My Exaggerated Life, p.39Pat Conroy
She says, “I’m thirty.”
I said, “I’m ninety-five. I can’t go out with you.”
She says, “Why not?”
I said, “I’m trying to think of how I walk into a room holding your hand, ‘I’d like you to meet Tiffany,’ and my three daughters do not fall to their knees laughing their asses off at their old fart father.”
I’ve always wanted to be with women my own age. Once Barbara and I got divorced, I wouldn’t date a woman who did not have any children because I didn’t think it was fair to bring her into a family where there were already three children. And I thought, you know, let them get married to somebody who doesn’t have complications like that.
I met Sandra in 1995 when I was up at the Surrey Hotel doing the rewrites for Nan of Beach Music. Nan announces to me that I will be going to accept an award at the Hoover Library in Birmingham, Alabama, and I said I’m not going; I don’t want to go; you can’t make me go. She said, “We’ve already accepted; you’re going; it’s a lifetime achievement award.”
On the second night in Birmingham, there is a party with writers who seemed happier than most writers, so I’m enjoying myself. I start talking with Bill Cobb, a writer and teacher at Montevallo, and he said, “I’d like you to meet my student Sandra.” Sandra turns around, he says, “Sandra, this is Pat Conroy.”
Her mouth is full of food, she’s eating, and she says something like “Great God Almighty,” in the Southern vernacular that comes from growing up on a farm in lower Alabama.
Sandra’s cute as hell, and we had a great talk. Bill says, “She’s got a book coming out. Why don’t you blurb it?”
I said, “You’re asking the right guy. I’m a blurb slut.”
The next day, when I ask someone about Sandra, I get, “Oh, she’s a Methodist minister’s wife, very happily married for twenty-five years.” Once again, Conroy hones in on the one who is most impossible. But when I called her with the blurb, she told me she was separated from her husband and in the process of divorce. The Methodist minister did not want her to write, and this had been an ambition her whole life. He would tell her, “You need to take care of your family and forget about your personal hobbies.” Being a ’50s woman, and that being her husband’s decree, she went along with it. But by the time we met, she was separated and had this teaching job at Gadsden State, on tenure track and with health care.
We started dating and got fairly serious right away; I liked her a ton, and she seemed to like me. But Gadsden—that place was bleak, and of course it was only twenty miles away from Piedmont, where my mother’s family grew up. Then my father was dying, so I could not travel to Gadsden that often to see her. I think it took about two years before we decided to get together. I told her, “I have to take care of my dad while he’s dying, but I’d like to see you, so I want you to do something bold and brave. You will not be sorry. One thing I promise you is a room with a view for you to write your books.” She said she’d think about it, so she called about a week later and said, “I’ll be getting in on Sunday.”
She helped me all the way through Dad’s dying and was a good person with good character even in the middle of my own family drama. When I told her, “I just don’t think I’m capable of making a woman feel loved,” she said that was all right; she didn’t think she was capable of making a man feel liked. We both laughed our ass off. When we were talking about getting married, she was worried about things like being too old for me.
I said, “What are you talking about? You’re my age.”
“But I thought you’d want to marry someone much younger.”
I said, “Can we do each other this one favor? Can we let ourselves grow old without hating each other and ourselves for it? Can we not obsess about the lost blossom of youth?”
She says, “I never had a blossom of youth to lose.”
I said, “Good. You’re not obsessed about muscles or what used to be lean and strong that now packs only whale blubber to carry me along on my final voyage. I’ve got to marry somebody who won’t mind growing old; who will let us grow old together. That’s what it seems to me we both need, Sandra. Gosh, you’re not going to look like you did when you were a teenager? I won’t even show you pictures of me as a teenager. You won’t even recognize me. I don’t recognize myself.” I find that rare, people letting each other grow old.
