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Unreasonable Degrees of Happiness

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Cher is sixteen when Josh kisses her. She’s still sixteen a few months later when he’s her date to a wedding—and this feels so adult that she squirms a little in her chair when she thinks about it in the driver’s ed course Daddy forces her to sit through that summer.

She’s seventeen when he takes her to a party in Westwood with his UCLA friends. When they walk in the door, Cher realizes that all her Beverly Hills socializing has not prepared her for this.

“Josh,” she hisses, while he’s giving a chin-up hello to someone he said was called ‘Chet’. “Where’s the party?”

He looks confused. “We’re here. This is the party.”

It’s Cher’s turn to look askance at him. The place smells like cheap incense and even cheaper pot. “There are, like, twelve people here. And no music, not even the whiny stuff you listen to.” She says it in the voice she knows he likes, slightly pouty, what he calls her ‘heiress voice’. Usually he kisses her and grins, and makes her smile by doing whatever she wants.

“We’re a little early,” he says, and shrugs. “Maybe Claire will put some music on later.”

Cher rolls her eyes and follows him to get something to drink, past a shaggy-haired man with a guitar in his hands. She’s used to parties where pretty much any alcohol you can imagine is available, so she’s surprised to see that the counter is filled with bottles of wine. Cheap wine.  She cringes as she thinks of the night she tried to seduce Christian. 

Then again, the wine she was going to serve him was much better than what’s here.

Josh hands her a glass of red and takes her to sit on a sofa that has mysterious stains on it and a spring that pokes her in the back. People are arriving in groups now, and most of them look like they haven’t bathed all week.

One of the unwashed, a girl named Sunny, who smells like patchouli and onion rings, is talking loudly next to her. “And if people could just realize what the limits are—the glass ceiling hurts women more than anything—”

“Oh!” Cher interrupts. “Are you talking about the atrium at the Beverly Center? Did you go the new Gucci store?”

From the other side of Sunny, Claire, who was apparently really listening to this diatribe, gives Cher a look that reminds Cher of Amber in debate class last semester, all pinched lips and narrowed eyebrows. Cher shrugs and turns away, trying to listen in on Josh’s conversation about Styrofoam instead. Ugh, she thinks. Why does Josh always have to find the most uninteresting topics when we’re at these group things?

When Chet and some person named Webby start playing their guitars and whining, Cher realizes the difference between her friends and Josh’s.

His friends are poor.

She is coping with this newfound knowledge as best she can (Josh helps by bringing her another glass of wine) when one of the other partygoers (was his name Bret?) crashes into the couch and makes her spill Merlot all over her skirt.

Cher pushes him off her and jumps up, shouting, “This is Dolce & Gabbana, you jerk! Ugh!” She is tempted to kick him with her Stuart Weitzmans, but then he looks at her with drunken, unfocused eyes and it’s not worth possibly scuffing the leather.

“Are you okay?” Josh grabs her arm and pulls her away. Cher is still futilely brushing at her skirt, which is rapidly becoming less ‘buttercup’ and more ‘hideous purple and ashy gray’.

Josh drags her, still sputtering, over to Claire, who shrugs, mutters something about being a slave to fashion, and leads Cher down the hall to a bedroom the size of Cher’s closet.

Claire hands her a pair of jeans that are at least a size too big and are made by some brand called Wrangler. Cher doesn’t recognize the label.

She calls Dionne from the bedroom.

“He ruined my Dolce,” she whines, and Dionne’s gasp at the other end makes her feel slightly better. “Dee, why am I even here?”

“Because, Cher,” Dionne says, in what Cher recognizes as the Voice of Dating Experience, “sometimes as women, we have to do things our men like to do. Do you think I like watching Murray play basketball? No. But I go to his games, and he does what I like. Besides, what happened to your resolution to ‘be more supportive’?”

Dionne carries on for a few minutes, but the crux of her lecture is this: Cher should suck it up and go back to the party. Cher sighs.

The jeans hang low on her hips, and denim pools around her ankles. She can’t even see her legs. She’d worn a skirt because Josh always checks out her legs when she wears short skirts.

“Ugh! I look worse than Tai did on her first day at school!”

Then again, the white t-shirt she’s wearing is Calvin Klein, and Tai didn’t even know who Calvin Klein was when she came to Beverly Hills.

It’s a small comfort.

Cher peeks into the hallway and spies Josh standing at the end, talking to a couple of guys she’s met before: Austin and the unfortunately-named Colt.

