A Happy Guy
by Juliana Albuquerque
Winner of the 2018 Halloween Contest
We meet at a party at Henle, as is the case with most modern Hoya romances. Unbeknownst to us, said party is about to be broken up by SNAPs. In fact, we only have ten minutes of party left, and they scurry by like the mice I’ve seen scurrying outside, time slipping through nooks and crannies, in between one song and the other.
We don’t know that yet, though. I’m fanning some overheated girl who gave her blood, sweat and tears to the dancefloor when, accidentally, our eyes meet.
In the past hour, I have done almost everything I was told not to do by the AlcoholEdu course I had to complete during the summer: my tongue lolls heavy inside my mouth, my limbs feel too light—it’s harder to dance. I’m pretty sure my blood concentration is 60% jungle juice. I am not, however, about to die. At least that’s what I’m thinking as I sweep my eyes through the room—wow, this is really college!—and land them on him.
Pale and clean-shaven, he looks a little like a Disney prince, if a Disney prince had gone off the rails and rebelled against his dead mother and cold father, attending college parties to stand by the beer pong table and watch as the little white ball bounces off the cups, as aims worsen by the second. He was looking at me first, I realize, because when our gazes do meet, he smiles.
It may be the drink, but under the cheap neon lights, flashing green and blue and red, his teeth look almost… fluorescent. Like he’s holding a glow stick in his mouth, the radiation rubbing into his gums. It’s probably the drink.
SNAPs comes. We leave. Later, back at the dorm, me and Cathy hold some girl’s hair as she pukes into the toilet. I don’t think she’s on our floor. I don’t think she’s in this dorm. I’m not sure she’s a freshman.
“Did you see Prince Charming?” I ask her. I’m sobering up, but my words are still slurred—the syllables meshing together. My eyelids are weighted down with mascara, and I just want to sleep.
Cathy frowns, a strand of long blonde hair forming an upside-down question mark on her shoulder. “Who?”
I forget what I asked. I shrug and pat the girl’s back as she sobs and tells me she loves me.
The second time we meet, it’s at another Henle party.
This time, though, me and Cathy have come prepared: we arrive earlier, determined to make the most of it. We’re a little buzzed from the pregame, but we have promised ourselves not to get drunk tonight. I’m almost caving and about to go for a shot when he comes over.
“Pretty necklace,” he says, his smile just as white as I remembered it.
I tug on it automatically. The moon pendant hangs in the dip between my collarbones, a tiny silver thing. It’s not something people usually notice at a first glance, and despite myself, I’m flattered.
“Do you want me to get you a drink?”
I smile, and go with him, but make my own—Coke and vodka, or vodka and Coke. I haven’t forgotten all of the AlcoholEdu. If he notices my hesitation, he says nothing, just bumps the rim of his cup against mine, the wet plastic scraping together.
“I’m Theo.” He’s smiling again. It seems he’s always smiling. I decide to tell him that, and now he laughs, an airy, light sound. “I’m a happy guy,” he says.
I’m expecting a line, one of the bad ones, to come next. Maybe a I’m standing next to you, after all.
But Theo says nothing. He just stands, and looks at me, and smiles. I clear my throat.
“Should we sit down?”
Legs kicked up on the ratty couch, we go through the basics. He tells me he’s a junior, that he’s studying Econ, that his family is very big and very old. He likes cats. He inches closer to me with every fact he drops, his long fingers splayed spiderlike on my thigh. His thumb presses light against my kneecap as he turns me around gently.
I feel like people are staring, because the little hairs on my nape stand on end, because my stomach twists as he brings a hand up to push my hair behind my shoulder. Still. He’s smiling as he leans in. I’m smiling as I let him.
I don’t expect anything to come out of it. After all, I tell my sister over the phone, good things rarely come out of fifteen-minute couch makeout sessions right before parties get broken up and die.
