This is a story that goes back a couple of decades.
I’ve changed some names; I don’t mind embarrassing myself, but I don’t want to embarrass other people who aren’t able to defend themselves. And anyway, some of the parties involved asked me to. I think it’s a story worth telling, though.
It’s about me and a girl I’ll call Marianne and my first time writing fan fiction.
I’m not really sure where it starts. You could say it started with my discovery of the television Batman in 1966, or perhaps with my discovery of the O’Neil-Adams version of Batman in the early 70’s. Or when I determined in high school that I would somehow, someday, get my own stuff published. Any of those would be plausible, but I’ve already covered that ground here, and none of it really explains Marianne.
Marianne was a girl I knew in high school. Well, more accurately, I knew of her. Our social circles didn’t intersect at all.
She was a year older than me, and stunningly gorgeous. I don’t mean “hot,” although she certainly was, but it wasn’t like that. She was beautiful, not in some hot-babe, Playmate, frat-boy-hooting way, but rather in the way that art can be beautiful. Mari was the sort of girl that, as she walked down the hall, all the guys’ heads would turn, and there’d be a small collective sigh of awe that such an incredible-looking girl was in high school with the rest of us mortals. Other girls got whistles and leers. Mari got wistful sighs, always.
Part of it was respect, not just for Mari but also for her mother, who was a teacher in the English department and beloved by all. Mari’s mother, as it happens, was one of the few people who encouraged me to pursue my dreams of working in the arts, and specifically, to write. In fact, it was Mari’s mother who first gave me the idea that I really could do this writing thing, like, for money. That I could maybe do it for my job. Nobody else gave me that kind of encouragement, not even my parents. (One might say, especially not my parents.)
Still, my friendship with Mari’s mother in no way made me think that I would ever have any kind of a shot with Mari herself. I knew my place in the food chain. Mari was up there in the clouds somewhere between royal and goddess, and I was way down, here, in steerage with the peasants.
What I never knew was that sometimes Mari’s mother would take things I’d written for her class — stories, essays — and share them at home with her family. So Mari knew me. What’s more, she knew me as a writer. In fact, completely unbeknownst to me, Mari was my biggest fan.
We did eventually meet, after we’d both left high school behind us. One Christmas home from college I’d stopped by her mother’s house to say hello and give her a copy of something or other I was working on. Mari was there and her mother introduced us. College had given me enough confidence to stammer out a sort of hello, though Mari’s looks were as distracting as ever.
To my shock, upon hearing my name Mari blurted, “Oh, hey, it’s so great to finally MEET you, Mom talks about you all the time, are you writing anything? I love your stuff.”
My response to this is hard to describe, though I remember it vividly. Remember, up to that point I’d had very little validation that I was any good at this, other than the occasional well-done from an English teacher. That’s not the same thing as having an audience; having people respond to your stuff just because they like it.
So, suddenly faced with an actual positive reader response for the first time in my life, and having it come from the single most beautiful girl I had ever seen in high school… I was rendered almost nonverbal.
I think I said something like uh… buh… you read my stuff?
Whereupon she rattled off titles…. titles of things that went back a year or more. Mari wasn’t kidding. She wasn’t being polite. She knew about things I’d written and remembered them months later, remembered them well enough to recite them. I wasn’t even published, not really; just ‘zines, school things, amateur crap. But Mari was carrying on like she was meeting Stephen King or someone. She practically gushed.
Me? I thought I must be losing my mind. Imagine running into, say, Cameron Diaz at your aunt’s house… and she immediately starts acting like you’re the celebrity. It felt like that; something fantastic, surreal.
As it happened Mari’s mother had a phone call and then she had to see to the cookies she was doing for some church party or something, so the upshot was that Mari and I ended up alone.
We spent the afternoon together, just hanging out. I got over my shyness — needless to say, knowing that Mari liked my stories really helped build confidence– and in an hour or so we were friends. We talked about books and movies and music, we compared notes about school — I was at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Mari was at Georgetown, in D.C. — and we agreed that the recently-released Star Trek: The Motion Picture had been a bittersweet disappointment, though we still hoped they would make more Trek someday. (It sounds silly today, but in 1979, this was by no means a given.)
