On Being a Crappy Girlfriend

Essay by Kimberly Knutsen

Michelle Richmond
Jun 11 · 9 min read
Image courtesy of Photo by Max Vertsanov via Unsplash

Yesterday, I talked to Steve, an old boyfriend circa 1988. He’d found me on Facebook, and we talked on the phone. I’d always wondered how Steve was doing, and I also felt kind of guilty because I was kind of a jerk in a petty, princess-y way. We argued a lot, and I wasn’t super nice, and things faded away after I moved to Las Vegas. Steve and I hadn’t spoken since 1991.

Steve and I met at the old Willamette Diner, a rollicking 1950s-style restaurant on the banks of the Willamette River, where we worked as a busboy and waitress, respectively, with bosses who seemed pretty nice until they fired both of us.

I was fired for two reasons: one, the big boss Joe said if I was late again, I was fired. Well, I was late again, and I was fired. However, the day I was fired, before the final chop, Joe told me to put this giant bag of ketchup in this dispenser on the wall. I thought it was weird. The bag weighed about fifty pounds, I could barely lift it, and I was supposed to heave it up into this ketchup dispenser on the wall? Bizarre.

At every other restaurant I’d worked at, we had ketchup bottles that you “married” at the end of your shift, during side-work, which was the worst part of any restaurant job. (Marrying meant to pour the ketchup from one bottle into another, so you had fewer, fuller bottles. The more accurate word would be “mate.”) Sometimes the girls at this other restaurant I worked at, which shall remain nameless, added water to the ketchup and shook it so it would be thinner and easier to marry/mate, which I now think must have violated all sorts of health codes.

Anyway, I lifted this enormous plastic bag of ketchup, dropped it into the dispenser — the dishwashers shouting instructions, steam billowing from their sprayers — and suddenly the bottom plug pops off, and I’m standing in a tsunami of what seems like ten tons of ketchup, pouring all over my hands, all over my legs, all over my white uniform and white tennis shoes, a bloodbath of ketchup, and the dishwashers are screaming at me to “turn the spigot, turn the spigot,” and I’m thinking, what fucking spigot are you talking about?

I try to cover the spout with my hands, and it’s like trying to plug a hole in a dike when an entire ocean is flooding over you, and suddenly my legs are burning — ketchup is really acidic, and I’d just shaved them, which I remember thinking made the burning worse, although now I’m not sure why I thought that — and finally, the whole thing stops because all fifty pounds of ketchup is all over the floor and all over me.

The big boss comes out of his office, his tomato face steaming red, and I’m fired. As in: Right now. As in: Walk to your car doused in ketchup like the giant hotdog loser you are and drive home.

So this is where Steve and I met. By the time of the great ketchup massacre, he had already been fired — I don’t remember why.

I liked Steve because he looked like Axl Rose in Guns N’ Roses — he even wore the bandana tied around his head. He had long hair and a great sense of humor. My girlfriend was also dating a guy who looked like Axl in a different way, and we liked to talk about how our guys looked exactly like Axl. Mine looked like a younger Axl, circa “Welcome to the Jungle,” and hers looked like a meaner Axl. This was how shallow we were at age twenty-one. It all was all too exciting.

Steve and I had a lot of fun hanging out at his apartment across from the Willamette River. (Fellow Portlanders, he and his cousin paid $350 a month rent.) We both loved rock music. We’d talk for hours about lyrics, songs, was there any band greater than the almighty Led Zeppelin, who was a true rocker, who was a poseur, and what exactly were the Temples of Syrinx?

We listened to music all the time. We both liked to smoke. Steve, a doggie-downer, liked his 40-ouncers of Schlitz, and I, a puppy-upper, liked my Diet Coke Big Gulps. We were into Kingdom Come for a while, and I still think “What Love Can Be” is a great song.

Steve and I also fought. We argued all the time, and it was all about petty shit. Steve would get insecure and depressed and pout, and I’d call him el bebe grande, and then he’d pretend to be a baby and hold his feet and roll around on his back and say “waah, waah,” and we’d laugh hysterically.

Sometimes his cousin, the beautiful Mimi, who worked as a cocktail waitress at Stuart Anderson’s Cattle Company in Milwaukee, would break out the Aqua Net and rat Steve’s long hair so he looked more Poison than G N’ R. She’d put eyeliner on him, tie one of her sparkly scarves around his head, and make him wear a vest with no shirt. It was all so glam and exciting!

Steve and I fought a lot about pizza. I felt that I paid for everything, and I started to get mad about it, so one time after we ordered pizza, we sat in my parents’ dining room (I still lived at home) and had a stand-off, staring first at each other and then at the Pizza Hut box on the table. I’d paid, Steve hadn’t. I didn’t want to give him any because I felt he was being a mooch. He wanted some because he was starving.

image courtesy of Michal Kubalczyk via unsplash

“I have 87 cents,” he said, digging change out of his pocket and dropping it on the table, and I said, “OK, you can have one piece.” Wow. Looking back, I’m so ashamed. I was trying to make a point about how the lady shouldn’t have to pay every single time (I’d gone out with a lot of broke rockers by then) but what a bitch! It’s pizza! What, were you going to eat the entire thing yourself?

