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What they’ll really get is an education.
When five freshmen arrive at Dexter College, a small liberal arts school in the quiet town of Home, Maine, the drama unfolds as quickly as the first keg is tapped. There’s Shipley–blonde and beautiful, the object of envy and more than a little lust. Her edgy roommate, Eliza, came to Dexter to get noticed, and she has the attitude and the mouth to prove it. Tom is a jock-turned-artist–handsome, privileged, used to getting his own way. Sensitive Nick is Tom’s wake-and-bake, pot-smoking roommate. And then there’s Adam Gatz, a freckle-faced local boy and his not-so-little sister, Tragedy.
As Shipley, Eliza, Tom, Nick, and Adam find out, the first year of college is more than credits and cramming. It’s a time of lust, love, secrecy, and scandal.
Previoiusly released as Cum Laude
For my teachers
Considering the lack of direction in the world, it seems as though many people get through college and beyond without really questioning who they are.
—Preface, The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges, 1992
College is for lovers. At least, this one was. Looming up out of the trees on its hilly pedestal, Dexter College looked so strikingly pretty and at the same time so quaintly academic, it was almost as out of place in its rural setting as some of its students. The campus was fortified on all sides by forests of ancient conifers, tall birches, and dense maples, so that only the proud white spire of the college chapel was visible from town. Homeward Avenue, the road that led uphill to campus from Interstate 95, continued down the hill to the blink-and-you’d-miss-it town of Home, Maine, which consisted of a Walmart, a Shop ’n Save, the Rod and Gun Club, and a few mom-and-pop shops frequented only by locals.
Shipley Gilbert would have sprinted up the hill to campus if she could, but her family’s Mercedes was loaded down with a semester’s worth of freshman essentials, so she had to drive. At least her mother wasn’t with her. Shipley had insisted on that.
She steered the car into one of the temporary parking spots in front of an imposing brick building with the word “Coke” engraved in marble over its black double doors. The parking area was a busy place. Students carted wheeled suitcases and cardboard boxes, dads reined back dogs on leashes, little sisters twirled their skirts, little brothers shot at birds with their fingers cocked, moms fanned the humid air. The sky was blue, the grass green and freshly shorn, the brick red and clean. A gaggle of tie-dyed T-shirted boys played Hacky Sack on the sprawling lawn. A handsome young English professor sat cross-legged as he read aloud from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, trying to inspire a thirst for something other than beer in the twitching semicircle of incoming freshmen seated around him. Three girls in matching pink Dexter T-shirts jogged toward the field house.
Dexter College was exactly as advertised.
Shipley stepped out of the car, releasing the scent of Camel cigarettes and Juicy Fruit gum into the sun-burnished air. Never a gum chewer or a smoker, she’d decided to cultivate both habits on the drive up. A late August wind rustled the maple trees that stood between the car and the quad—that long expanse of grass at the center of Dexter’s campus. On either side of the quad, redbrick buildings with massive white columns challenged each other to do better. The pristine white clapboard chapel stood at the peak of the hill at one end of the quad, and Dexter’s new glass and pink stucco Student Union stood at the other end, a perfect juxtaposition of tradition and modernity.
“Tradition and Modernity” was the college’s most recent motto, indoctrinated during the Student Union’s ribbon-cutting in June. The Dexter College bookstore even sold a pair of wind chimes with the word “Tradition” printed on one bulky brass chime and “Modernity” on its slim stainless steel mate. Of course the Dexter College letterhead still bore its original Latin motto—Inveni te ipsum (“Find yourself”)—but very few students knew or bothered to find out what it meant.
Shipley inhaled the clean country air and imagined kicking up the maple leaves this fall when they were red and crisp and covered the ground. Bundled into her favorite cream-colored cable-knit sweater, she’d stroll along the stone walks with a group of new friends, drinking hazelnut-flavored coffee from the Starbucks café, discussing poetry and art and cross-country skiing, or whatever people talked about in Maine. Eager to get on with it, she popped open the trunk and grabbed the handles of her largest duffel bag.
“Want some help?” Two boys appeared at her sides, flashing eager, helpful smiles.
“I’m Sebastian.” The taller of the two reached for the duffel bag and then ducked into the car for another. “Everyone calls me Sea Bass.” He tossed the second bag at his friend, whose dense thicket of hair could only be described as a Greek afro. “That’s Damascus.”
