Princeton, 2001 (Et in acedia ego)
The idea to travel had come to me, fittingly, if lazily, last New Year’s Eve. Home for Christmas during my freshman year at Princeton, the holidays had proven awful. My father had reminded me, ad-nauseam—“let me remind you once more,” a finger shaking with a sauve savagery, “that you are the fourth generation of our family to attend that self-same institution,” notable for me because our parents had not-so-secretly doubted that I would get in— anyway, I had been home, from there, and it had been awful.
The wills of patriarchs are too often parodically prolonged but that Christmas ours had come crashing down. As with any old New England family’s, it had done so quietly and with a minimum of disturbance to anyone, save myself. As the oldest son of the oldest son of a still older New England family, it had spent its remaining force on reminding me of my “responsibilities” and recalling them with all of the power of home. Our childhood and our adolescence, but praise me not our present, had, like most of our predecessors’, been spent in the smallness of Carlton, New Hampshire, a town filled with large clapboard houses and all the extravagance of an early American inanity.
As a child, of course, a family history is hard to contemplate. Fortunately, we had extensive help from our father who, having shown-up his brothers by being born first, is the chairman of our family business, Belicor Publishing. Belicor is a not entire- ly unimportant publishing concern. It is one of the oldest and largest privately held firms of its sort in the States. Its family
forerunner printed pamphlets or broadsheets for either indepen- dent-minded revolutionaries or royalists, depending on who has drunk too much Christmas punch. Regardless of its original intentions, the firm is a family one and our father, a sixty-year- old silver-haired well-groomed-but-portly control freak, insisted on taking Christmas to remind me that I am to succeed him as its chief executive: nominally of the literary arm but more imperatively of the division that controls our family profits, most of which are no longer embedded in books per se, but in high- end literary accoutrements: bookends, pens, gold bookmarks, and other such stuff.
Our mother had just left for New York to follow up her own publishing success. She had contracted elsewhere, since romance novels, my father had insisted, unironically, were not part of Belicor’s portfolio. She’d gotten her own back a bit when her book hit shelves. Our father had expected, as Sean translated him, for it to sell like cockrings at an abstinence rally but she had done well. Actually, when I had read it, I had liked it.
She’d called it An Unanticipated A.Ifair and instead of her heroine, Waltroud, being beautiful, busty, and well-put together, she starts off weepy, fat, and flustered. Too attentive to everyone around her, Waltroud causes so little conflict that her coworkers, her family, and her few selfish friends all ignore her. Isolated and alone she loses herself in cheap paperbacks and cries herself to sleep. Then one evening, someone’s paunch interrupts her on her bus ride home. Its owner has read what she’s reading and is interested, he says, in what she thinks of it. Soon they are having dinner together every week. Her life gets better and better until it gets worse, then it evens out and it ends up not so unpleasantly. The set-up is really ingenious and once you get past Waltroud’s exasperating dependence on cinnamon buns and her brown paper bagging of everything, her story is worth reading, even if I’m the only one in our family that glanced past the first five pages.
Our lives though, my mother’s and mine, have always been more adventurous. This is what, after all, caused the New England uproar when she’d finally taken off to New York. She’d needed,
she said, to find “inspiration” for her next novel. After she’s done, everyone said, though they never said with what, she’ll come back. Of course it’s not as though she’d need to: an unmarried uncle, who had invested well, I think, in the eighties, had left her a substantial legacy. This is good because our father would never give her one red cent. He would claim—I know him, he would—that every last penny was “wrapped up in the business.” Once, and only once, I had alluded that a public separation might pique an interest in her work, boosting her already respectable sales among the Kroger crowd. She had wondered briefly, with a metallic sweetness, how some stranger’s separation could possibly affect her book. All of which goes to show that she still really is one of us. Silence … it’s the perfect panacea. This is all but our family motto.
To tell the truth, I am glad that she went to New York. She is much closer to Princeton. All I have to do now is jump on a train and in an hour or so we can be having dinner, usually at some flashy restaurant that has just been “discovered” by her new agent, AJ. As of yet, of course, this has only happened twice, as they are busy trying to pitch the movie rights to Waltroud. Really, I think she wants to protect me from the vulgarity surrounding scrounging for VIP tables and talking to illiterate go-betweens and movie producers at tacky clubs. Anyway we have several outings planned for the spring. Shows, exhibitions, cultural stuff that you just can’t get back in Carlton, and that she would want to do with me.
