How Are You Happy: When Wes Met Nadia

Chapter 10 from R.M. Dolin’s novel, the Dangling Conversation


“I did in fact think about what you said and I’m not gonna lie, you’ve got no damn business being so damn dark – I mean what the hell am I supposed to do with that? My question has nothing to do with yours other than as a way for me to understand how you got here, or more important, why you keep coming back. I really don’t get why you’re so offended. “I didn’t ask if you’ve always been happy, that’s a false flag of foolishness. We’ve all been happy – at times; mostly, although who can say, right? What I asked is, ‘how are you happy?’ Seems simple, don’t it? As it should – at least until you realize it’s a question that only teases at forging illusions of an honest response. That’s how I see it anyway – but then again, no one’s booking me for corporate seminars.

“I’m not picking on you, I constantly ask myself this question, but each time it pulls away from the careful confines of my unexamined life, which is where I choose to live – a man’s got a right to live where he feels most alive and for me it’s the space between everything that should have been and my unwillingness to look under of the hood of how things really are.

“You’re the same ya know – at least that’s how I see it. So go ahead, offer up your answer; but before you do, keep in mind that anything you say is already awash in the nuance of self-contradiction.

“I could’ve asked if you’re happy but didn’t. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just not interesting – at least not as interesting as how you measure those intangible portions of your soul – the mystical twenty-one grams, which by the way you sit in silence, is a far harder abstraction. It’s a fact we’re happy – more or less; an absolute truth to support the lie we allow ourselves to believe – a lie we’re so damn good at telling we’re no longer obliged to auger past its many bogus barriers; at least that’s how it is for me.

“So, bottom line, I dare you to dare yourself to consider the extent to which you’re happy? It’s okay if you won’t, most times I won’t either – I set out to, but this freaking scary response roars back like the echoing laughter of Coyote in the deep dark arroyo of all those things haunting the quiet solitude of sleepless nights like this. I’m wagering it’s the same for you, why else would you keep showing up here of all places.

“I’m gonna say sorry up front, so here, I’m no damn good at dealing with emotions – at least I remembered the tissues this time; that’s gotta count for something. It’s a gift ya know, one God didn’t see the need to sprinkle on me. Right words do of course exist for this sort of thing – mine though, always get tangled up in delivery. Same thing happens with complements, I’m probably the only person on this entire planet who consistently finds ways to screw up a complement – I try saying or doing something nice then spend the next hour digging myself out of whatever shithole I fell into.

“I’m sorry, proper language sometimes alludes me – probably tied to my issues with complements and emotions. I didn’t bring enough tissues – bad planning on my part. But it’s all I brought, all I’m capable of providing, but like I said, at least it’s something.

“You’re not alone ya know. I mean it seems that way, but hell, we all cry – maybe not me so much anymore, probably more accurate to say I used to. Lately, I’m more resigned to acceptance than sadness. There’s a difference ya know, and that’s my deal – and the thing is, there ain’t jack I can do about it.

“There are moments though – distant and far between; moments when life lets me revert to a childish belief that happiness is the absence of sadness, and if I’m being honest, my journey to right now is littered with just this sort of foolish bullshit – again, sorry for my language.

“Maybe it works this way for you – I mean if happiness isn’t the absence of sadness, how do we step outside our grand illusion? That’s what all this is ya know – sitting here – it’s all an illusion; a dystopian fantasy where hard boundaries prevent us from ever getting at what’s waiting on the other side, unless of course we cross over, and I for one ain’t advocating that.

“What I’m getting at, is that happiness is at least in part about acceptance. Even you gotta concede my logic makes sense – then again, it can just as easily be the mindless rambling of randomly disconnected thoughts.

“I tend to ramble – especially when life’s closing in from all sides. But what the hell, you know that already. There’s a comfort in nonsense ya know – write that down as one of my rare insights. I like to think it’s my mindless nonsense that keeps you coming night after night.

“The fact is, some mornings I wake up thankful not to be praying for death and I think happiness is the ability to embrace right now with all its worts in a sardonic appreciation that things could certainly be worse. I’m right, right? I mean its obvious life has you by the throat and it may be the last thing you want to hear, but as bad as things are, there’s plenty of room for your shit to go south – trust me, shitstorms are one of the few things I excel at.

“But that’s a form of surrender and if you and me are going to sit here night after night – me talking nonsense while you’re all emotional, we must agree on the metrics to put around our whole ugly mess.

