The Vice President’s Daughter

Constructed Indentities 1 and 3
Alix Smith, Constructed Indentities 1, 2003 and Constructed Identities 3, 2004. Courtesy of the artist.

It was just at the point when things were finally cracking up for me that I saw Lauren and her father on Madison Avenue. Jillian, my fiancée, was visiting her family in California and I—I had raced down from Boston to see Arielle, my ex-girlfriend. My life, or the life I had then, was slipping away, and in my unhappiness, my frenzy, my sense of injury, I had developed the notion that if I could have just one night with Arielle, some piece that had been dislodged from the order of the universe might fall back into place, and the track upon which I’d been moving with such dazzling speed would correct itself, and I would make it. I would hold onto Jillian, and I would last until the next election, and then we’d see. On this night I had no backup sleeping arrangements, I had burned my sleeping-over ships, so that if we got drunk and Arielle decided against taking me home, I’d have to sleep in the car. But not yet.

We were walking west along Sixty-sixth toward the park and about to cross Madison when I first recognized Lauren and then, without bodyguards and without ceremony, her father. I had seen him at campaign stops, I had written and thought about him almost without interruption for an entire year of my life, but I’d never been this close, and he’d never been so alone. Lauren looked happy, flushed, a walking advertisement for so many of the good things, while he wore his beard, his infamous beard, and I was surprised by how substantial he looked, how physically powerful. I wanted to say to Lauren, “I’m sorry,” though she didn’t look like she needed it, and “I wish you were President,” to her father, who looked like he did. I saw him flinch from us a little—from the way I froze on the sidewalk he must have thought I was another ill-wisher, another nut—but soon it was all over: Lauren looked at Arielle, I looked at the former Vice President, and we all paused for a moment while I kissed the Vice President’s daughter on the cheek, she assured me they were in a terrible hurry though it was nice to see me, and they crossed northward while we waited for the light.

“Someone you know?” Arielle asked in her teasing Arielle way, as if she were mock impressed and mock resentful that walking down the street of a city in which I didn’t even live, I could still kiss well-dressed women on the cheek.

“Wait,” I said. “Did you not see who that was?”

“Who was it?”

I told her and she laughed.

“Figures,” she said.

“No, no, it was Ferdinand,” I said. “My roommate. “

“Ferdinand? Why not you?”

“Because it was Ferdinand. It was pretty serious for a while. We had—” I stopped. We were on Sixty-sixth Street, on the interminable block between Madison and the park, the windows on the long, long apartment building across the street shut and dark against us, and something moved me then. I was touched. On Sixty-sixth and Madison I was touched by sorrow. “We had big plans for them,” I said. “Or I did, anyway.”

Arielle, blithe Arielle, my high school girlfriend with, still, her long soft hair—nothing in my tone had registered with her. “I’ll bet,” was all she said. And then: “Come on. It’s getting dark. We don’t want to get murdered in the Central Park Zoo.”

But my roommate Ferdinand was the one all right. Perhaps I should have said to Arielle—who else? In his particular line, he was a genius.

“You’re an astute observer of history,” I explained to him once. According to Hegel, I said, for I had read fifty pages of Hegel, the world-historical hero is necessarily something of a philosopher, and sort of extrapolates—


“It’s always like that,” Ferdinand interrupted. It was our sophomore year and we were gathered around a big circular table in the Leverett House dining hall, where day in and day out I tried to apply the lessons from my classes to the great sociorelational problems of our time—Ferdinand’s sex life, usually. On this day I had a huge bowl of green peas in front of me, and a chicken parm sandwich, and I was sipping from a cranberry-grapefruit mixture, which I’d patented—swirling and sipping and discoursing on the higher thoughts.

“It’s always like that,” said Ferdinand. “You tell a goat to draw God, he’ll draw a goat. Philosophers are goats.”

“Yeah, OK,” I conceded. “But this is about you, the philosopher-stud. You’ve sensed something in the air, a shift in the historical mood of the female class, and you’ve acted. What is it?”

Ferdinand considered this, slowly, wondering whether I was making fun of him, and then began to laugh his deliberate, nobody’s-fool laugh. It opened with a lengthy enunciated “ennhh,” asking, waiting for you to come along, and then it burst forth like applause.

So he laughed now, he didn’t answer, and that was OK. I knew I wouldn’t learn the secrets of history from Ferdinand, nor would I learn how to pick up women. I wouldn’t even learn how to dress from him, because he was tall and narrow, he could order clothes directly from the catalogues, which with my build (I was a high school center forward), I couldn’t have pulled off. About the only thing I learned from Ferdinand was that women were perspicacious, prophetic, for they saw in him what I at first did not. He struck me as vain, deluded, skinny, I did not get it. “Boy am I glad they gave me you,” he said on the first day of college, after we’d moved ourselves into Matthews, sent our awkward parents home, and opened my bottle of peppermint schnapps (the best I could do) and his dime-bag of mediocre weed (the best he could do). “I was afraid they’d stick me with some total nerd,” he said. I was flattered. “Or an Asian.”