I can’t imagine Sean and her going around in New York. And Donny, well … of the three of us, I’m the only one she takes to shows. The other two take no interest. Despite Sean’s alleged brilliance, he really has an anemic intelligence. He thinks he’s smart because his whole life he has gotten good grades and sports awards, neither being too hard to “Achieve at St. Ann’s Academy!” an unearned school motto if ever there was one, and one which only shows how poorly GPA actually attests to ability. Last month he turned eighteen but he’s still totally without sense. One night, for instance, not three months ago, he passed me a note just before dinner, behind the back of our father, asking if
I liked “cockaegne.” Then he snickered all throughout the meal. Our father hates private jokes, almost as much as he hates drugs and bad French.
Some people, though, shine despite their innate insipidity and Sean is worse than all St. Ann’s acolytes put together. He combines inanity and effortless arrogance to be not what in any sane world he should be, a nonentity, but an “over-achiever,” and recently he has just gotten worse, particularly since he found out that Princeton not only did not wait-list him—the year I had applied, there had been a record number of applicants and staggering few last year; the statistics are in the alumni news- letter—but offered him an early acceptance. People still haven’t stopped congratulating the little matriculant. No matter, my philistine frère, one day incompetence will out.
Then there is Donny. Poor Donny, Donald, our youngest brother. He’s not so much annoying as he is just sickly. He has never had the chance to worry about grades or school or any ordi- nary childhood hang-ups. Really, I feel sorry for him. He’s a good kid and he always tries to smile, which must be difficult when half the time he has tubes down his throat. When even his own family waits until just before Christmas to buy him his presents.
The rest of our family, even the competing cousins, our uncles’ kids, we see only on holidays, so they’re pretty unimportant. Though, it was one of them who told me, struggling in her over- long Christmas Eve evening gown, that she was going to East Asia with friends for spring break and made me realize that trav- el, of course, was the perfect way to get out of the next family get-together.
This hadn’t, though, proved as easy as I’d thought, so I’d abandoned the plan. Until, with next Christmas break rearing its horny head once more, some kids in my eating club started planning a ski trip to Aspen and gave me the perfect excuse for why I couldn’t come home.
Luckily, I was able to avoid being asked, directly, to go on the trip myself. This was tricky because it quickly became the inane topic of conversation for the semester, where to ski, where
to eat, where to drink, the answer to the latter being, of course, “everywhere.”
So, I let drop halfway through last term that I had plans to travel over break with kids from Carlton. This was a deft response on my part, since the wide-ranging social status of small New Hampshire towns and the restraints of an almost hereditary snobbery prevented anyone from asking too many questions. By this point, even those who I know for a fact came to Jersey only because they were denied entrance elsewhere, to St. Andrews or to Oxford, say, are so unbelievably entrenched in Princetonian prejudices that afraid as they are of associating with someone from an actually impressive school and getting ridiculed, they are still more terrified of contaminating contacts with, as the resident snob of our eating club, Alan Stanton, says, pitching his voice at increasingly inaudible intervals and stretching it so as not to pro- nounce his r’s, “an infehiah institution.” I can only imagine what he, and everyone else, thought when I intimated that I would be traveling with guys not from St. Ann’s but with three or four friends from around town. A few kids had said that this sounded adventurous, but after that, so far as I heard, the subject never again touched their Evelyn Waugh-like lips.
Anyway, my ruse worked, even though all I had known then was that by Christmas I would be tired of hanging out with any Princetonians and that there was no way in hell I would want to go back home. The flops from St. Ann’s would be there and last summer I had found that their first, and obviously unedify- ing, year at over-ivied extensions of St. Ann’s—prickae vigent sub pecuniam—with all of the latter’s inadequacies had served simply to bring out the arrogant and willfully ignorant streaks that had been so carefully cultivated in prep school.
