— Chapter Ten: The Girlfriend —
Comedy of Errors may also be purchased from Main Point Books in Wayne.
The spring before Stewart started his co-op job at Stein Seal Company, he began his first significant dating relationship with Carla, who was not quite 17, while he was not yet 19. She was not a member of St. Giles, but had joined the church’s Fellowship group during the past year, and had apparently taken a liking to Stewart. She looked younger than her age, and was cute but somewhat quiet, and Stewart treated her as he did the girls who attended the Sunday school classes he taught, as students and not as people his own age.
His main relationships with girls were Ronnie, Sharon, who was planning for her studies at Charles Morris Price, and Becky, whom he had dated briefly in 10th grade, but whom he still considered a friend and confidant. Friendships were essential to Stewart, since he had few people to whom he could talk about his problems at home and in school and discuss the books he was reading. Most of the “car guys” he hung out with shared neither his love for books, nor his viewpoints on a wide range of subjects, including sex, God, and his relationship with his parents, which was complicated.
Stewart continually worried about both his parents, and even at the age of 18 involved them in his life, though he didn’t share many of his thoughts or feelings with them. As he was growing into adulthood, he realized that his parents and he had different values, as his mother repeatedly reminded Stewart that he came from an illustrious family, especially on his father’s side.
“Your ancestry dates back to the Habsburgs, and Marie Louise, the second wife of Napoleon. If the family had remained in Austria, your father would have been a baron,” declared Dottie, which elated her as she announced it, but became more tiring with each repetition.
Much of the ancestry about which she spoke was questionable, though most probably was based on an actual lineage. Stewart’s mother had encouraged her son to present himself with a more regal countenance, even if he was not necessarily better educated. Despite Jim’s financial decline, Dottie remained committed to the heritage of his family and dedicated herself to the task of embroidering the coat-of-arms that signified her husband and son’s status in a bygone era.
As a child attending Montgomery School, Stewart had been acknowledged to be a quick learner, and had the torch of social acceptance passed on to him by his mother. So much so, in fact, that he often believed himself to be a member of the upper class despite his family’s financial difficulties. Stewart had confidence in himself and expected that one day his heritage would be acknowledged and he would find his rightful place in a society of which he had meager understanding.
This illusion faded as he entered junior high and could no longer maintain his former place in his academic pursuits. By the time he grew into his late teens, he was well aware that he would have to forge his way with what advantages he possessed, which, he began to acknowledge, were few.
They did include: his loyalty to his church and to the few friends he had; a genuine love for his parents despite their diminished circumstances; a willingness to learn, if only on his own terms; and a thoughtfulness that often got in the way of his pleasures, which were often silenced by his moral conflicts and obligations. He did not include his instinctive artistry, since it seemed to matter little to his most influential critic: his mother.
In the late spring of his second semester at Temple, Stewart was asked out on a date by Carla. Her parents were planning an outing to the horse races in Delaware and Carla asked him to come along, since he was 18 and of a legal age to bet on the horses. The request seemed unusual, since he didn’t know Carla that well, but he accepted it and joined her, her brother Rob, and both of her parents at Delaware Park. Stewart didn’t have any money to bet, but Carla’s father, Ben, handed him 20 dollars to use however he chose. As often happens with novice betters, Stewart picked winners quickly in two races, and then went on to place a wager on a perfecta which earned him nearly 40 dollars. He paid back the 20 dollars from his winnings, was happy to have done so well, and looked forward to future races.
Although Stewart found Carla attractive, he felt awkward because of her age, but felt obligated to ask her out on a date. She seemed very naive, and although Stewart had little experience in dating, he felt more like an older brother to her than a “boyfriend.” Stewart also had little money to spend, so the two would often hang out with her parents and watch TV together. Carla’s mother, Janie, wasn’t afraid of any advances Stewart might make towards her daughter, and even seemed enthusiastic about having Stewart dating Carla, and encouraged their relationship.
One evening, when the adults went upstairs for the evening, Carla suggested to Stewart that they “make out.” They did, and the invitations to Stewart to watch TV with the family continued, after which Carla and Stewart would spend an hour or so kissing, embracing and petting while listening to music by Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, and Tommy Edwards.
There were limits to their embraces, and Stewart never crossed any line she set, but went as far as she would let him go, often feeling guilty about being intimate with a girl two years younger than himself. No one else in the family or among friends thought the relationship to be improper, so it continued through the summer and into fall as Stewart struggled with his inadequacies at work and school, and the lack of direction in his life, while enjoying a relationship with a girl who was quickly becoming a woman.
When Carla was away from the house and Stewart was visiting, Janie would engage Stewart in long conversations about her own young life, and how, at the age of 47, she wished things could have turned out differently for her. She described her first boyfriend, Vinnie, who she dated until he went off to war, and was then killed on the beaches of Normandy. Her husband, Ben, had also gone to war, but returned unharmed and wooed her into marriage. Over the years she realized that Ben was a poor substitute for Vinnie, and regretted her choice of marrying him.
