Nothing to Prescribe Happiness

Rachel León

Short Fiction

Hazel found her first gray hair last week. She spent three days obsessing over it, which Ben, of course, found annoying. Just dye it, he said. As if all she needed was a solution. But she didn’t want to dye it. She wanted to be one of those women who embrace it, letting her brown hair slowly turn silver, one strand at a time. Ben—men—wanted to solve things, but all she wanted—needed—was time to work through it: she was getting older, even her hair was insisting she face this fact. Not just her knees, which she could blame on all those years of playing soccer finally catching up on her, or her laugh lines—such a nice turn of phrase, like wrinkles got a PR spin. She’d internalized hatred for her body—thighs too thick, butt too saggy. And her face—the unlucky inheritance of her father’s nose—but her weapon to combat that, to distract herself, and others, those all-critical so-judgmental others, was her thick beautiful hair, but now even that was conspiring against her. And so, in this moment here she was: gray hair, granny panties, frumpy flannel pajamas, and—the pièce de résistance—a pimple sprouting on her chin. God, when would the damn pimples ever stop? She’d doubted those old 90s commercials for whatever it was Neutrogena came up with to address the middle age paradigm of a simultaneous onslaught of both zits and wrinkles. Her naive little teen-self had been doubtful these two skin worries could so cruelly intersect. But no, it’s a thing. One beyond her control, unlike the granny panties and polka dot pajamas, which she chose to wear because the age one combats wrinkles and gray hairs coincides with the era of valuing comfort over looks. Why couldn’t she be wearing a thong and one of those tank tops with the built-in cleavage maker as her husband ended their marriage? Because she didn’t wear that stuff anymore, that’s why, because she was married. And the main benefit of marriage, as far as she was concerned, was that it allowed her to give up the bullshit that comes with being a woman—sexy shoes causing not-so-sexy bunions, sticky lipstick that stains your glass, impractical lingerie with wires digging under her breasts with straps so tight they cause back fat overhang, and let’s not forget the ever popular, ever uncomfortable, scant fabric known as a thong. She was too old for thongs. She favored easement in the form of messy ponytails and comfortable frumpy pajamas. 

Could a marriage really dissolve after a fight about not making dinner? Their entire marriage had been built from that kind of senseless bickering. Now all of a sudden, that was a deal breaker? Surely Ben was using it as an excuse. The marital debts she’d accrued were too high. He hated what he called her nagging. They didn’t have sex much—much being a nice way of saying ever. Not ever-ever, but basically. Practically. And she no longer found his jokes funny. Not that he found her funny, either. They couldn’t relate to one another. Sometimes she got too high strung, she knew. But sometimes? well, he could be—oh, how to put it lightly?—a dick. Because he had his flaws, too. Obviously. She wasn’t the only one milking this marriage thing. He wore boxers with holes in them. Holes! She might wear comfortable frumpy pajamas and granny panties, but they were at least intact. And while he’d dodged gray hairs—so far—you couldn’t deny his brown hair was disappearing. And the reason they didn’t have sex? he couldn’t keep an erection anymore. She blamed herself at first. Thought it was the granny panties, and would change into lacy strappy lingerie—thongs. To no avail. She bought things at the sex shop—kinky things. Bought a book on spicing up your sex life, 101 positions to try, new techniques for licking, sucking. And when nothing—and she means nothing—worked, she suggested he talk to his doctor about medication, and that was the end of even trying. He didn’t have a problem, he’d insisted. Stress, it was just stress. See—he was full of excuses, too. Ah, they were the king and queen of excuses. He used to like that song about being the king of wishful thinking, but no, that wasn’t him, not anymore. So pessimistic! And he never kissed her anymore. Never told her she was beautiful. She did most of the cooking and the dishes. And she asked him to make dinner—one time this week!—and he didn’t. He bought pizza, which they couldn’t afford. Not with two mortgages. 

