So the counter guy at Pistil, this prissy gay guy, is following me around the store. I've got one copy of Try in my hand and one already stuffed in my bag. I'm just waiting for the opportunity to stuff the other one in. He's tailing me really obvious-like, so I think maybe he wants to trick. I could always use the cash, or free books, and I'm way into the barter system, so when he clears his throat sternly and asks me if he can help me with anything, I rub my crotch and go "yeah."
He blinks at me for a minute, and starts to laugh and rolls his eyes. "I don't do little boys. What the fuck are you doing in here?!"
I drop Try on my foot. "I, I, I read," I stammer.
"That's a good thing to do." He lets out a dismissive sigh. "Now what do you want to buy?"
Other folks in the store are shooting pathetic looks at me. "I'm looking for transgressive fiction," I say too loudly, and pick Try up off my foot, and wave it. "Something in this genre...." I feel like a total badass, bandying about literary words Dennis had taught me.
He pushes his thin little lower lip out at me, raises his eyebrows, and cocks his head like a dog tuning into a different frequency. "Hmmm... yes...." He abruptly turns and walks, like a robot that has just been given its command, and can only unemotionally execute it. I was hoping at least his jaw would drop open at my unexpected erudition, but before I can artfully work in that I am actually a good friend of the author of the book I was trying to lift, he disappears behind some stacks. "Here," he calls to me from the cash register. I trot over. He has two books on the counter. "This is by a man in jail for murder, about his bad childhood. I found it interesting."
"Hmm...." I rub my chin and try to look astute.
"This is a book by Mary Gaitskill. I haven't had the chance to read it yet, but she is one of my favorite writers...." Then he goes on; blah, blah, blah about her. I'm focused on his face, trying to figure out if, while he's going on about Gaitskill, he'd notice if I shove Try into my bag. I slowly open my bag top.
"Do you want Try as well?" he says.
"Yeah.... I'll just put it in here.... Don't need a bag. Thanks."
So, I bought all three. Gaitskill's book cost me $3.50. I didn't have much hope for it from the title, Two Girls, Fat and Thin. I figured he was fucking with me, intimidating me into buying a fucking women's self-help book. He gave me an orange frequent-buyer card and put some stamps on it. I went to a nearby cafe, where I sat and read between dates. I worked for an out-call service that would send guys there to look me over. If the john dug me, they came over, bought me a cappuccino, and then we went out. Usually they didn't like me. I was told if I didn't look too young, then I looked too hostile, and not clean enough. I should make sure my hair was not so oily that I looked like a brunette instead of a blonde.
I sat and read the prison guy's book. Sucked. Nothing that made me feel... anything. Got out Gaitskill's book. Couldn't get into it. Sucked. Read a few pages more, kept getting distracted by the folks dressed in black yelling about wizards and magic bunnies in their games. A guy came over with a mocha. Before I left to get fucked, I tossed the prison guy's book on the newspaper stack. I put Gaitskill's book in with my Try copies.
I tried to read Two Girls, Fat and Thin a few more times and just couldn't get into it. But I didn't throw it out, either. There was something there I could feel, under the surface, even though I wasn't quite paying attention. I saved the book; like saving an article you're not ready to read yet, but know one day you'll want, maybe need. I tried to convince myself to throw it out. It's not a little paperback. It's a fucking drag to carry around when you move around a lot. I somehow kept it for a couple of years. Hating it. When a friend told me there was a writer he worked with whom he thought I'd really like, the name sounded very familiar. He sent me her book. She lived in San Francisco and he said we might really like each other. He sent me a proof of Because They Wanted To by Mary Gaitskill. I realized it was the same chick who wrote the book I'd been dragging around for over two years. I was like, "Oh great, another fucking book I'm gonna have to haul around the rest of my fucking life." But I decided to give it a shot. I ended up staying up all night reading it.
Something had grown in me, because I could mostly get it. I could tolerate her unflinching look at life, at experience. I was exhilarated. It was also fucking depressing, because there is a way Mary writes that is superhuman. I knew my brain would never, no matter how much I read or study, be capable of capturing such minute emotional detail with such honesty and clarity. I was in awe of how she describes blossoms as "vulgar little flowers burst from the ground like bright hiccups." I mean, "bright hiccups"? Too fucking cool. Or, "He had a sour, contracted little face that reminded her of a cat spraying pee on something to mark it."
