by Callahan Pels
The past month I have been thinking about a lot of things, particularly about a short story called “Happy Endings” by Margret Atwood. Sitting atop of my dorm room bed while listening to the push and pull of high-tech elevator in the hallway next to me, I couldn’t help but feel that Margaret Atwood was right; that happy endings don’t exist. It was the week of Halloween, and everything I believed to be so solid had inexplicably collapsed around me. At that moment, sitting alone bathed only in the occasional light of a passing car’s high-beams, I found myself falling apart.
Margaret Atwood begins her story stating that “John and Mary meet. What happens next? If you want a happy ending, try A” (Atwood, 282). Atwood states that happy endings don’t exist, that any story that says so is deceitful (Atwood 285). To Atwood, all stories end in death. The endings are always the same, no matter what happens in the middle. Relationships don’t always work out, many crash and burn in between. The night of Halloween, I began to believe that this is true, that happiness is an illusion. I felt that all I had been through was a cruel playback of Margaret Atwood’s tale…
Callie and Thomas meet.
What happens next?
If you want a happy ending, try A.
A. The first day of her freshman year of high school, Callie finds herself sitting next to Thomas in homeroom. Callie discovers herself sitting next to him again in English, History, and Biology. They become good friends. Sophomore year of high school, Thomas and Callie begin dating. They go to prom together senior year, and are voted cutest couple for their senior superlative. After college they get married, pursue their dream careers, and “have two children, to whom they are devoted. They go on fun vacations together. They retire. They both have hobbies which they find stimulating and challenging. Eventually they die. This is the end of their story” (Atwood, 282).
B. Callie and Thomas fall in love and date until the middle of their senior year of high school. Thomas drives Callie home from school, and parks the car in front of her house. He is shivering, and not because of the mounds of greying snow that line the sides of the choppy asphalt road. He tells Callie that he wants to break up—but that he is really sorry for hurting her feelings. Callie cries about it to her dad, who does his best to respond to the bubbling stream of words flowing from his daughter’s mouth. The next week Thomas tells Callie he made a mistake; she takes him back and they move on from the incident. They get voted cutest couple in the high school, and date until their sophomore year of college. Thomas breaks up with Callie again on Halloween night. He says he wants to be independent for a while and become more mature. She should have seen it coming, but was blinded by the hopes of being high school sweethearts. Two weeks later; Thomas wants to get back together and Callie agrees.
C. Callie and Thomas have broken up many times in their lives, each time she takes him back. Her friends tell her not to, that he isn’t good enough for her—that he will leave her again. She ignores them. They get married and adopt a dog and two cats. Callie works a job that she finds trivial and unfulfilling while Thomas grows distant with each passing day. He comes home later each night, until he doesn’t come home at all. She meets up with him in a café, noting that he won’t make eye contact. He asks for a divorce. Callie protests, forcing him to stay in the relationship. Thomas stays, but is no longer faithful. Their dog dies; the cats run away. Callie continues to work her desk job, fantasizing about the times she aspired to be a doctor. She grows depressed and weak, and finally can’t take it anymore. She decides to leave Thomas. Once she does, she realizes she has nothing to go to. She has no friends, as the only person she was close to was Thomas. She has no passion for her career, and discovers she has no love for anything anymore. In keeping Thomas, she has lost herself.
I found myself spiraling into these thoughts of a depressing future, carving Atwood’s tales into stories of my own. However, it was at this point I remembered a term my dad once used… a term that I couldn’t help but feel applied to me. Teen angst: a phrase he defined as “teenagers who are dealing with stressful events and theorize the outcome to be nothing but a complete catastrophe.” I realized that the only way Atwood’s stories could come true is if I let them. Right at this point, I decided that my story and Atwood’s would not end up the same.
Tyler and Callahan break up.
What will happen next?
If you want a happy ending, try D.
D. Callie and Thomas date for three and a half years. They are best friends, and spend as many days as they can outdoors, trying to figure out which hiking trail has the best view and what pond is the best place to fish. They become intertwined into each other’s lives, to the point where their stories are practically identical. One day, in rather odd timing, Thomas decides to break up with Callie on Halloween night. Callie is devastated, and is incredibly overwhelmed for the next three weeks. Thomas reaches out to Callie, saying he made a mistake. The two of them talk, and Callie realizes that while she once thought her happy ending would be with Thomas, there are other possibilities that are unfolding. She realizes that they are young, and have learned valuable lessons from their time together. She knows that she will remain thankful that they were a part of each other’s lives. Callie and Thomas’s lives are no longer braided together, but as they trail away from each other they will know that their strings will always remain knotted together at that one special intersection. Their connection is not frayed, but instead independently parallel. Callahan pursues her dream of working in the medical field, and realizes that she wouldn’t have truly been able to do so if she had stayed with Thomas. She finds herself surrounded by friends that she never would have made if it were not for Thomas breaking up with her. They both find respectable partners, and occasionally will send each other Christmas cards depicting the smiling faces their families. Eventually, as Margaret Atwood pointedly states, they will both die. But death is not a marker of an unhappy ending to them. A happy ending is marked by the many valuable lessons and experiences acquired through life. Callie decides that encountering each moment in its fullest, from standing at the base of a mountain and feeling as small as an ant — to thanking the person who held the door for you, is the true marker of a happy ending.
Atwood ends her story by saying that the only authentic ending is that “John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die” (Atwood, 285). To that I say yes, everyone will pass on, and everyone will face struggles, but that doesn’t equate to an unhappy ending. It is up to us to pull ourselves out of the mud we have fallen into and learn to rise above our situations. Our happy endings will be defined by the legacy and lessons that we leave to others. So, on that note, I will end by saying Thomas and Callie survive.
Atwood, Margaret. “Happy Endings.” 1983. 40 Short Stories, 5th ed. Edited by Beverly Lawn, Macmillan Learning, 2016, pp.282-285.