Chicago, IL 60614
Chris was working at an ad agency over the summer; it was just the sort of appalling job an appalling person like Chris would take, I thought. I saw Chris mornings, when I ate my cereal. He'd run through our communal kitchen, always doing something with his hands like smoothing down a loud tie in a collection of loud ties he had, or brushing his short hair into place, and a feeling of repulsion combined with repulsion would come over me as he ran out the door.
Chris and I were among nine college students spending the summer in an old sorority house. For two hundred dollars a month you got use of the kitchen, a bedroom, bathroom, and a telephone in the hallway which refused to make outgoing calls. The phone was on the wall near my room and across from Chris', and from overhearing his conversations I gathered certain things about him -- he was loud, he was self-confident, he was persuasive in a sick sort of way; also, he was cheating on his girlfriend. I knew this because he took two phone calls every night at around eight o'clock. To the first woman he always said, "Goodbye. Yes, I love you. Sweet dreams." To the second woman he said, not nearly as loudly, "I'll be over in fifteen minutes."
Chris was good looking in an all American way, he knew it, and he apparently got away with murder because of it. I'm sure I would have hated him, regardless.
The morning of my internship search, Chris ran through the kitchen smirking and tucking a turquoise blue shirt into a pair of perfectly faded jeans.
"Ciao," he said, without looking in my direction. The door slammed shut behind him before I could say ciao back.
I was anxious because I was eating cereal with milk that had gone past its expiration date, and of course there was my internship to worry about too, but seeing Chris, oddly enough, made me feel better, put things into perspective, as they say, for I couldn't help thinking, whatever happened, at least I was not Chris. At least I was not going out in the world and selling sugar coated cereal to children. Or third rate vacation spots. Or kitty litter. I was going to find work with a nonprofit organization, in the art world probably, to the general benefit of people besides myself. The more I considered it the better I felt, I even forgot about the milk's expiration date, and when I left the house that morning to meet my college's internship coordinator, I felt good; up and down and all-the-way-through good.
It was a small, unpromising room Ms. Darre showed me to; it was a small, unpromising file Ms. Darre handed me: Internship Opportunities, Humanities. Ms. Darre said, "I'll be back in a bit," and smiled distantly, then left the room. I watched her go; she was young to be so middle aged, I decided. If she got rid of her polyester shirt and took her skirt up above the knee, it would have made a huge difference; who knew how her life might change?
Ms. Darre gone, I didn't open my file right away, thinking what a pity it was Ms. Darre's youth and looks were wasted, and only gradually did I notice that there was something missing in that building -- activity. I listened more carefully -- not a sound. It seemed to me a summer jobs room, even at a small liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota, should be more bustling, shouldn't feel deserted or worse, abandoned. Already I'd been shocked that morning to learn you actually had to interview for an internship; I'd been under the impression they were given to you automatically, part of the twelve thousand dollar a year package, so to speak. As I became aware of the complete quiet of the building, I also noticed that my file was rather light. This was the summer of 1981, and if I'd paid attention to the news I would have known there was a recession going on, and the situation would have made some sense to me. Although I didn't pay attention to the news, I did know who our President was, and to my credit, to my very great credit, I felt, I had voted against him. This single vote of mine, in fact, was what made me confident in my social conscious; it was why I was opening a slim file labeled, Humanities.
I counted seven worn sheets of paper in the file. The first three organizations needed Art History majors -- if only I'd majored in Art History instead of English, I thought, depression and regret coming over me. I turned to the fourth page. Wanted: Editorial Assistant. Good typist ... I didn't have to read further. Three pages left. I slowed down. Teaching Assistant. If only I liked children! Again a depression came over me. I hated the way children stared at you and asked you rude questions, besides which, their energy seemed borderline pathological to me. Two sheets left. Editorial Assistant, experienced in ... But I'd no experience in anything except working in my father's law firm for my father, compiling all the possible versions of an arcane tax law, and doing an enormous amount of xeroxing. I hadn't even had steady baby-sitting jobs, and I couldn't swim so I'd never been a lifeguard like the other half of my friends. To realize that people had experience in things other than baby-sitting and lifeguarding was, in fact, my second shock that morning. There was only one page left, I had to turn to it and I did so, reluctantly. It read: seeking dedicated writer to help with biannual newspaper which addresses the needs and concerns of homeless people. We are a local community organization ... looking for someone who cares ...
