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My exaggerated life, p.9
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       My Exaggerated Life, p.9

           Pat Conroy

  Anyway we’re flying over there to Europe, and the Daddy Rabbit taps me on the shoulder and says, “Now boy.” He was always calling me boy. “I want you to know somethin.’ I know you’re goin’ to Europe because you wanna look at museums, you wanna visit sites where great writers lived, you’re goin’ to literarily improve yourself, and you will buy books that the Daddy Rabbit wouldn’t wipe his butt on. All that’s fine, Pat. You can see all those cathedrals. But Daddy Rabbit is going over there ’cause he read how they believe in Europe in something called free loooove. In free loooove, the woman likes to—she wants to do it as much as a man does. And you ain’t gotta get married after you do; you just do it for the personal enjoyment of it, if you know what I mean.” So he said, “I been lookin’ for a philosophy my whole life, and I finally found one that I can live with, one that I can believe in, one that I can dedicate my life to, and it’s called free loooove.” He said, “You go to all those museums, but the Daddy Rabbit’s going to be spending a lot of time explorin’ the limits of free loooove, if you know what I mean.”

  So I said, “Well, yeah, George, I think I do,” and he says, “The Daddy Rabbit’s not like you, Pat. The Daddy Rabbit needs a woman every couple of nights or Daddy Rabbit don’t function right, you know what I mean? I know you ain’t never had it in your life, so you don’t know what you’re missing, but the Rabbit, he’s got to have it, so I ain’t going to none of your fuckin’ museums. I ain’t going to none of your fuckin’ things where you better yourself. You ain’t gonna see the Daddy Rabbit too much around the museums. Now, you go to all those museums and give me a report.”

  I said, “George, let me help you with this. You may need to know one thing that you don’t seem to understand.”

  He said, “What’s that?”

  And I said to him, “American girls come to Europe to study art, to see the museums. A lot of them are junior year abroad, and they’re going to try and get cultured. So the women are going to be in the art museums and palaces and churches.”

  And he’s, “Well, Goddamn, boy. Are you tellin’ me that’s where the Daddy Rabbit has to lay his trap?”

  I said it might be where you’ll have most success in laying your trap. And when George heard that, he said, “My God, I just became a museum lovah!” I end up loving George. He later said, “You know, Conroy is the greatest pussy hound I’ve ever known.” He says, “Instinctively, Conroy knew these girls were gonna be at museums.”

  I got to watch Daddy Rabbit at work in these museums. I’d hear George go, “Well, that’s a mighty fine picture if I do say so myself,” and the girls would roar laughing at George’s accent and collapse. George of course would use that, and he’d have a date that night. I was amazed. I’d never done that in my life.

  That trip to Europe was a life-changing trip. That was absolutely wonderful for me; first of all seeing everything I wanted to see in London. I went on some literary tour, saw the Old Curiosity Shop, went to Westminster, saw all the writers buried that I wanted to see, plus others I didn’t know about. I went down to Shakespeare’s home and saw his grave. Had a magnificent trip to Cambridge, where I just went crazy. I saw the admissions office at Cambridge University and met an emeritus professor with leather sleeves on his jacket, which I’ve always seen in movies. I came busting into this office, and I see him sitting there, and I say, “Sir, I have got to come to this university. I don’t care what I have to do, how I have to do it, I gotta get in here. I would love this. You know, I’ve been all over this campus, I wanna eat a book, I don’t wanna study a book, I wanna eat one.”

  So my typical, stupid personality is ablaze with my effusive overreaction to everything. He has this fabulous English voice; when he spoke it’s like the pouring of extra virgin olive oil. And he’s, “I say, young man, are you always this enthusiastic?”

  I said, “Yes, sir, it’s one of the things you’ll hate the most about me, but this is just too fabulous to miss. And, you know, I’m young now; I’m not married; I’ll move over here; I’ll do anything.”

  He said, “Where’d you go to college?”