(Somewhere in the back of my head the guy that never gotten over being a bullied nerd in adolescence was wailing, “How did you never have the guts to talk to this girl? She’s a TREKKIE! Together you could have RULED HIGH SCHOOL!”)
Some of us are late bloomers, I guess. When we parted, Mari extracted a promise that I would write to her. And we did strike up a brief correspondence. It sputtered out, though, because I was getting more and more into dope and drinking and my life got narrower as a result. All sorts of pieces of it got traded away as I got worse. Things like correspondence and long-distance friendships were among the first to go overboard.
I still sort of kept in touch with Mari’s mother, my old English teacher, but even that became a hardship as I had to conceal more and more from her of what I was turning into. She told me things about Mari once in a while — Mari was getting married, Mari was getting divorced, Mari was having health troubles. I didn’t pay that much attention. I was having health troubles of my own.
Towards the end of that period in my life, when things were getting really bad, Marianne’s mother (I’m sorry, I know continually saying it that way is awkward but I don’t want to have to keep track of too many fake names) invited me to a wedding. Her grandson’s. So I borrowed some nice clothes — I didn’t have any — and went. Mari was there, looking a bit frantic and terribly thin.
At the reception, I was seated at a big table with Mari and her brother and his girlfriend. Mari and I ended up getting really, really drunk together. She confided to me that she wasn’t really very happy, and was feeling a little lost after the divorce. I confessed to her that I was having a hard time with my life too. She asked me, anxiously, if I was still writing.
“Sort of,” I lied.
I think she knew it was a lie, but she let it pass. I did a lot of lying that night, and so did Marianne. She was lying about being better than she was, I was lying about being better than I was…. each of us wanting to confide in the other about how scared we were about the way we were messing up our lives but neither quite having the guts to own up.
It was a weird, stressful evening with a lot of forced hilarity on both our parts. Desperation and champagne. Gallons of champagne. My memory of it is hazy; as was happening a lot then, I blacked out, I only remember flashes. What I remember the most about it, after all these years, was how hard we were trying not to look drunk in front of Mari’s mother, but not to the point of actually, you know, stopping drinking or anything. And how scary thin Mari was.
I’m not going to get into the whole hitting-bottom/recovery thing here, not too much, anyway. That’s not what this is about. But I have to tell some of it, just for context. Specifically, I have to explain that after I eventually gave up drinking, it took me months to work up the courage to call Mari’s mother. The shame of how I must have looked at that wedding reception burned worse than any of the other drunken drug messes I’d had to clean up… after all, Mari’s mom had been, in many ways, much more of a mother to me than my own blood mother had been, and I was terrified that my bad behavior had burned my bridges with her.
I owed some kind of penance but I couldn’t figure out what form it should take. I played out all sorts of scenarios in my head, trying to figure out an apology that was humble enough to suit the occasion without being disgustingly servile or, worse, whiny and self-pitying. At one point I actually sat down and made notes for an outline. It was that important to me. I had to get this right.
When I finally worked up the nerve to telephone her, I thought I’d steeled myself for almost anything; after all, I told myself sternly, I had it coming. Just man up and take it, and maybe, God willing, you can fix it.
I had a speech all prepared, and I was maybe ten words into it when Mari’s mother cut me off. “Greg, thank God you called, I’ve been at my wit’s end. I don’t know what to do about Marianne. I think she’s like to kill herself with the drinking and the bulimia. It sounds like this is something you know about, you went through this yourself. Can you help her?”
I’m afraid this is another column that got away from me; we’re still not even to the fan fiction part of the story, and I just looked at the clock and realized that I’m not going to finish this tonight. Unfortunately, Julie and I have a commitment that takes us away from home most of the weekend.
So I’m going to stop here, and pick it up next time. There really is stuff about comics and superheroes and fan fiction in this story, I swear. All the above is preamble. I promise we’ll get to the comics part…
…next week. See you then.