Originally published by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1988, and now reissued by Grove Press, The Story of My Life by Jay McInerney is a hilarious, sobering portrait of 1980s New York City featuring twenty-something actress Alison Poole and her coterie of club-hopping, coke-addicted friends. In this breathlessly paced novel, McInerney revisits the nocturnal New York of Bright Lights, Big City. Alison Poole is a budding actress already fatally well versed in hopping the clubs, shopping Chanel, falling in and out of lust, and abusing other people's credit cards. As Alison races toward emotional breakdown, McInerney gives us a funny yet oddly touching portrait of a postmodern Holly Golightly coming to terms with a world in which everything is permitted and nothing really matters.
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March 01, 2010
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Excerpt from Story of My Life by Jay McInerney
I'm like, I don't believe this shit.
I'm totally pissed at my old man who's somewhere in the Virgin Islands, I don't know where. The check wasn't in the mailbox today, which means I can't go to school Monday morning. I'm on the monthly payment program because Dad says wanting to be an actress is some flaky whim and I never stick to anything--this from a guy who's been married five times--and this way if I drop out in the middle of the semester he won't get burned for the full tuition. Meanwhile he buys his new bimbo, Tanya, who's a year younger than me, a 450 SL convertible--always gone for the young ones, haven't we, Dad?--plus her own condo so she can have some privacy to do her writing. Like she can even read. He actually believes her when she says she's writing a novel but when I want to spend eight hours a day busting ass at Lee Strasberg it's like, another one of Alison's crazy ideas. Story of my life. My old man is fifty-two going on twelve. And then there's Skip Pendleton, which is another reason I'm pissed.
So I'm on the phone screaming at my father's secretary when there's a call on my other line. I go hello and this guy goes, hi, I'm whatever-his-name-is, I'm a friend of Skip's and I say yeah? and he says, I thought maybe we could go out sometime.
And I say, what am I, dial-a-date?
Skip Pendleton's this jerk I was in lust with once for about three minutes. He hasn't called me in like three weeks, which is fine, okay, I can deal with that, but suddenly I'm like a baseball card he trades with his friends? Give me a break. So I go to this guy, what makes you think I'd want to go out with you, I don't even know you? and he says, Skip told me about you. Right. So I'm like, what did he tell you? and the guy goes--Skip said you were hot. I say, great, I'm totally honored that the great Skip Pendleton thinks I'm hot. I'm just a jalape?o pepper waiting for some strange burrito, honey. I mean, really.
And this guy says to me, we were sitting around at Skip's place about five in the morning the other night wired out of our minds and I say--this is the guy talking--I wish we had some women and Skip is like, I could always call Alison, she'd be over like a shot.
He said that? I say. I can hear his voice exactly, it's not like I'm totally amazed, but still I can't believe even he would be such a pig and suddenly I feel like a cheap slut and I want to scream at this asshole but instead I say, where are you? He's on West Eighty-ninth, it figures, so I give him an address on Avenue C, a rathole where a friend of mine lived last year until her place was broken into for the seventeenth time and which is about as far away from the Upper West Side as you can get without crossing water, so I tell him to meet me there in an hour and at least I have the satisfaction of thinking of him spending about twenty bucks for a cab and then hanging around the doorway of this tenement and maybe getting beat up by some drug dealers. But the one I'm really pissed at is Skip Pendleton. Nothing my father does surprises me anymore. I'm twenty going on gray.
Skip is thirty-one and he's so smart and so educated--just ask him, he'll tell you. A legend in his own mind. Did I forget to mention he's so mature? Unlike me. He was always telling me I don't know anything. I'll tell you one thing I don't know--I don't know what I saw in him. He seemed older and sophisticated and we had great sex, so why not? I met him in a club, naturally. I never thought he was very good-looking, but you could tell he thought he was. He believed it so much he could actually sell other people on the idea. He has that confidence everybody wants a piece of. This blond hair that looks like he has it trimmed about three times a day. Nice clothes, shirts custom-made on Jermyn Street, which he might just casually tell you some night in case you didn't know is in London, England. (That's in Europe, which is across the Atlantic Ocean--oh, really Skip, is that where it is? Wow!) Went to the right schools. And he's rich, of course, owns his own company. Commodities trader. Story of Skip's life, trading commodities.
