“Out! Out! Out!” The first words Julian Wainwright ever spoke, according to his father, Richard Wainwright III, graduate of Yale and grand lubricator of the economic machinery, and Julian’s mother, Constance Wainwright, Wellesley graduate and descendant of a long family of Pennsylvania Republicans. Julian, the first Wainwright in four generations to be given his own Christian name. Julian’s father would have liked another Richard Wainwright, but Julian’s mother was a persistent woman and she believed a child of hers was entitled to his own identity and therefore his own name. And so, at fifteen months, in a car ride back from Martha’s Vineyard, Julian, who until then had not said a word and had given his parents every reason to think language would come slowly to him, uttered these words in rapid succession: “Out! Out! Out!” Not once, not twice, but repeatedly, until the words became a chant and it was obvious that for reasons all his own he didn’t want to return to New York City, to his parents’ apartment on Sutton Place.
Now, seventeen years later, he had gotten his wish. It was 1986, and he was starting his freshman year at Graymont College, a small liberal arts school in Northington, Massachusetts, two hours west of Boston. An alternative school, according to the Graymont brochure, on whose cover there appeared a picture of Rousseau sitting next to a cow. Henri Rousseau? Jean-Jacques Rousseau? The students didn’t know, and they didn’t seem to care. The only thing that mattered was that they were at Graymont, in the middle of whose campus stood a shanty protesting college investments in South Africa, a shanty so large it could fit practically the whole student body inside it. According to one upper-class math major, more nights per capita had been spent sleeping inside the shanty at Graymont than in any other college shanty in the United States.
At Graymont, if you wanted, you could receive comments from your professors instead of grades, and on the application for admission there was a “creative expression” section that, according to rumor, one successful applicant had completed by baking a chocolate cake. “Hash brownies!” a student said. “The guy got the dean of admissions stoned!”
Julian’s own creative expression section took the form of a short story he’d written. At thirteen, he’d met his hero, John Cheever, standing on the steps of the 92nd Street Y, and ever since then, ever since he’d gotten John Cheever’s autograph, Julian had known he was going to be a writer.
But that would come later, once classes had begun. Right now, Julian waited in his dorm room to greet his new roommate, a young man from New Jersey who had assured him over the telephone that he was bringing the largest stereo system Julian had ever seen. It was going to take the two of them to carry it up the stairs.
Julian’s roommate was right. The promised stereo system, when it was delivered, looked like an intercontinental ballistic missile. It was a stereo system paid for by Ronald Reagan and built by the United States Pentagon and directed at Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Politburo, a stereo system that could blow the Russians out of the sky and turn them into a mushroom cloud.
Wandering about the room, trailing wire behind him, Julian’s roommate was contemplating where to put his electric guitar, his boom box, his microwave, his toaster oven; he was, Julian thought, a tangle of electricity. “This school is wild,” his roommate said. “Some of the guys on campus wear skirts.”
“They’re hoping to transcend the boundaries of gender. Mostly they’re just trying to get laid. There are naked parties here. People come to them without any clothes on.”
“In the winter, I guess, they wear shoes and socks. It gets pretty cold here.” Julian’s roommate was dark-haired and thickset, and he had brought with him piles of pressed shirts and trousers, each of them separated from the others by a white piece of tissue paper, as if they had come directly from the dry cleaner. He was hanging them up now, smoothing them out with his hand. “You think those guys pee in the shower?”
“Jared and Hartley. Bill. Stefan.” Julian’s roommate gestured to the room down the hall. “Hartley’s the kind of guy who pees in the shower.”
In the bathroom now, Julian glanced warily at the showers. There were two stalls for six guys, each with a white piece of plastic hanging down from the rod but not quite reaching the floor.
“It’s bad enough to pee in your own shower,” his roommate said. “But in a communal shower?” He looked up at Julian. “You don’t pee in the shower, do you?”
“No,” Julian said. From time to time he had. Didn’t everyone?
“I had this roommate in prep school who peed in the sink.”
“You didn’t,” Julian said.
