Looking back, Jeanie Boucher fully recognized that 1975 was an ideal time to be a sophomore in college. Worcester, MA wasn’t exactly a cultural hub, and she did retrospectively wish that she had made more sojourns into Boston to dick around in front of the Newbury Street head shops and leave fingerprints all over the freshly-pressed vinyl at Cheapo on Mass. Ave. and badger the taco vendors in Jamaica Plain while she chain-smoked whatever the lowest-priced cigarettes might have been. But Holy Cross still felt like an incubator for a pre-punk cleverness and all the stuff about being young of which old people get jealous. Walking through a quad on an afternoon that barely verged on clemency (in Massachusetts, any day above fifty-five was declared wicked nice, and a cause for shorts-clad outdoor celebration), she would hear glorious discordant symphonies pouring out of open dorm-room windows. Every other student would heave his speakers into any available opening and treat the outside world to that week’s favorite record. Led Zeppelin tangled with Bowie’s last great work (this was on the eve of his Berlin trilogy with Brian Eno, which Jeanie would defiantly brand ‘overblown claptrap’), Quicksilver Messenger Service melted into Springsteen’s crushed-gravel growl, all of this combining to form a medley that switched movements depending on where a fresh-faced student chose to stand.
Midnight movies played to hooting hordes of stogna-bologna intellectual types. Jeanie looked back fondly on an evening when she and her big-mouthed roommate Jenny (yes, it was great fun at parties, Jeanie and Jenny, an observation that every starched-collar frat boy genuinely believed he had been the first to make) sucked down a joint apiece and secured front-row seats for Eraserhead, gaping at one another and bursting into delirious laughter in response to the big reveal of the deformed mutant baby. In Jeanie’s imagination, college in 1975 slapped every right-thinking American Adult in the stony face. She treated every 1 a.m. vodka shot like a slight against her parents. Their vague racism, the way they warned her against becoming a ‘fruit fly’ after meeting her preening best friend Donald, her father the IRS worker’s firmly-rooted love of God, country and industry — Jeanie rejected them all with the blithe verve that collegiate types speak like a native language. Her acid-tongued mother and authoritarian father had cast their lot with Vietnam and Nixon and the riot police and they had all fully and totally blown it. They had frittered away their chance to make America somewhere worth living, Jeanie knew, and now it was on her and her contemporaries. She could feel herself making steps, too. Her introductory literature course had pulled her second-wave eyes wide open; Professor Sveinsdottir began the first day of class with a screed that increased in volume as it did in vitriol, denouncing the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Salinger as misogynist adolescents and asserting in no uncertain terms that this would be a program of mental expansion, that the vocabulary defining the oppressor from the oppressed was the first and greatest lesson, far trumping explorations of ‘pettily existential themes.’ The professor’s lectures straddled the continental gap between hellfire sermons and elegantly reasoned Socratic dialogues. Hulga Sveinsdottir proselytized on the corrosive effects of patriarchal literature, that the very notion of the Great American Novelist was designed specifically to marginalize female authors and elevate young white men. Jeanie entertained avenues of thought she never knew existed, and it was not infrequently that she would take a mental step back and marvel at how much intellectual progress she had made since her small-minded days in her provincial fishery of a hometown.
