By Dan Elish
The Young Man Grows Up (Partially)
On a bright spring morning in the fifth year of Ronald Reagan's presidency, a baby boy came into the world with a loud wail, followed shortly thereafter by a broad grin. His father offered this explanation to curious relatives: his son's smile appeared the minute he set his filmy blue eyes on the attending nurse, an attractive young woman named Greta. Sadly, the moment Greta turned her back, Justin's tears returned.
Thus, a pattern with the opposite sex was established that would stay with the boy for the next twenty-three years. In matters of the heart, Justin Hearnfeld was frequently hopeful and just as frequently disappointed.
The Early Years
Justin passed a normal childhood, at least judged by the unique morees of the island of Manhattan. As a toddler, his life was defined by nannies, playgrounds, and, ultimately, real estate. When Justin was six, his building went condo, an event that allowed his parents to buy at an insider price, sell for a nice profit, then move their growing family (a sister, Emily, had just arrived) from Columbus Avenue to a sunny three bedroom on West End.
By that time Justin was enrolled in P.S. 107, a public school on the Upper West Side. Though in possession of what one aunt called "a sweet face," (indeed, Justin had pale green eyes, good cheekbones and a straight smile), by age seven he had lived enough years for an unfortunate pattern to have emerged in regards to his girth.
"What a great looking kid," his mother would think during all too infrequent lean periods. Then, despite her sometimes manic efforts to keep her first born away from sweets, Justin would gain the weight back. The well defined cheekbones would disappear. The beautiful eyes would recede slightly further into his face. In this manner, Justin spent his young life fluctuating between "handsome" and "doughy." But this was a problem for later. In elementary school, Justin didn't pay much attention to his looks. Like many boys, he loved sports, dogs, and science fiction. The joyous smile he flashed to the nurse at his birth non-withstanding, Justin Hearnfeld hated girls.
When Justin turned eleven, his parents scanned the internet, sent away for the appropriate brochures, considered carefully, then made the decision to send their son to Winikooka, a sleepaway camp in central Maine. It was there that Justin had his first, and possibly greatest, triumph with the opposite sex. No one was more surprised than the boy himself - especially considering that his first twelve days in the woods were devoted to such manly pursuits as the building of raging fires and the construction of pieces of mighty woodcraft, in particular a red Adirondack chair he hoped to bring home for his mother. But on the second Saturday of the month long session it was announced that there would be a dance with the girls of neighboring Camp Tallaharra. Justin could not have been less interested. That night, he slapped on a pair of ripped jeans and the red-stained T-shirt he had worn while painting his famed chair, and grumbled his way across the pasture that separated the two camps, unaware - some might say blissfully - that his life was about to wildly change. At Tallaharra, the boys and girls were quickly corralled inside the main dininghall, a largish room that had been cleared of tables and chairs. After a short mixer dance, Justin found himself face to face with a dark haired creature, bell-bottomed in a tie-dyed T-shirt that said, "Fight the Power." With a single look, Justin experienced a range of reactions he didn't yet understand.
"I'm Susan," the girl said.
Heart thumping, Justin grunted his name. When the music began his body went on automatic pilot and moved with a will of its own. By the second song, Justin was relaxed enough to meet his partner's eyes and utter, "What's your favorite activity? Mine's woodshop." A dance later, the couple relocated to a rock where they discussed, among other things, the best way to dissect a fly. Love was in the air. Back at Winikooka, the next two weeks slowed to a crawl. Justin thought of Susan constantly, once even imagining the outlines of his beloved's face in a plate of leftover Sloppy Joe. Sadly, when the next and last dance of the session finally arrived and Justin - again dressed in his now immortal red-stained shirt - presented himself to his beloved, she giggled nervously then bolted across the girls' main yard into the lodge. Stunned, the boy's first inclination was to return to his bunk and nurse his wounds with a comic book and leftover tollhouse cookie crumbs. But when a late arriving cabinmate dragged him into the dance, Justin discovered that he could be as fickle as any girl. Suddenly, he was dancing with red-haired, almost-as-pretty Florence. Outside, Justin and his new love played ten straight games of tetherball. Just as Florence was demonstrating her signature method of performing a rope trick, the girls' director walked by.