Stewart mentioned Carla to his mother and revealed some of the stories that Janie told him about Vinnie and Ben, but Dottie seemed disinterested, as well as a bit annoyed with Stewart’s girlfriend’s mother. After he and Carla had been dating for about a month, Stewart thought that he should introduce the two mothers to each other. When they did meet, Stewart could tell by the way Dottie looked at Janie that she was not pleased with either her or her daughter, and questioned Janie about her background. Janie politely answered her questions, which included: what was her husband’s job, where were each of them born, and where did she and her husband go to college?. (They didn’t!)
Before Stewart introduced Janie to Dottie, his mother revealed her prejudices against the family, which to Stewart seemed ill-founded and hypocritical. Though often careful with her words, Dottie suggested that perhaps Carla’s mother was more interested in Stewart than was her daughter, that the family appeared to come from nothing and nowhere, and that Stewart had better watch out or he’d ruin his life by getting Carla pregnant. Stewart protested, but his mother seemed possessed by demons as she lambasted Carla for tricking Stewart into a relationship.
This was the first occasion on which Stewart had ever heard his mother talk so blatantly against someone, and through his eyes and ears it revealed a snobbery that disavowed her own upbringing. The people she was critiquing had a house of their own and a father who had a job. They had a new Corvair and owed only their taxes, and were not indebted to scores of people as was his father, who cheated and lied.
And what did his mother think of Stewart, and the morality he had and the responsibilities he’d taken on? Although Stewart longed for sex, he knew, even at his age, that he could not put himself or any girl at risk of pregnancy, or even of losing her virginity in a manner, or with someone, that she’d possibly regret forever.
The most upsetting consequence to Stewart was that his mother chose not to believe him when he said he’d done nothing inappropriate, as if to say that the rules and morals she stressed in him were not her own.
During the speech Dottie gave, Jim had his face turned down at the cards he was playing as he added and subtracted from his series of runs. He didn’t look up, nor attempt to speak, because his voice didn’t matter as Dottie’s face turned to stone as she glared at Stewart, saying, “You’ll end up just like him,” pointing towards Jim. “You’ll waste your life and piddle away your days doing nothing, being nothing and wanting nothing. I’ve spent my life trying to make you be who you are meant to be, and all you can see is what you want now, some scrawny little urchin with no future, weaning a litter of inconsequential strays.”
With that she turned her head away from Stewart, lay down on the sofa, and returned to watching the TV. Jim looked up at Stewart from his cards, and shook his head and raised up his hands as if to say,“What can I do?”
Stewart left the apartment that night, parked his car at the junior high school, and slept on the back seat until morning, at which time he drove to work. He called Carla later in the day and told her that he had had a fight with his mother and wasn’t going home. Carla put her mother on the line and he was invited to stay at their house for as long as necessary.
Three days later, Stewart returned home. He and his mother didn’t speak about her outburst, in the same way that he and his mother never mentioned the rages of his father when drunk. She had made her statement and had struck Stewart hard, while also diminishing herself in Stewart’s eyes. Unfortunately, his mother’s tirade ultimately damaged Stewart’s relationship with Carla. Any doubts that he had had about his girlfriend were enhanced after hearing her slandered by his mother, and as hard as he tried, he couldn’t forget the words that poured from Dottie’s mouth so fluently, maliciously and hurtfully.
He and Carla remained together until Christmas, but their relationship deteriorated as he grew more and more critical of her. He was sad when Carla found a new boyfriend, but he also understood that their romance was damaged beyond repair. Her mother contacted Stewart and asked if there was any way that he could see for the two of them to settle their differences. But for Stewart, the romance was over.
Many years later, Carla sent Stewart a handwritten note to his parents old address, along with the journal she had kept while they were dating. In it were written the upsets her family endured through their relationship and after their relationship ended. Her grandparents both died, and her mother had an affair with her husband’s business partner, after which her father punched his hand through a TV set and lost most of the mobility in his right arm. Carla took up with a boy her own age, which lasted until he went off to college. She went to secretarial school and became a secretary, married at 23, had two kids, got divorced and then changed her name completely and became a life coach.
The diary she sent was juvenile, but sweet. It didn’t cover much that Stewart didn’t already know, but the note she sent was revealing:
You’ve certainly made a name for yourself.
When I saw your first cartoon strip, I wasn’t sure if it was you who created it, but I finally found a photo that assured me it was. You’ve become successful and have had quite a life, while mine has been full of ups and downs. My mother died at 58, and she continued to act stranger and become more alienated as she got older. Dad remarried and seemed happy, but passed away three years ago. My brother Rob continues to have drug related problems, but is trying to stay clean and sober.
I’ve often thought that it was a shame we didn’t meet later in life, but then that’s what someone like me feels when her life doesn’t work out the way she hoped. You were the best thing that happened to me that summer and fall, and perhaps the best thing ever. There were times I wanted to reach out to you, but you found your dream, and had used your talents to find success.
I sincerely am happy for you. You deserved it.
I kept the journal I’m sending you for many years, but then thought that you should have it. Maybe you’ll find something in it for one of your thought-provoking cartoons, or maybe just to remember me every now and then.
I stopped believing in God many years ago, but despite my lack of faith, I wish you God’s blessings.
Lione, a.k.a. Carla Butler