Chapter 1: Prologue
The whiteboard beside the fridge read “It has been 5 days since our last Shenanigans”, but that was really only because Stein had been too busy to update it.
Finals week was always the great schism for the inhabitants of 52 Westbank Drive. There were those who vanished into the homes and dorms of less studious classmates to stumble home with throbbing eyes and the half-crazed outlines of essays at two pm, and those who barricaded the doors of their rooms and only came out when summoned by the siren’s call of coffee and chinese takeout. The end of the year was heralded by Bishop and Alcott’s mad cackling in the early morning hours, by coffee-and-god-knows-what-else runs before post-dawn slump hit, and by Emily’s wraithlike midnight pilgrimages through the hallway.
“I can’t go on,” said Allen Ginsberg, matter of factly, as he staggered back to his room, leaning heavily on Ernest Hemingway. His curly hair was matted wetly against the left side of his head, and his half buttoned shirt drooped crinkled and stained over a pair of frayed yellow smiley face boxers. “This is the end. I embrace it. Someone call a doctor.”
“You need to chill out,” Virginia Woolf hissed, “or Stein will wake up and we’ll all be fucked.” Her grey eyes flitted nervously, focusing on the greying “CLOSED” sign hanging crookedly on the door behind Ginsberg. “Shit, where’s Lou?”
“Probably rotting in Elliot,” said Ginsberg, sinking to the floor with a groan. “She left after Jack did a line of Adderall with on of her Chem flash cards.” His elbow twisted awkwardly around Hemingway's thick neck as the two slid clumsily down the wall. “Thanks, mom,” he said, as the disheveled journalism major dropped heavily beside him. Hemmingway’s eyes were surrounded by dark greasy circles, unidentifiable as bruises or sleeplessness, and his trademark stubble had grown into a patchy, unattractive beard.
“Just one more week, my man,” he said, awkwardly petting Alan’s exposed knee. Ginsberg's head lolled against Hemingway's shoulder, and he began to snore softly. Woolf shivered, rubbing her temples as she yawned and pulled her arms into her sweatshirt. The old shag carpet on the stairs, long since faded from an unfortunate puce to an equally unfortunate grey, was beginning to look more and more appealing. Her knees had just started to buckle when the creak of a door hinge from across the way, deafening in the relative silence, caused all three to jump. Vonnegut blinked at them blearily, his fluffy pink night robe riding up over his skinny thighs. He looked first at the crumpled men on the floor, and then at Woolf. She attempted a reassuring smile, which gave her all the gruesome cheeriness of a desiccated corpse.
“Sounds about right,” Vonnegut muttered to himself as he slowly backed into his room and locked the door.
“Sorry,” muttered Woolf, to no one in particular. Her eyes itched, and when she sluggishly lifted her hand to wipe at them she was painfully reminded that she had recently gnawed off half of her already short fingernails. Somewhere in the blurry recesses of her consciousness drifted her final paper on sex trafficking in revolutionary France for Professor Hugo, of which she had only managed to scrape up a half-assed three page outline. “Excuse me, gentlemen, but there’s a half pot of week-old coffee with my name on it,” she said. Hemingway gave her a weary salute, reaching into his coat for a grubby cigarette. Not bothering to tell him off for smoking in the house, Virginia twisted the worn brass knob she had been clutching to stay upright, and retreated blearily into the bedroom she shared with Elizabeth Bishop.
It was small and dark, but at least it was clean. Bishop had been spending more and more nights with her girlfriend Lotta, and Virginia, well, Virginia didn’t mind a room of her own. Trailing her fingers with almost sensual longing across the inviting spread of her duvet, she sat down in front of her battered laptop and held down on the power key with what felt like the last reserve of strength in her twenty year old body. By the time it had finished humming to life, dawn had broken over the old yellow house.
First Semester: the freshpeople arrive
The giant yellow Victorian house would have been alarming enough to the small huddle of incoming Freshman without School-House Rock’s “The Great American Melting Pot” blaring out from a decrepit looking juke box in the front hall. A cheery looking young man in a large linen smock and parachute pants opened the door and promptly stumbled down the decrepit front steps.
