During the interview, the heavily mustached man in the navy blue suit said, “You’re really too young for this job.”
To be fair, I was eighteen and maybe it was a weird job to be applying for. But when I’d read the want ad in the Boston Phoenix, it had sounded so easy. I barely had to do anything. In and out, paycheck in hand.
The Big Moustache—the boss—couldn’t stop eyeing what I was wearing: cut-off jean shorts and a cropped white t-shirt.
“I was helping my dad,” I said, voice full of apology. “He teaches kids’ summer art classes in his studio at our house and class ran late and I didn’t have time to change. I just rushed right over.” To this day, I’m not even sure that shirt was appropriate attire for my dad’s art classes. But it was a lie, anyway. There was nary a spot of paint or marker on my clothes. My dad did teach in his studio at the end of our driveway that summer, but I spent most of my time sitting on the floor of my room looking at Harper’s Bazaar and making mix-tapes or watching Gary Oldman movies. Before I left, I remember thinking I looked good in those cut-offs and that crop-top. Why, when my dad gave me a ride, did he not stop me from leaving the house that way? I did know this was a job interview, right?
The Big Moustache came towards me from across the desk and I was certain it was all over, even though I’d done a great job in the interview from the neck up. “You’re young,” he repeated, “but I like you. So if you want the job, you’re hired.”
I’d just become a three-evenings-a-week telemarketer for a video dating service. It was pre-internet, Chuck Woolery-style dating—only not a game show. The struggle was real. I didn’t really care about the job itself, but I hated rejection and I’d wanted a reason to act professional—kind of in the same way I used to pretend I was J.R.’s secretary, when I’d watch Dallas on Friday nights past my bedtime when I was eleven. Also, wasn’t I supposed to have a job? My dad never said as much, but he also never made sure I’d done my homework or told me it was time to start applying to colleges. More than a year before, I’d somehow not only graduated high school by the skin of the gritting teeth of my guidance counselor, but I was now going to be a sophomore at Bennington College. So I needed to be a professional adult. Part-time. (It would be many years before I realized that, after a certain point, unless I’m my own boss, I’m somewhat unemployable in a sustainable, full-time sort of way. Sometimes even I won’t hire me.)
The Big Moustache stood up and said he’d take me to Bernie, who would be my supervisor and show me around. Bernie had a face that was less hirsute and a more casual demeanor. He carried an empty Dixie cup that reminded me of the ones in our bathroom at home. Bernie shook my hand. He looked me up and down, likely trying to make sense of what I was wearing. I gulped, but then he said, “Blaise! Welcome to The Mail Club!”
I never knew why it was called The Mail Club. There was not a lot of mail involved.
There was a reception area with hefty leather-bound albums spread out over an oblong coffee table, filled with what looked like photos from Booze Cruises. I’d never seen such boring partiers: so many white faces and dark suits and smiling blondes. The main room had two long, L-shaped couches. On the far wall were floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with video cassettes, each branded with a number, and on the side tables next to the sofas were binders full of photos of men and women, handwritten one-page profiles, and a video number for each. If you saw someone you liked while perusing the books, you’d grab the corresponding video from the shelf and walk into one of the private viewing rooms. These rooms were also where the videos were recorded. Each contained a chair, a TV monitor, a VCR, and, quite possibly, a blue sky backdrop and a tall (fake) fern.
There were only two people who worked the phones at a time, but there were three of us who rotated shifts. I had to go through stacks of forms that people had ripped out from magazines and filled out, expressing interest in joining the club. If you think people on Tinder are noncommittal, try calling someone when they’ve just gotten home from work and asking them if they’d like to come into “The Club” to look at some videos of random dudes and then record a video of their own. Bernie said it was a place where members could drop in whenever and mingle in person, not just look at videos. People mostly came after work, he told me. But I never saw more than one member there at a time.
During my first shift at The Mail Club, the girl working next to me told me we could help ourselves to whatever was in the kitchen. It was open to staff, not just members.
“You want a beer?” she said.
“Um, yeah! Sure!”
There was something unprofessional about drinking the Heineken she handed me while calling lonely men and (mostly) women to try and help them find love and get myself a commission. There was something depressing about it, too. No one wanted to admit they belonged to a dating service and no one likes telemarketers. I didn’t even finish my beer that night.