“Have you ever considered how much of life is lived by design and how much is just a form of surrender? When I need to justify my dichotomy, I look at successful people knowing they can get whatever the hell they want. Meanwhile, it seems happy people only want what they have. Where my Euclidean logic falls apart though, is I don’t want jack, which must make me the happiest freaking person on the planet – and we both know that ain’t true, if it were, I’d be a ghost and places like this wouldn’t even exist. Maybe I am a ghost, who can say, right.

“You think I’m full of shit, don’t you? I mean I don’t really know you, and yet, I know you’re more aligned with the philosopher, Thoreau, who said, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” That’s our shared simpatico ya know, we’re both swimming in this giant cesspool of shit – we may be at opposite ends, but it’s the same damn cesspool, nonetheless.

“At least, that’s where I was treading the day I met Nadia, or should I say re-met since it’s been twenty-three years, five months, and fourteen days since she left. Have we covered Nadia? Sometimes I talk about her too much – other times she’s so integrated with my soul I can’t distinguish the blinding boundary between talking about her and talking to her. But I’m talking to you now and am pretty sure we haven’t covered Nadia.

“Twenty-three years, five months, and fourteen days, that’s how long it took Kismet, that invisible blur between what’s possible and what’s probable, to burst beyond its dormant stasis. You believe in Kismet, don’t you? I mean its laws are self-evident, at least to me – the thing is, at any given moment you can randomly turn up the isle of a grocery store and come face to face with fate. That’s how my calculus started, my year of being happy.”


“If you make me answer, I mean hold a loaded gun to my head and swear to God you’ll pull trigger, I’d say I believe in Kismet, but I’m not really all that much into that sort of cosmic crap. I’ll say this though, if there’s such a thing as Kismet, it’s never been fair – at least not to me.

“He didn’t love me; not the way someone should. Maybe he did once but it was long ago and not forever. People shouldn’t talk about such things unless they intend on forever – but how can you when such things don’t really exist? There’s only, what did you call it, ‘the grand illusion,’ what fools like me call love.

“I loved him, or at least I was supposed to – who can say about such things. Does your Kismet allow for the possibility that love is possible when the other person doesn’t love you? If not, is it even ever possible? It’s a circular argument I know, but one I always come back to – probably what brings me here night after night.

“He had a charm, I’ll give him that – not the sweep you off your feet, make your heart skip beats, keep you constantly out of breath kind of charm, but a steady respectable kind – it’s an odd way to describe the person you claim to love, isn’t it?

“There should be more – lovers should start their day longing for night when they can once more be in each other’s arms. Isn’t that love – it’s certainly something more than steady and respectable?

“He didn’t love me, or maybe I didn’t love him – at least not the way I was supposed to – I hide from the horrible truth that it’s at least possible. If love doesn’t exist, how do you know if you’ve ever been in love?

“I loved him until he didn’t love me and maybe that was because I didn’t love him. It’s possible ya know – that’s all I’m saying.

“He wasn’t my first, nor my only love. He knew that going in and yet professed a profound and unconditional commitment to always be tender – and he was, until he wasn’t.

“We get one true love in life, and maybe, it’s not with the person we’re supposed to be with. I had someone before, from long ago – so long in fact, if it doesn’t seem like yesterday, I’d say it was part of a previous life. He was from Barcelona. Well not really, but he always talked about how everyone has a Barcelona; a place where the illusive fantasy of love is real.

“Nadia is your Barcelona – I think everyone has a Nadia, that’s how you can sit here talking about twenty-three years, five months, and fourteen days as if it’s nothing? But riddle me this, if Nadia’s your Barcelona, how does sorrow not consume you? I’m barely a year on my own and can’t see beyond this bench, this park, or the lonely way these ancient trees surround us in a solitude that’s shrouded in silence. More to the point, if Nadia’s your Barcelona, what are you doing here?”


“Nadia was, has always been, and still is, the one woman I never set aside, never forgot, never let go. She melded to my heart, even my soul, from the moment we both tried to occupy the same small space on a crowded Paris metro during morning commute.

“I was young once – probably hard to imagine, but I was: young, lost, and late for the paper I was supposed to present at a conference on managing uncertainty. She was hurrying to proctor an exam for her major professor as part of her graduate studies in Scientific Policy at the prestigious Sorbonne Nouvelle University. I can’t describe her beauty any better way than to say it intoxicated me with an intensity I’d never experienced. She wasn’t plastic like the nightclub girls of glamor that glittered the metros and sidewalk cafés along the Left Bank – she was, I don’t know, like you. I could spend the rest of the night describing her, but in the end, it wouldn’t paint any better portrait than to say you remind me of her.

