INDECENT

Corinne Sullivan

Blurring the lines of blame and moral ambiguity, Indecent by Corinne Sullivan is a smart, sexy debut.

Shy, introverted Imogene Abney has always been fascinated by the elite world of prep schools, having secretly longed to attend one since she was a girl in Buffalo, New York. So, shortly after her college graduation, when she’s offered a teaching position at the Vandenberg School for Boys, an all-boys prep school in Westchester, New York, she immediately accepts, despite having little teaching experience—and very little experience with boys.

When Imogene meets handsome, popular Adam Kipling a few weeks into her tenure there,

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Blurring the lines of blame and moral ambiguity, Indecent by Corinne Sullivan is a smart, sexy debut.

Shy, introverted Imogene Abney has always been fascinated by the elite world of prep schools, having secretly longed to attend one since she was a girl in Buffalo, New York. So, shortly after her college graduation, when she’s offered a teaching position at the Vandenberg School for Boys, an all-boys prep school in Westchester, New York, she immediately accepts, despite having little teaching experience—and very little experience with boys.

When Imogene meets handsome, popular Adam Kipling a few weeks into her tenure there, a student who exudes charm and status and ease, she’s immediately drawn to him. Who is this boy who flirts with her without fear of being caught? Who is this boy who seems immune to consequences and worry; a boy for whom the world will always provide?

As an obsessive, illicit affair begins between them, Imogene is so lost in the haze of first love that she’s unable to recognize the danger she’s in. The danger of losing her job. The danger of losing herself in the wrong person. The danger of being caught doing something possibly illegal and so indecent.

Exploring issues of class, sex, and gender, this smart, sexy debut by Corrine Sullivan shatters the black-and-white nature of victimhood, taking a close look at blame and moral ambiguity.

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  • St. Martin's Press
  • Hardcover
  • March 2018
  • 304 Pages
  • 9781250147073

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About Corinne Sullivan

Corinne Sullivan studied English with a Creative Writing Concentration at Boston College, where she graduated in 2014. She then received her MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College in 2016. Her stories have appeared in Night Train, Knee-Jerk, and Pithead Chapel, among other publications. Indecent is her debut novel.

Author Website

Praise

“[A] surprising debut…an affecting novel, examining self-doubt, self-sabotage, and the lasting impact of both.”Publishers Weekly 

“[A] steamy debut, in which infatuation crosses the line into obsession… Imogene’s backstory…will have readers sympathizing with her as she works through her past.”
— Library Journal

Indecent is a page-turner of a debut by a ridiculously talented young writer.”Lauren Fox, author of Still Life With Husband

Discussion Questions

1. Imogene romanticizes the idea of boarding school long before she accepts a job at Vandenberg School for Boys. How does Vandenberg meet her expectations, and where do her expectations fall short?

2. Though she is given the opportunity to befriend her roommates, Imogene never feels that she is able to fit in. Is Imogene at fault for this failure to connect?

3. Imogene often finds herself thinking of Zeke from college, the guy she considers “the first great love of her life,” despite her lack of attraction to him. Why does Imogene still think of him so often? Does she regret her relationship with him, or can she accept it for what it was?

4.  Kaya, the teacher apprentice with whom Kip supposedly had a relationship before, consistently haunts Imogene. What does Kaya represent for Imogene? Why is Imogene so bothered by the idea of her, beyond the fact that she’d had Kip’s affection?

5. When Dale’s behavior begins to verge on inappropriate, Imogene finds herself torn between disgust and flattery. Why does the idea of an older man being attracted to her excite Imogene? What about it scares her?

6.  Imogene’s perception of Raj vacillates between annoyance and attraction, and though she has moments where she considers the possibility of a romantic relationship, she ultimately decides that being with Raj is not “how the story was supposed to go.” What does this mean? Who does Imogene believe to be in control of her story?

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

There had been no major incidents—at least, nothing of the sort I imagined could happen my first week at Vandenberg School for Boys (no salmonella outbreak, no still-lit cigarette imprudently disposed in a wastebasket, no menacingly quiet freshman with a handgun). Then I caught Christopher Jordan with his hand down his pants. I didn’t mean to see it. I certainly didn’t want to see it. But I saw it nevertheless: the flaxen-haired second year from Roanoke, prostrate and panting on his twin bed.

