Happy in Provence: A Short Story

Many of my friends have the Holiday Blues, and to them, I offer this story, which was published several years ago in a now-defunct literary magazine called Absinthe Revival.  I reprint it here, with best wishes for a wonderful New Year!

Happy in Provence

Carla Sarett
Image result for Union league philadelphia

A few holiday seasons ago, I found myself at The Union League in Philadelphia, which is a charmer of a building with elegant twin circular staircases.  I was there for a small symposium on Human Happiness.  That year, many of my fellow researchers were obsessed in an effort to explore this most strange of human emotions.   
My friend, Professor Avi Mazan, gave the final lecture of the day – and it was well-attended.  In his lively way, Avi filled us in on the latest theory of human happiness.  The way the theory goes, as you may know, is that we dream a new shiny car will cheer our spirits forever.  But it turns out that the fun of a new automobile, no matter how shiny, is short-lived (or, in my case, absent, since I hate to drive and avoid it like the plague.   In fact, my personal happiness would be much improved if we all flew around in little balloons.)
To me, the entire theory seemed pointless in the extreme.  After all, nothing in life lasts forever, and who am I to frown upon the fleeting pleasure of a new car? 
But as Avi described it, the theory was a revelation, a real shocker.  I wondered if Avi, being Greek, was under the illusion that flashy cars really do promote lasting happiness.  But, more likely, dapper Avi himself craved a gleaming red Ferrari -- and his practical wife Suzanne felt that no husband actually required a tiny sports-car.     
After the speech, there was the usual reception, made more dignified by the polished marble and burnished leather of the room.  I marched over to Avi to congratulate him on his speech and to catch up—we were old friends from my academic days. 
Avi, like most of my professor friends, took a dim view of the holidays.  “It just shows how everyone has lost the sense of the holidays-- all this buying and spending.  It’s a modern sickness, a sickness of the soul,” he said.   He helped himself to some tired-looking grapes. 
I said, “Lighten up.  There are worse problems to worry about and besides for Jews, it’s just a season.  Anyway, when people aren’t out spending, take it from me, they’re just watching reality TV or over-eating, so what’s your problem?”
 Avi said mournfully, “It’s just mindless consumerism.” 
My hunch was that poor Avi, like most men, had no clue what to buy his wife.  Suzanne was a fashionable marketing executive and probably had high expectations in the gift department—if Avi had any sense, he could have ordered anything from Tiffany’s and had it monogrammed.
I teased him. “Well, I love buying gifts, so if I had my way, we’d all have two or three extra birthdays, so I could buy even more gifts.” 
Avi ignored me and went on, “This study has given me ideas. I think what we need is to construct an algorithm for all of human happiness.  I’ll start with the Ten Happiest Days of Your Life, and then collect lists from thousands of different types of people, all of the Happiest Days of their lives.“  
He spoke as if he were inventing a new shiny version of happiness—perhaps to replace the red Ferrari.
“A day is way too long,” I argued. “That’s over twelve hours of straight happiness, and even after great sex, no one’s jumping up and down for twelve hours, more like two or three.  Not that sex should be on the list, since what with Viagra and divorce and all those political scandals, sex may not make people all that happy.”
Avi conceded the point.  “You’re right, maybe, just the Happiest Moments.  Besides, a day or an hour, as long as we capture the essence of happiness, what it’s all about.”
I felt skeptical about the whole enterprise, to put it mildly.  It reminded me of Sigmund Freud’s wordy book about jokes, in which Freud trots out one not-very-funny joke after another.    Freud, like most social scientists, could not tell a joke. 
But before I left, I wished Avi luck, feeling certain he would need it—as indeed we all do.  In fact, now that I think about it, being happy is matter of luck as much as anything else.
Avi was soon immersed in his Happiness Study.  He assembled a team of young enthusiastic grad students collecting personal histories from thousands of people, all carefully selected.  
Within months, he and his team had gathered an entire database, if you will, of happy moments from investment bankers, construction workers, bank tellers, writers, gallery owners, to say nothing of soldiers, sailors, airplane pilots, and elementary school teachers and firemen and even nuns.  Avi had even traveled to Lancaster County to find the Amish farmers who, whatever you might say against them, grow delicious celery and potatoes.