It was around this time in her life that Jeanie made her debut in what would be a long and illustrious career in self-disappointment. As Jeanie’s fledgling feminism approached a fever pitch, she fell in love with a young man in spite of her most progressive intentions. Jenny had dragged Jeanie to the Bullfrog, a bar located deep in the knotted intestinal tract of the South End’s most Irish neighborhoods. Jenny was dating Curtis, who played drums for the Clamdiggers, a pub-rock outfit with a standing reservation for a forty-minute set every Thursday night (this had been the source of the anecdote that won Curtis a first date with Jenny, in which Curtis swear-to-god-no-bullshit-strike-me-down-if-you-doubt spotted Whitey Bulger flanked by four hulking man-boulders in the back of the bar, nodding his head along to “If 6 Was 9”). Jeanie had met guitarist and lead vocalist Matthew at a party a couple weeks back and was, truth be told, a bit taken with his sharp, angular facial layout. But by the time the girls had gotten their Narragansett tallboys and swayed noncommittally to the first few numbers, Jeanie’s eyes were plastered elsewhere. The bassist must have exuded some chemical mojo on Jeanie, an erotic dogwhistle to which only she was privy, because his tight brown curls (“It’s the Jewish response to the Afro. I call it the Isro,” he would joke), coke-bottle glasses and robust mustache commanded her gaze for all two-thousand-four-hundred seconds the Clamdiggers inoffensively occupied the stage. When he played, he evinced a disciplined focus that Jeanie couldn’t ignore. She drifted off, imagined herself thinned out and coiled into the shape of his bass strings, her entire body vibrating as he plucked out a rhythm on her spine. In the coming months, she would grow cartoon-eyes enamored of his aloof sense of self-deprecating humor, the quiet dignity with which he owned his status as a 21-year-old orphan, and his unflagging affability. But for now:
“Hey, I’m Seth. My last name is Urbanski. I’m Seth Urbanski. Hey.”
Twenty years later, Jeanie Urbanski was folding laundry. It was a graphite-grey Saturday afternoon and Seth was in Newark on work, leaving Jeanie to tend their home in a tidy suburb twenty minutes north of Boston called Fairmont and to look after their kids: brassy and confrontational four-year-old Vanessa and gurgling, phlegm-spewing Jack, coming up on his first birthday. Jeanie had spent most of the morning gently convincing Nessa that the best course of action for the afternoon would not be to draw a hopscotch on the pavement outside with a fat pale-green rod of chalk because baby, it’s going to be raining soon and you don’t want to come in drippy, so it’d make Mommy very happy if you could sit in the next room and read your Magic Tree House books while these chores get done, and make sure to come get Mommy if your brother starts crying. With available space in the house becoming a calculably more precious commodity due to Jack’s arrival, and a bit of extra money never unwelcome, Seth and Jeanie had agreed that a game-changing yard sale was in the cards. One of the most loathsome tasks would be to cull their vast shared vinyl collection. Some of the rarer stuff would probably fetch a princely sum from people invested in the burgeoning market of obsolescence fetishism, and so Seth had entrusted Jeanie to take the weekend to divide their towering library of records into manageable “Keep” and “Sell” piles. Jeanie had moved the turntable into the laundry room so that she could make her way through the massive undertaking while she folded Jack’s tight cotton onesies and scrubbed Nessa’s grass-stained dresses. Her system was tough, but fair: An album had its first three tracks to prove its own staying power, its worthiness of becoming a fixture in the Urbanski Family Music Collection. If a record failed to elicit some reaction from Jeanie within three songs, whether that be a tapped toe, bobbed head, or trigger of a gold-hued specific recollection, then out it went.
For some, it only took a minute or two of sustained listening to sway her one way or the other. Throwing away After the Gold Rush wouldn’t have just been dumb; it would’ve been an act of lesser heresy to Jeanie, treason against good taste — back on the shelf it went. Sleeves from Grace Jones, Helen Reddy and Archie Bell & the Drells didn’t meet with such luck, and were solemnly placed into a brown paper bag saved from Jeanie’s most recent outing to the neighborhood Stop and Shop. Jeanie made every effort to silence the slight twinges of regret she felt when she discarded any of the albums, reminding herself that they’re just pieces of wax that could be easily transmuted into money, which could then be alchemized one more time into baby formula, mini-saddle shoes, light bulbs, loaves of wheat bread, or one of the other million things she and Seth miraculously managed to afford every month.