Still, when I get back from class, I see he’s texted me. I vaguely remember giving him my number, kiss-drunk and vodka-drunk and swaying lightly on my feet. I remember him walking me out the party and pressing his lips to mine quickly, his lilting voice in my ear telling me goodnight.
I text him back.
We have a picnic on the grass on a Wednesday, after the Farmers’ Market. He rests his head in my lap and I run my fingers through his hair, thick and brown and Disney-prince soft. I squint my eyes up at the sky, past the shade of the tree we’re under. I’m worried about how I’m presenting myself. I’m worried he’ll see that I’ve never done this before, that I’ve never sat underneath a tree with a pretty boy’s head in my lap, letting the sun’s rays crawl across my face, hide in the hollows of my cheeks, make long sooty shadows of my eyelashes. I imagine how I must look like to him.
I picture myself in his mind, wonder if I look good from this angle, if I look good from any angle. His eyes are closed, but still, if he were to open them, he’d have to look past my chin to see my face, and that’s not a flattering view for anyone, and I’m suddenly too hot. The sun is too bright. I’m too worried about everything.
“Why did you stop?” Theo asks drowsily.
I hadn’t noticed I had.
My fingers take up the motion again, scratching lightly at his head, hoping he doesn’t open his eyes. I stop looking at the sky and stare straight ahead, watching a girl race to White Gravenor. If she wasn’t in a hurry, I think, would she notice me? Would the boy in the white shirt listening to music beside us? Why am I worried about this, why do I want to be seen? How do I want to be seen?
Suddenly exhausted, I want to go back to my room. I shift, but Theo doesn’t move. He looks fast asleep, his face calm and pale. I consider waking him up, but a slow smile spreads on his lips, pleased and satisfied. He looks like some ancient solar god, favored by the golden light of early afternoon, and it’s almost like power ripples beneath his skin. I can’t bring myself to bother him.
By the second week, it’s a little too much.
Theo’s texts are constant and abundant; he wants to meet me every other day; when I tell him I’m having dinner with my friends or going out with my floor, he becomes snippy and irritable.
I see the signs from a mile away, but I don’t want to acknowledge it. In short, I am getting bored.
My answers get less and less enthusiastic. I don’t double the amounts of “y”s in “okay”, “hey”, or “party”. When I’m with him, I’m fine. I feel happy. I feel desired, and wanted, and my ego is healthily boosted. When I’m alone, though.
When I’m alone, it’s like the life is sucked out of me. I can’t stand replying his messages, I can’t stand having to make excuses when I’m tired and just don’t want to see his face, when my jaw still aches from the long, uninterrupted kisses he gives me, stealing my breath and swallowing it down as his own. Cathy says I should dump him.
Cathy is probably right.
I don’t dump him.
He texts me again.
I sigh, picking up my phone and debating whether or not I should let him know I’m online.
I sigh, and text him back.
I tell Theo I can’t go out because I’m studying. It’s my first Italian test, and I want to ace it, because I want to ace everything. I turn off my phone. I lose myself in the textbook, in long exercises provided by shady websites that have “Learn Italian!” as a heading, right above “Meet Russian Bride Free!”
My eyes are swimming when Cathy finally convinces me to get dinner.
“You need human interaction,” she says, and I agree, so I slip on my beat-up sneakers, shove my GoCard into my pocket, and think nothing of it as we walk to Leo’s.
A couple of other friends from my floor have joined us, and we sit at a high table after we get our food.
My muscles finally relax after a whole day of hunching over notes, and this is okay. This is nice, hanging out, forgetting my troubles, poking at some crunchy mac ‘n cheese. I’m laughing at George’s quest to meet Bradley Cooper when I feel cold fingers resting against my back.
“I thought you weren’t going out today,” Theo says, thumbing at my cheek. I stop laughing.
“I just came out for dinner with my friends,” I say. I hate how defensive I sound. I have done nothing wrong, I tell myself indignantly. Still. It doesn’t seem like I was laughing just a few seconds ago. Now I just feel empty and worried, watching as my friends share an incredulous look.