 An appointment near The University of Pennsylvania offered me a chance to visit Avi’s new Happiness Center.  There I found him amidst thousands of pages of interview data, nightmarishly scattered about.  Some pages were marked with red magic marker, others with black, still others had little sticky notes on them in pink and yellow and blue.  All in all, there seemed no rhyme or reason to it.
On his wall was a white board with a list of topics, to which Avi pointed with a grimace.  I inspected the list and recited it, trying to keep a straight face—“Weddings, Births, Anniversaries, Beach Vacations, Sunrises, Sunsets, Kisses, New Job, Bruce Springsteen concerts, Woodstock and the Day Your City Won the World Series, Provence.”
I had to laugh.  “The usual suspects.”
“Not very exciting,” Avi said woefully. “Woodstock, please.”
“Well, at least Woodstock had drugs.  And even if you’re gloomy as hell, drugs can perk you up.  In fact, you could skip Woodstock, just do the drugs and look at the poster, and probably end up in a better mood, what with the rain and the bugs and all.”
“And Provence,” he said. “Everyone is happy in Provence.”
I reminded him about all of the books about Provence--all best-sellers.  “Maybe everyone remembers the book by the Peter guy.” 
Avi showed me a few interviews.  It did appear that everyone had a magical day in Provence.  They met a villager who was only too thrilled to show them a few cathedrals-- this friendly villager, astonishingly, had a deep and abiding affection for American tourists. 
“There must be one tour guide roaming around Provence,” I said.  “I mean no one talks to me at the Farmer’s Market.  It can’t be people are all that much nicer in Provence although they’re probably sexier since they’re French.”
“Why don’t you create a list?  You’re always smiling, almost like a Californian.  You know how to be happy.  I admire that,” Avi said.
I was wearing my favorite turquoise scarf, which never fails to make me smile—especially when paired with my Hopi jewelry from Santa Fe.  However, the whole scarf-happiness link did not fit into the latest theory—and I kept quiet.
I said, “Thanks, I try.  My list will be precise and varied, more in tune with true happiness, unclouded happiness.  I have rigorous standards.”
Avi became enthused about my participation.  He felt my contribution was just what he needed.  “Start at the beginning, start in your childhood and work from there.”
 So, I first examined my childhood.  I should begin by saying that I had a perfectly average childhood in the happiness department.  Of course, it had its ups and downs, as all childhoods must, years of intense shyness and nightmares about the Gestapo.   But all in all, it was a fine childhood spent in relative comfort—and I am well aware that many of world’s children grow up in filth and squalor and misery.
Although I guess my parents had what is now labeled an unhappy marriage.  As a child, you don’t see it like that even with the violent fights and the long silences and even the tears, to say nothing of the money troubles, although those came later.  But when you’re older, you face facts.  Most families have difficulties.  No doubt, my parents were as happy as the couple next door— probably more so, since that young couple lost their adorable blond boy to leukemia and avoided all people afterward.   
But despite my ordinary childhood which should have yielded as many happy moments as any other, my mind went blank. There must have been festive birthday parties or juicy turkeys at Thanksgiving, but they escaped me now.
Only one day stood out, an autumn day when I must have been five or six.  My older brother and I were home alone, recovering from the mumps or chicken pox or some harmless childhood illness—so we were sick enough to avoid school, but we felt fine. 
Four years divided my older brother and me – it was rare to have him all to myself.   That morning, we played Superman and Supergirl.  It wasn’t much of a game--Superman commanded and Supergirl obeyed.  My brother jumped on the bed, and shouted, go forth, Supergirl, buy me a comic! 
Really, there wasn’t anything I would not have done for him. 
Off I flew soaring down the streets as Supergirl until, arriving at the small store, I realized I lacked the change to buy even one comic.  I returned empty-handed—by that time, I was ready for a nap. 
So, all I recall is how the running felt like flight --and how my brother was so alive then --and how he flies over me as I sleep-- and flies around and around as I think about happiness, how my brother will always hover above me.  So, the picture of him makes me happy for a moment, before I fall, softly as snow, back to earth.