One time, though, Steve and I bonded over pizza. We’d ordered it from his apartment, and it was during the time Domino’s had the rule that if it wasn’t there in thirty minutes, it was free. The pizza guy arrived at the thirty-seven minute mark — to his credit, it was New Year’s Eve — and we were so excited. Free pizza!

Steve, who was shy, went out and broke the bad news to the pizza guy. “10:26,” I yelled after him. “It was supposed to be here by 10:26.” Oh my God. What an idiot. First, I made Steve do my dirty work (I was paying), and second, what if the drivers got in trouble if they gave away too many free pizzas? What if they had to pay for them? Decades later, I feel bad.

Another time, Steve and I drove out to the gorge and picked a ton of sage — why, I have no idea. I do know we listened to Jimmy Page’s Outrider on that trip. Driving home that night in my old beater Fiat that went into death throes once you hit 45 mph, I was overcome by the strong smell of sage and had a terrible panic attack. The medicinal smell was overpowering, it was too much, and it scared me (even now, I couldn’t tell you why). Steve laughed as I shouted, “Roll down the windows, roll down the windows,” and he kept saying, incredulously, “A smell can’t hurt you, why are you flipping out?” Good times.

Later that summer, I moved to Las Vegas to dance and go to UNLV. Steve visited. I was working in a nightclub as a cocktail waitress, the Shark Club on the Strip, and bought Steve a pair of M.C. Hammer parachute pants from the club, which he still has.

One afternoon, Steve and I argued, and he disappeared for hours, stomping off into the desert across the street from my apartment. I was so scared. “He’s in the desert,” I cried to my mom on the phone. “What if he’s lost forever?”

Looking back, I see that Steve’s moods, his pouting, were because he battled depression, and I feel bad for the young guy he was. But back then, I hadn’t raised three kids — life hadn’t brought me to my knees — and I had very little patience. It was all about me. Why are you bringing me down? Why can’t we just have fun?

“Calm down,” she said. “He’s in a major city. Someone’s bound to find him.” Which is exactly what she said when my orange cat disappeared for six days.

Steve did return, later that night, and just as the cat had, he hopped the back fence and stood at the sliding door peering in, hands (paws) pressed against the glass, the black desert sky and a spray of stars swirling out behind him.

After I returned from Vegas, before moving to New Mexico for graduate school, Steve and I had one great night. We went to a movie, then hung out at his mom’s house in Vancouver. He showed me a picture he’d drawn. It was me as a mermaid: long blonde hair, better boobs and a smaller waist, a fabulous, iridescent tail.

I told Steve that my kids’ dad was in prison — life without parole — for a murder he committed while out of his mind on drugs. After the obligatory I’m sorry to hear that, Steve blurted, “You always did like losers.” He hesitated. “Like me.”

And yes, I know it sounds ridiculous, but I was thrilled. Steve was (and is) a stunning artist, but more than that, he knewme. Steve knew that if asked what kind of animal I’d like to be, I’d say “a mermaid.” He knew the ridiculous, princess-y, obnoxious mess that I was, and he liked me despite, or maybe even because of it.

During our recent phone call, we talked about our lives. Steve never had kids. In the last few years, his mom, dad and stepdad died. He’s struggled with addiction.

I told Steve that my kids’ dad was in prison — life without parole — for a murder he committed while out of his mind on drugs. After the obligatory I’m sorry to hear that, Steve blurted, “You always did like losers.” He hesitated. “Like me.”

I laughed at his harsh self-assessment, but it made me sad. Steve wasn’t a loser. He was kind and a good friend, and like the rest of us, he’s struggled. I reminded him of that last great night in 1991. After he showed me his artwork, we went out into the foggy, wet night and ended up at the train yards, talking and laughing like old times. Steve pulled me close. His coat smelled like rain. We set a penny on the tracks, then screamed at the top of our lungs as the train rocketed past, our breath billowing in the icy air, just two young dumbasses, the rest of our lives, like the train, hurtling toward us, and we had no clue what was to come.

I like to think that along the way, through the people we meet, we store up kindness to see us through the difficult times. I still have the flattened penny from that night. It sits in my jewelry box along with a lumpy ceramic angel made by my then six-year old son (he’s twenty-one now), and worry beads I’ve had since age five (I’m fifty now).

Like that surprising flood of ketchup so many years ago, life shocks the hell out of us. It rushes past. We rush through it. Goodness, eternal and warm, a sticky penny in our palm, stays put.

Kimberly Knutsen is the author of the novel The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath (Switchgrass Books), named one of the Best Books of 2015 by Chicago Book Review and a finalist for the Midwest Book Award. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and teaches English at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon. She has published short stories in Cimarron Review and Hawai’i Review, poetry in Hoot, and a novella, “My Blue World,” in Novella T.

Editor’s note: This essay begins with a moment many of us are familiar with — reconnecting with an old flame online — and comes around in the end to the stunning realization of how far life leads us away from the expectations of our youth. The essay takes such a quiet road to get to that moment, which is relayed unsentimentally, matter-of-factly. The power of the final statement lies in its unadorned directness. M.R.

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Michelle Richmond

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NYT bestselling author of the THE MARRIAGE PACT. Paris expat. Write with me at http://novelin9.com. My books at http://michellerichmond.com

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