Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Some memories of New York, and Maitresse

More pictures from New York are in my "Summer" page (link at left)

The only movie I've ever downloaded illegally is "Maitresse," a 1976 French film featuring Gerard Depardieu as a sexy beast named Olivier, and Bulle Ogier as a dominatrix named Ariane. I think this is also the only X-rated movie I've ever seen.

Writing about this, I'm trying to figure out how much I am able to write about my actual self. How do you figure out your limits, especially if you've written all kinds of obscene fiction? Ella Enchanted, the masterful YA version of Cinderella, finally explained what it means when a fairy tale heroine can't do something. Why can't Cinderella run away? Why can't she disobey her stepmother? In Ella Enchanted, it's because she gets incredibly dizzy and nauseous. I think my longstanding appreciation for magical limits made physically understandable like that has changed the way I think about "can" and "can't."

I downloaded Maitresse during the hot and miserable summer I spent living in Brooklyn. Hot, because I avoided the AC as much as possible, because of expense. Miserable, because my publishing-house internship was making me sick and tired (though the house itself, and all the editors, were amazing geniuses), and I was mean all the time to the people I most respected, and I was spending all my money but barely going out. It was truly impossible to step out of the door without immediately dropping five or ten dollars, on a subway ticket and a cold drink. All I wanted to do in my free time was sleep, anyway. I was not good at New York.

Looking back, I did a decent job. I went to see Luxor Tavella at Paracelso twice (I discovered her store while I was lost, and went in because it reminded me of the now-defunct Via Bonelli in Turin). She told me about William S. Burroughs, a gentleman who used to come and buy presents from her. She picked out green beaded earrings for me, and swiped my debit card with an ancient-looking machine the likes of which I'd never seen before. She told me I spoke Italian well, and that the dimple on my chin meant I had to go out and get what I wanted, like a shark.

Luxor Tavella, and me

I also went down to the Mermaid Parade alone, and went on the chair ride, feeling hugely overgrown, clicking my Oxfords together. I went several times to the Hell's Kitchen Flea Market, tested all the bird songs at Top Hat (another Via Bonelli-ish store I discovered while lost), ate Dominican food with my great aunt, sent all my clothes home in plastic bags because of a bed-bug scare, and bought Patti Smith-style silver skulls at Evolution. From time to time I ate dinner (four scoops) at Il Laboratorio del Gelato. I spent a weekend at the Fire Island Pines with Julian. In the dark, we walked back from the club along the elevated boardwalk, and we could easily see into the picture windows of the beach houses, each one filled with muscle-bound men lounging in gorgeous postures like Hellenistic statues.

Other than Paracelso, the summer's most beautiful moment was when my great aunt and I were returning from a late-night movie, walking down Grand Street (I lived a month and a half in her LES apartment, right by the river), and saw the crowd of men in straw boaters, highly groomed moustaches and three-piece suits, and women with pin curls and glittering drop waist dresses. They were the extras for Boardwalk Empire. They were filming a crowd scene in the historic theater of the Abrams Art Center. What a shame I didn't have my digital camera then. My film camera was too weak to take in the scene without flash, but the flash made my stalking obvious, and I was afraid my film would get confiscated. The extras were milling about eating grapes under the catering tent, and on the other side of the street was the wardrobe truck and the trailers of the bigger stars. I took a picture of a woman by a trailer, though I don't know who she was. All my photos came out like shit anyway. My great aunt waited, amused, while I asked the extras how they became extras. "You just sign up!" said one. (But where? I should have gotten specifics!) The extras said friendly, respectful things to my great aunt like, "Bet you haven't seen this in a long time, right?" But when she was a baby such outfits had already gone out of style.

