“I’m said to be a very gifted analysand,” you humble-bragged in your interview, quite elegantly. I used to be so efficient with my therapist’s time, but the older I get, the more agile I become at skirting the stuff that makes me ugly-cry.
Creative Nonfiction by Candace Walsh
Dear Francine du Plessix Gray:
I am writing to inform you that The New Yorker search field’s autocorrect changed Plessix to Pelisse before my very eyes. Dictionary.com definitions for pelisse describe “an outer garment lined or trimmed with fur” or “a woman’s long cloak with slits for the arms.” Contextually, I thought a pelisse was a bit like a camisole, or maybe even a plimsoll, which is a fancy British word for a sneaker. I need to know this, or one third of me needs to know this, as I have applied as a graduate student to one British university, one university in Ohio, and I’ve also applied for a teaching position at a university in New York. Then again, in all of those potential fates, knowing what plimsoll means is better than the alternative.
It is poignant that your name was autocorrected, because you died in January. There callow technology goes, papering over your identity. I used my wife’s The New Yorker login credentials to read your first story ever published, “The Governess,” prompted by the mention in your 1987 Paris Review interview. She’s having a hard time these days, with all of the uncertainty about our future. My wife, not the governess. She has a lot of anxiety. So does my daughter, who says it’s like hearing the foreboding music right before something bad happens in a suspense movie, all the time. When something bad does finally happen, it’s almost a relief.
“I’m said to be a very gifted analysand,” you humble-bragged in your interview, quite elegantly. I used to be so efficient with my therapist’s time, but the older I get, the more agile I become at skirting the stuff that makes me ugly-cry. I cancelled my therapy appointment today because I was too tired to share my disappointments, but will drive my daughter to hers. I am tempted to think that my daughter caught anxiety from my wife, like lice, since they aren’t biologically related, but then I think of my father, who did a really good job of working too much, the busyness like a bunch of riot gear shields pushing back the clamoring protestors shouting, “What if?” and waving signs that say “Murphy’s Law” and “I saw that coming.” I think about my daughter’s father, who used to write himself pep talks reminding himself of what a good person he was, how capable and smart. Maybe he still does. People tell me they can’t believe how much I take on. My labor organizer grandfather helped coin “the weekend.” That it’s an invention is part of my DNA’s intelligence. We like to think we are smarter than what we invent.
Dear Francine du Plessix Gray, sometimes my Microsoft Word program is judgmental and bullying about commas. I like commas. It does not. But it’s playing a very long game; it has worn me down. Lately I delete commas because it says so with that blue double underscore. You wrote longhand on yellow pads and then retyped your work into a state-of-the-art word processor. I bet it was less opinionated.
Your novel on the midcentury fashion world, October Blood, is not available as an e-book. I ordered a first edition online after calling two used bookstores and talking to slightly harried humans. It has a stain on bottom edge near spine. I wonder what it will smell like. The perfume of ink and printer’s glue, wood pulp alone? Or cigarette smoke, or canned soup, or maybe even Fracas, if it were bought by a habitué of its demesne. Diana Vreeland used to hypodermically inject pillows with Chanel No. 5 and Opium, according to a Harper’s Bazaar article. Its webpage flickered with a retargeting ad by Tomboy X, featuring a beautiful fat woman in dykey underwear. I’m supposed to feel comforted by the diverse representation but instead it just reminds me of Vreeland’s quote, “Fit people like themselves much better.” I haven’t intentionally exercised in a month. Or whenever I tried that Zumba class in an Elk’s Lodge, watched by a creepy man in a trench coat, while chiding myself for judging the teacher’s plush armpits. I’m going to read October Blood because I have a feeling it will give me rare and spiky insights about Diana Vreeland, revered by one of the characters in my novel in progress, Cleave. Your husband’s name was Cleve. Your Paris childhood was marred by the craziness of a hypochondriac governess. My Long Island childhood was marred by the craziness of a drifter woman who took care of me while my mother was in a coma. I put her in my novel, but I did change her name and give her a foster child, stripper past. See, now that you’ve passed away I feel very comfortable trying to find ridiculously flimsy points of connection between disparate us, in ways my class shame would never permit me to hazard, were you still living.