“Welcome to the Frosh Pot!” he said. Jamming his slipping glasses back to their proper position, he consulted a battered clip board and waved encouragingly at a boy in the front. “I’m Allen Ginsberg. What’s your name, religion, political affiliation, opinion on nihilism, and current state of being?”
“Are you allowed to ask us that?” asked a sceptical voice from the back. Ginsberg looked around for its source as two more men exited the house, Fitzgerald slim and dramatic, Hemingway stocky and somewhat mean looking. Ginsberg, waving his arms above his head, desperately trying to restore order as the two began to silently poke at the freshmen, even attempting to open the smug boy’s mouth to look at his teeth.
“I mean,” persisted a small girl at the back, whose afro accounted for about a third of her total height, “are you allowed to ask us about our religion? Our political leaning? Aren’t there rules against that?”
Ginsberg considered this for a moment. “Probably,” he said, turning to a curly haired boy slouching slightly apart from the group. “So! What’s your name?”
The kid blinked decadently, his lazy smugness indicating that he was clearly used to being the first addressed. “Oscar,” he replied. He was sweating slightly, which was unsurprising given that he was wearing slim cut jeans with a blazer and a vest in the middle of August. He also had the air of someone who wished he was wearing a cape, which Ginsberg secretly appreciated.
“Oscar what?” asked Fitzgerald, patting at his pockets for one of the obnoxious little cigars he liked to carry around.
“Well Oscar,” said Ginsberg, “you don’t seem too wild about this whole post orientation orientation thing do you?” He tried for a hammy grin, but Wilde just ignored him.
“Anyway,” Ginsberg hurried on, “welcome to the Great Westbank Frosh Pot. On Tuesdays the floor is lava,”
“Good lord Ginsy,” drawled Fitzgerald, “stop trying to make the floor is lava happen.”
“It’s not going to happen, Ginzy,” said Hemingway. Ginsberg shot them back a glare that was only mildly undermined by the sad, infatuated way he had been looking at at Hemingway
“... Anyway, there are a lot of rules and you should follow at least half of them when our Residential Advisor, the lovely Gertrude Stein, is in residence. Call her anything but ‘Stein’ at your own risk. The laundry system works in theory but not in practice so we claim no liability for your unmentionables--”
“Especially on wild party nights,” said Fitzgerald, throwing finger guns at Wilde, who did not deign to look at him.
“Thus every night,” intoned Hemingway. Afro girl looked confused at this, but for all Ginsberg knew that was her default facial expression. There was something about her that made him want to break down and buy several packs of girl scout cookies.
"I-I'm sorry, isn’t this the substance free house?" She checked the slip of paper crushed in her tiny hand, "um... Elliot?"
Everyone stopped to look at her, except Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who turned to look at each other.
“Oh God no,” Fitzgerald began.
“No,” Hemingway continued.
“Sweet Child,” said Ginsberg, accepting a hand rolled cigarette from Fitzgerald, “how could you possibly have gotten the two mixed up?”
“Though there was that time--” said Fitzgerald.
“Tried to make himself welcome with a bottle of brandy.”
“Didn’t help that it’s a minority house as well as substance free.”
“That would explain why you’re all white,” said the girl wryly. They looked up from their reverie.
“Hey,” said Fitzgerald defensively, “Ginsberg’s Jewish!”
“Thanks,” said Ginsberg, consulting his clip board. “What’s your name?”
“Wheatley, Phillis,” she said.
“Yeah, well, you’re on my list,” he told her, “so you’ll have to talk to Wells later.”
Fitzgerald shivered involuntarily.
“Anyway!” Ginsberg said, running a frazzled hand through his unkempt hair. “Uh, more names, please.”
“Roland Barthes,” said the smug looking boy. Ginsberg nodded, making a messy slash on his clipboard.
“Frida Kahlo,” said a short girl with a thick accent and even thicker eyebrows. She wore a three piece suit, and her crutches covered with stickers of of flying uteri.
“Sappho,” said another frosh, and Ginsberg looked at her expectantly.
