My exaggerated life, p.35
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       My Exaggerated Life, p.35

           Pat Conroy
 

  So it has been simply agonizing, and I think my drinking took off again because I could not take the anxiety of that. That’s my excuse—we all have these little stories we tell to make ourselves look better. So it’s an excuse, because I love alcohol and took great pleasure out of it. There was nothing that turned into liquor or wine that I did not adore. Also, there’s never been a pill or drug on the market or sold legally anywhere that I did not absolutely love. I have adored everything that makes me not feel that I’m alive, but I’ve always been perfectly happy with liquor.

  So I went back to drinking, and that ended when I almost died two years ago in 2012. My body reacted, and I was dying of what they thought was congestive heart disease. My stomach was filled up, my legs were filled up, and my lungs were starting to fill up. That’s when I went to the hospital, and they pumped the fluid out of my body. I lost eleven pounds in ten minutes. I’m going to write a diet book, Lose Eleven Pounds in Ten Minutes, by Pat Conroy.

  I knew I was dying, and I knew I had to quit drinking forever. I had known this for a long time. But I think who saved my life was a doctor up at the University of South Carolina hospital in Charleston. I hated his guts. He looked at me, he says, “I know your type. You’ll be back up here, crawling on your hands and knees, begging me to take you into my program. I may take you; I may not; I may get you to write a book that will finally mean something to somebody.”

  I’m watching this guy, not feeling like taking this shit too much. And he said, “We’ll send you home, you’ll start drinking again, you’ll be back up, you’ll crawl on your hands and knees into our program, we’ll try to cure you; we may do it for a while, you’ll go back, you’ll be in the gutter again.” He said, “I’ve seen drunks like you a million times. You’ll be crawling back into my clinic, kissing my shoes. Maybe after I get you off alcohol, you’ll finally be able to write a book that really matters.”

  I said, “Pal, I want you to take a good look at my fat face. You will never lay eyes on it again.”

  I made up my mind as I was dying that night that this guy would never see me again, and so I quit drinking that night. I’d rather have slid an anvil into my ass and leapt off a dock than go back to that guy. He also told me my liver was squeaking. I think that’s a nice way to say that the liver is damaged. I had diabetes, obesity; I had done damage to my liver and kidneys, and you only get a couple of those in a lifetime, and they don’t need that. They’ll figure out how to die some other way, but I do not want to help them along. If I keep drinking, what I know is I’ll die. What more do I need to know? When I feel that I’m going to die because of something I’m doing, I can see clearly what I have to do. There’s a couple of books I’d like to write, a couple of things I’d like to do. I want to see my granddaughters get married to whatever monsters they choose. So now what I’ve done is exchanged alcohol for spirited games of volleyball on the beach, putt-putt golf, and ping-pong played at a brisk pace.

  Now that I’ve quit drinking, Bernie will tell the waiter, “I’d like a martini, my wife will have this lovely red wine, his wife will have that wonderful white wine. But my friend Pat here is a hopeless alcoholic, and he cannot have anything to drink or we will have to put him into a home. Pat is simply a common drunk, and there’s no other way to put it. He’s also morbidly handicapped and can barely walk. God, I hate having a friend who’s an invalid.” Bernie goes hee-hawing away laughing his ass off.

  Everybody reels back in shock. Nobody understands why I laugh, but it tickles me, because no one else would say that. Bernie is the only person on earth who would say something like that, and I can’t tell you how good that was for me when I was a boy who was taught not to say anything, and it’s good for me now. The freedom Bernie has presented to me of just saying anything, thinking anything, has been very, very good.

  I buy this expensive bourbon for him to drink when he comes over, and Bernie will always open the bourbon, bring it over, and put it under my nose for me to smell. I will deeply inhale, and then he’ll say, “Pat, I wish you could have some of this because it is so good, it is so soothing. But because you are a hopeless alcoholic you can’t have any, and this is all for Bernie Schein.”

  Of course, my wife will get irritated and say, “Bernie, quit doing that.”

  But he’ll say, “No, no, no, you must test Pat each day.”

  I go over to Bernie’s, and he’ll pour drinks for himself and slide it by my nose so I can smell it. Then he’ll drink it and say, “Oh my God, it’s so good, I wish you could taste it with me. It just tastes so good. You used to be able to partake of wonderful liquor like this, but then you became a hopeless alcoholic, and now, to save your life, you have to be for the rest of your life a teetotaler, the saddest word in the English language—teetotaler.”

  It’s what I get. I can miss it all I want, but I was dying. This was very apparent to me: I wouldn’t be around if I kept up my drinking. I did it too much, and I understand that, so I will simply suffer the rest of my life. Everybody else will be pouring liquor down their throats while I go suck on peppermint candy. Some days I prefer it when I was a hopeless drunk and had only a couple weeks to live.

