“The Woman Who Knew Judo,” short fiction by Mary Gaitskill, appeared in the Winter 1982 issue of MQR.
I met Jean Taylor when I was five years old. She was the tallest woman I had ever seen, and she walked slowly, with her head up and her shoulders back, her hips moving like the hips of a slender cat. She wore black slacks and she had big feet which seemed to me very graceful, especially when she wore her straw sandals with the artificial cherries on them.
She started coming to our house to take my mother to the ‘Y’ where she taught my mother how to swim. When they returned from the lesson, their hair wet and sleek against their heads, they’d hang their swim suits on the backs of kitchen chairs to dry in front of the stove while they sat with their feet up and talked. I used to sit in the kitchen and draw when Jean visited my mother. I loved to show my completed drawings to Jean. She made me feel as if I’d discovered an elemental truth, or shown her something vital. Once, when I handed her a picture I’d done of a yellow lion with spindly legs and huge round eyes, she looked at it with consideration and said, “You know, it doesn’t look like a real lion. But I think you’ve caught the spirit of a lion here, and that’s a lot more important. This lion has lion-ness.”
My father liked Jean too. When he heard her come in, he would hurry to the living room to greet her. He looked at her warmly, especially when she walked, and he teased her about “that little black bathing suit” of hers. He called her “good old Jean” and he always wanted her to sit down and have a beer and listen to his opera records. Jean would sit and listen in his black leather chair, her auburn hair piled into a loose twist on her head, her slender face resting on her long hand, her cat-eye glasses tilted to one side. I thought she looked like she knew everything. I thought she was beautiful.
Image: Cook, Howard. “Barbara in Bathing Suit.” 1929. Wood engraving on paper. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Bonus: Emily McLaughlin interviews Mary Gaitskill for Fiction Writer’s Review about her early days of writing at the University of Michigan.