October 07

Matrimony: An Excerpt

Joshua Henkin

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 spawn 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, an hour and a half 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, where in the middle of 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 per capita nights 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 do?”

“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.”

“Completely nude?”

“In the winter, I suppose, 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 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?”

“Which guys?”

“Jared and Hartley. Bill. Stefan.” His 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.”

“That’s disgusting.”

“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 nametags and held red and black satchels. They were upperclassmen, Julian’s roommate said, recent graduates of a week-long 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 nametag and holding a red and black PCC satchel. In freshman entryways across campus, upperclassmen had descended, wearing these very same badges and nametags 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 bubblegum.”

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.



Joshua Henkin's first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, was a Los Angeles Times notable book of the year. He teaches writing in the MFA programs at Sarah Lawrence College and Brooklyn College, and at the 92nd Street Y. His new novel, Matrimony, from which this excerpt appears, has been named a Booksense pick and a Borders Original Voices pick, and is being published this month by Pantheon.