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An Inquiry into the Nature of Happiness


Deep in the stacks, sitting in an empty carrel that wasn't hers, Eleanor spotted a golden ring. It was in the corner under the desktop shelf, nearly obscured by shadow. She picked it up and held it close to the window. Ivy crept over the narrow panes, but even in the hindered light, the ring shone in her hand.

There was an inscription on the inside: Julia D. Minkoff, an unfamiliar name. The outer engravings showed that Julia was also a senior; she lived in the dormitory next door. Eleanor sometimes ate in their wood-paneled dining hall, so her own housemates wouldn't notice how often she sat alone.

She pocketed the ring and turned back to reading about the conquests of the Mongols. She found stories of brides kidnapped, heads severed, and villagers executed strangely comforting, proof that the current epoch was not alone in its brutality. Maybe Julia also read such accounts. Maybe when that exhausted her, she also sank to the floor against a shelf, selected a random book and opened it, smelled the paper and looked at all the words—imagining millions of words in this library alone, until the dispirited collection in her own head seemed reassuringly insignificant.

When Eleanor exited the stacks, she considered giving the ring to the attendant at the desk. But the weight in her pocket was too pleasant: a secret that she had something belonging to someone else, something no one else could see.

Julia's Facebook pictures showed a girl with sleek brown hair and subtle makeup, smiling as she leaned against the side of the brick pedestrian bridge. The river extended behind her in a blue swath to the horizon. She held a book to her chest. Eleanor had been right: Julia did like books. Her profile said she studied English, a subject complementary to Eleanor's History. Eleanor might meet her for lunch in the dining hall, produce the ring to exclamations of gratitude. Maybe they would discover that they both loved minor-key symphonies, gothic novels, and sordid endings.

But there were other pictures: Julia in a crimson dress, holding a bottle of vodka aloft among friends; Julia grinning over a fruit-covered waffle, knife and fork in fists; Julia and a sports team, wearing jerseys and face paint. Julia was rarely alone. She didn't play loud music on her phone to block out the sounds of others talking. She didn't walk alone by the river at night, throwing rocks to shatter its still black surface. Julia seemed well-adjusted and busy. She enjoyed scenic landscapes, savory food, and parties with friends. Clicking through her pictures revealed a dauntless, months-long smile, lips that never wearied of peeling back from perfect, round white teeth.

From her tower room, Eleanor stared out to the concrete nine floors below, wondering if they'd made the windows so narrow on purpose. She knew she should return the ring. But two weeks later, it was still on her desk, right where the sun would hit it. She liked to sit and study it; she admired how it sat there glittering.

Julia represented a certain mystery, one that had troubled Eleanor even before she found the ring. How could someone, despite all evidence about the world, flit through life with such wholesome cheer? Upon news of the latest shooting, Eleanor's head became leaden; her heart pumped anxiety in hot spurts through her veins. She thought others, too, must feel this dreadful weight, but the dining hall brimmed full; its lights burned vibrant and yellow; students gathered and chatted, as though fifteen children's bodies had not been extricated from an elementary school bathroom that morning. Meanwhile, Eleanor found it difficult to complete her thesis on the history of Nanking. Her advisor had emailed again, demanding the next chapter. It seemed that the ring was a riddle, and Julia was its answer: the answer to why Eleanor couldn't live with the calm ease displayed by everyone else.

She didn't allow herself to call it stalking—merely people watching with a purpose: an inquiry into the methods of Julia's effervescence. On the first night, she set up in the dining hall before dinner, taking the table in the corner next to the grand piano. She got a plate of overcooked broccoli and chicken as soon as the kitchen doors opened. While she ate, she pretended to do homework to keep the friendly tutors away. Otherwise they might come talking, hoping to bestow their presence upon an alienated soul.

Eventually Julia sauntered in with a large pack of friends, all of them pink-cheeked and laughing. They settled around a nearby table and poked their forks at tiny piles of food. Eleanor felt like an anthropologist studying a tribe of natives, attempting to decode their customs. What made them so happy? Even if they were truly friends, soon they would graduate and disperse across the state to professions of varying banality.

Eleanor wanted to tell Dave about the ring, but she hadn't seen him in two weeks. He hadn't answered any of her texts. His strange silence had even prompted her to call his house, but no one picked up. Usually they spent hours talking at dinner. She missed how he folded his hands behind his head as he heard her woes, his fitted blazer stretching back fashionably. She imagined telling him. I found a class ring in the library. I know who it belongs to. She's in the house next door. But I haven't given it back.

Dave would tilt his chair back and grin. He, too, found moral ambiguity more intriguing than doing the right thing. Ooh, who is she? he'd ask, the flamboyant timbre in his voice creeping to a higher pitch than usual.