“It’s her simple elegance – there’s simply no better way to encapsulate it; it’s the way her causal clothes drape around her wire-frame body as comfortably as the worn backpack she always has slung around her left shoulder. It’s the calm way she takes all her morning challenges in stress-reduced stride, and the easy way she can open a conversation with strangers while simultaneously withdrawing to the timid security of being left alone. She has a quiet dignity, the kind that draws you in and yet, there’s this panicked worry about her – as if she’s afraid of where things might lead if she permits herself to embrace the mysterious potential of what might be; afraid she might get lost in all that’s possible.

“That’s how I see you – you think you’re sad, you say life’s unfair, but really, it all comes down to being afraid of what might happen if you allow fate to find your tomorrow.

“Everything happens so fast it’s hard to say how half an hour later we’re sharing coffee at a café as she walks me through her unfinished dissertation. While I forget about my conference and she her students, we while-away the afternoon, and if heartbeats are seconds, my pulse must have raced like a wild river all day because in the blur of a moment, we were walking along the Siene watching an unabashed orange moon dare to cast the Parisian skyline in subtle shades of serenity.

“The whole time she’s talking about her dreams, all I can think about is holding her hand – yet as wistfully as I wait for my opportunity, it never presents; nor does the opening for a goodnight kiss as she leaves me standing on the sidewalk stoop of her apartment with only the faint hope I’ll ever see her again.”


“He never held my hand – never wanted to take walks or even talk over a slow glass of wine. Of course, it’s fair to ask what I was even doing with him – but you don’t get to ask in a tone that prejudges evidence yet to be introduced. And if I knew the answer to such questions, trust me, I’d be anywhere but here. Trial lawyers say you should never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to – that means I’m not even allowed my own cross examination.

“He was kind – at first; it’s not that he was ever unkind, but there’s a vast ocean between not kind and unkind – an ocean with waves so deep they swallow a person without anyone ever hearing their screams.

“That’s how it was – you ask why I stayed like you believe love has a logic. I could just as easily ask how you ever let Nadia go – but we both know our answers get cobbled up in complications way too convoluted to unravel during casual conversations on a park bench.

“I don’t have to justify anything, and have nothing to apologize for, that much is clear; I’m not guilty either. Somehow though, seems all I do is justify, apologize, and feel guilty. Sometimes I’m saying sorry for things that haven’t even happened yet – but I guess when you’ve lived through the happy hell of love you get a sense for the stuff that’s coming even before the stuff knows it’s coming.

“He didn’t love me; at least not the way someone needs to be loved – so why is it on me to defend what happened; what’s already been done? It’s not like it’s anyone’s business anyway.

“He never held my hand or did anything to make me feel even a little bit appreciated – maybe I never earned his appreciation. The thing I can’t stop wondering about though, is what I did to change the man he seemed to be into the person he always was – that’s the question holding me prisoner in my happy hell.

“I did all the things I was supposed to, but who decides on such a mystical list and how can anyone validate those are even correct; or sufficient? Feedback! Love needs feedback. If I paint half your house and you’re unsatisfied but say nothing, I’ll paint the other half with equally disappointing results. Is it your fault or mine that you don’t like that I did my best; in the end your dissatisfied and I’m unappreciated, how sad is it that this somehow becomes the formula for lasting love?

“You ask about being happy and all I can say is I don’t know – in the end, happiness is nothing more than a coat of paint on the weathered wood of a stale life. Asking how I’m happy is like asking me to pick a pallet of colors blindfolded – maybe I get lucky enough to be the squirrel who occasionally finds an acorn, but realistically, I’ll more likely starve and disappear.

“That’s what I did ya know – I starved for love and then disappeared. Even my reflection isn’t me – at least not to me. Someone once told me that love is being so lost in another it’s not possible to tell where one person ends and the other begins; two souls so integrated that when one person breathes, the other’s chest expands and contracts in syncopation. That’s way too poetic to be true – in fact, it’s the opposite of love. Love is not being so lost to your lover that you in fact become lost – no longer exist. At least that’s what it seems on my end of the park bench, like I don’t exist – maybe it did once, but not anymore.”


“I was lost for months after she left me standing on the sidewalk – I tried to think of anything but her, but no, some things the mind won’t banish. That someone can so invade my every waking thought then return in dreams that are as real as reality cause me to question if anything is real.