Damascus clasped the duffel against his burly chest. His knuckles were meaty and tan. “We’re totally harmless,” he assured her with a mischievous smile.
Shipley hesitated. “I’m on the third floor. Room 304. I guess that’s kind of a hike?”
“Fucking A!” Sea Bass crowed, the corners of his mouth spreading so wide they nearly touched the tips of his carefully sculpted sideburns. “That’s right next to us!” He dropped Shipley’s bag on the ground and threw his arms around her, hugging her with such force that her feet left the ground. “Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life!”
Shipley took a startled step backward and tucked her long blond hair behind her ears, blushing furiously. She wasn’t used to being hugged by friendly, boisterous boys. She’d gone to the same girls school—Greenwich Academy—since kindergarten. It had a brother school—Brunswick—and she’d sung in choir with boys and even had a male lab partner in AP Chemistry. But because her father was of the mostly absent variety and her older brother was strange and remote and had been away at boarding school almost since she could remember, she remained unsure of herself around boys. She walked around the car and opened the door to the backseat, where she’d stowed her goose down pillow and her portable CD player, wondering if she would take to fraternizing with males as easily as she had taken to chewing gum and smoking.
“Okay.” She tucked the pillow beneath her arm and slammed the door closed. “I’m ready.”
“So why’d you choose Dexter?” Sea Bass asked as she followed him up Coke’s dark and winding back stairs.
Shipley shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know,” she answered vaguely. “My brother went here.” She paused. “And I didn’t get into Dartmouth.”
“Me neither,” Damascus replied from behind her. “I guess that’s why we all end up here, huh?”
Shipley followed Sea Bass down the hallway. Dexter provided a dry-erase board on the door of each room so that students could leave messages for one another. Yesterday, the staff from the Office of Student Housing and Campus Life had marked each board with the names of the students who would occupy each room. The names “Eliza Cheney” and “Shipley Gilbert” were written in loopy cursive on the board outside room 304.
The room itself was small and plain, with two single wooden beds pushed up against the white walls. A wide wooden desk stood in front of the only window, with a chair on either side and a lamp in the middle. Across from the desk stood a built-in set of drawers with a large rectangular mirror and an electrical outlet for a hair dryer or curling iron on the wall above it. The drawers were framed by two shallow, rectangular spaces fitted with wooden rails for hanging clothes. The white walls were freshly painted, but the wooden furniture and orange linoleum floor were scratched and pen-marked, bestowing the room with a gloomy institutional charm.
Shipley sat down, claiming the bed nearest the door. Sea Bass and Damascus hovered in the doorway.
“You want beer?” Sea Bass asked. “We ordered a keg.”
“Funnels!” Damascus whooped.
Down the hallway Shipley could hear the sounds of parents calling out their last good-byes. “Don’t we have to leave for orientation soon?” she asked.
Freshman orientation was a Dexter tradition. Incoming students spent a night camping in the woods with their roommate and five or six other freshmen, under the guidance of one of the professors.
“Nah.” Damascus ran his hands over his chubby stomach. “We’re juniors. Been there, done that. We just got here early to party. Hardy.”
Sea Bass went over and pushed open the window as far as it would go. He perched on the window ledge, stretching his long legs out in front of him. The knees of his jeans were split open like giant paper cuts. “They give all the freshmen the tiniest, shittiest rooms. Ours is like a palace compared to this.” He watched as Shipley fluffed up her pillow and tossed it onto her mattress. “So what class was your brother in?”
Shipley hadn’t given any thought to how she’d respond to such a question. Four years ago, she’d come with her parents to drop Patrick off at this very dorm, in a single room on the first floor. He’d sat on his bed with his jacket on, his carefully packed trunk at his feet, and waved them cheerfully away. Two months later, the college had called to complain that Patrick rarely went to class and often left campus for days. A month after that, they’d called to say he’d disappeared entirely, leaving behind his unpacked trunk.
Traces of Patrick appeared on credit card bills. He’d been to bars, motels, and diners all over Maine. Then there were the police reports. He’d broken into empty houses to get warm and slept in parking lots, campgrounds, and on beaches. He’d stolen a brand-new bicycle. Then there were the emergency room bills. He’d had pneumonia, frostbite, and poison ivy.
