Commentary Magazine


School Days A Story

Mandy listened to Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington, and liked to read Herman Hesse. She also loved narcotics. Any kind would do, but she specialized in the hallucinogens. Lily listened to Bessie Smith and Edith Piaf and read Anais Nin. Anais Nin! Lily was a death-lover. She thought about it, courted it, romanced it, saw herself as the new Sylvia Plath. The music was wonderful, but the books and the extra-curriculars were another matter. I opened the Hesse once in a while to be cooperative, but German Romantic mysticism turned out not to be my cup of Kaffee. I grazed once in Anais Nin’s distasteful diaries, and once was enough. Spiritually speaking, Mandy and Lily had a great deal in common. Both were brimming with energy and intelligence, wit, even, and each suffered from a cancerous self-hatred. Yet after a brief pass at a strange form of friendship they hated each other as well. To say nothing of how they ended up feeling about me.

Let’s see, now, how did it go? We met at school. The year was 1968. They were both from New York. Lily was a junior, and Mandy and I both freshmen, at St. Thomas College in Virginia. The place itself was a true oddity, and a rich medium for growing the disease that afflicted both of them. At St. Thomas students were cloistered for four years (if they lasted that long) with the highest, the most divine, creations of human thought. Year after year, near-failures from the best high schools; dischargees from cloud-cuckoo land; brilliant goody-goody grinds; transfers from other, more conventional colleges; even the occasional ex-Jesuit priest, burning eyes and all, came together there to have their minds formed, to learn to think, along the languid, bucolic southeastern seaboard, protected from most 20th-century harm. No poets-in-residence, no sociology courses, no student unions, and no secondary sources. People came to read the ancients, the classics, the originals, and to do it, more often than not, in the original languages.

Very sound in principle, I suppose, but there were drawbacks. St. Thomas was small, suffocatingly small, two hundred students total, and half as many teachers. Not professors, mind, dons, after someone’s idea of the great learning centers of Europe or something; and we, “Tommies,” were their don-ees.

Every year the same story: within weeks everyone knew everyone else’s name, and most of their business. There was an oral tradition, as in any small town, about students long since gone (one way or another), about affairs with and between dons, bizarre suicides. It was almost as good as War and Peace. Freshmen quickly mastered the gossip, nodding knowingly when names were mentioned. That was social success. The fall Mandy and I were freshmen a don provided our first taste of many. His wife had found him at summer’s end hanging by the neck in his closet. His suicide note begged God’s forgiveness and bade a fond adieu to the recently graduated Paul. “Jes’ cain’t get on wifout m’honey,” Mandy sang when we heard this story. It was almost better than War and Peace. The deans of the college tried desperately to keep these things quiet, but these things, especially these things, had a way of getting around. Even through the period of “unrest” that rocked and shattered other campuses, the issues that blighted this one remained purely personal. So, in this stew of sordidness, open secrets, mystery, Agamemnon vs. Achilles, and drugs galore, Mandy and Lily and I tossed around, willy-nilly. By the time I got to know them, each one was well past any saving.

Lily was hard to miss. Tall and golden, slanting green eyes, she was always dressed in beautiful, elegant clothes, wafting expensive perfume as she passed. Here was militance in a place where malodorous drapes (preferably in black velvet) were all the rage. Her room was across the hall from mine in the lone, ancient, creaky girls’ dormitory. And she had a car. A huge red Cadillac convertible with a white top. There were stories about her, too. Some of them, her own inventions I learned, she had planted herself: her IQ was high beyond conventional tests; she had resisted the amorous approaches of Bob Dylan (himself!); she had beaten the house at Monte Carlo. Other stories were actually true: she suffered bouts of extreme mania and depression that were sometimes so severe as to require hospitalization; she had attempted a few splashy suicides; she had almost ruined a don’s life in her freshman year. That poor old guy was a real survivor. He had lived through childhood with the name Manley Hopkins Wren. He had lived through a humiliating marriage (to a student, who else?) and its humiliating breakup (another student, who else?). And he survived Lily, too, though she probably could have polished him off, given just a bit more time.

_____________

 

Mandy I discovered the day I arrived on campus. Her room was next to mine, and I wandered in, lured by an exquisite little jazz meditation on the piano. She looked, that day and always, like a candidate for Boys Town or one of the East Side Kids. Sallow, dark-haired, she was U.S. Army issue from top to toe. Her green khakis, her T-shirt and socks were stiff with the dust of the ages, painstakingly collected—dust from Turkey, from San Francisco, from the Upper West Side, saved dust, like found art. Yet though I felt I was peering at her through this haze of dirt, I didn’t miss the elaborate stereophonic system from which emanated the sounds that had attracted me, or the faded Louis Vuitton trunk, or any of the general look and feel of the things rich people have.