“You have, like, more than one name?”
She gave a long suffering sigh, tucking one of her many loose strands of hair back into her haphazard bun. “Not anymore,” she replied.
Ginsberg skimmed the sheet and snorted. “No way.”
“Hey Oscar,” Phyllis said quickly, “I bet there are going to be some wild parties, huh?” Sappho shot her a grateful look as Wilde dramatically pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Looks like we got ourselves a real wild bunch, ay Ginsy?” said Hemingway, smacking him on the ass as he and Fitzgerald sauntered off. Ginsberg allowed himself to watch for a moment-- and only a moment-- as the stocky Journalism major walked away, his clingy jeans practical, worn, and utterly mesmerizing.
This, thought Ginsberg, was going to be a very long year.
“I fucking hate these kids,” said Jane Austen, “I mean, they suck. Now, I thought Neruda and Vonnegut were bad. I said to myself, what could possibly be worse than Taylor Swift at all hours and Bokononist church services in the parlor.”
She stood, if one could call that standing, sagging heavily in the doorway of the Residential Advisor suite of Westbank House. Her dark curls were flying out from the thinning strands of her feeble braid and she clutched her heavily stickered laptop in one hand and the frayed sleeve of her bathrobe in the other. Unperturbed, she waited as Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas both hastily jumped up from the couch in the front room. Alice’s skirt was pushed up to her waist and Stein’s shirt lay crumpled on the old shag carpet.
“What’s up?” asked Stein, breathless. Alice wordlessly handed her a bra.
“Hey, residential advisors are supposed to be always available,” Austen said, defensively at Alice’s glare, “and this is of the utmost importance.” She registered their dishevelment and shrugged. “I’ve seen you in more compromising conditions.”
“If it’s about that goddamn cat again, for the last time, Joyce’s budgie died of...” Stein stopped as Austen all but ran across the room and thrust the screen at her face.
“Wilde,” she said damningly, “runs a blog.”
Stein blinked. “Okay?”
“He writes about us. He’s a snoop. He snuck into the bathroom and read everyone’s prescriptions. I saw him taking notes at breakfast. Also he has replaced the curtains in his room at least three times.”
“I don’t even know where he got the fabric.”
“ And I think he and Barthes fucked in the living room.”
“What else is new?” asked Alice, and Austen shot her a withering look.
“Also Sister Mary Phillis is stuck with us because Elliot is full.”
Stein looked mildly offended. “They managed to fill Elliot but not Westbank?”
Austen shrugged, sitting and awkwardly adjusting her bathrobe. “Elliot didn’t get busted for hazing last year and no one ever uses their parties as social experiments.”
“You’d think that would be a selling point,” said Alice. Stein scowled.
“Yes, well, selling point or not, the kid is a prodigy. She’s only fifteen.”
“I was a prodigy once too,” said Stein fondly, and Austen rolled her eyes at Alice, who pretended not to see.
“Also that Barthes kid is an asshole and I think he and Byron are up to something,” she finished.
“They’ve been here two days,” Stein said, incredulously, “and didn’t Byron move to The Pit with Shelley, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald??”
There was a moment of silence as Stein dressed and they all said a sober prayer for whoever had the misfortune to be landlord to Shelley, Byron, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald.
As Austen continued to explain how the new generation was lackluster and uninspired, Stein glanced over the plain white walls of the RA suite. She had already made her own with painting and photographs. The yellow kettle in the handkerchief sized kitchen whistled brightly despite the rain, and the leaky spot in the corner of the sitting room dripped steadily into the pan below.
Though her best friends Christie and Wollenscroft had moved off campus like they had planned, getting a little flat with a blue walled living room and real coasters instead of the shitty erotica they had been using for the past three years, Stein had stayed behind. They may have a big bathtub that they only shared with one other person, their own towels and utensils, and no drunk sophomores to trip over in the middle of the night, but if any house needed Stein, it was the Westbank.
It was mostly because she loved the Westbank and she loved being in charge; plus, the free meal ticket didn’t hurt. If she needed the quiet there was always Alice’s flat over the bookstore, and it was just the right distance between the Lit building, the library, and her favorite bar, The San Remo. You could say a lot about her-- and people did-- but she was loyal. And stubborn. And a bit of an ass.