Back at the apartment I took a shower. It was already midnight but I couldn't bear it, I had to go back out and see what the extras were up to. I HAD to try to take a few more photos. The street felt slightly dangerous as I snuck out. The pavement was still letting off heat; it was perfectly warm, even with wet hair. At the theater, all the extras had gone inside. I was so disappointed. But the tech crew was still outside, with tents, trucks, enormous cables running everywhere. "What's going on?" I said to a brawny man by the door. He explained it was for Boardwalk Empire. "What episode? What's the theater scene about?" I pressed. (I think it was episode nine, to be aired fall 2011. They were only filming the crowd reactions, not the performance that was going to be edited in later.) Finally, the man said, "Do you live around here?" "Yes, just a little that way," I said, "with my great aunt." At the time, it was absolutely true. I was a New Yorker who lived on the Lower East Side with her great aunt. What a romantic and interesting life. An American Girl doll life. "All right," he said. "Want to come in and see what they're doing?" "Wow!" I said. He took me firmly by the arm and lead me in. The theater was hazy, like it had been filled with smoke. (I think it had, for the extras' cigarettes.) Women in little drum-major outfits walked up and down the aisles, selling cigarettes from trays strapped to their waists. There was a big phonograph on stage. The crowd was standing up and jeering on command. The woman I had photographed earlier was talking intimately with the people around her, glittering through the dim smoke. The brawny man who'd shown me in was standing behind me a little too close, which is exactly the right place for a brawny man to stand. By the time he lead me out again, two minutes later, I was entirely in love with him.

I still think of that summer as a disaster, partly because one can never get enough done in New York, and partly because the Boerum Hill segment of the summer was so hot, so tiring, so nonsocial. For a week, I had Twin Peaks to look forward to, and then I was at a loss. I downloaded "Maitresse" because of a clip I saw on a sordid website (spanking was involved).

People always tend to think that my stories are basically autobiographical. I wrote a story about a girl who never showers. (Actually, I can't really remember if she showers or not--I can never reread that story because it humiliates me too much. It's called "Bread" and was published in the Harvard Advocate in 2010.) I know that at least several people came to believe I didn't shower. When I was thirteen, I wrote a story called "Elf Hat," which Stone Soup published (it was probably my twentieth submission, and by far not my best). I wanted to illustrate it, and the editor allowed me. They wanted a spot illustration of the Hanukkah hat that is the story's focal point. "If you still have the hat..." wrote the editor. But there had never been a hat! The hat was supposed to be hand-knitted, with blue stripes. I drew it with vertical stripes. I still wonder if it would be easier to knit a hat with horizontal stripes. I never told the editor there wasn't a hat. I could have been proud for having tricked her, but it was a mixed blessing. I love confessionals and I love first-person singular, and I'm pleased that my stories are convincing, but I'm mostly embarrassed. I don't want anyone to think I'm actually baring my own soul in all my characters' soul-baring, partly because I think attempting to bare your real entire well-represented and non-misleading soul in writing (there's no point in going half-hog on that, as far as I'm concerned) is a fool's errand.

A good number of my stories have sex in them, and some of them are online and easy to Google, with my name attached. "Write as if your parents are dead" is a dictum I've taken to heart; I don't think twice about the erotic scenes I've written, until people I know start to read my stories. But I come up against my Ella-Enchanted-limit of candid sex talk about my actual self almost immediately. My most explicit story is actually extremely explicit, but my name is not attached. It is a piece of Edward Jacob slash fan fiction, involving a very graphic scene of you-can-guess-what, which I based entirely on descriptions from my gay friends, because at the time I was completely innocent. (It's much easier to write creatively about such things before you've done them!) This story was already my most widely-read, by far (it's gotten tens of thousands of views), and then an Italian porn site translated the first paragraphs into Italian, with a link to the story, and it got even more hits.

The surprising thing about "Maitresse" was not its depravity, but its utter sweetness, its Hallmark ending. I'm not sure if I was disappointed by that. It suggests that even the most deviant people are secretly innocent and loving, which is a dangerous idea, because it is willfully blind. It was a very beautiful movie, but almost one-dimensionally tender, and maybe it hit too close to home.

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