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Helen Schulman is the author of the novels The Revisionist and Out of Time and the short story collection Not a Free Show. Her writing has appeared in such publications as Time, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Book Review, and The Paris Review. She lives in New York.
'Fantastic...a fresh and funny love story that slows down only during the delicious sex scenes so that you may better relish them.' - The New York Times Book Review
'Dark, funny, and sexy...an all-too-knowing excavation of our deepest desires that's both a turn-on and a page-turner.' - Vanity Fair
'A beautifully crafted novel striking for its heartfelt intelligence, its sly humor, and its brave explorations of love's miseries and its miracles.' - Elle
'Hilarious and dazzlingly hip.' - Glamour
'Schulman's darkly comedic portrait of searching for romance in a city of jaundiced skeptics is appealingly sharp-tongued.' - The New Yorker
'P.S. is a smart and sexy romp.' - GQ
'A rollicking, entertaining romance.' - The Washington Post
'Schulman's darkly comedic portrait of searching for romance in a city of jaundiced skeptics is appealingly sharp-tongued.' -The New Yorker
'P.S. is a smart and sexy romp.' -GQ
'A rollicking, entertaining romance.' -The Washington Post
It had been a long time between drinks of water for Louise Harrington. There was an early summer lurking outside her office window, and if she craned her neck between the stacks of applications and the piles of folders that rose above her windowsill — like a miniature skyline — she could see that beyond her little office the world was full of boys.
Shaggy boys with bandannas leapt through the air like golden retrievers to catch Frisbees with the open jaws of their palms. There were boys without shirts on. Boys banging on bongos and blowing harmonicas and playing guitar; boys hunched over on the lawn, their shoulder blades cutting sharp and provocative angles through their torn, stained T-shirts, their heartfelt utterances — those whiny lyrics — setting off a beating of their wings. Boys singing badly. There were boys lounging, on the cement, on the grass, their heads pillowed by balled-up sweatshirts and backpacks and jean jackets; boys soaking up the sun. There were boys wading in the fountains, jeans cuffed past their hairy calves, and boys already in this warm breeze venturing outside in cutoff shorts. There were boys sleeping, and boys smoking and reading Nietzsche and Derrida and On The Road, boys kicked back and listening to tunes on headsets and boom boxes and grooving to space jams in their minds; there were boys bent over coffee and boys tipping back beers and even one boy drinking milk out of the carton like he was standing in front of an open refrigerator in Mom's kitchen back home. There were boys making the moves. Staring — directly into some luckysomeone's eyes. There were hundreds of boys, it seemed, leaning into hundreds of lank skinny girls, in lank skinny skirts; all these young, newly hatched, still downy couples hanging out on the great grand limestone steps of the central library of Columbia University. They were half Louise's age. They looked like they were getting plenty. What had happened to her life?
Louise turned to the application in her lap. This particular candidate wanted to be a sculptor, he wanted to be a Master of Fine Arts, and he wanted this divine transformation to occur at the very fine institution where just yesterday she had been appointed the acting admissions coordinator. He had been born in 1979. He was graduating early from Bennington College and he liked to work with metal. He liked to weld. Louise's bony, ringless fingers fluttered over his three recommendation letters, lingering on his personal essay which went on, quite grandiosely, about the majesty of the Twin Towers, which was why, he wrote, 'the spiritual essences of these architectural giants have been transported into my brain where they have taken over and acted as my "muse".'
Transported? Into his brain? Was he a bad writer, or was he a paranoid-schizophrenic? She fanned through the rest of his package: three recommendation letters (which no one would pay attention to, unless the recommender said that the kid was a psycho, or the letter itself was written by the Pope, or Richard Serra), a series of slides, his dubious undergraduate records, a statement of intent. With a check made out to the university for seventy-five dollars his application was complete, so Louise transferred it into a green complete-application folder, color-coded the exterior with three circular stickers (red, yellow, blue; Louise loved the purity of primary colors), and set it aside for the first of his corresponding three readers, the harried adjunct associate professors who made up the bulk of the Fine Arts faculty. If experience proved anything, this folder would make its way back to Louise in record time, an academic boomerang, dotted with spilled sips of coffee, a splash of ramen noodles, the dark inky fingerprints of criminals being booked and readers of the New York Times, the sloppy proof that the application had been perused. But this Bennington boy's review would likely be cursory at best. Perhaps, while an instructor was en route to Columbia from The New School, scrambling to teach her eighth class of the week, the slides would be held up for critique under the advancing lights of a northbound subway.