She’d long dreamed of divorce. So much would be easier without him, truly. Without worrying about his impulse spending, like the canoe he bought off Craigslist last month—a fucking canoe! —and could the man possibly pick up his dirty socks? or hmm, was it really too much to simply put said socks in the hamper, rather than stripping them wherever he damn well pleased? and okay, this part’s embarrassing, but lately she’d been devouring romance novels. Downloading library e-books on her phone for all those moments she once scrolled through social media—the checkout lines, the waiting rooms, moments idled in drive-thrus. What prompted that first download, the one with the busty blonde in the arms of a rugged cowboy? She didn’t know, but the next, the rest, were downloaded because they were enjoyable to read. Such pleasure in getting lost in a story, in another life. And oh, how she hungered for a different life. One where she started each day with morning runs along the bike path. Nights of ardor! Passion! Being in love! Oh god, she could barely remember what that was like. The romance novel heroines were always getting butterflies in their stomachs. She couldn’t remember what that felt like. All she ever had in her stomach these days was knots and indigestion. Maybe Ben was right, perhaps their marriage had indeed run its course, and maybe there was something better waiting for them both. Like the ex she regretted breaking up with, the one she’d taken to casually stalking on social media. The one who got away, as they say. The one she held in her mind sometimes as she read those romance novels. Yes, maybe a better life was out there waiting for her. But she’d conceded enough for one night, so she made that same dull murmur Ben made—assent? acceptance? maybe agreement—and then she rolled over and pretended to sleep.

Would Ben move into the bungalow? Would she? What about the kids? Dom would stay with her, right? Ben couldn’t even get Dom’s pronouns right, no way was it a good idea for her to live with him. And what about Gabi? 

A snore. That fast? Ben fell asleep quickly, but that’s a damn record. She had the intense desire to punch him. For snoring, for his casualness, his resignation. For having non-greying hair. No pimples. If it wasn’t imperative to keep this gulf between their bodies, she could have curled her body against his and kicked her knee. If she angled it right, she could get him in his testicles. Ha! 

He smelled like Irish Spring soap, even from her corners of the bed, her kingdom—an entire country between them! He’d showered before their fight. She was a morning showerer, him an evening one. So many habits that were opposite. How he could fall asleep and wake so easily, but sleep was a struggle for her. Falling into it, waking from it. Except when she used to read the kids that Dr. Seuss sleep book, she’d fall asleep reading it, sometimes before the kids. Surely they’d long ago given it away. But if she knew they had it in a box somewhere, she’d get up and read it, see if it could still work its magic, which was ridiculous, but it was also 1:27am, so.

Dom’s birthday: January 27th. They’d gone to the supermarket together—probably our last time as a family of three, Ben had said as he’d strapped Gabi into her car seat, though it was, in fact, the last time she’d set foot in a grocery store with her husband by her side. So impractical to drag two small children to the store! Or big children, any children. But as a family of three, they’d done it: tackled the supermarket aisles with little Gabi sitting in the cart, begging for the juice with the cartoon monkey and those thickly frosted animal crackers. String cheese, frozen waffles, and when the cart was filled and it was time to check out, they’d stand in line sandwiched between tabloid magazines and every kind of candy imaginable. To appease her daughter she’d pretend to buy the gum Gabi wanted, only to tuck the package back in its rightful place when Gabi’s head was turned, then feign ignorance after unloading the groceries. It must’ve fallen out of the bag, she’d say, and her two-year-old would sob. But at least the tantrum was contained in their house and away from the judgmental eyes of strangers. Yes, no way would they ever attempt grocery shopping together after Dom was born—it was she or Ben. Usually her, desperate for an excuse to leave the house and be alone for an hour. The luxury of pushing a cart to the muzak-version of an Adele song, picking up peaches and squeezing like she’s searching for just the right one to buy, even though they were $2.99 a pound—way out of budget—but such satisfaction touching their fuzzy skin. The small pleasures found in the bleary-eyed days of new motherhood. 

