The journey gift for Esme looked innocent enough. A plain celluloid photo album covered in dark blue velvet, stylish and modest. Something Walter could easily give to Esme even in the presence of Esme’s insane wife Angel without causing any stir, let alone suspicions.
It would only be deep into the night and alone in his bed – which Walter knew Esme hadn’t shared with his wife for months now – that Esme could discover the truth behind the gift.
One part of the truth had been inserted into the next to last page of the album. It was a bouquet of dried field flowers and herbs plastered against an elegant background of a light beige notepaper sheet. Walter had handpicked every plant carefully, paying attention to what they meant separately and put together. Then he dried them to tone down their colours so that they would look smothered and smudgy, just the way Esme liked it. And indeed, watching the final outcome Walter observed with satisfaction that his composition resembled Esme’s paintings quite closely.
The bouquet had been made of poppies, thyme, holly leaves, violets and a yarrow, all both underlined and topped with an arborvitae twig. It was supposed to say: “I feel you, I know what you’re going through, remember you are never alone. Please stay strong. It will get better, rest assured. And I will always be there, through the thick and thin. My love for you won’t ever change. Nothing can make me change my mind. I will always be your friend and I will see to it that you are happy again”.
Walter was quite confident Esme would understand his message. It would be odd if of all people he, the inspired artist, the great romantic, didn’t have the language of flowers memorized.
The other part of the truth had been concealed on the last page of the album. It was a letter, or perhaps some sort of a literary freeform, and it elaborated on a very commonplace theme they had touched the other day in one of their conversations before Walter left for his trip across the country: happiness.
It had been almost a year since the war ended, and another two since Esme lost his leg on a battlefield. Of course, Esme lost much more than that. As a wartime cripple he could not expect to feed his mistress/childhood sweetheart, and their then soon-to-be-born baby, not now that they would have been forced to live off of his poorly selling, underappreciated paintings. He had to give up his dreams of living with the love of his life, and instead he faced the humiliation of returning to Angel, marrying whom had been a mistake all along, and scrounging for her money to send them as the allowances to his lover and their child, all the while being deceitful and living a double life in front of the unsuspecting, detached from reality Angel. Walter understood how harsh a blow it all must have been for Esme, his dreams, his self-esteem, even his identity now all but shattered; he sympathized with how Esme must have been certain he wouldn’t ever again be capable of attaining happiness in his life.
Still, it had been three bloody years. Three years and still no signs of Esme recovering from the nightmare. It was about time Esme moved on instead of drinking himself to sleep evening in, evening out while considering his suicide options. The danger that Esme might finally resolve to put himself out of his misery was getting increasingly real.
And Walter was seriously running out of the ideas to help him. He came back from the war and visited his army friend in that grandiose residence tackily named Paradise by Esme’s wife, only to find him as devastated and hopeless as on the fateful day they had parted many months before.
Walter stayed there for a few weeks, sparing every moment to share it with Esme. And he knew that Esme’s joy upon seeing him was genuine. Esme’s eyes of pure jade lit up just a little when they sat and drank together recollecting their wartime memories, bringing up the stories of their officers and fellow soldiers. Esme would also show Walter his paintings and they would discuss them, Walter analyzing them in great detail and Esme irritated at how Walter would see there things Esme hadn’t meant to be there at all. Then Walter would read to Esme out loud passages from his Great War memoir, and Esme, seated in a corner of the room and engrossed in listening, would draft charcoal sketches of what he had just heard.
Walter also helped Esme look after himself physically and emotionally. He helped him bathe, he made sure he ate and slept properly, he wouldn’t let him get away without washing his face, combing his hair, or grooming his already well overgrown beard. It was his point to make Esme realize that even disabled like that, he was still a complete and worthwhile man: attractive, independent, capable of holding his own. Still, Walter couldn’t tell if the message really came across. Often he would get an impression that Esme was simply grateful for filling up his time like that: Walter took care of him, so Esme was released from doing his own thinking for his own sake, and thus at least a few more moments of his life would pass more or less effortlessly.
Which was of paramount importance, as it seemed that ever since that battle, every single second of his life was an effort to Esme. A constant struggle, for that matter.
And then, that ‘incident’ happened.