So basically, he has it all. Should be a Dewar's Profile, I'm like amazed they haven't asked him yet. But when the sun hit him in the morning he was a shivering wreck.
From the first night, bending over the silver picture frame in his apartment with a rolled fifty up his nose, all he can talk about is his ex, and how if he could only get her back he'd give up all of this forever--coke, staying out partying all night, young bimbos like me. And I'm thinking, poor guy just lost his main squeeze, feeling real sympathetic and so like I go, when did this happen, Skip? and it turns out it was ten years ago! He lived with this chick for four years at Harvard and then after they come to New York together she dumps him. And I'm like, give me a break, Skip. Give yourself a break. This is ten years after. This is nineteen eighty-whatever.
Skip's so smart, right? My parents never gave a shit whether I went to school or not, they were off chasing lovers and bottles, leaving us kids with the cars and the credit cards, and I never did get much of an education. Is that my fault? I mean, if someone told you back then that you could either go to school or not, what do you think you would have done? Pass the trigonometry, please. Right. So I'm not as educated as the great Skip Pendleton, but let me tell you--I know that when you're hitting on someone you don't spend the whole night whining about your ex, especially after like a decade. And you don't need a Ph.D. in psychology to figure out why Skip can't go out with anybody his own age. He keeps trying to find Diana, the beautiful, perfect Diana who was twenty-one when she said sayonara. And he wants us, the young stuff, because we're like Diana was in the good old days. And he hates us because we're not Diana. And he thinks it will make him feel better if he fucks us over and makes us hurt the way he was hurt, because that's what it's all about if you ask me--we're all sitting around here on Earth working through our hurts, trying to pass them along to other people and make things even. Chain of pain.
Old Skip kept telling me how dumb I was. You wish, Jack. Funny thing is, dumb is his type. He doesn't want to go out with anybody who might see through him, so he picks up girls like me. Girls he thinks will believe everything he says and fuck him the first night and not be real surprised when he never calls again.
If you're so smart, Skip, how come you don't know these things? If you're so mature, what were you doing with me?
Men. I've never met any. They're all boys. I wish I didn't want them so much. I've had a few dreams about making it with girls, but it's kind of like--sure, I'd love to visit Norway sometime. My roommate Jeannie and I sleep in the same bed and it's great. We've got a one-bedroom and this way the living room is free for partying and whatever. I hate being alone, but when I wake up in some guy's bed with dry come on the sheets and he's snoring like a garbage truck, I go--let me out of here. I slip out and crawl around the floor groping for my clothes, trying to untangle his blue jeans from mine, my bra from his Jockeys--Skip wear's boxers, of course--without making any noise, out the door and home to where Jeannie has been warming the bed all night. Jumping in between the sheets and she wakes up and goes, I want details, Alison-- length and width.
I love Jeannie. She cracks me up. She's an assistant editor at a fashion magazine but what she really wants to do is get married. It might work for her but I don't believe in it. My parents have seven marriages between them and any time I've been with a guy for more than a few weeks I find myself looking out the window during sex.
I call up my friend Didi to see if she can lend me the money. Didi's father's rich and he gives her this huge allowance, but she spends it all on blow. She used to buy clothes but now she wears the same outfit for four or five days in a row and it's pretty gross, let me tell you. Sometimes we have to send the health department over to her apartment to open the windows and burn the sheets.
I get Didi's machine, which means she's not home. If she's home she unplugs the phone and if she's not home she turns on the answering machine. Either way it's pretty impossible to get hold of her. She sleeps from about noon till like 9:00 P.M. or so. If Didi made a list of her favorite things I guess cocaine would be at the top and sunlight wouldn't even make the cut.
My friends and I spend half our lives leaving messages for each other. Luckily I know Didi's message access code so I dial again and listen to her messages to see if I can figure out from the messages where she is. Okay, maybe I'm just nosy.