Throughout college, I felt like I had to be a different person when I was home from school, but I was never sure who that was. College was not reality, and the tiny isolated world of Bennington wasn’t like other schools back then. It was like going to a 600-student arts camp where we all lived above grassy knolls with witches and indigenous peoples buried below; when they’d conjure up the Four Winds to meet on the Commons lawn, it would turn up the crazy in everyone. We all went mad at least once a term. Not all of us were rich like Bret Easton Ellis would have you believe, or like Bret Easton Ellis himself, but it often felt like a debauched party at the foot of the Green Mountains that never ended.
When it comes to Bennington, I have a hard time remembering the education part, and everyone I know from there, twenty years later, still has dreams about the school. They are always one of two kinds: the one where you’re headed to your own graduation, but you realize you’re missing two credits and you have to move off campus right after the ceremony but have yet to start packing. Or it’s the dream where you’re in the mailroom, where all the mailboxes are in alphabetical order by last name, but yours is missing and you can’t leave until you find it. I’m sure you can imagine the ease with which I assimilated into the real world upon graduating and moving to New York; it’s the same “ease” I’ve lived with ever since. The place could really fuck with you, and some of us were more vulnerable to it than others. Which was maybe why, after surviving my freshman year, I needed to be a professional adult for a few months. The Mail Club was a very grown-up job, and so this could be my summer of acting the grown-up until I went back to Vermont, where I’d continue my life as a student who checked my mailbox incessantly, figured out what classes to take, barely coped with a whole lot of freedom I’d always wanted but wasn’t prepared for, tried to conceal the physical evidence of all my anxieties (impossible when, among other things, you’ve plucked all your eyebrows until they leave cuts and scars), and roamed house parties just to make out with Justin Theroux. (Everyone made out with Justin Theroux.)
A few weeks before summer’s end, and one of my last evenings on the job, I was as adult-professional-office-lady as I could get in a sleek, black, wide-leg, sleeveless jumper, with a white cardigan buttoned up over it. I wore the jumper to Bennington parties too, though sans cardigan, because of the plunging neckline and the side boob. As I walked through the main room, I passed Bernie, who was talking to a man I’d never seen before. They seemed to be palling around. I gave a friendly hello and a big smile as I made my way towards my office, but Bernie stopped me and said, “Blaise, this is Jeff. He’s a member of The Mail Club.”
I shook the man’s hand and smiled again. “It’s nice to meet you.” Jeff looked like Harrison Ford in Working Girl and Law & Order-era Chris Noth, if both wore gray, double-breasted suits and hung out at establishments like The Mail Club looking for Mrs. Right or Right Now. I joined my shift mate in our windowless office. He was a sweet post-punk with a speech impediment who looked like Jim Jarmusch, a fun guy to get punchy with on nights when no one wanted to take our calls.
Halfway through the shift, Bernie poked his head in. “Hey, Blaise, I need a moment with you.”
I thought I was in trouble. Jim Jarmusch raised an eyebrow and quickly picked up his phone receiver, feigning interest in his workload.
“Would you please show Jeff where the kitchen is?” Bernie asked when I walked up to the door. “Could you show him around? See if he wants a beer or a Coke or something? Whatever he needs?”
“Oh. Sure.” Was giving tours a new, unexpected part of my job? Before I returned to college life, would I be recording video profiles and reading questions from a script about people’s hobbies and their astrological signs? How would you describe yourself? What are your turn-ons and turn-offs? What’s your idea of the perfect date? If you could have dinner with any famous person in the world, living or dead, who would it be? What would your friends say is your best attribute? Do you have a lot of friends?
I greeted Jeff in the hall and showed him to the kitchen, which was literally, like, right there. The Mail Club was not very big. He sat down at the table and I opened the stainless steel refrigerator. “What can I get you?” I didn’t even know what we had, except for maybe more of that Heineken my co-worker may or may not have illicitly brought me that one time. (I never saw her again and later wondered if she got fired for drinking on the job.) Peering into the fridge, I said over my shoulder, “There’s beer. Um, Coke, Diet Coke? There’s… It looks like there’s some—”
“No, no. I’m fine. Thank you, Blaise.”
“You don’t want anything?” That seemed odd. Was this not why we were here? I pretended to look even harder for something he might like, but there weren’t actually that many options. What was I even doing here? I was stalling. I thought I could feel his eyes on me and suddenly wanted to climb into the Frigidaire like it was a portal to Narnia, and shut the door behind me. “…Water?”
“Nope. Don’t wait on me. Please. Sit down. Unless you want something.”
