I Am Charlotte Simmons, page 1
TO MY TWO COLLEGIANS
You have been a joy, a surprise, a source of wonderment for me at every stage of your young lives. So I suppose I shouldn’t be astonished by what you have done for me and this book; but I am, and dedicating it to you is a mere whisper of my gratitude. I gave you the manuscript hoping you might vet it for undergraduate vocabulary. That you did. I learned that using the oath Jesus Christ establishes the speaker as, among other things, middle-aged or older. So does the word fabulous, as in “That’s fabulous!” Today the word is awesome. So does jerk, as in “Whatta jerk!” It has been totally replaced by a quaint anatomical metaphor. Students who load up conversations with likes and totallys, as in “like totally awesome,” are almost always females. The totallys now give off such whiffs of parody, they are fading away, even as I write. All that was quite in addition to the many times you rescued me when I got in over my head trying to use current slang. What I never imagined you could do—I couldn’t have done it at your age—was to step back in the most detached way and point out the workings of human nature in general and the esoteric workings of social status in particular. I say “esoteric,” because in many cases these were areas of life one would not ordinarily think of as social at all. Given your powers of abstraction, your father had only to reassemble the material he had accumulated visiting campuses across the country. What I feel about you both I can say best with a long embrace.
Table of Contents
PROLOGUE: THE DUPONT MAN
1. THAT SINGLE PROMISE
2. THE WHOLE BLACK PLAYER THING
3. THE MERMAID BLUSHED
4. THE DUMMY
5. YOU THE MAN
6. THE MOST ORDINARY PROTOCOL
LOST PROVINCE ENTR’ACTE
7. HIS MAJESTY THE BABY
8. THE VIEW UP MOUNT PARNASSUS
10. HOT GUYS
11. ONSTAGE, A STAR
12. THE H WORD
13. THE WALK OF SHAME
14. MILLENNIAL MUTANTS
15. THE TAILGATERS
16. THE SUBLIME
17. THE CONSCIOUS LITTLE ROCK
18. THE LIFEGUARD
19. THE HAND
21. GET WHAT?
22. SHAKING HANDS WITH FORTUNE
23. MODEL ON A RUNWAY
24. TO … US!
25. YOU OKAY?
26. HOW WAS IT?
27. IN THE DEAD OF THE NIGHT
28. THE EXQUISITE DILEMMA
29. STAND UP STRAIGHT FOR GAY DAY
30. A DIFFERENT PREPOSITION
31. TO BE A MAN
32. THE HAIR FROM LENIN’S COATEE
33. THE SOUL WITHOUT QUOTATION MARKS
34. THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE
ALSO BY TOM WOLFE
PROLOGUE: THE DUPONT MAN
Every time the men’s-room door opened, the amped-up onslaught of Swarm, the band banging out the concert in the theater overhead, came crashing in, ricocheting off all the mirrors and ceramic surfaces until it seemed twice as loud. But then an air hinge would close the door, and Swarm would vanish, and you could once again hear students drunk on youth and beer being funny or at least loud as they stood before the urinals.
Two of them were finding it amusing to move their hands back and forth in front of the electric eyes to make the urinals keep flushing. One exclaimed to the other, “Whattaya mean, a slut? She told me she’s been re-virginated!” They both broke up over that.
“She actually said that? Re-virginated?”
“Yeah! Re-virginated or born-again virgin, something like that!”
“Maybe she thinks that’s what morning-after pills do!” They both broke up again. They had reached that stage in a college boy’s evening at which all comments seem more devastatingly funny if shouted.
Urinals kept flushing, boys kept disintegrating over one another’s wit, and somewhere in the long row of toilet cubicles somebody was vomiting. Then the door would open and Swarm would come crashing in again.
