When one of his high school classmates died in a motorcycle accident, students wore black to remember him. Brett Stelmaszek wore the brightest colors he owned.
He was the class clown. He found ways to turn others’ miserable lives into something funny. He reasoned that if someone was dumb enough to crash his motorcycle, then Brett should be able to laugh at him.
Then Brett came to UF. Technically, he lived on campus, but he spent all of his time with his best friend from back home, Vishan Persaud.
Persaud lived in a condo complex near the Oaks Mall.
The two hosted parties all the time, and they had weekly movie nights.
That’s where Brett met Sydney. She lived in the condo beneath Persaud’s.
She couldn’t stand Brett. She didn’t like his insults. He was too much of an abrasive comedian. Then she got used to it, and then he liked her.
It took her a little longer to start liking him.
But before then, they became friends. They trained for a triathlon together. They discussed religion and philosophy. And then she left for the summer.
Sydney went to Papua New Guinea for a mission trip. Brett stayed in Gainesville.
While she was gone, Brett changed. Even though he’d never been religious, he became a Christian.
Sydney noticed a change when she got back, and they dated for two months.
Then he popped the question. She said yes.
They planned on waiting seven months, but after realizing they were planning their future together, they went to a courthouse in January a day before school started. Apparently if you get married, you can get out of your dorm contract. It worked for him.
They moved in together. He was 19.
Five months later, in May, they had an official wedding. Complete with a white dress, black tuxedo and wedding cake.
Tuesday marked their one-year anniversary.
_ _ _
In 1971, an Independent Florida Alligator story reported that 25 percent of students were married. The average age of a man getting married, according to 2010 U.S. Census Data, the average age of marriage is 28 for men and 26 for women.
No statistics are kept that tell how many current undergraduate students are married at UF, but it doesn’t take a spreadsheet to realize that marriage isn’t the most common route for college students.
People who are better educated, according to UF sociology professor John Scanzoni, get married later. Scanzoni will tell you that the reason for the later marriage, which can be seen in the U.S. Census data, is that most people used to get married because they thought marriage was required for sex. Now, people have sex and don’t think of marriage as a prerequisite.
Marriage, Brett says, is a prerequisite for sex.
_ _ _
Waiting for class to begin, Brett started playing an air traffic control game on his iPod.
He had just finished the first of his four Friday classes and was waiting for the next class to begin.
Last year, he missed each of his classes multiple times.
Since January, since declaring a major in religion, and since marrying Sydney, he hasn’t missed or been late to any classes.
Ten minutes before 10:40 a.m., when class is supposed to start, the professor walks in. Brett follows behind him and takes a seat to the far right.
Two girls walk in talking about some party the night before.
Three other students talk about the Bob Dylan concert that’s coming to the O’Connell Center that night.
“I mean, $20 to see a legend,” one student says. “Totally worth it.”
Once the students settle in, Brett keeps to himself, and the professor talks about the Code of Hammurabi and the Hebrew Bible.
Brett answers some questions. Compared to everyone else, he doesn’t look that different.
Part of growing up, he believes, is focusing on each task, one at a time.
Brett likes video games, movies and motorcycles.
He likes to run. He likes to read.
So much has changed, and so much has stayed the same.
Entering his third year of college, Brett’s grown up.
He now knows what he wants to do.
He no longer spends time with friends. His first priority is his wife.
He no longer stays up late at night. He goes to bed at 11 p.m.
His friends aren’t college students. His friends are older married couples Brett and Sydney meet at First Assembly of God. The two of them don’t even go to college ministries anymore because, as Brett says, “learning to love your spouse is more urgent.”
Near the end of the semester, they went to a party for the adults who work in the nursery at their church. It’s easier to spend time with older people when you’re married.
But still, it’s hard finding time between school and work.
_ _ _
In front of the Marlboros, behind the Jujyfruits, Brett works.
“Would you like a bag with that?” No.
“$2.18’s your total.”
The lady walks out of the store.
During his dinner break with Sydney, he only had time for small talk, but now he’s back at Walgreens. He’s not late.
“Code 50 to the front,” Brett calls into a phone. “Code 50 to the front.”
The lady with the bottle of Barefoot Moscato wine asks what’s going on.
“My manager has to clear it.”
“I’m too young.”
When the crowds go and the store’s empty, he plays with the coupon catalog; there’s nothing else to do.
Most of his 39 hours of work at Walgreens involves him standing behind the cash register waiting for something to do.
Still, despite his fiddling hands, he’s focused on work. If he focused on what’s at home, work would never get done.
_ _ _
Before heading to work, Brett has an hour to spend with Sydney after his last class ends Friday.
Brett walks to the living room and pieces together the changing table.
Try the screw, nope. Try a different type of screw. It works.
When you buy furniture on Craigslist, it doesn’t come with instruction manuals.
“Do you need help?” his wife asks.
He says no. Soon the changing table starts to look like a changing table.
“Should I register for the classes I like,” she asks him, regarding the spring semester, “and hope?”
Brett doesn’t know what to tell his wife.
Do you just hope that professors will let you schedule your finals around your due date? Or do you contact the professors before registering? If you contact them first, what if you don’t even get in that class?
And some professors don’t tell you how to contact them until the first class.
They pay for everything through scholarships and grants. Sydney put her down payment on the condo through the money she got from selling a 2009 Ford Focus, which she won at a high school raffle.
There’s also the generosity of friends, like their Bible study leaders at church who gave them a 1999 Nissan Infiniti with 125,000 miles and an oil leak.
Brett finishes the changing table, screwing in the last of the screws. He packs up the pink screwdrivers that were wedding gifts.
It’s time to go now. It’s an eight-hour shift, but he takes a 30-minute dinner break after four hours. He grabs his wife’s hand, and the two 20-year-olds walk out the door together. Brett leans in to kiss his wife, rubs her belly and talks to the unseen baby.