Tell, don't show, edition 11: The Mare by Mary Gaitskill
Tell, don't show, edition 11: The Mare by Mary Gaitskill
Every other week I summarize a notable work of (non)fiction in ten quotes, with an emphasis on style and voice. No spoilers. This week The Mare by Mary Gaitskill (published by Pantheon, 2015). You can find previous editions here: www.lithub.com
That day I woke up from a dream the way I always woke up: pressed against my mom's back, my face against her and her turned away. She holding Dante and he holding her, his head in her breasts, wrapped around each other like they're falling down a hole. It was okay. I was a eleven year old girl, and I didn't need to have my face in my mama's titty no more—that is, if I ever did. Dante, my little brother, was only six. (3)
After we put her to bed - she looked at me so longingly, her golden eyes slowly and heavily closing - I talked with Paul about keeping her longer. "We can't," he said. "It's time for her to go back."
We were sitting at the kitchen table, the little red Formica table I'd moved from my East Village studio, drinking soda from juice jars. I told him about the way she was on the brown horse. "She needs more of this," I said.
"Do you mean you need more?"
"I want more, I don't need it. But so what if I did?" My voice went from soft to sharp back to soft. "What's wrong with satisfying a mutual need?" (52)
The yelling in the background became angry talking, the normal talking between the mother and little boy. Velvet said, "I just decided something."
"I'm not gonna yell anymore, not even when I'm mad."
"There's nothing wrong with yelling when you're mad. You're a fiery girl," I said.
"What does that mean?"
"That you're intense, you have strong feelings."
She didn't say anything, and I began to worry that I'd insulted her somehow. Then she said, "I just decided something else. From now on, I'm going to call my mary Fiery Girl."
When we hung up, there was a smile in her voice.
I didn't speak about it with Paul. But when we got in bed, I turned with my back to him and curled into a ball. I thought over and over of Velvet, of holding her like I said I would, brushing her hair, singing to her. I thought of the way she said "My mare," like "mah mare"or "ma mère"—my mother in French. (78/79)
A day after we had the argument, I did something I hadn't done in years: I took the train into the city to go to what used to be my favorite AA meeting there. People I knew in the '80s go to it, artists and failed artists mostly, whom I can talk to better than anyone upstate. After I hung around for the meeting after the meeting and wound up talking with an old enemy who had been a loved friend for about six months a long time ago; someone I could not help but see as a half friend. I talked to her about Velvet, starting with the organization that had brought her to see us. My half friend put on her program face and said, "It sounds like you're really wanting to nurture yourself. I think you need to be looking at your own shit." I said, "I've spent the last ten years nurturing myself and looking at my own shit. It's time to nurture somebody else now."
She didn't push it. But her precise needle had struck home. Because even though she spoke ignorantly, she did know something about me. She knew the way I had lived: blank loneliness broken by friendships that would suddenly come into being, surge through the color spectrum, then blacken, crumple, and die; scene after drunken idiotic scene, mashed-up conversations nobody could hear, the tears and ugly laughter quieted only by the rubber tit of alcohol or something else. Friendship was bad, sex was worse, and love - love! That was someone who rang my doorbell at three a.m. and I would let him in so he could tell me I was worthless, hit me, fuck me, and leave me unless he needed to sleep over because his real girlfriend was - for some reason! - mad at him. It was not pleasure, it was like a brick wall that a giant hand smashed me against again and again, and it was like the most powerful drug in the world. Paul knows about this, but he doesn't know. Because how can I describe it? It was like being locked into a nightmare more real than anything until I woke and couldn't really remember the details or make sense of it, knowing only that it was terrible and that I would do it again. (91/92)
When horses are curled up and then they stand, it is beautiful and funny, like babies walking. They put their front feet down like it's the first time and they don't know for sure how, they need to go slow and feel on each foot, their body going one way and the other until they find the strong spot and boom, they are proud on their legs again. Watching made my heart soft, made me want to hug her. So I did something I never did; I opened her stall and came in it.
Which I should not have done. She wasn't expecting it, and she came to me too fast. I held up my hands like I saw Pat do and I said, "Alto!" like my mom when she means business. And the mare stopped. And I made my head and shoulders soft. I petted her, first her shoulder, then her neck. I told her how much I'd missed her and promised I'd clean her stall the next day because I could smell it was mad dirty, I tried to sing her a Christmas Carol but I couldn't remember all of one, so I sang, Safe under mama's wings, huddling up / Sleep the little chicks until the next day. I sang it to her until the fast things was gone. And then when I walked out, I sang it so they could all hear it. (139/140)
I got my translator to do a conference call to tell Mrs. Vargas how much I'd enjoyed Velvet's time with us. At the end of the conversation, I asked if she'd ever consider moving the family here. If she could get work. There was a long silence and then she asked me, "How much does a carton of milk cost there?" I said I was sure things were more here, but that it could be worth it she got a job that paid more. If she cleaned houses, she could make at least ten dollars an hour, maybe even more. There was another long silence. I thought of the lawn party down the block, the lights, the smiling woman who glanced at us as we passed. I asked if she might want to come up for Christmas with Velvet and her little boy . She laughed. But she said, "Maybe."
I hung up feeling good. Even though it was embarrassing that I didn't know how much a carton of milk was. (183)
And then it all happened: Beverly saw and spun so she damn near hit herself with her own whip---just before Joker reared up on her from the back and she fell down. Then Fiery Girls took off almost out from under me, running down the trail toward the water. I grabbed her mane with both hands, but I could barely stay on. Was Beverly dead? The mare went off the path into the neighbor farm's orchard. The trees came at me with black claw-arms and rushed away, green leaves and rotting fruit. I ducked; she took me through. I yelled. Whoa! but she didn't even slow. Everything was flying past and I would go to jail, my mom talking forever about what shit I was. I pulled the reins, feeling for her mouth, but it was no good; I was already slipping when I saw the fence coming. I screamed, "Whoa!" and pulled the reins hard, she came up on her back legs, and I saw nothing but sky that went forever until I slammed down on my back so hard my head bounced. The sky blurred and black came in on the edges. I pushed it back and made myself sit up. My horse was trotting slowly alongside the fence. I felt vomit coming. Ginger's voice said, Our relationship is over. (243)
They say that your partner always knows when you "cheat," even if it's unconscious knowledge. But I don't think Ginger did. She was too focused on that damn kid. It was almost insulting. (291)
I saw her ride for the first time. She'd spent the weekend practicing and she wanted us to come. She and Ginger were getting ready to go when she looked at me and said, "Could you come too?" The walk over was heartbreaking, me talking too much about how beautiful everything was and them not saying anything. (369)
She hit me with her shoe, panting so hard spit flew. I hit too, I cried and hit wild, just to keep her off, to keep her words out of me with knife words of my own.
"Why are you so proud? Why do you think you're so special?"
"Because I don't think I'm shit? Because I don't want to think I'm shit? Ginger doesn't think I'm shit, Pat doesn't think it, only you, my own mother!"
"Ginger?" She laughed and instead of hitting me, she hit herself, both hands on her face, then me, and then herself again. "Maldita, malcriada! What did I do to make you like this? God help me, what do I need to stop you?"
"You've already stopped me, you don't do anything but stop me!"
"Maybe when you're crippled by that horse you'll learn!"
Like a machine that cried tears, I closed my bag up. Crying machine tears, I dragged it down the hall. My mom shouted after me, "At least when you're in a wheelchair, you'll—
But I was gone. (402)
Want to know more? Read this great New Yorker piece on Mary Gaitskill and The Mare.
Header illustration: Andrew DeGraff