Deciding that The Electric Prunes were hardly worth keeping around in the coming years, Jeanie moved the record off of the turntable, back into its sleeve and into the paper bag. She reached for the next album in the to-listen pile and smiled with recognition when she saw the four painted-over portraits forming the cover art for Remain In Light. The Talking Heads had been a staple of Jeanie’s musical diet throughout the early 80’s. She knew instantly that this was a keeper, but carefully fitted the record onto the turntable for old time’s sake. When the glittering synths and tribal drumbeat of “Once In A Lifetime” spilled out of the speaker, Jeanie realized that she had mistakenly started on Side B. She had always considered this the album’s highlight, however, and let it spin. As she folded socks, David Byrne’s words burrowed into a part of her brain she didn’t much like prodded. Her stomach began to tie itself into a nauseating snarl. All of the notes sounded slightly-off key, not in the darling organic way that comes from a warped record, but in a jeering funhouse way that Jeanie had not anticipated in the slightest:
And you may ask yourself: what is that beautiful house? And you may ask yourself: where does that highway go? And you may ask yourself: am I right or am I wrong? And you may say to yourself: my god, what have I done?
Jeanie started to choke back tears. She ripped the needle off of the record in a swift single motion, shoved the record back into the sleeve, and chucked it into the on-the-way-out bag with the others. She whipped Jack’s baby sock back into the dryer from whence it came and cradled her head in her hands for a moment, collecting herself. In the next room, Jack slumbered with the sweet clean malleability of infancy.
Jack Urbanski got his first peek at the hole at the tender age of eight. In a kitchen whose Easter-pale yellow walls framed a vista of the lush yet well-manicured back yard, little Jack tugged on his mother’s skirt as she massacred a bagful of green bell peppers. Something in him understood that asking this question didn’t make sense, but Jack couldn’t ignore the the question’s mere presence, that by virtue of the question materializing at all it deserved to be asked. Jack pulled at the hem of his mother’s long black skirt once more, jolting her from the highway hypnosis into which her task had lured her.
“Mom, what am I going to do with my life?” Jack’s mother looked down at him like he had just confessed to murder.
“Who told you to say that? Why are you asking that?”
“I dunno.” He didn’t know. Even at this point, he had seen enough movies to know that that was a question people rarely asked other people, usually to themselves in pivotal moments — following breakups, graduations, firings. Jack understood that at age eight, he probably wasn’t expected to have this crazy adventure called life all figured out, but the thing that creeped him out was the blank screen that wouldn’t take shape when Jack tried to imagine a future in which he did do something. A couple years at school had successfully ingrained in him the notion that that stuff he did now, stuff like getting good grades and picking yourself back up when you got tired and had to sit down during pickup football games, would directly determine which future would lay in wait for him. Jack had a handle on the basic principle that hard work = success = a good life and maybe even a pretty girl would like you back.
Baseball superstar was Jack’s loftiest inspiration during those salad days. He could see that all so clearly: his uniform starched and creaseless and white. Smears of black underlining each of his eyes like war paint. The classic bottom-of-the-ninth, bases-loaded, two-men-out fantasy struck Jack as too unlikely and fanciful by half (Jack, to himself: “I only ever saw that happen once out of all the baseball games I’ve seen. Of all the players on all the teams in all the games, many times would I ever be the guy?”) and so he instead cast himself as taking the plate maybe in the bottom of the top of the seventh, a solitary man on second. He’d send one aloft, nice and easy, and it’d just sneak over the wall back in left field. Little camera flashes would blink in a galaxy of admirers all through the crowd, with a faithful few even going so far as to start up a mild but earnest chant of JACK JACK JACK JACK. Jack would spruce this scenario up with a new coat of paint as he moved into different phases of his life — crowd-surfing while his band played the House of Blues awkwardly shoehorned into the neighborhood surrounding Fenway, managing his thank-yous and acknowledgements during a halved speech time when he and his writing partner accept the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Though the dramatis personae and setting consistently rotated out, constant were the components. Tempered aspiring, success, and praise. He needed to be something, maybe not fabulously famous, but he was set on being great at something.
Back in the kitchen, Jack’s pruny undercooked brain was still scrambling to give his mother a more satisfactory explanation for what he was increasingly regarding as a dumb question. He supposed his best bet was keeping it simple and being straightforward.