  I said, “Okay, now comes the hard part. Have your sense of humor.” And when I said the Citadel, he said, “I’ve never heard of it.” I said, “Of course you’ve never heard of it.”

  Now, you know, the next question is, “Is it accredited?”

  “Yes, it is.”

  “Is it four years?”

  “Yes, it is.”

  And he said, “Will anything you tell me about it ever impress me?”

  And I said, “Probably not, except you’ll find a lot of Citadel guys buried on Normandy Beach and all throughout Europe.”

  So anyway, he and I had a great time, we go out to lunch, and at the end of it he told me he thought I’d be perfect for Cambridge. He said, “I think this can be worked out.” And we wrote for about two years afterward. He could not have encouraged me more. I told him I wanted to be a writer, and he said that’s a great thing to want to be. I have no idea his name now; I regret that. But for some reason he gave me a great belief in myself. That I could throw myself up against something like this and actually talk my way into this guy’s wanting me to go to his university. It’s just typical Conroy trying to claw his way up the social ladder.

  Anyway, Mike Jones and Bernie wanted to see Ireland. I did not. I said, “I’m not going to Ireland.” I didn’t want to go to Ireland because of my father and his family. Nothing Irish appealed to me. That was part of my complete rejection of Dad and everything he stood for. My dream was the Greek Islands, and George wanted to go to Greece because he heard Greek girls love to fuck. He didn’t think they were Christian, and the non-Christian girls had no morals whatsoever. So we split up.

  When Daddy Rabbit and I were in our first hotel in Amsterdam, traveling together after Bernie and Mike went to Ireland, I said, “George, what are you doing?”

  He said, “They’ve got the worst toilets here. I can’t get this Goddamn thing to flush.”

  He’d taken a shit in the bidet.

  He said, “You know, these people, you’d think with all these cathedrals and shit, they could do a little bit of personal toiletry. These may be the most cultured people in the world, but they can’t make a toilet worth a shit.”

  We’re in Zurich, and he hasn’t had a woman in a day or two, and Daddy Rabbit says, “Now boy, I have not had my pipes cleaned out since we’ve been here, and the Daddy Rabbit’s just like a car, needs his pipes cleaned out, his system greased and oiled.”

  We’re at this little hotel, and he hears these two girls laughing next door. They’re speaking English, they’re American girls, so George puts on the love cry of the Daddy Rabbit, and he goes ah-ow, ah-ow, ah-ow. He grabs a cup, goes next door, and says, “Hello girls, I could not help but overhear that you speak American, which means you’re my kind of people. Could we borrow a cup of sugar?”

  Not surprisingly, they didn’t have any sugar, but they were our dates that night, and they traveled with us for about five days. I was just stunned by the whole thing. The Daddy Rabbit said that was my first taste of traveling “with a live woman.” The older one hooked up with the Daddy Rabbit. The younger girl, we got in the bedroom together, and she says, “You know, I’m not like my sister.”

  I said, “Don’t worry about it. You hit the right guy.”

  It’s all weirdness, it’s all Catholicism, it’s all stupid, and it is also my strange, byzantine attitude toward sex. I’d much rather have been like the Daddy Rabbit than Pat Conroy, but I wasn’t.

  Still, it was one great trip. We saw everything. We saw Rhodes and Cyprus and Lebanon, and oh my God, Crete. On a cruise ship for twelve days in the Greek Islands, we were with five other guys in the cabin. They were complete strangers, but they were from Sweden. I said, “Rabbit, you’re going to learn something about free love from the originators.”

  I went to English tea during the day, and there was a girl who liked me, so we danced. She was pretty, and her pa
rents liked me. So I’m dancing with her, and I said, “Lily, there’s a few questions I need to ask. How old are you?”

  She looks up at me and says, “Does age make any difference?”

  I said, “Sometimes it does. How old are you?”

  She says, “I was twelve my last birthday.”

  I back up. Now, we still had high tea, but we no longer danced.

