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The Happiness Game: On Yael Hadaya’s “Housebroken” (Part 2)


“The Happiness Game,” the second story in Housebroken, is my favorite of the three novellas. While the idea of a happiness game is a universal paradox, it is also quintessentially an Israeli one. Despite so many national and international problems, the UN recently ranked Israel one of the top Happiest Countries, higher than the U.S. There’s been many explanations offered such as this one and another on the country’s “strong social and institutional capital [which] not only support greater well-being, but are more resilient to social and economic crises.”

There is this thing about happiness in Israel, though, at least in my experience—it’s only real when its causes are tangible and when the good fortunes have already happened; the idea of happiness itself is a lot more straightforward and less abstract. Until I moved to Israel, I never really understood how much people in the U.S. bet their whole lives on the idea of Hope and Promise and Against the Odds, on the theories of things to come, sometimes with little guarantee. There are fewer rose-colored glasses in the country as well; most of the woman I dated in Israel rolled their eyes at romances like Dr. Zhivago. So while the desire for happiness was there, there was nothing sheltered or naive about the emotions we exchanged. There was a bite and sting to everything—that’s the only way I can explain it. And concerns like money, taxes, politics, jobs crept into every conversation, more so than in any conversations I’ve had elsewhere.

Looking back at my time in Jerusalem, those were some of the unhappiest years, and yet the most productive for an artist. One of the reasons why “The Happiness Game” is my favorite story is that it reminds me of the failures that grew me, of the loss of interest in my research as a post-graduate student, and of the desire to spend all of my time writing poems, all the while wondering when I, like the story’s protagonist Maya, would find a real home, real love and of course, happiness.

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“The Happiness Game” introduces us to Maya, a cynical doctoral student who pursues a Ph.D. because the university gives her funding, year after year, even though she has no desire to continue her studies. Maya is stuck in the ennui of the urban Israeli educated, envying her friend Nora who takes simpler pleasure in “inaugurating new cafes and then abandoning them” (154). Whereas Maya is brooding and too critical of others to play what Nora calls “the happiness game,” Nora is satisfied with her lot: “she loved herself, and she did it so wholeheartedly . . . that the world had no choice but to love her back” (154).

The so-called Happiness Game involves not only falling in love but making the kind of longterm commitment in which real love can thrive. The story revolves around three very different couples: Maya and Nathan, a towering, reticent and unambitious worker in a plant nursery; Nora and her dutiful but unworldly boyfriend Amir; and Maya’s parents Deborah and Jack who get a divorce at the very beginning of the story. The official separation is Deborah’s idea which the woman considers “a transition from a dull marriage to a thrilling one,” the only problem being “she didn’t take in account the fact that she would have to separate from [her husband]” (149), as Maya comically notes.

The fate of each couple varies greatly. The uncomplicated yet passionate relationship between Nora and Amir results in an engagement, which they gently break to Maya for fear the news would cause her unhappiness, given her problems with her present troubles with Nathan. Maya congratulates them, but then turns a critical eye on Amir; she wonders if she could fall in love with his “skinny legs and hollow chest and protruding ribs . . . with the black hair in the small of his back” (204), and finds that she could, because she’d fallen in love with Nathan for the same reason: “the small things.” Maya admits that while she has found refuge many times in their kitchen, their engagement changes everything: she listens to Nora complain about the “summer . . . and life in general and [that] sometimes she was even sick of Amir, too though she loved him” (219). Suddenly Maya finds that she hates Nora, for whom those small things seem to come so easily, so naturally. She hates her friend for the comfortable, reliable nest she’s built with Amir, sharing a car that contains “Nora’s shoes and Amir’s green pants and newspapers yellowing in the sun . . . an intimacy and happiness so great that peeping inside it was worse than catching its owners having sex” (218). For no matter how many games Maya plays with Nathan, they will never bring her the same kind of happiness.

Maya met Nathan at a Purim party. Though one usually dresses up for Purim in Israel, Maya wears seemingly ordinary clothes which are are a sort of costume in themselves: “I couldn’t imagine anything I really wanted to be that evening, except happier . . . . I wanted to be in love and self-confidence and peace of mine, and I wanted a home. I assumed that the perfect costume of a woman who had all these things was to go as she was” (140).

At the party she finds herself drawn to a man dressed as a clown; tall, blue-eyed, and “tinkling of bells” whenever he moves his head, he asks her to dance just as the hosts play the children’s song “Little Clown, Full of Glee, You Dance with Everybody.” As they dance together, she observes him, her usual sharp eye softening at the sight of “the clown shrugging his shoulders and ringing his bells . . . he wasn’t pretending to dance like a child. That was the way he danced” (143). While she can’t explain why exactly this endears her to him, “there was something touching at his appearance, something big and slow, with a kind of hostile indifference” (145). She drives him home after the party, driving as slowly as she can, “with deliberate care, like a forest ranger driving a lost bear back to its lair” (145).

