Thursday, March 21, 2013

A funny thing happened while reading a Mary Gaitskill story

Mary Gaitskill at the time I met her
I was reading "Mirrorball" by Mary Gaitskill the other night, from her short-story collection Don't Cry, when something peculiar happened. First of all, Mary Gaitskill—she's interesting. I'm not a very dark person by nature, although I've certainly had my moments, but she seems to be, judging by her work. Dark and lonesome, very intelligent and strangely fanciful. This collection of hers is pushing the idea of what short stories can do. She's not just focusing on inner states of being. She's getting into metaphysical states as well. If people were walking around with their shadow sides and souls loping alongside them, like characters out of Pullman's His Dark Materials series as imagined by a self-conscious William Burroughs, that would only begin to describe this work.

So there I was, reading away in bed, trying to decide if I liked this story or not, when I recognized the location of the mirror ball that she's referring to in the title. I was feeling a little triumphant that I knew the exact block of real estate in San Francisco, from her brief description, when LO AND BEHOLD, I came upon a piece of my life in the story. That stopped me for a moment as I read something familiar that had once happened to me years ago, in the middle of this almost-fairytale anti-romance. I had to do some mental calculating to figure out what had just happened.

It was like the time I was taking the garbage out in my parents' garage, and it was pretty dark and there was a hairy, fanged head, floating four inches from the ground by the trash cans, exclaiming, 'Ruh ruh ruh!" I stared at it for nearly a minute while my mind thought: there is no such thing as this thing I'm gazing upon. Then my eyes adjusted to the dark and I realized it was a Scottish Terrier, escaped from the new neighbors' house across the street. It was my all-time Muppet Show meets Zardoz moment.

So what's the moment from my life that Mary Gaitskill used? Take this quiz and find out! Actually, I'll just relate my personal story and you can guess what she referenced for her story. Then read "Mirrorball" and see if you won!

This was many years ago, not even 1990, I would say. My friend Monique had planned a trip to San Felipe, Baja, and she invited me along. I love Mexico, so I was excited to go. Unfortunately, I caught one of my frequent colds and instead of canceling, like I know enough to do now, I flew to San Diego with my congested ears and sinuses nearly imploding on three sides of my brain. While holding my head in both hands, making little "eeep" noises of pain as we landed, I re-read the page on San Felipe in my AAA guide book. It was described as a quiet beach town populated by clam fishermen, due to the amazing receding tide-line, which flows out for more than a mile at low tide. Except, noted my guidebook, during Spring Break, when thousands of America's youth converge upon the tiny town, racing their ATVs and dirt bikes across the nearby sand dunes and partying all night upon its usually quiet beaches.

Peaceful and serene San Felipe...
"AAA advices travelers to avoid San Felipe during this time," was the sentence that stuck in my mind the most. When I called Monique the week before and read her this out loud, she waved it away with a, "I'm sure it will be fine."

It wasn't fine. It was a town completely overrun by sweaty bellowing alcoholics on ATVs and dirt bikes, roaring around a two-block radius day and night. I know this because I filmed it with my 60s-era super-8 camera I had brought to capture the authentic Mexican fishing village. Instead I now have silent footage (stored around here somewhere) of neon-bikini-clad girls, parading their tanned bodies astride revving vehicles as half-naked neanderthals cheer them on. I'm not deriding them from my high horse. They really were like this and proud to be so and I have the footage to prove it.

After I procured self-prescribed, over-the-counter penicillin, which did not alleviate my cold in the least, Monique and I mournfully trudged the beach of San Felipe, lugging our midsized backpacks under the hot sun. We stepped over and around  countless bodies camping out for the night, cracking open their beers and rolling their weed-packed doobies. We dodged hurled footballs, Frisbees and beach balls, as we roamed to and fro, looking for a hotel room that normally could be had for next to nothing by spontaneous travelers, but had now all been booked up for weeks.

"I think we're going to have to sleep on the beach," said Monique. "With them?!" I countered, pointing to the teeming humanity.

...except during Spring Break!
It was at this point that I lost my voice. Don't ever travel while sick, especially to see an old friend who you like to have conversations with. You're just going to lose your voice and then the conversations will be one-sided. While roaming a pottery garden, after buying hand-woven blankets from a vendor to use as sleeping gear, we had an argument. Some highly emotional venting about grief and loss. My beloved Aunt Maris, who was like a second mother to me, had recently and suddenly died. She was a huge part of my life and I mourn her to this day, and will do so until my end. This fight brought this out of me, my fresh, jagged feelings, all raw and inarticulate. It was a stupid fight that came out of nowhere and probably was a manifestation of our lack of accommodations alongside low-grade resentments over our situation. But I was fighting with my whisper-voice, and that was frustrating.