  So I came back unscathed for the summer with my poor unused penis. But it was a great sex education for me, watching these other guys. In the red-light district in Amsterdam, Bernie sees a whore. “Oh my, gosh, she’s beautiful. I want to marry her.”

  The Daddy Rabbit said, “Well, you can marry her for about a half hour, boy, if you just go on in there.” And the Daddy Rabbit’s saying, “I’ve never had to pay for it; it always just came to me freestyle, if you know what I mean.”

  We truly had one of the great times of my life that summer.

  So we get back to South Carolina, back to teaching. There were girls the second year I was at Beaufort climbing in the window of my house. Ex-students, making bets with each other, daring each other, that kind of thing.

  I said, “Ah, you were a student of mine.”

  “Doesn’t make any difference. I’m not your student now.”

  A few of those girls—we performed the black act together. The nuns who taught me sex education were hiding something terrific. But that was basically the extent of my experience.

  What I did to shield myself—and I’ve done this more than once—I fell in love with a woman married to a friend of mine. It was very common for me. There was a safety in that. And this woman was fabulous. We were all in love with her, from Daddy Rabbit to Bernie to Mike. She married the son of Big John Trask. Freddie. Freddie’s the richest kid in town, from the richest family in town. Lindsay was sort of our first hippie, but also the first one married, so she took care of us. We’d go over to her house, and Lindsay was always there, funny, low-key, pretty, you know, made life comfortable, made life possible. We could use her washer-dryer. I just went nuts over her. So because of her, I didn’t date the next year. I just wanted to be around Lindsay.

  Now that summer, I agreed to go to Scotland and England with Freddie and Lindsay. By this time, Lindsay and I were great friends, but nothing else was even suggested. So I go on this stupid trip. They had a surprise for me. They get their room, I’m getting ready to get my room, and they said, “No, no, Pat. Let’s all sleep together. It’s cheaper.”

  I said, “You know, I thought maybe …”

  And she says, “No, we don’t do that anymore.”

  “But I’d feel really uncomfortable.”

  “You’ll get used to it.”

  So Lindsay sleeps in the middle, I sleep to the left, Freddie sleeps to the right. I wouldn’t have gone near that trip had I known. But I saw Scotland, lots of sheep, and I’m lying there with an erection the entire time I’m in bed with Lindsay, the girl I love beside me, and I couldn’t do a thing.

  Finally we fly back. It’s about this time I got serious with Barbara Jones, and two months later we were married. I had known Barbara—she lived next door to me. Propinquity seemed to be the main thing in my life. People had to be nearby. Barbara was a teacher at Beaufort Elementary School and was pregnant the first time I saw her. This didn’t put me off; I thought it was nice, probably because of my experience with Mary Alice, and my experience in being the oldest of seven children: Mom was always pregnant.

  I never met Wes, her husband, because he had been deployed before I met Barbara. In 1968, he was shot down in Vietnam. After his death, I was at a party one night, and Barbara came in, this pretty girl. I heard someone say, “That poor woman. What a shame she has two kids. No one will want to marry her now,” which struck me as hideously unfair. Somebody dies for his country, and his wife can’t get remarried because she’s got his two children? Husband fights for his country, gets shot down, his wife is doomed? A guy dying for his country—that was my background. Guys from the Citadel were dying. A lot of guys were dying from my class at that time. In the deep subconscious, that had a big effect on me. Anyway, I felt bad for her; she seemed in a very bad place to me.

  I don’t think I thought it out, but we started dating. I liked her a lot, great personality, smart as shit. And I was comfortable with the children. I’ve always liked kids, got along with kids, like having them around. They tickle the shit out of me. I’m a Conroy. As the oldest of seven, I don’t even hear a baby cry. And I wanted the full life. I wanted to be married; I wanted to raise kids. So we got married soon after that, much too soon. Without putting too much thought into it at all, I said, “Let’s get married.” She said yes to my great surprise, and so we did. When Barbara and I first got married and started going out to dinner, I felt like I was dating for the first time in my life. I had never really done that, and found I liked going out to restaurants and meals. That was delightful and fun.

