Speaking with Strangers: A Memoir

Speaking with Strangers: A Memoir

by Mary Cantwell

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Overview

From the author of American Girl and Manhattan When I Was Young, a searingly honest portrait of single motherhood, loneliness, and finding one's way home.

The concluding volume in Mary Cantwell's autobiographical trilogy finds her newly divorced and ready to escape life in New York and the demands of single parenthood. Traveling on assignment to some of the remotest and least glamorous corners of the globe, Cantwell is scared, lonely, and depressed--and she vows never to leave her children again if God will just get her out of this latest hellhole. Yet the farther she rambles, the more solace she finds in the company of strangers. She also finds deep, if passing, happiness in a relationship with "the balding man," a famous writer, and warmth and hilarity in her friendship with the legendary novelist Frederick Exley. Imbued with a sensibility as distinct as the city Cantwell calls home, this strikingly candid memoir offers readers another fascinating glimpse into the life of a woman with one foot in the past and the other, warily, in her present.

"Profoundly moving, unforgettable . . . Cantwell makes you discover yourself." --The New York Times

"Writing in a style as crisp and fresh as clean white sheets, Cantwell's voice remains true throughout: amusing, prickly, sometimes reticent, never boring." --Mirabella

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780140283600
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/01/1999
Pages: 142
Product dimensions: 5.12(w) x 7.72(h) x 0.44(d)

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CHAPTER 1

The morning of the day my children and I left the house we had lived in with their father — the house with the bunny wallpaper in their bedroom and the wooden valet from Brooks Brothers in ours — to move farther west on Greenwich Village's Jane Street, I was sitting with a friend in its tiny backyard.

"Would you ladies please move your chairs forward?" one of the moving men called out. "I've got to do some work with this window."

Obedient, we moved our chairs out of the shade and into the sun. Behind us, only two or so feet from where we had been sitting, the air conditioner fell to the ground. Had we not been told to move, we would have been killed. Still, neither of us paled, neither of us scared up so much as a tremble. "It's an omen" was all my friend said. "You were meant to leave this place."

Some hours later, with the children at my family's home in Rhode Island and the house bare of all but my bed and a few cartons, I went to a cocktail party way uptown, grateful that someone from my office had thought to invite me on a night when I would otherwise have been walking through the empty rooms, crying, maybe, and feeling the strange pain that seemed to twist my ribs whenever I thought of my husband — my husband who was happy now and free of the marriage that I had ruined. "How did you ruin it?" friends would ask, but I could never answer. I just knew it, that was all, knew it just as surely as I once had known that to step on a crack was to break my mother's back. I did not believe in fate or happenstance, only in my power to destroy. "That tongue of yours ... those hands of yours ... that temper of yours will get you into trouble someday," I was told in childhood. My mother was right. I was a killer.

Some of the guests were friends, the rest were strangers, and one of the latter was drunk. In those days I was a pretty woman, but there was something about my face, something that seemed to condemn, I guess, that aroused hostility — and, at the same time, attraction — in those who had had one too many. This man was no different. While his wife stood by, smiling limply, he made a few rude remarks about my having arrived late, tried to goad me into responding to a couple of dirty jokes, and finally said, "Who stuck the stick up your ass?" Then he dared me to drink a full glass of Scotch. I took the dare. "You're dealing with an Irishman here," I said, trying for a tough sophistication that I had never possessed, had never had to possess.

When I was halfway through the Scotch, another man took the glass from my hand and told the drunk to cut it out. The wife kept smiling, the drunk moved off, and I left for what remained of my home, feeling as helpless as my mother did the first time she had to balance a checkbook. My father had died. He had always paid the bills, and when, not realizing that she had to figure in the ten cents for each check, she couldn't match the bank's tally with hers, she put her head down on the desk and cried the only tears I hadseen her cry since his death. Now it was I who was unprotected. Without my husband, with whom I had spent my entire adult life, I had no defenses against drunks and their brutalities. I didn't even know how to come to a cocktail party unescorted. How could I know? In the past, when I had entered a party by myself, it was always with the knowledge that my husband was soon to appear, rushing in from the office and about to feel my proprietary hand on his arm.

I shall call him by his initial, B, because it is boring to repeat husband again and again. Also, I have a bad habit, one that leads strangers to believe I am still married. In speaking of him, I always say "my husband," simply because he is the only one I have ever had. Besides, it is hard for me to believe that a piece of paper can end a marriage, any more than it can end a motherhood or a sisterhood. My mother is my mother, and that is that. My sister is my sister, and that is that. My husband was my husband, and he still is. True, I am unacquainted with that man who lives across town, that man who has gained a little weight, a little hearing aid, and — as they seem to me, in the few times I have seen him — capped teeth. But the boy who bought me books to improve my mind and a linen blouse and a cashmere sweater to improve my wardrobe when I was a junior in college: I am bound to him until my last breath.

