01 Feb A recipe for happiness
On my tenth birthday, I picked a dog from the pound. The pound had several beautiful dogs – huskies and German shepherds, sleek bluenose pit bulls and even a redbone hound – but the dog that caught my eye was a bowlegged teacup Chihuahua with wiry fur and ears that seemed to sprout from his neck.
His fur was prickly and he smelled like soggy corn chips. He also ate flies, snatching them out of the air like a clumsy frog.
So I named him Renfield.
Back then, we lived on five acres of golden forest. My favorite spot on the property was a hollow inside a wild hedge. It was the perfect hideout; you could only access the hollow by crawling along a hidden trench because the branches formed a thick, dangerous interlock on all sides.
I took Renfield inside the hedge that night. I remember the way sunlight shafted through the leaves and flowers, turning the space into a burrow of soft brown shadows overlaid with coppery light. My little dog looked up at me, eyes shining like amber in the dim.
I petted him until he fell asleep. Then I crawled out of the hollow and called his name, intending to confuse him.
He panicked immediately, yelping and clawing madly at the impenetrable branches.
His terror felt like a gut punch. I crawled back into the hedge. The way he looked at me is burned into my memory: wide-eyed and joyfully relieved, but terrified.
That look was all I could think of the day I put him to sleep.
I didn’t have a choice; I’d have him for eighteen years, and had medicated severe heart issues for four of those. He was in constant pain, so it was time.
But he knew something was wrong. He was so scared, and I scared him even more by crying. Tears always terrified him.
I tried to push away the memory of that first night in the hedge, of the way I’d scared him. But I couldn’t, and no wonder. Putting him to sleep, I’d trapped him again.
Only this time, I had to leave him behind.
He was my last lifeline. I felt him slipping away as surely as a drowning man feels a wave carry away his life preserver.
My crybaby tendencies didn’t start or end with my dog. Take my dad. He’d been in a nursing home for years by that point. He developed Alzheimer’s early. The descent was brutal and swift. As if that wasn’t enough, he had pancreatic cancer – automatically terminal and unimaginably excruciating.
I stopped visiting around that time. Not because I didn’t want to see him, but because I couldn’t do it to him. Just try to imagine – you’re in horrific pain, you don’t know who or where you are, and your only visitor is a gaunt stranger who bursts into tears whenever they see you.
I scared him to death whenever I visited. I made his disorienting, painful days that much worse. Stole what little peace he had.
So I stopped.
I meant to sit with him at the end, when he’d be in a drug-induced sleep so deep he wouldn’t notice me holding his hands and sobbing. But I wasn’t there when he died. I was at my doctor’s office, digesting the news that I, too, was going to be sick for the rest of my life.
I dreamed about my dad that night. He was trapped in the hedge and screaming for help. I tried to show him the way out for what felt like hours, but I was invisible. He couldn’t see me or hear me. As far as he knew, he was alone. Somehow, in that irrepressible logic of dreams, I knew it was my fault.
I woke up crying.
It was enough. I’d had enough.
I’m not stupid or naïve. Life is a tide. And the shitty truth is some of us live on a stormy coast.
I knew this.
But I wanted a break. Just a couple of hours where I didn’t feel sad.
So I went online, hoping to stumble on some kind of guided imagery technique or hypnotic ASMR. Something to create an artificially happy place, at least for a little while.
I tried everything. Nothing worked. I kept searching anyway, trawling increasingly weird websites far into the night because the search itself was addicting. Not a happy place, but certainly a distracting one.
Sometime in the middle of the fifth night, I found an ancient Geocities page titled:
a recipe for happiness
I clicked, of course.
Are you tired of feeling bad? Want to cheer up? Well have I got good news for you. My friend gave me this RECIPE FOR HAPPINESS that works like a charm!
There are TWO PARTS to the Recipe
What followed was a pretty standard honey cake recipe, although the last instructions gave me pause:
Mix the ingredients together in a glass bowl, then spit in the mixture
Cook at whatever temperature you want for EXACTLY 20 minutes
Cut in half. Put half outside your door. Eat the other half during…
Take one HAPPY MEMORY and MEDITATE
Think of someone who makes you happy
Plan a perfect day
Go to sleep thinking about your perfect day
Do this and your sorrow will be eaten away!!!
It made me smile. Eating cake while meditating on happier times wasn’t bad advice. So I gave it a try. I even spit in the cake batter.
I cut the cake and set half of it on the porch. Tendrils of steam twirled into the darkness, lit pale silver by the full moon.