Shipley’s parents tried to leave word for him to come home or at least call, but he never did. Long after dinner was over and Shipley had wandered up to her room to finish her homework, they would sit at the dining room table, drinking in silence. Sometimes her mother cried. Once, her father broke a plate. Eventually they canceled Patrick’s credit card and gave him up for lost.
“At least we’ve got Shipley,” they’d said.
“He didn’t graduate,” Shipley explained now, fanning herself with her hand. Despite the open window, the air in the room was thick and hot. “He left,” she clarified. “No one really knows where he went.”
“Freaky,” Damascus remarked from the doorway.
“Excusez-moi?” A girl with razor-straight black bangs popped her head up over his shoulder. “Talking about me already?”
“Sorry.” Damascus stumbled into the room and attempted to shove his hands into his hip pockets. His brown corduroys were stretched so tight at the waist it was more like a finger dip.
The girl wore black denim cutoffs that were so short the frayed white insides of the pockets showed. “I’m Eliza.” She pointed her finger at Shipley. “Hey, you’re sitting on my bed.”
Shipley jumped to her feet. “I don’t have to have this bed,” she stammered.
Eliza rolled her eyes. She was used to scaring the shit out of people—it was her specialty—but if she didn’t want her new roommate to hate her instantly she would have to make an effort to be nice. “I was kidding. I was just trying to make you feel stupid. I’m sorry. Now I feel stupid. And I got into Harvard.”
“No shit,” Sea Bass whistled. “What are you doing here then?”
Eliza shrugged her shoulders. She’d chosen Dexter over Harvard because the girl who’d given her a tour of Dexter’s campus had worn old-fashioned roller skates with yellow pom-poms on the laces and had skated backward in them the entire time. That was all she remembered about the tour. It seemed to her that at a small, boring, vaguely crunchy New England liberal arts college like Dexter, the eccentrics really stood out, whereas at a place like Harvard no one would notice them. And she wanted to be noticed.
“I don’t know.” She shrugged her shoulders. “I heard the food was better?”
Her drab green army duffel—the only bag she’d brought with her on the bus from Erie, Pennsylvania—blocked the hallway like a dead body. She dragged it into the room. “This one is fine,” she told Shipley, attempting to modulate her bitchy tone as she sat down on the bed against the far wall. She turned to Sea Bass, still perched on the windowsill. “And you live where?” she asked, the bitchiness coming back. It was obvious the boys were only hanging around because Shipley was beautiful and blond. She also seemed weirdly shy, which was a good thing, because Eliza herself was anything but. They’d get along swimmingly. Two peas in a pod. Two pumpkins in a patch. Two hens in a peck, or whatever the fuck you called it. “Because I really need to count my tampons before orientation starts.”
Sea Bass stood up quickly. Damascus was already gone. “Remember there’s a keg waiting for you when you get back!” Sea Bass called before slamming the door.
Looking for something to do, Shipley unzipped the smaller of her two bags and pulled out her new Ralph Lauren sheet set. She could feel Eliza staring at her as she ripped open the plastic and removed the bottom sheet from its casing. She’d spent a long time at the Lord & Taylor in Stamford, picking out new sheets. They were the first she’d ever bought for herself and she wanted them to be right. Something about this pattern, with its dark purple, navy blue, and hunter green swirling paisleys seemed just rebellious enough to say “college,” while still being Ralph Lauren.
“Nice,” Eliza commented. “Those are really nice sheets,” she clarified. “Really.”
“Thanks.” Shipley couldn’t tell if her new roommate was entirely sincere. She stretched the bottom sheet over the mattress, tucking it in where it draped at the sides. “I told those guys I didn’t get into Dartmouth, but actually I did.” The fact that she and Eliza had both chosen Dexter over an Ivy League school gave them at least one thing in common. “Just like you, I decided to come here instead.” She smoothed the wrinkles out of the sheet. The room looked better already.
“How come?” Eliza unzipped her duffel bag and pulled out a collection of books—The Bell Jar, Flowers in the Attic, Interview with the Vampire—and a giant white rabbit’s foot on a little gold chain. Kneeling on the mattress, she thumbtacked the chain to the wall so that the rabbit’s foot hung over the head of her bed. She sat back and smiled, delighting in its perverse mix of tackiness, gore, and desperation.