Esme had long been aware what Walter’s feelings for him were. He couldn’t return them, but he wasn’t appalled by them, either, and neither did it affect the strong bond of their friendship, which Walter appreciated and which made him adore Esme all the more. Naturally, in his heart of hearts Walter was confident he was capable of giving Esme better love than any woman he had encountered throughout his boisterous life, but he had few illusions Esme would allow him to prove it nonetheless. Sexual drive was a force outside the frame of logic, and you couldn’t change the way it was, no matter if your nature pushed you towards or away from other men. If anything, Walter had more rational hopes of making Esme realize that even without the carnal aspects they would be better off together than alone or with anyone else; but well, not surprisingly, Esme was brilliantly knowledge-resistant.
Until one night Esme, his desire flared and inhibitions torn down with the petrol of liquor, pulled Walter to his lap and made love to him. … Not really. He penetrated him with a few rough jerks, going to great lengths just to do it as they both had no idea how to get it done, and quickly filled him up with his warm, radiating release. It wasn’t quite what Walter had fantasized it would be. He thought himself one tough war hero, and it hadn’t occurred to him that most he would remember from their long dreamed of contact would be the pain and the struggle to maintain control over his own body.
Still, it wouldn’t have mattered all that much – next time would definitely have been better, if only they had given it a try. The trouble was there were no prospects of the ‘next time’. It seemed like all Esme had wanted was really to let go of the tension from the inside, with no intentions of a follow-up. The morning after Esme was all apologetic and remorseful, and this left Walter all the more confused at his own feelings.
Was he glad at what had happened between the two of them? Or ashamed? Or disappointed? Or angry at having been used?
His journey through the country to collect and verify some more materials for his book had come just in time. Walter knew he really needed that time away to sort out his feelings and decide if, and how, in what capacity, he wanted to be around Esme again.
The distance helped him remember why he even needed Esme’s presence and his closeness so much. They didn’t need to be lovers. He didn’t need to have Esme all to himself. It wasn’t about having anything to start with. It was about experiencing, it was about feeling. It was about living.
And that was exactly what Walter decided to confess on that notepaper on the last page of the album for Esme. It was a gift in itself to show Esme his heart so intimately, because to open up before another person like that, without pretense and embellishment, was an act of kindness and courage.
But to make Esme think again what the essence of happiness was, and how it definitely wasn’t out of his beautiful hand’s reach any given second – much less until the end of his days – was the true meaning behind Walter’s present.
Live for the moment, and the moment will live back for you, was what Walter was trying to say.
What is happiness?
Happiness is the feeling when you open your eyes and see something you haven’t seen before. It may be something grand that sweeps you off your feet. Or it may be a tiny detail that makes your world seem like a brand new place.
Happiness is the sky that makes you feel there are no limits, like you could just go out and walk wherever your feet carry you.
It’s the sudden rain right in the middle of a scorching day when soaking wet you realize this is exactly what you needed but you never expected you would.
It’s that single star on a cloudless night that feels special to you even though you have no idea why, that particular one little star among the glitter of a million.
It’s the tears of joy when you realize you’re a witness of something too beautiful for words.
It’s the sound of your heartbeat at the echo of a voice that gives you the chills. It’s the glowing warmth of your lips at the recollection of an innocent stroke of the most exquisite fingers there could be.
It’s that colour of a random leaf or a single straw of grass you have failed to notice before, the one that reminds you of those eyes that have been painting all of your dreams for the longest time.
It’s the scent of that body that you’re craving. It’s the texture of that skin that you adore. It’s the melody of those sighs that lull you into a peaceful, nurturing sleep.
It’s to teach happiness to another, and to be taught back.
Happiness is not a purpose. It’s not a picture-perfect goal you set out to achieve somewhere, somehow in your life. It’s not some cold and distant idol looking down on you from its inapproachable pedestal. It’s not some bait that makes you chase it until the end of your days only to slip away every time it seems that finally it is but a step, but a heartbeat away from you.
Happiness can be right there in every moment, in every breath. Happiness can be there in every gaze, in every smile, in every gesture, in every act of kindness. You can give it, you can take it, and still it stays all around you all the same. It’s a pervasive miracle.
Happiness is to know you.
Happiness is to have had you in my life.
Happiness is to know there is more happiness to come. No matter what will happen to either of us, to both of us, and what paths our lives will take.
And I just want you to know how happy I am right now.