In addiction recovery, when you say you don’t believe in a Higher Power, they ask: Would you rather be right or happy?
The two options are presented as if they are mutually exclusive, and the question is, of course, rhetorical. Obviously, anyone who finds themselves in front of a tepid coffee urn in a church basement waiting for a twelve-step meeting to begin can only answer it one way: you wouldn’t have ended up there if you weren’t already wrong about something. You aren’t supposed to pause, let alone deliberate, when someone asks if you would rather be right than happy.
If the silence stretches a beat too long, it will visibly dawn on the person asking that, despite your relatively normal appearance, they might very well be speaking to someone without a shred of sanity left. They will remember that Some are sicker than others, and their expression will become one of earnest fervour if they wish to save you or detached sympathy if they feel you’re past saving. Picture the face of a psychic healer who already has knowledge of your terminal diagnosis before you approach her pleading to know if the future is friendly.
Do not be surprised if, at this juncture, you are guided to a folding chair and advised to just keep coming back.
Unfortunately for me, I may be at a genetic disadvantage when it comes to the right vs. happy question. I come from a line of womenwho have somehow managed to eliminate the influence of doubt on their lives. No woman in my family moons around examining their schemas, auras or emotions; the pursuit of happiness is considered frivolous if you are a Martin. Grim satisfaction is usually as good as it gets. It may result as a by-product of being right, but don’t count on it. Excess positive emotions—love, joy, elation—practically beg fate to reverse your fortunes quickly so someone else can enjoy grim satisfaction when your pride causes you to fall.
Steeped in this ideological stew, which is flavoured liberally with bad luck, divine punishments and the occasional gristly chunk of devastating failure, my bloodline puts as little stock in spiritual rewards as it does in material ones. The book of Job taught me that God is not a vending machine. You don’t put in right and expect happy to just tumble down into your greedy, grabby hands.
It is pure luck that none of us ever came into direct contact with a cult leader. My mother would have been just the sort to unquestioningly devote herself to a charming doomsday fanatic, at least until some irritant—like not progressing quickly enough from the acolyte stage or someone putting too much sweetener in the fruit punch—resulted in contemptuous dismissal of the whole thing.
My family had essentially formed its own cult with a charter that emphasized superstition, self-reliance and silence. Despite the harsh penalties for speaking up or stepping out, I wasn’t very old before I realized that most of the family rules clashed with the prevailing wisdom. Bruised cheeks, both above and below the waist, confirmed these suspicions more directly than any verbal explanation could have. Of course, no explanations were ever offered because I was a child; if the rules weren’t good enough for me, I could always find another family. If I dared.
“I see what you’re doing, Nicky, and if you think appearance is reality, you’ve got another think coming.”
Mom could read my furtive glances at the dads who swung their daughters up into their arms and shouldered their backpacks after school. The children shrieked gleefully, and their sneakered feet bounced and skipped with mystifying excitement that didn’t have to
be contained. She knew what I was thinking when the moms crouched low with big smiles and open arms outside the school fence: that those families looked happy and I was jealous. She knew everything.
“That girl said she’s adopted,” I said, pointing to a Brown girl whose braids were pinched by colourful clips like all the other girls had.
“If anyone takes you in at that age—” she eyed my skinny six-year-old body, already nearly as tall as her curvaceous one, “it usually isn’t pleasant.”
Gripping my hand too tightly, she pulled me down the street, leaving to my imagination what it would be like to live with strange people who didn’t really want me. Occasionally when we were licking the frosting off a Sara Lee cake or digging into a pint of Häagen Dazs Vanilla Swiss Almond, and she was in a good mood, I would ask her if foster kids got treats like that just to hear her laughingly say, “When they made you, they broke the mould.”
Both my parents said this phrase with fondness, as if I were special. But if that were true, then why did “they” smash the mould so that nothing like me could ever be made again? I was an only child. I didn’t want to be different, but at six I already understood that I was somehow both unique and awful. The corners of my mouth curved downward naturally, giving me an ungrateful, unhappy appearance that matched my ungrateful, argumentative, nasty personality. I could make anyone laugh but then boy could I turn on you!
It was not long before I concluded that happiness was something you wished for, like hot dogs instead of liver and onions, but it wasn’t good for you. And besides, you didn’t deserve it. Good things came from somewhere only to be taken away somewhere else. It was like this with school, the place that made me the happiest. The kids used to ask me why I even bothered to show up because I had no friends. What they didn’t realize was that I didn’t expect to have friends.
“Dickhole has a typewriter in her head,” classmates jeered. “She’s such a geek. Look, she thinks she’s better than us.”
“She thinks she’s better than the teacher, never mind!”
“Don’t you mean, he? Her hair’s shorter than mine!”
“Go run home to your mommy, ya big nerd!”
