tagNovels and NovellasThe Freshman Ch. 17

The Freshman Ch. 17


Chapter 17 - Mr. Schmidt

Cecilia was so busy during the month of November that she did not realize how quickly the days were speeding by. Thanksgiving week came, along with the chaos of hundreds of freshmen trying to get out of Huntington Hall to see their families. Mike and Lisa left early in the week to travel to California, flying out for a rather frantic couple of days to spend time with his parents and later with her father in Reno. Ken was gone as well, off to visit his family, minus the tattoo he had been planning to have on his body by now. Perhaps that was just as well...one less thing to fight over with his father.

Cecilia felt very nervous as her trip to meet Jason's parents and his sister Cassie loomed. From what she had managed to learn from Jason about his family, it seemed they were typical upper class people with typical upper class problems. They had a very nice house in an affluent area just across the state line in Wisconsin. However, it seemed that his parents had a lot of problems in their marriage and there was tension between both parents and Jason's sister.

The trip to Wisconsin began on a cold, dreary Wednesday afternoon when Jason's father came to the university to pick them up. A large, imposing, well-groomed man shook Jason's hand and then greeted Cecilia. He was dressed in jeans and a University of Wisconsin sweatshirt. Mr. Schmidt's casual appearance surprised her somewhat. Cecilia felt very uneasy, as Jason's father looked her over with a somewhat disapproving expression. She was dressed in a nice business outfit, but that was part of the problem. The rich tended dress casually and to Mr. Schmidt, Cecilia's outfit looked out of place. Her dark skin bothered him as well, although he realized he could not make an issue out of that. This wasn't 1950, after all.

Cecilia was perceptive enough to know that she had not made a good first impression on Jason's father. She wondered what to do next, and realized something important. She had been planning to watch her grammar and pay close attention to keeping her accent under control. Suddenly she had second thoughts about doing that. To hell with it, she thought, I'm going to be who I am, and they're just gonna have to deal with it. I'm not gonna try to be someone I'm not. Cecilia's decision turned out to be a very fortunate one, because had she gone with her original plan to try to artificially change her speech, Jason's father would have seen right through it and turned her efforts against her.

The car Mr. Schmidt stepped out of was a new BMW. Jason had previously explained that his father was partial to BMW's and bought a new one about once every two years. As she pondered the expensive, well-kept vehicle, Cecilia thought bitterly about her own mother's car, a huge, very beat-up 1972 Chevy that only somewhat worked. Her brother briefly had a flashy convertible, but it was seized by the police when he was arrested, and later sold at auction.

Cecilia began to wonder; if Mr. Schmidt replaced his own car once every couple of years, why Jason did not have a car. That seemed rather strange. He had everything else, but why not a car? She would have to ask him about that the next time she was alone with him.

They set out, taking a major road to the west to bypass the main part of Chicago and then proceeding north through the city's western suburbs. The trip itself was rather tense. Jason's father pummeled him with questions about his studies, only to be pleasantly surprised to learn that he was doing well in college. The conversation topic moved to his social life. Jason talked about his three friends and his relationship with Cecilia. As he talked, she wondered if he might mention her dominance over him. Fortunately Jason did not bring up that aspect of his relationship, nor did he mention anything about his strange notoriety from the Tri-Alpha 10-K run.

Mr. Schmidt's sudden interest in Jason's studies was another mystery to Cecilia. Jason had made no mention of any contact between his parents and himself since the beginning of the semester. It seemed that Cecilia was the only person who really took an interest in Jason's studies and over-all well being over the three months that she had known him. Now it seemed that Mr. Schmidt was trying to make up for lost time. Cecilia badly wanted to blurt out "Mr. Schmidt, I was the one who got Jason to study and kept an eye on him over the last three months. I was the one who kept him out of trouble. How come he hasn't heard from you, and how come you're now askin' him all these questions?" However, she held her tongue, not wanting conflict to ruin this trip any sooner than necessary.