“Hey, man, rest your bones. Dig Duke Ellington, and have a toke of this. It’s always party time in the land of zonk.”

She made no move to remove the joint from between her lips, indicating with a jut of her chin that I should take it myself if I cared to. The smoke forced one of her eyes shut as she surveyed me. Her hands were busy. She was building a kind of shrine to, who was it? Ouspensky? Gurdjieff? Shrinki Pahvahlali?

“My guru,” she said, accenting the second syllable.

I gazed at the large photograph propped on top of the trunk, draped with plastic garlands of many colors: a swaddled personage of indefinable sex and origin, gazing romantically back at me. She arranged flowers for his delectation in a little Oriental vase.

“Ooh-la-la, but he’s my thrill, if you know what I mean. Oh, and here’s my main squeeze.”

She tossed over to me another, smaller photograph of a person who, but for the enormous leather jacket and the large motorcycle in the background, might have passed for the fabulous Shrinki himself.

“Meet Dick the Prick.”

I did meet him, several weeks later, when he roared down on the motorcycle to visit Mandy early one Saturday morning. His appearance was also the occasion of my formal introduction to Lily.

“Wake up! Wake up quick!” Mandy was banging, beating out the rhythm of a rag tune on my door.

“Ooh-la-la, man, open up!”

I had learned, after only weeks, to lock up against her intrusions, as no amount of polite asking could stop her when she wanted company.

“It’s Prickie, man, I want you to meet him. Open up!”

“Rack-a-lack, I want some seafood, mama,” was his accompaniment.

The dormitory’s hallway was an echo chamber, and Mandy’s paramour, like her, evinced not the slightest care for the extremely early hour or other people’s convenience. By the time I got to my door our neighbors were at theirs, too, and not very happy about it.

Lily in particular. She emerged, wrapped in her sheet, a sleep mask shoved up above her eyes. She was removing tasseled ear plugs which, notwithstanding their stylishness, Mandy & Co. had successfully penetrated. Mandy’s grinning, at-large announcement of Prickie’s arrival, and his own “Hey, man, how ya doin’?” encompassment of the crowd, put Lily over the edge.

“Jesus, a match made in heaven. The Dirt Queen and the Greaseman.” She smiled over at me and slammed the door.

He was greasy, or rather his jacket was, and his boots, his jeans, his fingernails, even the air around him. He did not improve on closer acquaintance. They had made their way into my room, and he glanced around at the walls, which I had decorated with my own paintings. He came to one I was particularly proud of: Clytemnestra and Orestes (if not at St. Thomas College, then where?, as Hillel might have said) on a stormy beach, she fully clothed, towering over him, beseeching yet imperious; he stark naked, kneeling before her, stricken and about to strike.

“Baby, I’m better laid out than this guy, any day. Mandy digs what I’m saying, don’t you, babe? That’s why you’re my love slave, ain’t that right?”

In Mandy’s case I knew the adulteration of language to be deliberate, a film of hip-talk covering over a literate and literary intelligence. But it wasn’t at all clear in his case what was hovering below the grease. Love slave she may well have been, but her contempt was undisguised.

“That’s Prickie all over. He’s, like, the reverse embodiment of sound mind, sound body. Oily on the outside, slithery on the in. Ooh-la-la, Dick, don’t talk. Let’s get zonked, man.”

These were the acid days, remember, the magic mushroom days, the days when people communing with God stepped out of their upper-story windows and fell to their deaths. Among Dick’s various pastimes, drinking cough syrup was possibly his favorite. He and his cohorts had discovered its hallucinogenic properties, and the extra thrill of cheating, of beating the “military-industrial complex” as they called it.

“It’s so repulsive,” Mandy had told me. “But what a trip, if you know what I mean. First you drink, then puke your guts out, then fly to the moon, man. You can get the stuff at a store, without a prescription, and they can’t even bust you for possession. Cheap at twice the price.”

I had no desire to clean anything up after them, particularly not the contents of their stomachs. What’s more, we actually had rules in the dormitory, “priapal hours,” as Mandy wickedly called them, so I booted them out.

_____________

 

Lily was at her door again, this time fully clothed, as they emerged. She waited until they were well out of the way, safely locked up inside Mandy’s den, and crossed the hall to me. There she lingered, smiling, until I invited her in. By now I was resigned to the loss of my morning’s sleep; and anyway, I was curious about her.

