Ashley Wurzbacher’s story “Happy Like This,” is featured in Michigan Quarterly Review‘s Summer 2019 issue.
Editorial Assistant Sofia Groopman introduces Wurzbacher by writing on “Why I Chose This.”
When I passed Ashley Wurzbacher’s “Happy Like This” along to our fiction editor Polly Rosenwaike, I think I wrote only one line: “I simply adore this.” It’s hard to find words to introduce this story. It is maybe more like a poem: it investigates a sentiment, a relationship, language itself. The prose is deceptively simple; sometimes it sings, but mainly its beauty is in its directness, like talking to your smartest, most sympathetic, no bullshit friend.
What is this story about? It’s about a friendship between two adult women that isn’t defined by pettiness, like many depictions of female friendship, but rather by love. It’s about the sorrow and the sweetness of womanhood and parenthood and even academia and religion. It’s about feeling alone in the world. The story knows it doesn’t play by the rules. Early on our nameless, orphaned narrator confesses:
I wish I could tell you a better story: one in which things happen, one with a climax and a resolution. This isn’t any of that. What happens in this story is that Hope and I survive.
It isn’t as easy as you might think.
Two linguists meet in a Ph.D. program. One gets pregnant and drops out. The other, our narrator, spends most of her time pretending to write her dissertation and visiting the friend and her new baby, who live in the suburbs, surrounded by judgmental Mormons. The linguists, too, are judgmental. Also, they’re lost. When the mother decries her housewife existence, ABD narrator says:
I tell her this is The Problem That Has No Name. Except that now it has a name: The Problem That Has No Name. Oh, what would Betty do? Besides write a treatise and start a revolution? Is this a treatise? Where is our revolution?
Read “Happy Like This.” Don’t worry about whether it is a story or a poem or a treatise or maybe even a gospel. That is, don’t try to name it. Make room in your mind for this brilliant work of fiction—it will stay a long while.
Hope misses the city, and I miss Hope. So every other weekend I buy a bottle of wine and drive up the valley to see her and Little Girl in their new suburban home, where they live with Hope’s boyfriend, a pilot. The pilot is away for three or four days at a time each week, and Hope is often alone, and always lonely. The drive takes an hour and a half, and I sing off-key with the radio even when I don’t know the words. I like to think that I know my limitations and that I accept them.
Like me, this valley accepts its flaws. During air inversions it embraces its pollution as if it is precious, the mountains hugging a bluish haze, the air huddling under a finely-spun net. To live here is to be ever reminded of the messes we make of our lives: smokestacks at the copper mine, distant forest fires caused by carelessness, burning juniper, refineries, wood stoves, aerosol sprays, and me. You see, I’m part of the problem: my clunker barely passes emissions, and I don’t carpool; I’m a party of one.
At Hope’s I never have to ring the bell. Possibly it’s because she’s waiting like a child by the window, anxious for any company, not necessarily mine, but let’s take a sweeter view. Say she feels me coming from a mile away because we’re cut from the same cloth, tuned to the same wavelength, formed from the same exploded star. Call us celestial sisters. Say she senses my arrival the way one in sync with the elements senses a subtle change of season or climate in the marrow of the bone. Whatever it is, she greets me on the porch before I’ve put the car in park. She calls loudly, so the neighbors will hear, “Jesus Christ, where the fuck have you been?”
All the neighbors are Mormon and the streets are numbered outward from a temple whose god we don’t recognize. This is no place for an atheist, let alone two atheists and a very vocal baby born out of wedlock. From Hope’s yard you can practically hear the neighbors’ whispered prayers for our lost souls.
I arrive with presents for Little Girl—a new dress, an elastic headband she’ll pull off and fling away—and the wine. Say its label reads Primal Roots, its sinful red hue tinted blackish through the green glass of its bottle. Hope and I are linguists, or students of linguistics, anyway, Masters but not quite Doctors of our Philosophy. Our studies brought us westward—Hope from Georgia, me from Ohio. We choose wine based on name, not palate.
Purchase MQR 58:3 or consider a one-year subscription to read more. Ashely Wurzbacher’s short story “Happy Like This” appears in the Summer 2019 Issue of MQR.