“Swear to God. When I was using the bathroom and he needed to go, he’d just climb up on the sink and pee in it.”
“All the same, I think I’ll be wearing flip-flops in here.” Again his roommate gestured to the room down the hall, as if to reassure Julian it wasn’t him he mistrusted.
“Here come the PCC-ers,” his roommate said. Through the window, Julian could see a group of students walking across the quad. They wore blue badges and name tags and held red and black satchels. They were upperclassmen, Julian’s roommate said, recent graduates of a weeklong training course in reproductive health, purveyors of information about pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, and in their satchels they carried the tools of their trade: leaflets, condoms, dental dams, and spermicide in all flavors.
Julian said, “The PCC-ers?”
“Peer Contraceptive Counseling. First night at school, they come talk to you. It’s all part of in loco parentis.”
“There are dozens of them.”
“Like flies,” his roommate said.
That night, as his roommate had predicted, everyone in Julian’s entryway met with four members of Peer Contraceptive Counseling, each wearing a PCC badge and name tag and holding a red and black PCC satchel. In freshman entryways across campus, upperclassmen had descended, wearing these very same badges and name tags and carrying these very same satchels.
Julian listened to a beautiful young woman named Nicole demonstrate how to use a dental dam. What exactly was a dental dam and why was Nicole wearing one? She appeared to be covered in Saran Wrap. Now Nicole’s colleagues, Brian, Ted, and Simone, were trying on dental dams as well. Several of the boys began to laugh, but the girls nodded knowingly, as if they’d spent their whole lives in the company of dental dams.
Soon it was time to taste the spermicide.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Nicole said, uncapping a tube of spermicide and squeezing a little onto her finger. She stuck her finger into her mouth, then passed the spermicide to Ted, who stuck his finger into his mouth. Everyone was eating spermicide.
“It’s fruit flavor,” Nicole told the freshmen. “It’s supposed to be eaten.”
She asked for volunteers from the students, and when no one raised a hand she chose Julian.
Julian stood up. Was he supposed to stand up? Did you eat spermicide sitting down or standing up? Nicole was only a junior, but she seemed so much older than he was, so wise to the ways of the body and to the various flavors of spermicide and to the reasons there should be various flavors of spermicide.
“Would you like passion fruit?” Nicole asked. “Or strawberry?”
“Strawberry’s good,” Julian said.
Nicole handed him the spermicide.
“Don’t worry,” Nicole said. “It goes down smooth. It tastes like strawberry bubble gum.”
Julian squeezed some spermicide onto his finger and stuck it into his mouth.
“How does it taste?”
It tasted terrible. Like strawberry bubblegum but with extra chemicals. It had a sloppy, grainy texture. Julian nodded in approval.
The session lasted an hour and a half, and at the end of it all eighteen freshmen from Julian’s entryway were sent off with a contraceptive loot bag that included spermicide, dental dams, and condoms, miniature red and black satchels of their own taken from the larger satchels the PCC-ers carried with them. Carefully, seriously, respectfully, the girls took their satchels upstairs to their rooms, while the boys tossed the contents at one another and dissected them, and Hartley, from across the hall, filled his condoms with water and jettisoned them out the window into the courtyard, seeing if he could get them to explode.
Julian’s roommate said, “I’m telling you, that guy pees in the shower.”
“Could be,” Julian said. He went into his bedroom to unpack.
The reason Julian had come to Graymont, the only reason, as far as he was concerned, that anyone should come in the first place, was to study fiction writing with Professor Stephen Chesterfield. In the course catalogue the class was called “Fiction Writing Workshop,” but Professor Chesterfield hated the word “workshop,” which sounded like a church meeting, hated it, especially, as a verb (“Will my story be workshopped next time, Professor Chesterfield?”), the use of which was grounds for expulsion from his class.
If you were lucky enough to have been admitted in the first place.
Applicants to Professor Chesterfield’s class had to submit a writing sample and they were required to answer the following question: “Do you now, or do you ever intend to, write material geared for the U.S. motion picture industry located in Hollywood, California?”