I curled up the couch to eat the remaining half. For my happy memory, I chose that first evening in the hollow: my little dog, lit to soft brilliance by the dying sun.
As for someone who made me happy, I picked my dad.
Then I planned a perfect day. Or rather, remembered it.
I’d just started my first real job, and still lived with my parents. I’d had a good day at work. My dog met me in the driveway, prancing and wiggling like he hadn’t seen me for years. Dad cooked an early dinner and told jokes while my mom played her guitar. It rained that night. We went out to the porch, watching palm trees sway as torrents poured down. My dog was scared, so I picked him up and held him as thunder roared.
Afterward, we ate brownies and ice cream. Then I settled in for the night and read a book until I fell asleep, with my dog cured at my feet.
As I drifted off, smiling at the memory, I swore I could feel him there: warm and surprisingly heavy, sprawling lazily over my toes.
When I woke, that warm weight had shifted to my pillow.
A terrible, painful hope coursed through me, one I couldn’t even acknowledge.
I opened my eyes.
Something tiny lay on my pillow in a drying pool of blood. Fuzzy and weirdly dirty, exuding drifting grey filaments that sparkled in the sun. Three milky eyes glinted over a horror show of a snout: cracked and bleeding, bursting with an improbable cluster of human molars.
It blinked – each eye just slightly out of tandem, opening and closing with a soft, wet click – and smiled. Ropes of bloody drool leaked between its teeth. It placed two cold paws on my face.
Then it lowered its mouth over my own and inhaled.
Breath and blood and every organ in my body seemed to travel up my esophagus. Like God Himself was sucking my guts through a straw.
I whipped my head from side to side as the awful bottleneck sensation intensified. All my guts were coming up, and so were emotions – no, memories: half-forgotten nightmares. Painful images of my withered father. The last time I saw my mother, dressed for work and setting a bowl of oatmeal on the counter while driving rain fell. And my dog, my poor little dog, trying to run from the needle up until the very end.
I screamed into the mouth of the monster. I expected it to fly off, but it inflated: a furry flesh balloon growing, growing, growing –
Without warning, it let go.
I stumbled back, gagging. The monster – an engorged orb the size of a German Shepherd – simply smiled. Hazy morning light filtered through the window, bathing it in soft white.
Rage inexplicably built in my chest, growing exponentially every second.
“Are,” it croaked, then burped.
I wanted to kill it, to plunge my arms elbow-deep into its disgusting, distended body, and –
“Are you sad?” it asked.
A storm of emotion – rage, disgust, contempt, even hilarity – roiled through me. Overwhelming, overpowering, and paralyzing.
“No. You have no sadness.” It poked its belly with a ridiculousy small hand. “I have it.”
It took a long, long time, but I finally realized that this absurd abomination hadn’t eaten my guts.
It ate my feelings.
No sadness. No pain. No more stinging memories. Rage and confusion, sure. But underneath that was a satisfied calm akin to bliss.
I left it alone in my bedroom and went for a drive.
When I came back, I asked, “What are you?”
“A special treat,” it answered.
I decided I’d had a psychotic break, and voluntarily checked myself into a hospital. After two days of assessments, they found nothing wrong. Why would they? I was on an even keel, basking in a curiously blank inner peace.
When I got home, the monster was in my bed. Jolly, indecent roundness had withered to skeletal proportions. It looked awful. Starved.
“I need,” it gasped. “I need, or you will suffer again.”
The prospect of returning to a life of despair, of loss, was crushing; I couldn’t even fathom how I’d survived it in the first, and felt I’d never be able to do it again.
So I knelt by the bed and opened my mouth. The monster latched on and inhaled. The unpleasant bottleneck sensation returned: like my insides were crowding my windpipe. And with it, memories and feelings: the rage I’d experienced upon meeting the monster; contempt at its ugliness; the fear of insanity. And more: my dog, old and grey, waddling happily after me. My father in his hospital bed, smiling uncertainly as he said my name for the last night. And more, and more –
I wrenched away, gasping. The monster smiled, fat and rotund again.
Over the following days, we developed a routine. I went to work and attended doctor appointments, even visited friends. Then I came home and let the monster extract my negative feelings. Bad client at work? Removed and forgotten before the memory could sink in. Friend who wouldn’t make eye contact? What did I care, my pet monster would take care of it like he took care of everything else.
That’s what it did, you see: removed the feelings, the vibrancy, the pain, from painful things. Over the course of several weeks, it removed everything; I knew, dimly, that I experienced awful things on a daily basis, but I didn’t remember them.