That was when Susan materialized like a mad ghost out of the lodge. The next thing Justin knew she and Florence were yelling across the main yard at each other. Justin blinked. Yelling over him! "Have them go inside," Justin finally informed an intermediary. "I'll ask one of them to dance." The word went out. The main yard cleared. Back inside, Justin didn't hesitate. Yes, Florence's eyes had fluttered appropriately at the mention of his giant chair and his prowess in campwide Capture the Flag. But how could Justin reject the first girl he had ever liked? The girl whose face lived in plates of camp food? The genius fly-dissector? He took Susan's hand and led her to a clear spot on the dance floor. Then came the grand prize. The music slowed. As others began to slow dance, the couple paused, not quite sure how to proceed. Then they put their arms awkwardly around one another. It was then - as Justin pulled Susan close - that he caught a glimpse of Florence. She had found another partner, too: her sister. Justin felt a flash of guilt. But as Susan cradled her head on his shoulder, he lost himself in the wonder of the moment.
Man oh man, he thought. This girl stuff is easy.
Sadly, Justin was too young to know about beginner's luck. Yes, he had homered at his first time up at bat. It was downhill from there.
Back in New York, Justin learned another lesson on the sometimes fleeting nature of love. As it turned out, a spacious three bedroom apartment wasn't enough to save his parent's long failing marriage. While Justin's mother, Angela, a senior administrator at the Natural History Museum, stayed in New York, his father, Richard, a money manager and banker, relocated to St. Croix. Having married in their mid-twenties, both parents took to being single with a vengeance. While Justin's mother favored young paleontologists she met at the museum, his father preferred women of a less intellectual bent. The first was Cindy, a scuba instructor; then Wendy, a masseuse. After that, Justin lost track. During one late night phone call from St. Croix, his father explained his method for renewing himself for the next relationship: "An hour of meditation followed by a bowl of Grape Nuts to make sure I stay regular."
Justin's own sex life was rockier. His first kiss came at the age of thirteen at his cousin's Bar Mitzvah, but with a visiting relative from the other side of the family whose otherwise pretty face was marred by a wandering eye. Justin's first real make-out session came two years later while building adobe huts in the Dominican Republic on a spring-break school program. But Missy Jones, a talkative girl from Louisiana, ultimately dumped him for Pancho, the group cook, a seventeen year old whose main claim to fame was the ability to grill four giant cheese and bean quesadillas a minute.
By that time, Justin was already enrolled in the Clarke School for Boys, a prestigious private institution on Manhattan's Upper West Side. After eight years in public school it was a difficult transition. But Clarke's rigorous academic standards and strict dress code were only part of the problem. Within a few weeks of his matriculation, Justin had divided the student body into three distinct groups: rich assholes, arrogant assholes, and the perpetually intimidated. The latter group was comprised of a series of subsets that ran the gamut from the traditional 'socially-awkward-geek' to the 'borderline-sane-goth' to the category Justin inhabited with many of his classmates: 'sexually frustrated non-entity.'
Fortunately, a developing interest in theater brought Justin into at least some contact with the opposite sex. His sophomore fall, he journeyed across town to Bridgemore, Clarke's sister school, to audition for their production of Blithe Spirit. To his delight, he was the only 10th grader cast. That spring, he turned his sights to the annual Clarke 9th and 10th grade musical, 1776, a show about the days leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Here Justin took another major step forward in his acting career, landing the part of Benjamin Franklin, inventor of the stove and the acknowledged wit of the Continental Congress.
Unfortunately, Justin's dramatic success led to the signature most embarrassing incident in his life - a humiliation made even more crushing by the blaze of glory that preceded it. Indeed, Justin's portrayal of Franklin began as a singular moment in his life. From first line until last, he got laugh after laugh. Better yet, Kathy Lipton, a Bridgemore freshman who had run the lights for Blithe Spirit was sitting in the balcony. Just that week he had found the courage to ask her to be his date to the cast party. Resting backstage during intermission, Justin allowed himself to imagine the glorious moment when Kathy would greet him in the lobby afterwards. The mad gallop into his arms. The very public, very deserving kiss - a precursor of what she might deliver later that night. Stealing the show as he was, anything seemed possible.