“Much bigger chance of their being a nerd. Don’t you think?”

“I guess,” I said, and I suppose I did so guess, and in short when washed and J. Crewed Ferdinand suggested we hit the bars I did not refuse—it seemed like just the thing to do before getting down, finally, to the books.

I have always been attracted to cruel, acerbic people, and Ferdinand was fantastically acerbic.


And Ferdinand was a good companion, at first, though he was loud and obnoxious and I couldn’t tell what sort of person he’d been in high school. His family had money but they did not come, so to speak, from education—whereas the Belsons had been huddled over books on benches in little shacks for many generations. But I have always been attracted to cruel, acerbic people, and Ferdinand was fantastically acerbic, he knew right away that our classmates were a bunch of jerks. “Total douchebag” was about the extent of his commentary on most of the people we met over the next few days. “Major-league DB.” He referred to girls he didn’t like as “assholes,” and somehow this cracked me up. Intent on showing that my high school drinking had been significant, that first night I got absurdly drunk and threw up on the bushes next to Boylston Hall. “Dude,” said a relatively sober Ferdinand as I rejoined him, “you’ve christened the Yard. In nomine Patris, and so on. And we only just got here.” The next day he was proudly relating the story to everyone we met. “Who’s got the best roommate?” he’d demand.

But there were also calculations going on in his mind. The bars were his business, and on the fourth night of college we had our first conflict. That day we’d gone to the Salvation Army and bought a monstrous yellow paisley couch for fifty dollars, and saved money by carrying it the mile back to our dorm. We took little rest stops in the heat and traffic of Mass Ave. and sat on the thing, lounging, which even now, thinking of us in our lacrosse shorts, in the middle of the Cambridge sidewalk, strikes me as funny. When we got back to Matthews we showered and then sat on it again, newly home, as Ferdinand smoked an illegal cigarette (“What’s the point of college,” he said, coughing, “if you can’t smoke?”), and I began to choose my classes. When he finished his smoke, Ferdinand announced it was time to go out.

“No thanks.” I had now spent three nights getting very drunk. I knew I’d held long conversations with people, but I couldn’t remember anyone’s name, and I somehow had a bad feeling about what had been said. Now I was constructing a complicated chart, my first big assignment in college, which would tell me the classes that would most quickly fulfill the highbrow reading list with which my favorite high school history teacher had sent me off to college. “Homer,” it began. “Herodotus. Tacitus. Augustine. Lactantius.”

“You can do that later,” said Ferdinand. “Now is the time for the bars. You have to lay the groundwork. Tomorrow will be too late.”

“Forty bucks a night for groundwork,” I grumbled.

“Yeah,” he admitted. “But you need to spend money to earn money. You coming?”

I told him no and he was out the door.

I sat there that night, the course guide and the CUE guide and the Confi guide and my long, increasingly Anglocentric list—“Chaucer,” it continued. “Jonson. Johnson. Sterne. Eliot. Forster”—all strewn across our paisley couch, and I felt sorry for myself. To arrive at Harvard and find—Ferdinand! It was infuriating. It was absurd. Our dorm was in the very center of the Yard, our windows opened onto the little quadrangle between Matthews, Straus, and Massachusetts Hall. It was still warm and a few people were playing Frisbee outside. Were they douchebags? Maybe, but I could have gone out there and said hello, laid the groundwork. Then again, they kept dropping the Frisbee, those guys, and it was like they’d never played before. It was all too sad. I opened Ferdinand’s CD book, having no CDs of my own—a few years earlier, I’d made the determination that the CD was a technology bound for a speedy obsolescence, and decided to wait for the next stage—but Ferdinand’s collection was all greatest hits, greatest hits, Allman Brothers, greatest hits. All those hours, those irretrievable hours, I’d spent studying for the SATs. All those days, those irretrievable sunny days when I flicked through the catalogues, considered my applications, wondered at the roundedness of my character—and now Ferdinand was my roommate? He was the first in a series of disappointments at that place, though eventually I think they formed a pattern, and I tried to read it.

Ferdinand Me
Four nights a week in the Crimson Sports Grille, laying groundwork. No interest in groundwork.
A moderate if consistent drinker, hardly ever drunk. A streaky drinker, and a lousy drunk—a little busy with the hands, to begin with, and too quick with the lean-in, always, but worst of all too earnest, too ready to spill my guts in the old high-school way.
Never felt sorry. Tremendous guilt for even the smallest indiscretions. But as an apologizer I was a total failure.
Along with some of our classmates, destined to spend his life apologizing ingeniously for one thing or another—imperial adventures, despotic governments, inexplicable Buy ratings. Could not even think what to do the next day upon meeting a girl to whom I’d said too much. And so I pretended not to see them, or walked across the dining hall, or produced a smile so feeble it was clear I was too embarrassed to talk. . . so that a couple of months into my freshman year the range of women I had not encountered in a drunken stupor narrowed and narrowed until I was reduced to just getting drunk again and, eventually, calling Arielle. I had done well with girls in high school, really quite well, and I was puzzled by the new dispensation. At first, I basically thought: What the fuck? And then I thought: You’ve got to be kidding me. And then I began to sort of think: Oh, no.

