|It’s 1979, and Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung are notorious at Auburn Academy. They’re an unlikely pair at an elite East Coast boarding school (she’s Jewish; he’s Korean American) and hardly shy when it comes to their sexuality. Aviva is a formerly bookish girl looking for liberation from an unhappy childhood; Seung is an enthusiastic dabbler in drugs and a covert rebel against his demanding immigrant parents. In the minds of their titillated classmates—particularly that of Bruce Bennett-Jones—the couple lives in a realm of pure, indulgent pleasure. But, as is often the case, their fabled relationship is more complicated than it seems: despite their lust and urgency, their virginity remains intact, and as they struggle to understand each other, the relationship spirals into disaster.
The Virgins is the story of Aviva and Seung’s descent into confusion and shame, as re-imagined in richly detailed episodes by their classmate Bruce, a once-embittered voyeur turned repentant narrator. With unflinching honesty and breathtaking prose, Pamela Erens brings a fresh voice to the tradition of the great boarding school novel.
We sit on the benches and watch the buses unload. Cort, Voss, and me.
We’re high school seniors, at long last, and it’s the privilege of seniors to take up these spots in front of the dormitories, checking out the new bodies and faces. Boys with big glasses and bangs in their eyes, girls with Farrah Fawcett hair. Last year’s girls have already been accounted for: too ugly or too studious or too strange, or already hitched up, or too gorgeous even to think about.
It’s long odds, we know: one girl here for every two boys. And the new kids don’t tend to come on these buses shuttling from the airport or South Station. Their anxious parents cling to the last hours of control and drive them, carry their things inside the neat brick buildings, fuss, complain about the drab, spartan rooms. If there’s a pretty girl among them, you can’t get close to her for the mother, the father, the scowling little brother who didn’t want to drive hundreds of miles to get here. We don’t care about the new boys, of course. We’ll get to know them later. Or not.
She turns her ankle as she comes down the bus steps--just a little wobble--laughs, and rights herself again. Her sandals are tapered and high. Only a tiny heel connects with the rubber-coated steps. She wears a silky purple dress, slit far up the side, and a white blazer. Her outfit is as strange in this place--this place of crew-neck sweaters and Docksiders--as a clown’s nose and paddle feet. Her eyes are heavily made up, blackened somehow, sleepy, deep. She waits on the pavement while the driver yanks up the storage doors at the side. She points and he pulls out two enormous matching suitcases, fabric-sided, bright yellow. His muscles bulge lifting them onto the pavement.
I jump up. Cort and Voss are still computing, trying to figure this girl out, but I don’t intend to wait. Voss makes a popping sound with his lips, to mock me and to offer his respectful surprise. After all, I supposedly already have a girlfriend.
“Do you need some help?” I ask her.
She smiles slowly, theatrically. Her teeth are very straight, very white. Orthodontia or maybe fluoride in the water. I wonder where she’s from. City, fancy suburb? It suddenly hits me. She’s one of those. I can see it in her dark eyes, the bump in her nose, her thick, dark, kinky hair.
“I’m in Hiram,” she says.
Let me recreate her journey.
She awakens in her big room at an hour when it is still dark, pushes open the curtains of her four-poster bed. Little princess. Across the hall, her brother is still sleeping. He’s four years younger than she is: twelve. She makes herself breakfast: a bagel with cream cheese, O.J., and a bowl of Cheerios; she’s always ravenous in the morning. She eats alone. Her mother, in her bathrobe, reads stacks of journals upstairs. Her father is shaving. He doesn’t like to eat in the morning. He brings her to the airport but they say nothing during the long drive through the flat gray streets of Chicago. She hopes that he’ll say he’ll miss her, that he’ll pretend this parting takes something out of him. She was the one who asked to go away, but in the car her belly acts up, she’s queasy. She thinks she may need to rush to the bathroom as soon as they get to O’Hare. She wishes she hadn’t eaten so much. If her father would act like he might miss her, is afraid for her, she could be a little less afraid for herself. She has practiced her walk, her talk, everything she needs to present herself. She is terrified of going somewhere new simply to end up invisible again.
One long heel sinks into the mud. The past days have brought late-summer rains to New Hampshire, and although the air is now dry, the grass between the parking areas and the dormitories is soft and mucky. This is a girl used to walking on city pavement, concrete. She laughs and pulls herself out. She is determined to make it seem as if everything that happens to her is something she meant to happen, or can gracefully control. She avoids the wetter grass but in a moment she sinks again. “Oh boy,” she says. Her dress is long, almost to her ankles. I put down her suitcases and hold out my hand; she takes it and I pull. Her freed shoe makes a sucking sound. When I go over the sound in my mind later, it strikes me as obscene. Her suitcases are heavy, heavy as I’ve since learned only a woman’s luggage can be. It’s only a little farther to her dorm. She tells me that she’s an upper--what other high schools call a junior--and we exchange names.Aviva Rossner. She repeats mine, Bruce Bennett-Jones, like she’s thinking it over, trying to decide if it’s a good one.