Besides, I knew that if I did go back, I would risk seeing Javier, the sole son of the Court Club’s director.
Javier. Javier had turned up a few months after his father, who had been appointed last winter, having recently, it was rumored, divorced his wife back in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Despite such “questionable credentials,” Javier was accepted into our group
almost immediately. This unlikely integration, moreover, seemed an almost natural occurrence as in the summer the club pool was the one “public” place in Carlton not stultifying with pink ladies lunching, and we had encountered him there day after day. It was poolside where, after a morning shift, he would lounge around looking amazingly unencumbered, his boardshorts hanging half-idly off of his smooth slippery hips. It also hadn’t hurt that he had managed to procure and then to copy his father’s master key and so he had gained an almost unlimited access to the club’s top-of-the-line sports equipment, to its food, and to more than a fair share of its alcohol, most of which we could have paid for but which it was more fun to have for free. He would often, in fact, egg us on, wheedling or mocking us, although most of the guys did not need too much prodding to take what was, as he pseudo-logically put it, ours already.
Subtly smart and instinctively manipulative, he was also exciting. He was a whirlwind of energy. Mornings, I think, he worked with the club’s cleaning crew. I once saw him, secretly, in that uniform. But in the afternoon he’d look as fresh as if he’d been sleeping for hours. He’d meet up with us and draw us into some quasi-destructive plan he had concocted, soccer on the back nine or contact-squash in some empty basement room. He was intoxicatingly funny and often terrifying, staying underwa- ter too long or driving golf carts off of homemade ramps. He was funnier, raunchier, and more ignited than anyone we knew.
To his father, he remained rigidly respectful, but with a secret air of anarchy. This poise appeared to right all wrongs, including his own petty tyrannies. His rippling sun-browned body, which he sported despite the conspicuous absence of any serious New England sun, made him a natural leader of minor rebellions, while it made the rest of us look sallow and weak. It also covered, I think, an intense underlying unhappiness. For when he was near us, his char- ismatic, almost cruel excitement would flood into others causing them to overlook his own situation, namely that his hard-working father had removed him from their hot inured home to the cold standoffishness of Carlton, almost entirely against his own will.
Javier’s own employment at the club, moreover, was not a suc- cess. His father had assigned him the least liked tasks, fixing the always clogged sports facility toilets and wiping mold off of the shower walls, though early on I overheard staff members griping in soft acidic voices that he refused to work, that he sat sullenly for hours while others begrudgingly covered for him, not wanting to report him or risk antagonizing his father. I don’t doubt that this was true. He had an active indolence, and even with us, I had seen him scam and weasel his way into closed-off spaces and towards restricted riches with only the least amount of effort to himself.
He was not, in truth, all that nice to anyone. Paradoxically, almost painfully, this came across most perceptibly in his inter- actions with those with whom, I’d have thought, he should have most sympathized. A sometime sartorial brotherhood appeared not even to give him pause when leading us into the changing rooms where club employees stored their street clothes in cub- byholes. Once, I’m ashamed to admit, we followed him into the back and removed, at random, pink and blue Goodwill polos and tattered khakis, and, at his prompting, tossed them into the showers, which he’d had one of us turn on full to cold. A week or so later, he and a few others set off stink-bombs in the back bathrooms during the dinner rush, rendering them unusable. Waiters became more watchful. Items went missing. Locks were quietly placed on doors. All to little avail. On Sunday evenings, his pockets, I am almost sure of it, were always a little fuller than they had been on Friday afternoons.
Javier himself used only the front conveniences and changed only in the members’ locker rooms. He seemed fond of flaunting himself in front of the older, and even some of the younger, flab- bier men, at least he did when I was there, flashing a sunsoaked grin and then purposefully pulling down his shorts. Everyone noticed him. How could they not, with his black pubic hair stark against his brown skin? Most patrons pretended not to pay him attention but a few openly gawked at him, for in all he did, he exuded a flawless, lawless charm that made his every movement seem right and almost pleasurably painful to watch.
