The Mare

By Mary Gaitskill


Photos by Sorryimworking

I

met Velveteen when I was 45, but I felt still young. I looked young too. This is probably because I had not done many of the things most people of that age have done: I’d had no children and no successful career. I married late after crashing through a series of relationships and an intense half-life as an artist visible only in Lower Manhattan, the other half of my life being that of a drug addict. 

I met my husband in Narcotics Anonymous; he lived in the city then, though we’ve since moved to a small town upstate. He makes a good living as a tenured English professor at a small college. A lot of his income goes to support his wife and daughter from a previous marriage, and we live in an old faculty-housing unit long on charm and short on function. Not owning doesn’t bother us, though. We are comfortable, and we are happy with each other. We go out to eat a lot and travel in the summer. 

When people ask me what I do now, I sometimes say, “I’m retired,” sometimes, “I’m transitioning,” and very occasionally, “I’m a painter.” I’m embarrassed to say the last part even though it’s true: I paint almost every day, and I think I’m better than I was when I showed at a downtown gallery 20 years ago. But I’m embarrassed anyway because I know I sound foolish to people here, people who have kids, and jobs too, and who wouldn’t understand my life before I came here. There are a few—women who paint at home, too—who I’ve been able to talk about it with, describe what art used to be to me, and what I’m trying to make it be again: a place more real than anything in “real” life. A place I remember dimly, a place of deep joy, where, when I could get to it, was like tuning in to a radio frequency that was sacred to me. Regardless of anything else, nothing was more important than carrying that frequency on the dial of myself.  

The problem was, other people created interference. It was hard for me to be close with them and to hear the signal at the same time. I realize that makes me sound strange. I am strange, more than the bare facts of my life would say. But I have slowly come to realize that so many people are strange that maybe the word is nearly meaningless when applied to human beings. Still, people interfered. And so I created ways to keep them at a distance, including an increasingly expensive drug habit. What I didn’t see, or allow myself to see, was that drugs created even more interference than people; they were a sinister signal all their own, one that enhanced and blended with, then finally blotted out, the original one. When that happened, I got completely lost, and for many years didn’t even know it.

When I met Paul, I was 40 and he was 46. I hadn’t done art for a couple of years; it had all but gone dead for me. We went to the same Narcotics Anonymous meeting, a stunned, bright-lit place with no signals, just people. Even though it was a year before we had coffee together, I immediately noticed his deep eyes, the animal eloquence of his hairy hands.

When we moved out of the city, I began to feel the signal again, but differently. I felt it even when I was with Paul, which did not surprise me—he was not “other people.” But I began to feel it with actual other people too, or rather through them, in the density of families living in homes, going back for generations in this town. I would see women with babies in strollers or with their little children in the grocery store, and I would feel their rootedness in the place around us and beyond—in the grass and earth, trees and sky.

To feel so much through something I was not part of was, of course, lonely. I began to wonder if it had been a mistake not to have children, to wonder what would’ve happened if I’d met Paul when I was younger. The third time we had sex, he said, “I want to make you pregnant.” I must’ve had sex hundreds of times before, but no one had ever said that to me. I never wanted anyone to say it; girlfriends would tell me a guy had said that, and I would think, How sickening! But when Paul said it, I heard “I love you.” I felt the same; we made love, and I pictured my belly swelling against all odds.

It was too late. I didn’t get pregnant. Instead my sister Melinda died. I know the two things don’t go together. But in my mind they do. My sister lived in Cleveland, Ohio. She had been sick a long time; she had so many things wrong with her that nobody wanted to think about her, including me. She was drunk and mean and crazy and would call saying fucked-up things in the middle of the night. When she was younger, she’d hung around with a sad-sack, small-time biker gang, and now that she was falling off a cliff—my guess is they were, too—they didn’t want to talk to her. I didn’t want to talk to her either, but I would, closing my eyes and forcing myself to listen. I would listen until I could remember the feeling of her and me as little girls, drawing together, cuddled up on the couch, eating ice cream out of teacups. Sometimes I couldn’t listen, couldn’t remember; she’d talk and I’d check my email and wait for her to go away. And then she did.

She had a stroke while she was taking a shower. The water was still running on her when they found her a few days later. It was summer and her body was waterlogged and swollen. Still I could identify her, even with her thin, tiny mouth nearly lost in her cheeks, and her chin and her brows pulled into an inhuman expression.

Paul went with me to clear out her apartment. I hadn’t been to visit her for at least a decade—she always preferred to visit me or my mother, and I could see why. Her apartment was filthy, full of old takeout containers, used paper plates and plastic utensils, boxes and bags crammed with the junk she’d been meaning to take out for years. Months of unopened mail lay on every surface. There was black mold on the walls. Paul and I stood there in the middle of it and thought, Why didn’t we help her? The obvious answer was we had helped her. We had sent her money, we had flown her out to visit on Christmas. I had talked to her, even when I didn’t want to. But, standing in her apartment, I knew it hadn’t been enough. She’d known when I hadn’t wanted to talk, which was about half the time. Given that, what good was the money?

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