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August 6, 2018 Fiction

Stephanie Loves Stephanie

Marta Balcewicz

Stephanie Loves Stephanie photo

“Done!” Rennie says. He flips the switch on his buzzing needle. “Check it out!” he says.

I don’t look. I refuse to release my eyes from the single spot on the ceiling that I’d hooked them on an hour ago.

“What’r ya waiting for?” Rennie pretends he’s growing impatient. “I gotta close shop in five hours. Ha ha.”

I imitate his laughter without meaning to. “Ha ha,” I say. “Five hours. Ha ha.”

The scene grows blurry and rainbow-colored, like someone spilled gasoline all over it. “Get a grip on yourself, Stephanie,” I think—an amalgam of the pick-me-ups I’ve been learning in my therapy group and the generic nonsense I’ve heard actors say in TV ads. “Just do it!”

I slowly lift myself. “Here we go,” I say like I’m speaking to a three-year-old. I bring my arm to my face. I rotate my arm so that I can see the part where biceps meet triceps. My skin appears to be in the throes of a serious rash. It’s bloated and cherry red. The writing on top of the rash is shockingly black and elevated, like a puffy sticker. Stephanie loves Stephan it says, the script framed by a heart.

“Whatcha think?” Rennie says. With two quick snaps, he peels off his latex gloves. They’re blood-stained, the blood unusually pink, fresh.

“YOU IDIOT!” I scream, but only in my head. For 25 years now I haven’t been able to speak my mind, especially not to a stranger. Enrolling in Glenda’s Eagle Training course is supposed to help, but for now I’m still a grounded hatchling teetering my way through week three of the seven-week program.

Rennie disappears into a room marked “Private” with a skull and crossbones dotting the i. He comes back with gauze. “What’s up?” he says like we’ve just bumped into each other on the street.

I still haven’t complimented his tattoo.

“Like it, huh?”

The thing is, before I even put down my deposit and signed all the release forms saying I had no recourse to legal action if Rennie gave me tetanus or hep C, I’d given him clear instructions. What I needed was a declaration of my love for myself. My name is Stephanie. “Stephanie loves Stephanie,” I said three times. I love me.

I went as far drawing it on a piece of paper, a playful loopy font and a cute bubbly heart around it. Rennie had looked at my drawing for less than a second, then at me for significantly longer. “I’m strictly freestyle,” he said flatly. “If you have little drawings, little instructions, you can go to the guy down the street.” The teeny tear he’d tattooed on the outer corner of his eye only confirmed my suspicion that he was hurt. I snatched the piece of paper and crumpled it in my pocket.

“Sorry,” I stammered. “No drawings.” Then I climbed onto Rennie’s chair, which was upholstered in a familiar green vinyl with a diagonal toothbrush pattern and smiling teeth. Only later did I realize the chair must’ve been stolen from Dr. Bauer’s, my orthodontist from up the street.

* * *

In the evening, post-Rennie, I sit on my futon and peel off the gauze. Jessie paces between the walls of my living room.

“Stop pacing,” I say. “I’ve got something important to show you.”

“Sorry, it’s just that you’ve got… probably—I’m estimating—100 to 200 Post-its here,” she says.

Jessie and I met in Glenda’s Eagle Training. It’s her first time over. She cranes her neck and studies the walls. She looks my Ikea wall unit up and down, running her finger across the sticky notes that dangle from its shelves like a festive banner.

Focus, Jessie,” I say. The number is 240, actually. I used three pads of 80 Post-its and wrote a love message to me on every last one. I can see how the Post-its could be distracting. I’d really gone to town with our week-three homework.

Jessie finally turns to me. She cups her hands over her mouth. “Holy shit,” she says and runs to join me on the futon. We stare at Rennie’s tattoo in silence.

“I wish I were an amputee,” I finally say.

“No!” Jessie takes my hand and massages my fingertips. “You just need to add two letters. What’s the per-letter cost?” She knows that my hours at the magazine subscription customer call center were cut three months ago. Between rent, paying for the Eagles, and Rennie’s tattoo, I have no money left.