Shipley shook out the top sheet. Her parents were annoyed when she’d even applied to Dexter. When she’d decided to go, they’d almost stopped talking to her. Of course they blamed the school for not keeping a closer watch on Patrick. And what exactly was Shipley trying to accomplish anyway? Dartmouth was a far superior school. But Shipley was eighteen now, and she was tired of doing the right thing in the shadow of the brother who’d always done the wrong thing. To her, Dexter represented a sort of backless wardrobe, a gateway to a far more interesting life than the one she’d led thus far. Patrick had come here and then—gloriously—disappeared.
Someone knocked. “Shipley Gilbert? Eliza Cheney?”
Eliza went over and opened the door. “Who wants to know?”
A tall, lean person with spiky golden brown hair, a square jaw, a prominent Adam’s apple, and long earlobes decorated with two tiny gold studs blinked coldly back at her. Eliza studied the baggy shorts, loose-fitting Dexter T-shirt, and brown suede Birkenstocks. Male or female? It was impossible to tell.
“I’m Professor Darren Rosen, your orientation leader. It’s time to head out. Don’t forget, you’re in Maine. Bring something warm to wear tonight.”
Eliza grabbed the first sweater she could find, a magenta-colored acrylic V-neck she’d bought at JCPenney. Magenta was like a big, loud fuck-you to light pink, a color she absolutely loathed. She wadded up the sweater and tucked it under her arm, watching as Shipley pawed through an array of pretty sweaters until she settled on a cream-colored cable-knit cardigan with pockets and tied it around her waist. She looked like a model in one of those clothing catalogs Eliza’s mother always threw out because “Penney’s has everything.”
They followed Professor Rosen downstairs and outside the dorm. Most of the other freshmen had already left for orientation, and the temporary parking lot was quiet now.
“Oh no!” Shipley cried. “My car!” She sprinted over to an elegant black Mercedes sedan with Connecticut plates. A neon yellow parking ticket was tucked beneath one of its windshield-wiper blades.
“Hurry up!” Professor Rosen barked. “The main parking lot is across the road. We’ll wait for you in the van.”
Eliza’s roommate assignment hadn’t mentioned that Shipley would be beautiful or blond, or that she would drive a black Mercedes with tiny windshield wipers on its headlights. It hadn’t mentioned that Shipley’s trim, suntanned legs looked great in white shorts, especially when she ran, which she did now with the effortless grace of a Thoroughbred. Eliza didn’t know how to drive, her legs were shapeless and pale, and the only shorts she owned were the butchered black denim ones she’d worn today. It was growing increasingly difficult not to be envious of Shipley, and even not to ever so slightly hate her.
Professor Rosen slid open the door to the waiting van, a beat-up maroon Chevy with Dexter’s logo of a single green pine tree emblazoned on it. Eliza couldn’t help thinking that Harvard probably had a whole fleet of Mercedes.
Inside, the van was musty and crowded. Professor Rosen, who was in fact female, tapped her fingers impatiently against the wheel while Eliza squeezed into the very back seat, next to three girls wearing matching powder pink cap-sleeved Dexter T-shirts. This particular feminine cut of T-shirt was new this year and had proven to be a hit with incoming students. The bookstore had already sold out of them.
In the second row of seats, directly in front of Eliza, Tom Ferguson and Nicholas Hamilton waited impatiently for Professor Rosen to start the engine and crank up the AC.
“Freaks,” Tom muttered under his breath. Freaks in their wool hats and Birkenstocks. Even the professor in charge of their orientation trip, the one behind the wheel with the spiky brown hair and gold earrings. Mr. or Ms.? He had no freaking clue.
“Why am I even going to this place again?” he’d asked his dad that morning in the car. Tom’s parents had given him a new Jeep Cherokee for graduation. His father rode with him while his mother followed them in the Audi.
“Because you’re a legacy, and it’s the best place you got into,” his father reminded him. “Hey, don’t knock it, kid. Dexter’s my alma mater and look how I turned out: ma—”
“Yeah, Dad. I know, I know. Manager of your own fund, happily married to a beautiful woman, two boys in good colleges, big house in Bedford, beach house on the Cape.”
