kick her awake. She stands, warm and confused for a few sleepy moments. I just scream at her.
“Go, get out! Just go!” I scream, and she does, a flash of scared orange and a sky blue collar running up onto the bed, then my work desk, pawing up paper and pencils I’d forgotten all about. Then just like that she’s gone out the window into the world.
When she’s gone I slam the window shut behind her and reorder the papers and pencils on my desk. I sit and draw the curtains so I can’t see the sun or the moon anymore and with tears streaming down my face set out to become a success.
When Butterscotch doesn’t come home that night I don’t even notice. I sleep peacefully with no sound of scratching at the foot of my bed, like a monster that had been there was gone. But the next day I feel nervous, and that night it’s like the monsters weren’t removed, just what was protecting against them.
I get an A on my social studies test, come home and spill tears all over the paper before mom can get it up on the refrigerator. She presses the pages and straightens them like she’s ironing, looking frustrated and angry the way dad looked before the test came home with me. When they took it from my hands, it was like it wasn’t even mine.
Dad takes me to put up posters for Butterscotch, next to pictures of missing children and other cats.
“Maybe they’re looking for each other,” I say.
“What?” Dad asks, straightening the black and white face of Butterscotch against the rough wood of a telephone pole.
“Maybe they’re looking for each other, the missing children and the missing cats.”
Now that I’m a success dad is nice to me again. “Good thing you didn’t go looking for Butterscotch on your own.”
I smile, then stop.
“But you wanted me gone, Dad,” I say once he’s already going back to the car. “You wanted me gone.”
On the day when I stop hoping for Butterscotch to come back, I hear mom and dad having sex. Actually it’s at night, so it’s real quiet otherwise. It’s like when one part of life is wrong enough, another thing can be made right. Like a see-saw only one person can be on the high end of. (My friend Katie told me what sex is, that’s how I know.)
Soon it’s quiet again, like there’s nothing left anywhere. Without thinking I listen for the sound of Butterscotch’s scratching on the scratching post, but when I don’t hear it I cry. At first quietly so no one can hear me, then reaching up into a howling cry for help, but no one comes to help me.
The next day dad and I are hanging the flyers in front of an old car wash almost on the edge of town. It’s hot out, and I watch the water from the wash pour out onto cars that can’t feel it while people outside sweat onto the sidewalk. Then I turn around and watch the dirty cars speed past on the main road, blue, red, purple, and even a spot of orange in the rush. Then the light is green and the sky is blue and once the cars have gone I see that the orange is still there, stuck to the pavement, soft fur blowing in the wind, and a thin sky blue collar wrapped around what was left of Butterscotch’s neck.
“Come on, I can’t do this all on my own. She is your cat,” Dad says from the front of the car wash, but I don’t move.
“Do you want to just turn around and go home? Cause that’s about what we’re going to do. Remember, Julie, discipline, that’s what it takes to succeed in this world. If you just put in the effort. Are you listening to me?”
He comes over to where I’m standing just in time to see a black SUV run over Butterscotch again in front of her picture on the wall. For a moment we both stand staring forward. Then he puts his hand on my shoulder.
Then he turns me away, and we walk, aimless and with purpose. We move slowly down the hot sidewalk, a sign saying “Ice Cream” above our heads.
“Come on, sport. How about some butterscotch?” he says without thinking.
I say nothing as he leads me into the shop where he orders for both of us. We share a gray booth by the window. My dad wipes the sweat from his brow and starts on his banana split. When I don’t start, he spoons up a clump of beige from my bowl and forces it close to my mouth like it’s medicine.
“Come on pal, down the hatch,” he says, which doesn’t make it sound appetizing, but I don’t want to disappoint him anymore, so I take the spoon into my mouth and let the ice cream slide onto my tongue, resting there for a moment.
I feel the old familiar sweetness fill my mouth, and it feels like my birthday. My dad is right there with me, and the sun shines onto our bowls, making them begin to melt, making us hurry to eat more while it’s still good.