“Too much for now,” I say. Then I have a brilliant idea. “If I drop out of Eagle Training would I get my money back?” I ask.

“Not after week two,” Jessie says quietly.

We go back to just staring at my arm.

* * *

Eagle Training is what got me into this mess and if I can’t get my money back I figure I should at least get my money’s worth. I plow ahead, keeping my sleeve pulled over my arm, fulfilling week-three homework.

“I love myself,” I say into the bathroom mirror, the microwave, my juice glass the following morning. I tear the cellophane off a new pad of Post-its and attach six notes to my shiny freezer door. Anywhere I see me, I tell me how I feel.

At the next Eagle meeting, Jessie, Glenda, and I and a few others sit in a circle, a.k.a. the Eagles’ nest. Glenda leads our therapy group every Tuesday night and has blue hair the shade of blue jay. She wears South American-looking skirts with clashing, marmy silk blouses or else prim brown A-line skirts with clashing peasant tops. The wires always cross at the waistline.

From dropped hints, we’ve guessed Glenda is unmarried and childless, though she’s very open about her professional life. When she was 22, there was a mentor named David Printer. Her Master’s degree comes from New England. She was a Jungian until a mid-80s trip to the Canadian North. She had her own vision and went solo after running a practice with a friend for 14 years.

The other thing Glenda’s made clear is that we are her hatchlings, and by the time she’s through with us, we’ll be her eagles.

During coffee break, I tap Glenda on the shoulder.

“I need to show you something,” I say and lift my sleeve.

Glenda sets down her Styrofoam cup and calls for an early regrouping. 

“Group,” Glenda announces to the nest, “this is what not to do.” She hikes my sleeve, holds me by the arm, and rotates me so that each hatchling can see. “This is a seven-week program and we’re just entering week four.” Glenda pauses to stare each hatchling in the eye. “Stephanie’s botched tattoo is the manifestation of her latent impatience.” She pauses again. “This wasn’t part of your homework.”

Because of what I’ve done I need a customized therapy plan, some quick remedial work. The next day, I meet Glenda at her office, free of charge, in another building in another part of town, where she sees people with issues far worse than low self-esteem and an inability to confront strangers.

Glenda assigns new homework.

“I hate you, Stephan,” I say to any and all reflective surfaces, starting with the mirrors on the walls of the elevator that takes me down from Glenda’s. It’s the only way to undo what Rennie’s done.

“It would really help if you met a real Stephan—someone to personify the erroneous identifier on your arm,” Glenda also told me, her eyes pausing on my left sleeve.

“Okay,” I said.

In the evening, I post an ad online, on a missed connections website called “Was it Love or Was It Just me, Oops.” I write a message titled “Stephan. I’m waiting,” and within half an hour, three guys named Steve write back.

In his e-mail, Steve 1 comes off as more rounded than Steve 2. He mentions a job in IT and a leased, detached home with a swimming pool in the back yard. After writing to Steve 1, I feel guilty even keeping Steve 2’s or 3’s e-mails in my inbox. Most of the Eagle Trainees have only dated in high school. We wear tarnished promise rings that barely slide past our finger joints. Thomas, the only man in our group, likes to say he was engaged to the woman he asked to the prom in ‘95, even though she walked straight past him when he’d asked, then moved to California for college. Enita and Jeanine, both 44-years-old, are closeted virgins. Sue, a high school history teacher, is married to her second cousin, which she assured us isn’t a crime though we never asked if she meant crime-crime or the figurative expression. And my last boyfriend was a man who used to work in the neighboring cubicle at the call center. We went out on three dates, but, as Glenda said, “three dates doth not a boyfriend make,” and it’s true that he never touched me.

I suggest to Steve 1 that we meet at the Welcome Back Bar, a Western-themed place directly beneath my apartment. I forget that to fulfill my homework assignment, I could just meet him on the street; a fraction of a minute outside the Welcome Back Bar is all I’d need to tell Steve 1 I hate him.