Then I remembered one day on a Manhattan subway.  I was a teen-- in those years, I dreamed of an acting career, another dream which, like many others, seems so absurd now.  My New Jersey public high school allowed me to leave early twice a week in order to attend acting classes in New York.
The trip from the suburbs to the city involved a bus, which deposited me at the George Washington Bridge, and then the long A-train ride to West Fourth Street, and then a long and surprisingly windy walk from there to the acting studio.  All in all, the trip took over an hour.  In wintertime, switching between the chilly air and the over-heated buses and subways was a chore.
Coming home one day in the dead of winter, I boarded an empty subway car, which added passengers as it made its way uptown --office workers, old people, young mothers with tiny babies, even schoolchildren.  With each stop, the car became more densely filled, until I was squeezed on all sides and pressed to the innermost core, unable to move.  The car smelled like chewing gum, cloyingly sweet.  It was more than I could bear, the heat and the crowd and the sickening smell of gum.  I almost fainted.
Then, I realized that even if I were to faint, I would be supported by other people pressing against me.  They would prop me up—I could not fall.  And, I stopped resisting the heat and the closeness, and found myself lifted by the crowd, held together, warmed by the car—and more than anything, I wished that the ride could last forever.  And the moment stayed with me – the moment when it changed and I merged into people on all sides, in that crowded hot car.
If I could relive one moment, that would be it.  “It was perfect.  I think I’ll put it at the top of the list.” 
So  I told Avi as I showed him my carefully edited list—in his office amidst the mounds of data, stale coffee, and the walls of psychology books.  The chair was dusty, so I stood instead of sitting. I wondered what Suzanne must make of this depressing place.
Avi read my list with growing irritation.  “What’s the matter with you?  What do mean, your happiest moment was in some hot crowded subway, that’s not a happy time.  What is your problem?   And why is some afternoon alone with a cat on this list, what was so special about the cat, was it your cat even?”
  I was offended.  “No, it wasn’t, it was someone else’s cat named Herman.  But Herman was purring, and we listened to Schubert together without anyone else.  And I thought of my brother’s cat, how he purred when my brother held him.”
“That doesn’t sound happy.  That sounds sad.  In my mind, you’re not capable of separating happy from sad, it’s a problem.  You are fusing the two.”
“That’s your opinion,” I argued. “I can define happiness anyway I like, isn’t the whole point?” 
“No, it’s not the point. You can’t go a funeral and weep and then call it happy.”
I tried to make him see things my way.  “But the Irish, don’t’ they dance at funerals?  And people make jokes and they eat and they share memories-- sometimes a funeral can make people happy in a way.”
“You can’t define words any which way you please.  You’re illogical, and besides, you said you wanted perfect happiness, happiness that wasn’t clouded with sadness.  You said you had standards.” 
“I do,” I insisted.  “You think crying makes me sad, but you’re wrong.  That is why there’s an expression, tears of joy.”
Avi looked at me as if I were insane.  “What kind of standards, a hot subway and you alone with a cat, crying?  Why can’t you let go of things?”
“Avi, there’s no point whatsoever in letting go of people—why would you want to do that?  Anyway, you’re looking at this all backwards.  You are looking at happiness like it’s always there, and you can’t see it-- but it’s sadness that’s always around.  You don’t need a drug to be sad, you don’t need therapy.  You don’t have to work at being sad--it’s easy.   You can depend on sadness, it’s already here.”
But, I thought, happiness, it comes and goes, it’s fleeting.  It floats away like a colored balloon rising and rising until it disappears along with all of the people you love.
Avi sounded like a boy as he spoke, “But you, you are always happy.  And that’s getting further and further away from me.  Things with Suzanne have been just worse and worse, and I just don’t know where to start.”   
Facing us was the white board with its list of topics.  Avi shrugged as if to ask where he might find kisses and sunrises, sunsets and beaches-- all so ordinary but so hard to reach.  And seeing the words, I felt them whirling about me, pulling other memories into my orbit, all returning in an unexpected burst—even my own first kiss, as mysterious and sweet as anyone else’s.
I dusted off the chair and sat with him.  “Avi, you could do a lot worse than go to Provence.  You might as well start there—it’s as good a place as any.”


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