It's ridiculous, I know, but I think it was the oatmeal that saved me. Yes. I think I am willing to say that oatmeal saved my life. Picture it: deep winter in an ugly city. Not snow so much as freezing rain. The sustaining colored leaves have long fallen and been ground into bleak sidewalks. The sky is all slate and steel and silence. The heater is broken and your lover has been distant but there is oatmeal on the stove. You wake into cold angry, lost the sheets sometime in your dreamsoaked sleep, shoved your pillow down by your feet and your favorite scarf is gone. The alarm is screaming its sadist song and the rain is freezing down the windows. Wrap yourself in blankets and huddle to the kitchen to put oatmeal on the stove.

Then as the cold seeps through the roof and up the stairs from the warped and winded door, you can lean over the stove and feel the steam on your face. Just stand there, forehead against the oven hood, watching the bubbles begin to form on the bottom of the pot, little fish-eyes hovering and hovering before detaching themselves with a shudder and racing up to the surface, where they pop. Then the boil, water moving and roiling, heat and moisture making a sheen on your face. The oatmeal goes in, hissing, and you stir and stir and stir until all the water is absorbed and there you are: oatmeal. It tastes of thick comfort, and you stir in honey and raisins and scoot back to bed to eat it.

Otherwise, I might have killed myself there, that winter.

We hadn't been fighting so much as closing all our doors with impetuous ire, just maintaining a dim distance even when we slept together. It's a rare kind of anger that lets you hurt so long, refusing to let go of the fight even when its origins and intentions have long been forgotten. I was steeped in misery like tea too long in the pot, all the sweetness overridden by that bitter aftertaste. Even the honey of our love wasn't enough to bring me back to calm, so I blamed it all on him, the hot water, the metaphor gone awry. It wasn't so bad until winter came in, but with the wind and cold and snowfall, I found the last traces of my own resilience falling away. It was like I'd frozen all the way through, so that the parts that usually bend and wait and forgive just went snap! snap! and I couldn’t look him in the eyes. So I got smaller and smaller, the focus of my psyche pulling away from the world until the only thing that gave me joy was the bubbling of oatmeal.

I'm not sure he understood when I left, but I can say that one of the happiest days of my life was the one I spent walking around that city, announcing: I am leaving, and I am never coming back.

It's funny, because to be honest I'm not even sure how I got there in the first place. You know how a thing begins, and then suddenly it has its own speed, and the momentum is such that you are swept along without even noticing that you stopped moving on your own? The moment that running turns to falling; how can you tell? So at first I was just trying to move away from home, and then as though awakening I found myself in the city, hunched in pain, dying all the time.

It's too dramatic, I know. And after all, I got up nearly every day, went to work, to classes, to parties, I watched movies, I built snowmen, had magnificent orgasms, read books. Oftentimes, if I'd been asked, I think I would have said yes, I am happy.

But what I learn is this: there is happiness, and there is contentment, and the one can exist without the other and they are not the same. Happiness soars. It floats like a cloud, but bubbling and active and liable to disappear at any time. It screams for attention, all softness and light. It is purely conditional. Contentment is a wide and solid foundation, a point below which you do not fall. It catches you, it buoys you, it can be cold and quiet but once established harder to lose. There, that winter, I built a loft of happiness to climb into, fluffy and warm, but no contentment lay beneath it, and so again and again I found it unraveling around me. And again and again I found myself falling into darkness and I had to begin again. Oatmeal, as it turned out, was the first step: every day, every morning, proof that the world could be good.

This wasn't tragedy, of course, not any of it. Just the slow breaking of a still-beating heart. It happens every day, probably every moment. Perhaps by the time you finish reading this sentence, a heart will have broken completely, somewhere. By the end of the page, a population the size of your graduating class has collapsed into tears they don't understand, burning. But then maybe, we have to fall apart to be put back together, right? What doesn't kill you and all that. The taste of dirt in your lungs gives you an appreciation for altitude.

But it was my breaking heart, and my world collapsing, so here it is. The ablution of steam on my face and the cold morning of another day.



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