Toward the end of that summer, however, the situation had changed. Three weeks before we all, save Javier, had to return to school, he had procured the key to one of the club’s most closely-guarded cellars, one closed even to his master key. He had subsequently sequestered three cases of wine, stashing them in an unused basement storeroom. The next day, we had sat around and gotten preposterously, dionysianly drunk. At first it had been fun. We talked about our first year away and made plans for the second. Then Javier, in a rare self-revelatory mood, had talked about Puerto Rico, and about the girls there, and about what he had done with them and about what they had done with him, the over-air-conditioned room growing hotter as he had leered, at me alone it seemed, slyly. Then a couple of the others, then everyone, their lips disgustingly stained, had joined in, talking about girls, embellishing what I knew already were lies, obscenities flying, making the subject more and more sickening, until everyone, Javier included, had thrown up in an involuntary orgy of self-disgust.
The next day our hard-earned hangovers had been hellacious. Mine was at least, and I had not drunk nearly so much as the others. I had kept count. Still, these were a mere inconvenience compared to what was in store for our symposiarch. After obtain- ing the key, Javier had, unfortunately, gotten uncharacteristically cold feet. So he had snuck into the cellar on his own to grab what we would drink. This was a tactical error on his part. He had not anticipated a system for discerning which bottles were drinkable, which were unready, and which were irreplaceable, nor had he, I supppose, even suspected that such a system could exist. He had also, as a gracious host, insisted on pouring the first six or seven bottles himself, with the result that, despite his ceremonious announcement of each one, we had none of us any clear idea of what, exactly, it was that we were drinking, not that this necessarily would have made much of a difference. Anyhow, we had apparently consumed a few auctioned Napas the club had acquired, a few Barolos, and a fairly conspicuous amount from a case of not quite ripe “Château Margaux.” When I found this out later I heard eerie echoes in my ear of “Mār-ga,” “Mār-ga.”
The next night, I later learned, an assistant sommelier had gone into the club’s reserve room to grab a bottle from a shelf above one of the precipitously reduced cases. By sheer bad luck she must have glanced down and noticed that a portion of the case’s contents had been appropriated. After a quick peek around, she must have found several more officially complete crates par- tially emptied—easily recognizable, I suppose, thanks to the new director’s system for marking the ordered removal of bottles— and had immediately informed the restaurant manager. He had, in turn, informed Javier’s father, so as not to be blamed himself. This was probably a wise decision because when the director had found out, he had been furious. He had gotten the sales list and had visited the cellar himself. Then he’d had all of the staff lockers searched, had threatened to sack the sommelier, and had ordered cameras installed in all of the rooms storing alcohol. Finally, instead of further upsetting his staff, as this had happened on a busy Friday night, this strong silent type, who had clearly not known who it was who had cost the club a significant amount of money, and a great investment, had gone home and had beaten the shit out of his son. When I saw Javier the next Monday he would not even look at me and all the smooth tender skin around his eyes, once almond colored, had been more black and blue than even our teeth had been that sorry-sick late afternoon.
After that, everyone had decided that hanging out with Javier had not been so much fun as we had pretended and he had ignored us. Once or twice, I had tried to talk to him, but when he saw any of us, he would slip away, a look of scarcely contained fear and fury on his face. It was awful, at once a betrayal of our friendship and a relief.
What all this adds up to is that there was now no one whom I wanted to see in Carlton, and since I didn’t want to end up stuck in our stifling old house, I knew that I had to find someplace where I could spend winter break, someplace where I could be on my own yet not alone, someplace surfeited with the restrained arms of anonymity. I knew also, of course, that I would go to Europe. To a capital that I could idolize idly as a comfortable
pivot point between a deliciously decadent past, for in our minds we are all always aristocrats, and the glass and concrete exuber- ance of an ever-expanding a-venir. To someplace outside the everpresent immediacy of the U.S., with its contracted spotlight on no more than a few years forward from a few years back.
This sense of being stuck is why I just could not go back to Carlton. Especially after last summer, which, Javier aside even, had just been so frustrating.
I don’t want to remember it. But I do.
Before Javier had all but disappeared, really before we had started talking, I had started to go to the club’s gym. I’d begun lifting weights and running track. I would get there at around eight or nine, a few hours before the weightroom would close, but long after those who typically use it, mainly baby-powdered old men, had left.