Then came the curtain calls. One by one the names of the members of the Continental Congress were called to step forward and sign the Declaration of Independence. With each name, applause commensurate with the individual actor's talent and role, filled the theater. But while Justin watched his fellow legislators stand, his thoughts weren't focused on the monumental leap of freedom that he and his classmates were reenacting on stage. Rather, he was imagining the earth shattering paroxysm of excitement that would fill the theater when he was called to sign. Indeed, given the laughs he had gotten throughout the show - some with lines that weren't even meant to be funny! - why not hope for the greatest accolade of all, a spontaneous, ear shattering standing O?
"Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania!"
The golden moment arrived. The applause began like a thunder clap then grew into a sound so overpowering that it shook (or so it seemed to Justin) the very foundations of the theater. As Justin approached the sacred Declaration, he caught a glimpse of Kathy, one of the first of several audience members to rise to their feet. Glowing, Justin picked up the feather being used as a pen and leaned forward to sign.
That's when it had happened. Two faint "snips." One suspender flipped up to hit him in the face. Then another, followed by an unexpected loosening of his pants. Suddenly, those pants were hugging Justin's ankles and he was standing before the entire Clarke community dressed as Benjamin Franklin…in red boxer shorts! - the same boxers that had been given to him as a joke by his best friend, John Cohen, for his fourteenth birthday, the underwear Justin had worn - again, as a joke - on special occasions.
As the applause had turned to laughter, William Leeds, charter member of both the arrogant and rich assholes and perpetrator of the act, (Justin discovered the pair of sewing scissors in his bookbag later) stepped forward.
"We all know about the electricity, Dr. Franklin," he said. "But nobody told me you also invented red lingerie."
Not high wit. But in the Clarke halls such comments passed for Noel Coward. As laughter turned to hysteria, it was all Justin could do to pull up his pants, sign the Declaration, and sit back down. And Kathy? Though she stood by her man after the show, reassuring Justin that he had been "maximumally stellar" and that no one had noticed that he was close to naked, that night at the cast party she showed a perhaps uncoincidental need to empty her bladder whenever there was a slow dance. And at the end of the evening? A goodnight peck and a running dive into the nearest cab.
So it was that for the final two years of his Clarke career, William Leeds and like members of the arrogant assholes - not to mention many of the nicer members of the P.I. - referred to Justin by his new name: The Father of our Undies. To add to his troubles, Justin's notoriety coincided with the precise time he stopped growing, unfortunately smack in the middle of one of his telltale chubby periods. Daily glances in the mirror became maddening. Though not bad looking by any means, the cruel truth was that Justin Hearnfeld remained a medium-height young man in search of those extra two or three inches that would stretch him into someone truly handsome.
A short time after Justin's appearance in 1776, his parents arranged for him to see Dr. Arthur Koplinsky, a Park Avenue psychiatrist, who specialized in adolescents. Still reeling from the school play, Justin was actually grateful for the offer. In the first session, he opened up, telling the doctor about the debacle with the boxer-shorts, the assholes at Clarke, his bad track record with girls, his parent's divorce, and the so-called "25 Club" - the name that he and his sister had given the collective group of his parent's boy and girlfriends, most of whom were, in fact, twenty five. At the end of the session, Dr. Koplinsky seemed pleased. All in all, it was an auspicious beginning.
For two months Justin remained a model patient, talking freely about his family, even sharing occasional sexual fantasies. Unfortunately, Dr. Koplinsky soon began to guide Justin by using examples from his own life. Although mentioning a youthful desire to play football or a childhood fight with a parent were harmless enough, at the boy's last session of the summer, Dr. Koplinsky crossed a line.
"Girls," Justin said. "Sometimes I think that if I even got one, I wouldn't know what to do with her." Dr. Koplinsky smiled. "You want to know about girls? Just ask my wife."
Justin blinked. "Your wife?"
The doctor nodded. "Kiss her neck and she's randier than a monkey."
Justin focused on a print of Freud that was hanging on the wall. The great doctor was staring down at him, as if demanding a response.
"That's interesting," he managed, finally.
"I'll tell you about interesting," Dr. Koplinksy said. "The woman could wear out a highschool hockey team. Know what she wanted to do this August vacation?"
Justin studied the insole of his sneaker, wishing that he could dissolve into his seat then rematerialize outside the office.
"A nudist colony."
Justin looked up. "I'm sorry?"
"She wanted to work at one," the doctor said. He grinned. "Concessions." Leaving Justin to disgest that piece of information, the man with the epic reputation in the workings of the adolescent psyche glanced at his appointment book. "By the way, I was thinking about next fall. I think we should meet four times a week. What's your schedule like Saturday mornings?"
