I Want to Know What Love Is
Mom won’t let me go to school the next day. I’m glad. I don’t want to show up there. Have them see my face after I bit the dirt. Most especially, I don’t want to see Calvin. The thought of what he did to me makes me sick to my stomach.
I lay in bed the majority of the morning, staring at the ceiling. I want to punch the wall, but I can’t bring myself to move. There is nothing I feel but the crushing weight of defeat like pressing stones on my chest. It’s how they executed witches in The Crucible. Guess that makes me Giles Corey.
I eventually pull myself up out of bed. My bedroom is drafty, and this morning the air is crisp. Dusty gray light streams through my window. The sky looks how I feel. In my XL men’s T-shirt and thick wool crew-length socks, I skate across the laminate floor to the fridge. I pour myself a bowl of cereal - Cheerios this week - and sit cross-legged in the middle of the living room. The silence and stillness of the empty house is disrupted only by my crunching and slurping.
I turn on the TV. It’s the Cleveland news station. We don’t have cable, so I have all of four channels to choose from. I watch for a while, until I finish my cereal and return the bowl and spoon to the sink. Then I click off the TV and sit atop my bed, looking around, not knowing what to do with myself.
Sticking out of my book bag is my yellowed copy of The Sun Also Rises. There’s always that to do, and my essay.
I need to do something.
I reach for the book and when I open it up, the words that greet me are
“The bulls are my best friends.” I translated to Brett.
“You kill your friends?” she asked.
“Always,” he said in English, and laughed. “So they don’t kill me.”
I shut the book and look at the wall.
“Sad, isn’t it,” I say aloud. The first words I’ve spoken today. “Betrayed by your best friend. Well.” I shrug my shoulders and, in a moment of raw emotion, chuck the book at the wall. It hits it with a slap and flutters to the ground. “That’s the way the world works. Kill them before they kill you. No mercy. No thought to the consequences.”
I fold so my torso is parallel with the bed and my head is on the covers in front of my crossed lap. I squeeze my eyes so no tears can come out.
Dad, Justin, Calvin - what do they all have in common? They’re traitors. They lied. They said they loved me. But it was all bullshit.
I lift my head, sit up, and sweep my hair back.
“Love is bullshit,” I say through trembling lips. Because it is.
In a surge of emotion, I grab a notebook and a pen. I write along the top of the blank lined page: How I Got My Stupid Name. If Ms. Barnes wants an English paper, by God, I’ll give her one.
My hand scribbles furiously across the page, filling line after line with angry, messy penmanship. I scratch out and cross off every few words, but I don’t stop ’til it’s done. A tear or two hit the page and leave little blue wet spots that smear the ink. I don’t care. It’s just for Ms. Barnes. It’s not like anyone will ever read this.
My mom and dad screwed each other before they got married. And that’s how Stephanie Reagan Rogers, or Stevie Rae as my dad called me, got here.
Mom, named Mary Beth Deluccio, was a North Georgia beauty queen, a pageant winner and all that. When she was seventeen, my age, she took a road trip after graduation with a few of her girlfriends to Nashville, Tennessee. When she got there, she went with her friends to a bar-club where up-and-coming singers performed. That’s where she met my dad: he was a young guitar player up on a stage, under the neon lights, singing John Denver. Freaking John Denver; gets the ladies every time. He had a fake twang in his voice that Mom says could seduce a nun. And she had a face sculpted by angels. It was bound to happen.
His name was Ben Rogers, but everyone called him Duke. Who knows why. What I do know is he was a travelling musician, “touring” major cities of the South, trying to land a contract and make it big on the radio. He wrote his own songs, wore band T-shirts, aviators, and leather. He was sweet and funny and wild. My mom got addicted. They were crazy about each other. After spending just a few days together in Nashville, they decided to run away together. Mom ditched her girlfriends and took off with him in the middle of the night. They spent the summer moving from city to city with new gigs every night. Mom called her parents from payphones and motels to let them know she was okay, but that was all. I don’t know why she did it. Maybe she liked the feeling of being free. Or maybe she just like the spontaneous, fast-paced life of my dad. She’d grown up in a small, sleepy town after all. She was high on life and love, I guess you could say.
So here’s where I get to my name.
When they first got together, Mom and Dad joked that they were Fleetwood Mac, and they were always singing the song “Stephanie”. Then when they conceived me in Stephanie, Mississippi, it seemed like the perfect fit to name me after the city and the song. I’m the love child of Johnny and June doppelgangers.
Well, when the summer was ending, Mom realized oh shoot, missed my period, probably should tell Duke. Now this is where I can’t make up my mind if I hate him or not. Because unlike most young guys in their early twenties who would of just skipped town on her the moment he found out she’s pregnant, he stayed. In fact, he married her. Proposed to her on the spot when she told him about me. They had a quick justice of the peace ceremony and roadtripped back home to move in with her mom and dad, my grandparents. They did not like Duke at first.
But Duke worked part time at my great uncle’s auto shop, part time at my grandpa’s restaurant, and he and my mom eventually got their own little place in town. I was just a toddler then, so I don’t remember it. But they loved each other. They really did. They were crazy about each other, even had two more kids after me.