The first message is from Wick and from his voice I can tell that he's doing Didi, which really blows me away, since Wick is Jeannie's old boyfriend. Except that Didi is less interested in sex than anybody I know so I'm not really sure. Maybe Wick is just starting to make his move. A message from her mom--call me, sweetie, I'm in Aspen. Then Emile, saying he wants his three hundred and fifty dollars or else. Which is when I go--what am I, crazy? I'm never going to get a cent out of Didi. If I even try she'll talk me into getting wired with her and I'm trying to stay away from that. I'm about to hang up when I get a call on the other line. It's my school telling me that my tuition hasn't arrived and that I can't come back to class until it does. Like, what do you think I've been frantic about for the last twenty-four hours? It's Saturday afternoon. Jeannie will be home soon and then it's all over.
By this time I'm getting pretty bitter. You could say I am not a happy unit. Acting is the first thing I've ever really wanted to do. Except for riding. When I was a kid I spent most of my time on horseback. I went around the country, showing my horses and jumping, until Dangerous Dan dropped dead. I loved Dan more than just about any living thing since and that was it for me and horses. That's what happens, basically, when you love something. It's like, you can't get rid of the shit you don't like, I have this rotten crinoline dress that's been following me from apartment to apartment for years, but every time I find something I really love one of my sisters or girlfriends disappears with it the next day. Actually, we all trade clothes, hardly anybody I know would think of leaving the house without wearing something borrowed or stolen, if it was just clothes I'd be like, no problem, but that's another story.
So anyway, after horses I got into drugs. But acting, I don't know, I just love it, getting up there and turning myself inside out. Being somebody else for a change. It's like being a child again, playing at something, making believe, laughing and crying all over the place, ever since I can remember people have been trying to get me to stifle my emotions but forget it--I'm an emotional kind of girl. My drama teacher has this great thing he always says--get in touch with your child, which is supposed to be the raw, uncensored part of yourself. Acting is about being true to your feelings, which is great since real life seems to be about being a liar and a hypocrite.
Acting is the first thing that's made me get up in the morning. The first year I was in New York I didn't do anything but guys and blow. Staying out all night at the Surf Club and Zulu, waking up at five in the afternoon with plugged sinuses and sticky hair. Some kind of white stuff in every opening. Story of my life. My friends are still pretty much that way which is why I'm so desperate to get this check because if I don't then there's no reason to wake up early Monday morning and Jeannie will get home and somebody will call up and the next thing I know it'll be three days from now with no sleep in between, brain in orbit, nose in traction. I call my father's secretary again and she says she's still trying to reach him.
I decide to do some of my homework before Jeannie gets home--my sense-memory exercise. Don't ask me why, since I won't be able to go to school. But it chills me out. I sit down in the folding chair and relax, empty my mind of all the crap. Then I begin to imagine an orange. I try to see it in front of me. I take it in my hand. A big old round one veined with rust, like the ones you get down in Florida straight from the tree. (Those Clearasil spotless ones you buy in the Safeway are dusted with cyanide or some such shit so you can imagine how good they are for you.) So I start to peel it real slow, smelling the little geysers of spray that break from the squeezed peel, feeling the juice stinging around the edges of my fingernails where I've bitten them. . . .
So of course the phone rings. A guy's voice, Barry something, says, may I please speak to Alison Poole?
And I'm like, you're doing it.
I'm a friend of Skip's, he says.
I go, if this is some kind of joke I'm like really not amused.
Hey, no joke, he goes. I'm just, you know, Skip told me you guys weren't going out anymore and I saw you once at Indo-chine and I thought maybe we could do dinner sometime.
I'm like, I don't believe this. What am I?--the York Avenue Escort Service?
I go, did Skip also tell you about the disease he gave me? That shrinks this Barry's equipment pretty quick. Suddenly he's got a call on his other line. Sure you do.