Beating the monkey—that’s what the Vandenberg boys called it. The first time I’d heard that term used there—“Dude, I beat the monkey every night to those tit pics Cassie sent me,” said one guy to his friend two spots before me in the chicken-fajita line—I was brought back to Camp Barbara Anne, to lying in my bottom bunk and spotting the Magic Marker sketch of a penis and testicles on the bedpost (two bulging eyes and a big long nose, I’d initially thought) and recognizing it distantly as something I’d heard about, something I should know about but would probably never fully grasp. As I’ve spent the majority of my life pretending to understand things I do not—Jackson Pollock, 401(k) plans, Buddhism, euthanasia—the sight of Christopher Jordan beating the monkey just reminded me once more how little I understood.

I’d asked Kip once if he did it a lot. He’d said, “Imogene. I’m a guy,” accompanied by a look that said duh.

The rock music screaming through the door of Christopher Jordan’s fourth-story single room in Slone House had made me stop to knock—it was quiet hours, after all. My co-apprentice Rajah Patel was supposed to accompany whatever girl was assigned to dorm rounds each night (the injustice of being the sole male apprentice, I suppose), but we’d decided instead to split up the building by floors—he one and two, I three and four—to get the job done quickly. I’d been too relieved to be on my own to worry about bending the rules. I never knew what to say to Raj; his gaze was too intense, as though he could see right through your clothes and maybe even your skin, too, and he seemed able to provide only unwelcome facts and opinions. On the first day I met him, he gestured to my face and said, “Did you know freckles are really just bunches of melanocytes that become darker when exposed to the sun?” I said, “Oh,” feeling then that every already-abhorred freckle now bulged from my face like pulsating skin pustules.

I had already been up and down the hall of the third floor, passing by half-ajar doors behind which I could see the golden heads of boys bent over desks composing essays or poring through textbooks. One guy—bless him!—fiddled with a chess board, playing against an invisible opponent. My heart swelled for each and every one of them, for the uniform shirts pressed and hanging on the back of their desk chairs for tomorrow, for the sticks of Tom’s of Maine deodorant and bottles of Drakkar Noir cologne and tubes of acne cream cluttering their dressers, for the patchouli-and-sweat-and-gardenias smell of boy wafting from each room.

I couldn’t hear Christopher Jordan’s response to my knock, if there even was one, and I only opened the door a crack (no stepping foot into a student’s dormitory room), but that was enough. As though stunned by a camera shutter, I stared, immobilized by the sight of him in the small gash of light from his bedside table lamp, his brutish grunts, the sound like a plastic spoon churning a thick batter—no, a plunger unclogging a stalwart toilet—still audible above the awful metallic shriek of his music. He caught my eye before I could catch myself, before I could even realize what I was seeing. “Whoops” I heard myself say, as I would if I’d accidentally stepped on someone’s shoes from behind or tripped going up the stairs. Whoops! It’s a word I’d never will myself to say but somehow always manages to emerge from my parted lips in moments of surprised indignity.

“Mother—Jesus!” He jumped as if he’d been shocked by an electrical outlet and slapped a pillow over his lap. “Don’t you know how to fucking kn—”

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…”

In the dim light, his eyes were coin slots, his mouth a jeering sliver. Authority shifted.

“Who the fuck are you anyway?”

“I—” I was six years older than him, yet not feeling nearly old enough. “If you could just turn down…”

Christopher Jordan smiled the smile of a boy—a man—who probably knew the words to say to get a girl to undress. “Sure thing.” He reached over to his desk and adjusted the volume on his laptop, pillow still balanced precariously on his lap. “Better?”

I couldn’t speak; I nodded instead.

“Would you mind shutting the door behind you?”

I shut the door behind me. Before I had even taken a few steps away, I could hear that he was at it again. As I continued on, I fixed my gaze on the emergency exit door at the end of the hallway, afraid of what else I might see.

