One, two, three.
There are so many in a day. He pulls his lips back over his teeth, mechanically, his eyes curving on reflex, automatic laughter rising in his throat. The witty banter catches like fire from his teeth. The highs come so easy in groups, smiles spreading like contagion. Conversation jumps from topic to tangent with no room for pause, and he meets each swell of conversation head on. He knows the game well.
His circle of friends ebbs and flows as the day wears on, but his wide, easy smile stays the same.
When she asks the question that catches him off guard for the first time, the pair are spread over open textbooks and loose-leaf papers. Early dawn filters in through the blinds, lighting their tired eyes with something like depth, or maybe delirium. She’s just pointed out that an equation he scribbled on his hand is wrong, and as he unsuccessfully scrubs at his skin to correct it, she suddenly asks, “How many are real?”
He raises an eyebrow, still focused on the increasingly smudged blue ink on his hand. “Real what? Real numbers?”
She scoffs. “No, you idiot.” He looks up at that, a retort already on his tongue when she pokes the air between them. “That,” she clarifies triumphantly. “Smiles. Your smiles. How many of them are real?”
He blinks, all of a sudden feeling the tightness of a grin he didn’t know he was wearing. Immediately, he drops the smile, scrunching up his eyebrows and frowning deeply. “None of them,” he moans, despair layered thick in his tone. He falls back onto a pile of pillows dramatically, blue-smudged hand clutching his heart. “I’ve been faking it for years!”
She lets out a sound between laughter and frustration and throws the hardest pillow she owns at him. “Get up, drama queen,” she huffs over his teasing cackles. “Or don’t blame me when you fail your midterms.”
He sits back up at that, the lingering glint of amusement still in his eyes. She drops the topic, and the two settle back into studying. Minutes later, he exclaims in victory as he finally rubs away the formula from his skin.
She smiles sweetly at him in his celebration before pointing to the textbook. “I was kidding,” she tells him. “You had the right formula, which you’d know if you’d retained any of the information we’ve been staring at for the past six hours.”
He doesn’t smile very much after that.
They see each other often, but only in bursts — between classes, at the dining hall, passing each other on the street. Their schedules don’t fully align again until a few weeks later, when they grab lunch and she walks him back home. There’s talk of upcoming projects, club events, and then:
“You never answered my question about smiling.” She peers up curiously at him as they walk, swinging their to-go bags between them.
He shrugs and lets out a short laugh. “I don’t know what answer you’re looking for,” he says, turning to meet her eyes. “They’re all real. I smile when I’m happy, and when I’m not, I don’t. Isn’t that just normal?”
She tutts and narrows her eyes at him, weighing the truth of his words. They reach his building, and she seems to come to a verdict. “Fine,” she relents, twirling her bag of leftovers in thought. Then, just before she turns to leave, she says over her shoulder, “Tell me the truth when you’re ready.”
He raises an eyebrow. “You just don’t give up, do you?” He sighs, rubbing his neck as she offers a cheeky grin. He doesn’t even notice the obligatory smile he’s making back until he stops, feeling his muscles go slack.
Her words follow him to sleep. Even as he forgets their conversation amid the current of school, restlessness chases him into consciousness for a week. He lies in bed at 1 a.m., 2 a.m., 3 a.m., staring until he sees constellations in the popcorn ceiling. The feeling of pressure on his chest makes him roll onto his side. When the feeling starts to suffocate him, his thoughts circle back to her question. He reaches for his phone and lets the blue light of the screen wash over his tired eyes.
projects got you up?
nah, can’t sleep
His fingers hesitate over the keyboard. He types out, “I’ve been thinking about what you said,” then watches the cursor delete the letters one by one.
why r u awake?
your text woke me up
“Yes,” he wants to say. “What did you mean by ‘tell me the truth’?” He shakes his head as if to clear his cluttered thoughts, and he types instead:
ah, my bad
maybe some other time
quick dinner? day after tmrw, if you’re free?
kk, see u then
Out of habit, he makes those three keystrokes and sends it even without the trace of a smile on his face.
there you go again, smiling all the time
even over text :p
He feels the slightest twitch in his lips. Idly, he wonders whether his urge to smile is a real one or a reflex. He falls asleep without an answer.
He doesn’t know what “real” means anymore.
His friends encircle him, faces he’s known for years. Everyone’s grinning and trading jokes, but he feels separate. Distant. The feeling of detachment frustrates him, as if he’s lost his ability to socialize. Like he’s tripping over his own feet, rusty at a game he once knew. He can’t stop wondering how many of those smiles around him are real. Should he be smiling with them, or would it be a lie?
