Maze Sketch

You find happiness beside a food truck on Pike and Broadway, while you are waiting for the tacos you just ordered. It’s an illogical type of happiness, the kind that has no object, as if a net that smothered your thoughts has been chewed away, and now your attention spills outward. So you decide not to go home. You carry your tacos to the park to eat them with yourself—which, you decide, is not the same thing as eating them alone.

So you walk, and you keep finding what the happiness is. You think: it is the plum blossoms. It is the dogs carrying leashes in their own mouths. It is how your blood feels powerfully sober. It is a group of people at a bus stop who all stand on their toes, lean over the curb, together catching sight of their bus, which is just now coming down a hill.

So the next morning, you are in line for coffee when a nanny for some rich Microsoft family walks in. She’s holding hands with a toddler. A few minutes later, she offers him banana chips and he swings his entire arm in a Frankenstein-like fashion across the table, scattering the chips across the floor. The girl doesn’t seem to care. She gathers her hair across a front shoulder and sips the brimming foam from her latte. And when she straightens and smiles at you with her whole face, you decide to ask her out on a date.

That night, you both walk through snow flurries, to a bar that has transformed with the weather, feels like a ski lodge. The girl orders whiskey. When her hair dries out, it looks iridescent from the bar lights, like a frizzy halo. She gets drunk with you and tells you about writing suicide notes to her parents when she was only six years old, about an ex-boyfriend who had to take all his clothes off anytime he took a shit. You think: this is fun. You think: I am learning.

One of your friends throws a brunch party. His house is a big faded triangle with bicycles and damp people oozing from the doors. You eat waffles late into the afternoon. Then a strange guy with hair braided into pigtails—someone’s co-worker, probably—interrupts a group conversation. He says, “Man, I don’t believe in power. All power is just inferiority, anyways.” No one responds. The whole room is silent, and one friend is holding a pillow to her chest and smiling at the ceiling. You decide that all of you, together, are making the world a better place with that silence.

These days, you rarely check your email. You are not signing onto Facebook to look at pictures of “Ashley and Justin’s rustic barn wedding.” You are not wishing for the things people always do. You are not jealous of the couples wearing sweat pants in Trader Joes, buying falafel mix for dinner on a Friday. You do not even want a volatile lover inconsistent with your own nature. And when you look in the mirror, you do so only long enough to decide that you are balding with dignity, though just a few years ago you would not have considered that to be possible.

The Microsoft nanny asks you out to lunch, to a restaurant that only serves Pho and cream puffs. After squirting plum sauce into her “medium veggie,” she tells you she has contracted a skin disease that, while treatable, is painful and semi-contagious. It will be two years before she can be sexually active. You’ve only been on one date, so you can’t be sad. She takes you into the bathroom and pulls down her pants to show you the red dots spreading around her thighs and torso. Molluscum Contagiosum. She got it from swimming in a hotel pool. You walk her home, and saying goodbye feels like practice for the other times you’ll have to leave someone else, for when it will be much more difficult.

So you walk alone until dinnertime, and by then all the brick apartment buildings and Victorian mansions have their lights on. Tenants are painting at their kitchen tables. They are putting everything in drawers. They are smoking too much weed and spending hours reading about the Illuminati. They are poised on living room rugs, performing stretches that will help with sciatic nerve pain. They are not the type of people who think that, at age 26, if they haven’t found someone to “be with,” that they might end up alone. They do not pretend that there can be a plot for their happiness. They know how feelings that never change are lies.

It ends while you are asleep. Your mind discovers that there is no reason for your happiness. It’s not that your subconscious reviles that emotion—it’s just that, from a certain angle, happiness looks like something you don’t need anymore. So it gets released, and in the morning you sit in bed, laptop on thighs, staring at previously read emails. You get ready, but the longer you look in the mirror, the more you have to stand in front of it. And on your walk to work, all the blinds are closed. Attractive strangers are smug. You want to care about the plum blossoms, but you don’t. You try to see them falling around you like pink TV snow. You try to see them as they were. But what you are doing is this: you are reaching out into the world to find happiness again, but it’s one of those things that wouldn’t be real if you could touch it, that wouldn’t be worth much if it could be chased after leaving.

About the Author:

John Englehardt’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Sycamore Review, The Stranger, Monkeybicycle, The Monarch Review, and Furlough Magazine. He won the 2014 Wabash Prize in Fiction, as well as The Stranger‘s A&P fiction contest. He’s a recent graduate of University of Arkansas’ MFA program, and now lives and works in Seattle.

Special Notes:

This story won The Conium Review‘s 2014 Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Ashley Farmer.  It was also made into a micro-chap and distributed at the 2015 AWP Conference in Minneapolis, MN.

This story is one of The Conium Review‘s nominations for the Sundress Publications anthology, Best of the Net 2015.

This story was nominated and listed as a semifinalist for the Queen’s Ferry Press anthology, Best Small Fictions 2016, guest edited by Stuart Dybek.

Image Credit: © carlacastagno / Dollar Photo Club