The summer before I started college, I worked part-time in an antique linens shop in an East Coast vacation town. The owner, Theresa, was a warm, elegant woman who taught me not just how to do bookkeeping and how to tell the difference between point lace and Valenciennes, but a great deal about how to treat other people, too.
The rest of the time, I worked as a waitress at a nearby restaurant. My fellow employees included a shifty-eyed Hare Krishna named Heather, a bartender called Kenny who liked to try to shock me, and a thirtysomething bodyworker, Julia, who had the unfortunate habit of telling people on the slightest pretext that she had attended “a little school in New Haven.”
At the linens shop, I helped iron and fold the stock and assisted customers. Mostly, Theresa and I would talk: about her family leaving Havana after the revolution; about the history of the town; about her dashing husband and how they met when she was a receptionist at a clinic. (He’d had a dislocated shoulder and she let him jump the line.) “Always spend more on flowers than on food,” she once told me. “Good for the soul, better for the waistline.”
My sole romantic prospects that summer were the handsome, perpetually hungover Irishman who did odd jobs for Theresa and sometimes invited me to beach bonfires—I never went—and a busboy at the restaurant who would occasionally tail me home. After I told him I didn’t want to go out with him, he started leaving wet dishtowels on the seat of my bicycle. I couldn’t help feeling this was poor form.
I spent a great deal of time with Theresa. She taught me how to mix drinks and which birds liked which seed and how to alter my own clothes and how to make bouquets last. These were the happiest times of my summer.
Heather told me it was obvious I needed to do more drugs. Kenny said it was obvious I needed to get laid.
Julia, lately of New Haven, decided to take me under her wing. Like everyone else, she considered me extremely uptight.
“I have things to tell you,” she announced one day as we were filling the salt shakers, “that I think will really broaden your horizons. But you’re not ready to hear them yet.”
“Okay,” I said.
“All, right, I’ll tell you one thing,” she said five minutes later. “When I was nineteen, I traveled around the country in an RV with a forty-seven-year-old midget. We were lovers. In that summer, I learned more about myself, my body, and the world than I had in two years at a certain little school in New Haven.”
“Wow,” I said lamely.
I told Theresa about all these doings. “I am universally considered uptight,” I told her glumly.
She was silent for a moment, and then recited,
In youth, it was a way I had,
To do my best to please.
And change, with every passing lad
To suit his theories.
But now I know the things I know
And do the things I do,
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you.
It was, of course, Dorothy Parker. And she was, of course, absolutely right.