They crossed the state line. It was the first time Cecilia had seen Wisconsin; in fact, it was the first time she had traveled outside Illinois since arriving nearly a year and a half before. As they drove along back roads over the pleasant countryside, Mr. Schmidt began talking to Cecilia, probing her to find out as much as he could about her. She recognized what he was doing; he was probing her in the same way she was used to probing people when she was getting to know them. She responded in her usual evasive manner, turning the questions back to Mr. Schmidt to try to get information out of him instead. He seemed irritated, but answered her questions: talking about his time in college, relating how he met Jason's mother, and explaining why the family had settled in Wisconsin instead of Illinois.

Seeing Jason's neighborhood was a bit of a shock, even though he already had shown her pictures of his house and his high school. Cecilia had thought that Dr. Burnside's house and neighborhood was nice, but the development where Burnside lived was nothing in comparison with the area Jason's house was located. Enormous flashy residences with vaulted entrances and fancy yards passed by Cecilia's eyes. There was an expensive SUV, BMW, or sports car parked in each driveway. There were attractive carved signs pointing to golf courses and country clubs, and other signs announcing that a particular lake or park was restricted to residents only.

Cecilia was impressed, but not in a positive way. She looked around at what seemed to her a sterile, alien environment. She had entered another world, a landscape that was appealing to the eye, but at the same time a world that was very cold and hostile. What struck her the most about the neighborhood was the absence of people. The yards and sidewalks were almost completely empty. She saw an occasional middle-aged jogger and one older man riding a lawn mower picking up leaves. That was it; no children, no younger people in sight at all. There is something very wrong about all this, she thought to herself. This place is just as bad as my housing project. Maybe it's bad in a different way, but it's just as bad.

Finally they arrived at Jason's house. The family had an additional BMW (which was being used to teach Cassie how to drive), and a new full-sized SUV. The garage had a full workshop, although Cecilia could tell by the condition of the tools that it rarely was used. There were two living rooms downstairs, one of which Cecilia later learned was called a "sitting room" and was not used on a day to day basis. That's just as well, she thought to herself, that furniture doesn't look very comfortable to sit in.

Not only were there two living rooms, there also were two dining rooms. There was a large table near the kitchen where the family ate on a day-to-day basis, but then there was a more formal dining room with antique cabinets and a very expensive-looking dining set. And to think, this huge house, with its two living rooms, two dining rooms, basement, den, five bathrooms, and six bedrooms, was the residence of four people, now reduced to three with Jason no longer living at home. Cecilia peeked out through the bay window of the "informal" dining room, to see an air tent covering the family's pool. She suddenly realized she had forgotten to bring a swimsuit, which was too bad, because a few minutes wading in the water might have relieved her stress a bit.

She became more and more nervous. She clearly was out of her element, being in this over-sized house with its vaulted ceilings and impractical decorations. It seemed to her that a large portion of the house was not for living at all, but rather for show. This is totally ridiculous, she thought to herself. A house should be a comfortable place to live in...something practical, maybe like what Ruth Burnside has...not...this monstrosity. There was something enormously oppressive about the place and all its wasted space and resources. She had the feeling that even if she had grown up with too little space, perhaps Jason had grown up with too much.

There was more unpleasantness coming her way. Mrs. Schmidt came home with Cassie and another teenager. All of them were dressed in expensive sweatsuits, all of them carrying tennis racquets. The woman and the two girls gave Cecilia a hostile dismissive glance. She still had not realized what the problem was, that she had over-dressed to meet Jason's family. The detail of her clothing gave her away as a poor person trying to be better than what she was.

Things only got worse. While the three tennis princesses went upstairs, two Salvadoran maids arrived to begin cleaning the kitchen and the bathrooms. The two women stared at Cecilia with blatant curiosity as they began working. They spoke quietly to each other, careful not to let the guest overhear their conversation. They assumed, quite rightly, that she understood Spanish. Despair swept over her as the thought crossed her mind: "the only thing separating me from them two Salvadorans is my scholarship. If it wasn't for the scholarship, I'd be just like them, kneelin' in the bathroom cleanin' someone else's shit."