And I had grand notions, too. I had quit hockey because I was too slow, but also so that I could read Kierkegaard. My history teacher’s list was nice, but here was Fear and Trembling. Here The Sickness Unto Death. I considered dipping into Weber. Occasionally the word Foucault would float from my tongue, a trial balloon. In such moods I denounced Ferdinand, he was not Harvard!, but at the end of the year I stayed with him. We were hanging out with lacrosse players and their girlfriends, I was badly drunk three nights a week, and some of my morning classes went by unattended, went by anyway, while I lay in bed moaning. And yet my political-science professor had still sent one of my papers to a peer-reviewed journal and laughed with gusto when I showed him my several fake IDs—on one of them my name was Jürgen Habermas. (In the little basement shop in downtown Boston, I had indignantly demanded the umlaut. “Yeurgen Habermas, not Yoorgen. Yeurgen!”) There seemed, in short, to be no system I couldn’t beat, whether I stayed with Ferdinand or not. In the weeks before rooming groups were due, I made a few half-hearted sorties in the Freshman Union to some of the more articulate kids I’d met in my classes, but they were as wary as they were intelligent, their groups had congealed and they liked it that way, and anyhow I hadn’t yet learned how to talk with them, and instead of Foucault the word douchebag kept escaping, like a dark secret, from my lips.

One late night in the basement of the Owl Club, Ben, a slight and drunken lacrosse player, asked shyly if he could room with Ferdinand and me, and we said OK. So that spring the three of us joined hands together for the housing lottery, and stepped over, without really knowing what we were doing, into the chasm of the rest of our lives.

That summer I failed to intern at the Washington Post or even write travel copy for the student travel guide. Instead, I went back to Newton and worked as a camp counselor and at the end of every day, exhausted, I would drive to my mother’s grave and water the tree we’d planted there. I don’t know what significance this has but it sticks in my mind from that time. Perhaps because memory is a faulty organ, or anyway a very mechanical one, that works through repetition, I remember the nightly exhaustion, from carrying around eight-year-olds, and the heat, and the watering. I was back together with Arielle, who was about to start at Princeton, and during energetic bouts of self-loathing for the rut I was in, I went through the whole of Rousseau. The books he had read as a child, said Rousseau, “gave me odd and romantic notions of human life, of which experiences and reflection have never wholly cured me.” I resolved, also, never to be cured. And I resolved to lead a fuller life, and give up Arielle, who, though pretty and intelligent, was just too ambitious, too worldy, too spoiled. In high school she had hung out in the courtyard of the school and smoked all day, and on the night we first met she smoked out the window of my mom’s Oldsmobile as we drove around town aimlessly and I told her things about myself that I hadn’t told anyone. We spent the next two years driving around in that Oldsmobile—my mother was already sick by then and hardly used it—driving around and around, west on Rte 2, and south on 128, down to Cape Cod and up to New Hampshire, but mostly just around Newton, as if merely by driving at random through the town we were trapped in until college we’d make a mockery of its orderliness, the nice lives everyone seemed to have that we couldn’t understand the pleasure of. The car was low to the ground, square and muscular, the White Album played over and over in the cassette deck, flipping automatically at the end of each side, and Arielle smoked demurely out the window, though we acknowledged my mother’s death over the summer before my senior year by deciding, solemnly, that she could now smoke inside. Even at the time, perhaps, I suspected Arielle was chiefly interested in leading just the sort of life we’d pledged, implicitly, never to lead, and I myself, I’ll admit, wasn’t sure. Then she decided to attend egregious, suburban Princeton, and declare her contempt for our driving around, and it was more than I could take. So I decided I would end it, as I ended many things at the time, brutally and finally, telling her what I thought of what she wanted, in such a way that afterward we did not speak for a long, long time.

But I hadn’t quite done that by the end of the summer, and I returned to school for more of what I’d left. The couch, my old television, our Simpsons tape; my laptop in the library, the lectures at 10 in the morning, the wind as I walked to them among a herd of faces very few of whom were my friends. Ferdinand, meanwhile, had accelerated his activity. His groundwork had paid off. He had, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said of the critic John Peale Bishop, “an insatiable penis,” and by second semester sophomore year he was running a hotel room, as he liked to put it, out of Leverett J-12. No one knew this better than I, who as his bunkmate had to journey to the yellow common-room couch every time I heard an extra pair of footsteps accompany him through the door. Things got so busy that I suggested to Ben, who’d won the coin flip at the beginning of the year and thus his own room, that he give up his place to Ferdinand and move in with me. “No way,” said Ben. “What about when I get laid?” There was a pause, Ben was doing only a little better than I was. “Look,” he said, “a coin toss is a coin toss. Or isn’t it?” It was, it was, and so I continued to make the trip, and to be honest I didn’t mind. Ferdinand was not discriminating, not at all, he had a massive tolerance for giggliness or crudeness from attractive women, but just as often they were very impressive, the women, and increasingly so. The silhouettes of the daughters of our professors, and of hedge-fund presidents, junk-bond kings, and Hollywood impresarios, flickered through our hallways, into some chambers of our hearts. They were the sort of women that, if you had a rule against sleepovers, for them you’d make an exception.