“I’m scared I’m not gonna do well at school and then I won’t be able to do anything to get a job and I won’t have money and I won’t be able to have a house.”
“Look, you’re not going to have to worry about that for a long time. As long as you stay smart and get good grades, you’ll be fine. You’ll figure it all out eventually.”
Jack did not believe her. How could she possibly know whether he was capable of piecing together a life for himself? Over the following few years, throughout his elementary education, he’d frequently entertain alternating waking nightmares. One vision adhered to the same reined-in reality of his aspirational fantasies. He went to work at a boring job in a boring office every day and lived in a boring town and was married to someone boring, who he didn’t know that well, and he didn’t have friends to see after work or on the weekends. The difference here being that Jack also welcomed the more cinematic vision as well, complete with cardboard domiciles and pigeons for friends. An unextraordinary life would be the ultimate failure, to go through everything without making your life worth something.
Accordingly, Jack appended a sense of crucial significance to his every move. Everything was high-stakes. Every missed foul ball, every poor mark on his handwriting evaluations (cursive k’s ranked up there with bunting and hornets on Jack’s running list of childhood nemeses) was a portent of doom. A bad grade meant that he was falling behind in the material, which foretold worse grade, a subpar college education, etc. etc. It didn’t matter that his report card boasted thick strips of gold stars down the Language Arts, History, Math and Science columns. It was never the four A’s, but the one B. Such relatively acceptable gaffes felt like irrefutable indicators of some shortcoming in character. Praise, which didn’t come infrequently, practically acted as nourishment. His reputation as a ‘smart kid’ gradually solidified around school, but only compounded the feelings of inadequacy in times of error. He wasn’t just a disappointment to himself; he could feel everyone realizing that they were mistaken every time he gave a wrong answer.
All of this business, the collected terrors of an uncertain future and the heavy toll of minor missteps, it all weighed down on the center of Jack’s chest. His class had taken a field trip to Salem on one sunny April afternoon to learn about the darkest and most shameful chapter in his state’s history. A bubbly tour guide walked the children through the Salem Witch Trials in a sugary soprano, detailing the frenzied lynching of various innocent townspeople in a tone usually reserved for pre-Disneyland briefings. She recounted the sad tale of Giles Corey, a humble farm-owner at whom hysteria extended a bony, putrid finger. The town officials somehow had arrived at the conclusion that Corey was in covert cahoots with Satan, and the Salem lawkeeping force snatched Corey from his bed in the dead of a cold night for an interrogation. Corey refused to cop to the charges of dark magic, leaving his captors no choice but to extort a confession from him. When day broke, they laid Corey flat out on the ground in the town square, placed a wooden board on his chest, and began piling rocks on top of it. Every five grapefruit-sized stones or so, some hooded torturer would demand that Corey own up to his dealings with the devil, but Corey would only grit his teeth and challenge them to add more weight. Of course he died, but the anecdote stuck with Jack. He imagined that the weight of the board must’ve left a sunken-in hole in Giles Corey. He felt sick like that sometimes, a big hole right in the middle.
All this is not to say that Jack was a morose young man, sauntering into his mini-desk in Mrs. McLaughlin’s fourth-grade class every morning with dark rings around his eyes, moaning about futility and inevitability. Like many kids, Jack was often a vibrating bundle of energy. He talked too loudly and ate what could objectively be ruled as too much macaroni and cheese. It brought him great satisfaction to make other people laugh. Except for scowling Mrs. Lancaster in second-grade, Jack was well-liked by the teachers and he liked his teachers in return. Not quite clown and not quite bookworm, Jack was the kid at the front of the class cracking the occasional joke. One comment facetiously suggesting that the letter Z came last in the alphabet because it was “weakest” coaxed a laugh out of third-grade Mr. Mazzaro, only for him to quickly compose himself and smilingly remind Jack that he’d need to raise his hand if he wanted to speak in the class. The in-house music teacher took a shine to Jack while watching him take a shine to musical notation. Seeing tangible representations of singing, the piano he’d often hear his father play, it all delighted Jack. The music teacher staged a Broadway revue with her most musically-inclined students the summer after Jack completed second grade. Mrs. Bellerue had entrusted Jack with a big solo number, in which he’d slap on a boater hat and do an almost entirely on-key rendition of “Put On A Happy Face.” After the curtain closed on opening night, Mrs. Bellerue took him aside and let him know how proud she was, how much bravery it must’ve taken to go up on stage and do all that all by yourself. Jack beamed, but internally felt slightly undeserving of such glowing praise; he had, after all, just done all the things she had painstakingly taught him over the past seven weeks. It was more of a recitation than anything.
