I REMEMBER IT WAS THE SUNDAY afternoon before Labor Day in 1981 and our senior year was about to begin on that Tuesday morning of September 8—and I remember that the Windover Stables were located on a bluff above Malibu, where Deborah Schaffer was boarding her new horse, Spirit, in one of the twenty separate barns where the animals were housed, and I remember I was driving solo, following Susan Reynolds and Thom Wright in Thom’s convertible Corvette along Pacific Coast Highway, the ocean dimly shimmering beside us in the humid air, until we reached the turnoff that took us up to the stables, and I remember I was listening to the Cars, the song was “Dangerous Type”—on a mixtape I’d made that included Blondie, the Babys, Duran Duran—as I kept behind Thom’s car up the winding road to the entrance of the stables, where we parked next to Deborah’s gleaming brand-new BMW, the only car in the lot on that Sunday, and then checked in at the front office, and where we followed a tree-lined trail until we located Debbie trotting Spirit by his reins around a gated arena that was deserted—she had already ridden him but the saddle was still on and she was wearing her riding attire. The sight of the horse shocked me—and I remember that I shivered at its presence in the late-afternoon heat. Spirit had replaced a horse Debbie retired in June.
“Hey,” Debbie said to us in her flat, uninflected voice. I remember how it sounded so hollow in the emptiness that surrounded us—a deadened echo. Beyond the manicured stables painted white and pine green was a forest of trees blocking the view of the Pacific—you could see small patches of glassy blue but everything seemed ensconced and still, nothing moved, as if we were encased in a kind of plastic dome. I remember it being very hot that day and I felt that I had somehow been forced into visiting the stables simply because Debbie had become my girlfriend that summer and it was required of me and not something I necessarily wanted to experience. But I was resigned: I may have wanted to stay home and work on the novel I was writing, but at seventeen I also wanted to keep up certain appearances.
I remember Thom said “Wow” as he neared the horse, and, like everything with Thom, it might have sounded genuine, but it was also, like Debbie’s intonation, flat, as if he didn’t really have an opinion: everything was cool, everything was chill, everything was a mild wow. Susan murmured in agreement as she took off her Wayfarers.
“Hey, handsome,” Debbie said to me, placing a kiss on my cheek.
I remember I tried to stare admiringly at the animal but I really didn’t want to care about the horse—and yet it was so large and alive that I was shocked by it. Up close it was kind of magnificent, and it definitely made an impression on me—it just seemed too huge, and only made of muscle, a threat—It could hurt you, I thought— but it was actually calm, and in that moment had no problem letting us stroke its flanks. I remember that I was aware of Spirit being yet another example of Debbie’s wealth and her intertwined carelessness: the cost of maintaining and housing the animal would be astronomical and yet who knew how interested she really was at seventeen and if that interest was going to be sustained. But this was another aspect I hadn’t known about Debbie even though we had been going to school together since fifth grade—I hadn’t paid attention until now: I found out she’d always been interested in horses and yet I never knew it until the summer before our senior year, when I became her boyfriend and saw the shelves in her bedroom lined with ribbons and trophies and photographs of her at various equestrian events. I had always been more interested in her father, Terry Schaffer, than I was in Debbie. In 1981 Terry Schaffer was thirty-nine and already extremely wealthy, having made the bulk of his fortune on a few movies that had—in two unexpected cases—become blockbusters, and he was one of the town’s most respected and in-demand producers. He had taste, or at least what Hollywood considered taste—he had been nominated for an Oscar twice—and he was constantly offered jobs to run studios, something he had no interest in. Terry was also gay—not openly but discreetly—and he was married to Liz Schaffer, who was lost in so much privilege and pain that I wondered if Terry’s gayness registered with her at all anymore. Deborah was their only child. Terry died in 1992.