The contractions began as she stepped inside the supermarket, Ben maneuvering Gabi’s little legs into the cart holes, strapping her in under the harsh fluorescent lights. Surely only pre-labor. It was weeks from her due date. But the contractions kept coming. Came throughout the produce aisle. Came until they came harder as they were looking at chicken—hmm, maybe we should start timing these. Came until they were coming five minutes apart. Came four minutes thirty-nine seconds as they neared the checkout line. Came quicker, harder as they abandoned their cart at the customer service desk—sorry, we’re in labor! That’s what Ben had said—we. That was the word he used for everything. Nothing was him or her, no, it was always a unified we. They’d been a team. She replayed his words earlier—I’m done fighting with you. That’s not how Ben talked. It was supposed to be, we shouldn’t fight like this, let’s be done fighting. The severance of the we into an I and a you. How final that felt now in the stillness of 2:03am.

They’d dropped off Gabi with Ben’s parents on their way to the hospital. Benito, Benito, il mio bambino, her mother-in-law was shrieking. Hazel had clutched her belly possessively. She didn’t know much Italian, but she understood mio, understood bambino. Knew her mother-in-law was calling the baby hers, when the baby so clearly belonged to Hazel. She clenched her teeth as she waved, her father-in-law holding Gabi and taking her little hands into his to help her wave, his voice speaking in rapid Italian words she didn’t know. No mio, though, no bambino. The contractions came faster and more intense now. Her OBGYN had warned second babies tend to come at twice the speed of the first. But her labor with Gabi had been a slow stop-and-start affair. Sixteen hours—so by her doctor’s calculations this one would be about eight. Dom had other plans, sliding down the birth canal as if anxious to enter this chaotic world. She only pushed for seven minutes—only a word she wouldn’t’ve used at the time—before the OBGYN exclaimed, you did it, your baby boy is here! She didn’t know any better and believed that’s what Dom was. Her hungry arms stretched and reaching for her infant, but the nurses insisted on wiping Dom clean, getting that cottage cheese stuff off his—no, her—skin that Hazel couldn’t care less about. Ben was crying, kissing her head. He’s beautiful, our son is so beautiful, he’d wept. And the nurse came with their baby—Dominic Benito Mancini—and placed the pink infant in her arms. So much pinker than Gabi had been—as if Dom’s skin was screaming at them to see they’d gotten the gender wrong. Not blue, dammit—PINK!

They’d wanted a boy. A son. A brother for Gabi. The picturesque American family: one boy and one girl. And as her new infant fed from her breast, she’d thought she had that. Thought she—they—had everything. Everything is perfect, Ben had whispered. And she’d agreed, she had, even though she’d long been suspicious of the myth of perfection. Deep down knew that idea was a façade, but in that bleary-eyed beautiful moment, holding this soft precious infant, she was lulled into believing they had indeed everything—they’d never want for anything ever again. Had a siren driven by right then? A foreshadowing, a reminder of the fragility of any life, of the violence of their hometown?

Fourteen years later, they’d wake to learn someone was murdered just down their street. Sirens in the night weren’t rare—they’d learned to ignore them. But that night there was screaming, too. We can’t live here anymore, she and Ben had agreed. Not after that. They knew little about the circumstances—the victim was a young man, nineteen years old. No identified suspects. The police were investigating the crime. The victim was shot outside his mother’s home. A newspaper article quoted his older sister, saying how much she’d admired her baby brother. He’d been smart, loyal, and kind. Gabi and Dom were those things, too. Gabi was only a few years younger than this kid. A man in the legal sense, sure, but a nineteen-year-old is still a child. 

