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The Poison Ivy League Part 58-Uncertain Plans

May 3, 2011

The Slattern was not beautiful but had the talent of being able to imitate beauty in a pinch through studied choices in clothing and makeup. A struggling sophomore at BU, day by day her mind turned from thoughts of finishing college to thoughts of finishing her career as an unmarried woman. At first she settled her hopes on the proprietor of the illegal poker game where she spent her nights dealing cards and flirting with strangers. Then, she transferred her hopes to the most talented regular player at the table, a certain red-head from Harvard. His good fortune to live in a giant apartment in effect became her good fortune after a single date. She promptly made herself the latest piece of furniture and scarcely left the place, dropping out of school and spending her days in a daze.

The first time that Kimel met the Slattern, she decided to break the ice by describing her traumatic past. In place of polite discourse about television or film or literature or health or the weather was an awkward and graphic monologue. At first, she tested the waters with stories about her hardships as a Korean girl adopted by a white family, and then, when Kimel passed the test by keeping quiet, weaved into the conversation descriptions of her former suicide attempts, including grisly details of vomiting up black sludge in the emergency room. So this was the sort of discourse that had replaced Scott and Kimel’s philosophizing—nothing but a memory now, like Mario Tennis games and weekend debate parties.

Kimel did not begrudge Scott his sex life, but the unexpected alteration in his living situation proved unbearable. He had invited his friend to live with him for the last few months of the year and did not sign on for a third roommate who used the shower and ate the food and broke the furnishings. Paper-thin walls and closed doors finally prompted the decision to deny Scott’s offer to live with him in Cambridge the next year, a painful but ineluctable conclusion. He divulged the news mournfully after one of their daily workouts, a ritual the lazy Kimel detested but kept up with because it had by then become his only chance in the week to talk to Scott alone. Scott wrinkled his brow and asked Kimel where he would go. Kimel didn’t know what to say. It was too late in the year to make sudden plans. He eventually took the first job he was offered—a position teaching English in a South Korean school for some 20,000 dollars a year. The deal fell through at the last moment, prompting Kimel to take another job teaching English at a steel factory in a squid fishing village on the Sea of Japan, a sort of Chosun Constanza.

And what did Kimel’s debate friends think of all of this? As Kimel discussed his uncertain plans for the next year with a supposed confidante, she replied gravely that she would be busy with law school in September and wouldn’t be able to return many letters. At the time, Kimel considered this response to be in supremely bad taste, but in retrospect he came to realize that his friend was only being honest with him, unlike some of her more hypocritical counterparts. They all had their own plans for next year; they all had their own problems. The superficiality of Kimel’s most valued relationships was starkly apparent to him for the first time. This seemed to be the grand revelation at the end of the bildungsroman: that no one cared about anyone, unless they were fucking.

Nor were Kimel’s family any more helpful. Accustomed to seeing him self-motivated and honored, his sudden lack of direction worried them, and their concern was manifested in the form of insults, sometimes deliberate and sometimes inadvertent. Had there been a single wise voice to advise Kimel, portraying the coming year as an adventure and his past record as an asset not as hollow as it seemed, he might have been a great deal less miserable and lonely than he felt at the time. But as it was, Kimel was left to the counsel of his chorus of inner demons. His last hope, a proposal to visit Pitcairn Island and write a novel detailing the experience of women on the island since the days of the Bounty Mutiny, was rejected in favor of providing a grant to enable a young musician more active in Eliot House social life to tramp around Europe for a year. (Kimel’s consolation prize was a novel with an Eliot House sticker on the back cover.) Soon after this final rejection, the hope of finding answers in the haze of a hallucinogenic mushroom proved nauseating rather than enlightening.

Despite smiling less than he once did, Kimel the debater continued to convey the illusion of confidence and prosperity. By this time, the only major event left in the year before Nationals was the Swarthmore tournament. Kimel and Crassus made plans to partner together, which seemed like a promising arrangement. Over time, their mutual respect had become less grudging, especially now that the TOTY race was over. Crassus even threw his arms around Kimel and nearly sent him plummeting down a flight of stairs when Harvard B’s loss in quarterfinals of Yale was announced, thus destroying once and for all the TOTY pretensions of the only potential rival to the Triumvirate. But at the last minute insistence of Antony, Kimel took on a different partnership. Though he never suspected it before, his younger rival evidently looked up to him. Antony was incredibly eloquent during in-rounds, deservedly winning a top speaker at the tournament and going on to debate beside Kimel until an undeserved loss in semi-finals about whether a utopia should punish its citizens with exile or prison. The next year, Lepidus and Antony would make finals of Nationals and run the case whether Faust should be condemned or redeemed at the end of the legend about him, a topic perhaps inspired by the types of rounds Harvard A had pioneered. For their part, Crassus and Pompey became the first team to win TOTY two years in a row.

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