The idea came when we were watching an episode of Mr. Birdy. It is a kids’ show really, but the writers love to throw in pop culture references and in-jokes, so everyone watches it. Mr. Birdy had just, as usual, solved a tricky series of puzzles in order to escape the clutches of the Hippo Gang and rescued his friends. “Adventure is waiting for you!” he chirped with his usual sign off line. I sighed at you.
"Why is it we never get adventures like that in real life? Pitting our wits against fiendishly clever puzzles? Escaping danger? Figuring out how two seemingly disparate objects fit together to form a whole?" I complained. "I want adventure."
"You want romance," you countered, shoving your cold feet underneath my legs and wiggling your toes.
A wave of heat flashed across my cheeks, as if I'd been flicked with fire. "You mean the capital-R kind?"
Your smile softened. "Of course. And really who wouldn't? Life can be so boring. A little mystery, a little excitement...the chance to show off, just knowing they might be waiting for you around the corner makes every day more exciting."
I nodded vigorously, my hands making extravagant gestures as I go on. "Exactly! It's the possibilities that are so important. Because if anything could be an adventure, then *everything* is one, too! And that's just...just...amazing." By this point I had jumped up on the sofa to better express my emotions and my overenthusiastic flailing hit the corner of the painting of a kitten I'd done for you. The painting wobbled and tilted askew, the kitten now seeming to glare at me, affronted at this indignity. "Sorry," I said both to you and the kitten. I carefully straightened it back out, glad that at least I hadn't knocked it off the wall.
The pause had tempered my excitement. "Of course, the problem is, we're not in a show. Nothing really interesting will ever happen to me. The trickiest puzzle I'll probably ever solve is where all my matching socks disappear to or what happened to those cookies I swear I bought."
You looked down, a faint pinkness to your ears where they peeped through the curtain of your hair. "I was really hungry," you muttered. "I worked through lunch."
"But I was saving them for dessert tomorrow!" I wailed and flung a cushion at you.
You caught it and tossed it back at me. "Fine, fine, I'll take you out for ice cream then. The new gelato place." And the conversation turned to a serious discussion of the merits of chocolate versus pistachio.
I honestly didn't think you'd remember it. I complain about silly stuff to people all the time. People just sigh or smile and move along. I mean, what else can they do?
Imagine my surprise then when I walked into that room, expecting to find you there, and instead heard an ominous click behind me.
I'll be honest. That first time I was really confused. I kept trying to unstick the doors. I knocked on both of them until my knuckles grew sore. I didn't understand what was going on until you texted me a hint. Even then, it still took a while to really sink in.
It was the Mr. Birdy that did it. Sitting on the shelf there, reminding me of our conversation. His cheerful face seemed to say, "It's an adventure. Enjoy it."
And I did.
It took me a shamefully long time, that first room. Looking back, I shake my head at how simple the puzzles seem now, and how long I worked on them. Like any new skill, it took time and practice to master.
Which is why it took me so long to find the Happy Coins. I remember the first time I did it. I'd found the door key, but for once I put off going through it just yet. It wasn't that I didn't want to see you--far from it. But I felt almost guilty at all the fun I was having. Thanks to you, I'd learned to look at things in a new light. Every time I stepped through a doorway I'd think, "Is this it? Are we about to start again?" It was exhilarating. But what did you get out of it? All that time and effort you must have spent devising new puzzles and finding the perfect spot to secret them away in. I was the one who got to do all the fun bits.
So I took my time, putting things away. Giving everything one last poke or prod or spin. And I discovered one last puzzle. Hidden so that it could only be found after the key had been claimed. Where if all I cared about was defeating the room, I'd never know it was there. This puzzle--this extra puzzle--was a message from you to me. One hidden away, where I could ignore it if I chose, or press on and read your secret thoughts. I thought about all my guilty worries, and with trembling fingers I punched in the new code and awaited your word.
It was a coin. A Happy Coin.
I recognized it at once. How could I not? All those years ago, when we were growing up, we would spend our summers at Happy Land. The smell of it, a distinctive blend of dust, fried food, and sunscreen, seemed to waft out of my memories. We would spend hours dizzying ourselves on the ZigZag until we could barely stand or spinning lazily around on the Ferris wheel chasing daydreams, eating ice cream and building our castles in the clouds. The best part, though, was the midway. We would stand outside the booths, and I would solemnly examine the rows of stuffed animals hanging down, their poorly sewn faces giving them a variety of manic grins and leering gazes. "That one," I'd say, pointing at my choice, and hand you a stack of Happy Coins.
And you would step into the arena, as solemn as any knight, armed with darts and bows and baseballs, pitting your wits and skills against stacks of tin cans and goldfish bowls and bored teenagers surreptitiously checking their phones every few minutes. You were on a quest, and you wouldn’t stop until you had secured your prize and presented it, with a sweeping bow, to me.
I had an entire menagerie of stuffed ducks, rabbits, kittens and bears by the time we graduated. I remember you would ask me every time if I was bored just watching. Wouldn't I prefer to play too? But I was happy to just stand there and watch you do something you loved. I mean, you were beautiful in those moments. The funny little tilt of your head as you figured out the proper angles. The way your tongue would peep out between your bitten red lips as you made a tricky shot. How your eyes would gleam with exultation with each point scored. To see you like that—excited and triumphant--it was worth every coin.
I must have gone through hundreds of those Happy Coins over the years.
Rubbing my fingers over the cheap brass plated coin, I remembered how you would smile back at me each time you stepped up to the booth, like it was a secret we were sharing. Now I felt that I finally understood exactly what that secret was.
Let other people long for horse-drawn carriage rides and fancy dinners under the stars. We have cheap carnival midways and a series of locked rooms, Mr. Birdy and Happy Coins, Romance in both capital and lowercase letters.
Today I woke up in a locked room. There is a bed, two dressers, and a wobbly picture of a kitten. Curled up beneath the sheets beside me is a puzzle. Can I get the Happy Coin ending? I’m willing to spend our whole lives trying.