The Reading Life: Bad Behavior


There’s something off about reading Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill for the first time when you are in your early 20s, vaguely weird and living in a dramatically shitty apartment on the Lower East Side. I imagine that experience is like being a middlebrow rock star’s girlfriend and listening to “Just Like a Woman.” You think: that’s what I look like? You’re repulsed, you can’t even. Who does this person think he or she is anyway? Even if you’re not that bad, you’re tainted by the possibility of comparison, its ugliness all over your clothes like a burst pen.

I’ve been thinking about Mary Gaitskill a lot because of her review of Gone Girl. I can’t really comment on the validity of her criticism, because I didn’t read Gone Girl, but the review has something of Gaitskill’s that I’ve always loved: her composed recklessness. I think that contradiction only doesn’t make sense if you haven’t read her work. The word sprezzatura, you see, was invented for Mary. In liberal arts colleges, that land of such dear souls, with the sorts of girls Gaitskill just totally nails, there are plenty of writers who think they can write stories like “A Romantic Weekend” or “Secretary.” The characters seem like disgusting people you’ve known and been, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to get right. Gaitskill is in her own corner, doing something difficult and making it look like something as unplanned as a rant. Thus her appeal, thus the difficulty inherent in a twenty-something ignoring Bad Behavior when she is enamored of precisely that kind of coolness. Gaitskill is a leather jacket, but better. She’s armor.

I feel like I should say outright that I am not like any of the characters in Bad Behavior. Can you imagine?

Then again. If I were, would I tell you? You’ll just have to believe me. I have only one example of bad behavior, and it’s not too bad—it’s actually kind of funny. I’ll share it.

I was 24 years old. Already this is a drinking story.

I was in a bar at 1 in the morning, and I was hanging out with friends. Principal characters: one female friend who has since gone on to architecture school, and two male friends who still live in Manhattan. Let’s call them by their names: Mike and Abe were off somewhere close to the door, and I was with Anika at the bar. The setting: a bar called Heathers, after the movie, a DVD of which played on a mounted television set. The place has since become less popular, for who knows what reason, but at the time it was very crowded and loud.

The bartender was not good at his job, and he looked like he knew it. Anika and I were trying and failing to get his attention, and some person elbowed Anika in the ribs. I am a pretty protective person, to a fault, and I was worse back then. Involuntarily I glared, and I saw this was a girl about our age, in our demographic. She was loud enough that I was hearing her instead of Anika. She was probably perfectly nice. I wonder now what kind of job she had.

The bartender came over finally and noticed the loud girl with the sharp elbows. He took her order: one Sofia, the juice-like champagne named for Coppola that comes in a pink soda can with a straw.

This infuriated me, and I glared some more. He did not take our orders. Who knows why, since one Sofia would seem to take very little effort on his part. But he looked particularly harried and took a while to come back with the can. I was getting annoyed, but it was worse than that. I was bored.

The Sofia came, hastily thrown down and abandoned so that the bartender could take more orders being screamed at him. I didn’t think this through. I took the can, I put it in my enormous purse, and I tugged at Anika’s arm. “Let’s go,” I said. Her eyes widened, and she followed me.

We waited outside for Mike and Abe, and they followed, but eventually so did the girl with the elbows. She was trying to get my attention.

“You stole my drink,” she said to me, with some uncertainty.

“What?” I said.

“You took my drink. It’s not there, and the bartender said he gave it to me.”

When something is ludicrous, it is easy to pretend it did not happen. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said and looked at her like she was nuts.

“Hey,” said Mike or Abe. “This sounds like a mistake. Maybe he didn’t give it to you and he doesn’t remember?”

“No,” she said, getting angry, moving toward me. “She took my drink.”

The bouncer came over. He was tall with a soft face. We were now a small crowd.

“This bitch stole my drink!” the girl said, lunging forward, now pretty irate. I made a face like I had never been called such a thing in my life and the whole scene was beneath me.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. What happened?”

The girl explained what had happened, her arm waving. Then Mike and Abe explained what they thought had happened, and I stood there, with a look of shock on my face, next to Anika, whose terror I could feel.

The bouncer gently led the girl over to the door. The four of us looked at each other. Mike and Abe said repeatedly how crazy this was. I agreed. Anika didn’t say anything.

The bouncer ambled over. “Look,” he said to me. “This girl thinks you took her drink.”

“I know,” I said. “But I didn’t.”

I did something I can’t believe, in retrospect, I had the arrogance to do. More than anything else in my experience, this encapsulates what it is to be young and to think, for no good reason, that you can get out of any trouble. Maybe because no one, you think, punches a girl in the face in a bar with pink LED lights.

I took my bag off my shoulder, and I opened it. An enormous and deep leather satchel that housed several paperbacks, pens, my ID and my money, and now one can of champagne. I tilted it toward the bouncer. Again, I felt the physical presence of suspense radiating from Anika. She didn’t say anything.

“Do you want to search my bag?” I asked, and I used the tone of voice I still hear myself use on the rare occasion that I’m pulled over for speeding. I get a stomachache thinking about it. It’s too confident for a lie. It sounds like I actually believe myself. And it works.

The bouncer smiled. “No, no,” he said. “Sometimes… people drink too much, you know? She’ll calm down. Have a nice night, okay? I’m so sorry about this.”

I closed the bag and thanked him, and we walked down to the curb and turned the corner. One of us suggested a place several avenues over.

“Should we wait?” Anika asked.

Mike and Abe were talking about something else when I looked at Anika and decided we were far enough away for me to pull out the can and show them. I burst out laughing. Mike thought it was hilarious. Abe was totally furious with me. Anika and I shared the champagne.

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