February 14, 2020: “Happy Like That” by Ashley Wurzbacher

Happy Valentine’s Day, Story366!

I will now regale you with the legend of the romance that took place between the Karen and I today: Aside from the general life stuff (getting the oldest boy off to school, paying bills, etc.), we readied twenty-seven Valentines for the younger boy to take to school for his Valentine’s Day party. This involved writing the names of twenty-seven kids on the cards, conning the younger boy into signing his name twenty-seven times, and then decorating a shoe box so other kids could put their Valentine’s in said box. Okay, so Karen did most of that, but I was the one who ran out last night—when it was eleven degrees out—to buy the Valentines, then ran out again an hour later—when it was seven degrees out—to buy another box because we only had twenty-five in the first box and we needed twenty-seven. I felt like I’d contributed, and really, only one person can wrap a shoebox at a time. Too many wrappers, right?

Karen and I had big plans for dinner tonight, at the local Brazilian steakhouse, and I spent a couple of hours with her this morning, delivering stacks of papers around Webster County because that’s what she does on Friday and, well, I wanted to spend time with her on Valentine’s Day. After, I had to go to my office for meetings and to work on Moon City Press stuff, so Karen dropped me off with the promise of dinner and romance later. She called me a bit after to let me know the Brazilian steakhouse was full for tonight, as was the prime rib joint that was her back-up. We decided to go out tomorrow instead, really wanting seared meat, and lots of it. I stayed at the office until seven, returning home to a nice dinner cooked by Karen and the oldest boy, alfredo chicken baked into crescent rolls. By the time we finished and I started reading for tonight, Karen had gone up to take a bath and went to bed, just a little bit after eight.

Welcome to middle-aged romance on Valentine’s Day!

Karen and I will go to dinner tomorrow and then try to stay up past our kids’ bedtimes. I love the Brazilian steakhouse and love Karen even more, so it should be a good night. Unless, of course, we decide to stay in and go to bed early. I’ll keep you updated.

Tonight, in place of hot Valentine’s Day lovin’, I read from Ashley Wurzbacher‘s Happy Like This, out from the University of Iowa Press in 2019 as winner of its annual John Simmons Fiction Award. Like so many writers this year, I’d not read Wurzbacher’s stories before, so I was eager to dive in.

Happy Like This is cut into two sections, “Like That” and “Like This,” and I wonder, after reading a few stories, if they’re cut up by people being happy (“Like This”) and people looking at other people who are happy (“Like That”). I don’t have enough to go on, based on just three stories, but for some reason, that’s stuck in my head as the logic behind Wurzbacher’s division.

Anyway, I read a couple of pieces from “Like That,” including the opener, “Sickness and Health” about a sociology PhD student writing her dissertation on young girls with facticious disorders—diseases that involve self-induced harm and outright faking, kind of a large buffet of Munchhausen’s-type things. The protagonist, Mia, makes it so her twelve subjects live in the same dorm at their college and Mia lives with them, following them to class, to parties, and to the movies. Mia gets more swept up in the lives of these sad girls than she does any work on her paper, making for an interesting, original story.

From “Like That,” I also read “Happy Like That,” then I skipped ahead to “Like This” and read “Happy Like This,” the books twoish titles stories. I could really write about either, but since it’s Valentine’s Day, I’ll write about the one that’s closer to a traditional love story, “Happy Like That,” though really, “Happy Like This,” about a woman who hangs around, a lot, with a friend of hers whenever her husband pilot’s out of town, is as much of a love story as anything.

Anyway, “Happy Like That” is about Elaine, a woman who suddenly remembers that her friend Lillian—recently killed by a drunk driver—had told her about an affair, had given her her lover’s name and number, for emergency’s sake. Elaine finds the Post-it with the info on it about a month after Lillian’s death and has the horrible realization: Lillian’s lover might not know she’s dead. He might be wondering what’s happened to her. Elaine sets on calling her dead friend’s lover, thinking it the decent thing to do, to tell him. Elaine’s also curious, though, so her phone call isn’t totally a mercy mission: Elaine’s nosy as all heck.

As it turns out, Lillian’s lover did know she’d died, and in fact, was at Lillian’s funeral. This has Elaine super-curious, and before she knows it, she’s making a lunch date with this former lover, disguising it as a need to talk about Lillian, as an offer to talk about  Lillian with the lover. The lover accepts and Elaine has a lunch date.

“Happy Like That” is a long story, and for most of it, there’s not a lot of plot aside from what I’ve just described. No fear, though, as Wurzbacher skillfully fills those pages with Elaine’s inner dialogue, be it memories of Lillian, Elaine’s own family life (she’s married with a kid), and her speculations as to what Lillian’s lover is like, what their relationship truly meant—Lillian was married with a kid, too. A lot of this info is relayed in anecdotes, such as how Lillian and Elaine met, having given birth on the same day, to similarly premature babies, released from the hospital months later on the same day as well. This is how Wurzbacher builds Elaine as a character, builds tension, writes this complex story.

Eventually, we get to the lunch meeting between Elaine and Lillian’s lover (who, by the way, is named only “the lover” throughout). That’s when the story focuses a bit more on what happens. Elaine realizes, suddenly, she’s on a date with her dead friend’s lover, the man her friend was having an affair with before she died. After they eat, the lover invites her to the local swamp—where he has to chase down escapees from the prison where he works—to look at flowers. Wouldn’t you know it, Elaine falls down into the muck and finds herself at the lover’s nearby house, naked and shivering, then showering, wondering when the lover’s wife, Kyra, is due to come home.

I won’t go any further into what happens, but a lot more does indeed happen in “Happy Like That.” I will note that Wurzbacher seems to flat-out enjoy her characters, delving into their heads, their pasts, constructing them to be as real as she can through patient, innovative storytelling. Elaine is so complex, not because she wants to meet with her dead friend’s lover, but because of everything in her life that’s led her to this point. It’s a love story, a complicated one, and not necessarily the happiest. But Elaine learns about love, about what love can be, what it means. It’s too bad her friend had to die for her to achieve this enlightenment.

Ashley Wurzbacher’s collection, Happy Like This, is a real testament to the power of characterization, to how great stories can be when an author has the patience and the talent to spend time with her heroes, to explore their motivations as well as their actions. It’s a rich debut, one I enjoyed quite a bit, and recommend all the same.