Mildy Unhappy, with Moments of Joy
by Amber Sparks
It ends with a text, friend to friend: “I’m out.” But it doesn’t end, because the other is not.
They are best friends since their late twenties, both new to the city in the same year, the same sodden winter month. They meet cute, stalking out the same spot at the dingy corner coffee shop to plug in a laptop. They both cling to the tail end of journalism, that ugly, scaly thing shrieking for clicks and shares, even then. They laugh about developing a brand, they share each other’s sad little pieces about lifestyle products and uninformed wellness tips, they publish fiction no one reads and in between, they get married to perfectly lovely people and have three babies between the two of them. One gets divorced, but it’s not terrible; he’s an involved dad and he still comes to birthday parties and makes everybody laugh in a nice, self-depreciating way. One stays married and stays home, eventually, to raise the two babies-turned-children. She is still hustling, though, because this is the city, and everyone is hustling here, whether it’s writing blogs about which pizza place is worst or selling homemade scented soaps to retailers, which is what the still-married friend is doing. She makes the soaps in her tiny half-bath while her wife half-watches the children and makes websites for incapable but rich people who, of course, are also hustling. They understand one another, these two, these best friends, because they know everything there is to know about one another. They know each other’s weight, and height, and real hair color, and how often they have sex, and which smells the other can’t stand.The married one knows the reason for the divorced one’s divorce, and she is the only other person on earth who does. The divorced one knows how much the married one wishes she’d only had one child, and she is the only other person on earth who knows this. They are both mildly unhappy, with moments of joy, in the unexceptional way of most people who live in the city, and they see each other as often as they can these days.
And then, the text. The divorced friend, the receiver, immediately calls. No answer.
Alarmed, she calls the wife. The wife is perplexed. “She’s right here,” she says. “But she won’t speak to you.” The wife doesn’t get it either, and then she hangs up, having clearly been instructed. No answer after.
She tries to text her friend again, but her texts are now blocked.
She shows up at her friend’s apartment, shouts up at the window, tries to persuade the doorman, but nothing. Can she throw rocks? It’s a fourth-floor apartment, so it’s doubtful. She’s never had any upper arm strength. And she might be arrested. Can she make a scene? And where? She considers her options, as a friend. Scenes are for lovers. Friends are supposed to move on. Friends can be ghosted. But best friends? What window is left in her life for protest? She feels she’s missed a beat, a line. A scene has been left accidentally on the cutting room floor.
After a long time with no posts, her friend’s social media accounts are all deleted. The scented soaps website comes down.
She sits at the dingy coffee shop day after day. She stares at the brown and green tiles, picks wider holes in the ripped vinyl chairs. She is hoping to catch her friend in nostalgia or apology. It would be very like her friend, except, of course, it isn’t. She calls the wife again; no answer, and then, months later, the number is changed. She stops by the apartment, and the doorman is always apologetic, sympathetic, if embarrassed. Eventually, her friend has moved. The doorman is clearly relieved; he is all but washing his hands of her. The white gloves move imperceptibly.
The doorman thinks (he heard from another tenant) that the friend and her wife moved uptown.
During the school holiday concert, her ex tells her (he heard from a co-op cashier) that the friend and her wife moved to a small Midwestern town. He has dyed his gray hair a dark, false brown, and this makes her wish they were still married.
The butcher tells her (he heard from another customer) that the friend and her wife moved to a suburb of the city. She has not asked the butcher to volunteer this information.
She calls all their mutual friends. She has been too ashamed before to do this, feeling sure they will blame her for the break, but now she is too distraught to care. The mutual friends have not heard from the friend, or the wife, in months. The mutual friends have not seen the children in their children’s Montessori school. The mutual friends have not seen the homemade soaps anywhere at the usual retailers lately. She does not, she realizes, has never known, the family of the friend; she cannot call or email them to ask. She is not a lover, so she cannot track them down with some great passion.
So now the breadcrumbs, few as they were, have been eaten. The trail is tundra cold. Her friend, it seems has left the city; or at least, she has left the parts of the city she formerly haunted.
The divorced friend drifts for months, a year, watches old movies during nights filled with half-sleep. She hasn’t been this dumb, this ghostly, since she was pregnant. She mourns and does not mourn. She wonders but does not search. And then one night, she makes a decision.
She deletes her texts from the friend who is gone. She deletes her emails. She deletes the photos in Facebook and Instagram. She erases her voicemails. She tells her small daughter that Aunt Friend was imaginary; not real, never existed.
Then the coffee shop closes.
In her late thirties, the friend is a little more unhappy than before, but no more than most people who live in the city. When asked about her friend, she shrugs and says that’s one less social obligation to fulfill; she has more time to work on her novel now.
This is a love letter written from the depths of winter. It's a love letter to the city, and to all my city friends; it's a glass raised to our pretend resiliency that we're so proud of.
Amber Sparks is the author of two short story collections, including the recent The Unfinished World and Other Stories. Her fiction and essays appear widely online at places like Tin House, Granta, and American Short Fiction, and you can find them all at ambernoellesparks.com. She lives in Washington, DC with two beasts and two humans, but if you don't live in the swamp you can still say hey on Twitter @ambernoelle.