I’m not sure why I had started. Perhaps to avoid Gwen— Gwen, Gwendolyn, my girlfriend of the last three years. Overall Gwen was fine, and I had enjoyed spending time with her. I had simply wanted to avoid, I suppose, her increasingly inevitable inquests into when—and keep in mind that her incessant insin- uations had become a strained hammering into my brain—we were going to become “intimate.” And come on, if someone talks about it like that, using such hackneyed clichés, wouldn’t anyone be cautious? Wouldn’t anyone wonder if their partner was really ready?! And I wasn’t going to pressure her. I wasn’t even going to encourage her, I had promised myself, until she was ready, and she was not. She was simply insistent. She kept on repeating, over and over, that after a year apart she was ready to do what I had not once asked of her but what she now knew I wanted.... ?!?!
All she would say was that she’d had a couple of “late night chats” with her sorors, what they had called “confessions,” and that she was now ready “to progress physically”—she had laid some oddly flushed, pseudo-initiated emphasis on the last syllable—if I could make her some sort of commitment, the “commitment” part being her sole identifiable addition to the whole script.
Needless to say, I am not a prude. It was her approach that put me off. Not her assertiveness. That was great. Or it would have been had it been her own. What had bothered me was her aggressively reactive attitude to it all. She was so forceful, and at the same time so indifferent. “To progress physically.” Who could succumb to such a clinical come-on? It had sounded as if she had wanted to perform some science fair experiment at the end of which she would go back to her sorority, stand up on some stage, and announce the results, and I have never done all that well, and she knew it, under pressure.
Not to mention that I have no clue when we even would have found time to do what she thought she, what she thought I, what she obviously thought someone wanted, as she was always trying to get us to hang out with her idiotic older brother, Chad. Chad had, so far as I could tell, come home last summer for the first time in years, and, initially, I was far from happy about it.
I remembered him primarily as one of those boys who want you to feel as if they’re always about to beat you up. Not that he could have. Beat me up, I mean, and he never attempted to though he did constantly try, and fail, to embarrass me. Gwen and I had been together, though not together, at St. Ann’s since grade school and almost the entire time we had been friends. Yet whenever I’d gone over to her house Chad would ask me how Old Alexis, the local all girls school, was, slurring his x’s and his s’s, as if he had a lisp. This was ridiculous, and for several reasons: the first being that he was only three grades ahead of us at St. Ann’s and I know that he had seen me in the hallways; and second because Old Alexis is an all girls school! and while I am not sure what precisely he was trying to imply, since for at least part of this time I was dating his sister, and I was on the St. Ann’s soccer team, which is all boys, it was obvious that he had wanted to mock me. A pretty good reason, I would say, for me, and thus for my girlfriend when she was with me, to want to stay away from him.
Gwen had not seen it this way. She had simply said that her parents had asked her to keep an eye on him and that she had
said that she would. Obviously, since she, for some inexplicable reason, adored him and he seemed to like her alright too, to the extent that he seemed to like anyone. Fine. Everyone likes Gwen. But when I suggested that perhaps they should spend some time alone together she had told me that I was being petty. The result being that, between her summer job and her after-hours brother- sitting, we were rarely alone together and what little time we did have she spent needling me about what was by then, and by her own doing, practically an impossibility!
Hence all my time hanging out at the club, despite the fact that I was one of the few guys with a girlfriend. Then about half- way through the summer, the situation changed. Chad and I had, I guess, somehow started, not that it was, not at first, I don’t think, consciously planned, to “run into each other” in the locker room, about an hour before closing—these were—well they were not innocent encounters. Maybe the first one was, but not the next one or the next one or the one after that, so that for the rest of the summer, and after, I was obsessed with short sweaty scenes, with wooden benches and rubber mats, with the odors of exercised men and late-night exertions, with sweltering showers wherein an entire nakedness was, to my petrified excitement, enforced.