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a long time,” she said. “You’re a painter, aren’t you? I know a lot about you, really. After you’re dressed we can go for a drive. I have a car, you know. My father is rich, but I make up for that by spending his money lavishly. I’m sure once you get to know me you will like me. We’ll be friends. Good friends. But first, explain to me about the Dirt Queen. I mean, really, what’s her draw?”

She had been pacing the length and breadth of my little room as she spoke, handling objects, picking up books, taking in the paintings, opening my one, lonely, unopened bottle of perfume, sniffing it, dabbing some on her wrists. She had made her way to the chair where I sat, and her movement stopped with the end of her tirade. She stood above me with the perfume bottle in her hand, offering it to me, grinning, showing small teeth outmassed by gums above, not pretty, and nevertheless charming. I hadn’t seen much of unmasked guile at that point in my life—maybe once or twice, only in men. I was surprised to find the quality in this Givenchy-clad girl. But she was right. I liked her already.

She did most of the talking. At the end of a few hours of aimless driving I knew a very great deal about her. For the most part she spoke in diatribes, interrupting them occasionally to ask, “What are you thinking?” with a sideways glance. Even at the wheel she was moving, constantly moving some part of her body, unable to sit still while she talked. Several times we came close to being killed on the road.

I explained Mandy to her as much as it was possible, given the nature of both subject and listener, and she was intrigued by the idea of Mandy’s clever, wicked turn of mind.

“But I don’t get the dirt,” she said. “Why does she have to be so damned filthy? Just think about it for a minute. It does mean something, you know, that she covers herself with dust. She’s like some kind of penitent. What is she punishing herself for? And it’s not just herself she’s doing it to, either. It offends other people, too. It pushes them away. It says, ‘Don’t come close to me, stay away.’ Not counting her horrendous boyfriend, of course. And that’s another thing. If she’s so smart and clever and all that, why does she want to be in the same room with someone like him, let alone go near him and let him touch her? Jesus. Can you imagine it?”

She got no argument from me. I found him altogether unimaginable. But Lily’s autobiography left its own unsettling impression. She fleshed out the Manley Hopkins Wren tale for me.

He had existed happily for a decade after the breakup of his marriage, clean and dry in his scholar’s roost, pottering in the garden, surrounded by lovely, fine things, when she stormed his gates. Once a year he led an extracurricular seminar on St. Augustine, in his own house, for everyone. Any don or student was welcome to join him in reading passages from The City of God, exploring the meaning of God, the flesh, and the human spirit. I declined the invitation, that year and thereafter. These discussions were interminable enough for me at the round tables of our classes, and even on the banks of the river that abutted the campus. But Lily the avid had gone, in her own freshman year, not to set her flashy mind to the sublime Catholic intelligence, but to see what Manley Wren liked in the way of personal items.

He found her in his bedroom, kneeling to inspect the make of his shoes. So baffling, so astonishing, did he find this scene, that he burst out laughing. Such a mild judgment was all Lily needed. She fell in love. And she gradually dragged him out of his delicate torpor.

It was an effort, to be sure, but she badgered him day and night: sent him presents, baked him cookies, copied out Sara Teasdale poems for him. She loved him, wanted him, couldn’t live without him. He was her ideal (a word not taken lightly at St. Thomas). After weeks of this assault, stirred and distracted, he gave in. Needless to say she broke his heart. He took a few weeks’ leave in Colorado to recover, and everyone was snickering.

“He repulsed me,” she told me.

“Repelled,” I muttered. “He repelled you, not repulsed.”

“So he repelled me. What’s the difference? He was so old, and creaky, you know, and dry. His body was so dry, and oh Christ, he was trembling. I felt like I was going to kill him, just lying there, but I went through with it because I was already there, but my God, all I wanted to do was get up and run. I had that feeling in my mouth you get with too much peanut butter, you know. That you’ll scream or explode with suffocation if you don’t get out from under it quick. And he cried. I felt like I was dead, and there he was, telling me how I had brought him back to life. I couldn’t take it—the touch of him or the look of him, or anything. It was too awful for words. I had to get out.”

_____________

 

I warned myself as I listened that this girl could have criminal intentions, and that though she might be her own target, she also might not care whom she took with her in the end. As our drive neared its close she asked me if I liked her. I told her I liked her very much, that I had had fun, in spite of our brushes with death.

