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Suzanne Guillette Headshot

Cracking Up

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"Even the gods love jokes." -- Plato

I recently came across an old family photo, from an afternoon picnic in Vermont. My mother, brothers, sister and I are posing for the camera. I can't be older than 10. In the picture, everyone is smiling, including me. In fact, my grin is the widest. Just as my father said, "cheese!" I thought it would be really funny to take the squirt gun I was holding and raise it to my left temple. (But come on -- haven't we all had those moments of wanting to shoot ourselves on a family vacation?) The other night, I showed the image to a friend, who couldn't stop laughing at the incongruity of my pixie-haired age and my very adult sense of humor. "You look like a little Borscht Belt comedian!" she shrieked.

Laughing, especially at the absurd, has to be one of my favorite activities. The other night, I had one such crackup when I was out with my friend S, who recently turned 28. For many, that's a pivotal year. Over dinner, I told S about the mega-shifts I went through then, recalling how an unprintable expletive had run through my head the second I blew out my birthday candles. I realized in that moment how little I knew about myself. Though a part of me was thrilled -- discovery! -- I was also nervous. There were more unknowns to face?

Unsurprisingly, this uncomfortable epiphany led to the eventual breakup with the person I'd been dating for six years, but only after his surprise proposal a few months later. Confused, I said an uncertain "OK." My fogginess, my unpreparedness to commit and my glaring inability to make myself happy, all of this felt shameful. I couldn't imagine that everything I would need to know, I would learn in perfect time. On this night, in lieu of perspective, I guzzled champagne, regretful.

The following day, at a family lunch in Newport, where we had already planned to celebrate my father and sister's birthdays, my anxiety ballooned. Pale-faced, I listened to heartfelt, congratulatory toasts, my mind blank.

When my mother's turn came, she raised her glass and declared, "My father always said that you should wait until you're 30 to get married -- because then you really know yourself!"

When no one rushed to clink glasses, she looked around, squinting. Why we were all so quiet? Then I saw her doing the math in her head.

"Oh," she said flatly, when she remembered that I was only 28.

Shrugging her shoulders, my mother conceded, "Well, then I guess Suz is really going to bite the dust on this one." Raising her glass, she added a very chipper, "Cheers!"

As everyone toasted (to my demise?) my sister pointed out the obvious, i.e., "that means she's going to die, Mom." By then, I'd already started laughing so hard I was crying. My mother was right, and I knew it.

After I told S this story, she said that her experience of 28 so far was equally intense, but differently focused. "I just can't stop thinking about death," she confessed. If you met S, you'd never know this. She is kind, thoughtful and has a great sense of humor. Nonetheless, S said that morbid thoughts were beginning to permeate her mind so often that she had to curb her instincts to share them with her boyfriend, who does not share her laser-attention to dying.

"Maybe this is related to your life purpose," I said. "You'd probably be great in hospice. Or estate planning."

This did not seem to soothe her. I added, "Anyone who thinks deeply about life would naturally consider its opposite."

One of the things I love most about S is her uber-practical side. She's matter-of-fact about everything -- and I mean everything. Once, after she'd been through a rough spell, I asked her how things were. Her eyes were bright again; how could she not be great? She affirmed that all was well, before adding, deadpan, "I definitely know that when the other shoe finally drops, because it always does, I'll be fine."

S' sober delivery is refreshing (especially in an age where the call to strong-arm oneself into a cheery mood can be, well, thoroughly depressing). As a sober-minded person myself, I'm definitely an adherent to positive thinking. Yet the times I've tried to mentally will myself into happiness (instead of, say, taking a dance class or going out for a walk), I only create more angst because I'm trying too hard. So when S told me about waiting for the other shoe to drop as we were walking through a subway station, I fell into her, giggling and brimming, oddly enough, with hope.

More recently, when I suggested that her funereal preoccupations might be preparing her for living in a more conscious way, she disagreed.