And then, one day, he brought home Lauren, whose father was Vice President of the United States. Though they’d been drinking together, for the moment she was just dropping by to chat. Four of us were there watching television and throwing a football, Ben and I and Nick and Creeley, and we took it all in stride. After all, we were here together at this college, this classless nowhere place, all our destinies were set at zero, and anything was possible. Anything was possible but it was hard not to notice how much Lauren resembled her father—she was blonde where he was dark, but otherwise they shared the same soft features, and the slight blurriness or sensual weakness in the mouth, and they were handsome in a similar way, and also a little regal and a little outsized. We acted casually enough, we thought, but it was hard not to feel that here, in our room, we were finally coming into contact with greater things.

She began to come by in the evenings, and often she was drunk. Are the rich very different from you and me? Judge for yourself. She was drunk and it was my role to sit in the room I shared with Ferdinand and try to work on my sophomore paper. “It’s important that you do this,” Ferdinand told me the second time she was over and they sat in the common room, watching our old Simpsons tape. “You need to be, like, The Scholar. It creates an atmosphere.”

I didn’t like this very much. “Why don’t you get another scholar?”

“Because,” he answered, leaving, “you’re our last best hope. And, anyway, you never go out.”

“I do too!” I called after him. Immediately I put on my coat and walked out into the night. But I had become a shut-in, really, ever since that time with the reading list, Ferdinand had begun to drop me; and he was right, I was a liability. Every time I returned from a party or the Grille, I was horrified. I had been insulting, denigrating, perpetually out of line, and so eventually I’d stopped going out, and this turned out to be an even worse crime than getting drunk, it was a betrayal, a form of cheating, and it had its consequences. The libraries were closed now, and the wind came off the river mixed with a hard dust, and it was true, with Ben and Creeley out at a lacrosse event, and Nick out with his girlfriend, I had no one to call. I went to the Grille and drank a $4 pitcher without talking to anyone—by this point I didn’t know anyone—and then I went back home. I had a paper to write. That semester I was working on Lincoln, and something of his tragedy had entered my bones, so that if I was aloof I was aloof like Lincoln, and if I was solemn I was solemn like Lincoln.


I was open to influence then, to any influence, I was ready to rearrange myself, if that’s what it took. Because the plans that I’d had for myself had faltered, somewhere, and I could not tell why. Does he who fights douchebags become, inevitably, something of a douchebag? I don’t know. But I was lost.

One night as I worked on Lincoln, Lauren came into the bedroom to visit. Ferdinand had gone out for cigarettes, and it was just me.

“Whatcha doing?” she asked. She was drunk, she wore jeans and a loose light-blue cardigan over a white T-shirt, and she set herself down on the corner of my bed.

“Nothing,” I said. “A little Lincoln.” I had an idea about Lincoln that I’d stolen from Edmund Wilson—that by his eloquence he had foisted his interpretation of the war on future generations—and I was trying to so muddle with various French theorists Wilson’s lucid exposition of it that the idea might come to seem my own. But I didn’t feel like sharing all of this with Lauren.

Perhaps she sensed my disapproval, my remove, because now she blurted: “I hate being rich. Don’t you think money is so dumb?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Of course I did think it, but abstractly. My parents were Russian-immigrant computer programmers who did fine but never had the sense that they would do fine indefinitely. It was occasionally suggested during money-related arguments in the Belson household that computers might get canceled. “Oh, I don’t know. There’s no use being ashamed of it.”

“I just wish I could be more like you,” she said. “You know? Sort of serious and scholarly.”

“And I wish,” said I, teasingly, “that I could be you.”

“We could trade,” she decided. She leaned over toward me in such a way that I could see down her shirt, but what struck me then was just her nearness, her girliness. “But you have to warn me first—why don’t you like being you?”

“I don’t know.” I shrugged. Where to begin? “I just—” And here something happened to me that had happened to me two or three times before, always with women, a moment of unpremeditated screaming honesty, of saying what I had only myself barely thought to myself. “I just don’t understand what people want from me,” I said, “I just don’t really understand what I’m doing.”

Her eyebrows went up, momentarily. “Yes,” she said. “I feel like that too. I see people looking at me and I don’t know what they mean. Or what they see, you know?”

“But you get along with them.”

“I’m not as grouchy as you,” she said, shrugging. I liked it how she shrugged, and when she smiled at me I smiled back. I disapproved of her, disapproval was what I knew, but she seemed so young to me then, so changeable. And so I pushed my luck and asked, “How are things with Ferdinand?”

