Excerpt from Survival of the Fittest by Theresa Cartier
Here’s a ride you never want to take: the number 97 bus up Broadway Avenue into Cleveland. I know because I’m on it this September morning in 1984, grinding along at a dull 25 miles per hour and hitting a red light every five feet because in Cleveland they think the way to manage traffic is to stop it altogether. The scenery along the way is so dismal, I suspect the bus is taking me not to the city but back in time to the Great Depression.
It’s an hour commute each way.
And here I am, a nineteen-year-old college drop-out, so worthless even McDonald’s won’t hire me back. Instead, I’m reduced to getting temporary work from Manpower. I’ve had to do some emergency shopping for office clothes, so I went to Kmart and bought a basic wardrobe of cheap blouses, a shapeless knit skirt, and a pair of dress slacks made for someone about four inches shorter and ten pounds fatter than me.
Now I’m on my way to my first assignment as a temp at a little electronics company on 30th and Payne. I have to get off the 97 and take the 6A bus up Euclid Avenue to get there. The 6A is only incidentally a means of transportation; mostly it functions as a place for homeless people to crash out on the floor, not bothering to move as other passengers step over them.
When I get on the 6A, there’s an old man with a bandaged foot and a cane sitting behind the bus driver. His foot is stretched across the aisle like a traffic gate and—I can’t believe my eyes, but he’s smoking a cigarette.
I put my ticket in the fare box and the bus lurches forward, hurling me over the old guy’s foot.
“Sorry,” I mumble.
He glares at me and goes back to his cigarette. I don’t know how the bus driver doesn’t smell the smoke crawling up her back.
When my stop comes up, I get out of my seat and the bus driver stomps on the brake. I trip over the old man’s foot again and he looks daggers at me.
“Sorry,” I say again.
The man pulls his cigarette from his mouth. “Silly bitch!” he yells. “Whattsa matter, can’t you walk or nothin’?”
The bus lets me off in front of a 24-hour bar where several patrons are standing outside, finished with a long bout of drinking, or just about to start. “Hey, girl,” one of them calls out as I walk by. “You wearin’ floods!”
I look down and rediscover my ankles, compliments of my Kmart blue light special pants. The other guys laugh and shame creeps over me. I haven’t even started my job and already I want to quit. But I can’t. I desperately need the money because, you see, I’m in a long distance relationship and it’s costing me a fortune.
My boyfriend’s name is Danny. 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 my freshman year of college while I was visiting Ohio Northern, and for Danny, it was love at first sight.
Danny’s in the same situation as me: he had to drop out of school because he couldn’t afford it. So both of us are back home, but unfortunately for me, his home happens to be in upstate New York.
I’ve already visited him once. 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, because 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.” I was furious, but just as I was ready to tell him off, he said, “You’re leaving tomorrow,” and big fat tears rolled down his cheeks. So I hugged him—what else could I do?—while his tears splashed on my neck.
So I came back home sixty dollars poorer, without even a romantic farewell dinner. Still, for me a long distance boyfriend is better than none at all. I must have a boyfriend, because how else will I know I’m desirable unless I have someone to desire me?
I like my temp job at the electronics company. It’s simple bookkeeping and answering an ancient phone. My bosses are “regular guys” who loosen their ties and roll up their sleeves as soon as they get in the office. One of them goes out to lunch and brings me back a piece of pie, even though I never asked. I remain there for three weeks until Manpower reallocates me to the mighty Eaton Corporation.
At Eaton, they’ve got me covering for a secretary who’s out sick. I’m so nervous, my hands are shaking and they don’t stop until I’m back on the bus going home. Then I leave off agonizing about temp work and go back to what I usually worry about, which is money, school, a job, and Danny, in that order. You’d think I could at least invent some different worries from time to time to break up the monotony.
But evidently, my worries about Eaton were for nothing. They’ve asked me back for a long-term assignment as a file clerk in their personnel office. It pays five dollars an hour.