Raj met me outside the building. “All good?” he asked.

I nodded. I feared that if I opened my mouth, I might’ve admitted that I had irrevocably fucked up within my first week at Vandenberg, proving to myself and everyone else that I didn’t belong there. Either that, or I’d puke.

* * *

Dorm rounds was just one of the daily duties I began in that first week. (That first week—how long ago it seems!) Other duties included supervising study period, monitoring the dining hall, helping to coach the varsity lacrosse team, and acting as the Honors History assistant teacher for first years—first years, that’s what freshmen were called, like it was Hogwarts.

Study period was easy. Sometimes the first years would laugh and poke each other over their open biology textbooks, but just give them a hard stare—their balls would shrivel like leaves, and they’d shut the fuck up. At least that’s what Chapin said, though it certainly hadn’t worked on Christopher Jordan.

Dining hall duty was also mostly benign. I had to make sure no one stole an extra serving of French fries or banana pudding and that the trays were cleared before they were stacked in the dish room. Rumor had it among the apprentices that a few years ago, a couple of second years had started a food fight, splattering creamed corn and broccoli casserole—Thursday’s dinner special—on the mahogany-paneled walls and twenty-foot-high Palladian windows. I hoped that wouldn’t happen when I was on duty.

My first lacrosse practice was the day before the Christopher Jordan incident. It was tradition for the older boys to attempt to pants the newcomers to the team—the “virgins”—as they ran around the field with their sticks. A slight third year named Clarence Howell got his pants ripped down by team captain Duggar Robinson as they ran an overhead shooting drill. He wore a pair of grayish briefs, which set the other boys howling and made me feel strangely sad.

The best part of that week was chapel. On that first Sunday—as they did on the first Sunday of every new semester—the boys donned suit jackets and ties and filed into Morris Chapel, first years in the front and fourth years in the back. (We’re nondenominational, the Vandenberg pamphlets all boasted. We are a spiritual campus, not a religious one.) From the sidewall bench under the stained-glass windows, I watched as the Chosen Boy from each class—selected carefully by the faculty members each August based on leadership, scholarship, and philanthropy—strode solemnly up the center aisle towards the pulpit with a lit candle in his hand. (When I asked Kip if he’d ever been a Chosen Boy, he said they’d asked him his sophomore year and he’d turned them down. He then proceeded to cackle for a solid minute; I’m still not sure whether it was a joke.) They stood in order from youngest to the oldest, from the baby-faced schoolboy in front to the muscled mammoth trailing the pack, an ages-and-stages development chart from the boys’ edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Not a whisper or a vibrating cell phone was to be heard. They lined up before Dean Harvey, headmaster of Vandenberg School for Boys, with their candles flickering beneath their chins.

Dean Harvey spoke, his voice a ringing bell through the rafters. His hanging jowls jiggled like a bloodhound’s, but the blue eyes behind his glasses were clear and wise. “Do you seek to integrate intellectual excellence with moral commitment, to concern yourself with mind as well as character, to value knowledge and transcendent values above all else?”

“Oh yes, oh yes we do,” the four boys chorused back obediently.

He raised his eyes to the room and spread his arms. “And how about you, pupils of Vandenberg?”

With the groaning of benches and rustling of jacket sleeves, the boys all stood and sang, in almost perfect unison, “Oh yes, oh yes we do.”

I mouthed the words with them, feeling pride and love swell inside me, feeling as though my heart might beat out of my chest.

* * *

On my walk alone back to the Hovelina House—Raj slept in a single room in Perkins Hall, a fourth-years’ dormitory—I mentally rehearsed the story. Yeah, so I opened the door—just so I could ask him to turn down his music, you know—and there he was, masturbating! Like he was brushing his teeth! I thought maybe if I said the story out loud it would become funny, a joke. Maybe my stomach would untwist from its knots.

“Imogene!” I heard ReeAnn cry as soon as my key turned in the lock. She sat at the kitchen table reading a book on the lifestyle and habits of Parisian women, her pudgy pink face eager as a department store makeup consultant. “How was rounds duty?” ReeAnn Finkelstein, in the few days I had known her at that point, seemed to always want to know how things were. How was my run this morning? How had I slept last night? How would I like to try her new Maximizing High Volume Lip Plumper?

