A Good Ache
by Amanda Miska
They lived out in the country. She wasn’t happy. They had to drive twenty minutes to the nearest grocery store, and they had a real problem with raccoons getting into their trash at night, ripping it to shreds and trailing it through their yard. She wished he was the type of man who kept a shotgun in a locked cabinet, but he was the kind who felt remorse at squishing a spider. But he loved her and wanted to make her happy.
So they moved to the city. They had to rent a much smaller place with a Murphy bed, which had always sounded quaint but was actually a pain in the ass. They almost never folded it back up, except when they invited friends over, which was rare because they were too busy to make friends that they could entertain. He worked two jobs, as a journalist and a guitar instructor, and she waitressed most nights. Men liked to touch her and call her sweetheart, but her husband never did anymore. She wasn’t happy.
One day, after he’d brought her flowers and she’d set them aside like junk mail, he finally said, exasperated, “Maybe you just aren’t a happy person, did you ever think of that?”
She looked up at him.
“No,” she said firmly. “My mother says I was a very happy child. I giggled and cooed and all that.”
“Then build a time machine and go back. To when you were undeniably happy.”
“Yes, but then I wouldn’t know you.” She responded as though his suggestion was logical but for this one thing.
“You were happy before you knew me.”
“Maybe, but I don’t remember. Do you?”
Unhappiness had cast a pall on any memories she did have of them, sometimes shadowing them so much that they were practically forgotten. But he remembered what he’d fallen in love with in the frantic weeks after they’d first met: she always wanted impossible things.
“Be here in five minutes,” she’d say over the phone when they lived 300 miles apart. Like he could snap his fingers and appear at her door.
“I wish I could.”
This became a common phrase for him in their life together. He said it so much that maybe she’d stopped believing it. But he hadn’t stopped wishing he could change the world with the mere thought of her, his love like some magic potion that gave him super powers. He wanted to make her happy, but the want was not enough.
“Would you even know if you felt happiness? Maybe you’ve felt it, but you didn’t know.”
“Tell me what it feels like to you.”
“I don’t know. It’s like…a good ache.”
“Then, no. Still no.”
* * *
So they moved to the suburbs and tried to get pregnant since everyone else in a one mile radius was either pregnant or already had children. They tried for months, they were always touching, but nothing happened, except she started staring out windows more and realizing that she really wasn’t happy. Maybe that’s why the baby wouldn’t form: her uterus was a dark, dismal place where nothing would grow.
They were in the middle of a particularly bleak winter with record snow falls when she said that she wanted a beach to appear in the middle of their living room. He smiled at her like she’d told an adorable joke.
“I’m serious,” she said, sobbing. She shuffled away from him down the hall, quietly closing the door to their room.
He went out and bought two folding lawn chairs and some coconut-smelling sunscreen from the spring break section of Target. He downloaded MP3s of ocean sounds. He filled a big mixing bowl with tepid water and salt so she could put her feet in. He set everything up. He ran his freezing fingers under hot water to warm them up before he touched her.
He retrieved her from their bedroom, where she’d wrapped herself up in three blankets. He unrolled her from her cocoon and stripped her down to her socks and underwear. He held her hand and walked her into living room. The recorded waves crashed, and the recorded birds cried out. He sat her down on the chair where he rubbed her shoulders with the lotion, and then he knelt down and gently removed his wool socks from her feet and placed her toes gently in the bowl. He kissed her knees. She placed her hands on his head like a benediction, and they sat there for a long time, with him at her feet. She could feel a slow building in her chest, like nostalgia with none of the sadness, like warm sunlight against closed eyelids.
The waves crashed, and the birds cried out, and she could have sworn she felt a light breeze rustle the hair that framed her face, there for a moment but just as quickly gone.
This story originated in a bit of a writer's cliche: the idea came to me in the shower. I have two small children, and we read a lot, and this "She wasn't happy" refrain came to my mind, a repeated line like many children's stories, the line on which the story hinges. A favorite little book of ours called Dear Zoo repeats the line "I sent him back" about various animals gifted to the child narrator from the zoo until the perfect animal is found, and the line turns: "I kept him." It's a story about exhausting your options until you get what you need.
In kids' stories, the final change always results in immediate, lasting happiness or satisfaction. In adult stories, the resolution is a bit more nebulous and fleeting—like happiness itself. The story resolves, and I think the line last can either be read as hopeful or pessimistic. I'm always inclined toward the hopeful.
Amanda Miska is Editor-in-Chief of Split Lip Magazine. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from American University. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in or are forthcoming from Whiskey Paper, CHEAP POP, jmww, Storychord, Five Quarterly, Pea River Journal, Hippocampus Magazine, Atticus Review, The Manifest Station, the Prairie Schooner blog, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives and writes in Northern Virginia—for now.