“Ferdinand . . .” lying back woozily on my bed. I wasn’t a big bed-maker but on this day, luckily, I’d made it, and cleared my clothes off, too.

“Listen,” I said, standing up, standing over her. “What do you see in him?”

“Ferdinand?” With some difficulty she propped herself up on an elbow. “I don’t know. He’s—fun. And I’m . . .” she lay back down, lounging. “You know, I’m just in college.”

I looked at her—closely, closely. She resembled royalty, I tell you, she was practically the leader of the free world. Yet she lacked speech. I—on the other hand—standing in that little room, my fingertips still warm from the keyboard—I did not lack it! “But that’s just it!” I began. “I mean, we’re in college. It’s time to get serious! It’s time to get to the bottom of things. The meaning of them. I mean—”

And as I began to expound on this, I thought I saw her looking at me in a way I hadn’t seen a woman look at me in a long time. Probably she wasn’t, or she was just startled by all the words, but I was already examining the ethical implications. And I took a deep breath, a pause, because first I needed to tell her what I thought of things, and I needed to blow her mind. It wasn’t Ferdinand himself that I wanted to dissuade her from, exactly, and not in favor of me, per se, but the idea of Ferdinand, and the idea of me—it was important that I arranged these properly in her mind. Because fun—I turned the word over in my mind. Did she mean sex? Boats? Ice cream? There was right action and wrong action. There was Kierkegaard. There was fun, and then there were those ten minutes before the Grille closed, the music turned off, the lights coming up to reveal the beer spilled on the floor, the plastic cups lying there, and people’s coats had fallen off the little coat ledge in the corner, and you’d be going home alone. And how was I going to explain all this to anyone? To Lauren, for example, poor privileged Lauren for whom no amount of grooming and training would turn her into the person she actually wanted to be? To Lauren, who’d passed out on my bed?

This was all in 1997. It was before the scandals broke, one after the other, in a rising, crescendoing spiral of tawdriness, and before it became clear that though her father was faultless, he lacked the skill to distance himself in quite the right way—that even his innocence appeared somehow manipulative. The economy was moving along, the Serbs were off the hills above Sarajevo, the party of the opposition was in confusion and disarray. Ferdinand discovered Diesel jeans and, walking around with Lauren, looked better than ever. I began to think that she was right, about everything, and though we didn’t talk much after that episode in my room—I wrote her a long email, and she didn’t write back—I suspect it was the happiest time of Lauren’s life.

And then, about a month after that happened, things came to a head in Leverett J-12. I had been buried in Widener, reading all of Lincoln’s little notes and letters, all sixteen volumes, and finishing my great Lincoln paper, though admittedly much of my time was spent imagining what it would be like to already be the author of a great Lincoln paper. Would I grant interviews? But now things were getting hairy, the deadline was nine in the morning, and I had to finish the Lincoln, for no one else would. When they stumbled in at around three I was already in bed, turning some final phrases over in my mind. When I heard them pause in the front hall to take off their jackets and then paw each other for five minutes—transparent were the ways of Ferdinand to me—I knew I should get up. The trip to the couch was momentous, and though I wore a fairly new T-shirt and my best boxers I felt underdressed. I took my laptop along and they smiled sheepishly at me, apologizing, as they walked past into the bedroom. And Lauren, happy and seeing me there on the ridiculous couch, my face illuminated in simulated concentration by the bright nimbus of the laptop, Lauren winked.

For the next two hours, I sat at my laptop, that small and nimble machine, its purr doing little to muffle their sounds.

At first they wrestled, she giggled, he growled.

“My shirt’s chafing me, man,” I heard Ferdinand say, cracking up. “I’m taking it off.”

A bit later I heard his shoes thud against the floor, separately. Hers followed, together and daintily, as if she’d not only taken them off simultaneously but tried to lighten their fall. And presently, I thought I heard from the bedroom little wistful sounds, hesitating, like Ferdinand’s laugh, as they rubbed against each other.

“My pants,” he then said. “They’re chafing me.” They giggled at the allusion and again there was a furious rustling. His ambition was like a little engine, his secretary said of Lincoln, that knew no rest.

What now? Was he sucking on her breasts? He’d explained to me once that if a girl has larger breasts, you can be rougher with them—was he being rougher? I suppose he massaged her inner thighs.

And then there was a silence, some sharp rustling. “No,” she said, regretfully but sharply. “You’re drunk.”

“I’m shit-faced,” he decently corroborated.

“Me too.”

“Oh, man,” he said after a while. “My pants were really chafing me.”

She did a Mr. Burns imitation. The moment had passed and already they had settled into positions of sleep. I had listened to all this with profound attention, and now it was 5 am. I’d need a few more days for the Lincoln.

There is the event, which simply happens, and the interpretation, which never ends. After that night, fierce debates were held in our Alcove One, the Leverett House Dining Hall. We found Ferdinand uncharacteristically vague about what had gone on. “It was close,” he said. “I’ll tell you that much. But, you know . . .” He gestured with his hands. “It gets confusing down there.” He shrugged, and smiled.