I pulled up a chair, though I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to. Jeff told me he was an investment banker, but was quick to point out that it was just what he did, not who he was. He didn’t like to talk about it, anyway. I thought he wanted to know more about The Mail Club, but he began to run through a long list of questions that were all about me—and all of which, to this day, I don’t remember. But there were a lot—so many I felt as though I’d been talking way too much, that I’d been too friendly and too casual.
Forty-five minutes zipped by. “You should probably get back to work,” Jeff said, glancing at his Rolex. Suddenly, the fact that I was an eighteen-year-old kid being advised by a forty-one-year-old investment banker, even though we were at my office where I was a professional, came into focus.
“You should know that I asked Bernie if I could meet you,” he said.
“After you walked by. I asked him who you were.”
“I hope that’s okay. I didn’t really need to ‘see the kitchen.’” Jeff laughed. I laughed, too. But it was an embarrassed kind of laughter, and I felt naïve.
“I don’t want to keep you any longer,” Jeff said, “but I find you smart and funny and charming, and I’d like to take you out some time. Are you free on Friday?”
A bead of sweat formed on my upper lip as I stood up to go back to my cubicle—somewhere in our small establishment where it was still weird but safe. If this really wasn’t Bernie’s idea wasn’t this, like, illegal in the professional job sense? Or was I supposed to be a different kind of professional and Bernie was a total pimp? But, wait. I had charmed Jeff. We were two adults and he was cute in an older-adult sort of way.
“I’ll go out with you,” I said. “But I’m never showing you this kitchen or any other kitchen ever again.” I pushed in my chair and turned on my heels, hearing him crack up as I walked out.
Once back in my office, I slid into my chair. “Okay, what did you do?” Jim Jarmusch taunted.
“I have no idea what just happened except Bernie told me to go show some guy from The Club around, and then the guy asked me out.”
“Ah.” Jim Jarmusch snorted and looked back down at his desk. He had kind of a crush on me. He’d often insist on giving me rides home, and would make me listen to some new bootleg he got while we sat in his car in front of my house. I looked at the computer. Our shift was over in fifteen minutes.
Bernie poked his head in again. “Blaise. Thanks for showing Jeff around.”
“Sure!” I twisted around in my chair a bit too fast, teetering on one of the back legs for a panicked second, afraid that I’d just been overheard. My chest felt inflated but I tried to keep my voice calm and casual. Hadn’t we already crossed some sort of boundary here? “I didn’t really show him around. He didn’t even want anything from the kitchen.”
“Listen, I know he’s a bit older than you, but he’s a friend and he’s been a member for a long time. He’s never satisfied. You were very charming when you walked in.” Bernie smiled and winked and disappeared again.
“That guy, Jeff?” Jim Jarmusch said. “That guy is The Mail Club’s Most Eligible Bachelor.”
“What?!” I cupped my hand over my mouth. “What are you talking about?”
“Every woman here wants him.”
Jarmusch didn’t insist on giving me a ride home that night.
On my way out, as I said goodnight to our receptionist Vanessa, she stopped me. “I heard Jeff asked you out!” That was five words more than she’d ever said to me. “He goes out with all these women. Usually only once.” Then she whispered, “He never likes anyone. He usually goes for blondes.” Vanessa flashed her long, blood-red fingernails in the direction of my unruly black curls. “Professional types. A lot of real estate agents. He probably likes you because you have the exotic look.” She swiveled in her chair, and I left feeling like I’d just been crowned something, but didn’t know what.
Jeff called and said he wanted to take me out to “go hear some jazz.” His words. What do you wear to “go hear some jazz” with The Mail Club’s Most Eligible Bachelor? I decided a puffy poet’s shirt would be appropriate. I also went out and binged on some high-heeled, punk version of a burgundy cowboy boot at John Fluevog. I can’t defend it. It’s just what I did.
The night of our date, Jeff rang the doorbell and I stepped out before my dad could come downstairs and see who it was. “I’ll see you later!” I called up to him as I held open the door. I turned back to look at Jeff. He was standing on my front porch with his hands in his pockets. He was wearing dad jeans and a blue collared shirt. He was also wearing docksiders. I didn’t even know they still made those.
The place we went to had jazz downstairs and rock upstairs. My face felt flush by the time I realized there was something I should probably at least mention to Jeff, something that usually made me feel cool in normal scenarios, like when I was with my friends. I timidly leaned in near his shoulder. “I have to use my fake ID,” I said.
Jeff laughed. “Nah. We’ll just say I’m your uncle.”