Eleanor would tell him about watching Julia at dinner. She would tell him how she kept the ring in her pocket, feeling it was more important to her than to its owner.

Dave would sympathize. He had once been responsible for the disappearance of a rival oboist's best reed right before a concert. The oboist had committed the crime of telling him he was a downer; she'd like to see him smile more.

Happy bitch, he'd say about Julia. Don't give it back. She deserves to know what it's like to lose something.

Eleanor called Dave's cell, even though she didn't expect him to answer. This time, she couldn't even leave a message saying to call her back. His voicemail was full.

The group usually came to dinner at 6:15. Julia was its sun and center; her companions revolved around her, their pastel blouses and chandelier earrings glittering in her reflected light. It seemed a coveted honor to sit by her side, to absorb the first tremors of her conversation, to cause the bright ripples of her laughter. But such enchanting appearances provided no answers. One day, Eleanor decided to follow them.

After Julia and her friends put their trays on the conveyor belt outside the kitchen, she trailed them out the mahogany doors to the green. She followed them through the gate and down one of the residential side streets to the river. In the warm spring evening, their conversation and laughter floated before her like dandelion seeds in the wind. She felt for the hard lump in her pocket. She had taken to carrying the ring with her. Somehow she believed it would tell her the answer, whisper the solution when the time was right. Julia was happy because she had many friends. These friends operated as a filter between Julia and the world. Whatever did not fit through the lattice of their smiles was kept from her as nonexistent.

The girls stopped by a row of magnolias on the riverbank. They took group pictures under pink-flowered boughs, locking arms and lifting iPhones. Several of them flocked on ahead, leaving Julia behind. She touched the bark of a tree and gazed toward the river, standing still. Maybe she was looking at the brick pedestrian bridge that spanned the green banks, or the daffodils and crocuses by the water's edge.

Julia probably thought the river was beautiful, but Eleanor saw it otherwise. She saw the haze from the highway that ran too close by; she saw grim skyscrapers marring the horizon. She saw magnolia petals falling from clouds of pearly pink. Once they drifted to the ground, joggers trod them into shiny brown slicks.

After some time, Julia's friends noticed her absence and called her. Laughing, she turned and sprinted to join them.

Eleanor often wished she had met Dave in high school, so they could have indulged their psychoses together. No one else understood why she read awful things. Her mother said it was strange and ungrateful. Eleanor had grown up in a town with pastel houses and lush lawns, where children played in the streets on summer evenings, unafraid of the cars that always slowed for them. There was no reason she should believe that goodness was an illusion on loan.

If Dave had been there, they could have gone to the library together. He would research the ways he expected civilization to end: nuclear war, famine, plague. He would laugh as he read choice excerpts out loud, saying, "Why, it's practically over, my dear."

Meanwhile, she would research arcane genres of horror: serial rapists, men who killed women for the purpose of eating their flesh, human medical experiments during the Holocaust. She would puzzle over the astonishing disparity between her own life, devoid of suffering, and the horror of reality elsewhere. At the time, she thought such knowledge would protect her. If she knew the worst that could happen, the absolute nadir of human experience, then nothing could ever harm her.

Once, when Eleanor was lucky, she caught sight of Julia by herself.

When she approached her corner table that night, a girl was already sitting there, hunched over and wearing a hoodie. Eleanor circled around cautiously and almost dropped her tray. It was Julia, with not a friend in sight.

She was devouring a salad, stabbing the lettuce leaves and tomatoes on her plate with uncharacteristic vehemence. When she was finished, Eleanor stole after her as she left the dining hall and headed off campus, passing Victorian houses and a community vegetable garden. She lurked outside as Julia entered the narrow waffle shop at the V of two intersecting streets. After a few minutes, she went in and skimmed the menu, sneaking glances at the single long table by the window.

When Eleanor sat down with her plain waffle, she got a closer look. Julia was eating a large waffle covered in whipped cream and blueberries. In between bites of dough, she scooped plain whipped cream onto her fork and licked it off, making Eleanor wish she had ordered the same thing. She touched the ring in her pocket. Julia was happy because, even on bad days, she could do certain things to make herself feel better, like eating waffles. These coping mechanisms proved specific and effective, alleviating any lapse from feelings of cheer. Julia slumped and rested her head in one hand while she ate. For a strange moment, the gesture reminded Eleanor of Dave.

This encounter was so thrilling that, within days, Eleanor plotted to engineer a similar occurrence. She created a fake Gmail account and put Julia's address into the recipient box.

Hey Julia, she typed. This is Amy Walker. I'm in your class. Hope senior year's going okay. I found a class ring with your name in the library. Did you lose it? Maybe we can meet up so I can give it back. Let me know.