It's true--that was Skip's little going-away present. Morning after the last night I slept with him I was really sore and itchy and then I get this weird rash so I finally go to the doctor who gives me this big lecture on AIDS--yada yada yada-- then says the rash is a sexually transmitted thing that won't kill me but I have to take these antibiotics for two weeks and not sleep with anybody in the meantime. I go, two weeks, who do you think I am, the Virgin Mary? and she goes, as your doctor I think I know your habits well enough to know what a sacrifice this will be for you, Alison. Then she gives me the usual about why don't I make them wear condoms and I'm like, for the same reason I don't fuck with my clothes on, you can't beat flesh on flesh. I want contact, right? Just give me direct contact and you can keep true love.
Anyway I never did tell Skip, I don't know why, I guess I just didn't want to talk to him, the son of a bitch.
So I'm smoking a cigarette, thumbing through my Actors' Scenebook, sort of looking for a monologue, I've got to get one for next week but I haven't found anything I like, I start browsing around the other sections, Monologues for Men, Scenes for Two Women--no thanks--Scenes for One Man and One Woman. Which is about the worst scene there is.
The phone rings again and it's Didi. Unbelievable! Live--in person, practically. And it's daylight outside.
I just went to my nose doctor, she goes. He was horrified. Told me that if I had to keep doing blow I should start shooting up, then the damage would be some other doctor's responsibility.
What's with you and Wick? I say.
I don't know, she goes, I went home with him a couple of weeks ago. I woke up in his bed. I'm not even sure we did anything. But he's definitely in lust with me. Meanwhile, my period's late. So maybe we did.
Didi has another call. While she takes it, I'm thinking. The wheels are turning--wheels within wheels. Didi comes back on and tells me it's her mom, who's having a major breakdown, she'll call me back. I tell her no problem. She's already been a big help.
I get Skip at his office. He doesn't sound too thrilled to hear from me. He says he's in a meeting, can he call me back?
I say no, I have to talk now.
What's up? he says.
I go, I'm pregnant.
Before he can ask I tell him I haven't slept with anybody else in six weeks. Which is totally true, almost. Close off that little escape hatch in his mind. Wham, bam, thank you ma'am.
He goes, you're sure? He sounds like he's just swallowed a bunch of sand.
I'm sure, I say.
He's like, what do you want to do?
The thing about Skip is that even though he's an asshole, he's also a gentleman. Actually a lot of the assholes I know are gentlemen. Or vice versa. Dickheads with a family crest and a prep-school code of honor.
When I say I need money he asks how much.
A thousand, I say. I can't believe I ask him for that much, I was thinking five hundred just a minute ago, but hearing his voice pisses me off.
He asks if I want him to go with me and I say no, definitely not. Then he tries to do this number about making out the check directly to the clinic and I say, Skip, don't give me that shit. I need five hundred in cash to make the appointment, I tell him, and I don't want to wait six business days for the stupid check to clear, okay? Acting my ass off. My teacher would be proud.
Two hours later a messenger arrives with the money. Cash. I give him a ten-dollar tip.
Saturday night Jeannie and Didi go out. Didi comes over, wearing this same horrible surfer shirt she's had on all week and her blonde rastafarian hair. Really gross. But she's still incredibly beautiful, even after four days without sleep, and guys make total asses of themselves trying to pick her up. Her mother was this really big model in the fifties, Swedish. Didi was supposed to be the Revlon Girl or something but she couldn't be bothered to wake up for the shoot.
Jeannie's wearing my black cashmere sweater, a couple yards of pearls, jeans and Maude Frizon pumps.
How do I look? she goes, checking herself out in the mirror.
Terrific, I say. You'll be lucky if you make it through cocktails without getting raped.
Can't rape the willing, Jeannie says, which is what we always say.
They try to get me to come along, but I'm doing my scene for class Monday morning. They can't believe it. They say it won't last. I go, this is my life. I'm like trying to do something constructive with it, you know? Jeannie and Didi think this is hilarious. They do this choirgirl thing where they both fold their hands like they're praying and hum "Amazing Grace," which is what we do when somebody starts to get religious on us. Then, just to be complete assholes, they sing, Alison, we know this world is killing you . . . et cetera, which is kind of like my theme song when I'm being a drag.
So I go:
They say you're nothing but party girlsJust like a million more all over the world
They crack up. We all love Costello.