One benefit from these evenings was that Chad quit teasing me. Another was that he started to ask me over himself. For one week into June, some local design firm, like a dea-ex-economica, had hired Gwen as a paid summer intern—of course her taking the job proved that her “having” to watch her brother had been all in her head—and this left him to his own devices. He typically, I discovered, spent his days sleeping until noon, sometimes one, leaving him “unattended” for only about four hours until she got home; but the point remains.... Regardless, I ended up spending
most of these hours hanging out at her house with him. This doubly pleased her, for I fulfilled her sisterly responsibilities, letting her off her own hook, and Chad and I were, as she saw it, becoming “friends.”
As it turned out, by ourselves we got along fairly well, even outside the locker room. We both enjoy slightly sarcastic
absurdities and we both like scandals, even if we have to make them up on our own. We both had, moreover, at least that sum- mer, a desire to be athletic in a lazy sidestroke sort of way, before wanting to relax by a pool; lucky for us, his parents, who were not known for their taste, had recently had one built smack behind their kitchen in their walled-in backyard. This is, I suppose, the benefit of one’s house not being historic. Sometimes we swam but most often we’d just lounge alongside it, me with an offbrand LaCroix and him with a whiskey sour.
What brought us close though, really, I think, was that we were both fellow travelers through Carlton. We could distract each other from this insipid petty town filled with its St. Ann societies and those who served them: the socialites, waiters, tat- tletales, and in-betweens at the Court Club whom Chad seemed to know so intimately—this is how I found out what had hap- pened after our symposium—though once out of earshot he always scorned them, a favor, I’d wager, that was returned.
By halfway through the summer, certainly after my club- set disbanded, we were secluding ourselves at his house as if in protest every afternoon. I would go over around one by which time he was generally up and at least inclined to try to overcome his hangover, most often with what he called a “wake-me-up on the rocks.” After which we would spend the rest of the after- noon, depending on how drunk he still was, swimming and sunbathing, with more or less clothes on—I can still remember how clean it felt to go gliding through the water without a suit on—or he would teach me to play tennis on the nearby public courts. He was surprisingly competent. He had played varsity at St. Ann’s though he had not kept it up in college. After this we would head to his room, grabbing a refill along the way to rehydrate. He would then show me the “indie” film collection on his computer, which he would play at a terrifyingly loud volume while we lay awkwardly around, letting the liberties on screen compensate for our more timid self-touchings. This would last right up until a half-hour before we expected his sister back or his parents to come home from Concord. Then, like clockwork,
he would cut off whatever it was that was on, and we would clean up—glasses, bottles, bowls—after which we would sit silently and worn-out in their hackneyed plaid and wood paneled living room, waiting for the first unwanted arrival.
I can still recall the tension of waiting in that room. His face took on a pout, just a millimeter or so off from the one I frequently saw on Gwen. I’d never noticed before how much they looked alike. How much they were alike. Of course he was taller and thicker and, I imagine, much better in bed, though he tended to be more moody. When we were alone, he was funny and friendly, sometimes playfully fierce and occasionally tender, sneaking me drinks, which for him was tender, and twice he let me beat him at tennis.
Should anyone else come around though, particularly Gwen, he’d snap abruptly back as if someone had thrown a switch. Really, it was funny that she believed we were friends. He paid me no attention in front of her save occasionally to insult me, which in some ways made him, made the whole situation still worse. He laid off the Old Alexis jokes, but he would make fun of some word I had said or of some small freckle on my arm or on my ankle, which only an hour ago his fingers had been all over.
This just made me mad at them both. It was probably this, in fact, that tore us apart. Me and Gwen. I would think he had planned it, if I was not so sure that he had been entirely indiffer- ent to us being together … and while I am willing to admit that I was perhaps a little unfair to her during all this, she was hardly Miss Manners herself. She’d act thrilled to see me when she got home but she never once defended me when he was mean to me. Of course, the whole mess blew over when they both went back to Vanderbilt. He had gone first then she had followed one week later. For whatever reason, he had not told me that he was leaving. We had spent his second-to-last day in Carlton together, and thirty-six hours after, he was gone. He had apparently been on academic probation and was required to attend a pre-term prep course in order to return. Gwen told me later that she had avoided the subject herself because she had thought it would be
a nice surprise for me, which was either a magnificently vicious move or it shows the degree to which she’d thought that I had hated him and therefore how selfish she had been all along.
