We Were Happy Then: Nonfiction by J. Stein



In retrospect, we were happy then, living, as we were, in the back of an old S.U.V., a ’92 4Runner with a rusting hood and newspapers taped to the windows. Ellen, my then-girlfriend, had been living in L.A. for a year and was just making a go in film. She’d done a few stints as an editor, or an assistant to an editor, or an assistant to an assistant—something like that—and now she technically inhabited the dormer bedroom of a salmon-colored bungalow in Silver Lake. The asshole who rented it to her—he was an architect, purportedly, and Chilean by birth—frequently upbraided her for making a mess in the kitchen, and his wife was no more forgiving. Ellen thought the man was on coke, and she even alleged that he was beating his wife, or verbally abusing her. It was hard to imagine either, given his diminutive frame and wavy red hair. He looked like a miniature Pinochet.


Ellen and I had dated throughout college, though we had parted ways after, she having gone to L.A. to make films, and I having absconded to Jordan, where I was technically employed on a fellowship. After my return a couple years later, she and I had decided to reconnect. At first, I lived with her in the bungalow, until Pinochet and I had crossed paths, and that co-inhabitance lasted for all of one week. Not having any money—I had burned through my savings abroad and used what was left to fly home—I secured a temp job at a lawfirm downtown. The whole of my possessions consisted of two pairs of worn khakis, a couple dress shirts, a toothbrush, some pot, and my dented, green S.U.V. That was enough for Ellen, however.


We regularly parked on her street, often directly outside of the bungalow, and made love facing Pinochet’s car, which, of course, was a shiny red Beamer, a hatchback 318i. I considered keying it nightly but figured that would be a waste. Most nights, Ellen stayed with me in the 4Runner and only retired to her bedroom at dawn, just in time to brush her teeth quickly, shower if it suited her, and properly dress for work. Then she’d drive her tinted Corolla up to the Hollywood Hills. I usually headed to McDonald’s, which boasted the cleanest sinks, and there I would wash and dress.


One morning, as I arrived at work—this was in the basement of the Aon Center, a sixty-story skyscraper on Wilshire that vaguely resembled some oversized concrete harmonica—my employer explained that I needed to wear better pants.


“Why’s that?”


“The partners upstairs are complaining. They say you can’t deliver mail in those things.”


My khakis were frayed at the cuffs, and even the belt loops were sagging. They’d been purchased around the time of my Bar Mitzvah.


“What should I do? Wear a suit?”


“It doesn’t have to be a suit,” she said hotly. She was big-haired, with glasses, and obviously concerned for her job. “Just try to look more, you know…professional.”


They were paying me ten bucks an hour, which, even in 2003, seemed a pittance. “Okay.”


Work, apart from the upper-floor mailroom deliveries, consisted of entering data in a labyrinthine spreadsheet, a task I thoroughly enjoyed. Sitting at a chilly white cubicle alongside a temp named Jerome, I would swallow black coffee and listen to him talk about girls. Jerome, who was 5’4” and bald and from Texas, weighed close to three hundred pounds, all of it muscle. He talked openly about the benefits of steroids and could barely work his hands across the keys.


“So this one chick, she says to me, ‘you wanna see the J-Crew store?’ And I didn’t really get what she meant. But she led me inside to the dressing room, and wham, bam, thank you, ma’am.” He punched the keys, and I could swear the overhead flickered.


That job lasted six weeks, though in truth it took me about twenty hours to fulfill my share of the work. Thanks to Jerome, I remained, alternately dividing my attention between tales of his exploits and the collected works of Baudelaire, which I also had up on my screen. When reassignment came—to another lawfirm downtown—it was only with a tinge of regret, even though the salary was higher: eleven-and-a-half bucks.


That night, after receiving my raise, Ellen and I decided to celebrate. We drove to El Siete Mares, a fluorescent nook along Sunset, where we both hoisted steaming, wrapped, salmon burritos roughly the size of our heads. Over horchata and radishes, she explained, somewhat wearily, that she was tired of her boss, and she would be quitting her job.


