I was hitchhiking on I-80 in 1984 when they pulled up in a run-down Buick.
"Where ya headed?" the girl said.
I peered into the car.
"Iowa City!" I shouted.
"So are we! Get in!" the guy motioned to me.
Turned out they were freshmen at the University of Iowa too.
"Do you like school?" I asked, expecting them to say yes.
"Too much corn in Iowa," the guy said, rolling his eyes. "And too many hicks," she groaned. I kept my mouth shut.
As we crossed the Mississippi, Joe explained that he was no city slicker. No, he came from Skokie.
"I wanna drop out and get a job at Crafty Beaver, right near where I used to live," he said.
"Yeah, and I'm gonna transfer to Loyola," Teresa added.
"Isn't that a Jesuit school?" I asked.
"But didn't you just say you were an atheist?"
She laughed. "You're so literal."
During the next semester, we three were inseparable. I became the second illegal roommate in Teresa's single dorm room. But Teresa and Joe left Iowa the following year, both moving back in with their respective families. Joe got his dream job at Crafty Beaver and Teresa went to Loyola. Junior year Teresa studied in Italy, met an Italian, and contemplated becoming a permanent expatriate. Of course when her money ran out she returned to Chicago and begged Joe to forgive her.
They rented their first apartment together in 1987 in a run-down building on Kenmore. It was crawling with cockroaches, but rent was cheap, and they figured, how bad can Uptown be? After their neighbor shot his wife in the arm, they decided Rogers Park could be better. In a modest courtyard apartment on Farwell, Teresa and Joe built a dining room table from scratch, saved money for a trip to New Mexico, bought dishes, and framed paintings. Together we went to peace marches and looked at Victoria's Secret catalogs, comparing the models' bodies to Teresa's. When a Peeping Tom climbed the tree in front of their living room window and started screaming about the end of the world, they decided to move again. Their third apartment, in Ravenswood, had an outdoor patio and they grew basil and marigolds. Joe learned to cook, and Teresa took up bike riding. On New Year's Eve we stayed in, but we went outside to make angels in the snow. I stayed over for a slumber party and we drank hazelnut coffee in the morning.
"Marriage is an oppressive institution created by sexists!" Teresa would yell when the subject was brought up by curious friends. Joe always agreed, but he may have just been playing along. They planned to move eventually to Montana, where they hoped to build a farm, although neither had any experience with livestock. They would have two kids. Teresa would cook and make jewelry and Joe would be an artist. My part in the scenario was never discussed.
I was the eternal third wheel but it didn't matter. Even when there was a man in my life, he was usually just a temporary folly. I always ended up crying on Joe and Teresa's shoulders.
"You're better when you're alone," Teresa would say.
"Maybe we should adopt you," Joe would laugh.
It might have seemed odd to an outsider. Why wasn't I pursuing my own life? I don't have any good theories. Maybe I enjoyed having a fake family. I got to play the part of the niece--only I had few responsibilities and no curfew. All I had to do was clean up after parties.
Of course there were some months when we didn't stay in touch, when life was too crazy. And there were also times when we were together and the two of them had terrible arguments. Joe liked to throw things: bikes, potted plants, occasionally his own fist. He never hit people, but sometimes he hurt himself pretty bad, like the time he smashed his hand through the windshield of his car. Teresa said he just needed to fly off the handle occasionally. "It's immature, but in a sick way charming, I think," she would laugh.
When Joe's mom died of cancer, Teresa comforted his family, helped with the funeral arrangements, and called relatives. When Joe transferred to UIC, she helped him write papers and study for tests. When he dropped out this time, and decided to find a job, she helped him do his resume.
When Teresa was at Loyola, Joe took care of most of the living expenses because he had money and she was broke. When Teresa insisted on keeping in touch with her Italian fling and even allowed him to come to Chicago for a visit, Joe accepted it without much complaint.
He didn't have any friends or hobbies outside of his life with her. Teresa was his whole world.
In the fall of '92, Teresa went to Madison to go to graduate school, and Joe stayed in Chicago, moving in with Teresa's family. The plan was that he would pay off the bills and visit her on the weekends. Everything was fine for the first semester, but in the winter Joe signed up for an acting class, which demanded a lot of time, and he couldn't see Teresa as often as he would've liked. They kept in touch by mail and phone, and got together about twice a month. In March Joe called her and said he was feeling claustrophobic and wanted to move out of her family's home, get his own apartment, and spend some time by himself.
Teresa took a bus home immediately and suggested they go into counseling. After two sessions, Joe said he didn't want to continue therapy. He just wanted to be alone. By the end of May, he told Teresa he'd fallen in love with another woman and did not want to see her ever again. They divvied up towels and milk glasses while Teresa cried. She asked, "How could you throw ten years away?"
I was worried that Joe would quit his job, spend all his money, drink too much, and possibly drive off a cliff. I thought Teresa would starve herself, sleep with 12 men, drop out of grad school, and be committed to a mental ward. Instead, within a month Teresa had fallen in love with another guy. Two weeks later he proposed and she accepted. Last August he moved in with her.
Joe, in the meantime, bought a truck, drove to California, camped in Canada, skied in Aspen, and started the acting thing. When I saw him last, he was rosy cheeked, confident, and happy. The last time I saw Teresa she was elated and giddily planning her wedding.
Neither one wants to talk about the other, unless it's to complain or poke fun. I don't dare ask where they store all the photos, or presents, or love notes, or old dishes.
I want to talk about them, but with whom? I still can't believe I'm not the third wheel anymore. I don't know Teresa's new fiance from a bum off the street, and Joe is happy as a clam being by himself. So I'm an orphan, and I guess I better start living my own life.