Monday, May 25, 2009

Meeting Mary Gaitskill

Dunno why, but I made a note to do a search for the writer Mary Gaitskill a couple of days ago (which I finally did tonight), to check up on what had happened to her in the past 10-odd years since I met her.

In the early/mid-90s, she was my absolute favorite writer, and a life-saver. Coming out of a very bad, emotionally abusive relationship (my first sexual relationship) in 1991, I soon after stumbled upon her then-recent first novel "Two Girls, Fat and Thin"... The main character's relationships were as murky and dark as mine had just been, but her solitary voice was crystal-clear and eloquent and non-flinching in the face of uncertainty and insanity. Reading the book helped me feel sane again. As did Gaitskill's earlier book of stories, "Bad Behavior," in which her various characters also managed to find honest moments of purity and kindness in the midst of emotional turmoil.

(A side-note: The recent movie "Secretary" was based on one of Gaitskill's "Bad Behavior" stories. The movie was lauded by "edgy" critics for its portrayal of S/M. I had to laugh at the reviews. In the story, the secretary-character worked for an aging, sleazy lawyer with local political aspirations. There was spanking going on, and it was on one level exciting for the secretary...yet she also felt deeply conflicted by why she was letting the sleaze-ball denigrate her. She ended up quitting her job, and the lawyer ended up being investigated for fraud. In the movie, the lawyer was played by the blond and pretty James Spader. And the two literally lived happily ever after. There was nothing at all "edgy" or realistic about that.)

Maybe in '92 or '93, I wrote her a letter in care of her publisher, expressing my gratitude for her voice. I was fucking AMAZED to get a personal letter back a few weeks later! We exchanged maybe 3 or 4 hand-written letters, and she kindly signed the books for me via the mail. At the time, she was living in San Francisco (she'd given me her home address) and had recently taught at San Fran State... Completely coincidentally, in '94/'95 I ended up going to SF State's writing program. I didn't contact Gaitskill during that time, for fear of seeming like a stalker (to be honest, I did once make a point of walking past her apartment), though I did send her a Christmas card just as I was leaving SF to go back to Austin.

Once back in Austin in early '96, we resumed our correspondence for a short time, this time even sending mix tapes to each other! (Young folks, pre-iPods and downloading, nothing used to say "I have a crush" like making a cassette of your favorite songs for someone!) I don't have her tape with me here in Weehawken (though I saved it; it's back in the Mom's garage in San Antone), but two things I remember from it (aside from the pure joy at getting a tape from her!): an aria from "La Boheme" and the Monkees' "Stepping Stone." (I can't recall at all what I put on my tape for her.)

Come August 1996... and it turned out that Gaitskill just so happened to be en route via moving van from San Francisco to her new Fall teaching job at the University of Houston, and would be passing through Austin. We made plans to meet at the downtown Austin hotel where she'd be staying for the night...on my birthday! I thought it was all fucking FATE! I loved her work, she looked like my ex-girlfriend/was a Scorpio like my ex-girlfriend, I loved her mix tape selections, we had San Fran State and now Texas in common, it was my birthday... I just KNEW that this was my soul-mate and that we'd be having hot sex at her hotel that night to celebrate both my birthday and "our magical connection"...

OK. It didn't QUITE turn out like that.

First off, she was late getting into town and left a phone-message while she was a few hours away, saying she'd be late: A loooooong message, and her voice -- the first time I'd heard her speak -- was very whiny-sounding and irritating. As much as I was looking forward to seeing her, her voice and message for some reason really got on my nerves. Still, the meeting at the hotel was apparently still on. I sat around and waited, drinking numerous beers, calling various friends with updates: "No, she hasn't called back yet..."
Finally, she arrived in Austin and did call me to meet her at her hotel. I went to the hotel and called her room from the lobby, which was deserted. I remember saying to her on the phone, "I feel like a hooker." She asked, "Why? Are you dressed like a hooker?" (No, I wasn't -- just wearing black slacks and a low-cut black shirt -- but for some reason being all made up and calling up to her hotel room from the desolate lobby made me feel that way!)

She came downstairs to meet me in the lobby. (I think I'd hoped to be invited up to her room, but apparently she was traveling with a female friend who was very nervous from the trip and now conked out in their room upstairs.) Based on her writing and letters and the public photos I'd seen, I was expecting some at least semi-glam semi-femme fatale who would come on to me, but... Basically, she was very little and very plain-looking, like Emily Dickinson must've been. A very small, pinched, white face. She was wearing a shirt buttoned all the way to the top (!) and some flats with flowers (!) on them. And I don't remember her smiling very much or exuding even a bit of charm.

We sat down on some lobby couches and started to, slightly uncomfortably, make small talk... I finally, dorkily burst out with, "It's my birthday! Should we get some champagne?" She looked at me flatly and said: "I don't know you." Now, though I was poor, I hadn't meant that SHE should buy it. I actually didn't have enough money to buy a whole bottle by myself, so I had to dig through my purse and then come up with: "I have enough to pay for two-thirds of a bottle---do you want to go in on the last third?"

She DID pitch in for a third of the bottle of champagne! And after that debacle, we sat back down in the lobby and talked about... I can't remember most of it. Except, that is, for our mutually dissing SF State and Frances Mayes (at the time, the head of the writing program there, who went on shortly afterward to fame and fortune as the author of "Under the Tuscan Sun") and our arguing about the importance of the Beatles! (Gaitskill claimed that, sans the Beatles, somehow their spirit would have made its way into the public consciousness... I disagreed profoundly, claiming their utter uniqueness...)

I think we chatted for maybe two hours. Not a single sex vibe to be found, darnit. We hugged politely when I left, and that was it. I'm sure I went home and cried from disappointment. The flat vibe between us was such that I knew that there would be no more letters, no more tapes, no more personal excitement.

In the year or so after that, I read Gaitskill's later-released collection of short stories, "Because They Wanted To." Of course, the magic was gone. And then I lost track of her altogether.

Tonight, though, after my Internet search, I found that since our dull meeting in '96, she'd released another story collection, and, in 2005, a critically-acclaimed award-winning novel called "Veronica." (Not to mention her numerous articles for national magazines.) And that she'd been married, since 2001, to writer Peter Trachtenberg and was living a rural life in upstate New York and occasionally teaching. And was now a bleached-blonde.

Note: I just visited Professor Trachtenberg's blog: I was struck by how utterly safe and conformist it was. He loves Obama; he hates Sarah Palin; Americans, and people, are Mean at Heart. That kind of thing. I think, because he wears an earring in his photo and that he's married to Mary Gaitskill, that I was hoping for more...something original that I hadn't heard before. Nah. Just a generic, intellectually cowardly and nondescript professor trying to present himself as "edgy and cool."

What I found most depressing, though, was a recent interview with Gaitskill in which she mentions, congratutorily, how she and Trachtenberg have been mocking the idea of "intimacy" classes... Now, "intimacy classes" being ridiculous and clammy is, to me, a given. The fact that one has to publicize the mocking speaks far more about one's own insecurities about being "cool" than about said classes... Gaitskill, in the interview, goes on to say how she and Trachtenberg have come up with "Into Me See" ("Intimacy" -- get it?!), in which the person in therapy bends over and reveals their asshole for everyone else... CLEVER!!

Melancholy how life works, how one can care so deeply about someone else's thoughts... and then just as suddenly NOT care at all about them. Just 'cause their writing was so much more meaningful and profound than their personal vibe could embody...

Gaitskill's Wikipedia page

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