That was me! I hadn't voted for Reagan, I hadn't dreamt of voting for Reagan, and I was a writer and English major, obviously I hadn't given my own welfare top priority when choosing what to study. I scanned the job requirements. No experience necessary.
Ms. Darre entered the room. I realize now she must have known exactly how long it took to read those seven pages.
"Anything?" she asked. Her smile didn't connect with her eyes, and I think that was one of the reasons she alienated me, besides her clothes and, in all honesty, the questions she had asked me that morning: "Any extracurricular activities? You haven't worked for the literary magazine here? Hmm."
"Yes," I said. "I found something."
"You're dressed up," Chris said. He'd stopped his morning dash midway through the kitchen and was standing in front of the stainless steel refrigerator doors, his back to me, squinting at his reflection while trying to tie a knot properly. He had a nice back, actually, broad shouldered and slim at the waist.
"Where did you get all the ties you have?" I said. "Did you go to an auction or something?"
He stopped tying his tie, I could see his hands arrested near his collar. "Ha ha, very funny," he said, and then began fiddling with his tie again.
"I'm serious. Did you go out and buy them all at once or did someone buy them for you or what?" My obnoxiousness at the time didn't surprise me.
Chris was having problems with his tie and, at my last question, in fact, he yanked it from around his neck and turned to face me.
"What's wrong with my ties?"
"Nothing," I said. "I was making a joke. I didn't know you were sensitive."
"I didn't get them at an auction."
"Fine," I said.
"What are you all dressed up for, anyway? Job interview?" He spoke sarcastically, as though an interview was improbable, but I pretended not to notice.
"Yes, as a matter of fact. With a newspaper for homeless people."
"Oh. Well. Isn't that nice. Florence Nightingale herself." Then he stuffed his tie into his perfectly faded blue jeans' pocket, and rushed out the door.
I entered a navy blue room that was empty except for three plastic chairs; they were remodeling their offices, and they hadn't yet moved the furniture back. In retrospect, I wonder, if there had been anything besides those three plastic chairs in the room, and if it hadn't smelled intensely like cheap carpeting, I wonder whether I would have felt differently about the organization, and in that case, perhaps I wouldn't have done what I did. I'll never know. I was directed to one chair, Mr. Mack sat in another, and John, he preferred to be called John, sat in the remaining one.
Mr. Mac was obese, while John was painfully thin, a thinness emphasized by his almost waist length beard, his long thin hands, and the long thin seeing stick he propped next to him; he was legally blind. John sat down, folded his long fingers together on his lap, smiled at me encouragingly, and the depression and regret which had come over me while I looked through the Humanities file swept over me again, but more forcefully.
Mr. Mac said, "I know John and I make a funny pair, but we've been together for a long time now."
"How long?" I asked.
"Almost fifteen years," he said.
"Wow," I answered. I actually said wow during the interview.
Again, maybe things would have been different if Mr. Mac hadn't been a chain smoker. I would have listened to what he said, and then I'd have left the interview with some idea of what they wanted me to do. As it was, Mr. Mac took a cigarette from his inside jacket pocket, (he was wearing a three piece suit), lit the cigarette, breathed in deeply, and I began obsessing. He is obese and he smokes! I obsessed. He's a coronary disaster! He won't have a chance when the heart attack comes, it's going to be total heart failure it's going to be fast and it's going to be soon! Mr. Mac lit one cigarette after another while he spoke, dropping them when he was done in an ashtray next to his feet so that smoke began rising up all around him, something like incense.