"Sure, I mean, living fully is great... if you can do that sort of thing," she said nonchalantly, as if the gap between a muted existence and a lush existence was one of mere physicality, the difference between taking the stairs versus the elevator. Just your average, inconsequential choice.

I howled. Seconds later, S joined me.

A couple weeks ago, an older man with long white hair and few teeth struck up a conversation with me in the Village. I often talk to strangers, but he seemed intent on talking to me, offering up plenty of unsolicited advice. "You're being selfish!" he declared, when I told him I was a writer. "You haven't truly shared your gifts."

"That's what I tell people!" I said, incredulously, thinking of how often I've tried to get others to think about "selfishness" in this very way. Why else are we here?

Oh, god, I thought, sighing. He's right.

"What else do you have for me?" I asked.

Moments later, he said something that struck a chord. I don't remember the exact words; I am only sure he didn't expect what came next. I surely didn't, as tears flooded my eyes. Suddenly oblivious to all the foot traffic around us, I cried, very hard, unselfconsciously leaning on the shoulder of this stranger. Despite this swell of emotion, I had a glimmer of thought: Who is this person I'm sobbing on? (When a friend asked the same question later, I replied, "Jesus?") But as the tight sensation in my sternum slackened, little else mattered. When I stepped back, he smiled and said, "Crying alone is bullshit."

I soon realized I was late for a party, and so he handed me his card. He does this sort of thing for a living, he said, if I wanted to engage his services further. (For a split second, and only a split second, I considered it. I have been looking for a therapist.) I thanked him, slipped him a $20 bill and, without checking my makeup, waltzed off to Soho, where I had a very fine time.

The next morning, I wanted to laugh. A stranger made me cry, and I paid him. What the hell? Needing a witness, I told the story to my cousin, who was flabbergasted. "It was that... involving, huh?" she said, laughing (albeit uneasily). I couldn't join her, though, not fully. Not when I still felt the post-teary space and my later admiration of the warm, late afternoon sky.

Talk about letting some air in.

A couple days later, I dragged my out-of-shape ass to a dance class with a teacher I've meant to study with for years. The studio was sun-drenched, better than I could have hoped for. As I do with all dance studios, I started imagining the possibilities if I were to have the room all to myself. There were four floor-to-ceiling windows, and since there were a few minutes before class started, I drifted over to one of them, looking out to a garden I'd walked by in 2005 with my friend A, en route to her City Hall wedding.

At the time, A was seven months pregnant and had been so consumed with the planning that she had forgotten to buy flowers. This was a dramatic change from her first wedding, a fancy affair that had taken place in Vermont. Then, she'd arranged for piles of gorgeous wildflowers. In New York, where we had no flowers, A spied pink daisies through a wrought iron fence. As she began to lean down in her mini-dress, reaching for a single stem, she said, "I should carry a flower, right?" Her bursting belly, though, caused her to wobble.

"Don't!" I yelled. There were security guards nearby. The last thing A needed was to get arrested before her ceremony. I shared the flash image I had of her, knocked up and handcuffed. She laughed riotously. (She has the best laugh. Months after a bad fight with her beau, I asked her if things were better, which made her crack up. "Oh right! Hahahahahahahahahhaha. Yeah, thatisnotaproblemanymore," she said grinning.) In front of the garden, she backed off and said, "Good point."

When the dance teacher walked in, I stepped away from the window. "I have to play this corny song," the teacher announced. "It will make me a better teacher." When I heard the opening chords of this tune, I squealed. The refrain would not prevent me from getting bruises all over my hips, knees and ass, but it would remind me long after these 90 minutes had passed, how to be a better student.

As I moved, twirled, slid and intuited my way through new choreography, I forgot where I was. I may have even forgotten who I was. But in some time and space continuum, I am remembering that single daisy, how A carried it with her after all, how I held my breath as I yanked it from its stalk, how it flopped in the wind as we linked arms and rushed off to their sweet ceremony, how it sat on the table at their post-nuptial dinner as the three of us, a newly-married couple and their witness, sipped hibiscus tea, our fleeting, forgettable jokes drowned out by some very memorable laughter.

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