I spend a day at Manpower learning how to use a Wang word processor, just in case I get “bumped up” to a secretary. Then I report back to Eaton, to my boss in Personnel, a sixty-ish woman named Ann. She is mild and soft-spoken and reminds me of some of the elderly nuns from high school.
Being Ann’s file clerk is not exactly a pressure-cooker job. From what I can tell, all she expects me to do is show up, shuffle some papers around, and disappear into the file room for a while each day. By the end of the week, I’m convinced the boredom is going to kill me.
But the next week Ann doesn’t show up at work. She’s had a heart attack, and after a few days of everyone milling around her empty desk and whispering about her, I find out that she is not coming back.
My new boss is a young woman named Jackie. She swishes into Ann’s old cubicle in a pleated wool skirt, starched cotton blouse, and sweater vest. A silky gold chain ripples over the front of her vest, and she’s wearing a big honking engagement ring. Her strawberry blond hair is so pouffy, she must have taken an hour just to set it, and her lips and nails are glossy red.
She’s got “stuck up bitch” written all over her.
Jackie’s a former secretary who has just been promoted to Administrative Assistant, which is just another way of saying secretary, but don’t tell her. It takes her exactly five minutes to become drunk with the power of her new title. After she reorganizes Ann’s old desk by throwing everything out, she walks over to me, introduces herself with a limp handshake, and tells me she hates my hair.
I should probably mention here that my hairstyle would be completely appropriate if I were in a punk rock band. I’ve dyed it red and there’s a combination Romantics/Flock of Seagulls thing going on in the front and a braided tail in the back. Up until this moment, I thought my hair was awesome. Clearly I was wrong.
One of my new duties under Jackie is to type rejection letters to the numerous people who apply for jobs within the company. Jackie gives me the applicant’s resume with a big fat “NO” written on the upper right corner, and I deliver the bad news. Everybody gets the same letter, which I type from the 10th generation photocopy the personnel department has so generously provided me.
Many of the people who get rejected seem to me very well qualified and this is disconcerting. If they can’t get hired, how in the world will I?
I’m typing a rejection letter to a man who made the mistake of mentioning his knife collection in his resume when Jackie storms up to me and slaps the other letters I typed on the table. “There are typos all over these,” she fumes. “Don’t you know how to type?”
I tell her yes, that I taught myself when I was twelve, took a class in high school and got up to about 50 words a minute.
“Well, you need to take another typing class,” she says.
And who, I want to ask, is going to pay for this class?
The problem is not my typing, it’s my eyes. My glasses are several years old and I’m due for a new pair, but I have no medical insurance so I can’t afford them. I tell this to Jackie, but she doesn’t care.
One day when Jackie’s out of the office at a seminar, one of the other secretaries, Stacy, asks me if I’d like to do a little project. She’s been typing the employee manual into a Xerox word processor and she’d like me to take over while she works on something else.
This is great. The hours fly by as my fingers click over the keyboard. I don’t make any mistakes this time because I can go back and read the screen and make corrections. I feel so happy and productive as I type. I can use a word processor. This will look good for me if I apply for a permanent job here.
Suddenly, the computer screen won’t scroll anymore. I wait a few minutes, tap some keys experimentally, but nothing happens. I get up to find one of the other secretaries. She taps the keyboard and frowns at the frozen screen, but she can’t figure out what’s wrong either.
When Stacy comes back, I tell her what happened. With a gasp, she darts over to the word processor and sees that it is indeed stuck. “What did you do?” she says.
“Nothing,” I tell her. “I was just typing,”
Stacy makes a call to the computer department, shooting dirty looks my way as she does so. When she hangs up the phone, she says, accusingly, “Did you insert page breaks as you were typing?”
I look blankly at her. Why would I do that? “I thought these things paginated themselves,” I say.
“No!” snarls Nancy. “What ever gave you that idea?”
