My senior year at Stanford, I had two roommates, Eve and Bethany. Both of them were paying the obscene tuition on their own, and both were bitter about it. I liked to think they put me in a category apart from the rest of the rich, spoiled students, because every quarter my tuition was late and my library card suspended. I had to negotiate separately on the phone with each of my divorced parents, who each wanted the other to pay.

“I can drop out,” I said every time. “I can come home and work.” And I meant it. At school I felt lonely and guilty all the time. I wanted to be back in Chicago doing something difficult and productive, not easy and embarrassing, which is what my English major felt like. I wanted to get drunk with my old friends like it was no big deal, instead of drama-queen drunk like the girls here. I wanted to take care of my little sister and half-brother after school, like I used to most nights when my mother was at work, to cook them spaghetti while they played Sega. Be a surrogate mom, too young for the job, respectable. Eve and Bethany didn’t know all the details of this, but I liked to think they picked up on some of it.

But there was money. Money showed up in my life—unpredictably and with strings attached—but still, money. For Valentine’s Day, a pale blue check arrived in my mother’s neat cursive, with a note that said, “Do something romantic.” Eve and Bethany saw. They became cagey about paying me back for groceries. Maybe I was actually worse than the trust-fund kids at Stanford, who at least did not feel sorry for themselves.

Bethany was the first person in her family to go to college. Her father was a mail carrier in San Jose, and her mother had been a housewife with a side job reading tarot and doing zodiac charts. Over the past summer, her father had announced he was leaving. They did the divorce with a kit from the library. Bethany’s father got the house, his Filipina girlfriend moved in, and they took away Bethany’s key. From what Bethany told me, in long one-sided conversations, during which she cried and pounded the table with her small, feminine fists, her mother had moved into a friend’s spare bedroom and gone catatonic.

“At least your mother has all her rational faculties,” Bethany would say when I talked about my family. “At least your mother remembers to eat.”

Actually, my mother didn’t always remember to eat. On the way in to work she bought coffeecake at Starbucks and usually didn’t eat again until she left the office at ten or eleven at night. Several times a week, she ate dinner at a French restaurant with late hours—hanger steak with butter, frites, Bordeaux. I didn’t tell Bethany this.

Eve’s father was a lawyer, and he had money, but on principle he’d wanted Eve to go to school in-state. She’d grown up in Ann Arbor and was sick of it, so when she got into Stanford, she told him to go fuck himself and took out loans. Not long after this, Eve’s mother caught him having an affair with a professor of Chinese at the university. Eve’s mother told him to go fuck himself too, and from what Eve said, he didn’t seem terribly upset about any of it.

[Continued in Confrontation 112]