  When Lenore came to Fripp we had our great transfiguration of a marriage ender. She calls, says she’s coming for a month in the summer, that her shrink says we have no marriage and we need to work on that. She said she’d let me write; she’d go to the beach. I was in the middle of a breakdown, and I don’t think my judgment was good at that moment, so I said come on. Marion told me, “Don’t leave anything around the house she can find to use against you.” Now I know that’s what she was coming for; she was on a search-and-destroy mission. She was hunting for something, some ammunition for the divorce, and I played right into it. It was my fault, and I couldn’t blame anybody but myself.

  I had not told anybody about Sylvia, but she made a mistake and told one of her friends, and eventually it got back to Lenore. I had also told Sylvia not to write me letters, but she would send these little love notes and sign them by some silly nickname. I had hidden them fairly well, I thought, somewhere in the attic. It was the second morning Lenore was there, when I was seeing Marion and driving back, that Lenore went through all my stuff and found the letters from Sylvia. She also found I had a local checking account.

  “You have a bank account you didn’t tell me about.”

  I said, “You’ll find $500 in it. If I need to pay a bill—twenty-five bucks for the phone—it seems much easier to me.”

  Then I had looked at real estate; she had a real estate brochure. I said I always look at real estate. I look at real estate wherever I go. I like that. Finally she pulls out these letters. Now, Susannah, who is eleven, is in front of us, and Lenore begins screaming out of control.

  Then she turns to Susannah and starts screaming, “Your father is fucking other women! He is fucking other women! Do you know what fucking means? He is fucking other women, not your mother! Do you know what that means?”

  This is like a fork to my eyeball. I go up to Susannah, kneel down and say, “Susannah, you should not have to go through this, and I promise you this is as wrong as it can be, it should not be happening, and I am sorry that it’s happening to you.”

  And Lenore, “But he’s fucking other women! He’s fucking other women!”

  Susannah was so sweet even in that moment. She kept saying, “Daddy, don’t worry about this. This will be all right, I promise. We’ll get by this, this will be okay.”

  I said, “Eleven is too young to be able to say that to me, but I appreciate it, kid.”

  And she said, “This’ll be all right, this’ll be all right,” and of course it never was.

  Lenore kept screaming, “He’s fucking other women! He’s fucking other women! He’s fucking other women!”

  I couldn’t take it anymore. To put a stop to it I simply walk out of the house, get in the car, drive to Gene Norris’s house, and collapse at the door. I told him what had happened and spent the night wi
th Gene. When I got back there the next day, Lenore was gone with Susannah, and basically I’ve never really seen Susannah again. That was the last real human moment I had with her. My relationship with Susannah was gone forever.

  And of course, tough Marion O’Neill: “Nice going, Pat. You provided Lenore with all the ammunition she came out to get.” She was very happy with me when she found out about this.

  Thank God Sylvia’s name was not on the letters. Sylvia is a heroine in my life. She reminded me that I could love somebody and be loved in return. I feel great love and gratitude for that woman I can never repay. But she is the girl who always gets shit on. She entered my life at the wrong part of my life, and you know how that goes. The one who is there in the middle of the divorce usually gets dumped on, and I still feel terrible about that. But I told her, “Sylvia, I don’t know if I’ll ever divorce Lenore because I can’t just throw this kid out of my life.”

  I would have stayed married to Lenore until Susannah was eighteen, because I knew exactly what would happen if I did not, and I was right. I didn’t know how that was going to work, whether I would mostly live and write on Fripp and just go visit, but I never got to the point where I said I wanted a divorce.

  The horror of that scene with Lenore still reverberates with me, and that became part of my nightmare and my inability to sleep for years. I lie there in agony in the bed at night, looking over my dreadful life, horrified by what I’ve done, by what I’ve not done, and I writhe. I lie as if I’ve been crucified to the bed, and I wake in caverns, study stalactites before I roll out of bed, then crawl through roach droppings. I do not bound out of bed when I awaken saying, “My God, I’m glad to be alive.” There is nothing I love more than sleep, because for years I couldn’t do it. Now I just adore it and can’t have enough of it.

  I have no idea how Beach Music got written when I returned to South Carolina from San Francisco. I had written a lot in San Francisco, but I finished up in Fripp. Beach Music was the book that took the longest to write, because I was married to my second wife. But here’s my problem with my marriage to Lenore: I wrote The Prince of Tides married to her, I wrote Beach Music married to her, and I like both of those books a lot. Would I have written the same books if I hadn’t been married to her? I’m not that sure I would have. I’m not sure. It may mean I was in the middle of the maelstrom I’ve always needed. I was in the middle of Santini’s family. I was in the middle of whatever I needed in order to create, and that has always worried me. There’s a part of me that not only thrives on chaos but needs it, looks for it, hunts it down, nets it, grabs it, brings it to me, lets it eat my entrails out as I’m trying to write. It drives me nuts that this is a possibility.

  But that book, for many reasons, seems to be the most emotionally howling out of anything I’ve ever written. It was done under great duress. There had been the great breakdown. There was the feeling divorce was coming down the road and nothing could be done about it. There was a feeling I’d never see Susannah again. I put Susannah as Leah in Beach Music because I thought I’d never see her again. I wanted to write about her as she was at the moment I thought I was losing her. I wanted to have a portrait of what our relationship was like and how I saw her before she was taken away. It was painful because I felt like I was saying good-bye to Susannah. So I was not in the best shape during that.