THOM WAS ASKING Debbie general questions about the horse and Susan glanced over at me and smiled—I rolled my eyes, not at Thom, but at the overall non-situation. Susan rolled her eyes back at me: a connection was made between us that didn’t involve our respective mates. After petting and admiring the horse there didn’t seem much reason for us to be standing around anymore and I remember thinking: This is why I drove all the way out to Malibu? In order to witness and pet Debbie’s dumb new horse? And I remember I stood there feeling somewhat awkward, though I’m sure neither Thom nor Susan did: they were almost never annoyed, nothing ever ruffled Thom or Susan, they took everything in stride, and the eye-rolling on Susan’s part seemed designed to simply placate me, but I was grateful. Debbie kissed my lips lightly.
“See you back at my place?” she asked.
I was momentarily distracted by the whispered conversation Thom and Susan were having before I turned my attention to Debbie. I remembered Debbie was having people over that night at the house in Bel Air and I smiled naturally in order to reassure her.
And then, on cue, as if everything was rehearsed, Thom and Susan and I walked back to our cars as Debbie walked Spirit into his stable, with someone from the Windover staff, uniformed in white jeans and a windbreaker. I followed Thom and Susan along PCH and as they made the left turn onto Sunset Boulevard, which would take us all the way from the beach to the entrance of Bel Air’s East Gate, a song that I liked but would never admit to was now playing on the mixtape: REO Speedwagon’s “Time for Me to Fly,” a sappy ballad about a loser who gets up the nerve to tell his girlfriend it’s over, and yet for me at seventeen it was a song about metamorphosis and the lyric I know it hurts to say goodbye, but it’s time for me to fly . . . meant something else that spring and summer of 1981, when I became attached to the song. It was about leaving one realm and moving into another, just as I had been doing. And I remember being at the stables not because anything happened there—it was just Thom and Susan and myself driving out to Malibu to see the horse—but because it was the afternoon that led into the night where we first heard the name of a new student who would be joining our senior class that fall at Buckley: Robert Mallory.
THOM WRIGHT AND SUSAN REYNOLDS had been dating since they were sophomores—and were now the most popular people not only in our class but in the overall Buckley student body after Katie Choi and Brad Foreman graduated in June and it was obvious why: Thom and Susan were casually beautiful, all-American, dark-blond hair, green eyes, perpetually tan, and there was something logical in the way they had gravitated inexorably toward each other and moved everywhere as a single unit—they were almost always together. They both came from wealthy L.A. families but Thom’s parents were divorced and his father had relocated to New York, and it was only on those trips to Manhattan where Thom visited his dad that he wasn’t in direct proximity to Susan. For about two years they were in love, until that fall of 1981, when one of them wasn’t, which set into motion a series of dreadful events. I had been infatuated with both of them but I never admitted to either one that it was actually love.
I had been Susan’s closest male friend since we met at Buckley in the seventh grade and five years later I knew seemingly everything about her: when she got her period, the problems with her mother, every imaginary slight and deprivation she thought she was enduring, crushes on classmates before Thom. She kind of knew that I was secretly in love with her, but even though we were always close she never said anything, only teased me at certain moments if I was paying too much attention to her, or not enough. I had been flattered that people thought we were boyfriend and girlfriend and I did little to stop the rumors about the two of us until Thom stepped in. Susan Reynolds was the prototype of the cool SoCal girl even at thirteen, years before she was driving a convertible BMW and always mildly stoned on marijuana or Valium or half a Quaalude (but functioning— she was an effortless A student) and impudently wearing Wayfarer sunglasses as she walked through the arched stucco doorways to her class unless a teacher asked her to take them off—every Buckley student seemed in possession of a designer pair of sunglasses but they weren’t allowed to be worn on campus except in the parking lot and on Gilley Field. Susan seemed to confide everything to me during the middle-school years—in the 1970s they were referred to as “junior high”—and though I didn’t quite return that openness I had revealed enough for her to know things about me that no one else did, but only to a point. There were things I would never tell her.
