Remembering Happiness

In 5th grade a filling fell out of one of my molars during class one day, and the injustice of it was just one thing too many.

Waiting until everyone else had traipsed off to recess, I approached my teacher’s desk, palm extended, the filling displayed in all its ugliness.

“I lost a filling,” I said in mournful tones, knowing it was not an a.w.o.l. filling which brought the shameful tears to my eyes, but a keen stab of longing for human compassion. Oh Mr. Moore, my heart cried out, even as he peered at the little wad of misery I held in my hand, shaking his head in sincere sympathy, have pity on me, for I’ve forgotten happiness.

With all my being I wanted to live in a universe where fillings stayed in your head where they belonged, and children didn’t go around losing 3/4 of their families overnight. A universe where there was no need for my 4th grade teacher to stumble into the classroom one November day, nearly blinded with tears, and announce in strangled voice that President Kennedy had been shot.

(2 days later when I witnessed the live murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby on the evening news—a forward lurch, gun pointed to gut, an echoing blast, and Oswald’s face contorts with pain as instinctively his arms fly up to protect his middle—I am dumb with horror, though I sense a certain rightness in this horrific act of violence. Of course, of course! This is exactly the kind of world in which I lived, this hostile society where anything can happen at any time and me, powerless to stop it.)

This was real life then: a world in which people get shot on national TV, a world where fillings fell out of one’s head without warning, and a bully belly punches me, knocking the wind out of me, to steal my swing at recess. A world in which my once safe home is filled mostly with strangers, the air so thick and sour it curdles my soul. I don’t know where I went wrong that the world would turn on me so— but try to compensate for my error, my sin, by treading lightly, by sidling in and out of rooms so that I don’t take up too much space and the stepfather notice, and take offense at my very existence (or worse.)

What I really wanted was to not be in this particular story any more. A different universe was all I wanted, one in which I was not invisible. I wanted my real name back and with it, my unique identity. But all I could grasp was the tiny fillilng curled up in the palm of my hand like a secret part of me that had rotted, and fallen out, baring the decayed hole in my tooth it had once hidden, and protected.

And I wanted to remember happiness.

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