But then another thought crossed her mind, which gave her the confidence she needed to get through the uncomfortable weekend: "the only thing separating me from them bitches upstairs is their money. They're not any better than me. They're not even smart enough to clean up after themselves." She then heard Ruth Burnside's voice, so clearly that she almost thought the professor was in the room with her:

"You've got to be better than them. Way better. Now you use that head of yours..."

With a new resolve to hold her own in this hostile place, Cecilia's thoughts turned back to Jason. She had come here partly because she wanted to see the world where he had grown up, so she could better understand him and why he was the way he was. When she met him, Jason seemed to have been adrift psychologically. Now Cecilia thought she understood why. Perhaps all this empty space, the oversized house and the depopulated neighborhood, had created an emptiness in Jason's soul. Perhaps it was the cold materialistic personalities of his family. Maybe it was the lack of any personal challenges while in high school, a life where he had nothing to worry about apart from doing well in his next track meet. She became even more convinced that Jason needed her and the life she was preparing for him. He needed a partner who loved him, but he also needed someone who could watch over him and be firm with him. He needed direction and discipline to focus his energies. He also needed a plan for his life, something that would provide a purpose for his existence.

Just 10 minutes had gone by since Cecilia had stepped into Jason's house, but in that 10 minutes she clearly understood his situation. She also knew exactly what she needed to do. Her purpose over the weekend was not to get Jason's family to like her. That wasn't going to happen, no matter what. It already was obvious there never would be any warmth between Cecilia and Jason's parents. Instead what she needed to do was to stand her ground and get them to respect her. She needed to show them she was a person who was sure of herself and one who knew exactly what she wanted from life. If they said something with which she disagreed, she would speak her mind. She would take no crap from them.

Cecilia had one big advantage working in her favor. She suspected the Schmidts were concerned that she had seduced Jason because she wanted his money. The truth was quite the opposite. Cecilia was completely uninterested in her boyfriend's money. In fact, now that she had seen the family's material life up close, she viewed it as a huge hindrance, something she wanted no part of. This house, this neighborhood, those cars, and that tennis club were weights around the necks of the Schmidts. Better just to get rid of them and start over. Were Jason's parents to die tomorrow, Cecilia would have insisted that he give his portion of the inheritance to Cassie. Let little Miss Tennis Bitch deal with all this shit.

Mr. Schmidt decided to show Cecilia around the house, with Jason trailing behind. He was genuinely proud of the residence, but also hoped to intimidate his son's girlfriend by showing her what she truly was up against. They passed from room to room, each one professionally decorated. Everything was new, with the exception of some antiques, which had been purchased to supplement the décor. Cecilia only had one question.

"You didn't get anything from your parents?"

"Of course not. We got rid of most of my parents' stuff when my father died and we moved my mother to her condo. It didn't fit with the décor, so we threw it out."

The only reaction was a slightly disgusted look on the young woman's face. Didn't fit with the décor, so we threw it out...give me a break.

Jason's father, who noticed everything, caught Cecilia's expression. "So, what do you think?"

"Mr. Schmidt, if this place makes you happy, I 'spose it's OK. To be honest, it'd be a bit much for me."

"Well, I'm sure where you're from, you're not used to seeing anything like what we've got here."

"I've seen some places, enough to know what I want, and what I don't."

Cecilia's response surprised both Jason and his father. She had answered the older man's put-down with a put-down of her own. In doing so she let Mr. Schmidt know that his effort to use the house to intimidate her had not worked at all. She was quite unimpressed, and not shy about letting Mr. Schmidt know that. It was the first exchange out of many that weekend, through which the elder Schmidts and Cecilia would probe each other, verbally sparring and looking for weaknesses.

The family ate a light dinner, with three guests. Cecilia was present, as was Cassie's tennis friend and a young, arrogant blond guy with whom Cassie had a casual relationship. Cecilia knew that undoubtedly he would be in a fraternity in a couple of years and be one of those drunken slackers that Ruth Burnside so vividly despised. Cecilia thought she could catch a whiff of marijuana smoke on his clothing.

As she listened to the idiotic chatter of Cassie and her two friends, Cecilia became even more determined to extract Jason from this pathetic environment once and for all. Mrs. Schmidt chimed in, and then made a disparaging racist remark about the maids, a comment partly made to unsettle her son's girlfriend. Cecilia decided not to respond to that particular slight, but she was wound-up, like a cornered animal, ready to viciously strike out when the moment came.