"We've made a lot of progress in the past five years, but our current President can only mean disaster for programs like ours. We feel ... "
Doesn't he know? I wondered. Doesn't he realize? He's going to die. Not like everyone else, in the distant future, the fact is that every day is a miracle for this guy, he is a living breathing miracle. Then he mentioned his two boys, and the picture I was forming of his story became complete and tragic -- I could see a funeral, his crying wife, their poor wide eyed children and the casket. What would they do for money? Belatedly, I realized I couldn't breathe.
"Is there something in here, some smell, not the cigarette smoke but there seems to be something," I found myself saying, interrupting Mr. Mac.
"The new carpeting," John said. "It's making me a little nauseous too." He smiled the sweetest smile you could imagine towards me, and that's when I realized what depressed me -- he was a naturally generous person, one sensed that immediately, while I was not. Mr. Mac got up, sighing deeply, opened the door, then stood in the doorway, arms crossed.
"If my cigarettes bothered you you should have said so. We're all friends here, we're family."
"Mac," John said, "she's not going to tell you that at an interview."
"You're from Winnetka," Mr. Mac said, ignoring John. He leaned back on the heels of his loafers. "That's one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the country."
"Is it?" I said. I hoped that I sounded surprised.
"Rich people," Mr. Mack said, thoughtfully. "I met a woman from Winnetka on the train once. When she heard I was a social worker she told me she knew the Kennedys. How's that for a non-sequitur!"
"What do you write, mostly?" John asked me, proving right there what a decent person he was.
"I write also. Country songs. I've sold two of them."
"That's fantastic," I said. "I wouldn't know where to begin."
"This job," Mr. Mac said, "will require someone who can write well and who is socially committed. We're looking for a self-starter. You'd be out on the streets, finding stories, talking to homeless people." He dug into his jacket pocket and pulled out his cigarettes, put one in his mouth and looked at me intently.
I swallowed hard and said, "Well, that would be me. I'm socially committed." And then for emphasis I added, "Very. Very."
Mr. Mack grinned, took the cigarette out of his mouth and said, "We like you, Stacey. Welcome aboard."
If I left the house at seven-thirty in the morning and came home at eleven at night, I could successfully avoid ever talking to Mr. Mac again. My only tight moment was dinner time, when I had to go back to the house to eat; I couldn't afford to eat every meal at the Student Union. Otherwise, I could more or less live in the library, and I did, for five days. There, I began reading newspapers, dozens of them every morning. Our country was in much worse shape than I'd imagined, and yet the possibility of working for Mr. Mac in a job which would have addressed the problems I'd been reading about, filled me with panic. When I tried to picture myself out on the streets drumming up stories, the carpet smell of the interview room came back to me so intensely I became convinced I emanated it, and I had to go into the library's air conditioned reference room to breathe again.
On my sixth day of Mr. Mac avoidance, I went back to the house for dinner and then ran upstairs to grab a sweater as usual before going back to the library. I was ready to go when Chris knocked at my bedroom door and cleared his throat.
"Someone keeps calling for you. Something about the internship you're starting next week, they need to talk to you," he said, pushing open my bedroom door slightly so I could see half his face.
"Could you call them back? I'm sick of answering the phone."
"Actually," I said, "if they call again, tell them I'm out of town."
"What?" Chris asked. And then, with a gleam in his eye; "You're going to blow off those homeless people?"
"I'm not blowing off homeless people. I just -- it's hard to explain."
The phone rang.
"It's been ringing like this for two nights now," Chris said. "You really should talk to them, anyway."
"I'm not answering it," I said.
The phone continued ringing and I began counting ... four, five six ... I could tell Chris was counting too. The rings took up the entire hallway, as one faded another began. Surely they'd stop eventually! Chris raised at least the one eyebrow I could see, and then left my doorway. I could hear him answering the phone, hello? and then, "Yes, she's here. Just a moment. Stacey!"