The next morning, Justin Hearnfeld informed his parents that he felt much better and discontinued his treatment.
Though things didn't work out with Dr. Koplinsky, that fall Justin found a more appropriate role-model. Mr. Andrews had been a legendary teacher long before Justin hit the upper school. Legendary and tough. Indeed, when a fluke of scheduling at the beginning of his junior year forced him into Mr. Andrew's "Advanced Essay," Justin had been terrified. His first days under Mr. Andrews' tutelage were hardly auspicious. The first assignment was to write a paper describing a piece of music, classical or popular. Justin's effort, "The Genius of Aqualung" earned him a D and the comment "insubstantial." A second essay, a detailed description of his first pair of ice skates, led to a meeting in the English office in which Mr. Andrews had pointed out the strained quality to metaphors such as "the leather was thick like the shoe of a dead migrant worker."
But then Justin found his legs. Though his next few essays were still labored, Justin soon began to enjoy reading and writing with the intensity of the converted. More classes with the famed Mr. A. followed. The give and take of the classes excited him. Despite a somewhat dim view of his Clarke classmates - a group he continued to feel was dominated by assholes - he grew to appreciate the educational opportunities the school offered. Where else could a group of overly-intellectual, well-read fifteen year old boys engage in impassioned discussions about Nathaniel West's place in American Literature? It was there that Justin found his opinions had value. Though Justin finished up his highschool years with no girlfriend and still three to five inches short of true good looks, all wasn't lost. At graduation, Justin was awarded the Bickerman Prize for excellence in English. That spring he was accepted to Brandon College in Brandon, New York, one of the better liberal arts schools in the Northeast.
On graduation day, Justin looked eagerly to joining an asshole-free world - a land where no one would call him "The Father of my Undies - a place where slightly nerdy English whizzes would not be taunted but appreciated. Indeed, despite his strong feelings for Mr. Andrews, as Justin pushed through the famed Clarke red doors for a final time, he made a vow. He would never set foot in the building again. Highschool was over. Life simply had to get better.
The Brandon Years
Justin's years in college were marked by his continuing interest in English, his major. He took medium roles in a handful of plays and even made a name for himself around campus for his ability to make up spontaneous lyrics as a member of the college improv troupe. Still, Justin's time in New Hampshire was really defined by one person. Abigail Wilson was an auburn headed Comp. Lit. major with a lopsided smile, broad shoulders, and a passion for the Bronte sisters. She was also was Justin's first girlfriend, who he dated on and off for four years. Still, when college was over and Justin was driving home from graduation, part of him wished that they had never met. What if he had gone biking that beautiful spring day instead allowing himself to be dragged to the campus green to try his hand at ultimate Frisbee? If only he had been on the other lousy team! Then he might have sailed through college a free man, gradually morphing from timid English geek to campus stud. By the time of graduation, he would have successfully cultivated the quiet confidence of a young man who had spent four years dividing his time equally between reading, eating, and participating in depraved orgies. In short, he would have been fully prepared for life.
Instead, there had been Abigail. Though Justin had loved her - or thought he had - she had turned out to be the strangest of modern women: an ardent feminist who, as a devout Christian Scientist allowed Justin to go down on her the first week they were dating, but didn't believe in pre-marital sex. Though Justin took his virginity in stride for a while, by the time he was a senior he was beside himself. At twenty-one, Justin viewed it as affliction crying out for immediate treatment. With every passing day and every passing refusal on Abigail's part, he began to lose hope that it would ever happen. By senior year he thought of his cherry as something chronic and largely untreatable, like a bad case of hemorrhoids. Something had to give. What kind of man graduated college unlaid? Increasingly frustrated, Justin ended the relationship over spring break senior year, eager to go all the way with at least one of the several underclass coeds who had made their interest in him clear over the previous semester.
