‘Orchid’ by Mary Gaitskill

Mary Gaitskill is one of the best writers alive today and way ahead of her time. I have no doubt if she were a man she’d be as venerated as Philip Roth or Don Delillo. She’s best known for ‘Secretary’ and Bad Behaviour, and she writes about sexual and emotional politics with a bruise-eyed, wary incisiveness like no other. She’s sharp, but tender-hearted. This story stands out because it’s about a not-quite sexual, not-quite romantic relationship between a queer woman and a once-beautiful boy. The scenes between them glow and ache with unspoken regrets and inchoate longing – not for each other, but for the promise of past selves.

First published in Because They Wanted To, Simon & Schuster, 1997

‘A Romantic Weekend’ by Mary Gaitskill

There’s something so human about the brutality in Gaitskill’s short fiction. It’s never cruel for cruelty’s sake, but rather manages to touch at something vulnerable, easily bruised. ‘A Romantic Weekend’ tends to get the short shrift when compared to the collection’s other BDSM-themed story, ‘Secretary’ which was made into a so-so movie with Maggie Gyllenhaal, but it’s ‘Weekend’ that gets to the heart of how we try to please one another, without really knowing why we want them in the first place.

I remember this bit of dialogue so vividly, when the pair are still on the plane, yet to commence the weekend that will be everything but romantic:

“Some old people are beautiful in an unearthly way,” she continued. “I saw this old lady in the drugstore the other day who must’ve been in her nineties. She was so fragile and pretty, she was like a little elf.”

He looked at her and said, “Are you going to start being fun to be around or are you going to be a big drag?”

She didn’t answer right away. She didn’t see how this followed her comment about the old lady. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t think you’re very sexual,” he said. “You’re not the way I thought you were when I first met you.”

She was so hurt by this that she had difficulty answering. Finally, she said, “I can be very sexual or unsexual depending on who I’m with an in what situation. It has to be the right kind of thing. I’m sort of a cerebral person. I think I respond to things in a cerebral way, mostly.”

“That’s what I mean.”

Collected in Bad Behavior, Simon & Schuster, 1998

‘Secretary’, by Mary Gaitskill

Everyone familiar with the film of the same name should read the original story by Mary Gaitskill, whose tense accounts of New York in the 1980s are some of the best I’ve read, the written equivalent of photographer Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency series. Instead of the Hollywood version of ‘Secretary’ with shy but sexy Maggie Gyllenhaal and remote but irresistible James Spader hooking up in a BDSM happy-ever-after, this is entirely more grubby, unfulfilling and realistic. Introverted Debby is persuaded by her despairing family to take a dull job as typist for an unassuming, not particularly successful lawyer, who remains unnamed. When Debby makes a typing mistake, the spanking begins, to her terror and delight. It’s a study in social awkwardness and mutual loneliness with faultless sentences such as this: ‘It felt like he could have put his hand through my rib cage, grabbed my heart, squeezed it a little to see how it felt, then let go’.

(From Bad Behavior, Sceptre, 1988)