The same physical things always happen to me when I go into shock. First, I freeze. Then, my heart begins pounding hard, and I find it difficult to breathe. Finally, maybe because I'm on the verge of a sort of auto-asphyxiation, I react and, because of my physical condition, invariably do the wrong thing. In this case I went out into the hallway and took the phone from Chris, without even the presence of mind to say something nasty to him. I put the phone up to my ear, knowing only that I was about to do something desperate.
"No," I said.
"This isn't Stacey?"
"This is her sister."
"This sounds an awful lot like Stacey."
"Naturally" I said, "we're sisters. Everyone gets us confused."
There was a pause, I thought I could hear Mr. Mac lighting a cigarette, and then he began explaining that he was under the impression that my sister was going to report for work next Monday. I had to tell him that my sister, unfortunately, had gone to Europe, there was a once in a lifetime opportunity for her there. Also, she was sick. She had never enjoyed the best of health since she'd had mononucleosis in high school. There seemed to be some sort of relapse and then there was this trip to Europe. Mr. Mac would have liked to talk more, but I said goodbye. Then I wiped the palms of my hands on my jeans, went to Chris' room and pushed his door open. He was lying in his bed, reading, or pretending to read, actually he was laughing quietly, and he burst into open laughter when he saw me.
"You had no business, no business at all making me answer that phone. Especially, especially! when you're cheating on your girlfriend," I said, trying to control my voice. Chris stopped laughing.
"What makes you think I'm cheating?" he asked.
I picked up an imaginary phone, put it up to my ear and said, "I love you. Sweet dreams." I then put the phone down, waited a second, picked it up again and said, "I'll be over in fifteen minutes."
"You don't understand," Chris said, looking back to his book which, I noticed, was upside down. I thought I saw a hint of blush under his tan.
"I understand very well," I said, and then, still trying to keep my voice calm, I said, "You're an asshole," and I left the room.
I imagined many things about myself when I was young, obviously, and I also imagined many things about how adults conducted their lives. One of the things I believed was that when adults suffered deep humiliation they went out and bought liquor, then drank it, straight up, while listening to music or watching TV. Where I'd gotten this impression I'm not sure; my parents had a puritan hatred of any substance which bettered your mood even momentarily, and the people I knew who drank too much drank socially. But I was young and my ideas about what one did were vivid and fixed. So I walked six blocks to a liquor store, bought a six pack of beer, a bottle of wine and a pint of Southern Comfort because Southern Comfort is sweet and Janis Joplin used to drink it.
The guy behind the counter rang up my purchases and then, as he was putting everything in a bag, he said, "Party?"
"Yes," I lied, trying to smile as though I were looking forward to a party. It's come to this, I couldn't help thinking sadly as I went out the door with my package, I'm lying to check-out people even.
The phone rang just as I reached the top of the stairs. I put down my bag and ran, getting to it before Chris. I knew exactly who was going to be on the other end, and I knew exactly what I was going to say to her. I would tell the poor woman that Chris was out for the evening with someone else, he was never home after eight; the best thing she could do was get rid of him.
"Hello?" I said. My eyes met Chris'. He had rushed to a spot directly across from me. I held his pleading gaze and smiled what I considered a vindictive smile. And then, inexplicably, I said, "Yes, Chris is here, I'll call him."
He grabbed the phone from me before I could change my mind.
I went to our communal living area and turned on our ancient TV. I opened a beer, drank from it and became bored, something I thought inappropriate, so I opened the bottle of Southern Comfort and drank from it directly. It made me nauseous, and that seemed right. I considered calling one of two friends I had who was also spending the summer in St. Paul, then thought better of it; the whole point of the ritual was to be alone. I alternated between beer and Southern Comfort, and began watching a movie about an idealistic lawyer who defends a boy who has confessed to killing his mother -- it was a blatantly coerced confession. Everyone in the movie was terribly dressed, and the boy played folk guitar songs badly. Still, I wanted to know who had really killed his mother, and I'm surprised I fell asleep watching the movie, especially because I had the idea that the movie's lawyer would be a good role model for me.