Unfortunately, the minute Justin announced his newfound availability the demand for his companionship dropped like a stone. His only other sexual encounter as a college student was with Abigail again, at a blow out party the night before graduation. But Justin was drunk - so drunk that beyond the moment when they were both naked (he was certain about that, at least) he didn't remember a thing. The following morning he awoke cradling what he thought to be Abigail in his arms. But with a sharp pain in his right temple - the first of many symptoms of a particularly brutal hangover - he realized that he was actually cuddling with a lacrosse stick. Further, he was sleeping on the floor of his dorm's main lounge, fully clothed. Confused, Justin stumbled across campus to Abigail's room. His stated goal was to return her lacrosse equipment. His ulterior motive, however, was to see if she would help him fill in the missing blanks from the previous evening. Namely, had they had sex? And given the mysterious presence of the lacrosse stick, had that sex been kinky? With this question burning in his mind, he took the stairs two at a time into her dorm, then raced up the stairwell to the second floor. Abigail was in her room. To Justin's dismay, so were her parents, brother, and grandmother, all dressed for graduation.
"Justin?" Abigail said.
To his surprise, she was smiling - and seemed to be staring at his crotch. There was a fleeting moment in which Justin imagined that his ex had a sudden change of heart and was about to drag him by the hair down to the bathroom for a morning of torrid pre-graduation intercourse. But then he heard her laugh. It was at that moment that Justin realized that not only was he carrying a lacrosse stick, but that there was a black bra wrapped around his upper right pant leg.
The rest was a blur. Justin apologized and lurched back outside, leaving the bra on Larch's front doorknob. That afternoon, after the ceremony, he looked for Abigail again. Not that he knew what he'd say if he saw her. Given the solemnity of the occasion, "Hey! Did we finally fuck or what?" didn't seem appropriate. For that matter, neither did any other means of inquiry he could think of. But in the end, it didn't matter. If Abigail saw him pack and leave campus, Justin didn't know it. As a result, while the rest of his classmates were driving home, most likely ruminating fondly on their college years, Justin was
nursing a splitting headache and a question for the ages:Was he still a virgin or not?
A Fateful Decision
Home from school, Justin moved into the same room he had inhabited since age six. The second day back, he tried to shake things up by moving the desk to the window and the bed to the far wall - but their placement in different parts of the smallish room didn't mask the fact that they were the same bed and the same desk that he had used growing up. Even though Justin took down the posters of his youth (Led Zepplin Live), he didn't bother to shop for suitable replacements appropriate for a now young bachelor. With the exception of a landscape that had belonged to his grandmother and a Brandon calendar, the walls were bare. Of course, Justin considered calling Abigail. But after a week of stalling, he let it drop altogether. First, there was the inherent awkwardness of what he wanted to ask. But mostly, Justin was stopped cold by a simple fact. Like many college students, he and Abigail had gotten drunk many times. There was even a period sophomore year where they had gotten stoned. But during their four years together no amount of alcohol or marijuana had loosened Abigail up to the point where she had put aside her religious beliefs and let Justin go all the way. With that kind of consistent record, why should the night before graduation be any different?
And so Justin tried to put the past behind him and focus on his future. Jobless, he toyed with accepting a summer internship at his father's firm, Cranston, Johnstone & Hearnfeld. But it didn't take much thought for Justin to realize that he wasn't cut out for a life at a bank. What could he possibly do with a spread sheet? No, he was a man of letters. An English major! An actor! Better yet, a writer! That spring the Brandon literary magazine had accepted "The Psychedelic Goldfish," a short story about a boy who counteracts the loss of a broken home through the love of a fish. Rereading this epic work one evening, Justin made a decision. He would spend the summer working on a collection. If he got stuck, he could rework a draft of a children's novel, The Queen of the Hoogars, that he had penned in highschool. Thus determined, the next two mornings Justin was at his desk, dressed and ready to write by eight. But no words came, at least not ones he thought were any good. On day three, Justin was at his desk by eight but in pajama bottoms. On day four? He didn't get out of bed - all day. Which is when his father, now the beneficiary of nine years of analysis, suggested that he call Dr. Koplinsky again. Needless to say, Justin refused. Still, the question remained: What should he do with his life?
Which is why when the phone rang one morning the first week of August, Justin didn't say no - not right away anyway. Yes, it was a crazy idea. How did the saying go? One could never go back home again. But what other options did he have?
"Someone just quit on me," Mr. Andrews said. " Just come in to meet the headmaster. It won't kill you." And so later that day, Justin brushed off his graduation suit, threw on a tie, walked down Riverside Park to 76th Street, then cut back over to Broadway. A half an hour after leaving his mother's apartment, The Father of Our Undies was pushing through the red doors he had vowed to never enter again - the scene of four years of misery, The Clarke School for Boys.