Susan Reynolds became the de facto queen of our class as we moved through each subsequent grade: she was beautiful, sophisticated, intriguingly low-key, and she had an air of casual sexuality even before she and Thom became a couple—and it wasn’t because she was slutty; she had actually lost her virginity to Thom and hadn’t had sex with anyone else—but Susan’s beauty always intensified the idea of her sexuality for us. Thom ultimately took it a step further and Susan’s sexual aura became more pronounced once they started dating, when everyone knew that they were fucking, but it had always been there; and even if they hadn’t actually been fucking in the beginning, during those first weeks that fall of 1979, when they became a couple, the question was: how could two teenagers that good-looking not be fucking each other? By September of 1981 Susan and I were still close and, in some ways, I think she felt closer to me than to Thom—we had, of course, a different relationship—but there now seemed to be a slight wariness, not necessarily toward anything in particular but just a general malaise. She had been with Thom for two years and a vague but noticeable ennui had drifted over her. The jealousy that they inspired and that had almost broken me was, I thought, dissolving by then.
THOM WRIGHT, LIKE SUSAN REYNOLDS, HAD started Buckley in seventh grade, transferring from Horace Mann. His parents divorced when he was in ninth grade and he lived with his mother in Beverly Hills when his father relocated to Manhattan. Though Thom had always been cute—obviously the cutest guy in our class, adorable even—it wasn’t until something happened to him over the summer of 1979, when he returned from New York after spending July and August with his father, that he’d somehow, inexplicably, become a man; some kind of metamorphosis had happened that summer, the cuteness and the adorability had faded, and we started looking at Thom in a different way—he was suddenly, officially, sexualized when we saw him back at school that September of our sophomore year. Even though I had always sexualized Thom Wright everyone else now realized he was built, the jawline seemed more pronounced, the hair was now shorter—somewhat ubiquitous among the guys at Buckley (mostly because of haircut regulations) but Thom’s was now something stylish, a moment, a cue to manliness—and when I glimpsed him in the locker room that first week back from the summer changing for Phys Ed (our lockers throughout our time at Buckley were side by side) I hitched in a breath when I saw he had obviously been working out and his chest and arms and torso were defined in ways they weren’t at the end of June, the last time I saw him in a bathing suit, at a pool party at Anthony Matthews’s house. There was also the paleness around his newly muscled thighs and ass—the place where his bathing suit had blocked the sun from his weekends in the Hamptons—that contrasted with the rest of his tanned body, which shocked me. Thom had become an ideal of teen boy handsomeness and what was so alluring about him was that he seemed not to care, he seemed not to notice, as if it was just a natural gift bestowed upon him—he didn’t have an ego. I had repeatedly gotten over any notions that my feelings for Thom Wright would be reciprocated, because he was so resolutely heterosexual in ways that I wasn’t.
This inchoate crush on Thom may have come back those first few weeks after he returned from New York that September in 1979 but then he was suddenly with Susan and we effortlessly became a kind of threesome once we got cars that following spring, hanging out on weekends, going to the movies together in Westwood, lying on the sand at the Jonathan Beach Club in Santa Monica and cruising the Century City Mall, and my crush on both Thom and Susan was rendered pointless. Not that Thom would have ever noticed it, though Susan, I’m sure, had registered my feelings and knew I desired her: Thom was, admittedly, a fairly unaware individual—about a lot of things—and yet there was an intriguing blankness that was attractive and soothing about him, there was never any tension, he was the pinnacle of laid-back and he wasn’t a stoner. By the time we finished junior year the only drug Thom liked was coke, and only just a line or two, a few bumps could take him through a party, and he didn’t drink except for the occasional Corona. He was so easy to hang with and so agreeable to any option that when I fantasized coming on to him I often dreamt he would have let me, at least halfway, before gently rejecting my advances, though not without a kiss and a suggestive squeeze on my upper thigh to uselessly reassure me. In some of my more elaborate fantasies Thom didn’t reject me sexually and these would end with both of us covered in sweat and in my dreams the sex was exaggeratedly intense and afterward, I’d imagine, he would kiss me deeply, panting, quietly laughing, amazed at the pleasure I brought him, in ways that Susan Reynolds never could.
Copyright © 2023 by Bret Easton Ellis. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.