After they finally leave, I open up my script but I'm having trouble concentrating, it's this play called Mourning Becomes Electra, so I call up my little sister at home. Of course the line is busy and they don't have call waiting so I call the operator and request an emergency breakthrough on the line. I listen while the operator cuts in. I hear Carol's voice and then the operator says there's an emergency call from Vanna White in New York. Carol immediately says Alison, in this moaning, grown-up voice, even though she's three years younger than me.
What's new? I go when she gets rid of the other call.
Same old stuff, she says. Mom's drunk. My car's in the shop. Mickey's out on bail. He's drunk, too.
Listen, do you know where Dad is? I go and she says, Virgin Islands last she heard, maybe St. Croix but she doesn't have a number either. So I tell her about my school thing and then maybe because I'm feeling a little weird about it I tell her about Skip, except I say five hundred dollars instead of a thousand, and she says it sounds like he totally deserved it. He's such a prick, I go, and Carol says, yeah, he sounds just like Dad.
And I go, yeah, just like.
Jeannie comes back Sunday morning at 9:00 A.M. She's a shivering wreck. For a change I'm just waking up instead of just going to sleep. I give Jeannie a Valium and put her to bed. It's sort of a righteous feeling, being on this end of the whole experience--I feel like a doctor or something.
She lies in bed stiff as a mannequin and says, I'm so afraid, Alison. She is not a happy unit.
We're all afraid, I go.
In half an hour she's making these horrible chainsaw sleep noises.
Thanks to Skip, Monday morning I'm at school doing dance and voice. Paid my bill in cash. Now I'm feeling great. Really good. In the afternoon I've got acting class. We start with sense-memory work. I sit down in class and my teacher tells me I'm at a beach. He wants me to see the sand and the water and feel the sun on my bare skin. Hear the volleyballs whizzing past. No problem. First I have to clear myself out. That's part of the process. All around me people are making strange noises, stretching, getting their yayas out, preparing for their own exercises. Some people I swear, even though this is supposed to be totally spontaneous, you can always tell some of these people are acting for the teacher even in warm-up, laughing or crying so dramatically, like, look at me, I'm so spontaneous. There's a lot of phonies in this profession. Anyway, I don't know-- I'm just letting myself go limp in the head, then I'm laughing hysterically and next thing I'm bawling like a baby, really out of control, falling out of my chair and thrashing all over the floor . . . a real basket case . . . epileptic apocalypse, sobbing and flailing around, trying to take a bite out of the linoleum . . . they're used to some pretty radical emoting in here, but this is way over the top, apparently. I kind of lose it, and the nurse says I'm overtired and tells me to go home and rest. . . .
That night my old man finally calls. I'm like, I must be dreaming.
Pissed at you, I go, when he asks how I am.
I'm sorry, honey, he says, about the tuition. I screwed up.
You're goddamn right you did, I say.
Oh, baby, he goes, I'm a mess.
You're telling me, I go.
He says, she left me.
Don't come crying to me about what's-her-name, I say. Then he starts to whine and I go, when are you going to grow up, for Christ's sake?
I bitch him out for a while and then I tell him I'm sorry, it's okay, he's well rid of her, there's lots of women who would love a sweet man like him. Not to mention his money. Story of his life. But I don't say that of course. He's fifty-two years old and it's a little late to teach him the facts of life. From what I've seen nobody changes much after a certain age. Like about four years old, maybe. Anyway, I hold his hand and cool him out and almost forget to hit him up for money.
He promises to send me the tuition and the rent and something extra. I'm not holding my breath.
I should hate my father, sometimes I think I do. There was a girl in the news the last few weeks, she hired her boyfriend to shoot her old man. Families, Jesus. At least with lovers you can break up. These old novels and plays that always start out with orphans, in the end they find their parents--I want to say, don't look for them, you're better off without. Believe me. Get a dog instead. That's one of my big ambitions in life--to be an orphan. With a trust fund, of course. And a harem of men to come and go as I command, guys as beautiful and faceless as the men who lay you down in your dreams.