My email address attracts crud like a Swiffer. Every day, the spam filter sweeps hundreds of messages into a Junk folder. Because I often get genuine messages from people I don’t know, I flick through it once in a while, and whenever I rescue something from a real person, it makes me wonder about the ones I’ve missed.
This one I couldn’t miss. The subject line read “Sorry to inform you that Pat died in her sleep 8-21-05.” It took me three days to open it, and three weeks to sit and write this.
When I was twenty, I went to Valencia for a year learn Spanish. That first week I huddled in a hotel above a sex shop, counting my traveller’s cheques for comfort. I had no idea how to find work or friends or a place to live. In the lobby, I met a Californian who had come to Spain to forget a Greek love affair. Debbie showed me the in-cup heating element she used to make tea in her room, and cried because, at 42, she knew now she would never have children. I pitied her, and decided I liked Earl Grey.
Debbie was moving on to Madrid, but said I should track down the woman she’d met in the Plaza Ayuntamiento the day before. She was a professor, here to supervise some college students on their Junior Year Abroad. She could probably introduce me to kids my own age.
And so I found Pat.
We met for hot chocolate and _churros_ in the Plaza Ayuntamiento. She strode across the square like a Colossus, scarf flying, scattering the short-legged Spaniards. She was 57 then, and beautiful. Her voicebox was made in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and still boomed with the certainty of the wealthy, WASP midwest. She spoke the twangiest Spanglish I’d ever heard.
“Oh my GOD! He was such a CREEP,” she said of the landlord who had made a pass at her after she signed the lease. “I mean, picture this STUMPY LITTLE SPANISH GUY, thinking that just because I’m here without a man he’s gonna get a little action. I said to him, “Señor, USTED ES UN TROZO DE MIERDA.”
“A…slice of shit?” I said.
“A piece of shit,” she corrected.
“At least you used the polite form.”
“I wouldn’t have if I’d known the rude one, honey.”
She taught English Literature at a New Jersey university. At weekends I took the bus out to her house by the beach in Valencia, where she stacked piles of books beside me while she cooked. Carlos Castaneda. Tom McGuane. (“Now, there’s a man. Tall, real handsome… _!Muy hombre!_ I met him in Montana while he was living with Margot Kidder, before she went crazy.”), Freud. Richard Feynman. Roland Barthes. Barthes I didn’t take to, but I liked Feynman and his bongo drums. I’d never been to the US, and was fascinated her books and by the giant plastic beaker of ice tea or Diet Coke that was always at her elbow, rattling with pounds of ice. Ireland didn’t do ice.
This November 13th Pat would have turned seventy. She never cared much about birthdays.
At twenty, she’d married a football player she met at Duke. “Because I wanted to fuck, honey, and in those days that was what you had to do.” In her wedding picture, with a sprayed cap of Tippi Hedren hair, she looked 35. She hosted elaborate dinners to help her husband’s career, and worked on her PhD on the side. But his character wasn’t as solid as his shoulders, and finally she left him when she was pregnant with their third child.
Little ever seemed to phase Pat. With two toddlers to look after, she decided the third labor would be a good chance to get her wisdom teeth out. Afterwards, when she didn’t speak, the doctors told her she was depressed.
“I told ’em, I’m not depressed, for Christ’s sake! I just had my four wisdom teeth out, but I’m enjoying the rest.”
She had chafed in the Fifties, but the Sixties woke her up. She read the French literary theorists. “The scales fell from my eyes. Once I got structuralism and the stuff that came from it, I was never the same.” Students sprawled all over her house in New Jersey. They came for seminars, picnics, and parties. They talked about books they were reading and should read, about the papers they were writing, about Freud and French movies and the feminists. Some students she near-adopted. All of them she fed. At acid parties, she stuck to her Fifties’ hostess instincts; her eyes lit up when she talked about butter. She cooked from the _Silver Palate Cookbook_ while she talked about Saussure. Students with the munchies got baked lemon chicken, Duchesse potatoes, and apple pies. They were in awe of her, and some visited for decades after they graduated.
I spent a half-dozen Thanksgiving days with Pat, basking in the buttery hospitality of her little Victorian house. Each year she laid a table from _The Dead_ for me and her daughter, and for Stevo and Tony, ex-lovers who never ex-loved her. We hovered and listened; Pat’s lunch was a performance.
She liked living by herself, but she also loved to cosset, and to talk. For her, company was a chance to disgorge all the thoughts that had built up. Her monologues unspooled over twelve or fourteen hours and started up again as she squeezed the breakfast juice. Over the years I heard about her childhood and her children’s childhood; and the men she had loved (“Wolf kept a gun under his pillow,” she’d cackle). She talked about the books she had written; this _darling_ new show, _Six Feet Under;_ her plans for gingerbreading the front of the house; plans to move to Costa Rica; her daughter’s wedding; her ailing houseplants and thriving garden; what the doctors said about this damned heart problem. I’d hear stoned, Homeric epics on her wonky teeth. She’d launch into Pirsig’s latest; her trips to Bisbee and the Keys and her year in Argentina. She’d ream the dullwitted students of the Nineties and the grim turn this new PC academy had taken. As she got older, she talked more and more about her kids, who roamed the other coast.
At Christmas, she would drive down to Key West in her Le Sabre convertible, pitch a tent and read through a stack of books. Sometimes, she said, she’d drop acid on the beach, and lie on her back to look at the stars.
Pat loved tall men, and hard books, and butter, and teaching, and nesting, and adventure. She loved solitude and company. She couldn’t abide bureaucrats. She loved and hated cigarettes with more passion than anyone else I’ve known, sucking the smoke in great gulps, then mashing the butts. She had no use for my generation, and I found her beloved “Sixties people” mostly painful. She hated technology. I couldn’t get through ten pages of _The Sot-Weed Factor._ We made peace with those differences.
The copy of _Hotel New Hampshire_ she gave me is covered in her notes. It reminds me of Charles Lamb’s essay on lending his library to Coleridge, whose uninhibited margin notes made him value the books all the more on their return. On the inside flap, she wrote: “Let’s get this porcupine on the streets. Let’s dress this alligator up in gold lamé.” I don’t know what it means, but can’t imagine a better woman to wrestle an alligator into a frock.
I loved Pat. I loved her raucous frankness and good cheer, her stories and her brains. She showed me a way to live alone with zest and spirit, long before I ever thought I’d need to make my own way. And yet I didn’t visit her for three years before she died–or was it four? I’d felt swamped by her monologues, and sometimes resentful. I became wrapped up in my own disasters–a failed marriage; a few years floating without a home or a job–and slipped out of her world with no forwarding address. Months, then years went by, and I put off calling as guilt compounded. She sent warm Christmas cards to my parents’ house, and still I didn’t write. I’m ashamed. She was so very kind to me, and she deserved the loyalty she gave. She got it from Tony, the ex-lover who stayed with her to the end.