“How do I even know you’re not a dream – and if you are, why aren’t you her? That’s how it seems our time together is, a dream – a dream filled with fantastic moments that fail to weave together in a consistent strand of possibilities; like when she suddenly wrote to announce she’s moving to America.

“In this moment, for that thread that’s really maybe just the fragment of a dream, her major professor shifts the dissertation focus to an examination of how American science policy is influenced by research sponsors and government grants. I’m not much for politics, and neither is Nadia; but her findings, especially considering pandemics and the nefarious ways such crises are exploited for political power and pharmaceutical profits, seems to suggest a convincingly conceivable conclusion – the kind that gets a person killed.

“But that’s just fodder for fools, right – fools who’ve run out of alternatives but still try to justify the outcomes in their lives in terms of plausibilities until they’re devoid of passion, adventure, and the ability to distinguish the truth from all the lies we tell ourselves in order to survive.

“What I’m saying, I guess, is one moment the pain of loneliness is all consuming and the next she’s moving to Washington where, as if by the fair-minded friend I call fate, I happen to be stationed at the State the Department researching green ways to exploit the new wealth being generated from rare earth minerals and its geopolitical impacts. That’s before the State Department turned into this surreal hell, but that’s a story for a different night.

“It takes more than a month of what we old school romantics like me call courtship to convince her we should live together. Our apartment’s near the last stop along the Blue Line, way out in the suburbs. Before Nadia, I’d commute each day by bike, but now I’m riding the Metro, trying to occupy the same small space with her each morning and evening; just to spend that extra forty minutes together each way is like a cherished gift.

“Months pass like magic moments made for memories – the kind with a never-ending supply of something to look forward to. Simple things like having a walk or going to the grocery store take on forms of glorious grandeur. It’s not possible to describe how I feel, which I suppose is further evidence it must be a dream – it’s like living in a contented state of complete relaxation while constantly ready to explode.

“Nadia challenged me – isn’t that what a woman is supposed to do? She challenged me in ways no one ever has yet left no doubt it’s okay to be vulnerable and unsettled. I didn’t have to pretend with her, which is perhaps the most elusive state of love – she was content with plain old unvarnished me. That says something doesn’t it? You talk of love as if there’s a calculus, but what if the purest form of love is being loved for being plain old unvarnished you? Imagine what that might mean, for one thing, it’d mean you and I wouldn’t be sitting in the deafening quiet of endless nights trying to sort through our shit – once again, sorry.

“But even forever’s not forever – at least not when perfection’s your starting point. Something wasn’t right, not the kind of thing you can point to or ever correct, it never is, right? What I mean is, at some point we first recognize and later accept that we’re not the person we set out to be – and never will be. Some might argue that’s probably for the best – for others though, it leaves us with in a tragic wake resulting in a loss of purpose, an unsettledness that manifests itself in unprecedented ways.

“I’m no different than Nadia in that regard, than you – only I embrace the me I’ve become with all my worts. Nadia was different, she struggled to bury the demons tormenting her. “We all have demons, right – the fact we’re on this bench is proof of that. There’s nothing wrong with demons, mark that down as my second pearl of wisdom.

“We’re all trying to either hide them or hide from them but at the end of the day, it’s not possible to do either. But love has a way of forgetting flaws and I did love her, so I guess I’m guilty of not paying attention – or maybe, of being too much in love. But if this is my punishment, what’s my crime – that’s what I wanna know?

“It wasn’t like she lived in this constant state of torment, or that she was always anguished, just something I noticed once in a while, like the way a certain sunset caused her to become quiet and withdrawn, or how I’d catch her wiping away a tear that just seemed to appear without a catalyst – like the way you cry when it seems I haven’t said anything to upset you.”


“You’re quite full of yourself aren’t you – who are you to assume I cry because of something you said. You and your year of being happy, you have no idea how much people would pay to convert just one year of misery into happiness. You claim with a coward’s confidence that you’re happy – you know what, to hell with you, you cruel bastard! As if you care, every night offering me a tissue as if that’s compassion, well I don’t need it – I never did. All I ever needed was to be held, told nice things occasionally, to feel anything other than not alone.

“We sit here night after night, but do you ever do or say anything to demonstrate empathy? If you weren’t here, would I even notice – if I weren’t here, would you even care? That’s what all this comes down to in the end. I’m here, you’re here, but if either of us weren’t, would the other notice – and isn’t that the antithesis of love?

