This Close to Happy
by Jessica Smith
When Nancy pulls into the driveway and sees her son’s car there, her first thought is to flee.
When was the last time she looked forward to seeing Andrew—elementary school? The days he would come home to lay his drowsy head in her lap? Certainly not since middle school and the hormones and the yelling and the slamming and the sulking that no one—not his father or the counselor they shipped him to once a week—could cure him of.
Nancy parks. She sits a moment listening to the motor cool then flips down the mirror. She has always been afraid she wears dread too plainly, and so she touches her face, trying to make it more pleasant. Then she goes inside.
Andrew is on the living room floor, roughing up the dog. “Who’s my sweet girl?” he says, pinning her to the ground. “Who’s my beautiful girl?”
The dog is too old for such horseplay, but she is the only one to receive consistent amounts of affection from Andrew, so Nancy doesn’t ask him to stop. Instead, she sets her things on the couch and takes off her coat.
“Hello,” she says.
Andrew doesn’t respond. On the floor next to him is a stack of boxes showing signs of hasty packing. They are full of his things. Clothes. Shoes. His most precious valuables: an X-box, a guitar, a bong.
“What’s going on?” Nancy asks.
Andrew looks up, and Nancy’s heart contracts painfully. In his handsomeness, she can see echoes of the baby he’d been, a chubby lump she propped against the dog’s warm flank whenever she needed to get something done. Back then she raised goldens—smart, sweet dogs she trusted to watch Andrew while she ran the vacuum or folded laundry. Whenever she looked up from her chores, she found Andrew resting with them, fat and happy, eyes closed in bliss.
In family photo albums, there are numerous pictures of Andrew being mothered by those dogs. In each, he is radiant.
One Thanksgiving, after too much wine, Nancy splayed those albums in front of their guests. “Look!” she said, her finger stabbing photos of Andrew with the dogs. “Look at that smile!” She paged through the rest of the album, pointing then to pictures of Andrew in her arms. In each, he wore a discontented frown.
“He never once smiled in pictures with me!” she said. Everyone remained quiet, and Nancy, suddenly nervous, burst into wild, inappropriate laughter.
Guests shifted in their chairs. Her husband suggested it was time for coffee—extra strong, he said, narrowing his eyes at Nancy—and Andrew leaned back in his chair and went to sleep.
Now Nancy steps gingerly around his bong. “You’re back?” she says.
“Home,” he says. “H-O-M-E.”
“Did something happen with Sarah?” she asks.
A year ago, Andrew had taken up with a girl ten years his senior. She worked at their bank, in loans. She didn’t have any direct dealings with Andrew, but she did have an office near the entrance, and after three months of flirtatious smiles, Andrew ducked his head inside to ask her to a movie. Sarah—a little stupidly, Nancy thought—said yes. Had she been bothered that Andrew was so young? That he worked a string of go-nowhere jobs at restaurants and bowling alleys and appliance stores? That he supplemented his income by occasionally selling drugs to coworkers? Apparently not. They were living together within three weeks.
Before Sarah, Andrew had been less discerning about girls. He liked them gorgeous and dull. They snuck into his basement bedroom thinking Nancy had no idea what was going on. But she became adept at hearing their cars park half a mile down the road. She could predict, with great precision, the number of minutes before they would appear in the driveway, skirting its muddy sinkholes. She trained her ear to catch the soft hiss of the sliding glass door bringing in night air and the unmistakable sugared smell of those girls: bubble gum or cotton candy, smells Nancy could still detect days later when she went downstairs to do laundry.
Nancy squints at her son, trying to discern something from the way his things are piled on the floor, but the boxes tell her nothing. Andrew stretches and rests his head against the dog’s neck.
“Andrew,” Nancy says. “What happened?”
He turns to look at her, or maybe a spot near her, and shakes his head. “I’m not going to discuss this with you,” he says. And with that he leaves, thundering downstairs to his old bedroom. At the bottom, he whistles and the dog perks up, pleased to have been summoned, and follows him into the dark.
It appears Nancy’s husband is neither surprised nor displeased by his son’s presence at home. Peter asks no questions, and after dinner both men duck outside to tinker with their cars as if it’s ordinary routine. Nancy watches from the kitchen window for ten minutes to make sure they will be occupied for some time, and then she calls Sarah.
