By Marlene Moxness
Once she was outside of it, Happy didn’t really pay much attention to her box. When she and the other hippos were arranged around the playing field, she was all business. Happy knew that there was no real skill involved in her work, but she liked it just the same. Then one day she found herself positioned next to the box, staring at an artist’s two-dimensional rendering of a fat pink hippopotamus. “My God,” she thought. “Do I really look like that?”
It started out small. At the next game, Happy munched slower than the other hippos, more methodically. She chewed each marble 27 times. Her competitive side ached play with the same zeal as the other three hippos. She had always been one of the guys, in the thick of things, chomping furiously. Happy began counting the number of marbles she ate. Appalled at the huge quantity she was consuming, Happy decided to eat only every third marble that came her way. This worked out perfectly because three cubed was 27. Three was the perfect number.
Happy was wallowing. In a moment of clarity brought on by her newly ascetic lifestyle, the full burden of her absurd situation weighed down upon her. Her life was meaningless. She spent her days eating as many small white marbles as she possibly could, and for what? For sport? Was there any logic behind this game in which she found herself? All her self worth was wrapped up in the futile effort to gorge herself more quickly than the other three hippos. Three males, against her. She was constantly surrounded by males, one on each side and one across the field. Her whole world was this stupid game with three males, and she’d never even had a boyfriend. Happy was going to die fat, sad, and alone. She had to make a change. After she saw that picture, she knew what she had to do. Everything else in her life was beyond her control, but within the sphere of the game, Happy had a choice. She could say no to marbles. She could clamp her teeth down every time one came her way, ricocheting it back across the field. If she could handle this, then maybe, just maybe, she could finally live up to her name.
Happy turned her head to the left, but she still could not see her backside. She couldn’t decide if this was a good omen or a bad one. The contortions made her dizzy. She lowered herself to the ground. With her eyes closed, she took three deep breaths.
“Hap, are you okay? You look sort of ill.”
She leapt to her feet with all the grace one would expect from a hungry hippo. “Homer! What? No! I’m fine. What’s your problem, anyway?”
“Are you feeling okay? You didn’t seem to be playing at your peak today.”
“What? No! I’m fine. I’m great! I’m just trying to be more ladylike, that’s all.”
Homer raised one green eyebrow suspiciously. “Ladylike? You’re, like, the only lady in the game!”
“I know!” Happy snapped, her pink cheeks darkening. She didn’t want to be having this conversation. “I’m just trying to get healthy.”
“I suppose we are starting to get to that age. Thirty already. It sounds so old when you say it out loud.”
“Come on now,” she said, nudging him with her shoulder. They had been friends since ages four and up. “You’re still nimble! Your neck is as fast ever! Now, I’m going to go lie down. I’ll see you later though, right?”
Homer gave her a half smile and went to find the others. It was time for a little chat.
In the middle of the next game, Homer signaled to Harry and Henry. They stopped what they were doing, and all heads swiveled in Happy’s direction. Homer spoke for the group. “Happy, who do you think you’re trying to fool?”
“Whhff?” Her words were muffled by the marble she held in her cheek.
“I said, who the hell do you think you’re trying to fool? You haven’t won a game in weeks and you haven’t eaten a single marble all day!”
She felt all three pairs of eyes. Without meeting them, she spat her marble towards Homer’s feet. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“There! You didn’t even eat that one! What’s going on, Happy? Are you sick—”
“How many times do I have to tell you? I’m fine! It’s none of your damn business what I eat!”
“But Happy, you’re not eating. It’s not right. Hippos like us are supposed to eat marbles. It’s our, I don’t know, our destiny.”
“It’s ridiculous, Homer! We’re hippos, for god’s sake.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Forget it, Homer. Don’t even talk to me about destiny. Get over yourself!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about! Look, Happy, I’m worried about you.” He gestured towards the others, and they nodded in orange and yellow unison. “Happy—”
He stepped forward as she started to cry. “Happy….”
“I’m…I’m just so…hungry! Hungry!”
“You’re going to be okay,” he said, nuzzling her with his long neck. “It’s going to be all right. We’re going to get you the help you need. It’s going to be okay. You’re going to be okay.”
She wiped her eyes, long lashes matted together with tears. “I just wanted to be pretty, pretty…” she whispered.
“Happy, you’ve always been pretty. No, no, hey now, I’m not just saying that. Look at you! You’re pink and shiny. You’re a gorgeous hippopotamus.”
He shook his head. She sniffled again. After a long minute, he spoke, his voice low and firm. “You are beautiful.”
Another long minute.
“Would you like to play with us?”
Happy shot him a damp look, her pink brow furrowed. Henry and Harry had already taken their positions on the field.
“Come on,” Homer coaxed. “The only way for you to get over this is to be plunged right back into the competition. It’s for the best.”
Happy sniffled one last time and slogged over to where the others were waiting for her. She could do this. She was perfect the way she was. She was going to get over this. She just needed to get back in the game, and everything would be back to normal. This was the best way. Homer knew what he was doing.
As the marbles ricocheted around the field, Happy felt the thrill of the game run down her neck. She could do this. Homer lunged for a marble, but it caught on his front tooth and shot her way. Happy readied herself, blinking to focus her eyes on the marble coming straight towards her. The blood pounded in her ears as she quickly analyzed the velocity of the marble with her known jaw speed and the slope of the field today. She could do this. She had done this a thousand times. With a loud crack, she chomped down on the marble. She felt its cold plastic and moved it along her mouth. As it reached her throat, Happy made a conspicuous effort to swallow. She could feel Homer’s eyes on her as the marble worked its way down her long neck. With a hollow plunk, the marble came to rest. Happy met Homer’s eyes. He smiled. She smiled back at him. The other two hippos returned to their frantic marble munching as soon as the tender moment came to a close, and Homer shifted his attention back to the game. Happy continued to smile, wondering how long it would be until she could sneak away and throw up the marble. No one would ever know. They say the most fun is playing together, but Happy knew this was one game she would need to keep to herself.