Regardless, when he left, Gwen and I came undone. I became inexplicably gray, as if a fog had diffused through my brain, and although I tried, and I really did, I just didn’t feel like spending time, such an odd phrase, with her. Unfortunately, with her brother gone and the summer coming to an end, she at last stepped up the pressure. She kept on and on in a thousand little ways until I figured, what the hell? So we did … except, as it turns out, we did not. Not technically. It was awful, and then embarrassing, and then we really did not, and soon after we seemed to stop speaking until one day we decided mutually, as mutually as one person writing another person a withering letter referencing a very, very brief moment of whatever can be, that it was best we break up. Even then, of course, I knew it was for the best. My mind and body were working in unison to keep me from committing and that convinced me that I needed to figure out what, exactly, I wanted before … well, who knows?
I guess I sensed somehow that before settling, I should explore all my options, that I should learn what else was out there. I didn’t want to wake up one morning regretting what I had missed, and had missed willingingly. This is how, I suppose, my mind prepared me for the idea of Amsterdam.
The precise idea of Amsterdam, my Amsterdam, probably germinatedatSt.Ann’s. I remember classmatessporadically spreading rumors of the encounters to be had there, that had been had there, in that city of sex, just off the street, waiting for anyone who wanted them. Several boys told obviously embel- lished stories about older brothers who had gone abroad and met girls, met women, in absentia of homebound hang-ups. A few older kids, the more “mature” hirsute types, outrightly claimed that they had had such adventures themselves, although when asked, their stories tended to contradict their own details. Was a certain flat by the Oude Kirk or somewhere right inside the Singel? Some produced, as promised, the occasional souvenir.
One delinquent brought in a receipt printed in Keene, but they were all, for one reason or another, suspect. Perhaps because each intrepid traveler, no matter how old they looked, pictured no matter how far outside the school, imagined surrounded by no matter how many sketchy bare-breasted women, evoked simply a puerile rule-bound boy in a crested blue blazer, as tense as a ramrod. It’s hard enough for me to believe that I have done what I have, and I could produce far more evidence than any of them. By the end of last August though, with first Chad gone then Gwen, I was, to put it lightly, shaken. I had been with her for the past three years, and breaking up, even though we’d hardly talked the last fall and winter and scarcely more that summer, was like discarding part of whomever I’d thought I had been, of whomever I’d thought I’d become. My expectations were uproot- ed. It was in the resulting emptiness that the stem of the idea of going to Amsterdam, not to force the metaphor, perked up from wherever it had been hiding, came to the forefront of my mind,
I was grateful for this when I returned to school and in early autumn I began to daydream of going to Amsterdam. Not for vacation or to retreat but as the fulfillment of a responsibility to whomever I might one day marry. A responsibility to figure out what I want and what might just work, whether it be with someone small or tall or dark or blond or busty or rambunctious or relaxed or unexpectedly strict. Granted, this seems a shallow shopping list, but if you don’t start with a spark, what will you fan into a flame? The more I thought about it, the more the idea intrigued me.
Not that I thought about it a lot. I did not. After all, I had calculus, philosophy, various histories, and our eating club’s social scene, in addition to all life’s daily minute demands.
Until one day, checking my e-mail in the library, I decided, on a whim, to look up “Amsterdam.” I wanted just a sense of the city. Simply typing in the word, however, I felt, really gladly, a rising excitement. The search engine reported almost instantly, calling up first cafés and concert halls, then shops and museums,
then hotels and historic public places of shrinking significance. The next two pages showed banks, businesses, universities, gov- ernment websites, all the weights of a world-renowned city. Next I refined my search to “Amsterdam attractions” or some-such. Without warning, evidence of the city’s, well, more “intimate” recreations appeared. Alarmed, I peered about me, a spritely troll twisting. Thankfully, it was a warm afternoon and my obscure corner was all but empty.