We slide inside our Western-themed booth and Steve 1 buys me a European beer. When he asks to come upstairs after, I shrug and he jumps into my stairwell. An hour later he uses the same darting technique to get into my bed.

“What the—?” he says, grabbing hold of my arm and bringing his face closer.

“It’s not finished,” I quickly say, pulling away and wrapping the bed sheets around Stephan. “I’m adding an I and E soon. I just need to save up some money.”

“But there’s no room,” Steve 1 insists, trying to pry the sheets from me. “Stephan is already taking up all the room in the heart.”

I playfully slap his hand and coil my body into a sexy shape.

“They’ll find room,” I say.

Steve 1 lets it go, flips himself around, and pitches his skinny leg toward the window.

“What?” I ask, shrugging.

“Look here.” He points to his thigh.

I look.

Halfway between Steve 1’s ass and knee is a picture of a cute reptile. No. An atrocious looking child. She’s sitting on a rug of toys and her face has unnecessarily veiny detailing around the lips and nose. The eyes are sunken in. I have zero doubt it’s a Rennie.

“She’s beautiful,” I say but I’m already leaning across the mattress to turn off the bedside lamp. I can’t risk seeing her again. “Your daughter?” I ask politely.

Steve 1 nods in the dark.

* * *

Back at Glenda’s the following Tuesday, I’m placed in the center of the nest, on a chair with “egg” written on the back. Egg means I’ve yet to hatch. I’m too regressed to sit on the ridge of the nest with the others.

“Stephanie’s seeing a man,” Glenda explains.

“It’s only a Steve,” I protest. “I’m following the plan.”

“That wasn’t the plan,” Glenda says stonily.

She puts me on probation. No talking during Eagle Training, but I can return to the circle. One more strike and I’ll be out: next to the coffee maker or underneath the coat tree, which Glenda refers to as “banished to the black forest,” or sometimes just “Transylvania.”

The next day, I meet Steve 1 on the busiest intersection in our city and tell him I can’t see him anymore: Glenda’s words and Eagle Training rules. Dating messes with our path to being confident humans. Or, eagles. “With a man on my back, I will never leave the nest,” I explain and get ready to sprint as soon as the crosswalk light turns green.

Steve 1 blinks. “Is it Stacey?” he asks.

I shake my head no even though I don't know any Staceys. I keep my eyes on the crosswalk light; my only thought is running. I have to run before Glenda or a hatchling sees me talking to Steve 1.

“My daughter. Stacey,” Steve 1 clarifies. “I only see her Wednesdays and on Halloween.”

I glance at Steve’s shorts. I can see his daughter’s curly toes peeking from underneath the hem.

“I’m sorry, Steve,” I say and quickly walk away.

* * *

We hold the Eagle grad ceremony at the Welcome Back Bar—my suggestion. I’m hoping to sneak away to my apartment as soon as possible and drink coolers with Jessie, maybe Enita if she’s not afraid of booze. But it turns out Glenda has other plans for us.

After the first hour, she climbs onto the mechanized bull. Her Bolivian skirt snags on a stirrup so that she’s forced to lean leftward in an awkward way. “Ladies and Thomas!” she hollers. “Get ready to soaaaar!” She’s had two beers only, but they were European.

“This eagle shit actually helped,” Thomas yells so that I can hear him over the alt-country pumping out of the jukebox. Sue and Enita are square-dancing next to it and popping coin after coin in the machine. A man who’d been playing pool nearby stopped the game to tap his cue stick on the floor. He looks like their ballet master.

“I know,” I say to Thomas. I sway a little to the guitar solo and giddily tally the things I’ve accomplished since week 1.

  1. I’m the owner of a new tattoo.
  2. I had sex with a man two hours after meeting him.
  3. I’m halfway to funding my letter i.

From Welcome Back we drive in a procession, Glenda’s car first, driven by Thomas, with Glenda sitting across the back seat like it’s a couch. Jeanine is next in line, driving with Jessie and me in the back seat and Enita in the front. A third car follows, with just Sue steering it.