None of this distracted the only student who at this moment stood before the row of basins. His attention was riveted on what he saw in the mirror, which was his own fair white face. A gale was blowing in his head. He liked it. He bared his teeth. He had never seen them quite this way before. So even! So white! They vibrated from perfection. And his square jaw … that chin with the perfect cleft in it … his thick, thatchy light brown hair … those brilliant hazel eyes … his! Right there in the mirror—him! All at once he felt like he was a second person looking over his own shoulder. The first him was mesmerized by his own good looks. Seriously. But the second him studied the face in the mirror with detachment and objectivity before coming to the same conclusion, which was that he looked awesome. Then the two of him inspected his upper arms where they emerged from the sleeves of his polo shirt. He turned sideways and straightened one arm to make the triceps stand out. Jacked, both hims agreed. He had never felt happier in his life.
Not only that, he was on the verge of a profound discovery. It had to do with one person looking at the world through two pairs of eyes. If only he could freeze this moment in his mind and remember it tomorrow and write it down. Tonight he couldn’t, not with the ruckus that was going on inside his skull.
“Yo, Hoyt! ’Sup?”
He looked away from the mirror, and there was Vance with his head of blond hair tousled as usual. They were in the same fraternity; in fact, Vance was the president. Hoyt had an overwhelming desire to tell him what he had just discovered. He opened his mouth but couldn’t find the words, and nothing came out. So he turned his palms upward and smiled and shrugged.
“Lookin’ good, Hoyt!” said Vance as he approached the urinals. “Lookin’ good!”
Hoyt knew it really meant he looked very drunk. But in his current sublime state, what difference did it make?
“Hey, Hoyt,” said Vance, who now stood before a urinal, “I saw you upstairs there hittin’ on that little tigbiddy! Tell the truth! You really, honestly, think she’s hot?”
“Coo Uh gitta bigga boner?” said Hoyt, who was trying to say, “Could I get a bigger boner?” and vaguely realized how far off he was.
“Soundin’ good, too!” said Vance. He turned away in order to pay attention to the urinal, but then he looked at Hoyt once more and said with a serious tone in his voice, “You know what I think? I think you’re demolished, Hoyt. I think it’s time to head back while your lights are still on.”
Hoyt put up an incoherent argument, but not much of one, and pretty soon they left the building.
It was a mild May night, with a pleasant breeze and a full moon whose light created just enough of a gloaming to reveal the singular, wavelike roof of the theater, known officially here at the university as the Phipps Opera House, one of the architect Eero Saarinen’s famous 1950s modern creations. The theater’s entrance, ablaze with light, cast a path of fire across a plaza and out upon a row of sycamore trees at the threshold of another of the campus’s renowned ornaments, the Grove. From the moment he founded Dupont University 115 years ago, Charles Dupont, the artificial dye king and art collector, no kin to the du Ponts of Delaware, had envisioned an actual grove of academe through which scholars young and old might take contemplative strolls. He had commissioned the legendary landscape artist Charles Gillette. Swaths of Gillette’s genius abounded across the campus. There was the Great Yard at its heart, the quadrangles of the older residential colleges, a botanical garden, two floral lawns with gazebos, tree-studded parking lots, but, above all, this arboreal masterpiece, the Grove, so artfully contrived you would never know Dupont was practically surrounded by the black slums of
The fresh air and the peace and quiet of the huge stands of trees began to clear Hoyt’s head, or somewhat. He felt as if he were back at that blissful intersection on the graph of drunkenness at which the high has gone as high as it can go without causing the powers of reasoning and coherence to sink off the chart and get trashed … the exquisite point of perfect toxic poise. He was convinced he could once again utter a coherent sentence and make himself understood, and the blissful gale inside his head blew on.
At first he didn’t say much, because he was trying to fix that moment before the mirror in his memory as he and Vance walked through the woods toward Ladding Walk and the heart of the campus. But that moment kept slipping away … slipping away … slipping away … and before he knew it, an entirely different notion had bubbled up into his brain. It was the Grove … the Grove … the famous Grove … which said Dupont … and made him feel Dupont in his bones, which in turn made his bones infinitely superior to the bones of everybody in America who had never gone to Dupont. I’m a Dupont man, he said to himself. Where was the writer who would immortalize that feeling—the exaltation that lit up his very central nervous system when he met someone and quickly worked into the conversation some seemingly offhand indication that he was in college, and the person would (inevitably) ask, “What college do you go to?” and he would say as evenly and tonelessly as possible, “Dupont,” and then observe the reaction. Some, especially women, would be openly impressed. They’d smile, their faces would brighten, they’d say, “Oh! Dupont!” while others, especially men, would tense up and fight to keep their faces from revealing how impressed they were, and they’d say “I see” or “uhmm” or nothing at all. He wasn’t sure which he enjoyed more. Everyone, male or female, who was right now, as he was, in the undergraduate division, Dupont College, or had ever graduated from Dupont College knew that feeling, treasured that feeling, sought one way or another to enjoy that feeling daily if at all possible, now and for the rest of his life—yet nobody had ever captured that feeling in words, and God knows no Dupont man, or Dupont woman, for that matter, had ever tried to describe it out loud to a living soul, not even to others within this charming aristocracy. They weren’t fools, after all.