“He’s using me for my work. He knows I’m ten times more qualified than he is, and I’m never gonna get to move up.” The truth is she was astonishingly talented.


I nodded, recalling my time with Jerome, and reflecting that I had no ambitions of promotion, though a pay-raise was always nice.


“And then there’s [Pinochet]. He says he wants me out of the house.”




“He said he’s tired of my coming and going. And he probably saw your car.”


“That fucking asshole.”


“Well, I need a place to live.”


“What’s wrong with my car?”


She wrapped her burrito and sighed.


We had always been close in college, but lately, as we’d reconnected, we also had to ask, as every young couple does, whether we’d made the right choice.


“I don’t know. Maybe it’s time to move on.”


I pinched my straw. My chest muscles tightened. It definitely wasn’t the horchata. “I suppose you want a man with a job.”


“No, it’s not that. I mean, I’m happy with you. But I think we should get our own place. Somewhere, you know, where we could live.”


I hadn’t showered in days. The last time, in fact, had been at the Joshua Tree Campground, which wasn’t exactly marble baths.


“And what about Dipshit?” I asked, referring to Pinochet.


“He wants me out by next week.”


“What about thirty days’ notice?”


“What am I supposed to do? Go to court?” She was wearing a charcoal-gray pantsuit, and, it occurred to me, looked presentable enough.


“Yes. Or, I don’t know, threaten to go.”


“Whatever. I’m tired of that asshole. And I frankly feel sorry for his wife.”



The idea of fighting him directly must have come about in a dream. For days, I stewed over it while contemplating figures at work—tiny celled pixels—and sorting mail into heaps. I thought of it while making love to her gently. And while brushing my teeth at the sinks. If he wasn’t the exact source of my troubles—our troubles, actually—I knew I would make him that.


The Post-It note, which I affixed to his front door, said, ridiculously: Let’s settle this like men. I want to fight you. Meet me here Thursday at 9pm. Whether his wife got it first, or he did, I don’t in retrospect know, but Ellen only became aware of it later, and that, for her, marked the end.


“I can’t fucking believe you did that,” she said, as we waited outside in the 4Runner. It was just after nine, the moon a white haze beneath a spread of fan palms. “Of course he isn’t coming. He isn’t fucking twelve.”


“I don’t care,” I said, gripping the steering wheel.


For all of twenty minutes, we sat there, silent, watching the rustling palms.


“And of course I’ll never be able to go back in that house,” she said. Her clothes and things were still inside. “And what the hell am I gonna tell my boss tomorrow morning?”


“I thought you were planning to quit.”


I should have seen the end coming. Of course I did not. How could I? I was in love. And I was raging, of course, tightly clutching that wheel, balling and rubbing my fists. I had never actually fought a man—and innately I knew I would not then. Yet somehow I’d have the last laugh.


He didn’t show, of course. The bungalow glimmered. Fairly soon, the lights inside it went off. That night, Ellen slept in the back of my 4Runner, and the two of us didn’t make love. We both smelled like burritos, and summer, and rage.

J. Stein is the author of a novel, RACHEL’S TOMB, which won the 2016 Hackney Prize and Knut House Novel Contest, where it was awarded publication; and a story collection, STICK-LIGHT, which was a finalist for the 2016 Jones Prize at Pleiades Press and the Beverly Prize at Eyewear Editions, where it was also accepted for publication. His stories and essays have appeared in several-dozen journals, including Boston Review, Kenyon Review Online, and Tampa Review, and earned the Gunyon Prize from Crab Orchard Review. He’s also published academic articles in The Conradian and Western American Literature. A graduate of USC’s PhD Program in Creative Writing and Literature, he teaches at the University of Minnesota Duluth and is the fiction editor of Tikkun. Formerly, he lived in Long Beach and Santa Monica.


Curated by FORTH Nonfiction Editors.

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