Poor Professor Chesterfield. His only novel, published twenty-five years ago before the onset of his now famous writer’s block, had been sold to Hollywood, and Professor Chesterfield had been flown out to California to meet the screenwriter and the director and to witness the proceedings on the set. Nobody on the set got along, and in the end Professor Chesterfield’s novel never made it to the screen. Some people said it was Professor Chesterfield’s own fault. Displeased with the script, he acted brutishly, threatening the screenwriter, the director, the actors themselves. It was the darkest period in an already dark life, and in the wake of his trip to Hollywood, Professor Chesterfield’s bout with writer’s block began.
“Do you now, or do you ever intend to, write material geared for the U.S. motion picture industry located in Hollywood, California?” Julian suspected that F. Scott Fitzgerald himself wouldn’t have been admitted to Professor Chesterfield’s class if he’d said he wanted to write a screenplay.
Destroyed by Hollywood, Professor Chesterfield returned to Graymont, to his students, who watched more and more movies and read fewer and fewer books. Scrutinizing their stories, he could see the camera panning, the jump cuts and dolly shots, all the things that had ruined him. Worse, his students had taken to writing words such as “bang,” “pop,” and “splat,” as well as nonwords masquerading as words, such as “kaboom,” “yikes,” “glunk,” and even “arrrghhhh,” often followed by multiple exclamation points. And in case the reader didn’t understand, the student would use capital letters: “ARRRGHHHH!!!!!”
Worst of all was “kerplunk,” which a student of Professor Chesterfield’s had used the previous year. A character had fallen off a horse, and then, in a paragraph all its own, came the single word.
So in the fall of 1986, the first thing Professor Chesterfield did after placing his papers on his desk was approach the blackboard and write, in all capital letters though without exclamation points, the following rule:
THOU SHALT NOT USE THE WORD “KERPLUNK” IN YOUR SHORT STORIES.
The first of what would prove to be 117 commandments written on the blackboard that year.
Professor Chesterfield was fifty-seven years old, but he had a lithe, sinewy build and a full head of hair, and he walked about the classroom in his signature dark blazer and Stan Smith tennis sneakers with the agility of an athlete. Julian had heard that he still played pickup basketball and that the reason he walked around the classroom– as much as a mile during the course of a single class, according to the calculations of one former student–was to stay in shape for the basketball court.
THOU SHALT NOT UTTER THE PHRASE “SHOW, DON’T TELL” WHEN DISCUSSING ONE ANOTHER’S SHORT STORIES.
Rufus McCoy appeared stricken. Rufus was a freshman from Delaware, and he had so desperately wanted to get into Professor Chesterfield’s class that after handing in his application he went straight to Professor Chesterfield’s office and begged to be admitted; he actually got down on his knees and said, “I beg of you, sir.” Until this point, Rufus had not only believed in “Show, don’t tell,” he believed in it with the fervor of a religious acolyte. In fact, it was practically the only thing he believed in when it came to creative writing. “Why not?”
“Because it’s a lie.” Professor Chesterfield was sitting on his desk, his legs swinging back and forth, and between his left thumb and forefinger he held a cigarette. There were rules against smoking in Graymont buildings, but Professor Chesterfield didn’t care about rules. The only rules he cared about were the ones he wrote on his blackboard.
“In what sense?” This was Astrid, who had a semicircle of silver studs in the rim of her left ear and wore a thick layer of black lipstick.
She gave off an air of wounded toughness.
“In the sense that it’s not true. Tell me something,” Professor Chesterfield said. “Where would Proust be if he weren’t allowed to tell anything?”
“Proust?” someone said, sounding as if she’d never heard of the man.
“Or Flaubert. Or Stendhal. Or Dickens.” For a time, Professor Chesterfield had succumbed to convention and spent the first day of class going around the room, allowing the students to introduce themselves. These were known as ice-breakers, but Professor Chesterfield didn’t like what was beneath the ice. The students told one another who they were and what books they were reading, and these were always books Professor Chesterfield hadn’t heard of, and once he had, he regretted it.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Matrimony by Joshua Henkin. Copyright © 2007 by Joshua Henkin. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.