“Okay,” I said, deciding in that moment that I wasn’t going to tell the story, now or ever.

“Okay!” she parroted, nodding, grinning.

I tried to smile back. My lips stuck to my teeth. “I have work to do.”

The Hovel, a renovated old horse barn tucked behind the administrative building, had been the home of all of the Vandenberg teaching apprentices for the last dozen years. ReeAnn, Chapin, and I slept upstairs, while Babs Lawrence (a vegan and a Christian whose alopecia forced her to wear a horrible thick-banged human-hair wig) and the Woods twins (who owned a collective fifty pairs of Tory Burch shoes and weighed a collective one hundred and eighty pounds) had bedrooms downstairs. I headed up the back stairwell, and on the way to my bedroom, I passed by the open door of Chapin’s room. She lay sprawled on her paisley-print comforter, texting with her phone held above her face. Soft acoustic music crooned from the laptop at the foot of her bed. I paused in the doorframe.

“Hi, Imogene.” She didn’t look away from her phone as she said this.

Around Chapin Dunn, I was struck dumb, like a boy with a crush. She wasn’t what I would consider beautiful; her nose was long and severe, her frame bony and curveless, her dark hair styleless and often unwashed in a knot on top of her head. Her brows were overgrown, her nails little stubs, her clothes seemingly thrift-store castoffs. But unlike me, who felt the need to apologize for everything—ingrown hairs on my legs, eating a second cookie after dinner, the splotchy brown birthmark on my hipbone that Kip would nickname the Cheetah Spot—Chapin was unapologetic. Plus, her dad was some hedge fund honcho; being moneyed made everything she did permissible.

“Did you have a nice day, Imogene.” This came out in a yawn, less a question than an obligation.

“Yeah, it was fine.”

“Glad to hear it.” A beat of silence followed. She finally turned to face me, one thick brow raised in an anything-else-I-can-do-for-you manner.

I hesitated, then took a step into her bedroom. “I have a question.”

She reached down with her big toe, its nail painted an electric green, and changed the song on her computer. She sat up and turned to me curiously.

“Have you ever seen or heard anything … inappropriate, you know, being around all these boys?”

Chapin smiled, a secret smile that wasn’t for me, but rather for some unseen audience. I felt sure she was looking at the spot between my eyebrows, the spot where that morning there’d been the telltale tender bump of an impending pimple, a bump that I’d picked and poked and then coated with my little pot of beige cover up. “Imogene,” she said. “We’re twenty-two-year-old women surrounded by a bunch of fourteen-to eighteen-year-old boys. Inappropriate things are bound to happen.”

I choked up a laugh.

“You haven’t spent much time around guys.”

She wasn’t asking; Chapin knew. I shrugged, then nodded because she was right. I didn’t have any brothers, and all of my male cousins lived in Wisconsin and were already in their thirties. My dad wasn’t exactly the paradigm of young masculinity; he wore fleece house slippers and spent his mornings watching birds through a pair of binoculars on the back deck. Even in high school I never had any guy friends. Having realized I was awkward at a young age, I had retreated early on to the chorus room to be among the girls who were similarly challenged in determining what to do with their hands or faces when boys were around. In college I may have begun to kiss them and touch them (always sedated with liquor, always feeling like a made-for-TV-movie actress, always pretending their hairy chests and hard buttocks and probing appendages were part of an exhibit in a strange science museum), but they were just bodies; there was nothing, I’d come to realize, as impersonal as a body.

And yet, the only way I could handle touching someone else’s body was to pretend I wasn’t in my own.

I could see the next question forming on her lips, the question that had been asked by my parents, by my younger sister Joni, by my academic advisor at Buffalo State, by my friends, by my nosy neighbor Mrs. Harrington, by myself as I flipped through the Vandenberg catalogs and stared out my window and watched the neighborhood boys curse and shove one another and scramble after a soccer ball in the street—Why this? Why Vandenberg? Why now?

