I was so sad to learn earlier this week of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s passing, at 52, after a five-year battle with metastatic breast cancer.
There’s a certain kind of brash, outspoken woman I admire and fear in equal measure, and Elizabeth was one of them. What can I say — I’m a “good” girl perpetually fascinated with “bad” girls.
I first met Elizabeth in the fall of 1995, at a sad Thanksgiving dinner at her relatives’ house on Long Island (yeah, Thanksgiving is not my best holiday, or at least it wasn’t in the 90s). I spent the whole evening talking with — and being challenged by — Elizabeth, but I was there because I was dating her cousin, F.
F. and I met at a birthday party for one of the guys behind Pop Up Video — a party that (I can’t believe I’m writing this) turned into an orgy. Or maybe it was meant to be an orgy from the start? The evidence: after I arrived, I headed to the kitchen to get a drink and found a bunch of people playing Dirty Dice — a game with two die, one of them marked with action words on each side, the other with body parts. Near the refrigerator, a man and a woman were responding to his roll: “suck” “nipple.”
As the party went on, all around me, people were touching each other. It occurs to me now that they must have all done ecstasy — a drug I knew very little about, and have never taken. I learned what little I know about it when I was covering a music event at CBGB while I was moonlighting for the New York Times City section, writing about bars and nightlife. A guy from one of the bands playing that night randomly came up to me and asked if he could hug me. He offered me a pill, and said it would make me feel pure love from head to toe. I had a hard time wrapping my head around the concept, so he offered this: “You can have orgasms everywhere in your body. Have you ever had an arm-gasm? Because you can totally have one!”
“No, thank you.” I said.
I was uncomfortable at the Pop Up Video guy’s birthday party. Like so many of us in the mid-90s, I dressed like a grunge sexpot, in clingy low-cut crushed velvet body suits, belted old 501s with a million holes in them and fishnets peeking through, and chunky platform boots. But in reality I was (okay, am) kind of a prude and a total goody-goody.
I found a chair to hide in while I waited for people I knew to show up. A cute guy approached me out of nowhere and said, “You know what’s really nice? Kissing.” And then he planted one on me.
Freaked out, I got up and headed to the bedroom to grab my coat. There I found three different couples in varying stages of undress and intimacy. I have never departed a room faster.
I was waiting for the elevator when the guy who’d kissed me popped out of the apartment, apologized profusely, then asked me out. It was F.
My relationship with F. got accelerated artificially for a very New York reason: he was kicked out of his apartment and came to stay with me for what should have been a couple of weeks, but became months on end, until he could find his own place.
He could be warm, playful, and fun. But with the flip of a switch, he’d become irrational and insecure and spiral into drama that would go on for hours. That somehow further bonded us, in the most unhealthy way.
I went with F. to Thanksgiving, and discovered a similar dynamic in his cousin. It probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise — I’d read Prozac Nation, in which Elizabeth had clearly portrayed herself as a few sandwiches short of a picnic to engage with.
I’d liked the book a lot (although not as much as I did her second memoir, More, Now, Again) and admired her for her bravery in writing it. I was also envious of her success. I tried to keep cool about that, and was shocked when it became clear that Elizabeth felt threatened by me of all people — a two-time MFA dropout; the Decorative Pillows and Personal Alarms Editor of Home Furnishings Daily, freelancing on the side to desperately claw her way out of trade journalism.
She spent much of Thanksgiving grilling me about my career — which publications I wrote for, who my editors were, what I wrote about, who I knew — alternately complimenting and encouraging me, and putting me down. She ping-ponged between self-aggrandizement and displays of profound insecurity. One minute I was on the defensive, the next I was assuring her.
By the end of the night, I was utterly exhausted. But I wasn’t done; when we got home, F. picked an all-night fight about my having spent too much of the evening talking to Elizabeth, allowing myself to be monopolized by her instead of hanging out with him.
During the nine months I was with F., we got together with Elizabeth now and then, and it was always a trip. One time we went on what was meant to be a double date to hear a band called Beat Rodeo at the now long defunct Ludlow Street Cafe.
But when Elizabeth and her date arrived (a guy with a bandana on his head…yeah, that guy, although at the time, I had no idea who he was) he was in a state — depressed, and in pain from dental work — and refused to sit with us. They got their own table across the room, and Elizabeth flitted back and forth, tending to her sulking date with his head down on the table, and trying to charm us out of feeling insulted. I burned myself out trying to assure her I didn’t feel insulted, and also just watching her work so hard. I felt bad for her that night.
Over the years since then, she and I crossed paths from time to time in the literary world, and kept in loose touch, emailing occasionally. When I would run into her, she would always seem excited and insist that we get together some time. I would agree, but then not follow up, and find myself relieved that she hadn’t either. From the experiences I’d had with her, and from what I’d read and heard of other people’s experiences, I knew that energetically she was someone I needed to keep at arms’ distance, and admire from afar. And I did.