The phone rings and rings and rings. When the voicemail comes on, Nancy hangs up, then decides to try again. This time, Sarah answers. She has been crying.
“It’s me, dear,” Nancy says.
“Yes?” Sarah says. Her voice sounds crisp and distant, the way it might if she were speaking to a telemarketer.
“I just wanted to call,” Nancy says, floundering. She stands on her toes and peers out the window, checking on Peter and Andrew. They are both bent deep into the bellies of their cars.
“Is Andrew all right?” Sarah says.
“Is he all right?”
“Is he hurt?” Sarah asks. “Is that why you’re calling? Did something happen?”
“No, no,” Nancy says. “He’s fine. He’s alive.” She closes her eyes and leans against the window frame. “Well, of course he’s alive. I just mean that he’s doing all right. Did something happen with you two?”
“Nancy,” Sarah says, “we broke up.”
Outside, Andrew and Peter stand back to admire their work. Andrew lights a joint, and they pass it back and forth companionably.
“Andrew is outside with his father,” Nancy says because she can suddenly think of nothing else. “They’re fixing their cars.” There is silence on the other end of the line. “Sarah?” she says.
“Is there something I can do for you?” Sarah asks.
“No,” Nancy says. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I called. These things—I don’t know—it’s just that…it’s just so hard.”
“Yes,” Sarah says, her voice now strained. “I really need to go, Nancy.”
“All right,” Nancy says. “Of course. I’ll talk to you soon.”
But Sarah hangs up without saying goodbye.
Nancy and Peter learned about Sarah when Andrew didn’t come home for five days.
At first his absence wasn’t alarming—whenever they requested information about his whereabouts or plans, he reminded them he was nineteen and didn’t need babysitting—and Nancy figured he was across town at his best friend’s house. He’d been staying there lately because even though Kyle lived at home, he had the run of an in-law apartment above his parents’ garage. It was the official home base for their friends, who liked that at Kyle’s they could smoke pot without limit and be the benefactors of another mother’s kindness. Kyle’s mother routinely cooked eggs and potatoes—enough to feed an army—and left them outside the apartment’s door, kept warm in deep chafing dishes. It was Club Med for the recent high school graduate.
But Andrew never stayed there longer than a couple days. On the third, Nancy left a voicemail asking if he was all right. He did not return her call. He also did not return her second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh calls, each increasingly panicked.
Peter, of course, thought Nancy was being ridiculous. “He’s a nineteen year old boy, for Christ’s sake,” he said. “He’s probably with some girl.”
On the fifth day of his absence, Nancy took it upon herself to find Andrew. She drove to his work, found his car in the lot, and waited—relieved—until his shift was over and he came outside. He lit a joint as soon as his feet struck pavement.
“I’M ALIVE, MOTHER,” he said witheringly as he neared their cars.
“And how would I know that?” she said. “Seriously, how would I know?”
“Your hysteria is embarrassing,” he said.
He got into his car and turned the key, but Nancy slid in the passenger side before he could drive away. He was right. She was hysterical, almost always. Hysteria was something that appeared post-birth, along with a sagging belly and the deep understanding that she would never belong to herself again.
“I’m not leaving until you tell me where you’ve been,” she said.
“It’s not a big deal,” he said.
“I’ll decide if it’s a big deal or not.” Nancy reached over to touch his hair, which looked unwashed, but he wrenched away.
“I’ve been at Sarah’s,” he said.
“Sarah,” Nancy said. “Am I supposed to know who that is?”
Andrew sighed gigantically and put the joint to his lips. “She’s just a girl I met,” he said. “Her parents rented her an apartment when she graduated in June. It’s over by the mall.”
Such lies! Such elegantly delivered lies! He hadn’t blinked once while speaking them. Nancy went home believing him and kept on believing him until he appeared, having been summoned for his ailing grandfather’s birthday, with Sarah on his arm. Andrew deposited her in the kitchen and stepped outside with the men, who were drinking and grilling and throwing horseshoes.
“I think,” Nancy said slowly, shaking Sarah’s hand, “we’re going to need to play catch-up. We’ve been under the impression that you just graduated high school.”
The other women in the room, aunts and cousins and nieces, developed a sudden interest in their shoes. They milled around the kitchen, trying to find things to do. Some wiped counters, some refilled glasses, others straightened napkins.