She walks up to Josh, and he puts his arm around her. “Everything okay now, babe?”

“My skirt is ruined,” she says in a tiny, pathetic voice, and leans her head on his shoulder.

“If it matters,” he says, kissing the top of her head with that mix of affection and humor that she finds both annoying and attractive, “I still think you’re the hottest girl at the party.” Cher turns her head and smiles at him, and for a second she forgets that she only bought the skirt last week and that Lucy is going to kill her when she finds the stain.

There’s a gap between the hem of her shirt and the borrowed jeans, and Josh’s hand finds it. As his thumb traces circles over the soft skin of her waist, Cher decides that maybe these saggy, unflattering jeans have some potential. She might even buy a pair, for when Josh takes her to his college parties.

But she’s not wearing flannel. No matter how much in love she is, some lines must never be crossed.

*****

Josh is twenty-three and Cher is (barely) twenty-one when he takes her to The Standard on Sunset and buys her a martini. It’s not her first martini, but it is pink. At twenty-three, Josh is less into hemp and Heidegger and more into microchips and hacker culture. His goofy lopsided grin still makes her a little weak in the knees, even if Josh still doesn’t know what size dress shirt he wears and buys them too big at the neck so the sleeves hang funny. It means he has to leave the top button open, and she’s always liked the fact that he’s more comfortable when he’s casual.

Josh is almost finished with law school, so she hopes that all the strange things she’s noticed recently—how nervous he is when they’re together, how he stares at her sometimes when he thinks she isn’t looking—will go away when he has a placement. At least they won’t break up before he has to go on his interviews. He needs Cher. Without her, he’d probably do something stupid, like buy a suit at a warehouse store or—and this is more disturbing—wear pinstripes.  

(But it’s okay, because Cher is hopeless with a computer and although Josh forced her to learn to type sixty words per minute, she’d rather turn in handwritten assignments. She still makes little hearts over the i’s. The typing has helped, though, with Dee at UCLA, Tai in San Diego, and Cher at USC. They have to use Instant Messenger to keep in touch while they study.)

Cher knows Josh can’t even tie his own ties, and that’s why they never go to Mr. Chow. (She makes Daddy take her there, even though Cher has to order spring rolls so he eats his vegetables.)

 “So.” Josh turns and looks out over the railing at the city lights below them. “Where do you think you’ll be on your birthday next year?”

Cher laughs, then shrugs. “With you, of course.”

Josh smiles. “No, really. Where do you think you’ll be in a year?”

“Here. In LA. I’ll find a job, or something.” And we’ll get married. She can’t say it. Josh has been all sorts of weird about commitment lately.

“What if…”Josh turns back to her with a frown. “Well, don’t you want to live anywhere else?”

Cher just stares at him, confused. “Why would I want to move? LA has everything I need.”

Josh sighs. “Don’t you ever want to experience more of the world? Live somewhere new?”

“I like it here.” Cher tilts her head and frowns. “What’s wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with wanting to live somewhere other than Los Angeles?”

“Nothing,” Cher says, still confused. “Do you want to move to the Valley or something?”

“A little farther than Sun Valley, Cher.”

“I was making a joke, Josh. What, do you want to live in San Francisco or New York or something?”

“Or something,” he mutters, and takes a long drink of his beer. Cher makes a face. Josh would order a beer at The Standard.

Cher takes a sip of her drink and waits, noting absently that the ‘Thong Song’ is playing. She starts to hum along, before she remembers she hates this song.

“I want to move to London.”

“London England?”

“Is there another London? That I’d want to move to, anyway?”

“Josh!” Cher stamps her foot, hard, and the impact of her heel against the concrete of the floor makes her wince. “Why are you being so… cryptic tonight? What’s going on?”

Josh sighs and shakes his head. “I’m not being cryptic. I just don’t know how to tell you this.”

Cher sets her glass on one of the tables they’re standing near and moves close enough to put her hand on his back. “Whatever it is Josh, we’ll figure it out.”

Then, paralyzed by a momentary fear she pulls her hand away and asks, in a voice that sounds strangely shrill and not at all like her own, “Are you breaking up with me?”

Josh reaches for her, nearly knocking his glass over the side of the building. “No! Cher! Of course not!”

“Then what the hell, Josh?”

“I’m not… Cher. I’m trying to tell you that I got a job offer in London.”

Cher stares at him for a full minute, in which it feels like a slow motion replay of the words “in London” echoes over and over in her brain.

