(This is an excerpt from the chapter, “Reject,” which describes a hellish period of my life shortly after I dropped out of college. The year was 1984. I was 19 years old.)
The letter from Stefan was supposed to contain the sixty dollars he owed me, but when I open it, it’s empty.
Stefan’s my boyfriend from my measly one year of college. He’s half French-Canadian, half Cherokee Indian, with dark wavy hair and eyes so brown they’re black. We met at the end of freshman year while I was visiting Ohio Northern. But, like me, Stefan had to drop out of school because he couldn’t afford it. We’re both back home now but unfortunately for me, his home happens to be in upstate New York.
I already went there once because he was too broke to come out to see me. He said he couldn’t find a job, which I didn’t believe until I saw the piece of shit town where he lives. I loaned him sixty dollars and he promised to pay it back but so far that hasn’t happened.
I’m not sure why; he seems to have money for other things. When we drove into Rochester on our last night together, he pointed to a fancy restaurant and said, “That’s where we would have eaten if I hadn’t bought my camera.” So I came back home sixty dollars poorer, without even a romantic farewell dinner. Still, a long-distance boyfriend is better than none at all.
I just wish Stefan could be more like me. I mean, look at me. I’m an office temp at a prestigious company. All I need is one break to get hired permanently and then I can write my ticket to the top. Oh yes, I have big dreams. I want to be, I’ve decided, an important executive who is still nice to her employees. That is my shining goal and there’s no room in it for six-hour bus rides to shitty upstate New York or loans to unemployed boyfriends.
As I put away Stefan’s letter, it occurs to me that he and I are not in a two-way relationship, never have been. The reason we’ve stayed together is that I made the decision we would stay together and I did all the things necessary to make that happen.
I lie awake late into the night, trying to harden my heart so I can do the thing I know I must do. I imagine what it would be like if I lived in New York and Stefan and I were married. I’d have to get a job, of course. Stefan’s already quit three because he felt they were beneath him. Now he’s selling vacuum cleaners door to door. He works on straight commission, which basically means that unless he makes a sale, he’s working for free. But Stefan doesn’t look at it that way. He thinks only of the huge commissions he could be making and thus believes himself to be rich. I wish I shared his optimism, but I have to be realistic. Even though I’m only nineteen years old, I live in the world of responsible adults now so I must become one a few years ahead of schedule.
I come to the conclusion that if I were married to Stefan, I’d probably end up supporting him. And that must never happen.
I get out of bed and call him. It’s after two a.m. and I wake up his poor mother. She says Stefan is sleeping and I say wake him up.
“Okay,” she says placidly, “Nice talking to you.”
When Stefan comes to the phone he asks what’s wrong. But he sounds so small and tired, I can’t bring myself to go through with it.
“I’m breaking up with you,” I tell him. “Talk me out of it.”
“We can’t do this over the phone,” he says. “Come see me.”
My bus pulls in to the Rochester terminal at a quarter after eleven Friday night. No Stefan.
I wait and wait until the terminal empties and I’m the last one there. I call Stefan’s house but there is no answer. Where is he?
Finally, after midnight he shows up. He’s very apologetic, but by now anything he says is bullshit as far as I’m concerned. I just can’t believe how irresponsible he is.
Saturday’s a little better. I visit with his mother, who likes me a lot, keeps a picture of me on her bedroom mirror. She’s full-blooded Cherokee, barely five feet tall and ninety pounds, and she’s telling me the story of how she and her boyfriend went skydiving.
“I was scairt,” she says, sucking on a cigarette. She lets the smoke weave itself around her head and laughs a little, heh heh, but never cracks a smile.
Later, we go visit Stefan’s father and stepmother at their trailer up in Wolcott, or “Wu’kit,” as the locals say. Stefan cooks a gourmet dinner of clams casino, lobster tails, steak and mushrooms. He’s an excellent cook, says he loves it. So why can’t he get a job as a cook?
After we eat dinner, his older brother, Roy, shows up and saves me the job of lecturing Stefan by doing it himself. For two hours he goes on and on about what it takes to be successful in business. He keeps saying, “It takes money to make money,” but I don’t get it. If you already have the money, why in the world would you need to go out and make it?