Yet that’s how old they were when they married, she and Ben. Nineteen. A small Catholic ceremony for Ben couldn’t muster the courage to tell his parents Hazel was Protestant. At the time—now she was nothing. Agnostic, maybe. Ben still went to Mass each week with his parents. St. Anthony’s, of course. The southwest side had a tiny but vibrant Italian community, which Hazel hadn’t known about before she and Ben started dating. Hadn’t known that area before beginning casework. Hadn’t even known about Maria’s, a locally famous hole-in-the-wall (but classy!—George H.W. Bush dined here, Ben had bragged on their first date, even though he knew she was a staunch liberal) that closed six years ago. They’d been together through three presidents (Bush’s idiot son, her beloved Obama, and a megalomaniac reality TV star that made Bush seem benign) and three mayors. Watched the revitalization of downtown, went through a recession together, they’d both gone back to school. They’d owned five cars in the past eighteen years, and were pet-owners: two dogs, one cat, a gerbil. They’d lived in three places—an apartment, their bungalow, and now this two-story in Jackson Oaks. A second mortgage only possible because housing in their city was so cheap. Or his city. She’d gladly leave. But Ben wouldn’t dream of living away from his parents—he’d acted like she was trying to abandon her in-laws when she suggested they look for houses across the river—anyway, she wouldn’t move to a city where she’d end up drowning in debt just to live. And she and Ben never had been until they’d decided to move, which would’ve been fine if they sold their house or rented it out. But without tenants to cover that expense, it was like they were living in Madison, minus the lake and cool, liberal vibe; the bustle of the university and Capitol; the safe neighborhoods and schools. Not that Ben’s city was missing anything essential, there were things she liked about it, things that grew on her over time: the river running through it with a recreational path, a ton of lush parks, and a university, but a private and expensive one, not as affordable as a big state school (though ‘affordable’ and ‘college’ don’t quite go together, do they? Not with the student loans she and Ben have accumulated from their state university— fucking student loans!) And the fluctuation of crime: it’s not consistently bad, it’s just never totally… safe. You know what it’s like, living in a city like this? Marriage. It’s got its flaws—streets lined in trash, poverty, crime, plenty of miserable people who’ll honk at you if you ride your bike or take too long to go after the light turns green—but it’s got good things, too—quiet forest preserves, free art and music events, and optimism. And you take the good with the bad, even though the flaws are the most obvious and you tend to focus on those rather than the reason you love it. You take those things for granted. Like she took for granted Ben’s steadfastness, which over the years she’d seen as rigidity rather than dependability. And last week she’d looked at his burgeoning belly fat in disgust, she’d admit, but now she realized that extra padding is why hers felt okay, the way their bodies had both grown over the years as they aged; and the safety in that expansion, for it made hers acceptable. That mushrooming body was curled on the other side of the bed—the space between them like the mighty river: a divide, a force of separation. That’s what they’d be doing, right? Separating?

The dream! More than divorce, that’s what she’d long dreamed of: separation. The endless fantasy in the early days of motherhood. A friend at the time had been going through a divorce and complained about sharing custody, her one-year-old shuffled back and forth between her and this man she now loathed. But Hazel envied the arrangement, not the divorce and detesting, but how nice that’d be to split the parenting duties, to know there was a break coming, the promise of alone time. The value of a reprieve so much greater than her relationship—a dreary, lifeless thing consisting mostly of bland discussions on dividing labor or complaining about the damn weather or his damn socks or why he couldn’t do a damn load of laundry for once in his damn life. Adding a baby to the relationship early was stressful. They’d only been dating five months when she got pregnant with Gabi. And how he’d insisted they do the right thing and get married, hence the little Catholic wedding. Hence the do-you-take-Hazel-to-be-your-lawful-wedded-wife? and the do-you-take-Benito-to-be-your-lawful-wedded-husband? What does that even mean, a lawful wedded spouse? Legal, she supposed. But why was that the only promise? A legal bind through sickness and health, until death did they part. Nothing to help prescribe happiness in the union, even respect. No, simply to be legally wed. And now Ben wanted to sever that bind for reasons other than death. How many times had she wanted the same thing? But only in her wildest yearnings, fantasies, imagination. Another life! Another relationship! Probably another man, men were so easy, but maybe a woman. Even no relationship would be nice. Imagine the breathing space that’d allow her! Another old fantasy: taking a solo trip across the country. Leaving her family for just a week. Even five days. Hell, she’d take three.

