What's the word, for something beyond happiness? Steph had a strong and easily engaged sense of what I'd call hyper-happiness — awe, whimsy, and joy all mingled together. A silent walk on a starry night, maybe holding my hand or maybe not, could leave her in such a profoundly happy state of mind. When she liked something, she really, really liked it — it ignited her face like fireworks, and it was infectious. Whatever she liked that fervently, I had to like it too, because there was no defense against Stephanie's happy-face. Something carefree and contented reflected in her eyes, and her skin literally lit up, and it lifted your spirits even if you hadn't known your spirits needed a lift.
For example, she loved a few old movies, and we watched them over and over again. We had All about Eve and The Women pretty much memorized — both films are stylized but realistic and entertaining woman-centric dramas, with men in supporting roles if they're around at all. Steph, being a strong woman, adored movies about strong women, a genre that's always been a rarity from Hollywood. Any time I needed to see Steph sparkle, it only required popping All About Eve into the DVD player.
She treasured our cat, Minky, the little furball who lives in our apartment. Usually the cat kept her distance from both of us, but once or twice a week when the cat and the wife were both in exactly the right state of mind, Minky would purr in Stephanie's lap and Steph would give the cat an hour of petting and talking and cooing and scratching its ears. Poetically describing to me the joys of being owned by a cat, she said, "She's like a friend, but she's not even human." She said it with such a sense of wonder and pleasure, you felt it too.
She loved our spring and summer drives in the car. It didn't matter how often or how many times we took a drive to or through this or that state park — Steph was always enthusiastic about "Let's go for a drive!" She was hyper-happy in the car, navigating with her atlas but mostly looking out the window and joyously absorbing the sights. It was impossible for anyone on Earth to be grumpy, when Steph was like that.
Her voice and spirits would perk up at the sight of cows, as we rolled along the highway. Other animals too — she was fascinated when we saw deer or ducks or any critters — but this is Wisconsin, so usually it was cows. She was spellbound by dilapidated barns, the downtowns of small villages, and public libraries anywhere — sometimes we'd go inside, but if there wasn't time to stop Steph was happy just seeing that a library existed. "Books are available in there, free to anyone who wants them, and that's a good thing."
If we saw a sign that said, "Cheese Store," we would almost always stop. Are cheese stores common, outside of Wisconsin? They're ubiquitous here, but also kind of fun. There are cheese stores in small towns and big cities and malls, and some cheese stores are actually at a dairy, where you can look through a window and watch the workers and machinery. Stephanie could stand there, mesmerized, gazing through the glass as milk became cheese, and for her the passage of time simply ceased. And even at the tiniest cheese shop in the dumpiest strip mall, the variety of cheese is mind-blowing, with free samples to be tasted, and she loved tasting the cheeses. That's how we discovered Butterkäse, a cheese I'd never heard of which is now one of my favorites. Stephanie in a cheese store = Stephanie in a very good mood. Also, bring at least thirty bucks.
She was excited every year when we bought our annual pass for entry to any state parks. She was delighted to paste a new Wisconsin State Parks sticker on the windshield of our car, replacing the previous year's sticker. State parks are great for camping, but usually we were only there for a hike or a picnic. Didn't matter what we were doing, though; during the drive she morphed from normal-Steph to happy-Steph, and by the time we set foot on the grounds, she was hyper-happy-Steph. The parks were among her favorite places, and planning for the parks could not be rushed; she could scan a park map for twenty minutes to choose our path for an hour's hike. At the park, all problems disappeared, her voice became chipper and cheerful, her eyes (always pretty) twinkled like starlight, and she was enchanted by everything — bugs to deer, twigs to forest, pebbles to mountains.
But for Stephanie just enjoying the heck out of life, none of the above quite compares to sushi. We didn't have that Japanese fish dish often because it's expensive, and maybe because she knew I wasn't wild about it, but lordy, that woman was nuts about sushi. She was ecstatic eating it, of course, but more than that, she was instantly overjoyed from the moment it was decided that we were having sushi.
She could spend ten minutes scrutinizing the menu at a sushi place, in paradise for every second, but still she felt rushed. She wanted to spend even more time looking at the menu, so we usually ordered on-line and had the sushi delivered. Ordering on-line meant she could spend half an hour, maybe longer, examining the pictures and reading every word of the descriptions for every sushi option, and she did, even though she'd seen the same pictures and read the same text when she'd ordered sushi in the past. It was part of the joy of sushi, and it made Stephanie happy like a puppy when you come home from work.
After that long decision-making process, and after finally placing her order, she'd remain in euphoria until the doorbell rang. She would give the delivery person a big tip, and then she was in unabashed Sushi Heaven. She would gently open the bag, revealing the box of sushi inside, and set the box neatly on the table, and study it closely. She wasn't checking for problems or imperfections, but admiring it the way you'd admire particularly poignant art in a museum. "I love looking at my sushi almost as much as eating it."
"You'd better eat it before it gets cold," was my joke. (Sushi, of course, is served at room temperature.) Steph was so sushi-high that she chuckled at that joke every time I told it, which was every time she ate sushi. And still, she'd be looking at her sushi. I'd check the mail or read an article in the newspaper, must've taken five minutes at least, but when I glanced up she'd still be scrutinizing her sushi. No exaggeration, I believe I could leisurely devour two cheeseburgers and a milk shake and an order of fries in the time she spent marveling over her sushi, before she'd had even a nibble. She would turn the sushi at various angles, lift it, sniff it, and describe it out loud. "Look at the luscious pink pieces of fish flesh, so perfectly and delicately wrapped in the rice and seaweed. Isn't it just the most wonderful thing you've ever seen?"
No, Steph. You were the most wonderful thing I've ever seen.
And then she would take a tiny bite, and her eyes would close, and a peaceful chewy smile would cover her face. "Each bite is tiny to make the meal last longer, and so there will be more bites." And after every bite, a smile so all-encompassing that you'd know she was smiling even if you could only see her forehead or her ear lobes. Every bite was electric, but sublime. "Eating sushi," she once said, "is a rare moment when everything in the universe sings together, on-key and in harmony."
There was nothing like sushi for Stephanie. It was as close as she came to a religious experience. Her joy began the moment I said, "Let's get sushi!" and extended through the half-hour spent looking at on-line menus, the hour while we waited for delivery, then twenty minutes of sushi-studying, forty minutes of sushi-eating, and another hour of sushi-afterglow. For any other meal there might be leftovers, but never for sushi.
Seeing her rhapsodically bliss-out over sushi was almost as wondrous to me as eating the stuff must've been for her. The cosmos was in her eyes, an uncomplicated joy in her voice, her smile, and her laugh, and the apartment was filled with the irresistible aura of Steph in high spirits. I never shared Steph's sushi-ecstasy. To me it's just cold rice and fish with some sauce on the side. It's Stephanie who absolutely was the universe singing together, in perfect harmony.