Stupid Girl

Creative Nonfiction
Gretchen Clark

It’s dim in here, except for those orange suggestions of light trapped in red votives on the tables. You are early, so you get ready for the rush. You double-knot your Reeboks, pull your hair back, put on lipstick, and make sure all your pens work. At eleven the lounge opens and customers start to come in.

Honey is what they call you. They don’t care what your name is even though it’s spelled out for them and pinned to your chest. You come when they wave. Or whistle. You are an indoor gardener but foul people not pretty flowers bloom in here. No matter what is given to them they always need more, hotter, faster from you. A steady stream of gin-and-tonics waters them. Makes them grow wild.

Their cigarette smoke burns your eyes but you keep serving and smiling because they give you tips. Because you need these tips. Need them to help pay the rent, to buy Kool-Aid and ramen noodles, to put gas in a ’78 Celica, to pass along to your boyfriend so he can buy cigarettes and Bud Light, to reward yourself with a 99ยข Wet n Wild nail polish. Whether it’s crumpled or wet from being stuck under a water glass, you take the money. The bills curl into a green snail in your pocket.

Twice a week you pull a double shift. At night you work under the boss’s wife, Dolly. This Dolly has buck teeth, a bad perm, and a waxy pink coat of lipstick circling her pout. She speaks to you in fluent Vietnamese and broken English. To get your attention she snaps her fingers or clucks her tongue at you. It’s confusing trying to decipher her body language and her foreign tongue. Mistakes happen. Ketchup doesn’t get to the couple at table four. Coffee goes cold. Plates of steak fries and patty melts congeal under heat lamps. And this pisses Dolly off. Makes her scream at you during dinner rush. In your native tongue she calls you “stupid girl.” These words electrify you because you secretly fear she may be right. The credits testifying to your academic inadequacies scroll down the screen in your head:

You flunked kindergarten.

You were placed in private speech therapy lessons in the fourth grade because you could not verbally express yourself.

Ds and Fs decorated your high school report cards. In the lowest 10% of your graduating class, you slip—barely—out the doors of your high school.

You take entrance exams for community college. Your scores are below average. You are placed in remedial English and math courses. You feel defeated and quit before the first semester is over.

Dolly’s words also trip a different switch in your consciousness. They make you realize that this restaurant is becoming your grave. You have to dig yourself out of its darkness before the words of a Dolly become true.

You quit. Get a job as a receptionist at a doctor’s office. You work all day and go to community college at night, eating Snickers bars and drinking large cups of coffee for dinner to stay awake. It takes years for enough credits to add up so you can apply to a real college.

You only apply to one, a private Catholic university. Kids who go there come from wealthy families, have above average SATs and 4.0 GPAs, went to private high schools, know Latin and God. You know nothing, but want to learn everything.

By mistake, luck, or pity someone lets you in.

You find yourself in another dim room. This time a couple overhead lights cast a low yellow glow over the desks. You are early, so you take a seat in the back. You unzip your backpack, pull out your notebook, open up your book, review the material, and make sure all your pencils are sharp. The class is large. The professor doesn’t remember your name when you comment on the art history slide projected behind him. Your hand cramps from all the writing.

It takes three years in dark lecture halls, endless hours in the bowels of the university library, and lonely nights when you don’t go to bed before 3:00 A.M. to get to the end.

You emerge from the dimness at last. The light. The sun. It’s bright, blinding. You sit and wait, sweating under the black gown in the heat for hours just to hear it. Finally. It’s your turn. As you cross the stage and take the college diploma, your name blares through the loud speakers for all to hear:

You stupid girl. You did it.

“I hold a B.A. in English and co-teach a Lyric Essay course online at My work has appeared in Flashquake, Blood Lotus, Hip Mama, Foliate Oak and other publications.” E-mail: prettylizard_2000[at]

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