The woman in the Tomboy X ad could be described as voluptuous, a word you loved as applied to writing. I wonder about your tolerance for voluptuous as applied to bodies. You were so sprite-small. You used to break up your writing time to play tennis, swim forty laps, or take a brisk two-mile walk. I imagine your Connecticut writing barn, flanked by tennis courts and a year-round pool, but maybe you jumped in some adorable vintage convertible and drove to the club. In fairness to you, I feel automatically judged by skinny people. In fairness to skinny people, they grew up being fed the same messages. But that woman Lucy I met when our daughters were in kindergarten—the one I actually like, in spite of what I’m about to tell you—she is skinny and always finds a way to let me know that she notices I’m not. Let’s not even get started on my mother, who was too excited to tell me all about cauliflower rice. As if I eat rice. As if I’d rather not just eat cauliflower in its honest form. Tossed in tahini and miso paste, and roasted.
The word mother appears fifteen times in your interview. When you wrote October Blood, you realized that mothers and daughters must free themselves from each other with a “choreography of guilt and love.” Yesterday I made a cheesecake for my mother’s birthday, but she refused, lovingly, to take it home because it was too rich for her, which means her gastric-bypassed stomach revolted at the thin wedge. When I was very small, she would put me in a green plaid seat on the back of her bike and we’d ride to a luncheonette with red gingham curtains, where the staff doted on both of us, and we’d share a piece of cheesecake. I liked it then, but have spent my whole life preferring other treats. As we spoke about it yesterday, she said, “I was 23! I was still a kid, not ready to give up riding my bike.”
“People of all ages like to ride bicycles,” I replied. You worked as a fashion reporter in Paris for two years, “racing for my mother’s love,” until it made you very ill, and you recovered in a Swiss mountaintop hotel, while taking a lot of medications and drinking wine to help you sleep. I hardly drink the stuff as instead of helping me sleep, wine wakes me up, usually at three a.m., with a juddering brain and a flocked tongue. At least your mother married Alexander Liberman, editorial director of Condé Nast from 1960 to 1994. I bet if he was my stepfather, I wouldn’t have gotten fired from an international edition of Vogue for sassing my harridan boss. My mother married a mailman with a strangling fetish; my sister and I did not escape his grasp (I know, bad pun).
These are the words I needed to look up while reading your interview and short story: punctilio, mendicancy.
Reading about your pre-writing routine makes me want to quit my job. I’d love to warm up to the task, like you, in a small bedroom with dark green walls, spend the morning thanking people on the phone and on paper, you know, that kind of gratitude that requires dialing a Princess phone with a pencil’s eraser tip, and a standing order of bespoke stationery. And yet for someone with astounding amounts of privilege, your 1987 interview responses referenced intersectionality and emotional labor, way before those terms were invented. But then again, one of your two ruling maxims was “Compassion is not freaking out. So those times when I live the whole day as if it were the last, simply putting order in the garden of life, I don’t freak out, and have little understanding of people who do.” That’s what I’m missing. If I simply put order in the garden of life, I’d never “freak out,” nor would my anxious wife, and everything would be tickety-boo. But that takes time, and time is money. I want to quit my job after reading your interview, but then I soon wouldn’t have a house of my own, let alone a room.
After retyping your name in The New Yorker search engine, I read “The Governess” on the magazine’s scanned original pages. It was an age of writing when people like you and Nora Ephron wrote exactly what had happened in your actual lives, in your case not even bothering to rename your sons, and called it fiction. Then came the taxonomical terms memoir (a new thing as applied to noncelebrities), and creative nonfiction. Now we call life-mimicking fiction autofiction, though you said in your interview, “We’ve been brainwashed by the myth that fiction and poetry are more ‘creative’ than criticism or reportage,” and I tend to agree with you; I have a hard time keeping my grumpy Yelp reviews from being floridly creative. Please take a look if you don’t believe me. I really flexed my chops in that pan of the hotel with the noisy heater near the Albuquerque airport.