And she has betrayed me only once. There’s a book on Southern writers that my fat ass is in, and in this book, there is a lascivious picture of another writer and his wife in bed. So when Sandra and I first started dating, she saw this, and I said, “If you ever ask me to get in a bed to take a picture with you, I want you to listen to the divorce bells swinging in the wind.” Okay, when her book The Same Sweet Girls was out, some magazine was doing an interview. So I come into the room, innocent as I could be, and oh, God. Sandra says, “Pat, they want to take a picture in the bedroom,” and I said, “Are those bells I hear? Are those divorce bells I hear?” So she said, “I knew you’d react like this, but they told me they have to have it.” I said, “It’s going to be like being in bed with a corpse, only the corpse is going to be me.” But I did it for love.
After I got married, when Doug Marlette came to visit me on Fripp, he fell to his knees laughing. I’m a guy, you know, and my house wasn’t decorated, it looked like shit, and after Sandra worked her magic, Doug thought it was hysterical when he saw what she had done. With Sandra, order and civilization had come into my life.
Then an inspector told me my chimney was so fucked up he couldn’t see how my house didn’t burn down every time I lit a fire. He said, “I think the only reason it didn’t burn down was the roof was not properly put on, and it was so wet it couldn’t catch fire. But every guest who ever came through your door was in imminent danger of death.” And I have a thing about hospitality. When I’m not on the road, I like to be hospitable. So he was talking about my kids, my brothers, my father. I mean, he was talking about a lot of different people who had come through.
A kid I had taught in high school, Mike Sargent, was a master builder who redid our house. He was such a pain in the ass in psychology, I used to have to quiet him and Joe Simkins down before I could start the class. “Uh, excuse me, would my two dimwits shut up so I can get on with this class? You don’t have to listen to me. Look out the window, do whatever you want, but I’ve got to start the class.” But he was really a sweetheart and had a father like mine. Then his father was killed in Vietnam. He told me later, he says, “Mr. Conroy, my father beat me badly. When I read your book, I thought holy God.” And he said, “I hated my father.”
Mike did a masterful job on our house. He told me, “Mr. Conroy, I’m doing it with the best woods. Galvanized nails. The best of everything. And everything will be inspected. Everything will be perfect.” And it was. Mike was just a master. Then he committed suicide.
I talked to him the night he did it, and it’s two or three in the morning. First it’s his son, “Dad’s going to commit suicide.” Mike’s wife had just left him. So I get Mike on the phone, and I said, “Mike, listen to me, you little cocksucker. Why didn’t you pay more attention in my Goddamn psychology class? You didn’t listen to a word I said, and now it could help you.” He always called me Mr. Conroy. I said, “Would you quit calling me Mr. Conroy?”
“Well, Mr. Conroy, I—”
I said, “I’m going to come over and stay with you tonight because your son says you’re suicidal.”
He said, “I was. Look, I took some pills. I shouldn’t have done it. But I’m over it. I’m okay.”
We talked for an hour. I said, “Look, I’ll come in. I’ll sleep with you tonight.”
He’s one of these, you know, “Oh, you want to sleep with me?”
I said, “Look, I know it’s your first time. I’ll be gentle and you’ll barely notice it. You may even like it as much as I do.”
So I’m getting Mike to laugh. I said, “Mike, I’ll come over right now. I’ll be with you, I’ll hold
“Mr. Conroy, Mr. Conroy, let me give you back to my son.”
Mike’s son was staying at the house with his father, so I felt better about that. I asked him, “Can you handle this?”
He says, “Pat, I think I can. I really do. I think you’ve calmed Dad down.”
But when he hangs up from me, he goes in the bathroom and Mike is pouring something down his throat. So he calls 911; they take him by ambulance. And of course, this I don’t hear until the next day. They take him by ambulance to the hospital and put him on suicide watch. But they let him go to the bathroom, and since he was a builder, he knew how to find a beam in the ceiling. So he strung up a towel and hung himself.
