Once upon a time called college, I had dreams of literary fame. Those dreams were fueled largely by a self-estimation of talent ranging from high to prodigious to legendary. I’d only written one piece of publishable fiction, which ran in the campus literary magazine. My literary output largely consisted of essays about “the dangers of opposition to political correctness.” Still, I felt myself growing close to achieving the power of a Vonnegut or Roth. Hemingway and Fitzgerald were better than me, but achievable, with Garcia Marquez a little further off. But I was definitely already as good as Dave Barry. It turned me on.
All that remained was for me to find a partner who shared my affection for the transformative erotic powers of the literary life. On Halloween, 1991, she appeared in the form of a freshman poet. I went to a party as Scary Helmet Man, in the company of a nice young woman who was costumed, charmingly and adorably, as a tomato. But she and I had no chemistry, and therefore she didn’t care when I met the freshman poet and was immediately consumed by lust.
“Are you Neal Pollack?” the poet said.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I am.”
She said she’d read everything I’d written, which wasn’t very much. Plus, she was a huge fan of the alternative campus magazine, a weird hybrid of Harper’s and Spy that could only have existed during the intersecting heyday of those two publications. I was one of two founding editors left at school, so the road to that particular brand of provincial literary success ran through me.
“I thought, how can I meet Neal Pollack?” she said. “Now I have.”
An eighteen-year-old girl can pretty much have sex with any man on earth if she desires. I was no match for this vixen’s toxic combo of insincere flattery, voluptuous hips, half-insane eyes, and excessive literary self-regard. She flattered herself a poet in the vein of Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath. She was a true student of poetry.
That night, she sat at the edge of my bed. We’d spent at least two hours expressing the depth of our feelings for each other. How could such a connection be made, so quickly?
“This could be something serious,” she said.
“I’m not afraid,” I said.
I plunged forward, tongue first.
During our relationship, which lasted almost a month, we compared ourselves to Ted and Sylvia, F. Scott and Zelda, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. The couple we most imagined, though, was Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy. Edmund Wilson didn’t matter to many people then, in the early 90s, but he matters to even fewer people now. The man who introduced Kafka and Joyce to American readers, the great champion of modernism, the logorrheic dean of mid-century American literary life, the great drunkard and horndog — that’s who I wanted to be. That’s who, in my mind, I was.
One thing stood in my way of dominance. I couldn’t get it up. I’d had sex, by then, about a dozen times with three different partners. This hardly represented a world record, but I was twenty-one. Enthusiasm usually trumps inexperience at that age. But the depressive roil of my brain reached one of its all-time heights that winter, and my sexual confidence suffered.
It didn’t help that the poet fancied herself a champion fucker, and also that she could be a real bitch. Our lovemaking attempts were frequent and abortive. She lived in the dorms, which meant there were boys scratching at her door from noon till dawn. I lived in a boarding house run by a prissy environmental planner who didn’t like noise.
“I’m so sorry,” I said to the poet, nearly weeping, one afternoon following one a disastrous performance.
“I would never have started going out with you if I’d known you’d go all limp dick on me,” she said.
Then, with characteristic restraint, I said,
“LIMP DICK? LIMP DICK? FUUUUUUUCK YOOOOOOOOOU!”
Like I said, I had mental problems at the time. My landlady knocked.
“Is everything okay?” she said.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “Everything is fine.”
The poet looked at me. I looked at her. United by our disdain for that schoolmarm, we jumped each other. She tore down my pants and opened my boxers. I was engorged. She swallowed me whole.
It was heated. She worked me like a porn star doing it to someone she really liked a lot. I tilted my head back and prepared to see stars.
The phone rang. She looked up.
“Don’t answer that,” she said.
“I have to,” I said. “It could be important.”
I’d recently sent Tina Brown a letter at The New Yorker. Maybe she was calling to offer me a job. The freshman poet kept her tongue working, doing little flicks just subtle enough to keep me from falling into incoherence.
“Hello?” I said.
It was my favorite professor, a man who, even today, boasts the status of one of America’s last old-fashioned men of letters. He’d introduced me to A.J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, Ben Hecht, and, yes, Edmund Wilson. I venerated him as much as, if not more than, my own father.
“Mr. Pollack,” he said. “I’m calling to apologize. I’m not going to be able to have coffee with you tomorrow as we planned.”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s okay.”
“You see,” he said. “My mother has just died.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “Are we still going to have class on Thursday?”
“Probably not,” he said.
I hung up. The poet looked up at me impatiently. I told her the news.
“That poor man,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said.
At that moment, my literary and sexual ambitions met at a perfect crossroads. I picked up the freshman poet and threw her on the bed, setting my phaser for "ravage." Her blouse tore open, seemingly by itself. Her panties dissolved.
“Oh, baby,” she said. “Yes. At last.”
“Tell me I’m Edmund Wilson,” I said as I mounted her.
“Yes!” she said. “You are Edmund Wilson! You are Edmund Wilson! You’re, you’re . . . better than Edmund Wilson!”
"Yes! Yes! Oh, my fucking god, yes! "
At the time, our stormy hoedown seemed like an event of great significance, though really, in the grand picture of my not-so-grand life, it was a little blip of hormonal ignorance. We broke up a week later. Almost immediately, she began sleeping with my best friend, who was the actual editor of the magazine and therefore a more reliable source for a staff position. After he and I graduated, he endured her for a period of time that must have seemed like forever. Then that relationship also ended, but not before she took over the editor’s job. We may have won our freedom, but she got to keep the baby.