76th Annual Writer’s Digest Competition – Personal Essay

In the 2007 Writer’s Digest 76th Annual Writing Competition, my essay, “Cousin Fucker”, placed 19th. I wrote about a woman I met at a job I had for several months, working in downtown LA.




Ron Stempkowski

I knew I should have stopped her when she said, “so, I think I want to tell you a secret.” It was a pivotal moment. A fork in the road. She’d badgered me into hanging out with her for weeks until I finally relented—against my better judgment. But I was new at the company—as was she—and she seemed like a nice girl; someone to hang out with on breaks. On the surface, everything appeared normal.

I remember being relieved when the subject of politics came up, and her political leanings were to the left—like mine—but actually much lefter. After the 2004 presidential elections, I was upset, disappointed, disillusioned. She told me she bawled all the way to work in her car. And in fact, while telling me that, she welled up again. Her instability was well-masked—at first.

We began taking our breaks together during new-hire orientation, talking about the stupidity of the training, or about one of the other new-hires. Good, clean fun. However, as our orientation ended, and I got caught up in my work and reacquainted with my singularity, I went on breaks alone without consulting her which always resulted with her sighing when she found out, punching my shoulder and calling me a “jerk” in her mousy whisper. “But I wanted to spend some time with you,” she’d whine.

She had recently moved to LA, but since she always referred to her boyfriend and the things they did and places they went, I figured she must have been doing okay for herself in terms of a social life. However, she kind of painted herself to be one of those wallflowers who never got out much and didn’t know many people.

Though I never felt the desire to hang out with her outside of work, I always nodded at the suggestion when she said for the umpteenth time “so shouldn’t we be making plans to hang out this weekend?” or “so isn’t this the weekend you said we were going to do something?” to get it over with invite her over. My Friday afternoon euphoria betrayed me, and—to keep things uncomplicated—I invited her over that evening for cocktails and chat. Nothing fancy.

Upon reflection of the evening ahead on my train ride home, I got angry that I allowed myself to be bullied into having her over. My time was my time, and I was covetous of it. I hadn’t broken any records winning friends and influencing people in LA, but I had one or two people who I considered actual friends, and that was enough. I prefer friendships that are organic; that just “happen.” That’s how it worked for me back in Chicago and that’s the way I liked it. She was doing everything she could think of to force a friendship between us. It didn’t feel right. But I ignored it because my partner Ken has always told me how I’m not open to new people and experiences, and I’m sure he’s right. But fuck him.

I decided not to stress out about it and started on a glass of wine before she arrived. After the first glass, I thought ‘what the hell? This will be fun!’ We’d also invited our friend Rebecca over. She was an organic friend, and livened up any gathering. She arrived first and I immediately relaxed, poured another glass of wine and started enjoying the weekend.

Shortly after my pushy co-worker’s arrival, she and I were sitting out on the patio while Ken and Rebecca were inside. That’s when she uttered the words that would change everything, and confirm my nagging suspicions. She was finished with her first Pabst Blue Ribbon (she’d brought a 6-pack), and said, “so I think I want to tell you a secret.” I didn’t know what to say. Or rather, I didn’t have anything polite to say. What I wanted to say was “well, that’s too bad because we aren’t even anywhere near the point of sharing secrets, and the fact that you think we are means this is going no where. You need to leave now.”

But, of course I didn’t. I mean, how bad could it be? I pondered that very question as she began to spew forth her secret, and I wished one of us would die immediately. There was no telling what it could be!

“So, you know my boyfriend who I talk about?”


“Well, he’s not just my boyfriend. He’s my cousin, too.”

What the fuck??!!

“Are you shocked?” By the way she asked, it seemed she was hoping for an affirmation.

“Well, no. I mean, yes. It’s not like I expected you to say that, but it’s no big deal.” Inside my head I was screaming for Ken and Rebecca to save me, so I could distract her and tell them to see if my freak-out was normal or not. Before I could be sure I wasn’t overreacting, I needed clarification. “But not first cousins, right?”

“Yep. My dad and his mom are brother and sister.”

At that point I would have gnawed my leg off to get away from her, but Ken and Rebecca rejoined us shortly thereafter and never left us again. My glass of wine never emptied which made the rest of the evening most pleasant for everyone. Thankfully, the night continued uneventfully without her feeling the need to share her medical history or prison record with me. When she left I walked her out to the sidewalk—where she hugged me–even under normal circumstances, it was too early for a hug–and I demonstrated expert muscle control by keeping the bile rising in my throat from spewing out my mouth and nose. As soon as her car had turned the corner, I sprinted inside and spilled my guts.

That is disgusting!”

I was so relieved that Rebecca was as horrified as I was.

“Well, I don’t see the big deal,” my ever-accepting partner said. “It’s not like it affects you.”

He, of course, wasn’t getting it. The biggest problem wasn’t just that she was a cousin fucker (though that certainly tied for number one). It was that I’d known her scarcely at all, and after bullying her way into an invitation to hang out, she burdens me prematurely in the friendship-that-will-never-happen with her tales of incest. What I didn’t realize in my post-trauma stupor was that there was an even bigger problem to deal with: facing her each and every day at work.

Sweetie. Honey. Sugar. Baby. But Sweetie was the definite favorite. That’s what she took to calling me at work—even in mixed company. It seemed that inviting her over meant that I wanted to share as much an intimate connection with her as she had seen fit to share with me. From “so when are you going on break” to “so what do you and Ken get into…sexually, I mean”—sometimes with the added, “I bet it’s hot.” It was creepy and it was too much.