I remember clicking quickly in and out of several sites, my nerves humming, my feet tapping, my ears open for any hint of some new sound. I clicked cautiously on a few innocuous looking shops selling pot, a few touting “safe shrooms,” one escort agency advertising women referred to as “models” and one as “modals,” the malapropisms of a commercial cosmopolitanism, and then, like when you spend hours searching the web for certain purpos- es, glorious cycles of self-suspension, and you promise yourself just one more site, just one more, I clicked on The Golden Eagle. I recall this one especially because it flashed shockingly red gothic letters that spelled out “virtuelle vixens,” the caption for diverse women on webcams who offered virtual and consequently oddly virtuous displays of what would, I presumed, be fleshed out in unpixelated detail once you reached the establishment. The whole idea was gut-wrenching, not just because I dreaded that someone would catch me gawking, though there was that, but more because staring felt so uncomfortably close to an impotent exploitation. Anyone could spy here for free, forever, without once affecting them, the women.
I x-ed out, grateful that not every site had been so specific. Specificity, however, has its own contagious currents. Several days later, researching chivalry and the politics of some thirteenth- century plague for my medieval history course, I came, by total surprise, across a site called Galahad’s Escort Service. I had honestly not been searching for this. For the past two days I had been researching for an essay on the “kiss of peace.” Then today, simply for kicks, I had typed in “chivalry,” “service,” and “baiser.” Previously such terms had led me to genealogies,
to etymologies, and to church art. Now it led me to an escort service. The unprotected edge where scholarship slides into sex.
Of course the name was tawdry, but so many more had been so much worse. Penelope’s Pornorama, for instance, so I suppose I was relieved to find, at last, a website without wem. Abandoning for a second my restraint, I clicked on the link and … it had not been at all what I was expecting … I felt myself expand, my legs, my stomach, undressed, they were undressed! I had not actually seen this sort of stuff, not in the flesh, so to speak, since August and I had forgotten how inimitable it is, so many male arms, legs, and thighs disappearing and reappearing, at dinner, at night, stiff hips shifting at the most awkward of angles, I was aching and appalled, repelled and pulled in, nauseated with lust. Shit! I remember thinking, shitshitshit, someone could see this …
I shot up, banging my knee. Wincing and simultaneously struggling to open a new window, I envisoned the proleptic news flash: “Local Carlton kid kicked out of Princeton for looking up—.” Trying not to grimace and to ignore this new throbbing, I look around with what I hope is an air of indifference, as if I’m waiting for someone who has not yet arrived. But no one, no one notices at me. The few kids around are too far off, too bent over, and too engrossed in their own engagements.
I try to memorize their indifference, because I know that afterwards I will imagine …
Still shaken, I lean back then lift my head to look for a clock. There it is, on the wall. Yes, it matches my watch. Good. “How disciplined he is.” “Where’s his friend?” I peek around once more. No one’s paying attention. I’ve put on a show without an audience. I return to my screen, vaguely relieved. The pain in my knee subsides. What I had seen must have been a lure, an opportunity for the agency to show off their models—and my god, for while I know that this will sound like a lie, the sex of these models is a surprise. I’d honestly not thought that there would be that sort of
… “entertainment” in Amsterdam.
The kid nearest me gets up and leaves.
A lacquered forest of U-shaped stacks stands behind me.
In front stretches a long broad table, an aisle, more tables then more stacks. I put in one earbud. My entire body tenses. I take a deep breath then switch windows, unmuting the speakers. The streaming images from earlier, a beautifully evoked “éveil,” have receded into a nearly static background. All that remains are a couple of poorly pixelated twentyish-year-olds dressed up as angels, escorting angels, who every few seconds point to a not quite misused mythological icon, a spear, a lyre, a grail, that symbolize the different options offered by the establishment. Into my ear, meanwhile, floats a softly sinuous organ music, soothing and discreet.
Navigating through the icons leads to low-resolution shots of grainy rooms. I’ve just clicked the chalice, when behind me I hear a tap. Before I’ve consciously told it to, my finger has tapped the mouse to hit the “x” button at the upper edge of the screen. My heart unzips as I turn around. No one is near. My body convulses. From between two stacks, a librarian appears pushing a cart—
She peers at me, her mouth taut. She seems the type to detest students. I peer back. Through a crack in my brain I realize that her accusing eyes have slid on to the others at the opposite end of the room.
We are, none of us, to her, out of the ordinary.