“I’ll admit I’d miss pieces of you, like the way you smell – I’d likely miss that. Sometimes, when you kick out your legs and slouch against the bench, I envy your ability to relax – it’s like the gravity of regret slides off you without tarnishing pieces of your soul. What I’m awkwardly trying to say is that I’d miss you if you weren’t here – you grouchy old bastard.

“That’s too harsh and I’m sorry. What I mean is, you have a way of saying stuff that makes me mad while at the same time, helps me expose the way I hide from happiness. That’s how we started isn’t it – you wanting to know if I’m happy. Hell no, I’m not happy – you think I sit out here night after night for the sunshine and unicorns?

“Okay, that too was harsh, but damn it all to hell, can’t you just sit here in silence like God intended, or tell me bullshit stories of what life was like back in the day like you’re supposed too? Instead, you talk about this mystical woman from your past as if you expect me to understand, as if everyone has someone just like her – someone who’s so freaking perfect she can’t possibly be real. You talk as if everything about her is perfect – the way she walks, the way she talks, the color of hair. No one’s that perfect, at least not long term – or are you going to now tell me I don’t know because I’ve never been in love?”


“She wasn’t perfect, far from it in fact – it’s what made her perfect. You talk about love like someone wearing blinders – but who can really say, perhaps that’s the only way love can survive.

“There was this thing she’d do after we made love; without getting out of bed or offering any sort of explanation, she’d slip on a nightgown as if it were a protective shield against any extra measure of intimacy that might result from what we’d just shared. It’s kind of cute in a Puritan sort of way and yet, on some level, maybe explains without justification the sudden way she left.

“I remember our last night together like it happened just moments ago, somewhere after she slipped on her nightgown, I fell asleep and when I awoke, she was gone. No note, no explanation, just gone – it’s the not knowing that makes forgetting impossible; knowing that whatever was the catalyst could have been fixed if only given a chance. You mock me as if you’re the only one who’s ever known pain, but everyone has, of that there is no escape – from the successful man who has everything all the way down to the happy man who only wants what he has.

“They say desire and suffering are two sides of the same coin, I think what they mean is that in order to love, we must be willing to accept pain – or maybe that pain is the constant companion of love. I don’t know, but twenty-three years, five months, and fourteen days is an awful long time to consider the implications. We all have someone from our past, someone who could have been, who maybe might still be; someone we catch in glimpses on a crowded metro or pensively hope will sit down across the table from us each time we’re alone at a sidewalk café. The one who comes to the dreams we don’t share with the person beside us – the person who accepts us even with the understanding they’re competing with a ghost. It’s then we realize the extent to which everything is nothing.”


“You are right of course, it’s a truth that once exposed, renders everything else a lie. That’s what it all was you know; I mean the part of him saying he loved me – or maybe me telling him the same. Does it even matter who lied to who – in the end I think not. It’s not like there was a crime and the one who’s punished the most must be the one who owns the most guilt; that’s not how the end of love works. There are victims and of course those who carry the consequences, but you can’t trace that back to the crime that was committed.

“He didn’t love me, or maybe I didn’t love him – at least not in the end. So, what is the greater crime, him not loving me when I loved him, or me finally deciding to let go of what was never meant to last forever – seems either way I wind up on this bench.”


“I never really thought in terms of forever, at least not for the last twenty-three years, five months, and fourteen days, other than to consider its nonlinear behavior.

“Nothing is forever in an ordered timeline where the past proceeds right now and the future is only decided based on the moments that came before. But what if some things are not so constrained – what if the love you lose was never really lost, just misplaced. What if the in-between is nothing more than a link connecting what was, to what will be – a cosmic kind of glue that binds two things together in a way that once joined, can never be pulled apart?

“You’re still early in your journey so it’s probably hard to wrap your mind around the fact that love is not constrained to time – not to this moment, or the next; not to the distant past or the far away future. What if being here means you’re really somewhere else – a place you can’t describe and don’t even know exists. My path is this wobbly sort of circle that winds around to the start – yours is destined to cast about for a bit in the dark shadows of loss that leads to indifference that eventually leads you to the love Kismet has already prescribed.

“When you reach the moment you’re able to look back on all that’s happened with indifference, that’s when you’re ready to lean forward into your next embrace. I don’t think your path circles back to your past; destiny has something else in store for you. You can’t know what it is, but if you’re lucky, you’ll recognize when it arrives – and then, you’ll know how you’re happy.”

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