She walks ahead of me instead of following, perhaps intending me to watch her small ass shifting under the white jacket. The wind lifts the hem of her dress, pastes it against her long bare leg. The Academy flag whips around above us and clings to the flagpole in the same way. The smell of ripened apples floods the air. We’re on the pavement, finally; she click-clacks to the heavy door and opens it for me. Strong arms on such a slender girl. Someone’s playing piano in the common room, a ragtime tune. Aviva starts up the stairs, expecting me to bring the bags. It’s strictly against the rules for a boy to go up to the residential floors. I go up.
Inside the dorm, the light is dim. The walls are cream-colored and dingy, the floors ocher. She counts out the door numbers until she finds hers: 21. I put the suitcases by the dresser, the same plain wooden dresser that sits in my room and in every student room on campus. Her suitcases contain—we’ll all see in the days to come—V-necked angora sweaters, slim skirts, socks with little pom-poms at the heels, teeny cut-off shorts, cowboy boots, lots of gold jewelry, many pouches of makeup.
There’s a mirror above the dresser. I catch a view of myself: sweaty forehead, damp curls. Aviva’s roommate is not here yet. The closet yawns open, wire hangers empty.
“Thank you so much,” she says.
I give the front door a push. It hits dully against the frame, doesn’t shut. Aviva has plenty of time to do something: slip into the hallway, order me to go away. She regards me with a patient smile. I am going to slow down the action now, relating this; I want to see it all again very clearly. Like a play being blocked--my stock-in-trade. And so: I push again and the door grinding shut is the loudest and most final sound I have ever heard. Aviva steps back to lean against it and let me approach. She’s a small girl and moving close to her I feel, for once, that I have some size. The waxy collar of her jacket prickles the hair on my forearms. Her neck is damp and slippery, and her mouth, as I kiss it, tastes like cigarettes and chocolate. I picture her smoking rapidly, furtively, in the little bathroom on the plane. Her hair smells a little rancid. The perfume she put on this morning has moldered with sweat and travel and now gives off an odor of decayed pear.
“Don’t open your mouth so wide,” she says.
My feet are sweating in my sneakers. My crotch itches. My scalp itches. She drops her hand and I see that her fingernails are painted a pearly pink.
She tilts her head against the door and laughs. Her thick curls swarm. I could bite her exposed neck. I do not want to get caught, sent home. I see my father’s hand raised up to hit me and know I’m about to step off a great ledge. In a panic I reach for the doorknob, startling Aviva. I open the door carefully, listen to the stairs and hallways. “It’s all right,” she says, although how can she know this? But she happens to be correct. There’s the oddest emptiness and silence as if these moments and this place were set aside just for us amid the busyness of moving-in day at the Academy. Aviva gives the door a bump with her ass to shut it again, but I insert myself into the opening and slide past her, fleeing down the stairs and out into Hiram’s yard.
Cort and Voss are no longer sitting on the bench in front of Weld. A lone bicycle is chained to its arm.
Later I see Voss in the common room reading a New Gods comic book. “How was the chick?” he asks. I shrug. Big nose, I say. Too much makeup. Not my type.
Q: Where did the idea for The Virgins come from and which character did you start with? Did you always know that Bruce would narrate the story, or did you begin with Aviva and Seung and work backward?
A: I’d long wanted to write a novel that captured something about the 1970s and being a teenager then. Most teenagers in the seventies were born in the sixties—that is, they were the first American kids to be surrounded from the very start by all kinds of new ideas about freedom and sexuality. I had all three of my characters from the beginning, but my original idea was that there would be a more traditional love triangle. Somewhere pretty early on I came across an article by Joyce Carol Oates in the New York Review of Books on the work of James Salter. I am an enormous Salter fan and I had read his story collections and his novels A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years. The Oates article reminded me of the setup of A Sport and a Pastime—a male narrator tells the story of a romance in which he doesn’t take part. That narrator describes encounters and events he couldn’t possibly have been a witness to. Suddenly I knew that was what I wanted to do with my own novel.
Q: I was fascinated to see a female author get inside the head of a male narrator who is himself attempting to inhabit the consciousness of a female character; it’s an interesting form of puppetry. Can you talk about the challenges that go along with this device?
A: I’m not sure I saw it as all that challenging. For some reason I find it easier to get into the head of a male narrator than a female one. Or at least I experience it as easier. My first novel, The Understory, also had a male narrator. I guess one risk with The Virgins is that readers could reject the idea that a male narrator would be able to imagine the intimate experiences of a teenaged girl. But I don’t know why an imaginative guy shouldn’t be able to picture what a girl might be thinking and feeling. Also, remember that Bruce is telling the story as an adult, not as a teenager. He’s had more experience of people and he’s spent a lot of time thinking about the clues Aviva and Seung left behind.