Well, ok, a lot of an ass, but she was Gertrude Stein and it was her last year of FNU.
“Right, ok,” she said sharply, breaking out of her heavily expository reverie, “there’s nothing we can do about Wilde except remind him of journalistic ethics, and honestly we could use the diversity so be accommodating to the Phyllis kid or whatever.” Austen nodded.
Alice, now dressed, gave Stein a perfunctory kiss on the cheek and excused herself for her first shift of the night at the San Remo. “Bye, kitten,” said Stein, and Austen grimaced almost imperceptibly.
“So,” said Stein, settling comfortably into the worn but unbelievably soft sofa that served as a bed for a nearly constant parade of aimless alums, “how are things with Wollenscraft? Has she left Shelley yet?”
Austen shrugged uncomfortably, joining Stein on the couch and pulling her knees up to her chest. Stein nodded. “Sounds about right. And Woolf?”
“Still pining over Vita. I’m debating revoking her mail privileges.”
Stein cocked an eyebrow. “Snail mail?”
“Vita’s trying to drop off the grid. Something about Emerson’s new TA”
“Thoreau? Heard he was a bit of a dick.”
Austen nodded, frowning, her hands tightly twisting the frayed already hem of her bathrobe. “Yeah, well. So’s Vita.” Stein privately disagreed, but let it slide. It was nearly dinner, and if she was going to get any sleep tonight she’d have to be back to work... half an hour ago. She stirred unwilling, groaning slightly at the effort of standing up. When she picked up her keys, allowing them to jingle pointedly, Austen seemed to get the message.
“Which caf tonight?” she asked, standing and stretching. There was something exhibitionist about the movement, and Stein unconsciously noted the tight stretch of skin momentarily exposed between the line of her jeans and the hem of her soft blue t-shirt, the way the shirt hitched up just slightly under her breasts. Austen smirked slightly, and Stein turned brusquely to let them both out without answering.
It was something of an open secret, Austen’s feelings for Stein. The lingering touches, the frank sexuality and charisma that she seemed to magnify when she noticed Stein looking at her. There was something about this unabashed courtship that thrilled Stein in a way that was not entirely fair to Austen; following her guest out the door, she was glad for the distraction awaiting them in the common room. Neruda and Bishop were engaged in what appeared to be a highly amusing and somewhat malicious conversation with one of the neophytes, Khalo.
“...y así le dije, Emily, si llamas a Platón "Daddy as Fuck” de nuevo, le diré a todo el mundo sobre el momento en que cogiste a Byron” Bishop said, as Neruda collapsed against the wall with laughter.
“El entrenador de lucha libre?” asked Khalo seriously, and Bishop nodded, still grinning. “Él es realmente mucho Daddy.”
The two upperclassmen looked at her for a moment in shock, Bishop’s hand flying to the base of her throat in shock, Neruda looking surprised and delighted. Then they both burst out laughing as Khalo leaned on her crutches with a look of smug composure.
“So where are you going?” she asked Austen and Stein, her sharp eyes catching Austen’s dishevelment and Stein’s cold composure. They both shrugged.
“Well I heard that it’s theme night at Carême,” said Neruda, who had evidently recovered. “Care to join?”
Austen said yes, but Stein narrowed her eyes. “What’s the theme,” she asked, suspiciously.
“Roman come dine with me,” said Bishop, producing a lump of bedsheets from the theme cabinet under the communal bookshelf. Three waterlogged and undoubtedly shitty YA novels fell into the cabinet, and she replaced them with the two others that had been there since before Stein was a freshman. The sheets, with their old wine stains, slightly less old wine stains, and sinister stains Stein didn’t like to dwell on, were dutifully chosen and donned by Bishop, Austen, Neruda, and Khalo. Stein shuddered.
“Thanks, but I had doormouse for lunch,” she said, “I think I’ll drop by the Remo.”
“I thought you already ate Toklas today,” said Austen innocently, and Stein left.