I tell her that I trained on a Wang, and that Wang word processors insert page breaks automatically.
“Well, this isn’t Wing-Wang, honey,” snarks Stacy. She tells me that I’ve created a page over two thousand lines long; now the document is wrecked and can’t be saved. She’ll have to do the whole thing all over again.
I go back to my work area—I don’t even have a desk, just a table behind Princess Jackie’s chair—and I bend over and pretend to search for something in my purse so they won’t see me crying. On the other side of the cubicle wall, I can hear Stacy telling everyone about the stupid temp—don’t give her any of your work, she’ll just screw it up—and complaining that I’ve set her back an entire day.
But not everyone was like that. When Jackie came back and heard the epic tale of The Document That Froze, she decided to relieve me of typing once and for all—“You need to take a typing class”—and have me assist the main receptionist, Ariana.
Ariana is big and jolly and vivacious, with dark hair, oversized glasses, and the ability to do ten things at once. She asks me all about myself as she shows me how to use the main switchboard. It’s amazing to watch her do her job. She knows the extension of virtually every person in the company by heart, and from the way she talks to people, you can tell she’s friends with just about everyone. You should hear her carry on with the CEO.
Every day I sit in for Ariana during her two breaks and while she takes lunch. It’s stressful at first, but soon I get the hang of it. I like working the reception area. I like seeing all the people who come in for appointments, and I especially like talking to Bill, who works in Eaton’s mail room in the basement.
Bill’s getting his master’s degree in philosophy, which means he is never going to make a dime. As it is, he’s taking this semester off to save up for tuition.
“You should go back to school,” he tells me. “You’re never going to get anywhere with The Power.” That’s what he calls Manpower, which he works for as well.
“But this could lead to full time employment,” I tell him. Already I’ve seen a job posting for a secretarial position that would pay a salary of $1,500 a month. I can’t even imagine what I’d do with that kind of money.
“That’s what The Power wants you to think,” Bill tells me, “but they don’t want you to get a real job. They’re making too much money off of you.”
I tell Bill that I’d love to go back to school, but I can’t afford it. My best bet at this point is to find a job with a company that will pay my tuition for me.
“Well, I wish you luck,” says Bill as he pushes his mail cart toward the elevator. “Maybe we can have a beer after work sometime.”
I tell him I’d like that. Bill presses a button, the elevator doors close, and he’s transported back to the basement mailroom with the rest of the Morlocks.
There’s another job opening; actually it’s the job I’m currently doing: general clerk for personnel. It pays $1,275 a month, an outrageous salary for someone who’s been told she needs to take a typing class. I decide to apply for the job and put in an application for the executive receptionist position as well.
Right now the executive receptionist is a temp named Shari. She’s my age, but so beautiful she seems much older. I don’t know why she’s working as a temp because she could make millions as a model. She has doe-like eyes, satiny dark skin, and her coarse black hair swishes over her shoulders, a lovely mane.
The company needs an executive receptionist in addition to the main receptionist, because the executives are on a separate floor with a separate lobby, separate elevator. God forbid they should actually have to look at the people who work for them.
Occasionally I come up here to hand deliver important memos. That’s how Shari and I met. In addition to being beautiful, she’s very sweet.
“Girl, you missed it,” she says as I give her a sealed envelope for some Mr. Big Shot.
She tells me that while the execs were having a meeting this morning, some window washers who happened to be working this side of the building got stuck right outside the conference room. They couldn’t move their platform up or down.
“And Susan, she be screaming at them,” Shari giggles. “She be saying, eff this and eff that, and finally she call the building and she scream and swear some more, but they say they can’t do nothing, they gotta call somebody else.”
Susan’s the token woman executive, but Shari and I both suspect she’s really Satan. “So what happened?” I say. God, this story is awesome.
The phone rings. “Ooh, I gotta get this,” says Shari. She answers the phone, switching to crisp, eloquent English.