Mayhem ensued. What did he mean? The collected sages were forced to hypothesize. Had he come prematurely? Had he entered partially? Had he merely, just, been in the neighborhood?

We speculated. What was sex? What was not sex? “Penetration without ejaculation,” I proposed, as a general rule, “that’s not sex.”

“But getting her to agree to penetration,” countered Nick, a social-studies major, a fierce debater. “That is most difficult.”

“So?” I said. “A lot of things are difficult. It’s difficult to persuade a girl to take her underwear off, but you wouldn’t claim that that’s sex.”

“Or to come home,” said Creeley.

“Yeah,” I pursued, “coming home is the most difficult of all.”

“Is difficulty then the prime consideration?” Nick switched his tack, he was on the defensive. “Like in gymnastics? Because that seems pretty reductive, frankly.”

There were murmurs of assent. It was a dirty debating trick: No one wanted sex to be like gymnastics.

“I’m just seeking clarity,” I said carefully. “Just as sex itself should be consensual, so should the definition of it. You really want an act where both people can say: That was sex.”

“Maybe we should ask some girls,” Creeley suggested.


Ben turned to me: “You say penetration without ejaculation is no good, but what about the reverse?”

“You mean if the woman doesn’t come?”

Everyone snorted.

“No, no,” said Ben, smiling weakly. “What if there is ejaculation, but no entry.”

Everyone laughed.

“No one would consider that sex,” I said. Ben blushed and there was an uncomfortable pause. I was miffed. “Would they?”

“Maybe. It’s very intimate.”

“Sure,” I allowed. “But that’s a real slippery slope. You mean like a hand job? Or premature ejaculation? There are names for these things, you know. Of course, you’re welcome to keep track of those, if you want.”

And with that I got up and bussed my tray. It was a nice flourish, I thought, and anyway the extension I’d taken on my Lincoln paper was almost up. “From here on out,” I added, in parting, “I’m only sitting with guys who agree that sex is sex. Otherwise people are going to be claiming things, we won’t even know what they’re talking about.” My partisans cheered as my silverware splashed into the soapy silverware bowl. It was the highlight of my college career.

On the question of sex/not-sex, Ferdinand kept his own counsel. But this did not mean he could keep his hands to himself. Within two weeks of that night, Lauren saw him leave the Grille with Stephanie Stevens, a short, perky soccer player who lived in distant Cabot House. I, in turn, heard them come in, and, in a final burst of loyalty to Lauren, refused to sleep on the couch.

“Come on,” said Ferdinand. “Don’t be a douchebag.”

“No,” I told him. “I’m not leaving. You can go ahead and do your thing, but I’m staying here.”

“You are a professional DB,” concluded Ferdinand. “Come on,” he said to Stephanie Stevens, “we’ll take a cab to your place.”

But the damage was done. Lauren was livid, if only briefly, because she must have known this was the nature of Ferdinand, and she’d signed up for it. And if she hadn’t known, now she knew. She was also by then developing a sufficiently strong sense of her dignity that she would not place it again in Ferdinand’s keeping. I never more had the privilege of ceding my bedroom to her, and in any case there was soon another woman in our lives, so silly and so much like us, and at night we dreamed of her softness, at night we dwelt on her details, her credulity. We were disgusted by our president but secretly we lamented only that he hadn’t done enough.


I was disappointed that Ferdinand and Lauren did not stay together, but overall I was proud. I did not come to Harvard so that my roommate could sleep with, or almost-sleep-with, the Vice President’s daughter. In my secret dreams, or even from past experience, I would have thought that it would be I who slept with, or almost-slept with, the Veep’s handsome daughter. But to have a roommate who did, that is also something. And to realize this, that it is something, may just be the beginning of wisdom—or almost-wisdom, as the case may have been. Sometimes you end up in bed, was the idea—but sometimes you’re just the guy on the couch, writing your Lincoln paper, looking back over your life, smiling at some of the things that have been said, and half-hoping you’ll fall asleep.

After that happened, anyway, things got a little easier for me. I think now that every life contains three, four, five lives, and at each one of mine I have been progressively more amazed. It was too late, this time around, to salvage college, but I did start drinking less, and less desperately, and I began to look about me. My Lincoln paper, which I had thought so great, proved a disappointment to my adviser, who met me in his little postgrad office in the history building and said, wearily, “This is just aphorisms and jokes, jokes and aphorisms.” So? He didn’t like it. But I was soon launched on a new paper, on Henry Adams, and it was all education, as Adams liked to say.

Not long after, I met Jillian, an art student at one of the colleges across the river. We began spending our days at the Museum of Fine Arts, staring at the Sargents. Outside, she was often lost, I had to get us back to her dorm, and this defined the parameters of our relationship. Senior year we moved off campus, to a small apartment in Cambridgeport, and within a few weeks we had achieved a startling domesticity. My father had sold the house in Newton, and Jillian and I got all the furniture.