I shrug Theo’s hand off my back and go back to my food. I stuff a piece of bread in my mouth so he doesn’t have to kiss me.
He leans an elbow against the table, trying to make conversation.
“What are you eating?” he demands. He’s still smiling, though. Still smiling, but this one is odd. Hooked and twisted, the corners of his mouth twitching with effort. Maybe all of his smiles have always looked like that.
I pause. Blink. Chew. Swallow.
“Garlic bread?” I try.
He nods, and stares at me expectantly. Then he stares some more. He wants me to bring him into the conversation, to pull something out of thin air which he can latch on to, which he can grasp at with his long fingers, tearing at the bubble I had miraculously, momentarily shrouded myself in.
I can think of nothing to say. I don’t want to say anything. At this point, I just want him to go.
The silence eats at me, at us, at the table. I half-expect the chairs to snap and crumble, the food to start running and dripping off the plates. It’s a surreal thing, to be caught in his expectant gaze—a peculiar feeling, like I’m already existing in an odd dreamscape or in a memory, locked away in some hazy recollection of his golden college days.
It’s gotten awkward by now, and he can tell. He can tell, and he narrows his eyes at me, at the other people sitting beside me, like they’re personally responsible for my change in attitude. He can feel that, too. I know he can.
“I’ll see you later,” he says, and leaves. The sterile white light of Leo’s catches in his slicked hair, threads of it weaving through thick darkness. It makes him look like one of the Ken dolls my sisters play with. The ones whose heads always pop off.
“Dump him,” Cathy says.
I say nothing, but push my plate away. Suddenly I’m not hungry anymore.
Sometimes he sets his teeth to my ribs and his hungry eyes fall upon my stuttered breathing, the pads of his fingers brushing against the blue veins on the inside of my wrist. He says he wants my heart all to himself. I think he wants to eat it.
There is something wrong with his chin, I discover one day while staring at his profile.
It’s… not quite right. Sloped and jilted a little to the side, as though he’d gotten into a fight when he was a kid and refused to let the doctors set it back to its rightful place. It shows when he smiles.
He’s always smiling. He turns his head and smiles at me right now, with all his teeth.
Sometimes it looks like he has rows and rows of teeth; perfectly straight, blindingly white. The pride and joy of every self-respecting dentist. His canines, though, are rounded. Like they’ve been filed down too often.
“Why are you smiling?” I whisper.
Theo leans in, licks a hot stripe up the column of my neck, tugs at the skin at the hollow of my throat with some of his several teeth, sucks his mark there, brands me. I worry I look cow-eyed as I stare back at him, his sharp shoulders rolling like waves beneath my palms.
“I’m a happy guy,” he says. His grin has grown larger where it rests against my neck, canines bumping and clacking against my jugular. I feel sick to my stomach.
“Why are you even with him?” my sister asks through Skype, and I shrug a shoulder. I wear a turtleneck so she doesn’t see the mess Theo has made on the skin stretched over my throat—this is now a common occurrence. I think my sister suspects it.
I fiddle with the collar of my sweater and shrug again.
I like the attention, I could say. Or, no one has ever felt this for me before. I could say, my ego is better fed than ever, I’m living the life I could only see in movies, he thinks I’m beautiful and I don’t, and if I let him go, how will I know I am?
Instead, I pick up my phone. Shrug for the third time. “He’s nice.”
I show her a meme through the laptop screen. I successfully change the subject.
A month in, we’re on the grass again, but this time, there’s no picnic, and my backpack lies on my lap instead of his head. I’m looking down at my History reading. He’s looking at me.
“You used to smile more,” he points out.
I hum absently, flipping the page. It’s true. I still smile with my friends—laugh at their jokes, grin at their awful puns, giggle when we go to the movies—but he seems to do all the smiling for me when we’re together. It’s not the first time he’s commented on it, either. No, he gets nervous when I get serious. I try not to think about it.