She hangs up the phone. “So what happened?” I say again.
“Well,” says Shari, “that lady, she just up and shut the blinds on them!” Shari goes on to tell me that the poor window washers were stuck out there for forty-five minutes before someone finally rescued them.
Unbelievable. With a story like that, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“Man,” I tell Shari, “if I were one of those window washers, I’d be so pissed, I’d come up here and kick some ass.” I give a high kick to demonstrate and my shoe goes flying across the reception area.
Shari squeals with laughter, quickly covers her mouth with both hands. “Girl, you so silly,” she giggles. “You gonna make me lose my job!”
I come home to a card from Danny. He was supposed to put the sixty dollars he owed me in it, but when I open the card, it’s empty.
I wish Danny could be more like me. I mean, look at me. Here I am working at a prestigious company. All I need is one break to get hired there permanently. Then I can write my ticket to the top. It’s that simple.
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 Danny’s card, telling myself I’ll probably never get my money back, it occurs to me that he and I are not in a two-way relationship, never have been. It’s always been me. The reason we’ve stayed together this long is that I made the decision we would, and I did all the things that needed to be done 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 think about what it would be like if I lived in New York and Danny and I were married. I’d have to get a job, of course. Danny’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 Danny 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 could share his optimism, but I don’t. My situation has forced me to become a realist. I live in the world of adults now, so I must become one years ahead of schedule.
I come to the conclusion that if I were married to Danny, 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 Danny is sleeping and I say wake him up.
“Okay,” she says placidly, “Nice talking to you.”
When Danny comes to the phone he asks what’s wrong, and he sounds so small and tired that 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 out to see me.”
My bus pulls in to the Rochester terminal at a quarter after eleven Friday night. No Danny.
I wait and wait until the terminal empties and I’m the last one there. I call Danny’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 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. I am absolutely in love with her. 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 and letting the smoke weave itself around her head. She laughs a little, heh heh, but never cracks a smile.
Later, we go visit Danny’s father and stepmother in their trailer up in Wolcott. Or, as the locals say, “Wu’kit.” Danny 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 Robert shows up and saves me the job of lecturing Danny 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, Danny 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. After all, I have plenty of male friends and I can still be trusted.
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, so 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?”
Danny says she’s seventeen, 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 Danny.
“No,” I tell him. “Screw you.”
Kim 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,” Danny 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 Danny. “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.”
Danny 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.”
Danny’s jaw clenches and his hands tighten on the steering wheel. Ah, looks like I’ve hit a sore spot.
Danny and I get out of the car, glaring at each other over the roof. Then we go inside the store.
Danny pulls out a list and tears it into thirds. “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,” says Danny. “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.
Danny closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and says, “Then do it for my mother.”
“Oh, your mother,” I say. “Well, that’s a different story! I’d do anything for your mother.”
Danny’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 Kim.
“Can she read?” I say.
Kim gives a nervous little laugh.
“Of course she can read!” snaps Danny.
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. Danny thanks us for our help.
“Don’t thank me,” I say. “I didn’t do this for you.”
Kim pulls a few candy bars off the shelf and offers them to us, her treat. Danny smiles gratefully, but as he’s about to take his, I swat him on the stomach with the back of my hand. “You’re gonna get fat,” I say.
Kim gasps and Danny’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.
As you may have already guessed, Danny and I are now broken up. I’m back at Eaton, filling in at the reception area for Ariana, who has the flu. All day, everyone asks, “Where’s Ariana?” and I’m getting bored with saying, “She’s sick,” so when one of the secretaries asks, I try to make a joke. “Oh, you know her,” I say lightly. “Always goofing off.”
The secretary frowns and says with great indignation, “I think Ariana works very hard!”
I try to say I was just kidding, but she’s already walked away. What is it with these people? Doesn’t anyone have a sense of humor?