But, for all his goodness, kindness, and sweetness, my dad was still my dad: wild and ornery. When I was ten, he decided to leave us to pursue his dream of being a big-time musician again. He’d taken a decade-long break from the industry, and I guess he couldn’t wait to get back. I guess me, my brothers, and my mom weren’t enough for him. Because he ditched us for fame and music and money.
But the last thing he said to me? He squatted to be at my eye level, and he looked at me, and he said, ‘No matter where I go, I’ll always be in Stephanie.’ And that to my ten year old self was a clue and a directive. He wanted me to find him, I thought. So I tried. I bought an atlas and looked up every single town in America that was called Stephanie. I looked in travel logs and phone books for each of the cities, and I spent days making endless phone calls to motels, inns, clubs and live music venues asking if he’d been there. The answer was always no. He sent me on a year-long wild goose chase. My entire tenth year was spent looking for him around every corner, thinking that I’d come home from school and he’d be making French toast in his pajamas like he often did after a late night at the restaurant. Every time the phone rang, I jumped to pick it up, but it was never him. I rushed to the mail box every day, hoping for a postcard, but they never came. After a year of waiting and searching, my little heart was worn out. I stopped believing in miracles, believing in a God who never answered my prayers, believing that my dad was ever coming back. And that hurt. But that’s life. Everyone leaves. Everyone betrays you. Even your best friend.
My dad was my first best friend. And look how that turned out. I don’t know why I even bother.
I drop the notebook on the bed, let the pen fall from my grip. It lands with a thud on the paper. Tears bleed from my eyes and scale down my face. I don’t know how to explain what I feel. I just know that I can scream through gritted teeth and tear it all down. So I do.
“EEEEAAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!” A guttural cry, like that of a wounded animal, rips from my throat. Standing on my bed, I face the wall with all the pushpins and threads and maps and theories left from when I searched for him. It’s been mocking me for years. A false hope. A dead dream. I am Gatsby, and it is my green light. And if I don’t kill it, it will kill me.
I dig my fingers under the maps and rip them off the wall. Pushpins and nails fly. Chunks of drywall drop. The maps shred. I roar with every tear I make at the wall. Threads pop and break. Papers tear. At last I back away from the wall, breathing heavily, chest heaving. The mess is on the floor. The only remains on the wall are the nail holes. It’s about damn time.
I hear footsteps up the stairs, and the front door opens.
“Stephanie,” Mom calls, “how are you feeling?” She glances into my room, paper grocery bags in her arms, and sees the trainwreck: me, the scraps, and the wall. “What happened?” Her eyes are terrified. She sets the bags down and approaches me. She looks from me - panting, standing on my bed in just a T-shirt & socks - to the blank spot on the wall, significantly whiter than the area around it. “Oh, honey.”
I drop my head, and sobs come out like hiccups.
“Shh. Come here,” she murmurs, reaching out her arms to me. I step off the bed and let her hug me. She caresses my hair while I cry into her collarbone.
“Mom,” I squeak.
“Shh. I know. It’s okay.”
“Everyone leaves.” My voice gurgles, thick with phlegm. Then something happens that truly shocks me: I hear my mom sniffle.
“I know,” she whispers, her voice scratchy. “I miss him, too. I miss him, too. C’mon.” With her arm around my shoulders, she leads me to the couch. She sits down and motions for me to cuddle up with her. I sit in her lap sideways like a child, and she holds me to her chest. I tuck my head under her chin. She is warm and soft and smells like my oldest memories. It strikes me that she was my age when she had me. I can’t imagine raising a kid at this point in my life. I’ve got too many problems to put a kid on top of them. I’d just end up shoving all my problems onto them, and that wouldn’t be fair to them.
I don’t know how she did it.
“I know you’re mad at Calvin,” she says, breaking through my thoughts. “But he did what he believed was the right thing to do. What he thought was best for you. He really loves you.”
“Yeah, and Dad said he loved you,” I scoff. “Now look at us.”
“Your father and I had a different love. Ours was on fire. It was physical and visual and built entirely on passion. We made it each other feel good, but we weren’t always good for each other. But you and Calvin.” Her voice, strained when she talked about Dad, sweetens. “You’ve been friends for a long time. He cares about you. He puts your good above his own. Don’t you think he knew you’d be mad at him for telling us? Don’t you realize your getting hurt, hurt him?”
I sigh. “Guess not.” No. I didn’t. Because all I could think about was my pain and how I would suffer. I didn’t bother to think about how it all made him feel. He probably felt like shit.
“When you go back to school tomorrow, you should apologize to him,” she advises. “He was only trying to help.”
After a few minutes more, she pats my back. “Alright, time to get up. I have to get ready for work.”
I unfold and stand up. She stands, too, and heads to her bedroom. She stops short in the doorway. She looks at me.
“Something else I want you to understand. Something I wish I knew when I was your age," she utters. Her eyes are sad. “Don’t think love is a feeling. Feelings are temporary. They wear off and go away. That’s when people leave. No, Stevie, love is a choice. The person who chooses to stick around and still treats youlike you’re worth it - that’s what everyone is looking for. It’s worth more than gold. Don’t take advantage of it. Not everyone finds it in this lifetime.” She swipes a hand under her eye and dodges into the room, shutting the door behind her