We arrive at the cliffs in the east part of town. Glenda’s house sits at the edge of the lake. Even though it’s dark already, we can see that it’s surrounded by massive old trees and other old sprawling bungalows that resemble rich artists’ cabins.

“So this is what our enrollment fees go to, huh?” Enita says as we park at the top of a wide driveway. “Cha-ching!” she adds and rubs her thumb against her index and middle fingers.

Jeanine slaps Enita’s hand, hard enough that I’m forced to wince. “Shush,” she says. “I’m sick of hearing about you and your money.”

Enita slumps her shoulders and looks at her lap. As the two women who’d never had sex, Jeanine and Enita are always butting heads in the nest. Jeanine is definitely the more aggressive of the two: survival of the fittest. Now that she’s graduating, I’m positive she’ll do the deed.

We file into Glenda’s kitchen through a side door leading from behind the garage.

“Don’t remove your shoes, we’re going straight out, eaglets,” Glenda says. She leads us past a wood-paneled living room, to a sliding back door, past a creaky porch, and soon the Eagles are marching in single file down the length of her yard. Or maybe “property” or “field” is the more accurate term. The yard is unending. Somewhere, presumably, there is an end, and the land falls down and drowns inside the lake.

Glenda veers left. We follow. Within half a minute we’re on a dense wooded path with nothing but Glenda’s teetering light to guide us. Every few seconds, one of us stumbles over a pinecone or broken branch. We find partners to hold hands with to keep from tripping.

“Aren’t these woods great?” Jessie, my partner, says. When I don’t respond, she squeezes my hand. “What’s up?” she says. “You’re not thinking about…” but of course I am.

With my free hand, I feel the tattoo. “Tell me honestly,” I whisper, “do you think there’s no room for an i and e?”

“Bullshit!” she cries, loud enough that Glenda has to yell “quiet!” from the front of the line. Jessie and I laugh and Glenda must be too drunk to hear because she doesn’t turn around to shush us. I love Jessie, I think. I love myself and I love her. I consider if maybe I also love Steve 1. Whenever I picture him standing on the street corner laying out his visitation schedule with Stacey, my stomach roils like a flushing toilet.

I let go of Jessie’s hand and allow the line of Eagles to file past me so that I can write Steve 1 a text message. “Stacey was cute!” I type. Then I erase it. I catch up with the group.

After ten minutes of walking, we reach our destination. Glenda stops by a tree that looks no more special than all the trees we’ve passed on the way. She slaps the trunk like it’s an old friend’s back.

“This is it, Eagles.”

We move in closer. Jeanine starts feeling the bark.

“Gorgeous,” she says. “Sycamore?”

Jessie nudges me and rolls her eyes.

“Look up, kids,” Glenda says and directs the flashlight at the crown.

We lift our eyes. There are no leaves. All that remains is four spindly branches, looking like human arms pointing at the sky.

The tree is unquestionably dead.

“Right in the crotch, where the branches meet, was an eagle’s nest, from ’88 to ’91,” Glenda says. “Every morning, the eagle mother took Wonder Bread out of my hand like a pigeon in a park. She took it up to feed her young ones.”

“Yeah right,” Thomas says into the back of my head. “They’re carnivores.”

“Some people have great cathedrals, this tree here is my talisman,” Glenda goes on, “what inspired my path as a therapist. Although the nest is long gone, I’ll never forget what happened here.” She grows more animated. “Every morning, at sunrise, I come and draw my strength from it.” She opens her arms. “From whence will you draw yours?” She fans her fingers. “I’m through with feeding you bread, hatchlings! I’m through with feeding you bread!”

Jessie nudges me again. “What is she doing?” she says.

“I think she needs a moment.”

Glenda has rested her forehead against the bark. She spreads her legs a little, like she’s going to pee in the way men pee.

We leave her by the tree, with Jeanine next to her, still massaging the bark. Sue sits under the tree next to Glenda’s tree, a spruce, with her legs crossed. Enita and I sit on a nearby stump, and Thomas circles the stump, kicking up dirt and pine needles. “I wish I had a flashlight to make it back,” he says.

