We were in a used bookstore, the girl and I.
We were there, roaming the dim, musty aisles on an early summer afternoon, because the girl loved books and because I had lied to her about loving books. I was fourteen years old, as dumb and desperate as countless fourteen-year-old boys before me, and I had been sucked into a black hole of obsession from the moment I first saw the girl sitting three seats in on the second row in my first-period geometry class. Those narrow, discerning brown eyes. Those plush, effortlessly taunting lips. The thrift-store ensemble that improbably fused the elegance of Jackie O. with the edge of Liz Phair. I was ruined then and there, and devoted that first year of high school to studying the girl from afar, confident that it was only a matter of time before we would “accidentally” collide in the hallway and end up making out as the sprinkler system inexplicably went haywire, drenching the clothes we would soon be tearing off one another.
By late spring, however, the one thing I had gleaned for certain about the girl was that she liked to read—an unfortunate discovery. My logic was simple: If you were reading a book it meant you were likely sitting alone somewhere, and if you were sitting alone somewhere it meant that you were not making out under any sprinkler systems, and if there wasn’t at least the prospect, however delusional, that any given activity would result in your making out under a sprinkler systems, what, really, was the point? Regardless, I did the only thing that made sense; I adopted a completely false personality, approached the girl as she was waiting for her bus on the last day of school, and asked what she was up to over the summer.
“Cause there’s, like, this used bookstore I love,” I lied.
“You should check it out sometime. With me.”
For whatever reason, she said yes. And now inside the store she pulled every other book from the rickety shelves, offering brief but eloquent commentaries on each one before asking if I’d read it. Sometimes I said yes. Sometimes I said no. Best to keep it vague, I figured. But after half an hour or so something happened that, in a bizarre, circuitous manner, would turn out to be arguably the most profound moment of my sexual coming of age.
“Are you going to buy anything?” the girl asked.
Understanding I was being tested, I muttered that, yeah, of course I was, and when she asked which book, I glanced at the table to my left and casually picked up the first one that caught my eye: a hardcover of Story of My Life, by Jay McInerney. I picked it because the cover, with its art deco font and image of urban sophisticates sipping champagne in a limousine, was a decent facsimile of how I hoped to come across in the eyes of the girl.
“Oh, I’ve wanted to read that,” she said to my unexpected delight. “I know it’s kind of facile, but I loved Bright Lights, Big City.”
I told her Bright Lights was a personal favorite. “Even if it’s facile,” I added, internally making a note to look up facile the next time I was near a dictionary.
I cracked open Story of My Life as soon as I got home. I didn’t read the book so much as skim three pages in the beginning, middle, and end—a technique I figured would dupe the girl into thinking I was worthy. On our next outing, however, I displayed what could be generously described as a preverbal level of intelligence when I tried to discuss the book with the girl; and then, feeling my chances eroding, I offered to show her some of my poetry in the hopes that such a raw glimpse into my inner workings would of quell her growing skepticism—the problem with this being that by “poetry” what I actually meant was “plagiarized lyrics from Green Day’s Dookie,” which turned out to be her twelve-year-old brother’s favorite album. The little fucker called my bluff, the girl stopped returning my calls, and our affair ended before it had even begun.
And yet. Even as this unfortunate sequence of events transpired, there was no denying that the sliver of Story of My Life that I had consumed continued to resonate in my mind. Told from the perspective of Alison Poole, a twenty-year-old actress in New York who indulges in a variety of self-destructive behavior—wanton cocaine use, debt-stoking shopping excursions, soul-rotting sexual encounters—in an attempt to stave off her inevitable emotional breakdown, Story of My Life is essentially a reimagining of Catcher in the Rye set in a more hedonistic Manhattan. I enjoyed the book’s breezy, idiomatic tone (first line: “I’m like, I don’t believe this shit”), but more to the point I was taken by the passage I stumbled across on page seventy-eight:
I’m about to take a shower because I smell like an all-nighter, then I think I’ll take a bath so I can have a faucet orgasm. After all, I didn’t get any last night. A faucet orgasm is pretty much the same principle as a bidet orgasm except upside-down. When we were growing up we had bidets in all the bathrooms and when I was about ten I accidentally discovered one of the things they were good for. After that I used to spend hours on the damn thing. This dump we rent doesn’t have a bidet so I have to get in the tub and slide up toward the front, running my legs up the wall on either side of the faucet. Turn on the warm water and smile. Actually, you’ve got to get the water temperature just right first or you could really be in for a nasty shock. I’ve made that mistake a few times. This time I get it just right and I come three times before I get around to actually taking a bath.
Whether this constituted good writing or terrible writing, I could not have said. Nor could I have cared less. What it provided was an uncensored window into the then-cloaked mechanics of female desire, teaching me (a boy who did not yet know a girl could come once) that a girl could come three times if she got the water temperature just right and spread her legs around a bathtub faucet. Eureka! I read that passage over and over, and soon I started making it a point to bring up Story of My Life with any girl I found remotely attractive. “Read page seventy-eight,” I’d coolly advise. “I think you’ll really dig it.” On the surface I had little to offer these girls—I was dumber than the smart boys who would end up at Ivy League schools, weaker than the jocks whose hallway swagger seemed annoyingly fruitful in the getting-girls-to-undress department, and if I was at all handsome this fact remained stubbornly hidden by an ever-present force field of acne. But now I had something no other boys roaming the hallways could offer: I managed to link myself, however preposterously, to a girl’s orgasm.
Listening to an adult male recount his adolescent sexual conquests in detail is undoubtedly a depressing affair, but it is no exaggeration to say that Jay McInerney is responsible for nearly every thrilling, fumbling, cheek-burning moment that occurred between me and a member of the opposite sex while I was a teenager; and, assuming the girls were telling the truth, he can take credit for teaching more than a few young women at Richard Montgomery High School how to reach climax in the private confines of their bath tubs. If one book could have such an effect, who knew what else was out there? I became an avid reader.
Years later, I was able to share all this with McInerney, when I ran into him at a book party and had consumed just enough liquor to make recounting the above story seem like a perfectly reasonable idea.
“That,” McInerney told me, “may be the best compliment I’ve ever gotten as a writer. Many, many thanks.”
“No, Mr. McInerney,” I said. “Thank you.”
David Amsden is the author the novel Important Things That Don’t Matter.