Philadelphia was closing in on me. Parking tickets turned into court notices which turned into a fleet of traffic police and tow trucks looking to clamp a boot on my wheel. I came across the Writers Institute while tooling around the Internet at work. It took place through the month of July at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. The list of instructors was daunting. Intermediate Writing was led by Jay McInerney, the novelist and wine critic. I wondered if I could be considered an “Intermediate Writer.” I was young and inexperienced but I felt I had important things to say. I wrote about the groggy heat of my attic bedroom, the bottles of tonic water that littered the floor, my stack of sticky, dog-eared yearbooks.
I usually wrote on the train on my way to work. I had recently met some Penn students and they seemed like an interesting topic, but I was still mired in the research phase, staying out late at night, going to the bathroom when the bill came, helping them finish whatever was around. I had an idea for a modern re-imagining of The Decameron, taking refuge in a Gothic frat house while a plague ripped through the city, entertaining girls vetted via social media, resigned to the task of reinventing humanity after we dared to peek our heads out the heavy doors and surveyed the blasted scenery.
I had taken a writing class before. I enjoyed the way the group grew around our shared vulnerabilities. The tip-toeing around truly atrocious stuff, the refusal to indulge the cocky resident genius who already had a story published, the way we hung on the words of our teacher, even though none of us had read her books.
I packed up my car and what I couldn’t cram in the trunk I left on the sidewalk.
Skidmore is hidden from the road, surrounded by woodlands. The buildings are largely modern and low. It maintained an equine feel, a lingering delicacy that I attributed to its history as a posh women’s college. My dorm was in the tallest building on campus: The Tower. Bathrooms were unisex. There was a lounge on the top floor, offering panoramic views of the countryside and the town. I moved into my room quickly. A hand-me-down laptop, wrinkled Oxfords, a handle of Dewar’s, a sleeve of plastic cups. I cranked tunes, propped the door and searched around for an ice machine. In between colleges at the time, I tried to look casual.
Sophomore year was beginning two years behind schedule, after a disastrous freshman experience in New Orleans. Down there I followed every lead into dark corners and came up short on friends and low on credits. The muddy grime of the city was still stained on some of my clothes. I was forced back home, worked menial jobs and volunteered in hopes of buffing my tarnished resume. Jay could fix it, had fixed it, would show me how to live the life and wake up early the next morning without guilt or handcuffs. Jay was going through a transition as well. That summer he had split from his girlfriend, a South African publicist. He had supposedly just finished a book that was going to prove to the literary world his relevance as a post-9/11 novelist. I assumed that he was looking forward to a relaxing month upstate as much as I was. I imagined running into him on campus, maybe in the fitness center steam room, before relocating to a watering hole to clink glasses, exchange notes, plot and scheme.
The campus was quiet as writers reviewed their drafts. Classes started in two days. I decided to go and see the town.
Matthew was from London. He had graduated from Skidmore a month earlier. His friend Bailey was a junior and she had a summer job in a lab, dissecting the brains of fetal animals. We talked about Jay. Matt had met him once at the track. He said Jay loved Saratoga, the horse races, Caroline Street, the old hotel. They shared a few apocryphal stories–sleeping with students, doing drugs with students, breaking into the college pool with students–you know, classic McInerney.
The story I had planned to submit for workshop was slim and so I spent the night before our first class trying to punch it up, adding dialogue and a mysterious man-about-town father figure. I found a ‘80s mix CD in an old Case Logic and played it on my sister’s computer. I walked around the campus at dusk, keeping my eye out for a suave guy in a summer-weight blazer.
My class was scheduled for 3 PM and so at 2:30 the next day I found a seat on a wooden bench outside our building and tried to look busy with registration papers and cigarettes. Three o’clock came and went and there was no sign of our instructor. I walked upstairs to where our class was supposed to meet and found it empty, humming with florescent lights. I went back to my dorm room and illegally downloaded an “Enjoy the Silence” trance remix.
That night there was a reading by an African poet and afterwards there was a reception in the student center. I dressed up and walked down there, shaking my head and smiling. Jay was late, but I understood. An early morning at Elaine’s, a demanding new fashionista, a forgotten deadline. I had found a kindred spirit, a literary outlaw, the Peter Pan of American letters. I laughed to myself. Classic McInerney.
The reception had an open bar and so I met some more students. A girl from Florida, a brooding guy named Ben, a community college English professor from New Jersey named Dennis who spoke openly about how excited he was to be away from his wife. We traded more Jay stories. Ben pointed out a girl from his floor who told everyone that she and Jay were an item, that he had been delayed in Nashville and was driving up from New York that night. I eyed my competition closely. I figured soon I’d have my own hangers-on, after Jay took me under his wing and got my as-yet-unwritten novel published.
I drank fast. The reception ended and we went downtown to the grand hotel. We milled about the back patio, talking, drinking, waiting. By 2 AM I was discussing rat brains with Bailey. I told myself that I had missed Jay’s arrival somehow in the crowd. Our next class was Friday. I checked Page Six the next morning, after I woke up on the top floor of The Tower, where I guess I was keeping watch, like a love-sick light-house operator.
By Friday everyone knew. Jay had met someone special. Again. He would not be able to make it up this summer, but he wished us the best. There was a plug somewhere in the email for his upcoming book, The Good Life. Details were scarce, rumors flew. Our new teacher, a pleasant lady whose name I see from time to time in journals and magazines, struggled to get us caught up to speed. I deleted the changes I had made to my story. I finished the bottle of Dewar’s with Dennis and thought about visiting Bailey in the lab.
At the end of the summer I received a phone call from an uncle. He had heard some scuttlebutt, thought I might be interested. Jay was marrying Anne Hearst; socialite, publishing heiress, a friend from the scene. The good life had finally arrived. I thought back on my summer–horses, martinis, literary conversation–and I hoped Jay might recognize it from his own hazy memories, back in the good old days before the game changed and he got tied down.
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