I spoke to her the next day. She had a tenuous, supple quality to her voice, like a torn-off butterfly wing. We met the day after that for dinner. She wore a fuzzy, brown shirt with a big pink heart on her chest. She's very pretty, but her eyes were too clear for me to see any reflection of myself. She had a big zit on her chin. That comforted me somehow. I'd brought gifts for her -- chocolate and vinegar. We said a few words, then I ran away. She moved to Texas to teach. We wrote to each other weekly, and spoke on the phone and talked a lot about dreams. No adult had ever told me their dreams.
When I told her I was writing this essay and asked her why she had told me her dreams, she said, "I didn't know you, and you are a lot younger, so I wasn't sure how to relate. My intuition was that you are very conversant in the language of dreams, that you understand that way of thinking really well. I felt you could appreciate the metaphor and poetry which occurs naturally in dreams. I also felt that you liked to relate at a very core level, which is also a place I'm comfortable with -- and certain dreams are about as core level as you can get." She encouraged me to interpret her dreams. She took what I said seriously, even telling me that some things I said felt true. She was helping me see things in the Mary Gaitskill world of metaphor and poetry.
Mary invited me to one of her readings in San Francisco. The place was packed with women wearing large, clunky jewelry, and worshipful-looking men in khakis. I felt like they were looking at me reproachfully in my slept-in, stinky clothes. But knowing that she'd invited me made me feel like I had a cool-ass secret that made me cooler then any of these fans. I had a package to give her, stuff I had written, and I finally had the guts to show her. A guard stopped me, but he stopped no one else I saw. He questioned me -- who was I, what was in the package? Someone had made threats to Mary, so they had all this security. Saying my name was Terminator didn't help. "This is for her," I said. The guard stepped back, putting his hand on a weapon as I pulled out my writing and a fallen ballerina encased in a glass dome; something I had found and then told Mary it reminded me of her. He eyed the dome suspiciously and called someone else over. I put the dome in my pocket and ran the fuck out of there.
Mary told me how weird folks get around her and her books. I told her I think it's because they must feel like they're visiting a psychic; they're just waiting for her to scrutinize them and come out with some fantastically astute observations. Some folks probably want her to. Some folks probably are terrified of what she will see, thinking she is some hyper-vigilant freak. She wrote to me, "What shows up on the page is the result of hours and hours of thought; it's an artistic method, not a condition." Mary told me how she digs. How she asks herself what something is like, say a face -- what it is really like. She works at it till she captures it: "Kitty had retreated so far from the surface that her eyes existed to shield rather than reflect her." She taught me how to see my own feelings in someone's face, and express them. I read and reread sentences like "He sat in his boxer shorts, with his long legs spread, exuding succulent boyness just faintly shaded with dim, inchoate cruelty" and "She manipulated the small objects with the grand, suppressed languor of a person moving underwater," until I understood what caught and captivated me.
When I told her that reading her books often made me feel it was useless for me to try to write -- that I could never approach the intelligence, grace, and delicacy with which she creates -- she wrote me, "I wanted to remind you of what you told me about [your therapist], how he moved very, very slow with you and he let you come to him: That's pretty much how you have to be with your writing. Be diligent and disciplined, but let it unfold in its own time. I think what that Neil Simon person said is right, that the unconscious is grinding away on your writing even when you're staring into space." I know a lot of critics think Mary's books are about weird sex and bitter relationships. But I use her book as a gauge for folks. I give someone Dennis Cooper's Try to see how much I can tell them about myself. If Try freaks them out, I know I can't even scratch the surface of my story. But if someone reads Gaitskill and it freaks them out, I know there's just an honesty they can't tolerate. That is the only reason why Mary is not as famous as Stephen King. She really, really scares the shit out of folks.
Terminator is a teenage author in San Francisco whose work has appeared in The NY Press, Close to the Bone, and Nerve.com. His first novel will be published by Crown in April of 2000. Meanwhile, he enjoys spending time with his son, Trevor. He and Mary Gaitskill used to have the same agent.
Close to Stalking