Ferdinand and Lauren came by once, briefly, after classes. They were still friends, and Lauren would occasionally dust him off when she needed a date to a formal function. We made them tea as Lauren exclaimed over all the art Jillian had picked up for our place. “That’s so cool!” she said of a found-art sculpture made from wood construction slats.

Ferdinand went over to the old Newton couch. “I’ve slept on this couch,” he said fondly. “It moves apart.” One night freshman year, while my father was away on business, we’d all gone to Newton and became extraordinarily drunk playing Drinkopoly, a Monopoly-based drinking game invented and trademarked by us. Ben even fell off the porch and twisted his ankle.

“Very impressive,” said Ferdinand of our domestic situation, as they were leaving.

“Poor girl,” said Jillian of Lauren, when they left.

College by then had become a day job that I had occasionally to endure. Sitting in an evening seminar discussing obscure points of old presidential contests—this was just punitive when Jillian was already home. That year I began to see less and less of Ben and Ferdinand, and learned more and more of the world, and when I got out of college at last I was prepared for life. We spent the summer driving to California with a tent, and when we got back Jillian found a job at the Museum, doing genealogies of the paintings, and I started work as a political journalist for a promising Boston magazine, and some of the bitterness of my years at Harvard dissipated, and some of it went straight into my prose. Everything I published had a sort of glow, it returned to me in print with an alienated majesty. People responded, they really did. But it was the magazine’s blog, which I ran, and which after six months netted me an offer from an internet ad-sales guru. I left the magazine to do the blog full-time.

Things took off. This was the time of paper billionaires and on-line love affairs—a space of some sort had opened up in the universe, a distortion, and with my belief in my own moral purity, and my knowledge of the American presidency, I stepped right into it. We were living through a period of awesome prosperity, but it was essential that this prosperity be more equally distributed. The Administration had allowed the disastrous repeal of antitrust protections and the weakening of labor’s position all around, but I knew that Lauren’s father in his heart of hearts wanted to fix all this. All he needed was to know that there were enough of us out there who believed the same things, and would fight for those things, and I was telling him I would. I sat in the Café 1369 in Central Square, reading the news sites with a stack of history books piled next to me. I quoted Lincoln a lot, naturally, and Adams, and though there were jokes and there were aphorisms, mostly I was in total earnest. People responded. They really responded. I was sent emails of praise, I was sent offers by email, checking the email every day was like watching a parade. Oh—you should have seen my inbox!

It was a magical time. It’s hard to bring back now just how right it felt, how historically sound. Not the bubble, which we all knew to be a bubble, but the sense of promise, of possibility. Jillian and I were happy, and we decided to get married, we walked down Newbury Street, young and good-looking and dressed-up, and sometimes we took the day off and headed for Gloucester, though I always took my laptop and watched the news, just in case.

Then Lauren’s father began his run for the presidency, and I tied my fate to his. I endorsed him on the blog, I defended his positions and fought his fights. History was moving in a direction that I could see, I could see it clear ahead, and I was with it. At one point, Lauren even emailed to say she appreciated my thoughts, and that I should keep them coming.

To be comfortable in one’s own skin—isn’t that what they always accused Lauren’s father of not being? A puzzling, repulsive expression, but—but it’s an incredible thing what success, a local success with the possibility of great general success—it’s incredible what it will do for you in that regard. During that year, there were rooms in which I stood, in DC and New York, where I felt that possibly, just possibly, I was playing ball. And as I had to go to these places fairly often, and Jillian had to go to work, occasionally there were conversations, flirtations, with women. I accepted them, as I accepted all my emails, as part of the largesse of those years. And one night in DC, I stepped out into a hallway—I would have liked to say, a balcony—and a woman, just a few years older than I was, but already established, and impressive, with long straight black hair and a way of dipping her head down when she smiled, looked at me and said, “You can have anything you want.”

Was she crazy? Probably she was crazy. But sometimes you are young, and strong, and you believe that because of this you have a right to the things that others have—because look at the mess they’ve made, and look at how tired they are. The woman said, “You can have anything you want,” and on the train ride home to Boston I wondered what she meant. I had already bought an engagement ring for Jillian but now I held onto it. I knew that no matter what happened to the tech stocks, the blog would receive some very handsome offers once Lauren’s father won. We would change our lives. We would have a very different wedding. And I needed some more time to think.

The night of the election Jillian and I stayed home and watched the results come in, and ate fancy pizza, and blogged away. When they called the election for Lauren’s father, I finally gave her the ring—it was corny, it was psychologically obtuse, but I couldn’t think of a better way—and she put it on. When they called it back, we sat there together in disbelief, the diamond dangling on her finger like a fake. “Oh, sweetie,” she said, as if I’d disappointed her, and put her arm around my shoulder. “It doesn’t matter.” But I was in shock, I was aware suddenly of my body, how foreign to me it had become, and Jillian’s, as well, now pressed awkwardly against me, and I wondered what would happen to us.