No, Jack’s most formative moment during the production of “Treasures of the Stage” took place behind the scenes. Still jittery from the adrenaline rush tied to performance, Jack scurried offstage and down the hall to the meager cell stuffed with clothing racks, empty hairspray cans and one grime-encrusted mirror that Mrs. Bellevue had generously called the green room. Jack had had his movements carefully laid out for him countless times over the week directly preceding the show: show up in civilian clothes, change into your costume while the “Ding! Dong! The Witch Is Dead” played out for the crowd, get up on stage and just try to do your best, go to the green room and change into your official show t-shirt for the curtain call. Jack had only cracked the heavy door open an inch when he saw that the room was already occupied. Who to Jack’s widening eyes should appear but Nessie Rosen, gawky and tall with long tight curly ringlets of dark brown hair, an unimaginable and untouchable thirteen. Jack’s breath fled him as he watched Nessie in reverent silence. In preparation for her upcoming duet of “Sixteen Going On Seventeen,” Nessie was sitting pantsless at the vanity, scrutinizing an unseen blemish in the mirror while lamenting the state of her crudely-stitched skirt. Through the barely-there opening in the door, trembling Jack drank in the sight of Nessie’s ghastly white leg and malformed buttock. He looked at her the way fathers of three look at the Grand Canyon; he instantly felt full of some lukewarm significance, that what he was seeing was rare and majestic and monumentally important to the very fabric of his own existence on the planet. This feeling was short-lived, however; within a few seconds, Jack snapped out of it and remembered that this peeping was what his mother would describe as pervy and that if Nessie saw — or if anyone found out, maybe someone walking down the hall — he’d be an outcast forever. He snapped his eyes shut and made off down the hall to the boys’ bathroom. Within the cozy confines of a vacant toilet stall, Jack changed into his t-shirt. He caught his breath and wondered to himself if this is what bank robbers feel like.
By age sixteen, Jack had amassed a considerable number of unrequited crushes on assorted classmates, but his limb-dominated body remained cruelly untouched. He had shared furtive kisses with various girls (most of whom, curiously, would come out as lesbians in the following years) in ranch-house basements or the wings of community stages, sure, but nothing that matched Jack’s imagined world-shattering sexual ideal. He had seen enough pixelated skin flicks to know what intercourse was capable of being at its best: punk rock and opera, a glass of cold water or an atomic bomb. As a game to run out the clock on duller lectures, Jack would pick something, anything — how a person dressed, why a certain style of music might be popular, specific phrasings to express broad and simple ideas — and trace its intention’s roots back to the sexual impulse. Halfway through his teens, and Jack was convinced he had it all figured out. Sex was everything and everything was sex.
Perhaps surprisingly, masturbation never overtook ‘computer games’ and ‘AOL Instant Messenger’ on the hierarchy of Jack’s leisure activities. He brought himself to a furious paranoid orgasm a handful of times over the course of his high school years, dividing his consciousness in half, attentive both towards the task at hand and also the noises that any family member creeping around the house might make. Jack, however, couldn’t ignore what was developing into a rather nasty case of anhedonia. Masturbation failed to provide Jack with the wash of relief he expected it to, the sense of carnal actualization he’d heard in awed whispers from schoolmates. Each ejaculation left him feeling drained in a sense far too literal for his liking: He felt hollow, wasted, his hole wider than ever. He couldn’t tear his mind away from the general squandered potential of masturbation as a practice. Every orgasm seemed to him like one he’d selfishly failed to share with a grateful, unseen partner. In the seconds after his orgasms, Jack would often get lost in the sight of his semen. He’d feel like the architect of a split-second holocaust, looking down at the millions of lives he had just uprooted. Jack’s habit of climaxing into the open bowl of his toilet lent this tableau an otherworldly elegance; when suspended in the water, the semen had the intricate stillness of a castle on an alien world. Jack would stare into it, realize that he’d been staring for a much longer time than could be considered normal, and would hastily flush it away.