As I’m trying to take my mind off it by sorting through some papers on Ariana’s desk, one of the legal secretaries steps off the elevator and breathlessly tells me there’s an opening in her department. I’d helped her out a couple weeks ago, typing new labels for her files. She liked me a lot and didn’t seem to think I needed a typing class at all.
“They’re interviewing this afternoon,” she tells me. “Can you get away?”
I tell her I’ll have to ask Jackie.
“I’ll take care of that,” she says. “Oh, and they’ll want to see a copy of your resume. Do you have one?”
Yes, but not on me. I’ll have to do another one.
I take out a pad of paper and write down all my jobs. McDonald’s in high school. My work-study job at the office of Graduate Studies in Business at Bowling Green. Temping for the electronics company. And finally, the different departments at Eaton.
I’m still thinking about how to build up my skimpy resume when the phone rings. “They want you up here in twenty minutes,” says my secretary friend. “Good luck!”
Shit, gotta get a move on. I roll a sheet of paper into the electric typewriter and start typing like a demon. Naturally, the phone chooses this precise moment to start ringing off the hook. The elevator stops at my floor and discharges a herd of people who head to my desk, asking questions. I’m just finishing the last line of the resume when my relief shows up to take over the switchboard.
God, I really wish I’d known I was interviewing today. I would have at least worn a skirt. As it is, I’m in my fat pants that are floods, and a raggedy sweater because all three of my blouses are dirty.
I step off the elevator into the legal department and walk down the aisles until I find the office of the lawyer who’s going to interview me. My secretary friend winks at me as the lawyer motions me inside. Well, here goes nothing.
The lawyer gestures to me to sit down, so I sit on the couch across from his desk. He scans my resume. “It says here you won the Ohio Award of Distinction. What’s that?”
It’s actually a bogus award I got in high school for taking all the classes I was supposed to take, but I’m not about to tell him that. “It’s for academic excellence,” I say.
The lawyer squints at my resume with a look somewhere between confusion and disgust. “Why aren’t you in school?” he says.
“I ran out of money,” I tell him. “But I’d like to go back.”
The lawyer gives a kind of snort. “So why should I hire you if you’re just going to leave?”
That strikes me as an odd question. Then I realize I had put my year at Bowling Green down under “education” so he probably thinks I want to go back there. “I’d go to night school at Cleveland State,” I tell him. Then I add, “That’s partly why I want this job, for the tuition reimbursement.”
“You don’t know what you want,” he says. He holds up my resume, Exhibit A. “Look at all these jobs. You’re all over the place. And you never stay anywhere for long.”
What an asshole. “Most of those were temporary jobs,” I say. “I left because the assignments ended, not because I wanted to.”
“Well, I can see why they didn’t want you,” says the lawyer. “Look at all these typos.” He holds up Exhibit A again for my benefit. “How do you expect me to present something like this to a major client?”
My throat starts closing up and I can feel my face burning. Please, God, please do not let me cry in front of this man. I take a breath and say, “I was only informed about this interview twenty minutes ago while I was working the main reception area. I had a lot of interruptions as I was doing the resume. Normally my work is better than that.”
The lawyer makes a grunting sound that means he thinks I’m full of shit. There’s an uncomfortable silence, then the office door flies open and a young lawyer comes in.
“Hide me,” he says, plastering himself against the wall. “They’re looking for me and I’m not done.”
The two men snicker among themselves at how they’re getting one over on the boss or the client or whoever’s looking for the work that hasn’t been finished, because, you know, that’s so hilarious. I’m waiting for the lawyer to say something to me indicating the interview’s over but he acts like I’ve already left the room.
“Well,” I say, getting off the couch, “thank you for your time, sir. It was a pleasure meeting you.” I stick out my hand to shake his.
“Yeah,” he snaps, barely looking at me. He keeps on talking to his buddy, doesn’t shake my hand, doesn’t say goodbye. To him, I barely exist.