  But I think I got married for all the wrong reasons. I had not dated much; I think I married the first girl who seemed to like to kiss me a lot. And marrying the widow of a Marine fighter pilot was obviously part of some circle with my father. But I didn’t think much about getting married; I just did it. I really didn’t know Barbara at all. Nowadays Conroy is against first marriages; I think first marriages ought to be banned. They are dangerous. You don’t know what you’re doing.

  Everything I seemed to have done in my whole life has been based on emotion, not thought. Emotion more than thought has ruled my life, and this is how I have screwed up my life. I have let myself be swept along by emotion. If I’d had more response of the brain instead of response of the emotions, it would have helped me with everything I did.

  Mom and Dad disapproved because I was marrying not only a used car, but a used Protestant car. It meant I was kicked out of the church. When Dad found out she had two children: “You dumb son of a bitch.” They refused to come to the wedding and would not even tell the children I was getting married because they were too young to see someone abandon the church. Nothing I do is without battalions lining up to face each other.

  But I was ready to leave the church. It seemed like all these codes, all these sets of laws were trying to control me: what it means to be a Citadel man, what it means to be a Catholic. I thought if I was ever going to become a real writer, I had to break away from these and come up with codes and laws of my own. And I had already lost my faith when I was a senior in college. “Father Hopwood, I am losing my faith.” He said, “No, you’re not.” I said, “Yeah, I am. And to fight against this, I’m going to communion every day of the year.” He said, “We only have it on Sunday.” I said, “Yeah, but I’d like to come up here and meet you every day for communion so I can fight this thing.” “I don’t want to do it. I’m not going to do it. You can’t force me to.” I said, “I’ll make the bishop do it.” “Oh, Goddamn it, okay, come on.” So I go up there every day, and very reluctantly, he’d give me communion, but he was there. He said something crappy every time, but he was there. At the end, though, he says, “How’s it going?” I said, “I lost my faith.” “After I was up here every day? Good God Almighty, are you crazy? I was just wasting my time giving you communion every day.” I said, “It’s not your fault. I thought I’d give it a try, but it just didn’t work.”

  So by the time I married Barbara, leaving the church seemed like the right thing to do. Then Mom arrived with Carol and Stanny the day before the wedding. That night, the boys gave me a party, which was a sort of barbecue. Here is the explosiveness of my life: Barbara’s parents hated me. Her father, Colonel Bolling, asked me, “How’d you get out of the war?”

  I said, “Colonel, I’m a draft dodger, and I’m proud of it. I don’t believe in this war, and I’m not going to fight a war I don’t believe in.”

  He said, “We call that cowardice where I come from.”

  I said, “I don’t mind a guy like you calling me a coward.”

  “She was married to som
eone who knew how to serve his country.”

  I said, “Yes, and you will note he’s no longer here. He’s dead, and his country needed that, but your daughter did not need it that much, and his kids certainly didn’t need it that much. Now it’s my job to love his wife and raise his children. I am trying to do that as best I can.” I had never met with such disapproval.

  Then, Barbara’s maid of honor was her sister-in-law, Wes Jones’s sister, who lay on the bed in this very small house and simply screamed in agony over her brother getting killed and the remarriage of the wife. I’m thinking: What have I done to myself?

  Daddy Rabbit goes, “Hey Pat, my boy, you should have put a little more thought in your maid of honor, if you don’t mind me saying so, you know what I mean?”

  I said, “Yes, I know, George. I want to thank you for that.”

  He said, “That girl is bat-shit crazy, and she’s not doing my party much good.”

  It was a bad omen, this woman screaming and crying and wailing the night before the wedding.

  Bernie was keeping bar out in the yard, and Stanny found a window from the house to the yard where she put her glass when it was empty, and whenever Bernie would see it, he’d fill it up again. I didn’t know any of this until my mother says, “Oh my God, somebody’s feeding Stanny drinks.”

  I said, “How do you know?”

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