Jason became increasingly nervous. He could see the fight building up in his girlfriend's eyes as she continued to listen to his sister's inane chatter and his mother's quiet slights.

The conversation turned to Cecilia's background. By then, some of her tension was seeping out. She freely discussed her time at the university, her duties as RA, and her constant efforts to keep drunken fraternity and sorority pledges under control. She took a thrust at Cassie and her two friends when she vented about the girls who did not know how to use dorm washing machines.

"I can't believe how stupid some of those little princesses are. They can't even use the laundry room without puttin' a bunch of soap bubbles on the floor. It's like their parents never taught them nothin'. It's really sad to see someone that helpless..."

Everyone knew the Dominican's comment was directed at the spoiled young teenagers sitting at the table. They were among the girls who had never washed their own clothing and had never learned how to use a laundry room. Unless someone set them straight over the next year, they almost certainly would be among the freshmen destined to have a housekeeping crisis during their first week on campus.

Jason cringed in silent mortification as his girlfriend and his parents sparred with each other at the dinner table, regretting with every bit of his soul having invited Cecilia for Thanksgiving dinner. He desperately wished he could get someone to shut up, but he should have known that Cecilia was not one to back away from a fight. Her claws were out and she was fully ready to defend herself.

A temporary calm returned to the table. Jason's father decided to find out what type of student she was by asking her to explain her studies. Cecilia talked about her research under Ruth Burnside and the impending plans for her to become a research assistant the following year. She talked at length about her economics classes and what she was learning. Mr. Schmidt was vaguely impressed. Whatever else was wrong with her, it was clear that Jason's girlfriend was intelligent and knew how to study.

The line of conversation seemed innocent enough, as Cecilia discussed the economics department and the program she was majoring in. Then the topic of Upper Danubia and its new Prime Minister came up. Cecilia mentioned her research and the pending visit, scheduled to take place right after Thanksgiving Break ended. Mr. Schmidt sighed and rolled eyes upon hearing the name Vladim Dukov.

"Oh yeah, that commie bastard. Some of my clients took a real hit on that one."

"Took a hit, Mr. Schmidt?"

"Yeah, Cecilia. Took a hit. A lot of people lost a bunch of money on that fiasco last year. I mean, you've studied it, you know what happened. I'll tell you, we had a real set-back with that screwed up election."

"Who had a setback?"

"Well, the EU, and my clients, of course. Especially Mega-Town Associates. They had a lot riding on the election. They had all kinds of development projects and investments pending, and that son-of-a-bitch Dukov got in there and canceled everything. I mean everything. And all that money the Embassy spent...and it was for nothing."

"Mr. Schmidt, I don't think it was that simple. From what I read, I think what Prime Minister Dukov wanted to do was re-negotiate the contracts. He gave Mega-Town Associates and the EU a chance to make changes and they wouldn't do it. I don't think that was his fault..."

"What the hell are you talking about? Of course it was his fault! You don't just walk up to Mega-Town and say 'screw-you' to their faces! No two-bit third-world leader does that to America's best company! And anyhow, what he wanted to do, change the rules mid-game, you just don't do it. It wasn't fair to the investors, and wasn't fair to the company!"

"But was what Mega-Town wanted to do in Upper Danubia fair? Their subsidiary wanted to clear-cut the forests out of three provinces and then charge 'em for building a road. What was Upper Danubia gonna get out of it?"

Jason's father gave Cecilia a very hard look. "That's irrelevant, Cecilia. We're really not talking about Upper Danubia, because as far as I'm concerned, Upper Danubia doesn't matter. What matters are American interests. The point is American investors got screwed. People lost money. Don't you get it? People lost money, just because the wrong guy got into that country's Parliament. And what's worse, I don't see how we're going to get him out anytime soon."

"What do you mean 'get him out anytime soon'? 'Isn't that up to the Danubians? It's their country. Don't they get to choose who's gonna lead 'em? Isn't that what democracy's supposed to be all about?"

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