Eleanor nodded, pleased. For the first time in months, she had recovered a feeling of agency. This single situation was under her power: she would decide what happened to the ring.

Later that evening, Eleanor got an email from Dave.

Hey Ellie. Sorry I've gone AWOL. Truth is, I'm not actually at school right now. I withdrew from this semester after a lovely stint in the hospital. Not to worry, all is being healed in the happy house where they have stowed me. The food is as gourmet as that of our dining hall. Plus, they have these gorgeous wooden bars blocking the sides of the stairwells, so you can't pull a fast one and jump. There are so many crazy people here I NEED to tell you about. Let's talk sometime?

Eleanor stared down at her desk. Last fall, visiting home unexpectedly, Dave had walked in on his father to see him with a gun at his feet, life not successfully taken. The coma was approaching eight months now.

She had tried so hard to watch Dave for this. She wished she could protect him: Dave with his pale hands moisturized to perfection, obsessing about reeds; Dave taking her to the symphonies with the best oboe solos and quietly weeping throughout, while Eleanor pretended for his pride not to notice; Dave calling her Ellie, a nickname only he was allowed to use.

Just then, another email arrived in her inbox. It was a reply from Julia.

Hey Amy! Thanks so much for your email! I've been looking for that ring everywhere!!! Want to grab a snack at the waffle place? It's my favorite!! How about 3:00?

Eleanor snorted at all the exclamation points. She could not understand this infuriating veneer of cheerfulness.

She had counted on graduating with Dave. Who else would stand beside her in the black-robed procession? Who else would whisper sarcastic replies to blandly optimistic speeches? She imagined him alone in a dark room, contemplating ways to die. She, of all people, would have sat with him through the night, if only he had told her.

When he did not answer his phone, she sent an email. He replied within the hour. He had answered none of her questions. Instead, he had a single comment about Eleanor's updates. Maybe you should give that ring back. A cold feeling spread like a sheet of black ink across her body. Even her friend had sided with the irresistible Julia.

Before the meeting, Eleanor got to the waffle shop early. She ordered a large waffle with blueberries and whipped cream. She sat at the table, stabbed her fork down, and took a bite. Sweetness filled her mouth: fresh cream, sweet dough, the gush of juice as she pierced blueberries between her teeth. But sugar could not mitigate Dave's unexpected rebuke. His message harried her like a persistent, invisible thorn.

The bell above the door tinkled as someone entered: Julia, who glanced over at her. Eleanor looked down and studied her book to ward off inquiry.

Julia ordered a small strawberry-banana waffle and brought her plate to the opposite corner of the table, staring out the window while eating slowly. She wore a blazer and mint green skinny jeans. Of course she would wear the most fashionable color of that spring. Julia was happy because she dressed like a magazine model. This created a favorable impression on others, leading to social approval and its associated benefits: a positive feedback loop of good results. Eleanor reached inside the pocket of her windbreaker and touched the cool, smooth metal. She wished Dave could know that she still had it, that she had not followed his disloyal suggestion.

Julia sighed and checked her phone. She got up and walked toward Eleanor, who almost choked on the bite she had just taken. She wondered if she had somehow been discovered. Julia might accuse her of keeping the ring, which at that very moment Eleanor was holding in her pocketed hand. But let her make accusations. Eleanor was never giving it back.

"Excuse me," Julia said. "Are you Amy? I'm supposed to meet someone."

Eleanor fidgeted with the ring in her pocket. For all her effortful dislike, there was something ineffably attractive about Julia. Before Dave's email, she might have wanted to say yes, to give it back, to become Julia's newest friend.

But bitterness rose like bile in her throat. Dave, her best friend, had rejected her. Her own mother had said that her presence was as dismal as November rain, a negative drizzle that could depress a healthy soul. She would keep the ring to spite them all.

"No," Eleanor said. "No, I am not."

A few days before graduation, while Eleanor was sitting in her laundry-strewn dorm room, her mother called. She wanted to know whether Eleanor planned on attending the senior picnic. Eleanor said no. She didn't want to see Julia and her friends in floral sundresses. She would hate the crimson lunchboxes packed with ham sandwiches and cookies, the dessert trays with chocolate éclairs and cheesecakes. She wouldn't miss hearing some politician read platitudes from an index card.

Her mother, sensing negativity, proposed counseling. Eleanor might try again with Suzanne, the pink-clad therapist she might not dislike so much, if she would only give her a chance.

Eleanor did not see why chances should be given. Suzanne wore sneakers with skirts. Her hair looked like an animal pelt. She advised Eleanor to exercise more and recommended the pleasures of golf. That, plus a little positive thinking, could make all the difference.