“You should smile more again,” he continues, but his voice is wavering, his tone slipping deeper before ending on a quiet high-pitched whine.
Frowning, I finally look up at him. His cheeks shake with the effort of keeping the smile on, and his eyes are too-shiny, desperate and needy, impossibly wide. He looks deranged, unhinged as his fingers flex around nothing before grasping at tufts of grass, ripping them out of the ground and making a pile at my feet.
Bile rises up my throat. I’m still frowning, but maybe my expression has melted into a horrified one, because his eyes widen even further as he reaches a hand out to smooth the crease between my eyebrows. His index fingers poke at my cheeks, stretching my lips, twisting them upwards.
“Smile,” he says, and though his voice is as calm as ever, it has the same weird cadence as before. It sounds a lot like an order, and I wrench back.
Anger washes over me, engulfs me like a tropical storm, a torrential flood of rage that has me seeing red. In a sick rush of clarity, I tell myself to pull my shit together. Enough is enough.
“I need some time,” I say through gritted teeth.
“Time? For what?”
“Time. Away from this. From you. It’s just—I don’t think this is working for me, Theo.”
Theo just looks confused, his head cocked to one side. “But I thought you liked being with me.”
“I did,” I say. My unspoken verdict hangs in the air—sad, dejected ghosts of word, hovering between us. Not anymore.
Theo nods. His smile drops from his face. He looks older than he did five seconds ago; maybe it’s the smile lines, deep reddish cracked crevasses that mar his face in a way I hadn’t noticed before. Have I ever seen him without a smile? Now I have, and I hate it. He’s glaring. He’s glaring, and his eyes are shining black again, and I am terrified.
I am uncomfortably hyper-conscious of my existence as a human being; I can feel my blood pushing through my arteries and throbbing at my temples. I can feel my ribs bruising as my heart thumps against them, beating a red mess inside me. I count and catalog each breath I draw in, as if I might forget how to otherwise—the tips of my fingers tingle with hyper-sensitivity, hyper-electricity, and my tongue, woolen and heavy, can’t seem to find a comfortable place inside my dry mouth.
This is what he does to me. This is what I have allowed him to do to me.
Shockingly alive and shockingly worried that state might change anytime, despite the broad daylight, I stand up shakily, swinging my backpack over one shoulder. It’s only then I realize how empty Copley Lawn is. Theo is still glaring at me.
I turn my back and run. When I get back to my room, the wooden door safe and solid at my back, my knees give out and I fall to the ground, shaking. I don’t realize I’m crying until I taste salt on my lips.
Life goes on.
I throw myself into routine, let the pleasure of following the mundane and the boring take over. I go to class, do my homework, go to meetings, go to Epi, hang out with my friends, go to sleep and then I do it all over again the next day.
I feel strange sometimes, yes, a little isolated, like I’m camping out on this deserted island that’s close enough to the mainland so I can see its movement in the horizon—the racing cars, the blinking lights— but not close enough to swim away from. Just out of reach.
But then again, that’s college. I look it up and see that the majority of students at university feel lonely at some point or the other, so I’m not worried.
My parents say that I look tired when I FaceTime them. I say midterms are getting to me, but I haven’t had midterms yet. It’ll pass soon, I tell myself. I’m optimistic.
I’m hanging out with George as he watches a Buzzfeed Unsolved episode on YouTube. They explain they’re going after a mythological demon who feeds on smiles, and George pauses the video.
“That sounds like Theo,” he says, sniggering.
I don’t laugh.
George stares at me expectantly. He usually understands if I don’t laugh at his jokes, but I also usually have some form of reaction, a smile or a grin.
I do nothing of the sort. George shrugs and puts the video back on.
They are now hunting the demon, and Ryan Bergara says something funny, and George laughs. I want to laugh, too, but I don’t.
I don’t think I can.
I tell myself I’m imagining it. Surely I’m just having a string of bad days. Surely I don’t believe Theo, my ex-boyfriend, is a demon who preys on general happiness.