Josh reaches out to touch her arm, just as the first beats of “Independent Women” start playing.

“Cher? Say something. You’re kind of freaking me out, here.” His hands are on her shoulders now, and he’s looking into her eyes.

When she speaks, her voice is soft and petulant. “Are you going to take it?”

Josh sighs, and it sounds like he’s been holding it in for days. She steps into his arms, and he pulls her close.  Her heels make them nearly the same height, and she hears him whisper in her ear, “I don’t know, I really don’t know.”

Cher doesn’t close her eyes. Off in the distance, the lights of Sunset Boulevard and Los Angeles spread out to the horizon.  She fists her hands in the back of Josh’s shirt and holds tight, feeling him warm and solid against her, his breath ruffling her hair.

“I don’t want you to go,” she says. “You’ve always been there for me, been here for me. What will I do without you?” She blinks, and feels tears catch in her eyelashes.

Josh pulls away, just enough so that he can rest his forehead against hers. “You’re amazing, Cher. You’re smart and funny, determined…you don’t need me.”

She leans up and kisses him. They’ve always been good at this, from the very beginning, and after all this time, Josh’s mouth on hers still makes Cher forget that they’re standing in a crowded bar, that he’s just told her he’s leaving. And then she remembers, and pulls back.

“I know that, Josh,” Cher says, breathless but firm. “But it doesn’t mean I don’t want you.”

*****

Cher is twenty-six and Josh is twenty-eight when she gets the flu and he proposes to her.

Cher is half-asleep when she feels a cool, wet cloth on her forehead, and slowly opens one eye.

“Hi,” Josh whispers.

“What are you doing here?” Cher’s voice is hoarse and raspy, and she grimaces at the grating pain in her throat. She tentatively opens the other eye and tries to lift herself up on one elbow, but her arms are shaky and she falls back to her pillow with an oomph.

“I came back early. Where is everyone?” Josh leans over her again to adjust the compress, which has moved across her face and is dripping in her ear.

Cher closes her eyes. The room has gone topsy-turvy again.

“Cher?”

“Sorry. Everything is kind of…spinning again.”

She feels Josh sit on the bed and take her hand. She tries to give him a little squeeze, but her skin is all clammy and she’s so weak their hands kind of slide against each other instead. Josh reaches up to stroke her hair, and it feels like heaven.

“Do that again,” she murmurs, and she hears Josh chuckle as he smoothes her hair between his fingers.

When Cher wakes up later, Josh is propped up against the headboard, reading through paperwork.  It’s darker now, late in the afternoon, and when she opens her eyes it doesn’t feel like tiny knives stabbing her corneas, so she keeps them open and watches him for a minute.

She wiggles a little, and Josh looks at her and smiles. “How are you feeling?”

“Mnpnmh,” she says, turning her face into the pillow.

“That good?” He laughs. “How long have you been sick?” He puts his paperwork on the nightstand and slides down a bit into the pillows.

“Water first,” she manages to croak. Josh sits up again and reaches across her to where there’s a glass with a straw. He holds it for her, putting one hand against her forehead while she drinks.

“You’ve still got a fever.”

Cher looks at him and says, “Um, yeah, I know.”

Josh smiles at her. “If you’re joking, you must feel better.”

Cher scowls. “I felt bad yesterday at lunch, so I came home. But Daddy’s in Chicago and Lucy went to stay with her sister. I got into bed and I haven’t moved since.” She pouts as she says it, and Josh’s hand moves from her forehead to cup her cheek.

“Poor Cher,” he says. “All alone with the flu and no one to take care of you.”

“You’re here,” she says, and tries to smile sweetly, but when she realizes she hasn’t brushed her teeth in at least thirty-six hours, she clamps her lips shut.

“I am,” he says, and sits up, clapping his hands together once. “And so our first order of business is to get you cleaned up and then some chicken soup.”

Cher groans. “If I get out of this bed, I might throw up.”

He looks at her and smiles. “I think I can handle that. Come on, babe.”

“Wait.” Even in her flu-induced fog, Cher knows something isn’t quite right. “Why aren’t you in DC?”

“Like I said, I came back early.” He shrugs.

“But… you said the Senate vote wasn’t for another week.” Cher had watched CNN every day to see if they mentioned the legislation Josh and his team had lobbied to get passed. She had even TiVo’d Josh’s one interview, with a bubbly female correspondent who didn’t know how to pronounce “environment”. Cher had sneered at the girl, but thought that Josh looked amazing in the suit she’d told him to wear.