He tries it out. The topic is funny, and he can feel the instinct to enter the discussion. But the smile feels plastered and empty on his face. Wrong. He lets it slip off his expression gradually, and without his participation, the conversation lulls. Responsibilities pull his friends away one by one until he’s the only person still lingering at their spot. For some reason, he feels the same alone as he does in his friends’ company.
He doesn’t smile for the rest of the day. He can’t.
By the end of the day, so many of his classmates have asked him what’s wrong that he decides to take a different route home just to avoid the question. He doesn’t know what’s wrong. Yet again, he doesn’t have an answer.
The sun dips low behind the mountains by the time he steps into his empty room. He turns on the light and catches his reflection in the mirror. Dark circles discolor the skin under his eyes, and his entire expression sags with gauntness. Without smiling, he hardly recognizes himself.
He tests the action out a few times in the mirror, almost irrationally afraid he’s forgotten how to do it. He’s in the middle of pulling his lips back and baring his teeth when his phone beeps with a reminder of their dinner tonight.
He read once somewhere that it takes at least 10 facial muscles to smile. He seems to have lost those muscles almost overnight.
They meet at their usual table in the dining hall. Her face brightens when she sees him, but he can only manage a halfhearted wave. She notices the change immediately.
“Was it because of what I said last week?” she asks anxiously as they sit down with their food. Her eyebrows knit over concerned eyes.
He gives a noncommittal shrug. “Maybe it was,” he starts, pushing the food around on his plate. “Maybe you’ve ruined me.” It’s supposed to be a joke, the dramatic kind that she hates. But he can’t bring himself to offer even a smirk. His words settle between the two of them like lead.
For a while, neither exchange a word. People mill about around them, and he watches them chatter as she watches him. When she leans in, he turns his attention to her uncertain expression. Quietly, she says, “You’re not ruined just because you don’t smile as much. You’re not less just because you can’t pretend anymore.”
He closes his eyes.
“If what I said about this whole smiling thing upset you,” she continues, worry etched in her frown. “I’m sorry.”
“Nah,” he says, resting his cheek on his palm. “You only said what I should’ve already known about myself.” He pauses, then scrunches up his nose. “I just … don’t know where to go from here,” he admits. “After all the kidding around about being dead inside, actually realizing I was right for once is a bit jarring.” Another joke that only makes the mood drop further. He sighs, rubbing his eyes, and exasperation creeps into his tone as he says defeatedly, “I don’t know what to say or how to fix this.”
She purses her lips in thought, her fork twisting spaghetti noodles in perpetual circles. “Maybe it’s not about fixing it. Or about making it go away, like a cold or something,” she ventures. She stays silent for a second, as if measuring her words carefully. When she speaks again, something’s changed in her tone. “I can’t say I don’t know how you feel,” she says, then quirks a corner of her mouth up in a half-smile. “That’s probably why I noticed it in you. The point is, I’m still a work in progress, too. It’s a continuous thing, and some days are better than others. As for where to go from here, that’s up to you. When I was working to pull myself together, little things helped. I made a pact with myself to stop smiling when I didn’t actually feel happy. That way, when I did smile, it was out of sincerity every time.”
He looks at her almost as if it’s the first time he’s really seen her. It feels like waking up. Suddenly, he sees the traces of sadness in her face. Tapping his fingers on the table, he nods to himself. “I could do that,” he says tentatively. “The pact. That sounds like a good next step as any.”
She smiles, almost a look of pride in her eyes at his willingness to heal. Then, he sees the glint of something familiar in her eyes. “Let’s both agree on the pact, then. But I have to say, smiling reflexively is not an easy habit to break,” she warns.
He leans forward. “Sounds like a challenge,” he scoffs, raising an eyebrow.
“You’re right,” she smiles deviously, then whips out her phone. “Here,” she says, positioning the camera for a selfie. “To commemorate the pact. Say ‘cheese’!”
Part of him immediately pushes for a smile out of sheer conditioned instinct. But he catches himself and keeps his expression as blank as he can. The screen blinks, and she brings up their picture with laughter already bubbling from her lips.
She shows him, giggling at how stiff he looks. When he sees their solemn, awkward expressions and her reaction, he can’t help it. A grin tugs at his lips, followed by easy laughter, and something about the expanding warmth in his chest tells him he’s not breaking the pact with this particular smile.