Louise looked out the window again. She looked at all those young unfettered students, doing their thing, making their way, making out. Who could blame her for her choices?
She'd gotten married. She'd gotten married too young to someone too old. That must have been it. That must have been why so much had gone wrong in what once had seemed so practically perfect. Not that Peter was literally old back then; he wasn't literally old now, really; it wasn't like Louise had run off with a widower with grown children or anything, with an ageing macher with a big belly, a fat wallet, important friends, and a good car, who on weekends liked to listen to classical music and lie on the couch; she hadn't married her father for heaven's sake. Thank God, her mother's voice rang inside her head. Instead, she had married her astronomy professor. And she'd divorced him, four years ago, after ten years of marriage, which was how, she figured, she happened to end up exactly where she was right now.
She got up, stretched, leaned out her open window. Were any of the kids down below aware of her, still attractive she surmised, and in damn good aerobic shape, Louise noted with pride, full of yearning and desire and need? Did any of them give a shit really, that Louise was toiling away upstairs, in a prestigious newly elevated position, sure, but honestly for peanuts, truly for their benefit; looking out for their future resumés and biographies and careers? Selfish boys, selfish girls. Why weren't they aware of her, locked up like Rapunzel in her tower, laboring away on their behalf? Didn't any of them bother to think when they brushed past her in a stairwell, that the woman they dared to call 'Ma'am' when excusing their own clumsy behavior, had once been an exalted version of one of their own? The kind of coed who had managed to run off with her instructor.
Peter Harrington, her now ex-husband, was still kind and still smart and still good. His handsomeness had become more shovellike as the years had passed; his face had broadened and grown appropriately lined; he still had wide shoulders and small hips, although now his belly jutted out a little past his belt. He was steady and reliable; careerwise he'd attained a formidable gravitas. He was not a rogue, nor a loose cannon, Peter. And he was still her best friend — pretty much your only friend, her mother's voice rang inside her head again — and he still taught physics at this same university where Louise presently worked discovering artists — sifting through applications like a gold prospector, searching for those infinitesimally small nuggets of talent — and lusting in her heart after mere children. Often, she and Peter would have dinner; she'd order in for him or he would cook for her, they would stay up talking late in either one of their university-subsidized apartments, and as the evening waxed on maybe one or the other would begin wondering sleepily about what had gone wrong between them. But never had one of those evenings slipped them out of their clothes and into a bed. And although she had dated some right after their divorce, and if truth be told, also a little prior to it, it had been a while since Louise had fucked anybody.
At the moment, outside her office, the air was so fragrant with cherry blossoms and freshly mown grass and mud and the spicy thick scent of marijuana, that each passing breeze drove Louise crazy, making her legs cross and her teeth itch. Her new office, computer-colored and square, had been decorated by her tasteful predecessor with ivy-filled mossy hanging baskets, lovely groupings of old chipped china — tea sets, squat little vintage tin kettles, some graceful cups and saucers, one or two especially handsome plates on stands — on the walls hung antique prints of apples, pears, ferns, everything a lacy green and white. It wasn't exactly to Louise's taste — she would have preferred something more austere — but that very morning it had seemed just pleasant enough to float her through the academic term; it would do. By afternoon, however, the breeze had whipped all that greenery into a hothouse frenzy, and Louise understood why her predecessor had run screaming out of this room on just such a lovely day last week, vowing never to return. A loyal, conscientious employee, this woman had spent the previous Thursday and Friday training Louise over the phone; she said she was moving to the rolling hills of Virginia, where she'd open up a store of curios and tchotchkes and antiques, and live finally like a person. Louise had had far too many administrative questions to ask, so she hadn't gotten around to the most obvious and most salient: How does one live like a person? And why, exactly, would one want to?