Tom smoothed his dark hair back with his hands—what was left of it anyway. He’d wanted it cut short for the Westchester triathlon, but his dad’s barber didn’t get what he was asking for and had given him a crew cut. He glanced at his father. His gray, neatly trimmed hair was flawless. His skin was flawless. His white shirt was flawless. He looked like the fucking “advertisement of the man” to quote The Great Gatsby, the only assigned book Tom had actually finished and enjoyed. But he hadn’t always looked like that. Tom had seen pictures of his dad in college. A hippie with bad skin—long stringy hair, stoner smile, zits all over the place, even on his eyelids.
His father gazed out the window and nodded his head with that annoying parental mix of knowing and nostalgia. “Dexter will surprise you.”
“How will it surprise me?” Tom demanded, pressing the gas pedal to the floor. He thought maybe his dad was going to tell him about Dexter’s underground secret society, where the men were weeded out from the boys and the women wanted one thing and one thing only.
But his dad just clapped him on the shoulder and grinned cluelessly. “I have no idea.”
The van’s windows were down. Tom stared at the grassy lawns—so green it hurt—and listened to the birds singing their heads off. He’d always noticed stuff like that—the ambient background of what was going on. He really dug that shit. He turned to the guy seated next to him, his new roommate. They’d met briefly in their room before he and his parents had taken off to grab some lunch.
“Nicholas?” Tom addressed the wool-flap-hat-wearing freak. “Is that what you go by?”
The guy pulled his earphones out of his ears. Dirty blond curlicues of hair fell down over the collar of his oatmeal-colored embroidered freak shirt. Actually it was more like a tunic, since it came down almost to his knees.
“I prefer Nick.”
Tom jiggled his legs in annoyance. If Nicholas wanted to be called “Nick,” why didn’t he just put “Nick” on his registration forms the way Tom had put “Tom” on his? No one called him “Thomas,” not even his great-grandmother.
“Hey, Professor,” he called to the guy behind the wheel. “Any chance we could get moving soon, dude? This van could really use a little air circulation.”
“He’s a she,” Nick whispered. “Professor Darren Rosen. She teaches a senior seminar called Androgyny. I read about her in one of those college guides.”
“Jesus.” Tom wondered if it was too late to transfer to a school with fewer freaks. He glared out the window, his gaze scanning the vast wasteland of dingy woods, muddy farms, and depressing shit-ass towns scattered around the hill the college was perched on. “Mud, grass, and trees. Mud, grass, and trees,” he muttered.
One of the girls behind him kicked the back of his seat. “Come on, dude. This is Maine—vacationland? People come here for the scenery. You should feel honored.”
Tom turned around to glower at the girl with short dark bangs and a permanent snarl.
“Nice to fuck you, too,” Eliza added, acknowledging his glare.
“I was thinking of camping out on campus. You know, while the weather’s still warm? Maybe build a yurt?” Nick mused aloud, oblivious to Tom and Eliza’s little repartee.
Nick was one of the happy people, Eliza could tell. He wore the standard boarding school hippie uniform, and his perma-grin was probably pot-induced, but she bet he smiled like that even when he wasn’t stoned. A guy as happy as he was drove her insane. She wanted to devour him or molest him, or both.
Nick stuck his headphones back into his ears. Eliza was right, he was happy. Never happier than when he was listening to one of his favorite albums: Simon and Garfunkel’s The Concert in Central Park. His mom had taken him to the concert when he was seven years old, just the two of them. She’d shared a joint with the people dancing in the grass next to them and had even let him take a hit, just for fun.
After four years of boarding school, Nick should have been used to being separated from his mom and little sister, but he was already homesick. He’d spent the entire summer in the city with them, listening to records and eating picnics in the park. The bus ride up to Dexter had been lonely indeed. He’d even forgone a Subway sandwich with Tom and his parents so he could call home. His mom was at work and Dee Dee was at day camp, but it did him good just to hear their voices on the machine.
“So what’s a—what did you call it? A yurt?” Tom asked him now.
“Huh?” Nick kept his headphones on, trying to tune out the fact that his new roommate was going to kill him and eat him before school even started.
“A yurt.” Tom spoke up. “What the hell is it?”
- On Sale
- Aug 2, 2011
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Hachette Books