One of the advertisements in your The New Yorker story (sometimes the best thing about genuflecting before the rickety navigation of those old scanned spreads) is a United Airlines ad dominated by the face of an attractive woman with a pert brown bob. In short, the copy chattily imparts that buying a United ticket is a great way for a man to meet his future, former stewardess wife. United stewardesses in 1967 worked for only 21 months before getting married, which must have been a drag for the H.R. department, but also means that these women were not allowed to work after they got married. We know this stuff, but it’s still startling to see it out there, bold as brass: airline as pimp, wife as unemployable. The ad calls the woman in the photograph an old maid because she’s been working for three whole years! If she were a blonde, I think it would have been a different story. Anyway, I’m sorry that your story had to compete with that crap. Another ad sold Villager dresses, and spun fantasies of outfitting one’s daughter in a frock “suitable for a Jane Austen heroine, or an exceptionally clever shepherdess.” (Don’t come here looking for a dress for your C-student shepherdess.) You didn’t buy clothes; your friends gave you their Paris and Seventh Avenue castoffs. It’s so handy to have those friends. When I was fourteen, I spent one day with a wealthy aunt who later sent over a garbage bag of designer clothes she didn’t want anymore (mendicancy); I can only recall a Ralph Lauren corduroy jacket with puffed sleeves, and a floor-length pleated plaid skirt. The color loden was such a thing back then. Even though I wrote her a very nice thank-you note (punctilio), I never saw her again, nor did I receive any more of her distaff bags of wonder.
Maybe that’s why I’m writing to you, Francine du Plessix Gray. That one day made me think I could step into a different life, in spite of the too-dressy outfit I chose and the pumps that hobbled me before we emerged from Penn Station into Bret Easton Ellis’s New York, forcing my mother to buy me Band-Aid pink slip-ons closed by innovative Velcro flaps we later noticed were two slightly different shoes at Rainbow, before my aunt’s gleaming town car curtailed the count of our footfalls. (That part is made up. She hailed taxicabs with buoyantly springy seats.) A cousin I found on Facebook brought her up, complained that she didn’t help out her relatives, when she could. She was good for some things, apart from bailing out truly mendicant relatives. I may have fared exceptionally well, because she gave me a garbage bag full of class camouflage, and the mettle to think I possessed a key to all the doors, or at least the right to knock. Writers, the lucky and recognized, good-enough kind, don’t even have to knock. If they remember to be pleasant enough, (and if they’re women, to say thank you), they are welcome anywhere. Whosoever’s Sitzfleisch motivation is not buttressed by that (I know, bad pun) is a purer soul than I.
During our day in Manhattan, that’s right, I remember, my aunt bought a cashmere outer garment tipped with foxtails at Saks, with a cost commensurate of a year of my newly single mother’s rent. The eighties, you probably didn’t love them fashionwise, dear Francine du Plessix Gray. My fingers remember the stern and satiny feel of the tag. If you have to ask, you can’t afford it. It had no sleeves; her slender arms slid through its subtle clefts. It was a pelisse.
Candace Walsh holds an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College, and begins Ohio University’s creative writing (fiction) PhD program this fall. Her essays have recently been published in K’in Literary Journal, Craft Literary, and Fiction Writers Review. Her short story “The Sandbox Story” is forthcoming in January 2019 from Akashic Books’ Santa Fe Noir. She wrote Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity (Seal Press), a NM-AZ Book Award winner, and has edited three essay anthologies, including Lambda Literary Award finalists Dear John, I Love Jane (Seal Press) and Greetings from Janeland (Cleis Press). Find links to her work at her website and connect with her on Twitter @candancewalsh, Instagram @candancewalsh, andFacebook.