Smart Cookie

Smart Cookie

Story by Joshua McMullen

Artwork by Tracy Frein

“Some failures are just victories in disguise.” So the fortune goes, said the girl at the bar from a cookie she had several years prior. She told me she kept it posted where she could see it every day as a reminder to stay positive. She made no mention of her lucky numbers.

As far as fortunes go, I’ve heard worse. Often, the grammar and punctuation are more questionable than the implied meaning—even if you exclude the crudely humorous, yet oddly obligatory, suffix “in bed.” Such wisdom bestowing phrases include:

“You learn from your mistakes, you will learn a lot today.”

“The world may be your oyster, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get its pearl.”

“A stranger is a friend you have not spoken to yet.”

So, as far as ticker tape messages baked within gimmick desserts based on Eastern stereotypes go, her chosen favorite was unusually eloquent. Some failures are just victories in disguise. I smiled at the sound of it barely audible above the roar of a dozen simultaneous conversations vying for superiority in the crowded space. Then, having gained my attention, she grinned and continued the conversation.

We talked about writing, my favorite subject. She had a master’s degree, but wanted to go back to earn a doctorate and do something important with her life. I admitted I applied to Columbia’s fiction writing program once but was denied. I went on to say that, although I was disappointed, I realized you don’t need a graduate degree to write a good piece of fiction. She nodded in agreement, citing the wisdom of the cookie once more.

I must admit I found the entire situation utterly bizarre. To anyone else in that dimly lit room, it was a common enough scene barely worth noticing. This lovely girl with her third PBR in hand perhaps felt this scenario as routine as those around us applauding. The band was taking the stage.

It was a bluegrass quartet with a depressing name. They played upbeat music with sad lyrics—just my style. For the second time that evening, I couldn’t help but smile. She noticed and leaned in to say that she had never seen the bass played with a bow. Without thinking, I replied how excited I was they had an electric violin. Things were getting weird.

The response came easily, without the usual weighing of odds. My social anxieties, which I’ve endured since grade school, tend to make nearly every interaction a practice in the art of deception. Though my words are honest and my tone is calm, this façade often obscures the panicked conflict in my head. Everything I say and do is questioned on how much of a fool I believe it will make me appear. The answer often lies firmly between the range of utter moron and a level of idiocy Merriam-Webster has yet to find the proper term to define, ignoring the fact that they’ve literally listed my name as a verb.

I’m not joshing.

Suffice it to say, I’ve become quite skilled at appearing much calmer than I am. Yet, in every piece of fiction, the truth is waiting to be discovered. My elaborate construct of serenity was no different.

I was calm, happy even. For the first time in years, my exterior appearance matched the emotions within. There was no internal war, no stress over each and every word that passed my lips. There wasn’t even any anxiety over the absence of my anxiety. If you have no idea what that means, consider yourself truly blessed. When feeling anxious is as common as breath, you feel its absence with as much intensity as you would a lack of oxygen. That night, I felt like I finally had a chance to inhale. For once, I was like everyone else in the room.

I couldn’t help but smile.

She stood up halfway through the band’s set, citing the need for a cigarette. Being unfamiliar with alien situations such as conversing with girls in bars, it did not occur to me that the slight pause after her announcement was an invitation for me to follow. I did not go with her.

I didn’t go ten minutes later, when the realization of my error set in. I didn’t go twenty minutes after that, when I suspected she would never come back. I didn’t go when I saw her return, nearly an hour after she’d gone, alongside a grinning man she met outside. They walked up to the bar, laughing at some amusing thing he said. He ordered a pair of drinks and passed her one. That socially acute bastard, how I envied him. I hadn’t even asked for her name.

I should have been depressed. No, I should have been devastated. We’re talking a level of sadness that drives men to listen to country music or voluntarily watch “Marley and Me”. This rejection, mild though it was, should have reduced the sandstone sculpture of my heart to a mound of particulate matter.  I’ve been heartbroken by much less. It’s par for the course when anxiety disorders are concerned.

But it had already been such a strange night. I found I was unfazed by her capricious nature. She enjoyed herself at the bar before heading back outside with him later in the evening. The music still vibrated my bones. The violinist played so feverishly, I half expected him to cut his instrument in half.

True, I didn’t get the girl. By the usual social standards, I failed in that regard. But, whether it was conscious bravery or my true self peeking through the worn façade for a breath of fresh air, I was able to distance myself from that familiar worry for a while and make an attempt at conversation. That was enough of a victory for me.

I know my anxieties will be with me forever.  There is no escaping them. Though they’ve brought me so much pain, they’ve also helped me appreciate little moments like this that can be so beautiful yet so easily overlooked if you’re not accustomed to being an observer of humanity.  They’ve made me a better writer and, I hope, a more compassionate person.

As I grow, there are some things I try to keep in mind to help myself notice more opportunities to be bold and push my boundaries: A stranger is a friend with whom you’ve not yet spoken. The world may be your oyster, but pearls take time. You learn from your mistakes. You will learn a lot today. Some failures are just victories in disguise.

I can’t help but smile at the wisdom of one smart cookie.

Author Joshua McMullen, Chicago IL

Growing up in a small Central Illinois town, I always wondered why the other kids at school had an easier time socializing than I did.  It was a deficiency, I presumed, in my character that caused me a great deal of pain and loneliness.  It wasn’t until I took a psychology course my freshman year of college that I realized I had a social anxiety disorder.  It was a revelation to say the least.

Since then, I’ve actively pushed myself to stretch the limits of what my brain finds comfortable and I have grown, even if there are the occasional bouts of panic.  Along the way, I discovered creative writing allowed me to express myself with less stress and I embraced the medium.  Currently, I am a co-organizer of Just Write Chicago, one of the largest social writing groups in the city, and take great pride in the community I’m helping to build.

Artist Tracy Frein, Chicago IL

As a member of The Colored Pencil Society of America, my work is solely created in Colored Pencil. The Colored Pencil Society of America (CPSA) is a nonprofit organization that was established in 1990 and celebrated 20 years in 2010. It is the first and only arts organization that is devoted exclusively to promoting artists who work in the colored pencil medium. CPSA represents 10 countries with around 1600 members and has 27 District Chapters throughout the United States.  I am a board member of the Chicago Chapter, and held the office of President from 2005-2007. I am currently Treasurer.

The subjects included in my work are simple, often everyday people.  My work is inspired by both my attraction to the human portrait and it’s fragile venerability close and personal.  My recent works are in Black and White. This helps to put things into new perspective or literally puts specific aspects of life into focus. Color can be very life-like but also very distracting. I also do this for dramatic purposes, to capture a mood in a moment. I want the viewer to take a step closer to each drawing to realize that not only do the subjects composition create a pattern, but so do the textures, colors, and lines in the background. I hope to show the viewer that while at first glance my subjects seem serene and normal. They also contain a sense of inner frailty that we all possess.