Their relationship is never a defined one; their first date in a café is disastrous. It begins and ends with an argument around the issue of social class, with him making small jabs at her education and feelings of hopelessness, sending the usually-steely Maya on the verge of tears. When Nathan then asks her to go home with him, surprising her, she agrees as he pays, liking that “he wasn’t the type to take money from a crying person” (173). They see each other on and off, irregularly; he remains guarded and secretive. She begins to suspect he’s seeing someone else—and he is. She drops by unexpectedly one day, and accidentally meets Sigal, a free spirit who lives on a kibbutz and comes to visit every weekend. When Maya confronts Nathan, wanting to know whether she is the other woman or the other girlfriend, Nathan cannot give her a straight answer; in fact, he doesn’t respond much at all to any of her questions. Maya then realizes that while she feels stuck in school and singlehood, Nathan has already settled into a life of steady, simple work that pays the bills; he’s not looking for commitments of any other kind. Maya wants him to change, and she wants him to choose; he can do neither. She is the one who has to break up with him; otherwise the relationship that isn’t a relationship would continue, trapping her in even more unhappiness.

The most touching happiness game, at least for me, is the one between Maya’s parents. Her mother Deborah is often (unintentionally) hilarious; while she’s quite serious about being an independent woman who sees the divorce as “her last chance . . . to be happy” (151), Deborah can’t exactly pinpoint at first just why she wants the divorce, only that she “can’t take it anymore” (152). Though he goes along with it, Jack, a retiree, is “a great believer in marriage” (161). He had been married once before; his first wife Violet died after being hit by a bus; though they were married for ten years, they never had any children. We learn that it was Deborah “who poured water over [Jack] when he fainted on the morning he was informed of Violet’s death” (161), appearing at the beginning of his loss—though neither ever discussed the death itself, Jack even burning all his photos of Violet.

After the couple “who made such a racket together got divorced in silence” (165), they go out for a meal together, along with Maya; Deborah takes the backseat “trying to view the shops, the streets, the buildings, the signs, and the trees through the eyes of a free woman.” Maya notes that her mother seems “disappointed to find they looked the same as they always had” (166). The couple then separates, Jack moving into an run-down apartment that he can’t bear to furnish, aside from accepting two chairs from Maya “to emphasize the emptiness, which was the most powerful emotional statement he had ever made” (182).

But Jack continues to appear in his ex-wife’s life, whether she likes it or not; when Deborah has a heart attack, Maya rushes to the hospital to find her father already there: “[he] stood up, folded his paper, and look at me, confused and embarrassed, as if he wanted me to intervene on his behalf and prevent his banishment from the room” (179). Later, on Shabbat, Deborah invites not only Maya but also Jack over for lunch; when Deborah tells him to relax, “he sits down hesitantly on the sofa, testing it for comfort, as he were sitting on it for the first time” (186).

Maya suspects her father hates the loneliness and even prefers bickering with his former wife, and yet he feels, like Maya, that this is something Deborah needs to do for herself, or she’d never be at peace. Deborah’s happiness game is one of being on her own, even in her golden years, even in her poor state of health. When a therapist tells her that the divorce was an act of revenge over his husband’s undiminished love for Violet, and that he hid his grieving from her while never giving himself completely to his second wife, the couple finally decide to talk—at Jack’s place, as he requests, wanting his ex-wife “to see him in the rented apartment he hated so much, still without any furniture . . . he wanted her to know he served his sentence” (206).

And, as it turns out, Jack was also unhappy in the marriage. He tells Deborah the problem that their everyday squabbles were just noise: “We didn’t fight the way we should have . . . with passion. We always went through the motions. We always behaved like a couple who knew when they fight and when they shouldn’t. I never heard you scream at me, Deborah, really scream from your guts, from your heart, not just getting little digs in and criticizing me about this and that” (210-211). He goes on to tell Deborah that she did not marry him out of love but because she wanted to get married and start a family. That the truth was neither of them has ever loved the other. Their fight ends with Jack describing his late wife in crushingly vivid detail to Deborah: Violet was a “Slavic beauty” who “didn’t understand Hebrew too well,” but the couple found they didn’t need language to communicate because as simple as it seems, he “fell in love with her smile” (214) and that got them far enough, and for ten years. At the moment, Jack gives himself over to “the wings of a smiling vision that didn’t speak Hebrew” (215) while his ex-wife sits quietly across from him. When Maya finally leaves, they remain like that, only now they are staring at each other, each taking stock of the other’s happiness, unhappiness, the hard truths now unfolded.

The next day, they decide to get back together; nothing more is said of Violet, of passionless arguments, of the little rented room her father finally felt he could leave. We only learn at the end of the story—from Deborah, who says in a fit of laughter—that Maya’s father is learning to cook. That at last they are finding the joy in the small things after thirty years of unhappiness. It is his simplest, yet most honest attempt in trying to get to know a woman he could not learn to live without—the one woman who was there from the start when he lost his whole world, that lost world not quite departed, that lost world no longer quite as real.

This is the second installment on the work of Israeli writer Yael Hedaya; read Part 1 here.