Sarah, for her part, was good natured about the whole thing. She shook hands, apologized for Andrew—“He’s certainly got a thing for reckless decisions, doesn’t he?” she said—and made the rounds, giving each woman a generous hug. By the end of the day, no one, not even Nancy, could recall their initial horror upon seeing how old she was.
“I like her,” Nancy’s own mother said. “She’s a pistol.”
Later, while they were preparing for bed, Nancy asked Peter what he thought.
“What’s with this Sarah business?” she said.
“This Sarah business,” Peter said. “God, Nance. It’s fine. Just leave him be.” But after she snapped the lights out, he sighed. “I give it six weeks,” he said.
But it lasted longer than that, and suddenly Andrew was showing up to holidays sharply-dressed and bearing seasonal gifts: cookie platters, flowers, delicate gold jewelry. He was still glum and inattentive, but he kissed Nancy on the cheek and occasionally spoke to her in complete sentences.
During that time, Nancy felt as close to happy as she had in recent memory. She thought she and Andrew had reached a turning point and could move into a new closeness. But what now, after the breakup? Who would Andrew be now that he was alone again?
In the days following his return, Nancy tries to find out. She listens in on his phone conversations, noting moods and routines. Other mothers, she’s certain, would be able to figure something out just by paying attention, but Andrew is a mystery to her.
It seems he has opened a door to the past and stepped happily through it. He sleeps till noon, leaves laundry lying around the house, and stands in front of the open fridge complaining about its lack of snacks. The house fills with the noise of his existence, the basement rattling at all hours with the sound of computerized gunfire. Late at night, Nancy, who hasn’t slept for days, sits at the top of the basement stairs, listening to Andrew launch grenades and shout, “Eat a dick, you fucking cunt!”
When he was little, Andrew went to Kindergarten knowing how to tie his shoes, write his name, read sight words, and say please. He liked to help out in the classroom. At nap time, he comforted the crying kids who missed their mothers. At snack time, he doled out graham crackers and juice boxes. His teachers marveled. Whatever you’re doing, they said, keep doing it.
But only a handful of years later, Andrew was in counseling for “unresolved anger issues” and his counselor pressed a book into Nancy’s hands. The book was called Fake It Till You Make It: A Guide to Living with Teenagers and its first line read, Let us begin by admitting uncomfortable truths: there is no guarantee our children will be good, and there is no guarantee that they will love us.
That line! It haunted Nancy, cycling through her head as she drove, cooked, and slept. How was it fair? A mother gave up so much, and not just the obvious things—looks, figure, sleep, free time—but also bigger things, like a sense of peace. In fact, even after Andrew moved in with Sarah and the house returned to Nancy and Peter as a space to do with as they pleased, Nancy found she could no longer sit still. She couldn’t make it through a movie or football game or newscast without getting up and moving around the room aimlessly, touching things and looking out windows.
“Whatever you’re doing,” Peter said, “you need to stop. You’re being obnoxious.”
Nancy could never really describe it, at least not in a way Peter would understand. Though this was supposed to be a time of renewed freedom, she still felt tethered to something large and distant and always on the move. There was no rest because it did not rest. Nancy was certain this thing was Andrew, that he was out there somewhere, always trying to escape her, and here she was, moving and moving and moving, just trying to keep him in view.
On day seven after Andrew’s return, Nancy makes the mistake of asking him a question. She knows she probably shouldn’t, since it will ruin the established détente of the dinner table, but she’s dying to know: what happened between him and Sarah? What does he want to do with his life? Does he have a plan?
“A plan?” Andrew says. “You’re seriously asking me that right now?” He sets down his fork and turns to his father. “Do you hear this?”
“I hear it,” Peter says.
“Is it really a strange question?” Nancy asks.
Peter says nothing. He wipes his mouth with a napkin.
“It’s always something,” Andrew says. “You always want something from me.”
Peter gives a slight nod Nancy isn’t meant to see, but she does, and Andrew does too, his face brightening at his father’s agreement.
Later, when Andrew and Peter have gone to town for ice cream, Nancy, who was not invited, paces on the back porch. She wants a cigarette. She hasn’t smoked in twenty-five years, but she feels the old urge burning the back of her throat. She pours scotch from an ancient bottle in the liquor cabinet. She drinks it, then pours more. She sips more slowly this time, but it does nothing for the raw ache in her throat.