I managed to dodge her questions without seeming too rude. That was a mistake. I should have been a prick. Then maybe she would have left me alone. But she didn’t. One sunny afternoon, she found me enjoying my break in the sunshine in the grassy area beside our building. I kept my sunglasses on to hide the revulsion and eye rolling.

“So, my boyfriend…” she began.

The cousin who slides it in ya? Yep, you’ve mentioned him.

“…he’s been out of town for almost a month now for work, and his best friend has been checking on me and hanging out with me to keep me company while he’s gone. He’s older. But really nice. Well, last night he told me he was in love with me and wanted to be with me.”

From anyone else this would have seemed shocking and perverse.

“Are you attracted to him?” I asked. Anything to get her to stop fucking her cousin.

“Ewwww! No. He’s like 50. That is disgusting!”

I had turned a corner and there was no way back. Cousin Fucker thought we were the best of friends now. She emailed me constantly. And called at break times so we could spend even more time together. Sometimes I didn’t answer, or sometimes I could go early and come back and when she called say I was too busy to take a break.

She loved talking about sex—or at least intimating about sex. She made it clear that she and her cousin had a rich and varied sex life. And even more, it seemed, she liked to think about mine.

Like any decent human being, I kept my love of porn on the “down low” in the shameful place shared by farting and diarrhea. It was my private love of porn for private moments. Not so for Cousin Fucker. She loved porn and though I tried to change the subject or let her know I was a tad uncomfortable, she just got more and more comfortable talking about porn. And as she got more comfortable talking about porn, she also liked to ease in questions about my sex life with Ken.

“So do you and Ken like that?” she’d asked after discussing a position she saw in a porno.

“How creepy of you to ask,” I’d reply. “Only two people need to know that, and you aren’t one of them.” I started taking pleasure and pushing back and not answering her question. Being mean to her started to fill me with joy.

But that didn’t stop her. “What? I told you Matt and I do it all time—though I’m sure it would better with two penises. I wish I had a penis.” She’d giggle and flip back her stringy hair, and I knew she didn’t hear a word of my rebuff.

She was a vegetarian—I can’t remember why. I can remember asking several times—anything to keep the subject off of porn or cousin fucking, but I don’t recall the answer. I didn’t care. Since she didn’t eat meat, she got what protein she could from soy products; however, her chain smoking pretty much leached her of what little protein she allowed herself. She was skinny, scraggly, and she looked frail. Her hair always looked unhealthy and brittle and if the light was right her skin had a greenish tint.

“She’s unhealthy physically and emotionally,” I would tell Ken.

“Avoid her,” he’d reply.

Easier said than done. It seemed once Cousin Fucker latched on to me, she’d released anyone else she was courting for friendship of their duties. Like those lucky bastards who show up to jury duty only to be let go. I no longer got my hopes up when I ran into her in a hallway or elevator, chatting with someone else. There was no use. She was just making small talk, and regarded them as poor facsimiles of her soul mate; someone who truly understood her: me. Ick.

I dreaded going to work. Not only did I not care much for the work or the type of office it turned out to be, but I was trapped in hell because I didn’t even have an escape. Cousin Fucker was on me at every turn. If I sneaked out for a break, after a while she’d adjust to my pattern and find me. My only refuge was to get on my cell phone the minute I got into the elevator for a break or lunch and stay on until I was safely back at my desk. Sometimes, even while on the phone during a break outside she could come over and sit by me, and just stare at me and smile. I thought this was rude, and since I didn’t want her to hear what I was talking about (usually cousin fucking) to whomever I was talking to (which more than once was absolutely nobody), I’d hang up. Defeated again.

Angels sang from the heavens when I received a job offer from another company I’d wanted to work for. I almost accepted the job right there over the phone and ran screaming out the front door, but practical, play-it-safe me needed to wait for the written offer letter with my salary spelled out in black and white. It was faxed to me the next day, which is when I gave my notice.

I toyed with notion of not telling Cousin Fucker that I was leaving in two weeks. But the office was very gossipy and I knew someone would let it slip to her. Since I wasn’t in the mood for a teary-eyed interrogation, I happened past her desk one day and told her—a Cheshire cat smile overtaking my face.

“I’m so sad,” was the first thing she said. It was always about her. “Can you get me a job there?”

For the next two weeks, I skillfully avoided Cousin Fucker as much as possible. I rarely took breaks and usually ate lunch at my desk. If she came by to inquire as to when we were going to hang out, I’d look really, super busy, and say, “Just so much to do before I leave.” Then she’d slink away.

I’d heard less and less from her those last two weeks, and I thought that finally, she’s getting the clue and moving on to someone else.

On my last day, some co-workers wanted to take me to lunch. I so wanted to get out of it and make up an excuse, but I decided I was going to say “yes” and be fun and spontaneous for once (Ken’s influence). It was later that morning that I got an email from Cousin Fucker, saying she’d over heard some girl telling someone else that I was being taken to lunch for my last day. I didn’t reply until I got back from lunch—because I didn’t want her to come. It was short and sweet and again, I pulled the “so much to do on my last day and I want to be conscientious.”

I had to pass her desk later that afternoon to get to a meeting in conference room nearby. There was no way around it. She saw me and called me over.

“So, today is your last day. When are we going to hang out?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I’ve gotta get to my meeting.”

She masked her frustration poorly. “Am I ever going to see you again?” she said dramatically as I sped around the corner.

I spun around as I kept walking. “No,” I replied defiantly. It felt so good to say that.

I left that job in early February and got a text page from her on Valentine’s day that said “hope you got some” or something equally inappropriate. Then a few weeks later, a short email that read, “So I guess you weren’t kidding when you said I’d never see you again.”

I “so” wasn’t.

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