That night, Eleanor got an email from the school: "Sad News," the subject that always prefaced an announcement of death. A few months ago, a junior who'd been struck and dragged under a pick-up truck for a mile had had a "tragic accident." Now it was a member of the class of 2012, Eleanor's class, who had "died suddenly." She felt so unsettled by the evasive phrase that she read it twice before registering the name: Julia D. Minkoff.

The school paper had already published an obituary and a tribute, an officially sanctioned collection of pictures and quotes from friends. It was all the more devastating, they said, because she had been a local girl, had grown up a few blocks away and fulfilled the family tradition by going to the college down the street.

The quotes were predictable, and Eleanor had seen all the pictures before. They were the ones she used to resent most: smiles in broad sunshine, palm trees and mountaintops in the background. A few days later, when the real story came out—bloated white body found in the river, no foul play suspected—Eleanor clicked through the pictures again and again, feeling like she'd swallowed a smooth, heavy stone. She searched the images for clues she should have spotted, the same clues she had failed to see in Dave. Everywhere she saw Julia's guarded eyes, camouflaged by the flashing of teeth. After this, Eleanor realized, it looked like a different kind of smile now.

She felt the ring in her pocket as she crept down the crooked brick sidewalk the next day.

She couldn't stop thinking about the waffle house. She imagined a thousand times that she had said yes that day. She dreaded to think that the ring had been the subject of one of Julia's final hopes. There was only one thing she could do now: slip it into the casket, when no one else was looking.

The setting sun glinted on the little stone church next to the funeral home. In the parlor, the shades had been drawn; the air was thick with the scent of peonies; the casket glistened like a wet stone. A line of weeping girls wound around the room. Eleanor recognized some of Julia's friends. She got in the back of the line. As it edged forward, she realized she had never been to a wake before, and she didn't know what to do. She always thought they left the casket open, so you could see the person inside.

Two women stood to the side. One looked about the same age as Eleanor's mother. "Thank you for coming," she said, holding out a hand. Eleanor did not take it.

"Why is it closed?"

The woman looked at her. "Excuse me?"

"I asked why it's closed." Eleanor's voice sounded so loud in the quiet room, much louder than anything else. The ring felt like a millstone in her pocket. There was no place where she could put it.

The woman snapped her mouth shut and walked away. The older woman whispered, "Sweetie, the body...." But then she stopped.

"But I want to see her," Eleanor said.

"It's okay, honey, I do too." The old woman grabbed one of Eleanor's hands and held it between her own.

Eleanor wrenched it away and turned around. All the people were staring at her, ruining it. They didn't understand. She had counted on this. She had wanted to return the ring.

And, she realized, she had wanted to see the body, to witness its truth. She had read about people found in the water. The human face, drowned, could swell beyond recognition.

She rushed for the door of the room, stumbling against a chair on her way out. What right did they have to ignore the result of Julia's suffering? How could they turn away from what she had wrought? She thought of Julia's ruined, hidden face, which these fearful people had chosen not to see. Only a person like her could bear to look and comprehend.

And yet outside, under the fading, pale pink sky, she couldn't imagine sinking into the cold dark river, looking through the watery veil to the shining world above. What unconquerable despair must Julia have felt, to relinquish the light and air? It occurred to Eleanor that, for all her own supposed suffering, she could not have done it. She loved the small things too much: library books no one else had borrowed; rocks that disrupted the river when she tossed them in at night; even the delicate sparrows, who flitted and chirped at the edge of a nearby puddle, splashing droplets over their wings.

Eleanor could never understand Julia's depthless anguish. For all her studied sorrow, she was a fraud.

The river, Eleanor knew, was considered beautiful by most people who saw it. Racing shells skimmed lightly over the water. The branches of the willows swayed in the wind.

Eleanor saw other things: a plastic bag ensnared on a stick; yellow construction tape blocking off part of the bridge. But it was true that the banks were mostly green, and that sunlight cast bright patches across the river's trembling surface.

A more perfect person would have contacted the family, would have invented some reason, if not the truth, that Eleanor had the ring. But Eleanor was not perfect, was perhaps not even decent or reasonable. She believed she was meant to have it, to possess this thing so heavy that it crushed each grain of her own small fears. It was a symbol of despair so great she could never approach it. It was a relic of Julia, whose cheerful face had been an artificial construction, a mask of hair and paint and teeth.

What did she know of that stranger, whose sadness so far outstripped her own? Almost nothing, except this: She had stood alone by this river, under these magnolias. She had smiled to hide the wounds that festered under her skin. She had worn this golden talisman so smooth and heavy—this ring that Eleanor now, for the first time, slipped onto her unadorned finger.