Josh reaches up to rub the back of his neck self-consciously. “It is. I just… came back. They don’t need me.”

“Josh, I’m sick, not stupid.” Cher pauses for a hacking cough that shakes her whole body. “See?” she croaks. “You have to tell me. I’m miserable. You can’t lie to your miserable and potentially infectious girlfriend.”

He smiles nervously. “Okay, well, I had this idea to surprise you. I was going to be here when you came home and there would be flowers everywhere… I was going to wait at the top of the stairs and then, well, I was going to propose.” Josh shrugs again and frowns. “It sounds really lame when I say all of that out loud.”

Cher stares at him blankly for a minute. This is either a very realistic fever dream or… “Josh, you want to marry me?”

“Of course I want to marry you!” In an instant, he moves across the room so he’s sitting next to her again, holding her hand. “We’ve been dating for ten years. What did you expect?”

“I thought maybe you didn’t want to get married. Ever. I mean, nearly all of my friends and most of yours are married. Amber’s already been divorced twice.”

“Are you really comparing our relationship to Amber’s? That’s hardly fair.” Josh smirks. Cher rolls her eyes.

“I’ve wanted to marry you since you caught the bouquet at the Geist-Hall wedding,” Josh says, turning serious, tracing the lines on her palm. “But we were too young, and then I went to London, and since I’ve been back…” He looks down at their hands for a moment, then up at her face. “Well, I guess I’ve been a little scared. Things with us have been really good, you know? I didn’t want to screw that up.”

Cher looks away. “I talked to Tai about it, actually. Ever since she married that psychiatrist she’s really into analysis and stuff.” She pauses, coughs, and after Josh helps her take another sip of water she carries on. “Tai thinks that because your parents haven’t been part of lasting marriages you don’t have good role models and you’re afraid to commit to something you don’t understand. But because my parents were separated by my mother’s death, I don’t have the emotional baggage you do. So I’m not as afraid of marriage, but you need time to feel that you can commit to the institution of marriage as much as to me.”

“So you think Tai is right about me?”

“She was right about why Dee and Murray were having problems with communication.” Cher wrinkles her nose. “Tai’s gotten a lot more perceptive since she moved back to Boston. But she’s always been really interested in relationships.”

A slow smile spreads across Josh’s face. “I love you.”

Cher turns her head on the pillow so she can see him a bit more clearly. “I love you too. Weren’t you going to ask me something?”

Josh laughs. “You don’t want me to wait until you’re feeling better?”

Cher shakes her head, the fabric of her pillowcase rubbing against her ear and a strand of her hair falling in her face. “Now is good. I’m not going anywhere.” Then she starts coughing again, and Josh has to help her sit up and drink more water.

When he puts the empty glass back on the nightstand, he takes both her hands in his and asks, “Cher Horowitz, will you marry me?”

“Yes!” she gasps and throws her arms around him.

“But,” she adds, her voice nearly lost in his shoulder, “you can’t kiss me for at least forty-eight hours or you’ll catch the plague.”

“Cher,” Josh pulls away and says very patiently, “I’ve already been exposed for about three hours, so it’s really too late to start worrying about contagion.”

“That’s true,” Cher says, then grins. “Besides, we’re getting married. What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is yours, right? Including illnesses.”

Josh kisses her then, and they fall back on the bed, laughing. Cher is trying to keep from coughing in Josh’s face and he’s trying to move blankets and sheets when she suddenly stills.

“You know Daddy’s going to insist on a pre-nup, right?”

“Cher,” Josh says, trying to push one of his old t-shirts—Blind Melon, which she stole in 1998 and he’s been looking for ever since—out of the way to reach her collarbone, “I already talked to Mel about it and he’s drawing one up. Can we focus here?”

“Oh!” Cher says, “I’m glad you talked to him already.” She lets Josh continue what he’s doing but a few seconds later, she stops him again.

“Um, Josh? I think I’m going to puke.”

He sits up, and his smile is broad and happy. “That’s okay. In sickness and in health, right?”

Cher laughs, and Josh helps her out of bed.

“Come on,” he says, “I’ll hold your hair back.”

“And then you’ll show me the ring?” Cher isn’t so sick that she’s forgotten that engagements equal jewelry.

“Yes. First, puke, then diamonds.” Josh kisses her on the forehead, and she snuggles into him a little as he helps her stumble into the bathroom.

The fact that she’s been planning their wedding since she was sixteen is something she’ll tell him later.