"You're always lighting little candles to that guy," a man who once fancied himself a possible suitor said not long ago. Yes. They are to someone who occupies the same niche in my mind as the plaster saints before whom — the dime pushed in the slot, the flame fluttering — I knelt in childhood. Pray as I might, I never really believed in them. As time passes, I grow less and less able to believe in him. But I want to. If I go on lighting candles, it is because I cannot bear thinking that he was, in the end, only a figment of my imagination. To think that would be to do myself a kindness. But I have never been very kind to myself. I am my own Simon Legree.

During that childhood, in a town where the only official entertainments were the bowling alley and the movies, I spent every Friday night at a little stucco theater called the Pastime. When the movie — and the news and the serial and the short — was over, I was still not only at it but in it. Walking home, gripping my grandfather's hand, the elm trees soughing overhead and the salt air surrounding us, I was not Mary Lee Cantwell but Alice Faye or Betty Grable or Lana Turner. Thin, dark-haired, my teeth armored by braces, two elastic bands, and a plastic retainer, I even thought I looked like them. Years later, the elms and the salt air long behind me, I subwayed home alone to B from an evening at the Royal Ballet (it was Sadler's Wells then) and Sleeping Beauty; and tried to show him how a man named Brian Shaw danced the Bluebird Variation. My arms flapping, my leaps a mere six inches off our shag rug, I truly thought I was dancing. Once, leaving a Broadway show with B and an acquaintance who proclaimed himself "a truth-teller," I so persisted in unconscious mimicry of the heroine that the truth-teller told me to cut it out.

Retaining my edges was even more difficult when I was reading. Then, if the story was powerful enough, it erased my reality. The people I have been! Emma Bovary and Daisy Miller, of course. Lily Bart. Judith Hearne. I have been real people, too. Edith Thompson, who was hanged for killing her husband, and for whom I wept because her only crime was silliness. Madeleine Smith, who probably should have been hanged for killing her lover, but with whom I sympathized because he was a leech. And a woman, or several women, described in an article in New York magazine.

The article was one of the magazine's usual 1970s exposés of the tragedies of urban life — life as a Puerto Rican pimp, for instance, or life as a black hooker. This time the tragedy of urban life had to do with the divorcées who, hair fresh from all-day rollers, buttocks molded by Lycra slacks, congregated at a roadhouse near the Long Island Expressway for five o'clock drinks with the men — married, most of them — who stopped there on the way home from work. I cried for those women. I was one of those women, not a magazine editor but a jobless housewife with teased hair and a pneumatic butt who cadged drinks, smokes, and feels from men in leisure suits. Leaving the party where that drunk had dared me to down a Scotch — how I had loved our cab rides home from parties, the New York streets glistening in the night and B solid beside me — I remembered that article. There it is, I said to myself, my fate.

My true fate, for a while anyway, was invisibility. A few weeks before my last day in the old house, a friend of B's had stopped me on the street and said solicitously. "Moving to a smaller place?"

"No," I snapped, "bigger," hating him for his curiosity and distrusting his concern. He and his wife, after all, had dispensed with me months before. So why the worried eyes, the voice dripping sincerity? I knew. Showing an interest in my future was akin to going to church once a year — Easter, say, or Christmas. The knees had been bent, the money dropped in the collection basket, the duty done.

But, then, everyone except my friends at the magazine had dispensed with me, and the world in which I had lived seemed imagined but not experienced. The seat I had occupied at dinner parties was still warm when my successor slid into it. If I wasn't surprised, it was because I had seen it happen so many times before, that curious disappearance into purdah that seemed so often the fate of first wives. It was as if we were all trial runs. Even our children were sometimes trial runs. "With my first two children, there was never time ..." says the semifamous man to the newspaper interviewer, glorying in the issue from his aging loins. "But now I am discovering what it really means to be a father."

I might have missed that world more had we stayed in our old house. But our new house brought new vistas, new corners to turn. The first time we saw it (I was responding to an ad), my older daughter peeked around a closed shower curtain to see the tub. "So nosy!" I said, attempting to blush, but my embarrassment was faked. Had the present tenant not been there to show us around, I too would have peeked around the shower curtain. For I, like my eleven-year-old, was excited about unfamiliar faucets, foreign tiles. As time has proved, it is, above all else, what we have in common.

To remember life in our new house is to think of small blocks of color in a long gray ribbon. The blocks were the days and weeks when I woke up in countries in which, without a language to share with those along whose streets I walked, I was condemned to silence. I was condemned to envy, too, because those were their front doors they were opening and their groceries under their arms and their tables at which they would have their evening meal. Even so, I wallowed in the silence because it sharpened my senses. My ears were a fox's, my eyes an eagle's, and often I forgot I had any identity but that of traveler.

But I could not have survived without the long gray ribbon, the ordinary, to be deprived of which is my definition of hell. Still, on nights when I have run out of books, and all television palls, I sometimes bring out the colored blocks and play with them, freezing time, watching the woman I used to be in performance.

