ON: the occasional necessity of utter unhappiness, by Meredith Grace Thompson
In this latest instalment of her ON____ series (you can also read parts 1 and 2), Meredith Grace Thompson braces the subject of happiness and its undoing, reflecting on a gendered experience of sadness in public transport and bartending. What follows is a bittersweet and complicated noticing of care, attention and gesture, among the everyday rhythms of misogyny, labour and conversation.
> I move to the very edge of my bus seat because the woman who just sat next to me, sideways in her seat so that her back is to me, is laughing with her boyfriend—or rather, laughing with a man across the aisle, who I am assuming he is her boyfriend but I actually have no idea—and keeps leaning back to laugh, touching my shoulder. I don’t like being touched. They both have the sickly sweet wreak of vodka on their breath and their illegible laughter is so loud and the light of the bus is so bright and I feel nauseatingly claustrophobic. It’s dark outside, and I can see the reflection of my strained face in the mirror of window. I look so unhappy.
> It’s true. Hips don’t lie. I am unhappy. Wildly. I am unhappy in my bones; to the marrow. It is seeping through my pores and collecting under my fingernails like dust that slowly turns black in the daylight; the kind of unhappiness which is a panicked breathing in shallow gasps that comes out of nowhere but feels as though it has always been there and you can’t remember a time when it wasn’t pressing against each individual vertebrae down your entire back and radiating through to your uterus—or some other such organ. I am having trouble keeping it to myself. I have to actively stop myself from turning and grabbing the vodka soaked laughing woman and her laughing friend and shaking them by the shoulders, screaming my unhappiness into their smiling faces. How can they not see that I am in agony?
> I am broken inside.
> Cold and dead like a fish being slapped against a rock, its head held down, neck cut, innards pulled through its gills. What happens to the fish next?
> I will sit on this bus and I will rot away and no one will ever care. Soon, my bones will be the only thing left of me—long after whatever animates me is gone, my skeleton will sit, slumped in this bus seat, and the bones that I have never seen will be all that is left of me; the only thing to tell anyone anything about me. And one day, an archeologist will find this (clearly fundamentally important bus) and my bones in it, and they will tell this archeologist exactly how I died—right here, of utter unhappiness, on this bus, at night, in the rain, with laughing people all around me. And I will end up in a drawer at the Smithsonian and Dr. Temperance Brennan will pity me a great deal, because all bones end up on the tv show Bones, right?
> But then—
> I begin to move. ‘Excuse me.’ I say, very quietly, and the laughing woman shunts slightly to the side, laughing even more as she almost falls onto the man she is speaking to. I wedge my way awkwardly past her. I ring the bell as I walk down the aisle, aware of every joint and crevice of my body as it moves in strange lack of cohesion. Didn’t I learn to walk as a very young child? Where is all that education now? I climb down from the bus. I thanked the driver. I think. I can’t actually remember.
> I am a 45-minute walk from home.
> I stand in the rain and look around me. I am deciding if I should walk or if I should catch the next bus. I don’t think I can sit on another bus.
> I start to walk.
> For years, I worked as a bartender—an odd job as I have a distinctive distain for drunk people—but I enjoyed the observation. People really are fascinating. It was always like being at a party, but you were slightly removed and had something to do like cutting limes and didn’t actually have to speak until spoken to. I was never the kind of bartender to initiate conversation, but I was a good listener. I liked having the same people on the same days of each week. It was comforting to know who would come each day, and what they would order, even if I also hated them (just a little bit). There were regulars I didn’t hate. Those whose lives I knew something about and who I had grown to, if not like, then genuinely care for. And I was happy. I think. I can’t actually remember.
> I hated being a bartender. But it was money and it left my days free to write, and that was what I cared about. I kept a notepad in my pocket, and I could scribble poems as I thought of them, to be decoded later. The unhappiness served a purpose and so it wasn’t really real.
> I think true unhappiness is in stagnation.
> I laugh a lot when I am horrified, or nullified, or just don’t know what else to do. I laugh in exceedingly inappropriate places and at exceedingly inappropriate times. It has always been a fault of mine. The etiquette of what to do with my face whilst I am listening to someone else’s misfortune has always escaped me. There are rare exceptions, but often times my internal monologue goes something along the lines of: this is a very sad story, my god, it’s so fucked up. What face do I make to convey that I understand how fucked up this is? I want [whomever I am listening to] to know that I really am concerned by this story and that I feel for them, but I can feel my face making these weirdly forced grimace type things or—even worse—not moving at all, and they must see that and they must think I am a monster. Where do I normally put my tongue? Is it flattened between my molars? If I don’t put it there, then I’m grinding my teeth into one another and my jaw will ache later, and I will look as though I’m glowering, and maybe I have to sneeze, but I don’t remember anymore.
> I read a book once, in the first person from a woman who self-identified as a sociopath and worried for a full week that I was a sociopath too. She was a Mormon because she said it gave her a sense of morality she did not feel internally. She described fucking with the people around her for the pure pleasure of their misery, and the more I thought about it, the less I worried I was a sociopath. But still: what to do with my face to convey empathy that I do feel, I just worry I don’t perform well enough?
> I am 20 minutes from home.
> There is a strange level of hatred for a female bartender which I have never understood but have most definitely felt. Misogyny is so stupid.
> Kate Manne talks about misogyny as an ecosystem that women must navigate not a feeling that men have. She describes it as the policing arm of patriarchy; those punishment and enforcement systems put into place to correct behavior when a woman or non-cis-male steps out of line of patriarchal norms. That makes sense, I guess.
> I think [hope] the necessity of gender performance is dying slowly.
> I am happy about it.
> I am 5 minutes from home.
> There’s a Japanese idea, kintsugi, that something broken is even more beautiful for being put back together. I think that’s how I feel about happiness.
> As I climb the stairs to my apartment, out of breath by the fourth flight and wishing for some sort of pully system to be installed, primarily for groceries (an elevator is unrealistic), I find myself smiling. My face feels wind burnt and crisp. My legs feel wiry and elastic. The door clicks, pleasingly behind me.
> I light a candle, make myself tea, and go to bed.
Manne, Kate. Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. New York, Oxford University Press, 2018.
Text and Image: Meredith Grace Thompson