It’s a great opportunity, I would tell them.

The truth: I didn’t want to teach girls. I’d visited a few coed independent schools in Westchester and Connecticut during my application process, sitting dully in the back of the classrooms like a potted plant, and I’d watched. I stared as the female students tucked golden hair behind ears adorned with diamond studs and crossed bony ankles beneath their desks. They sat poised and pouting like grown women, though some hadn’t even developed breasts yet. Sometimes I caught the eyes of the girls in the mirrors of their compacts or the reflections of their cell phone screens—always primping, always keeping tabs on each other, on themselves—and I could tell without even speaking to them what they thought of me: Poor. Timid. Plain. I feared them, those privileged girls. I hated what I saw in their gaze, hated how small they made me feel.

But the male students on these visits: They never made me feel small. When I checked into the main office at one school, the secretary asked her student intern if he would mind leading me to the classroom, and he stood and smiled at me and said, “This beautiful woman? Not in the least bit,” and suddenly I was transported to an alternate universe, one in which I was back in high school but cool, coveted. I liked the ease in the boys’ bodies as they sauntered through the halls and settled loosely in their chairs. And I liked that when they looked at me, they didn’t see unfashionable shoes or flat hair but instead a person, a woman—maybe even an attractive one.

* * *

Vandenberg School for Boys, founded in Scarsdale, New York, in 1913, was steeped in honor, tradition, and many, many rules. Vandenberg boys were expected to dress in navy blue or gray dress slacks, white or powder blue dress shirts with a tie, solid black footwear, and the uniform school sweater or school blazer. Vandenberg boys were expected to be clean-shaven and neatly groomed, with nails cut in neat half moons and hair in no danger of festering into that reprehensible mop-like surfer style. For all intents and purposes, Vandenberg boys appeared as deferential as geishas, each one striding purposefully about campus with a thirst for knowledge and a golden halo hovering above his perfectly coiffed head.

And in that first week of school, I believed it. To me, each boy seemed more capable and charismatic than the last—future heads of State, surgeon generals, chief executive officers. The boys shimmered like imposing bronze statues, laughed and posed and grinned like models on the cover of a brochure. They held doors for one another, said “thank you” to the cafeteria ladies, and engaged their professors in stimulating (yet respectful) debates. Sure, there were vestiges of indiscretion—cigarette butts stubbed out behind the gymnasium, empty beer cans crushed on the running trail, giant phalluses carved into picnic tables and scrawled on the desks in the back of the classrooms—but as far as I could discern, Vandenberg boys were an exceptional breed.

“Above all, you must remember that these boys are little shits,” Janice McNally-Barnes informed us on our first day of orientation. She was the head of the apprenticeship program, making her our supervisor for the next year. “They may act civilized, sweet even, but don’t trust them. Let your guard down, and these kids will eat you alive.”

We sat in a semicircle around her in the library conference room, Meggy Woods on my left, her skinny legs crossed over themselves twice, and ReeAnn on my right, working an enormous wad of gum between her molars. Both stiffened in their chairs with this final statement. Chapin, sitting across from me, checked her watch.

Ms. McNally-Barnes was a squat, indelicate woman with a bulbous nose and even bigger mouth. She lived in White Plains with her partner where they bred dairy goats. She’d worked at Vandenberg for seventeen years now and, according to her, she would take raising a goat over one of these boys any day. I’d already known, when she called in May to accept me to the program, that she was not someone to cross.

“This program is not for everyone,” she’d said, “and I need to be assured that you won’t disappoint us, Imogene.” Weighty pause. “Are you going to disappoint us?”

“I won’t disappoint you.” I felt I was signing myself over to her in blood.