Apparently he was devastated when his wife left him. He told me, he said, “I’ve never had another girlfriend in my life. I wouldn’t even know how to ask a girl out. I don’t know what to do.” But his suicide had deep, deep roots, going back to his father. I understand this, because through all the other self-inflicted trauma of my life, my own suicide would have had deep, deep roots going back to my father. I am lucky that somehow I managed to make it to daylight.
A few years ago, Sandra and I moved back to Beaufort because the drive to and from Fripp was getting long. The distance is not bad if you go infrequently, but if you go every day it’s a long way. With traffic it got to be about a half hour each way. Also, Sandra wanted a house that did not have Lenore’s taint on it, and the Fripp house was haunted for me by that nightmare scene with Lenore.
When we were out on a friend’s boat one day, we went past a house on the river that was for sale. I couldn’t see that much of it through the oak trees, but I loved the location on Battery Creek, which is an offshoot of the Beaufort River. Sandra jumped on it the next day and ended up putting money down almost immediately because she just went crazy over this house. We both love it. Then Sandra wanted to sell the house on Fripp, but I said, “Sandra, I owe this house something. I think it saved my life.” My children have loved it; my grandchildren have loved it. So we have people stay there. I love having people come and stay there. It’s a nice thing to be able to offer.
Sandra has been a very stabilizing force in my life and is the only woman I have ever been attracted to in my whole life who came without complete psychodrama. She did not need to be rescued. Two years ago, there was a time she had started to feel bad. This is what led to the discovery of her cancer, but she thought she was having heart attacks. Sandra is so independent she’s not going to let me know something like this. It might worry me somewhat that my wife is dying. I knew she didn’t feel well, but nothing big, and “Do you need me to get you anything?” “No, no, no, no.” Sandra is that type of sufferer, but so am I, so there’s not much I can say about that.
So loud-mouth Bernie comes over one night. He brings his cigars, and we are up on the top balcony. Sandra’s on the bottom one. She often goes there to read and write until she comes up to bed at about eleven o’clock. So Bernie and I were arguing about something. I am arguing brilliantly and wittily, and Bernie is sounding like the dumbass he always is, and I am defeating him soundly in whatever literary argument we are having, and Bernie is gesticulating wildly and waving. He is drinking my liquor, and then he brings it over and says, “Pat, it’s a shame you can’t have it.” He puts it under my nose, and “Doesn’t that smell great? My God, I wish you could have some. It goes down your throat, and you feel it instantly. It goes into your stomach, and you get that slight burning feeling. It’s the joy of drinking. It relaxes you, and you’ll never be relaxed again, and I will. And by the way, you’re running out of liquor; you need to get me another bottle.”
So it’s that typical Bernie scene. Bernie is screaming; Bernie drinks; he gets louder and more obnoxious. We’re having a ball. Bernie and I love talking and arguing with each other. We’ve been doing it since we were kids. The other day, Mina, the Okinawan drill sergeant who tries to get me in shape, said, “Mr. Pat, did no one ever tell you to shut up? You talk more than anybody I know. In your whole life did you ever shut up?” I said, you know, “I’ve been around Bernie a lot.” Then she said, “That means you never learned how to shut up. That explains everything to me that Mr. Bernie became your friend when you were only fifteen years old. Both of you just talk, and neither stop talking since you two met.”
Eventually Bernie: “Oh my God, Martha. I forgot about Martha. Holy shit, I was supposed to meet her for dinner at six. It’s nine. Tell her I passed out, Pat. Call her and tell her I passed out. Tell her it wasn’t liquor; that I wasn’t drinking.” So we go downstairs. I have to drive him home because Martha dropped him off.
But as we go down, I went in to say, “Sandra, I’ll be right back. I’m going to go drive Bernie home.” Okay, I go in, and Sandra, who is a quiet girl anyway—let me emphasize her quietude and placidity and noiselessness. That’s how she lives; her life is a noiseless life. So I go in to tell her that I was taking Bernie home, I look in, and she is not there. I knew she’d been sick. I’m thinking, Where is she? So I go check the bathrooms. She’s not there. I then go check the TV room and the computer room, the library. I go check my writing room.