During an unusually dull chemistry lecture about free radicals (which, bizarrely, coincided with a history lecture about radical Chilean revolutionaries, a calculus lecture on radical equations including imaginary numbers, and an english lecture in which Jack’s instructor, a native of San Jose, described the works of Zora Neale Hurston as “radical”), Jack’s classmate Pat relayed a game-changing news bulletin.
“You know how Chelsea had a thing at her house on Saturday night? Her parents were down the Cape?”
“Yeah, I heard about that.” Jack had not heard about that, but figured that whether he had or had not wouldn’t deter Pat from moving forward with the conversation.
“I heard Steve Conroy and Erin actually did it.”
This roused the attentions of Melissa, who sat adjacent to Pat. “I heard that too. Can you believe it? And in Chelsea’s mom’s bed, of all places. Like, okay.”
“Erin’s not even in school today. I can’t believe Pat showed up. He must know that everyone knows by now.”
“I know, right?”
Jack sat by in an inconspicuous silence. Exchanges like these weren’t uncommon in the halls and classrooms of Fairmont H.S. An anonymous contributor submitted a poem to the school’s slightly disreputable literary magazine in which she described the feeling of harsh lips upon her breast; the editor decided not to run it, but saw fit to make photocopies. It was rumored that four members of the loosely-connected posse that spent lunchtimes idling in the art studio and trying to hand-roll cigarettes with Bali Shag pilfered from someone’s older brother had joined in one tangle of sexual congress; the item dominated sharp conversation for the following months, and was only usurped when it was revealed that Danny McWilliams had had sex with the area in between a girl’s breasts.
These sideways glances and pointed comments made no sense to Jack. Was not sex something messy and glorious and organic? Did his classmates not similarly spend sweaty hours envisioning in crystal-clear resolution the moment when they would finally cross the threshold into their own sexual maturity? And even if the idea didn’t especially appeal to them, did they all have to be so involved? Hot words traveled through a complicated network of vocal pneumatic tubes at F.H.S., each stopping point harsher than the next. So what if Morgan Leiderman had been fingered in the cemetery behind the Stop & Shop by her out-of-town boyfriend? Good for you, Jack thought, go get it. Picturing the social scorn that could be earned by any deviant act turned Jack’s insides to flan, and so he frequently reassured himself that his intact virginity was a consequence of his fear of pariah status, and not a dearth of interested parties.
With attention paid to the radicals still flagging, Jack pondered on the possibility of a place different than this. There were parts of the world — shit, parts of America — where tongues weren’t covered in a thin sheet of ice. He wanted so badly for this place to be real, not some Edenic figment, and so he gave himself a modestly-paying job, an apartment in condition that could be charitably called ‘tidy,’ etc. etc. But the place, a place which was coming into focus as a city, would be a freer haven. Friendly depravity would pour forth from every open orifice, with indulgences of every sense coming cheap and high-quality. Best of all, the people wouldn’t bat an eye at thick, vigorous human sexual expression. What was the expression Jack’s teacher had used when droning on about the French government pre-Revolution? Laissez-faire. Do as you will, Jack recalled. Jack liked that idea. Do your thing, and do it well. This place was looking better every second. Jack saw himself living as he pleased, and flourishing. This was a place where he could be happy, where he could be great, where there were no holes. A place where he’d make good on every jerk-off’s broken promise.
About a year later, Jack perused the bloated slab of a Princeton Review of Colleges that his mother had purchased for him, and then insisted he read. Maybe going to school in New Orleans could be cool.