Begun in 1987, the Teacher Apprenticeship Program at Vandenberg School for Boys was a model for independent schools. The one-year program was for recent college graduates who wanted to develop the skills needed to be boarding-school teachers, combining training with residential life experience. Apprentices worked closely with seasoned mentor-teachers and Ms. McNally-Barnes to prepare and teach lessons as well as to support and manage their students’ academic, emotional, and social well-being, supplementing the experience by coaching, running an after-school club, or tutoring. After the year was up, the expectation for apprentices was to pursue a master’s degree in teaching and to become head teachers in classrooms of their own. Apprentices were also expected to serve as role models for the Vandenberg community, a fact that seemed strange to me since, with the exception of Raj, we were all girls—which was reflective of the nature of the teaching profession. Raj was only the third male in the history of the program. He saw this as a point of pride rather than considering, as I did, the reason why there were so few.

Ms. McNally-Barnes handed out a thick packet entitled VANDENBERG SCHOOL FOR BOYS: THE TEACHER APPRENTICE GUIDE. Apprentices, they called us, like we were learning how to cobble shoes or mend fences.

“This will be your Bible,” she said. “Stick to this, and you’ll do alright.”

We all had previous teaching experience. For the last four years while I was in college I had worked at different elementary schools throughout the Buffalo Public School District. I knew how to make lesson plans. I could teach long division and administer a spelling test and explain the difference between mitosis and meiosis. I learned to play handball at recess and how to make friendship bracelets. I’d even been a finalist for The Most Promising Young Teacher in the Buffalo Area award, the most prestigious honor I have ever (almost) earned and maybe ever will. The girls in the classrooms would look at me with big, dewy eyes that provided more validation than any award.

But when it came time to apply for jobs after graduation, I realized I didn’t want to teach elementary school, nor did I want to be in the public school system anymore. I didn’t want to wear a school ID on a lanyard around my neck and lead lines to the cafeteria and ask students to use quiet voices in the hall. I didn’t want to stay in a world where my students weren’t sure whether they needed to use the restroom, much less who they were, and where kids outnumbered books two-to-one. In the break room of the school where I taught during my last year of college, Mrs. Mlynarski, the science teacher who had been there since before I was born, took me aside. “Public school is going to shit,” she wheezed. “It’s all about closing the achievement gap and coddling mixed with chronic, purposeful underfunding.” I told her I had gone to public school, realizing as I did so that I wasn’t refuting her point as much as stating a fact. “But wouldn’t you have rather been somewhere else?” she pushed. “Don’t you still wish you were somewhere better?”

Yes, I told her. And a few days later, I submitted my resume to Vandenberg.

Ms. McNally-Barnes settled herself on a desk, her supple stomach spilling like risen dough over her waistband, and continued. “Having appropriate student-apprentice relationships is essential to maintaining your authority,” she said. “There has been trouble here, in the past, with young women not knowing where to draw the line. Dean Harvey has tried in the past to ban female apprentices from the program, but you know: Only so many guys want to grow up to be teachers.”

Raj, sitting barefoot and cross-legged in his chair, sat up straighter. “And I’m happy to act as representative for that underutilized talent pool.” His sneakers and socks lay in a crumpled pile under his chair, and I turned away from the sight of his naked feet, as though he was openly picking food out of his teeth. Every time Ms. McNally-Barnes referred to us pointedly as “ladies and gentleman” he grinned widely, happy for the attention and for the novelty of being constantly differentiated.

Ms. McNally-Barnes pointed grimly to the packet on my lap. “Don’t let these boys think that you’re their friend. Never let them think they have a shot at a romantic relationship with you, oh no. The minute they stop seeing you as an apprentice and start seeing you as a woman, you’re in trouble.”

ReeAnn had taken out a notebook and was scribbling furiously. I peeked over at the page. APPROPRIATE CORRESPONDENCE ONLY, she wrote. Then, underlined twice: APPRENTICE, NOT WOMAN.

There were certain rules we had to abide by, Ms. McNally-Barnes explained: No stepping foot into a student’s dormitory room. No touching the students in any way. No allowing the students into your personal residence. No texting, calling, or messaging with any of the students, and emails were only appropriate if they were related to an academic matter. No relationships outside that of student and apprentice.

“I assume these rules all apply to me, too?” Raj asked, drawing attention to his maleness once more.

“These rules apply to everyone,” Ms. McNally-Barnes said, and I felt certain as she said these words that she was looking right at me.

* * *

Copyright © 2018 by Corinne Sullivan