My phone alarm rings promptly at 6:00AM, and I drowsily hit the snooze button before snuggling softly back into my pillow. It is the first in-service day to start the school year, and it is depressingly dark out.
The smell of coffee wanders up the stairs, and at around 6:15, I hobble out of bed and follow my nose. I’m dressed in Soffee shorts and a long-sleeved Cape May tee, and my hair is thrown up in a bun.
Downstairs, it is chilly, and I yawn.
I pour a cup of coffee into my Tigger mug and watch as the steam rises from it. Brittany, my roommate, heads down the stairs, already dressed for work.
“Morning, girl,” she says, walking into the kitchen and giving me a sympathetic look.
“Morning,” I croak, giving a half-smile. “Coffee smells so good.”
“Yeah,” she says, pouring coffee from the pot into her commuter mug. “Yeah. I need that first morning sip.” I watch as she (amazingly) drinks it scalding hot. “Oh, yeah.” She licks her lips. “That’s good.”
“Coffee. Good,” I say and laugh before my stomach falls into a pit as I think about the day ahead and all of the unknowns that lie ahead. Starting a new school year is exciting but also nerve-wracking.
Outside, the landscape is draped in gray. It’s the early hours of the morning before the world has woken up, and everything is held together in a sleepy, collective state.
We stand in the kitchen for a few minutes. “Oh, man, I did not sleep well last night. I tossed and turned,” she says through sips of coffee, leaning on the counter.
“Really?” I say, because she usually sleeps pretty well. “I actually was able to fall asleep relatively early. But I had some crazy dreams last night,” I say, and shudder as I hazily begin piecing together the somewhat disturbing remnants of my dream.
It is still cold downstairs, but with the coffee mug in hand and Brittany and I laughing, it seems as though I am momentarily blocked from the constraints of the outside world as we stand in the orange glow of the kitchen.
Brittany grabs a banana, takes another sip of coffee, and wishes me luck for the day before heading out the door. I take a deep breath and trudge up the stairs realizing (oh come on!) that I have to wash my hair, and mentally prepare for the day and for the start of a new year.
Today, happiness is having a small moment of comfort, the calm before the storm: laughing with your roommate and sipping coffee in the kitchen before the sun has risen when the world is still charcoal-gray. Happiness is the fleeting moment of peace before the world demands your attention, when you have a simple, even if temporary, moment of stillness.
It’s the Sunday of Labor Day Weekend. For most teachers in New Jersey, this marks the last weekend of freedom until school begins. (Yes, kids. Teachers dread the first day more than you do. It’s a fact.)
Having my “going down the shore” plans thwarted by rain and chilly weather, I decided to rough it and stay in for the weekend. This means…I need food.
I’m briskly making my way out of my townhouse, and have no sooner closed the front door, when I hear my next-door neighbor Kern, (who always so kindly mows our small space of lawn for my roommate Brittany and me) shout to me, “Where you off to, girl? Better be somewhere fun, like a barbeque.”
A little over a year ago, when we had first moved into the townhouse on this street, I came home to a freshly baked loaf of bread sitting atop our mailbox. On the brown paper bag in which it sat was an inscription of “Welcome to the neighborhood. Linda and Kern.” This was drastically different from the very cold tone of my last apartment’s neighbors.
Kern is a pleasant, middle-aged man who likes to climb trees to take care of necessary yard work. His mother, Linda, and I strike up conversations here and there, and she will both ask me why my car is making that horrible noise and, in addition, bring over a container of her home-made blackberry jam.
I barely have the front door closed as he utters these words. I yank the front door shut, smile, and say, “Well…Wegman’s counts as a barbeque, right?” I grin as I hop down the front porch steps, my keys jingling, and make my way over to our shared driveway.
“Oh, are you going to Wegman’s?” he asks, his eyes widening with hope.
“Yes,” I say. I’m a young, single, professional feeding herself on Labor Day Weekend. Wegmans is exactly where I am going.
“Would you mind picking me up some ears of corn?” he asks, reaching into his pocket, fishing for a few dollars. “I’m having a barbeque for the girlfriend and my mother.”
I brighten. “Of course I don’t mind!” I coo, and mean it, because Kern is always doing nice things for us and, not being very handy, I rarely have the chance to reciprocate. I shoo my hands as he hunts through his pocket. “No, don’t even worry about it.”
He smiles and thanks me, indicates that he needs four ears, and heads back to his backyard where he, no doubt, spends a great deal of time doing yard work.