She reached over for her phone and as it came to light, the room aglow. She had five new work emails—what kind of masochist adds their work email to their personal phone? She really should remove it. But she didn’t check it, instead pulling up her web browser and typing in cheap flights from Chicago. She scrolled through the results. Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Orlando, San Diego. She had never seen the ocean. Never been on a plane. But California sounded nice, especially in March. Sunshine! Beaches! Fish tacos! That trolley and the Golden Gate Bridge—no wait, that’s not San Diego. There’s a famous zoo there, maybe? She’s damn sure not spending her solo trip going to the fucking zoo. She typed in date options. Where would she stay? They couldn’t afford a trip like this, not with two mortgages.

Next to her, Ben’s snores got louder. More irritating. She could accept his desire to dismantle their entire relationship—marriage! —but fuck him for doing it with such resignation, fuck his snores and ability to sleep, fuck his inability to squeeze a tube of toothpaste from the bottom—my God, is that really so hard? Fuck the way he zoned out when she was talking, how he’d never rinse the frying pan after he made eggs and they’d be caked in that yellow crusty stuff that was nearly impossible to get off without soaking overnight. Fuck his inability to use correct pronouns for Dom. His stupid insistence to not use GPS when they went out of town, instead looking up maps ahead of time, and memorizing major streets, enjoying the challenge when they got lost—don’t tell me, don’t worry about looking it up, I’ve got this, he’d insist, like it was a game or one of those cornfield mazes he loved so fucking much. It developed problem-solving skills and an innate sense of direction, he’d insist. She was quick to point out he still had neither, after all these years. 

She’d use a GPS in San Diego. Or she could use public transportation and walk everywhere. She loved the idea of living somewhere walking was common, normal. Here, people drove everywhere—even when it was less than a mile! Which wasn’t to say she was one to walk; she wasn’t, but she could be, she at least wanted to be that kind of person. And she would be, in a city where the alternative wasn’t an option. She’d be active and probably twenty pounds lighter, one of those women who have enough energy to take the stairs—women who just do, whether they have the energy or not. A powerhouse, a go-getter! Someone people admire for their strength and agility. She could be that, even for three days. That’s all she’d go for, all she needed—really, that’s all she’d be able to afford.

Ben would be furious if she booked the trip. Would say, are you nuts? We can’t afford a trip! And by yourself? How selfish! But when was the last time she was allowed that, a little selfishness? And there’s that thing people say—smart people! authors and therapists!—about how a person needs to put on their own oxygen mask before putting on anyone else’s, how you’re supposed to save yourself before worrying about anyone else. How sometimes what looks like selfishness is actually self-preservation. That’s what this trip would be—self-preservation. And she deserved a vacation! Had paid time off just sitting, waiting to be used. You could even say she needed to take it because you use it or lose it, and she hadn’t used it in so long it wasn’t accumulating anymore, so really, if you think about it, her employer was basically getting free labor out of her in some backwards subtle way. Or, maybe that’s a stretch, but if she wasn’t accumulating more time off, she was in essence losing out on time off, and everyone deserves time off. A few short days of hedonism. 

She booked the flight. 

Excitement buzzed in her body, but she was also inexplicably tired. She’d figure out accommodations tomorrow. Pull out a map of San Diego like Ben did before going anywhere, but this time, she would be the one to chart the course, not plan it out—no, for once she’d be able to be spontaneous. Ben was allergic to spontaneity. But she didn’t have to worry about Ben or what he liked. She’d go to a city that sounded almost tropical. Explore. Lay on the beach. Go dancing. She’d have fun! A fling? She’d do whatever she fucking wanted! Freedom, she’d have complete and total freedom, which maybe was the solution all along. 

Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Fiction Editor for Arcturus and Reviews Editor for West Trade Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Ploughshares blog, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, Chicago Review of Books, Fiction Writers Review, Necessary Fiction, The Rupture, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere.

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