He looked about the Grove. The trees were enchanted silhouettes under a golden full moon. Merrily, merrily the gale blew on and—a flash of inspiration—he would be the one to put it all into words! He would be the bard! He knew he had it in him to be a writer. He had never had the time to do any writing other than papers for classes, but he now knew he had it in him. He could hardly wait for tomorrow when he would wake up and capture that feeling on the screen of his Mac. Or maybe he would tell Vance about it right now. Vance was just a few feet ahead of him as they walked through the enchanted Grove. Vance he could talk to about such a thing …
Suddenly Vance looked at Hoyt and held one hand up in the gesture that says “Stop” and put a forefinger up to his lips and pressed himself up against the trunk of a tree. Hoyt did likewise. Then Vance indicated they should peek around the tree. There in the moonlight, barely twenty-five feet away, they could make out two figures. One was a man with a great shock of white hair, sitting on the ground at the base of a tree trunk with his pants and his boxer shorts down around his ankles and his heavy white thighs spread apart. The other was a girl in shorts and a T-shirt who was on her knees between his knees, facing him. Her big head of hair looked very pale in the moonlight as it pumped up and down over his lap.
Vance pulled back behind the tree and whispered, “Holy shit, Hoyt, you know who that is? That’s Governor Whatsisname, from California, the guy who’s supposed to speak at commencement!” Commencement was Saturday. Tonight was Thursday.
“Then wuz he doing here now?” said Hoyt a little too loudly, causing Vance to put his forefinger to his lips again.
Vance chuckled deep in his throat and whispered, “That’s pretty fucking obvious, if you ask me.”
They peeked out from behind the tree again. The man and the girl must have heard them, because they were both looking their way.
“I know her,” said Hoyt. “She was in my—”
“Fuck, Hoyt! Shhhhh!”
Bango! Something grabbed Hoyt’s right shoulder from behind in a terrific grip, and a tough-guy voice said, “What the fuck you punks think you’re doing?”
Hoyt spun around and found himself confronting a short but massively muscled man in a dark suit and a collar and tie that could barely contain his neck, which was wider than his head. A little translucent coiled cord protruded from his left ear.
Adrenaline and alcohol surged up Hoyt’s brain stem. He was a Dupont man staring at an impudent simian from the lower orders. “Doing?” he barked, inadvertently showering the man with spit. “Looking at a fucking ape-faced dickhead is what we’re doing!”
The man seized him by both shoulders and slammed him back against the tree, knocking the breath out of him. Just as the little gorilla drew his fist back, Vance got down on all fours behind his legs. Hoyt ducked the punch, which smashed into the tree trunk, and drove his forearm into his assailant—who had just begun to yell “Shiiiiiit” from the pain—with all his might. The man toppled backward over Vance and hit the ground with a sickening thud. He started to get up but then sank back to the ground. He lay there on his side next to a big exposed maple root, his face contorted, holding one shoulder with a hand whose bloody knuckles were gashed clear down to the bone. The arm that should have been socketed into the stricken shoulder was extended at a grotesque angle.
Hoyt and Vance, who was still on all fours, stared speechless at this picture of agony. The man opened his eyes, saw that his adversaries were no longer on the attack, and groaned, “Fugguz … fugguz …” Then, overcome by God knows what, he folded his face into another blind grimace and lay there moaning, “Muhfugguh … muhfugguh …”
The two boys looked at each other and, possessed by a single thought, turned toward the man and the girl—who were gone.