As we walked in, two guys I knew were coming down the stairs, guitar cases in tow. They were in a very ‘90s Boston band. Berklee graduates with Chris Cornell inspired hair. One of them was my friend Lily’s ex and I slept with the other one once. Once. Of all the fucking places and all the times. I didn’t know I’d said the word “shit” out loud until Jeff asked, “You okay?”
“Um, I see people I know.”
“Should I hide? Pretend I don’t know you?” He grinned. I grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the stairs and into the venue, unseen. “You could have just told them I’m your uncle.” I smirked and rolled my eyes, and he put his arm around my shoulder and led us to a table right up front and pulled out my chair for me.
When the cocktail waitress came over, Jeff asked what I would like. What I secretly wanted was for him to order for both of us. What kind of drink do you get when you “go hear some jazz”? I’d had a hard enough time coming up with my outfit. I asked for a Corona and Jeff ordered red wine. I was beginning to feel less professional, more eighteen. I hated the poet’s shirt. The three-inch heels on my new boots were actually not even at the heel, but on the edge of it, closer to the arch of the foot. Some sort of sculptural Fluevog experiment. My feet were killing me. We talked and talked, and then we yelled over the music until someone shushed us. The more we talked, the more connected I felt, but that made the chemistry all the more bizarre and confusing when I’d look right at him and see a short version of Detective Mike Logan in a Brooks Brothers shirt and boat shoes.
When Jeff drove me home and walked me up to the door, we chatted more under the porch light. He wasn’t much taller than me in my shoes, so it was hard not to just look at his lips. Okay, I thought, it’s the end of the night and here’s generally where I’d make out with this guy, then sneak him into my room and we’d smoke weed out the window and have sex until the sun comes up. What would sex with a forty-one-year-old be like? And was I about to make out with a forty-one-year-old on the front porch of my dad’s house? Oh my god, I thought. Yes. Yes, I am. I’m making out with a forty-one-year-old. Let’s fucking do this.
We got quiet. We looked at each other. It was happening. Jeff smiled and gingerly put his hands on the side of my face. I waited for it. Then he leaned in and kissed me on my forehead.
“I want to see you again,” he said. Before I could process what had just happened—or what hadn’t happened—he added, “But you have to get ready to go back to school.” Something about the way he said it was creepier than if he’d just stuck his tongue in my mouth, and it made the uncle jokes not-so-funny anymore. “When can I see you again?” he asked.
Why aren’t we making out? Was this what a professional adult date was like? My mind was whirring too much to be able to say anything other than, “Call me. We’ll figure it out.” He squeezed my hand as we said goodnight, and then off he went. I watched him, walking down off my porch in his dad jeans.
The first week back at Bennington felt like walking in space. It was also the week I turned nineteen. I settled in with my lesbian roommate on the top-floor, corner room of our New England-style dorm. Jeff would call once or twice a week. We didn’t have a phone in our room, so he rang the green public phone in the hallway. When I checked my mailbox on my birthday there was a package from my dad, and one from Lily, and another envelope with a Hallmark card inside. The card had a drawing of bears with balloons on it. Inside, it said: “Have a Happy 19th Birthday, Blaise! Love, Jeffrey. P.S. You’re probably doing something fun tonight. I’ll call you tomorrow.” Bears with balloons.
The fun I had that night started with a surprise party. My room was decorated with toilet paper streamers and inflated condoms, and my roommate Rachel and our friend Mitchell made a long, impressive chocolate cake from scratch. They took tiny, silver edible balls and arranged them in the shape of a gigantic phallus, then wrote in their best red-gelled cursive over the chocolate frosting, HAPPY BIRTHDAY BLAISE. 12 INCHES OF DICK FOR YOU! School was officially back in session. Later that night, I drunkenly made out with a freshman himbo who tried to get me to listen to Phish. I vehemently refused. (He would later end up a punk and electro-rock musician who went only by his first name, which he changed by removing all of the vowels and displaying the remaining consonants in ALL CAPS. He is famous now. Go figure.) I didn’t have time to see Jeff again before I left for school, and I didn’t tell anyone much about him, except that I ended up working at a video dating service and the hottest, forty-something, most eligible member of the club wanted to go out with me. What else was there to tell? Nothing had happened, and the window within which something could have happened was very small, and I didn’t even know what that something would have been.