“She’ll be done soon,” Enita mutters and scowls in Glenda’s direction. “But heck, do I ever want my money back.” 

“At least you have a full-time job,” I say. “It’s going to take me another month to save up for an i.”

“No way. I’m on contract!” Enita says. She starts telling me about her mortgage payments, about interest rates and her principal sum. I feel bad about how Jeanine is always cutting her off, so I let her go on, making positive eye contact but letting my thoughts drift to Steve 1. I picture myself in the role of Stacey’s mother, taking a child to ice-skating practice, picking her up in my arms. I picture Enita as that child and imagine putting my fingers on her cheek as she rambles on, gently saying, “How was school? Is that a new scab?”

“Eaglets!” Glenda yells, “This part of our tour is concluded. Let’s keep going!”

We get back in line formation. This time Glenda veers off the path. We lift our feet over thorny wild knots of plants that snag our pant cuffs and shoelaces. We hold hands with our old partners. Glenda’s light leads the way, though the growth is opening up above and soon the sky returns. We see moon and in the moonlight, the lake, with its single undulating point in the distance: the midcentury lighthouse. We stop at the edge of the cliff. We no longer need Glenda’s light.

“Beautiful!” Sue gasps.

I even hear Thomas say wow.

I squeeze Jessie’s hand.

“So pretty,” she says, resting her head on my shoulder.

It’s stupid, but the way everyone agrees on the beauty of this lake and the moonlight makes me think of Stacey again. Of how horrific Rennie had made her look and how despite that, Steve 1 insisted on showing her off to the world, lifting his leg up for me to see, wearing shorts in public.

I look around me, at the hatchlings, crowded near the rim of the earth, in love with what they’re seeing.

Maybe as an eagle I would finally know what it’s like to fight for something, I think, no matter if I’m the only one. My own ugly Stacey. “How many boyfriends do you have?” I would ask. If she shakes her head zero, I’d pretend that I’m in shock. “You should be seeing a lot of men. Thousands!” I’d cap that with a hug.

I feel a light tap on my shoulder.

“Are you ready?” Glenda asks.

I’m ready, I think. Maybe I say it aloud. I will call Steve 1. My final Eagle Training assignment. I would take his daughter to her classmates’ birthday parties. I might even stop at Rennie’s. I might contact my orthodontist and the police, tell them about the chairs with the toothbrush pattern and smiling teeth that I’m sure Rennie has stolen.

“I’m ready,” I say, aloud, for sure this time. I love Stacey. I love me, too.

Glenda puts her hand on the small of my neck. I don’t think she uses any force, but I take a step forward anyway. “My worst student,” she says, but says it kindly. “You did fine.” And more loudly, she calls: “We can now conclude the graduation ceremony, distribute the diplomas, so to speak.”

I take another step forward. I look around. Everyone else seems to know what they’re doing. They’ve stepped up to the end of the cliff, they’ve lifted their arms. Jessie is closest to me and when I say, “Psst, Jessie,” she doesn’t look and when I say it a little louder, “PSSST JESSIE,” she jumps. Thomas is right behind her. Off the edge and toward the lake and the lighthouse. I wouldn’t have thought it. He was the skeptic in the group.

Sue rolls up her jean legs before she goes over, all the way to the middle of her calves. But other than that, she doesn’t give it a second thought.

The virgins are next and they hold hands as they do it. Jeanine had always been so cruel and yet here is Enita, holding onto her, full of easy trust.

I look behind me. Glenda is gone. Maybe she jumped when I was watching Sue roll her jeans. Maybe she ran into the woods.

I sit down at the rim of the cliff, hugging my legs to my chest—it’s getting colder, summer is ending. There is one week of summer left.

“Weeee!” I hear Enita cry from below, surprisingly, she’s the loudest. Out of all the eagles, this one is the loudest, the virgin who always got put down. I did not see that one coming.

 

image: Aubrey Hirsch


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