She was uncharacteristically hesitant, suddenly. “Can I ask you a question? I mean, you don’t have to answer right away. But this is important. Okay? What I’d like to know is, what I want to ask you is, if some time I came to you and told you I had taken some pills, not just some, but a whole bottleful of them, and I didn’t want you to do anything about it, like call an ambulance, could you do that? Could you be my one true, real friend, and just bide that time with me? Could you have the strength and courage to let me go when I wanted to? Just not interfere? Just keep me company until I slip away? Don’t answer now. Don’t answer.”

I did answer. I gave her the most definitive, resounding, unmistakable negative I could muster: “Never, never, ever. Don’t ask me to, never expect me to. Never talk to me about it again.”

“Okay, okay. Please don’t hate me. I don’t know what made me bring it up. Please, please, don’t hold it against me. I won’t ask again. Please forget I ever did.”

I let it go, let her change the subject, pretended to myself that this discussion had had a resolution. And in the time that followed, though we spent many hours in each other’s company, she never raised the subject. The truth is, she was in a manic swing (though I didn’t recognize it at the time), and she was set on fire with enthusiasm to cultivate me: I was her project. She felt she could see into my soul through my paintings, and took three to hang on her own walls. One morning I opened my eyes to find her in my room, reading the journal I kept in a composition book. She dropped it like a hot potato when I yelled out “Hey!” at her, but she was utterly unembarrassed, and unrepentant. Friends shared everything, she believed, even when they didn’t know they wanted to. She felt so strongly about it that she forced me to endure the company of “my-Yale-medical-school-brother-who’s-brilliant-even-if-he’s-a-little-arrogant” for an entire weekend (he didn’t like me, either), while she harbored fantasies that we would fall in love and get married.

It was all so dizzying, so passionate. It was so disarming. I found myself, despite myself, slipping easily into this delightful web Lily was spinning. And still, I could not shake the feeling of dread that had come over me when she asked me to help her kill herself.

_____________

 

“I’d help her. No shit, I really would.” Mandy and I had parted company meanwhile, by tacit agreement, for the duration of Dick the Prick’s visit. And as no discernible form of profession required his prompt return to New York (unless you count the buying and selling of drugs as a profession), he had stayed on in her room for a spell. With his departure, Mandy was back in circulation, or rather, back in my room again, and I described to her my disturbing conversation with Lily. I chuckled at her response, but she defended herself.

“Ooh-la-la, man, I’m not mad at her or anything, if that’s what you’re thinking. Dirt Queen suits me, if you know what I mean. But, dig it, this is like a serious thing, man. If a friend of mine asked me to help her do herself, I would. Whatever gets you off, you know.”

I asked her why she didn’t just pop across to Lily’s room right away and take preemptive action. Why wait for an invitation? She shrugged this off.

“Man, this really sheds new light on Lily. Ooh-la-la, this calls for meditation.”

And off she went. I pictured her sitting before the Shrinki shrine, fueled up with some of her “medicinal herb,” just chewing the fat with him over Lily and the relative value of human life. I wondered, too, how Lily the adopter would take to being adopted herself, and by Mandy, no less.

But I had other, equally pressing things to worry about at that moment: for though Lily, notwithstanding all her distractions, remained a straight-A student, she had an almost professional ability to prevent other people from attending to their responsibilities. In other words, I was missing classes, and I had a major paper due; and whereas I had never before been a procrastinator, tackling Aristotle’s Physics now seemed a daunting prospect, better for the next day. But at St. Thomas you didn’t fool around that way for long without paying for it. I had already been put on warning by the dean of students during a galling hour of sherry and chat in his office. So I now went at my studies with a fever. I closed my door, leaving Mandy and Lily to their own devices.

For the next few weeks, I struggled to understand Aristotle’s argument with Plato and the Pythagoreans over the nature of infinity, and to get my ideas down on paper before they evaporated (which they tended to do rather quickly, because somehow I couldn’t put my heart into the question of whether an unlimited body can or cannot exist in actuality). I was working on a painting, too, that my heart was in: Athena, being born out of Zeus’s forehead, looking not quite formed, an uncompleted thought, yet most unmistakably herself already, and his daughter. Between the paper and painting I was kept incommunicado, and when I came up for air, the Christmas break was about to begin. Only then did I become aware that Lily and Mandy had spent this period getting to know each other. They took me to the airport so I could fly home to Chicago, then drove off together for New York in Lily’s car.