I get on the elevator, numb with rage. I don’t understand all the snobbery and contempt I have encountered since the day I got here. I may have a crazy haircut and ugly clothes, but I’ve done everything they’ve asked me to do, to the best of my ability. Doesn’t that count for anything?
I go down to Personnel and tell Jackie I’m done with the interview.
“I got a complaint about you,” she says, writing something on a form in delicate, curling script. “You’re saying bad things about Ariana.”
I tell her I was just making a joke and the woman took it the wrong way, that Ariana and I are friends and we tease each other like that all the time. If Ariana were here, she’d know I was kidding and she would just laugh.
“Well, from now on don’t make jokes,” says Jackie primly.
Something about the way she says it fills me with such visceral hatred, it takes everything in me not to tell her to bend over so I can yank that pole out of her butt and club her over the head with it.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to upset anyone.”
“Well,” says Jackie, “just be careful from now on.” She looks up from her desk and studies me for a few seconds. “I hate that sweater,” she says.
Right before Christmas, my assignment at Eaton comes to an end. They’ve filled my position and now I’m free to be the stupid temp somewhere else. But remarkably, despite everything that has happened, Eaton is giving me a favorable rating to Manpower—with the suggestion that I take a typing class, of course.
I say goodbye to Shari, beautiful Shari who was hired permanently, no surprise. I stop by Ariana’s desk and tell her I’ll miss her. Then I go see the legal secretary and thank her for trying to help me.
“You’ll do fine,” she says. “You’re a smart girl.” She tells me it’s probably for the best that I didn’t get to work for that lawyer; he’s already made his new secretary cry and she wants to quit.
Afterward, I’m sitting at my work table, staring into space, when Jackie gives me one last rejection letter to type. Next to her big red “NO” in the margin of the resume is a familiar name. The resume is mine. I am rejecting myself.
At first, I’m not sure what to make of it. Does Jackie know what she’s just done? How could she not? But then, I think, does it really matter? I am nobody. I am nothing. In this moment, in this place, I am the absence of qualities. I am not angry. I am not sad. I am not lonely, hurt, or confused. And this nothingness makes me strong because it cannot be broken, only passed through like vapor.
I type the rejection letter, stuff it in an envelope, and leave it with the rest of the outgoing mail. It seems only appropriate to treat myself as if I were total stranger. Frankly, it’s a relief not to know me.
When I get home, I pour myself some coffee, sit at the kitchen table and leaf through the day’s mail. There’s a mysterious envelope for me at the bottom of the stack. I flip it over, astonished to see the return address. Bowling Green.
I can’t tell you how hard I’d tried to forget that place. I told myself I hated it there, that I had no friends, and I wouldn’t go back if you paid me. But now it appears I did have friends, and they have not forgotten me.
I tear open the envelope and shake out a Christmas card. There’s also a photo of my three college buddies standing in my old dorm room, arms around each other, laughing. Butch, skinny as a beanpole, with a mouth full of braces. Leann with her kind, sleepy eyes. Annette who had permanent bed head and a gurgling laugh. When I left Bowling Green, I pushed them from my mind, believing I would never see them again.
They tell me how special I am, how much they miss me, and I wish to God they hadn’t done that because it hurts so much. It hurts more than dropping out of school, more than the insult by Eaton, more than losing Danny, more than all the rejection and disappointment that has followed me since I left high school.
It is the worst kind of pain. Insidious. It fills my heart so full that my heart must shatter.
I press my hands to my face, try to shove the sobs back down my throat, but there is no stopping this. I cry until I can’t breathe, till my nose bleeds, till I’m hoarse and my throat is sore. I cry until there is nothing left but my love for them. For all of them. My friends.
Afterward, I drag myself upstairs to bed. As my head sinks into the cool pillow, it seems to me that Eaton was only a bad dream, and everything that went on in my life while I was there was part of that dream.
But now it’s over, I tell myself. It’s over. Time to move on.