The monster removed triggers, too: before the year was up, the sight of my dog’s bed no longer made me cry. Photos of my parents held almost no interest; I flipped through them on a regular basis, skimming places and faces that had so recently crushed me.
All the while, that peaceable bliss intensified. I flitted through life in a pleasant haze of calmness. My work life improved. My supervisor started talking about a promotion because I was so unflappable, so decisive. My friends were able to look at me again. And – for the first time in months – I was confident enough to reach out to them.
One day as I drove home from work, I realized I hadn’t looked at my photos in a very long time. It’s not that I cared, exactly. But it was a deviation. Those things no longer caused me pain, and I had nothing better to do. So why not view them?
I got home and obediently kneeled. The monster – now the size of a horse, twisted and bent like a mutated spider – fixed its mouth over mine. I’d come to enjoy the process. It was uncomfortable and unpleasant, but familiar. And afterward, I always felt happy: peaceful, empty, and warm.
When it finished, I opened my mother’s photo album and began to browse.
After a while, I realized I didn’t recognize anybody. I remembered remembering them.
But I didn’t remember them.
The stout man with curly hair like mine, the athletic woman who smiled like me, and the numerous people who wove in and out of this photographic narrative…they all were strangers.
I reached a picture of my ten-year-old self cuddling a ragged, homely Chihuahua. Ghosts of memories tickled my brain, urging me to remember, urging me to know.
And I understood, finally, that I had lost something.
I don’t know why I cared. I felt so happy. Peaceful. My life was painless. I was great.
But I was also selfish. And I didn’t like the idea that the monster had taken so much. Where was the line between happiness and emptiness? I didn’t want to be empty. I wanted to be full.
So, after many days of deliberation, I decided to make a change.
I called off work, canceled much-needed doctor appointments, and settled in to search online.
“What are you doing?” the monster asked.
“Looking up some special recipes,” I said with a bland smile.
It took seven days, but I found the original recipe. At the bottom of the page was another entry:
a recipe for sadness
Underneath were the words:
If you’re really dumb, you can undo happiness =( You shouldn’t, but it’s up to you. So here.
Mix cake batter folloing the INSTRUCTIONS above
Cut your hand and drip your blood into the batter
Cook the cake as instructed Above
Cut the cake in half
Give half to your Happiness, and eat the other half
Now here’s the sad part!!
Remember the happy memory you meditated on
Remember the person who made you happy
Remember your perfect day
Choose one to forget, OR…
Choose to never be happy again
Or better yet, don’t kill your happiness in the first place!
I agonized for days.
My monster – my happiness, my joy – continued to drain my pain, uncertainty, and fear. He quickly grew to three times his size.
Finally, I made my decision.
It would be better to live in pain forever than to forget my father, my mother, or my dog.
So I followed the recipe: sweet honey cake, poisoned with blood instead of saliva. Then I cut it in half and brought it to my monster.
I expected something awful. A fight that left my bloody shreds ground into the carpet.
But the monster only smiled. Round, flat eyes the size of dinner plates fixed on the blood cake. “What is that?”
“A special recipe.” I gulped, but the beast was so focused on the cake that it didn’t notice. “Just for you.”
“Thank you.” It opened its mouth.
I placed the cake delicately on its tongue. It chewed eagerly, and shrank. Fat, firm sides caved, ragged rolls of empty flesh falling against its bones.
Pain built in my guts and chest, roiling and fluttering. Shivers wracked my spine. My warm, even-keeled peace shrank along with the monster that had granted it, leaving cold desolation in its place.
By the time the monster shriveled into a flat, boneless mass of dusty fur, I was prostrate on the floor, sobbing. Memories flooded back, pummeling me, leaving me breathless with pain. They pressed against me and threatened to explode out of me, pinning me in place. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even dream of moving.
I could only lay there and hurt.
After my dad died, someone told me that pain is a fugue. It’ll break apart eventually, giving way to happiness again the way a nightmare opens to the morning. But my experience is opposite. There is no fugue. Sorrow is sharp, it is devastating, it is painfully present, and sometimes there’s no way out.
The recipe writer was right. I suffer every day, more than I did before. Like the universe is punishing me for those few months of stolen peace. It’s bad. So bad that sometimes I think I made the wrong choice.
But then I remember my dad. I remember my mom. I remember our perfect day filled with songs and bad jokes and warm, driving rain.
I remember my dog, nestled in warm, coppery shadows.
And even though I hurt, I am okay.