She decides to call Sarah. Or maybe she doesn’t decide. It doesn’t really seem like a conscious action. One moment she is holding the scotch in her hand, the tumbler feeling cool and heavy and like it wants to be thrown, and the next moment the phone is in her hand and it’s dialing out.
The phone rings. Sarah does not pick up, and her voicemail comes on before Nancy has decided if she should leave a message. The recording beeps and a stretch of silence opens up, waiting to be filled.
“Hi, Sarah,” Nancy says. “It’s me. The boys just stepped out for some ice cream, so I thought I’d check in. Please call me back.”
She shouldn’t be calling. She knows that. But still she feels compelled, as if there’s some other desire behind these calls. Nancy stares into the distance, into the shadows and woods surrounding the house, and thinks she can almost identify it, that dark want lurking somewhere near her, but it slides away to nothing before she has a chance to name it.
Days fifteen and sixteen after Andrew’s return, Nancy calls Sarah again. She is always hopeful, even when leaving another voicemail—Sweetheart, it’s Nancy. Call me, will you? or Can you believe it’s almost October? What’s going on in your neck of the woods?—but Sarah never calls back.
On day eighteen, Andrew comes home while Nancy is making a pot pie for dinner.
"Your favorite,” she says, showing off the pie tin before returning to the business of sealing crust.
Andrew stops dead, heaving out a great sigh. “Mother,” he says, “you need to stop this.”
She has almost reached the last edge of the pie, but she pauses before making the final crimp. Her fingers tremble against the crust.
“Stop what?” she says.
“This.” Andrew waves his hands around the room, as if everything in it is wrong and her fault. “You never leave me alone.”
“I was just telling you what I made for dinner,” Nancy says.
“I want you to pretend like I’m not here,” he says. “Can you do that?”
Then there is a crash and the pot pie is on the floor, its contents spreading across the linoleum before Nancy understands what happened. She looks down at the torn crust, the broken dish.
“You threw that,” Andrew says. His eyes are wide.
“I dropped it,” she says. She bends to pick up pieces of the casserole.
“You fucking threw it, Mom,” he says.
Had she? It happened just seconds ago, but she can’t remember. She lets the broken pieces fall out of her hands. She is close to tears.
“You need to tell me,” she says, “what you did.”
“What I did?” Andrew says.
“To Sarah,” Nancy says. “What did you do to her?”
“Oh, fuck this.” Andrew starts for the basement stairs, but Nancy opens her mouth and screams. Andrew stops, horrified.
“Are you insane?” he says.
“Tell me,” she says. “Tell me right now what you did.”
“What makes you so certain it was me that did anything?” Andrew says.
She stares at him. “Because,” she says, “I know you.”
How long had she been convincing herself Andrew was a mystery, some unknowable thing? She’d made like she could not fathom him. But that was a lie. She has always known exactly who he is.
Andrew points a finger at her. His face is so cold it takes her breath away. She can it see so clearly now, so certainly, the thing she hoped was not true this whole time: he does not love her. She is just something in his way.
“Stay out of my business,” he says, and then he is gone down to the basement, slamming his door.
Nancy’s heartrate slows, bit by bit, and she takes a breath to steady herself. When she feels more calm, she steps to the other side of the kitchen, not caring that she tracks the remains of dinner with her. She digs under a scattering of mail, finds her phone, and calls Sarah.
Nancy expects the voicemail but hears a click, then silence.
“Sarah?” Nancy says.
“You need to stop this, Nancy,” Sarah says.
“It’s really fucked up,” Sarah says. “All of this is really fucked up.”
“I was just calling—” Nancy says, but the words won’t come. They’re in her head—he doesn’t love me either—but she knows she shouldn’t say them. Sarah deserves her own corner of the pain. She should live in it, know it, think of it as her own. She should never know she is just one of many, one in a string that started with Nancy. Andrew will leave them all, every last one, no matter what.
Sarah is crying now, loud, jagged sobs that rip through the connection.
“I don’t understand you people,” Sarah says. “How did he get this way? What did you do to him?”
Nancy has no answer for that, but she knows what Sarah needs: an end, a definitive end. She needs hate—black and burning and huge—so she can sever herself and move away from Andrew. This hate is a gift Nancy can give her, and so she keeps murmuring small encouragements—you’re okay, you’re right—until Sarah’s voice thins, stretched to breaking.
“Fuck you,” Sarah says, weeping. “Fuck all of you.”
And then she hangs up.