Now the oily and complex musk of garbage and pushcart shish kebabs and exhaust that usually characterized upper Broadway barely hinted underneath the skirts of this fecund spring perfume. Louise put the stack of applications on the floor, stood and leaned over towards the window to breathe in heavily, then raised her arms so that the wind would pass through her simple linen sheath, a pale and attractive yellow, bought at Barney's during a weak moment, when Louise had dared herself to do anything at all, no matter how reckless or foolish or vain or ultimately inconsequential it was, in order to somehow change her life. Peter had teased, she remembered now, a little cruelly, she'd thought, when she'd worn that stupid, smart, elegant dress to a lunch they'd had ad hoc, a few weeks prior, between classes, on the library steps, when she'd eaten her pizza over the marble, holding the slice away from her body, away from that sumptuous fabric. 'What a waste of an entire post-tax week's salary,' Peter had laughed, dabbing at his mouth with a linen hankie Louise had bought for him as a gift on their last anniversary, a day they didn't necessarily celebrate any more since their divorce, but a day she could hardly forget either, and then, to add insult to injury, Peter had said: 'Who are you dressing for, anyway, the work-study students?' Oh, you must have asked for it — there was Mom's voice in her head again, clamorous and insistent — Peter must have been having a bad day, a terrible day, to speak that way to anyone, you must have done something to provoke him, Louise, or perhaps you misread his tone, Peter would never speak that way to you, Peter wouldn't speak that way to a dogcatcher. A dogcatcher? Were there still dogcatchers left on the planet? There are dream catchers, Mom, thought Louise, there are celebrity journalists, and fashion editors and the pathological liars who churn out pop songs, there are baseball catchers and Catchers in the Rye and cootie catchers, maybe Peter was a cootie-catcher, Mom, maybe he was one of those little fucker athletes in grade school who kept catching cooties off of all those academic achievers, who didn't know whether it was better in the long run to laugh or cry when they were being accosted, inevitably losing either way. Louise tried to picture Peter chasing after some pale-skinned, highwater-wearing A-student in the grade school playground, but for the life of her she couldn't. He'd been an A-student himself, and an athlete; he'd been all-American in high school track, a ringer in Little League; he'd won the statewide science prize in sixth grade and then again in ninth, a Westinghouse scholarship upon graduation; he'd been a peer counselor, a member of the elementary school student council, he'd been a sensitive little bugger. Peter hadn't had the time, what with all his extracurricular activities, or for that matter, the desire, considering his considerable popularity — he'd been named most beautiful in-and-out in his high school yearbook — or frankly the wherewithal, for his head was always confidently in the clouds, to have spent a moment chasing after anyone. So maybe Mom was right, perhaps Peter was having a particularly lousy day, the day that he was so mean to Louise, the woman he'd once been married to, the woman he'd often claimed to love. Louise hoped Peter's day had positively sucked, for hadn't he ruined hers with his offhand comments, and the possibility of this proving itself true, Peter's day sucking, didn't feel so very farfetched, for Louise guessed with the certainty of a champion that Peter wasn't getting laid any more in the moment than she was. There was pleasure in this vengeful thought. Schadenfreude. She wasn't proud of it, but then again, she wasn't exactly ashamed of it either.
At the open window of her little office she breathed in the cool, spicy breeze along with this pleasure, allowing it to blow right through her exposed neckline, across her underarms, where she was damp. She wore no undergarments, never had, and at thirty-eight doubted she ever would. I'm dressing for myself, thought Louise, God damn it. Using the heels of her hands, Louise slammed that window down.
She had work to do. Rolling admissions. She pivoted towards her desk — wilted paperwhites after a week without water browning like the pages of a rare book, their delicate heads bent at the shoulders, dripping petals upon a letter box made of cracked Delft plate — and as she turned knocked over a pile of folders with a roughened elbow, an elbow that years ago Peter used to massage with cream, after her bath. The folders dominoed to the floor, spilling all those forms covered with sloppy pen and ink that had explicitly stated in bold print: TO BE TYPED, ONLY. The floor was a mess. She fought back the urge to weep.
She fought and fought, that is she only fought once, and then Louise gave in, sobbing without water, the ocular equivalent of dry heaves.