Vance whispered, “Whatta we do?”
“Run like a bastard,” said Hoyt.
Which they did. As they ran through the arboretum, the tree trunks and shrubs and flowers and foliage kept whipping by in the dark and Vance kept saying things like “Self-defense, self-defense … just … self-defense,” until he was too winded to run and speak at the same time.
They neared the edge of the Grove, where it bordered the open campus, and Vance said, “Slow … down …” He was so out of breath he could utter no more than a syllable or two after each gulp of air. “Just … walk … Got’act … natch’rul …”
So they emerged from the Grove walking and acting natural, except that their breathing sounded like a pair of handsaws and they were soaked with sweat.
Vance said, “We don’t”—gulp of air—“talk about this”—gulp of air—“to anybody”—gulp of air—“Right?”—gulp of air—“Right, Hoyt?”—gulp of air—“Right, Hoyt?”—gulp of air—“Fuck!”—gulp of air—“Listen to me, Hoyt!”
But Hoyt wasn’t even looking at him, much less listening. His heart was pumping just as much adrenaline as Vance’s. But in Hoyt’s case the hormone merely fed the merry gale, which now blew stronger than ever. He had deleted that sonofabitch! The way he had flipped that muscle-bound motherfucker over Vance’s back—ohmygod! He could hardly wait to get back to the Saint Ray house and tell everybody. Him! A legend in the making! He looked up and gazed at what lay just ahead of them, and he was swept by the male exhilaration—ecstasy!—of victory in battle.
“There’s what, for Chrissake?” said Vance, who obviously wanted to move on, and fast.
Hoyt just gestured at it all.
The Dupont campus … The moon had turned the university’s buildings into a vast chiaroscuro of dark shapes brought out in all their sumptuousness by a wash of pale white gold. The towers, the turrets, the spires, the heavy slate roofs—all of it ineffably beautiful and ineffably grand. Walls thick as a castle’s! It was a stronghold. He, Hoyt, was one of a charmed circle, that happy few who could enter the stronghold at will … and feel its invincibility in their bones. Not only that, he was in the innermost ring of that charmed circle, namely, Saint Ray, the fraternity of those who have been chosen to hold dominion over … well, over everybody.
He wanted to impart this profound truth to Vance … but shit, it was such a mouthful. So all he said was, “Vance, you know what Saint Ray is?”
The total irrelevancy of the question made Vance stare back at him with his mouth open. Finally, in hopes of getting his accomplice moving again, he said, “No, what?”
“It’s a MasterCard … for doing whatever you want … whatever you want.”There wasn’t a single note of irony in his voice. Only awe. He couldn’t have been more sincere.
“Don’t say that, Hoyt! Don’t even think it! Whatever happened in the Grove, we don’t know what anybody’s talking about! Okay?”
“Stop worrying,” said Hoyt, sweeping his hand grandly from here to there, as if to take in the entire tableau before him. “Innermost ring … charmed circle.”
He was once more vaguely aware that he wasn’t altogether coherent. He only idly noticed the look of panic that stole across Vance’s moonlit face. What was Vance so squirrelly about? He was a Dupont man himself. Hoyt once more gazed lovingly upon the moon-washed kingdom before them. The great library tower … the famous gargoyles, plainly visible in silhouette on the corner of Lapham College … way over there, the dome of the basketball arena … the new glass-and-steel neuroscience center, or whatever it was—even that weird building looked great at this moment … Dupont! Science—Nobel winners! whole stacks of them! … although he couldn’t exactly remember any names … Athletes—giants! national basketball champions! top five in football and lacrosse! … although he found it a bit dorky to go to games and cheer a lot … Scholars—legendary! … even though they were sort of spectral geeks who floated around the edges of collegiate life … Traditions—the greatest!—mischievous oddities passed from generation to generation of … the best people! A small cloud formed—the rising number of academic geeks, book humpers, homosexuals, flute prodigies, and other diversoids who were now being admitted … Nevertheless! There’s their Dupont, which is just a diploma with “Dupont” written on it … and there’s the real Dupont—which is ours!
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