It’s Sunday, time for me to go back home, but nothing’s been resolved. As I’m packing my bags, Stefan tells me he has some errands to run before he takes me to the bus station. We have to go to the grocery store and buy some supplies for his mother so she can restock the snack counter at the gun club, one of her three jobs.
We also have to pick up one of his friends. Her name is Kim; she answers the phones part time where he works. “Um, I hope you don’t mind,” he says, “but I’d made plans with her before you came here and I can’t break them.”
I say that would be all right. But when we pull up to her house and she walks outside, my desire to be cool and understanding vanishes.
She is Teen Barbie, brunette style.
“How long have the two of you been friends?” I ask.
He says it’s just been the past few weeks. All of his high school friends are away at college, and I’m gone too, and he has no one to do things with except her.
“Jesus Christ,” I say as I get another look at her, “how old is she?”
Stefan says she’s sixteen, and yes, she’s still in high school.
“Since when did you start robbing the cradle?”
“Please be nice to her,” he says. “She’s not like you.” Meaning what, exactly?
“I’m not promising anything.”
“Please,” says Stefan.
“No,” I tell him. “Screw you.”
Kimbie comes up to the car and I get out so we can flip my seat forward and let her crawl into the back.
“This is Kim,” Stefan says nervously. “Kim, this is Theresa.”
“Hello,” she says in a soft voice. She shifts around in the cramped back seat, trying to find a place to put her legs. Finally, she just stretches them across the seat.
“I know there’s not much room back there,” says Stefan. “We’ll switch at the supermarket, and Theresa can ride in back to the gun club.”
“Oh no,” I say. “You’re not putting me back there.”
Stefan inhales and exhales loudly. I’m pissing him off, but I don’t care.
He drives around the parking lot looking for a spot close to the entrance. For some reason, this really irritates me. “What’s wrong with walking?” I say. “You could use a little exercise with that gut of yours.”
Stefan’s jaw clenches and his hands tighten on the steering wheel. I can see I’ve hit a sore spot.
Finally we pull into a parking space. Stefan and I get out of the car at the same time and glare at each other over the roof.
When we get inside the store, he pulls out a list. “This will go a lot faster if we split up,” he says.
“I’m not doing anything,” I say.
“Don’t be like this, Theresa. We don’t have time.”
“Don’t be like what? What am I being like?”
“Theresa, please,” he says.
“Please, nothing. I’m not doing shit for you,” I say.
Stefan closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and says, “Then do it for my mother.”
“Oh, your mother,” I coo. “Well, that’s a different story. I’d do anything for your mother. Just tell me what she needs.”
Stefan’s face gets very red and he hands me my section of the list. Then he relaxes a little and hands the other section to Kimbie.
“Can she read?” I say. Kimbie gives a nervous little laugh.
“Of course she can read!” snaps Stefan.
I shrug my shoulders and watch him stomp off to do his shopping.
When we’ve gotten all our items, we meet in the checkout line and consolidate everything into one basket. Stefan thanks us for our help.
“Don’t thank me,” I say. “I didn’t do this for you.”
Kimbie pulls a few candy bars off the shelf and offers them to us, her treat. Stefan smiles gratefully, but as he’s about to take his, I smack him on the stomach with the back of my hand. “You’re gonna get fat,” I say.
Kimbie gasps and Stefan’s so angry, he’s shaking. He pays for the groceries, tells Kim to wait for them to be bagged, and he follows me to the exit.
“YOU ARE SUCH A BITCH!” he roars. He kicks me in the butt, propelling me through the open doors.
When we get back to the car, I make Kimbie crawl into the back seat again while, once again, Stefan and I take turns glaring at each other and mouthing, Fuck you, over the roof of the car.
But by the time he deposits me at the bus station, he’s feeling contrite and asks for my camera so Kimbie can take a picture of us together.
As we stand together by his car, Stefan puts his sunglasses on his head and leans casually against the passenger side door. With his white button-down shirt, gray cargo pants, and white sneakers, he looks like something out of a cheesy catalog.
He looks ridiculous, I think later when I develop the photos. What a loser. Then I notice something odd. It wasn’t planned and I didn’t realize it at the time but in the picture, I’m wearing a white button-down shirt, gray cargo pants, and white sneakers, same as Stefan.
We’re a perfect match.