After awhile of this, feeling stupid, ridiculous, a certified nincompoop — Mom! — she leaned over, started straightening up. Warshofsky, Evans, Aguado, she'd realphabetize all of them, all the aspiring artists and artistas, their hopes high and soaring, their young hearts pathetically full. When the day was done, when school was over, the lucky ones would often end up working at a gallery somewhere, drinking espresso all day outfitted in Miguel Aldrover. (Wouldn't that be a perfect life for Louise? She made a mental note to pursue it.) The unlucky ones tended bar or taught art in the public schools. Once in a while a genius — or a financial genius! it was rumoured that one of their graduates was Jeff Koons under another name, although he categorically denied it — would emerge from one class or another, which was why, she guessed, these applications kept pouring in, throughout the fall, spring and summer. Winter was the busy season. All that ice and snow, the extra ten pounds, existential doubt. Restlessness.
Aguado, Evans, Warshofsky. Now in proper order. Louise was accomplishing something. She was working. She picked up another folder. Feinstadt, Scott.
For a moment, her heart stopped. It did that now and again, a little mitral valve prolapse action, a familiar suspension of her most vital organ, like a dancer's leap, she and her life supports hanging in the air, bridging two moments in time. Then came the crash in her chest, the heavy beating of a desperate bird's wings, the poor thing (her heart) banging up against the sliding glass doors of a patio.
Louise caught her breath. Scott Feinstadt. She petted the outside of his folder.
There had been a Scott Feinstadt when she was a girl growing up in Larchmont. Her Scott Feinstadt had been a painter and a printmaker and she'd loved him all her life, for hadn't her life only started then, in high school, that first morning when she'd woken up and thought: I want to know and feel everything! (when now all Louise wanted in the world was to know and feel from nothing). She'd loved him from afar the moment she first saw him, which was registration day freshman year. He had a girlfriend then — Scott Feinstadt always had a girlfriend — a beautiful hippie chick, Roberta Goldman, with long, flowing red-gold hair and ululating Indian skirts and toe rings and earrings and bracelets around her upper arms, one bejeweled job gracing her left ankle. When the two of them, Scott and Berta, as he called her, walked into the school gym arm in arm that morning, the seas parted, and they skipped to the head of the line, directly in front of Louise. Scott's hair was long then, too. It was thick and black with silver gray streaks even in high school, like a smattering of frost had wafted down and graced it; and it was unbrushed and matted in a long, loose ponytail that was tied with a rubber band that Louise could see had only served to tangle and break off his hair. There were many split ends, like a gossamer silver halo around that band.
Three years later, after Berta had been replaced by Trisha the dancer, and Trisha had been replaced by Theresa Longo, the dark-eyed daughter of the proprietor of the lone Italian restaurant in Larchmont, and after Theresa had been dallied with and sent back to the kitchen, he was hers. Scott Feinstadt was hers. He and Louise dated hot and heavy the summer before her senior year. Scott had just returned home from several months in Italy — his parents and his grandmother had refused to continue wiring him advances on his inheritance — so he had come back from Europe to work off his coming art-school expenses in a new food emporium called Cheese Bazaar. It was there that the local mothers first discovered Jarlsberg cheese, quiche and kiwis, pesto sauce and fresh pasta; it was there that, pre-Starbucks, they went for a nice slice of carrot cake and cup of 'fresh ground' coffee. It was at Cheese Bazaar that Louise and her girlfriends escaped the heat, where they went to get their frozen yogurt, after General Hospital, after mornings at the Sound squeezing lemon juice on their hair, and on their upper lips and upper thighs, sitting for hours in the sun, reading the thinnest of thin novels and the thickest fashion magazines.
Because she loved Scott Feinstadt from afar while they were in school and while he was away, and then even more acutely when he was back in town toiling at Cheese Bazaar, she often made the trip twice daily. Before and after dinner. Until finally Scott Feinstadt had been forced to ask her out. She'd wait for him to sweep and close up shop, and then they'd ride around for hours in his beat-up old red truck. He was full of Italian phrases, 'molto bene, grazie bella', and romantic stories and Louise spent hours listening to him while brushing out his long salt-and-pepper locks, his hair curling wildly and breathing silver fire beneath her hands. They broke up just weeks before he was to drive to Rhode Island to go to art school. 'It's only fair to you,' Scott said, one afternoon in his red truck, after she had given him a blowjob. 'I don't want to hold you back, I want you to have a Wild and Adventurous Life.' Louise. Wild and Adventurous.
It was the drive to Rhode Island that killed him. A highway fatality.