As I drive to Wegman’s, there are small patches of blue-gray sky, but mostly a thin layer of gray, misty clouds. One giant cloud, in particular, looks rather dark and full of rain, and I stare it down, demanding that it hold onto what it has until after I am safely back in the car with the groceries in the trunk.
Wegman’s, as expected, is a mad house. I can’t even get the small shopping carts that I like. I am forced to wobble around with an extremely large, over-sized shopping cart, which doesn’t come in handy as I am carefully weaving my way through the tight-cornered produce aisles. As I don’t have a family to feed, it seems unnecessary that I have a cart this big when I am getting food for only one person.
I have no idea where the corn is, because I have never bought ears of corn before. I’m not really a “vegetable” person and, besides, the little kernels get stuck in your teeth like mini pieces of floss. It is incredibly inconvenient and I am not cut out for such work.
I veer off to the left and find an entire setup for corn. There are husks massively piled up together, and there are also pre-husked ears of corn tightly packed in Saran-wrap. Surely, I can’t bring home pre-packed corn for them. Isn’t that kind of like cheating?
I venture over to the stalked corn. There are about three women there, examining the
selection. I do my best to pretend that I, too, belong there and, surely, know what I am doing. I take a plastic bag and begin placing in a few ears of corn that look to be of decent size (Actually, I tried to pick ones that were rather large. I mean, come on! He mows our lawn without being asked!) when I notice that all three women are, to an extent, unwrapping each ear of corn, examining it, and then making a decision as to whether they put the ear in their cart or back on the shelf!
Dumbfounded, I stare at the three ears of corn that I have already, irresponsibly, placed
in my plastic bag without examining. I take the fourth ear and attempt to husk it to decide, like Simon Cowell, whether or not this ear of corn is worthy of going into the selective plastic bag.
I can feel the other women’s eyes boring into me, analyzing my every motion, even though they’re probably not paying me any attention at all. But I feel like I am front and center in the spot-light and quickly decide that this looks like an excellent piece of corn (maybe the best piece of corn ever!) before plopping it into the bag with the rest and hurry off to the more familiar, safer section of the apples and bananas.
After I scurry down the aisles, my cart is unimpressively full for the large amount of space it provides, and I quickly head to the check-out counter, where the very nice man annoyingly hums the entire time that he’s ringing up my items. I’m back in my car, the groceries are in the trunk, and the feisty dark cloud from earlier seems to be holding off. In other words, luck is on my side.
Upon getting home, I bring Kern his bag of corn. He is sitting at the table out back. I’ve always been fascinated with their backyard. There are beautiful, purple flowers everywhere, and the trees and leaves make it seem like a wondrous garden when, on many occasions, the sun shines through it.
“Delivery!” I sing as I march to the backyard.
He lights up when I walk back. “Hey, thanks!” he says, and then asks, “how did her hair come out?”
He is referring to my roommate who, earlier today, got her hair done for her cousin’s very sophisticated, elegant wedding happening tonight. They must have had a conversation when she left earlier this morning for the gym. She has, at this time, since left for the wedding.
“Oh, it came out so good!” I say, gesticulating my hands wildly, chopping the air as I say this.
He chuckles “I heard your reaction when she came home but didn’t get a chance to see.” Our windows are open so that the house is graced with a beautiful, beginning-of-fall breeze. Apparently, the neighborhood was also graced with my not-so-quiet reaction. (Although, when she came home from her hair appointment asking what I thought, the first thing I said, at the top of my lungs, was, “Harry Potter is on TV and I’m not changing it!” I stood up as I said this before melting into oohs and ahhs over her up-do.
He smiles again and says, “Thanks for the corn!”
I turn to head back to the car to unload the rest of my groceries. “Absolutely!” I say. “Actually, thank you!” I almost throw in “Thank you for taking care of our lawn!” but decide that throwing that in there would be absurdly random and, instead, continue walking back to my trunk.
Later that night, as I sit downstairs in my townhouse with the windows open, I will smell the crisp, succulent smell of grilled corn. They will light their bonfire, and sparkly lights will glisten from the trees in their backyard, impressively glowing against the blackness of the night. I will hear clinks of laughter exmanating from their backyard. It will look and smell wonderful, and I will feel good knowing that, just next door, my neighbors have caught happiness.
For some, perhaps happiness is having a barbeque with grilled corn while being surrounded by the people you love. For today, for me, happiness is knowing that help is never too far away if you know how to ask for it and that, sometimes, simply being in the presence of happiness is a privilege and that privilege can, certainly, be quite enough.