I still Google it, though. Repeatedly. At 3 in the morning. I read one occult article after another, not knowing what to trust, half-certain I’m losing my mind.
I watch comedy specials on Netflix. I hang out with the funniest people I know. I see a guy proposing to his girlfriend in the street, getting his jeans dirty in the ground but not caring, eyes sparkling as she says yes. I’m unable to muster up a single smile.
Conclusions are drawn, and I don’t like them one bit. Cold dread settles permanently in my guts, boiling and brewing into something horrible, into something great, until I feel it expanding inside me, my chest close to bursting.
Multiple times a day, I find my breathing is shallow and ragged, my pulse rabbiting, cold sweat beading at my nape. I can’t sleep. I’m not failing any classes, but I’m worried I’ll get to that point soon. Sleep-deprived, over-exhausted, I try to force myself to smile.
I wake at five in the morning and trudge to the bathroom, stomach sinking at the sight of myself in the mirror: the dark circles beneath my eyes pressed deep into my skin, the unhealthy pallor of my face. I glare at my reflection, tears burning behind my eyelids, and tell myself to laugh.
My mouth will not obey me; its corners will not lift, my lips do not pull back from my teeth and gums. I give in and do what Theo had tried to do, the last day we had together. I put my fingers to my jaw, try manually tugging at my lips. They’re too heavy, weighted down with some invisible force.
I swallow down the tears. It’s useless to cry. I imagine what Theo would say if he saw me like this. Imagine him saying, “Smile,” the taunt sending a brutal cascade of shudders down my spine.
I stare at myself, dead-eyed in the mirror, and start thinking of a plan.
I go about my day as normal, periodically rubbing sleep away from my eyes, assuring my friends I’m alright even if I haven’t smiled in two weeks. When I get back to my room, I pull out my phone. For the first time since the beginning of this mess, I text him first.
what did you do to me
No question marks at the end of the sentence. He doesn’t deserve my doubt. I know I’m not crazy. If there’s room for doubt, there’s room for comfort and consolation, and he just might convince him to go running back to him. No question marks.
He reads the message almost immediately, but takes his time typing out his response. He takes a long time. I’m so busy glaring at the mocking three dots on his side of the screen I barely notice Cathy leaving for volleyball practice. Almost on cue, though, as soon as she’s out the door, I get my answer.
I can’t tell you this over the phone.
I know it’s a bad idea even as I send it, but I’ve had enough. I’m frustrated and angry and afraid and sad and I just want this, all of this, to be over.
just tell me. i don’t care how
The three dots appear again, bouncing demonically. I squeeze my eyes shut, praying and begging for—something, anything.
The three dots disappear. Three words take their place.
I’m coming over.
It occurs to me he’s never been to my dorm. When we were dating, I’d always go around to his, with his permanently absent roommate, with his single room. Now I’m wondering where, exactly, his roommate is. Did Theo do the same thing to him? Is he dead? Will I—
There’s a knock on my door. I freeze, throat burning like I swallowed ice.
Dizzily, I stand up and hesitate, my hand on the doorknob. I don’t remember ever telling him where I lived.
Maybe Cathy forgot her kneepads, I think, my brain desperately trying to provide a non-disturbing explanation.
Courage washes through me again, that same moment of clarity in the grass, and I take a deep breath and open the door.
Theo stands before me with his hands in his pockets. Behind him, the common room is empty. Funny. I could have sworn I heard laughter coming from there a few minutes ago.
“Well?” I demand, thanking whoever is willing to listen for the fact my voice is stronger, firmer than I feel.
“Can I come in?”
I step aside, raise an eyebrow.
“I’d rather have your consent.” There goes his voice again, odd and lilting. I don’t have time for this, for his trying to cover his ass so he has a plausible excuse if I call GUPD on him.
“Just come in,” I snap.
I open the door wider, step back inside my room.
The door shuts behind him.
He smiles. Painfully, so do I.