Soon after we moved in, I heard the leader of a Sunday-morning walking tour tell his charges that the house (Number 85, as it was known to the neighbors, who identified themselves by their addresses) was "Anglo-Italianate." But the neighbors, most of whom were standing about in what looked suspiciously like a receiving line the evening I emerged with the landlord after signing the lease, said it was a made- over stable. Whatever it was, it was built in 1856 and had an enormous mahogany bar in the cellar. "If worse comes to worst," said a friend who knew I was worried about the rent, "you can always open an afterhours club." Over the bar was inscribed: "On this site overlooking the majestic Hudson stood the William Bayard Mansion, where Alexander Hamilton, the first treasurer of the United States, died July 12, 1804, after his famous duel with Aaron Burr."

The rooms were tall and airy and painted my usual white, but it is the cellar I remember best: the bar and the tattered posters from rock concerts thumbtacked to dirty plaster walls and the cartons of 45s and rotting paperbacks left by the previous tenants. The landlord and his wife hoarded food. They came back from New Jersey supermarkets (no taxes) in what seemed a clown car, so crammed was it with staples and what they called "paper goods," then stored them in closets in the front. Once, curious, I opened one and saw what must have been fifty boxes of Social Tea Biscuits.

My old dishwasher was in that cellar, and an old wingchair, along with, in the back, the washer and dryer, around which crawled an army of shiny waterbugs. I was in that cellar constantly, hauling laundry and, bookish as always, quoting something appropriate from Yeats. Surely this, this unspeakable slum above which were rooms arranged as starkly and as beautifully (I thought) as a museum, was the foul rag-and-bone shop of my heart.

Because of a curious conjunction of streets, the block seemed cut off, isolated. Entering it, I always felt as if I were entering a stockade, a stockade that smelled strongly of the vanilla wafted through the open windows of the wholesale bakery at the corner. I liked that scent. I liked even better that, no matter how late I came home from work, some of the bakers would be sitting on the fire escape, taking a break from the ovens. Sometimes I'd wave at them, and sometimes they'd wave back. We were too distant and the sky too dark for us to recognize one another if we ever met by daylight. Still, on a street where little houses, their windows shrouded in curtains and blinds, turned blank faces to the world and the sidewalks emptied after eight, I thought them my compatriots, my landsmen.

In a town as old and settled as the place in which I was raised, one is known simultaneously by one's maiden name, one's husband's name, and, to some old-timers, by one's mother's maiden name. So it is not fatal to lose that second one. In fact, it is not fatal if you never acquire it, because identity also resides in your house, your street, your church, your great-grandfather's occupation. My grandmother had a cousin famous for her angel cakes, door prizes at many a church fair and the centerpieces of my every childhood birthday party. When she died, at a great age, there were enough people left to remember them, and therefore her, for the next twenty-five years. But in a city as provincial as New York, how are you identified except by your husband, your job, or your money? I loved my job, not so much for what I did at my desk but for what being at my desk did for me. It gave me a face, a voice, a manner. It gave me a personhood.

Even office friends, though, friends who'd been barely conscious of my having a husband, sometimes treated me as an amputee. "The one thing you musn't do," said the worldliest of them, a woman who herself had never married and had a long string of sexually uncertain escorts, "is give brave little dinner parties."

I didn't understand what she meant.

"You know," she continued. "You've always got to have a man at the foot of the table."

However, I didn't give dinner parties, brave or otherwise, although I liked to feed people, had memorized a book on carving, and could mix most drinks if they weren't too fancy. Raised with ritual, I held a wake instead. I did not think of myself as divorced but widowed, and when B called about the children or a check, the man I heard was a stranger. The voice was familiar — he had a beautiful voice, dark brown and as accentless as a radio announcer's — but I didn't know the speaker. I mourned the boy, I dreamed of him constantly, but I could not connect him with the man who had threatened custody suits and sanity hearings. Or I chose not to.

"Did I tell you about Shirley?" asked a woman whom I will call Rachel, herself recently separated from a husband who'd jumped everyone from assorted secretaries to their au pair, and eager to salve her miseries with those of the salon des refusées who seemed to constitute her friends. "Her ex-husband used to make notes in book margins with a red ballpoint pen. Well, last week I borrowed a book from her, and guess what? She'd written in the margins with a red ballpoint pen! And did I tell you what she did the week before he divorced her in Mexico? He's a photographer and used that week to finish an assignment. And she, right behind him, drove all over the Southwest, staying in the motels he'd just left."

A few weeks later, Shirley telephoned me. "Rachel says we've had a similar experience, and I was wondering if you'd like to join me and some other women who've been through the same thing for lunch so we could talk about it."

I hung up as quickly as was decent. "No, it is not the same thing," I wanted to yell. "Nothing is the same thing. And, no, I don't want to talk about 'it.'"

It would have been like eating my vomit or leaving a corpse too long unburied. I had to inter my husband. Then, years later, I could resurrect him and make him a part of my past, to be discussed with the same nostalgia with which I discussed my former boyfriends and my former schoolteachers. I hadn't realized yet that a former husband, unless he'd been a cipher, will never slide into the same category.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Speaking with Strangers"
by .
Copyright © 1998 Mary Cantwell.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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