I was in Pine Rest Hospital, in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1987, when I was fifteen. I ran into her there, on the Short Term Unit. I had just come in from the Crisis Unit, and she came in a few days after me. The first thing she said to me was, “I had to take a shower and put on the same underwear, which I would normally never do.” I perked up at her, because whatever. She was the kind of girl who had the cute chipmunk cheeks with the freckles. I fell in love with her at first sight.
There was so much camaraderie between everyone that she and I could be as close as two people could be, and yet be firmly friendzoning it. It was an aching heartbreak that (turns out) always suits me. She left Short Term to go home just before I was to be transferred to the Long Term Unit. She and I were in class. (Our textbooks were sent to us from our schools, so everyone studied something different.) She was studying Algebra II. I remember staring at the cover of that textbook in sorrow, making out the shapes in three-dimensional cubes inked onto the blue hardback cover, knowing she was about to leave for good. And when she got up and said her sweet goodbye to me and walked out, I had the only premonition I’ve ever had — that we would be married one day.
I got a postcard from Switzerland a year later. She was touring Europe with other kids from the Interlochen Music School in Northern Michigan. (Karen played the saxophone.) She told me she loved the cheese, and loved that she was of age to drink beer.
Karen was the girl who got me into underground music. (I’m still on that path.) Back when we were on Short Term she went through my case of cassettes I’d amassed via Columbia Tape and Record Club, saying “No, no, no. Yes. This is good. No, no.” She concluded that my only good cassette was from Thomas Dolby. I gave her money to buy me the Cure cassette Standing On A Beach when she was to go on a weekend pass, but when she came back she pretended to have had her wallet stolen. I did the same arrangement the next weekend, and she returned with that Cure cassette, and Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, to make up for the week before. That was where real music started for me.
She civilized me, basically, and turned me from an unpopular overweight nerd into (when I returned) the cool quiet kid that the girls fell in love with. The Cure became the center of my life. My buddy Derek and I camped out all night in the Fairplain Plaza in Benton Harbor, Michigan, to get Cure tickets for summer ’89. (We had no idea until we got there that we’d be the only ones.) (He introduced me to the band Jane’s Addiction that night as we sheltered from a thunderstorm. (He said to me before it started to come down, “The gulls are flying inland. That means a storm’s coming.”) (“Why?” — “The water in the air baffles their senses.”)) He and I got 20th row center at the Rosemont Horizon in Chicago. Three tickets. I asked Karen out over the phone and she became the third person. Still on my learner’s permit (because I had had to take driver’s ed four times for being so rebellious) I drove from southwest Michigan to central Michigan, to Chicago, and back to central Michigan, beneath a constant thunderstorm that had us hydroplaning around in my mom’s station wagon. Before I drove away from her house the next morning she gave me a kiss. (The show was great, too.)
As I went to Michigan State after high school, and she lived about twenty minutes away, she became my girlfriend. She took my virginity for my eighteenth birthday. (She was a year older.) We hung out with the other punk rockers and went to poetry readings. My love for Karen Stevenson was absolutely down to the core of my heart. We never really fought. We always got along. She said eventually that it seemed all we did was have sex, and that brought me back suddenly to the memory of that short term unit. The friendzoning. That humiliated feeling. I nursed resentment against her for the first time.
She said that she wanted to get married. Not long after, I broke up with her. I was freaking out about marriage, but it was really my stupid formality, in thinking that cheating on her was unforgivable, so if I needed to tell this beautiful girl from Michigan’s upper peninsula that I loved her, it was only right to break up with Karen first. Because I was a teenager, and I wasn’t sure yet about morality and choice. Of course the other girl just brushed me off. The realization of what I’d done was one of the worst moments in my life.
I ran into her the next day, and she said to me, “Oh. It’s you.” And she turned away. I never saw Karen Stevenson again.
The week following the break-up with my latest ex, back in spring of 2012, I first went into tachycardia for five days straight. (Pulse consistently above a hundred.) (On the phone to a friend who was an EMT: “I can’t go to the ER, because I’ll get sucked into the psych ward. I’ll end up in there for a month, and then they’ll stick me in AFC for ninety days.” — “Well, completely unofficially, I think you’re making the right decision. But if you start to get chest pains, I think you should take the risk.”) Then I unsuccessfully tried to block out my grief and rage with heroin, cocaine, pot, vicodin, and alcohol, all at the same time. Then I fired my treatment team from community mental health. (They were so grateful.) And then I did the “girlfriend search” and discovered that not only was my ex Jen dead (the girl I’d gone out with after Karen, and for four years) but Karen was too.
Karen A. Stevenson, born April 5, 1970 in Detroit, MI, passed away August 25, 2009 in Grand Ledge, MI. Karen was a former employee for CBI Products, Lansing and a member of the St. Michael Catholic Church, Grand Ledge.
I never had a picture of her.
As far as I’m concerned, from the moment I lost her, I’ve been on a path I was never supposed to be on. It’s why I believe in free will, and why I’ve felt for so long that I’m in the middle of an overlong denouement.