We eventually figured out how to deal with each other again and made our way back to the beach to settle in for the night. There was not a lot of space left, even at massively exaggerated low tide, but we squeezed in near some Mexican-American boys and a line of restaurants and bars.that looked respectable. The boys were there on their annual trip from Los Angeles. One very young cute guy took a shine to Monique. I got the small, odd-looking guy with the mouth. I'll call him Calvin.

He proceeded to "fall in love" with me within moments of our introduction and I could only listen as he talked his game. It was not bad, but I had already dated a wisecracking half-insane little man and didn't want to relive that moment."What's wrong, Lisa?" he demanded at one point, "Who has broken your heart?"

I laughed because I wasn't about to get into that, especially with laryngitis. At one point, Calvin gave up or needed a beer or something and he took off. Monique and the very cute young boy took off together. I was alone on a beach, among thousands, in a hand-woven blanket that I still have today as a keep-sake. I was quietly meditating on my fate when a massive guy showed up—well over six feet tall and quite rotund, in a muscle-bound way. He plunked down inches away from me, demanding to know who I was and what I was doing there. I whispered something about having a cold and needing some sleep but he kept on grilling me in an aggressive, menacing way. "Hey, hey. You. Talk to me. Hey. What's your story, huh? Why won't you talk to me?"

"I lost my voice," I whispered. "Go away."

"Huh," he said, unimpressed. "I'm not going to be ignored—got it? You got that? Answer me!"

Dread was seeping throughout my being. I turned over and pretended to sleep among the shrieks and whoops coming from bars and alleyways. Finally the hulking presence gave up and left to find more responsive diversions. I peeked from my blanket and saw a big empty space where he had been. When Monique and the others returned, I begged her not to leave me again. I didn't want to be found in a ditch weeks later by a local fisherman.

"Was he a great big guy, like this?" motioned Calvin. "Oh, that was just Diamond Dave!'

"Yeah!," they all chimed in. "Diamond Dave!"

Oh, how silly of me to be terrified of Diamond Dave. Still, Monique was instructed never to leave my side again until departure the next day.

"You girls aren't from civilization," enthused Calvin. "You're like running with the wolves or something. Like women who came out of the wilderness! With your backpacks!"

Monique and I looked at each other. That was us all right.

"I'm going to give you new names," he continued. "You," he pointed to Monique, "are Prestige. And you," he said, pointing to me, "are Infinity. Those are your new names. They suit you."

Now we were impressed. New names don't come along every day, especially ones like Prestige and Infinity. At this point we were all buddies. I even told the cute guy about my grief and how I would think of my Aunt when I looked at the stars, which were bright and beautiful that night. He said that was a good plan. He worked for Van's Shoes so we knew he was cool. Everyone settled down to sleep. Even the hoots and hollers trickled down to an occasional, "whoop!" in the middle of the night.

The next day, we changed into bathing suits in a public bathroom and splashed about in the warm fish-filled water, careful not to be beheaded by speeding recreational watercraft vehicles. We gave our new friends hugs good-bye when it was time to take the bus back to the border. Diamond Dave didn't get a hug because he never returned. Everything was better that day. We had survived accidental Spring Break in San Felipe and had stories to tell.

Refraction, anyone?
Which explains how Mary Gaitskill heard about our trip. Monique is a friend of hers and must have told her a version of this story. I've only met Mary once. She came to a party at our flat in San Francisco when Monique and I were roommates. She was very quiet and stayed in one area of the kitchen most of the night. Her eyes focused upon multiple scenes at the party and she was listening to conversations around her very intently, like a court reporter. I liked her, within the brief time we talked. There's something shining brightly in her. I especially liked her shoes—demure Mary Janes. I tend to judge people by their choice of footwear.

What part of the story did Mary Gaitskill use for "Mirrorball?" Was it:

A.) Two friends fight about grief and loss while on a supposedly fun vacation.

B.) A girl feels victimized by a stranger in a strange town, narrowly missing a terrible fate. Or was it all in her fevered mind?

C.)  Two girls are nick-named Prestige and Infinity by Mexican-American boys on a beach.

Postscript: When I returned to San Francisco and told this story to my friend Richard, he snapped, "Prestige and Infiniti are the names of cars!"

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