Chris woke me up.
When I realized it was Chris shaking me awake I sat up and pushed him away. He then sat down on the floor in front of me, cross-legged.
"What the hell?" I said.
"You fell asleep here on the couch, watching TV. Stacey, this is the couch that was left outdoors all last summer. No one uses it."
Chris smelled like beer, cigarettes and something else I couldn't place. I had a fleeting image of my father in the kitchen opening some sort of can.
"What time is it?" I asked.
"It's late. Stacey," Chris said, "I have to talk to you. Thank you for not telling my girlfriend about, you know. I don't really love either of them. Things just take on a life of their own, you know?"
"No," I said.
"And I'm sorry about what I did," he continued, ignoring my answer. "I was just sick of answering the phone. You know how it is living near that damn phone. It just rings and rings."
"Chris, no offense, but you really smell."
"Oh my God!" Chris put his head in his hands and rocked forward, began laughing loudly, the way he had in his bedroom. "I forgot. I ate a can of sardines. Just half-an- hour ago I was in my car, eating sardines. The whole steering wheel is covered with oil. I'm lucky I got here alive."
"You ate the entire can? The tails and everything?"
"Yes, yes. I was so hungry." Chris stopped laughing and smelled his hands. "Oh my God," he said. And then he said, "I'm such an idiot. You hate me, you hate my ties."
Chris seemed genuinely upset, and for the first time since I'd known him, as I was looking at him sitting on the floor -- drunk, apologetic, his hair sticking up around his head like he'd slept on it and his tee shirt untucked -- it occurred to me that he was human, and that he was suffering. In my half sleep I decided I wanted to help him.
"Chris," I said. "You're cheating on two women, okay, that's despicable. But I just blew off a blind guy and a community of homeless people. These people have nothing, they don't even have a change of clothes. I pretended to be my sister to get out of it. I don't even have a sister. I don't see how you can talk to me seriously."
My voice actually broke at the end of my speech; I felt all the disappointment I'd tried not to feel that afternoon; I remembered my dumb panic when I picked up the phone.
"Stacey," Chris said. He uncrossed his legs with some difficulty and got to his knees, then took both my hands in his. "Stacey. You're a beautiful, very nice woman. It's just, you're middle class, you know? I went through this myself last year. Look, your dad's a lawyer, right?"
"So the fact is, you're pretty much doomed. My dad's a lawyer too. We're just this way, is all."
"What way?" I asked. I wanted to know precisely what he meant. What way were we? If he could answer me I thought everything about my life might change. Chris paused, as though collecting his thoughts, opened his mouth, then closed it and shrugged.
"Just this way," he said simply. Then he smiled at me, his white teeth glowing in the dark, and he said, "We're made for each other, basically."
"That was cruel," I said.
"I know it hurts. The truth hurts. Then you live with it. I've thought everything out though. Listen. This agency I'm working for will hire me next year, I'm going to make partner there before I'm thirty, I'm sure. When I make partner we'll marry and we'll live happily -- " He brought my hands to his mouth, kissed them, and then said, "I've got to rest for a second."
Saying this he leaned back, then lay down on the floor and fell into a dead sleep. Now I know this is typical of him. I stood up, went across the room to the couch people used, and lay down. I looked at Chris sleeping. Even with his mouth open there was something attractive about him, and he had a great back. He could buy new ties, I found myself thinking. Amazingly, that night, I fell asleep again without getting sick.
That summer I ended up taking a Creative Writing class instead of working. The woman who took the internship I refused worked for Mr. Mac and John beyond that summer, and today she runs an established community action group. Chris made partner at his agency before he turned twenty-eight, an unprecedented promotion, we married, and I teach a night class called "Journal Writing for Accountants." Chris and I have money, I can't deny that, but we do give a lot of it away to charity, because the fact remains, no matter what we are, we still wish the world a better place.