During one of our phone conversations, Jeff told me he’d joined a men’s club—a group of guys who’d get together and adventure every weekend. I think there was paintball. And there were definitely historic reenactments of some kind. WWII, maybe? There was hiking and camping, for sure. A bunch of rich, white dudes in their forties doing guy stuff. I made fun of him for it. I called them his Neanderthal weekends. It made him laugh really hard, but I don’t know if he knew it was just that I couldn’t relate at all and that was the only response I could come up with. He loved hearing stories about what I was doing. He liked when I talked about my classes, but mostly he wanted to hear about Bennington’s infamous theme parties.
“Do you really want to hear this?” I often asked, embarrassed.
“Yes! I think it’s so great!”
“Well, there’s the Dress To Get Laid Party. There’s the Sucking In The ‘70s Party. The Redneck Party…”
“Redneck Party?” It all sounded so stupid coming out of my mouth into his ears, but he wanted to hear it.
“Yeah. There are bales of hay and everything. I don’t really like that one. I’m allergic to hay.”
“What’s your favorite? Besides Dress To Get Laid.”
“Why do you want to know this?” It was so weird, I couldn’t help but laugh. “My favorite is Dante’s Inferno, which my house throws, and then the Upside-Down Margarita Party.”
“Dante’s Inferno? The book?”
“We cover the entire house in black tarp paper… It’s hard to explain.”
“It sounds cool,” he said. “And what about the Upside-Down Margarita one?”
“Um, you sit in a chair and put your head back and whoever’s bartending just pours all the ingredients of a margarita into your mouth. First, they give you salt to lick off your hand. Before you swallow, they yell ‘SHAKE!’ You shake your head like a mixer and they send you away with a slice of lemon to suck on. You stand up and think you have vertigo.” He was so enthusiastic about all of this. Guffawing. I stopped there. I didn’t mention the Jaegermeister Party, or the formal student-faculty affair we referred to as The Dean’s Balls, or any of the bands who came to play, like The Lunachicks or Fugazi, because I was sure he’d never heard of them, anyway.
Jeff bought a new car, something fast and red, and it had a phone in it. He talked about buying a house in Maine and he talked about wanting to come visit me. I tried to imagine what that would be like. Jeff from The Mail Club walking around campus with his dad jeans and sleeping with me in my bed while my roommate Rachel slept on the other side of the room? Too weird. Or would he make a reservation at the Best Western New Englander Motor Inn down the road? Also weird.
Telling Jeff about these parties felt wrong. Did I want him to know about this life? That’s how I felt anytime I tried to explain Bennington to anyone who didn’t go there. These worlds didn’t go together. They didn’t mesh, overlap, synchronize. They never did, even before Jeff.
I wouldn’t always take his calls. I felt compelled to settle into my real life again. Or my Bennington life, whatever life that was—the real one or the fantasy one, I was never sure. When I’d hear the green phone ringing out in the hallway, I never answered it. When one of my housemates did, and would come knock on my door to say, “Someone named Jeffrey is on the phone,” I’d yell, “I’m not here!” Or I’d stay silent and pretend that I wasn’t even in the room. I felt bad. But we only went out once. It was a brief date. I didn’t get drunk and we didn’t even make out. And I met him because he was a member of a video dating service where I worked. Some important questions had begun to fully emerge from my subconscious. Did I like him like him? Or was it just the idea of him? And also: why the fuck does a forty-one-year-old rich guy want to date a nineteen-year-old Bennington girl in the first place?
Eventually the green phone in the hallway stopped ringing. I mean, it didn’t stop ringing since it was a public phone, but it stopped ringing with Jeff on the other end. My sophomore year ended and I went home for the summer. I didn’t work at The Mail Club again. Off the top of my head, I don’t really remember what I did but I imagine, knowing what I know now, that I probably just wanted to be nineteen.
I’m now around the age that Jeff was when he first stood in the main room of The Mail Club, talking to Bernie and looking like a composite of the future Mr. Big and Harrison Ford in Working Girl (who, by the way, was also an investment banker). I recently found out that The Mail Club was still in operation as late as 2013. They wanted to distinguish themselves from all the Match-dot-com’s and the OKCupid’s. But there were complaints on review sites that said it cost over $1,200 to join and you couldn’t even do it from the comfort of your own bed, alone, in the middle of the night, with a bottle of Two Buck Chuck and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Boom Chocolotta, as you swipe away on a stupid app, where no one can see or judge you, not even your cat because she’s asleep and drooling on your thigh.
I heard that by the time The Mail Club shut down, there were only thirty members. Whether that’s true or not, I do not know. Whether Jeff was still one of them, well, I hope not. Did he move to Maine? If I could remember his last name, I’d have googled him by now. Just to see.