Q: You attended an elite boarding school yourself—Phillips Exeter. How much did your experience there inform the fictional Auburn Academy?
A: Mostly I stole two things from Exeter: the physical layout of the place and the humble material details of late- 1970s life there, like the smelly pay phones in the dorms. I have really poor spatial perception and memory. What I mean is that it’s very hard for me to invent places or accurately remember the ones I’ve been in. So I pretty much always have to copy my settings straight from life, either by visiting them (and taking notes and photos) or researching them. The layout of Auburn is very close to the layout of Exeter: where the dorms and athletic fields and woods are, etc. The atmosphere of Auburn is also very close to what I remember the atmosphere of Exeter being in my time: the gleeful antiauthoritarianism and somewhat rambunctious sexuality and drug-taking.
Q: In so many ways the book is about outsiders: Aviva is a female in a traditionally male institution; Seung is a minority in a traditionally white institution; even Bruce is something of a social interloper. At the same time, they’re all members of an extremely privileged class. Can you talk about that dichotomy?
A: It’s absolutely true that Aviva and Seung and Bruce are insiders and outsiders at the same time. Insiderness and outsiderness are relative qualities; it depends on the environment. What’s interesting about the time period in which the novel takes place is that Aviva and Seung are members of groups that are on their way up in American society: women, Jews, Asians. Bruce, as a Wasp, isn’t exactly on his way down, but his kind is realizing that there’s a whole lot more competition out there for status and other social goods than there used to be. Some years back I attended my twenty-fifth reunion at Exeter, and someone from the administration gave a talk about admissions to my class. He basically said that most of us sitting there wouldn’t have gotten into Exeter if we’d applied today. The school I describe in The Virgins is beginning to be pried open by the “interlopers” and become more of a meritocracy. Now there are even more former outsiders who have access, rightfully so, and the competition is even fiercer and more meritocratic. The mix of outsider-insiderness is probably even richer now.
Q: The teenage characters in The Virgins seem to be driven equally by the fear of and desire for the “adult world”— sex, drugs, even their own futures—so much so that the feelings seem like two sides of the same coin. In your mind, or in the world of the book, how do these two feelings relate?
A: I think most of the things we strongly desire in life we also strongly fear.
Q: So much of the tension in this book hinges on sexuality, and the characters’ attempts to come to terms with it (both physically and mentally). The book is set in 1979, a decade after the sexual revolution and not long after these types of schools started going co-ed. How do you feel that the time period affected the teenagers’ approach to sex?
A: The time period is crucial to the way the characters deal with sex. Even though the book takes place in 1979 and 1980, Aviva and Seung and Bruce and their peers are much closer to the sixties than the eighties in their expectations of sex. They’re coming of age just before a new turn in the culture. I remember that the kids in the classes behind mine—I graduated in ’81—really did seem different. They were a bit more conservative politically and in the way they dressed and so on. The early 1980s brought the herpes epidemic, and on the heels of that came AIDS. Ever since that time, kids have been unavoidably aware of certain threats associated with sex. Of course, before the pill and sex education and legalized abortion, there were other threats associated with sex. So the teenagers in The Virgins exist in this very brief window of time when sex wasn’t, or didn’t seem to be, particularly dangerous. All of a sudden it supposedly could be unencumbered and all about joy and pleasure. Except that even when the unnecessary dangers are removed, sex is still connected to deep and complicated human needs and longings and fears. So it’s rarely unencumbered, especially when you’re just starting out. That’s what the characters in The Virgins find out.
Q: The Virgins is composed of fifty-seven chapters—most a few pages long, some as short as a single sentence. How did you strike upon this structure, and what purpose does it serve?
A: I don’t remember making any conscious decision about the structure. Things just naturally fell out this way. The book seemed to want to consist of fairly brief episodes, one after another.
Q: Do you feel that you’re writing in a particular tradition or lineage of writers? Are there any authors to whom you feel an overwhelming debt, or is there a novel that served as a kind of model?
A: I don’t know about a lineage, but I’ve always gravitated to writers who make the inner life transparent on the page. Writers do that in such a vast array of styles. You have the great traditional psychological novelists like Tolstoy and George Eliot and Edith Wharton. And then you have writers like Kafka or Bruno Schulz or Denis Johnson or Jane Bowles or Lydia Davis who reveal the inner life in entirely different ways. I feel an overwhelming debt to more writers than I could possibly name: I’m always marveling at what writers manage to do, what they can make me see and experience. What they give me permission to try. That said, there were two books in particular that I went back to again and again in writing The Virgins: James Salter’s Light Years and A Sport and a Pastime. I loved the dreamlike and mythic qualities of those novels and the way they convey something of the mystery and grandeur of sex. Come to think of it, both of those novels are episodic and have many short chapters; that’s clearly the answer to the previous question. I was copying Salter.