Excerpt from Happiness by Heather Harpham, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Happiness

The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After

by Heather Harpham

Happiness by Heather Harpham X
Happiness by Heather Harpham
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2017, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2018, 320 pages

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TWO COASTS

1

My first child, my girl, was born just before seven on a spring night, perfect. She was compact and fully formed, a little over five pounds. She smelled like sliced apple and salted pretzels, like the innocent recent arrival from a saline world that she was.

But the midwife was worried. "She's small for gestational age," she kept saying. "Any problems or issues during pregnancy?"

I wanted to ask her if heartbreak counted. If sharing a bed with a good-hearted dog, rather than the baby's father, might do it.

"Also," the midwife said, "she looks a little jaundiced."

"That's just the Greek side," my mom cut in, "we're all yellow."

The midwife finally handed her over, a waxy, pinched little thing. Gory and unkempt. Not serenely smiling like the dolls of my youth. But a real baby, mine.

When I breathed her in, a straight, bright synaptic path lit up the center of my brain. Every neuron said to its neighbor, yes, yes, yes, yes, this is the one, yes. This reaction is hardwired. Animals identify their offspring by scent. But to me, it felt like magic. Smelling her elicited euphoria akin, I imagined, to the unadulterated delight of smoking crack cocaine for the first time. After a few hours of life outside the womb, she began to smell less like apples and more like an element, tin or iron. Something practical, a garden tool or an old coin, sprung from dark soil and delivered into the palm of my hand.

After months of waiting to see who this child would be, after fending off the broad hints of a sonographer who was dying to give away the mystery of her gender, after sleeping alone in a thicket of unhappiness, after praying to skip over incubation to active motherhood—here she was. A little football of a person, tucked into the oval between my arm and torso, breathing on her own, making minor noises. Preoccupied with the job of being alive. Under a fringe of downy hair, at the base of her still soft skull, I found a pale pink birthmark, strawberry shaped.

For the next ten hours I lay awake, breathing her in, stunned to find a small human body nestled against mine. I couldn't figure out where on earth she came from. The biology I understood; I knew about the genome, the dim lights, the Richard Buckner music, the curved helix of DNA. But none of that could account for her. Her birth was both an utterly quotidian event (245 new children are born into every minute) and a jaw-dropping miracle to rival loaves and fishes. There was no one. And then, poof—her.

I didn't sleep. I couldn't sleep; I didn't want to miss anything. What if she sighed or pursed her lips or splayed her fingers or jerked her arms upward?

I was still awake, a little before 3 a.m., when a gentle-faced nurse came in. He didn't seem surprised to find me up, smelling the baby. Typical new-parent behavior. He said, casually, that they'd like to take her to the nursery for a few tests. The oddity of routine tests at three in the morning didn't register. It was obvious that my child was totally healthy; what harm could tests do?

Healthy babies were all I knew. The array of placid baby dolls I'd spent hours clucking over as a girl had smelled faintly of vanilla. They had coy smiles and carefully molded plastic hair. I tucked them in. I burped them. I crooned into their plastic ears. None of them ever ran a fever or broke out in hives. Even baby Jesus (the biggest celebrity baby of all time) was a robust little soul. Holy infant so tender and mild.

The nurse promised to bring her right back. Without her, I was at a loss. I motored the bed up and down, edgy, unfocused, waiting for my fix. An hour later the nurse came back empty-handed. "Where's my baby?" I said, sounding, even to myself, absurdly panicked.

He gave me a pointed look, half sympathy, half crowd control, and said, "We'd like to run a few more tests." At the door he added, "The doctor will be in to talk with you in a few minutes." I didn't know anything about hospitals yet; I didn't know enough to be terrified that an actual doctor would appear bedside before daybreak.

Excerpted from Happiness by Heather Harpham. Copyright © 2017 by Heather Harpham. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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