I said, “Bernie, Sandra’s not here.”
He says, “She’s got to be here. Where the fuck else would she be?”
So we started looking around, and Bernie gets nervous because we know she’s so strict in her habits. Finally we start going through the neighborhood yelling for her. We go next door and ask the neighbors if they’d seen her. “No.” We’re yelling, and then I’m thinking, “Oh my God. She committed suicide. Finally a woman got so sick of living with me she dragged herself to the end of the dock and simply slipped off into Battery Creek and is being swept out to sea.” Bernie—with his stupid and outmoded literary theories—and finally, I—have done it to a woman. This was my destiny, and it has caught up to me, and my wife has killed herself because I was such a monster to live with.
I’m completely horrified, panic-stricken. We’re going all through the house, the neighborhood; we’re calling people.
Then Bernie says, “Pat, I think we should call 911.”
This absolutely terrified me. I said, “Bernie, you’re not giving up are you?”
He says, “She ain’t fucking here. What are we supposed to do? Let’s call 911.”
I said, “You call. I can’t call 911.”
So he calls 911, and then Bernie hands me the phone. Of course, what I expect, because I have an imagination: “Mr. Conroy, your wife’s lifeless body floated by the station, and it has been eaten by crabs and attacked by sharks several times. There was nothing left of her face.” But what he said was, “Mr. Conroy, we have very good news for you. Your wife is in Beaufort Memorial Hospital.”
I said, “How do you know that?”
He said, “Well, the ambulance came by your house.”
“The ambulance came by my house? Why didn’t they turn on their signal?”
“The siren was on. It was going in your driveway, red lights and everything. And they looked for you. She said you were upstairs, and a guy went and looked in. They didn’t see you.”
Of course, Bernie and I were out on the balcony, the door was closed. So I said, “We didn’t hear a thing,” but Bernie and I are both deaf. We found out later: Sandra was throwing up, feeling terrible, and thinking she was having a heart attack. She yelled up for me and Bernie, but her voice was so weak, and we were so deaf and arguing, we couldn’t hear her, but she could hear us arguing. So she had finally given up and called 911 instead. And they were shocked that there were two adult males who could not have assisted her at the time.
Anyway, I said, “Thank God, this is great news.” I said, “Bernie, I’ve got to go down to the hospital.”
He says, “You’ve got to take me home first.”
What added ridiculousness to an already silly s
Bernie says, “Turn on the windshield wipers.”
I said, “I don’t know how to.”
He says, “What do you mean you don’t know how to? It’s your car!”
“I just got it today, Bernie, so shut up.”
“You didn’t even learn how to turn your windshield wipers on?”
So I’m trying this, I’m doing that to find the wipers. Lights are flicking on all over the car. The radio’s coming on. Finally I have to roll down the window. I don’t know how to roll down the window. I’m locking the door; the mirror’s moving all over. Finally I flipped this switch, and the window rolls down. So I stick my head out the window in this rain you would not believe. It was raining like a bastard, and I stick my head out, I can barely see, my head is wet, and I finally drive the whole way with my head out the window, and I’m soaked.
Bernie says, “I’m going to run in and tell Martha that I’m going to go back to the hospital with you.”
I said, “I’ll come in with you.”
He said, “No, don’t come in, your head’s too wet. You’ll get the house wet.”
So I waited out there, and Bernie comes back. “Okay, I cleared it with Martha. We’re going to go over together because I have a better bedside manner than you, and Sandra is much more sexually attracted to me than to you, and I will bring her peace of mind.”
I said, “Bernie, just get in the car and shut up.”
We drive to the hospital with my head out of the window; it’s raining like a son of a bitch. We drive into the parking lot; it’s mobbed, of course. Bernie said, “Just let me out at the front, and you go find a parking place because I don’t want to get wet, and it doesn’t matter if you get wet or not.”
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