When I was 15 I wrote a short story for Ms. Nowinski’s English class called “The Infants’ Masada.” I’d found the word “Masada” while flipping through the encyclopedia, in search of a title, and it was love at first sight. Right away I knew it would lend the necessary gravitas to my story, which was told from the perspective of a newborn on a premature baby ward. Inexplicably, the preemie had a full vocabulary. He also had a precocious attraction to his favorite nurse, Ingrid, who sang to him every night in a “plaintive voice.” Late one night, awake in his incubator, the preemie watches Ingrid get raped by one of the doctors at the hospital. He lies there helpless as she struggles, unable to intervene. Afterward, he decides he would rather freeze to death than face such a cruel and predatory world. The preemie makes a fist and, summoning all his strength, punches through the glass case of his incubator. Inspired by this brave act of protest, the other preemies on the ward punch through their incubators as well, a forest of tiny arms. This is the denouement.
Ms. Nowinski gave me an A+ and wrote in her comments that my story was “a poignant expression of human cruelty as well as a brilliant retelling of Jewish history.” This last part stumped me—I wasn’t Jewish and had nearly failed World History—but the rest I could relate to. I was all about poignant expressions of human cruelty, especially if they appealed to women. Until then, the nicest comment I’d gotten at school was from Mr. Gerbino, my Earth Science teacher, who’d said that I showed “a firm grasp of weather systems.”
My father, too, was impressed by the story—so impressed, in fact, that he decided to send me to arts camp. This turned out to be a summer [End Page 1] camp for “artistically inclined youth.” It was not in California, where we lived, but in Massachusetts.
“I don’t want to be an artist,” I said. I associated artists with the sorts of kids my mother described as “interesting.” Plus I had a girlfriend, my first, and I’d been making some slow but promising headway with her on the trampoline in her backyard. The summer stretched before me like a vista of erotic suffering.
“Writers feed off experience,” my father said. He’d been a French literature major in college and sometimes said things like this. “It nourishes their imagination.”
My sister laughed, her mouth full of cornflakes. She was jealous because she didn’t have a talent of her own. “For Christ’s sake. He’s fifteen years old.”
“Rimbaud wrote his first immortal poem at fifteen,” my father said.
“I want to be immortal at home,” I said.
My father sighed.
“Mom and Dad want to go to Europe,” my sister explained. “They’re sending me off to Mexico for a month to help orphans.”
So I ended up in Massachusetts, at a camp for artists. As it turned out, the camp was not really a camp at all, but a boarding school in the middle of nowhere that doubled in the summers as a place to dump your kids. My roommate was a boy named Chet Turnblad. I’d never met a Chet before and was impressed to discover he fulfilled all my expectations for the name. He had red hair and bad skin and one of those haircuts that looked like he’d sprinkled weed killer on the top and let the rest grow down to his shoulders. He’d moved into the dorm the day before and had decorated the wall over his bed with a poster of Miles Davis in an ascot, sitting backward in a chair with one leg slung insolently over the top. I knew a bit about jazz—my father had a stash of old records—but I’d never met anyone my age who listened to it on purpose. Facing the door, where everyone would see it as they came in, was another poster: a heavy metal band scowling at the camera, their hair permed into...