It wasn’t that we’d “grown apart” or become cruel somehow. In fact we’d grown together, had melded into one another, and in our isolation, in the isolation of any two people living by themselves—we had become strange. While things were going well, this strangeness was a bulwark, a secret trust I carried with me. But when things started going badly—and this was very bad—I began to wonder if I wasn’t on the brink of a terrible mistake. It was like a flood of light had burst into the apartment on Willow Corner and caught us out. I began to wonder, for the first time in years, about Arielle, and the orderly life she must have, buffered by money from the vicissitudes of things like the recount—she was a lawyer already, I knew, in New York, and I wondered if what I wanted, if that woman was right and I could have anything I wanted, would have been that life after all.

I spent the rest of the night on the couch, in the big living-room/kitchen area of our wonderful apartment, unable to do anything, while Jillian got on-line and kept checking the results. I was in a sort of daze when she came over and told me that Lauren’s father was within five hundred votes in Florida, that they had uncalled all the calls. But I didn’t believe it, and of course I was right. The next day, crowds of maniacs had materialized outside Lauren’s house, yelling through loudspeakers for the Vice President to vacate the premises. And, eventually, he did.

It was a full year later that I ran into Lauren and her father on the street. That night, as I plied Arielle with fruitless drink after fruitless drink, before settling down to sleep in my car, I wondered how much of everything Lauren still remembered, and whether she thought of it in those strange, distended seconds on Madison Avenue. I knew from Ferdinand that they no longer spoke, but though I had no way of knowing why, I did see at that moment that she was ashamed of me, and I—well, I was ashamed of us. Nothing had gone as we had hoped. We might still recover—I might still make a wonderful career in liberal punditry, she could still rejuvenate the Democratic Party—but the success we’d glimpsed, which we had smelled with our noses, in anticipation of which our hands had trembled, our throats made moaning noises, our hearts swelled, was denied us. We might still make it but it would not be for many years, and we would not be so beautiful as we were, as we are, and our teeth would not be so bright, and the country, by then, would be in serious world-historical shit. There was Lauren, who’d been our blonde-haired, soft-faced conduit to history—there she was, with a man who would never be President. And there was I, once so serious and so unhappy, arm in arm with a woman I did not love. Life is, of course, very long, and as I said we all have several lives. The life I had until then was finished. It was over. I would have another life, and that was OK. But having many lives does not make it one long party. And it also seems that once enough of the people who loved you in a certain way, and knew you in a certain way, and hoped for certain things for you, are gone—it doesn’t matter so much anymore what you do. It just doesn’t matter at all.

More from Issue 2

Issue 2 Happiness

Novelists said again and again they would never represent happiness.

Issue 2 Happiness

The two grand abdications: one occurred in academic philosophy departments, the other in American fiction.

Issue 2 Happiness

A reading is like a bedside visit. The audience extends a giant moist hand and strokes the poor reader’s hair.

Issue 2 Happiness

As soon as you hear, “We’re all writers here, what’s to disagree about?” you know we’re sunk, intellectually.

Issue 2 Happiness

I am depressed. Things are worse here than I thought. It’s a mess and what’s more it’s a provincial mess.

Issue 2 Happiness
Among the Believers
Issue 2 Happiness

A curse is a formula that becomes a doom. The two-party system is the curse of American political life.

Issue 2 Happiness
Babel in California
Issue 2 Happiness
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
Issue 2 Happiness

In this gentle and permissive way we were enjoined to get high on pot and take up oral sex, but not do any favors for Philip Morris.

Issue 2 Happiness
Trends in Network Television Comedy
Issue 2 Happiness
The Reaper
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The Concept of Experience
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Three Poems
Issue 2 Happiness

Diana slides out of bed naked, feeling as if she has learned something about Coetzee in her sleep.

Issue 2 Happiness
At the 2003 International Security Conference
Issue 2 Happiness

Hitchens might want to insist, contrarily, that although he has changed his allies, he has not changed his opinions.

Issue 2 Happiness

For people stunned by the Seattle demonstrations, Klein’s book was a field guide; for people inspired by them, it was a bible.

Issue 2 Happiness

What a strange book Philip Roth has written.

Issue 2 Happiness

A German friend asked me if graphic novels were erotic. I said, “No, they’re neurotic.”

Issue 2 Happiness

The growing influence of the Italian philosopher’s work seems in many respects to depend on his remarkable sense of taste.

Issue 2 Happiness

Keith Gessen replies: The genital flag?

More by this Author

Issue 1 Negation

Those jokes, wherein you tweak the Man by suggesting gay sex or quoting Lacan: those are no longer funny.

October 25, 2013

To play within the system is to play by its rules; you could choose, also, to walk away, and that’s what Medvedev did.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

In the age of BookScan, only an unpublished writer is allowed to keep his dignity.

June 23, 2010

Look, bubbles create other bubbles, they’re like derivative bubbles.

April 1, 2008

Banks, the sense of panic and despair at the major banks, I’ve just never seen it before.

May 23, 2011

At once too densely civilized and not civil enough, the city fared little better at the hands of an emerging pragmatism.