_____________

 

Life in my family included participating in regular powwows, sort of like Security Council meetings, which took place at the dinner table. Attendance was required, absences frowned upon. You practically had to bring a note from your doctor to be excused from one of them. Here every one of us (adults as well as children) opened for general discussion the current state of our own lives, and gossiped with enormous enjoyment about our friends. St. Thomas had nothing on us. By the end of the holiday, my two sisters, my brother, my mother, and my father knew as much as I did about infinity, Athena, Lily, Mandy, Prickie, and Shrinki.

I could see, watching my mother, that each new detail about Mandy and Lily brought a grimmer set to her face. My last day home, she helped me pack up my belongings for the trip back to school. When we were finished, she took my hand and sat me down beside her on my bed. “I want to say something to you, darling girl, and I want you to listen very, very carefully. Those two girls are trouble. No good will come of your befriending them. They mean you harm and they mean themselves harm, and I want you to stay as far away from them as you can. I don’t care what you have to go through to do that. You tell yourself you like them, but I know better. If you find you are too delicate to do so by yourself, then you call me on the phone, and I’ll get on a plane, and I’ll come to Virginia and I’ll help you extricate yourself. Whatever it takes, just you get them out of your life. Okay? I want your promise.”

I didn’t even want to argue with her. I knew it was the truth, I knew it from the feeling of relief that flooded me as she spoke, and I left home resolved to act, come what may. I whiled away my flight to Virginia figuring out how to sever relations with Mandy and Lily in a manner most gentle to them, and least uncomfortable for me. In the end I chose the coward’s route, composing letters to both, telling them that I would happily maintain the civilities, but that I wished to be shut of any emotional entanglements with them. I slipped these notes under their doors when I got back to the dormitory (thanking God the whole time for letting me be the first to arrive), and waited with suspense to see what would happen.

_____________

 

“What the fuck is this, man?” Hours had passed since I delivered my missives and heard the girls returning, and I had begun to think I really was going to get off easily. I should have known better. Even so, Mandy’s intensity took me by surprise. If I had been asked I would have said that as between the two, Lily, not Mandy, would be the one to put up a fight. But it was Mandy who came banging at my door, letter in hand, to demand an explanation.

“This is bullshit, man. ‘I hate the drugs and what I think you might do to yourself with them, what you’ve already done to yourself. . . .’ Are you for real? Who are you, man, my mother? Hey, my mother doesn’t even talk to me this way. You and your bullshit aestheticism, your lame little paintings. Dig it, man, here’s what you can do with this. You can shove it up your pure little ass, that’s what.”

Of all the sensations I experienced while she said her piece and threw my letter on the floor and stamped out, exhaustion was the strongest, and I happily succumbed to it, literally swooning in the chair where she had left me. I dreamed: my mother putting things away in her drawers, yelling at me about something, I couldn’t tell what. While she yelled she was shrinking, shrinking, only it wasn’t my mother any more, it was me, and I was doing the yelling. Help me, help me.

Help me! Please open the door! Please help me! Oh mother of Christ, please come!” I surfaced slowly from my dream into consciousness: day had turned into night. I had been sleeping. It was Mandy at my door, she was yelling, not me, and it was for real. Something was wrong. I ran.

She was white and panting. “It’s Lily, man. Oh God, she’s bleeding. Help me. Help her. I can’t help her. I can’t look at her. I want to throw up. Oh God, oh God, why did she have to do this to me? She’s bleeding all over my room. Come to my room. Take her away. She’s gonna die in there, man. Is she gonna die? You can fix her up, or take her to a hospital, whatever. Please, do something, man. Please help me out of this mess.”

_____________

 

It took me a while to get it. Months later I could still close my eyes and review the scene with fresh horror and guilt: Lily huddling on the floor in a corner of Mandy’s room, her white nightgown blotched with her own blood; Mandy hiding, shielding herself, behind me, handing me over to be mouthpiece to the uniformed cops who had come with the ambulance I called; their interrogating me as if I were the one who had slashed at Lily’s wrists and throat with a razor.

And this, too, I could see just as clearly: Lily’s soignée mother appearing in my doorway for a little chat before she carted her daughter off for yet another turn in the hospital, telling me not to take it all too much to heart, because after all Lily was prone to this sort of thing now and again; Mandy packing up her Shrinki and her Duke Ellington and her medicine chest, stopping off on her way to her new digs off-campus to ask me if I could believe what that bitch had done to her; my mother arriving to take me in her protective embrace and tell me that everything was going to be all right.

But I did get it. I got the whole, ugly, wretched picture one lush spring day when something in the air pulled me outside to languish on the grass with the rest of my fellow students. And there was Lily, avid again, voracious even, in the company of a new protégée. She glanced at me, then lowered her eyes. She knew, she knew, too.

_____________

 

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