They took their own advice, struggling into their coats the moment the bell rang, but I was never in a hurry. I was a hopeless loser four eyes teacher’s pet; I genuinely loved school, if not the kids that came with it. I knew every square of speckled concrete floor, every locker that didn’t close right, every detail of the view from the grimy windows. In winter especially, Canadian schools got dirty fast and stayed that way. If there was anything to be done about the greasy fingerprints, muddy shoeprints and out of service toilets, the permeating fug of sweaty boots and shit and discarded lunch bags slowly growing mould, nobody was doing it and it didn’t matter. As a child, I relished my weekdays, especially when my mother declared me old enough to make the half-hour walk to school by myself.
There is a nerve-jangling exhilaration to simply being alive, anonymous and alone on a big-city street. Downtown Toronto has an incredible wealth of architecture and art, culture and commerce, but I paid little attention to the red-brick Victorians and shiny cars, the bustling Bloor Street falafel joints and Chinatown’s seething outdoor stalls. My exuberance on these walks related to something more elemental. I gulped the sweet air and took in the rhythm of the seasons, the life that thrummed all around me. When I walked alone, I was happy.
Soon after the start of the school year, the sky was ceilinged by a canopy of maples whose huge, veiny leaves I collected if they were red and fresh or shuffled through as they browned in piles on the sidewalk. When fall rain speckled my glasses, I kept my eyes on my yellow rain boots and savoured the nutty aroma of wet earth. Walking home, I admired the mesh bags of knobby gourds and colourful ears of Indian corn filling the bins of vegetable stands before Thanksgiving, and I filled my pockets with the unblemished acorns near the roots of the massive oak trees. Squirrels raced in spirals around the deeply fissured bark, pausing to look over their shoulders as I stole their riches.
Next came months of snow. The hardpack of the school field was quickly churned into stiff, dirty meringue, but pristine clouds of white stuff lasted well into March if you knew where to look. The Annex’s grand homes would be swaddled in flakes so lush and clean you could
safely swipe the fenceposts a full week after a storm and pack pure white cold straight into your mouth. You could break an icicle off an eavestrough and lick it, hoping for something sweet.
In spring, the forsythia bushes exploded into golden glory. The individual flowers were frail and insignificant, but all together they smothered every branch in shades from buttercream to brightest yellow. The fruit markets displayed bunches of pussy willows nearly as tall as I was, their slender stalks bound together and jammed into white plastic pails of half-frozen water. Fingering their impossibly soft, furry buds was almost as satisfying as snatching drooping purple lilacs—the best-smelling flowers on earth—from branches overhanging the sidewalk to present as bouquets to my mother.
But when summer descended on the city in June, my steps really lightened. I seemed to float above the steaming pavement, giddy with feelings that were frighteningly intense yet maddeningly vague. School was coming to an end. Summer brought good things, but not always. I knew a thing or two about ricocheting from anxiety to expectation to disappointment and back, but I couldn’t stop the process any more than I could stop the glorious sun from squeezing sweat from my forehead as it beat down on the tight coils of my hair.
It was easy to forget my manners in summer and find myself skipping down the street smiling idiotically, arms flung wide to catch the slightest breeze. Sometimes I’d see kids up ahead making a game of walking: Step on a crack, break your mama’s back! Step on a line, break your mama’s spine! It was ridiculous, of course, but for at least a couple of blocks the superstition would hold, and I would try to stay in the centre of the paving squares, dawdling to avoid the children. When it got too hot I would slip into the frigid air of a convenience store, maybe slide open the freezer case and poke around a bit as if I were going to buy something rather than just enjoying the chill. I was careful to keep my hands in plain sight at all times and to feign disappointment, as if they didn’t have what I’d come for.
Nearing my mother’s house, my pace slowed. I might run into someone I knew, a neighbour who would laugh at my foolish, awkward gait. On the narrow pathway that led to the stairs of our tall, skinny Victorian on Howland Avenue, the concrete had hopelessly buckled; my large feet touched at least three cracks at once. I deliberately scuffed my shoe on an especially thick line, shivering with power and guilt. Climbing the stairs to the porch, I raised the knocker, a fierce-looking lion with bared teeth, rapped sharply three times and waited for it to open.
At some point in childhood, the solitary happiness of walking faded away, the simple satisfaction of being alive yielding to vivid fantasies of happiness that took place only in my mind. Gradually, unconsciously, the skipping and seeing and sidewalk-crack-avoiding became a smooth, no-frills stride. I started to march in lockstep with the person who taught me everything I knew: the woman I desperately loved, the woman who hollowed me out until there was very little left of me and then left the hole half-filled. She was impenetrable, but I never stopped hoping that if I pounded on the door long enough, she would eventually hear me and have no choice but to let me in.