  Also, just the sheer subject of the Holocaust, and it’s difficult to be a Christian writer in the United States and deal with a subject that’s so sacred to Jewish people. Many of them were: “How dare you write about our sacred subject, and can you explain why you’re doing it?” I told the story of my mother, who, when I was six years old living in New Bern, North Carolina, read the Diary of Anne Frank to my sister and me. When you’re a little boy you fall in love with Anne, and you want yourself to be in the attic instead of the others she was with. Mom reads this in her magical voice. When the book ends, Carol and I go, what happened? What happened to Anne? Where is she? And my mother starts telling us about cattle cars, gas chambers, six million Jews killed. Mom tells us that Anne Frank died in Bergen-Belsen. My sister Carol is hysterical, I’m hysterical, and my sister said, “Why did they kill Anne Frank?”

  I said, “Didn’t they read her book?”

  And my mother says, “I want to raise a family that will hide Jews.”

  The next day Carol—and I don’t know how she knew our neighbor was Jewish—goes next door, knocks on the door, Mrs. Orringer asks us what we want, and Carol said, “We will hide you.”

  This woman goes “Vhat?”

  Carol says, “We will hide you. Do not worry.”

  My mother was absolutely obsessed with the Holocaust, and she passed that directly on to me. Because of that, I have got to write this story. I don’t care who likes it or not; I have got to write it for me, for the artist I want to be. But I had to get it right. I hired Miriam Karp to interview Jews in Atlanta because a lot of the people who had been in the camps were not comfortable with a Christian asking them questions, and Miriam was well known in the Jewish community. She was just delightful, and she went around interviewing Jews who’d been in the camps and children of Holocaust survivors. I got some wonderful material from that.

  When I went to the gym at the Jewish Community Center in Atlanta, I used to shower with old guys with tattoos on their forearms. After I got to know them a bit, I started to ask about them. “What happened to your families during the war? What went on?” Cliff Graubart had an aunt who died in the camps, because she didn’t want to leave Warsaw until her son finished high school. And I’m thinking what a normal thing for a parent to do: after he finishes, then we’ll get out. Of course by then it was too late.

  I had also picked up stories over the years. I was at the Peachtree Road Race, standing in the crowd there at Ansley Park where we’re living, and I started talking to the young woman next to me. We’re talking, we’re talking. I believe she recognized me, and that’s why we were talking, but I asked her, “Where are you from?”

  She said, “I’m from South Carolina, not far from you. I’m from Charleston.”

  I said, “Martha, a Charleston girl. Tell me about yourself, where you went to school, and I’ll tell you your life story.”

  She said, “No, Pat, you think I’m South of Broad; I am not. I’m a Jewish girl. But a lot of those girls were my friends, and I know what you’re talking about, and I know why you asked the question, but my story was different.” She stunned me by saying, “Both of my parents are Holocaust survivors.”

  I walk her home to her apartment that day. Martha Popowski and I became friends, and I got close to her family. Her mother went out with us one night and in broken English told her story, which was the story I used in the book of the girl with the gold coins sewn into the dress. As the war went on and she traveled through Poland, she gave out gold coins to the people who helped her, the righteous Gentiles, nuns who wanted to take her into their convent, a man who had given her protection for no reason. The only thing he had to lose was his life, and his family’s life, but he did it because he was a good man. Her dress started getting lighter and lighter and lighter.

  We were sitting in a seafood restaurant on a little street in Atlanta, and when she finished this harrowing story, I said, “How many coins did you have when the war was over?”

  I was sitting, eating with Martha, her sister, and Mrs. Popowski, and I saw the girls look at each other, and she said, “I had three.” She reaches down in her dress and pulls out a gold coin on a chain, and then Martha and her sister, Sarah, pull out the other two coins.

  So I looked at them all and said, “Consider that story stolen.” You know, if you tell a story, it becomes like smoke in the air. It is up for grabs, and I am good at grabbing stories. Anyone who bottles it first, I’ll listen.

  Still, I knew what was going to happen simply because I was a Christian writing about a Jewish subject, but I’ve never given a rat’s ass about that kind of criticism, which is just another f
orm of censorship to me. Julian Bach thought I was getting into the land of anti-Semitism, because here I am, the goyim, who can’t recognize my own anti-Semitism or the sensitivity of Jews over how they’re written about.

  He says, “My God, you’re writing about Jews. You don’t know any Jews in the South.”

  I said, “Julian, I got to call about a thousand people; they’re hideously mistaken about their past and their upbringing.”

  He said, “There are no Jews until you get to Miami Beach.”

  I said, “Julian, there’s a lot you don’t know about the South. I could introduce you to Jews with a Southern accent you wouldn’t believe.” That’s Bernie.

  Julian says, “Oh, that’s preposterous; we would never speak like that.”

  I said, “I guess I’ve been going around with some people who’ve been misrepresenting themselves as Jews since I was born.”

 
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