FIRST, YOU GET PISSED: A Memoir
By Mary-Ann Tirone Smith
The memoir will be posted, one chapter a week, on this page. If you're getting a late start, you can read the chapters you missed by clicking "Previous Chapters" in the menu bar above. This week:
BEFORE I MEET CHARLIE, before I meet anyone, my daughter encourages me to get out there. There are very few single men wandering about the condominium complex where I live. There are three, and none are my cup of tea, though I do like a fellow named John quite a lot, who is half my age. He is cute and polite and kindly, and an Olympian, besides. That would be the Special Olympics. He wears his several medals proudly, but he can't really say which competitions he won. John is afflicted with Down syndrome. He is also a baseball fan and we talk baseball when I walk Salty and see John waiting for his bus to take him to his special school.
Our conversations are usually along the following lines.
John: "I don't like the Red Sox."
Me: "Yankees Suck."
John: "I'm afraid of dogs."
Me: "Salty is named after the Red Sox catcher. He won't hurt you."
I ask John for his autograph, but he can't write. So I gave him a stick and we walk down to the edge of the Sound and he writes something with the stick, while Salty sees to his ongoing condo duty of keeping the Canada geese off the grass. I take a picture of what John writes, which are not words of any known origin.
My relationship with John is not really going anywhere.
When it's a few years since Charlie loses his wife, right aroud this time I have with John, his own daughter tells him he has to get out there and meet people. He prefers being with camping friends, Bruce, Gary and Jim, so she fills out an eHarmony application for him, right at the same time I fill one out with the help of Jene.
The first four men I meet are about the biggest assholes I've ever come across. One of them is an economist, who brags that he is responsible for pharmaceutical ads now allowed to be presented on TV. One minute Bob Dole runs for president, and the next he's on TV talking about his sexual dysfuntion. I say, "Wow. Because of you I get to see two people sitting in separate claw foot bathtubs with no plumbing, out in a field, drinking wine and about to have ravenous sex after the man takes a Viagra."
The economist is not amused. Also, he's positioned himself at a table where he can stare at any woman who comes through the door, which he does. I am not amused. I tell Jene I'm closing my eHarmony account. She sympathizes. But then a picture pops up in my eHarmony email of a guy on a boat. Clever Kristin has seen to a second picture—her father holding baby Gianna, his first grandchild. They are nuzzling each other. So, okay, I'll try one more of these jerks. At least I'll get a boat ride out of this.
During our first month of knowing each other, Charlie and I go out three times. The first time, we go out for coffee, something eHarmony strongly suggests. We meet at a diner. After the coffee, we decide we might as well have breakfast, and we eat and chat for a good hour. The second suggestion is lunch or dinner. We decide on dinner, but before dinner we will spend the day eagle-spotting on the Connecticut River in an Audubon Society boat, the first of many boat rides. It's February and we freeze. We don't care. We see lots of eagles and an egg in a nest. The third get-together is of our own design. Whe pass a billboard on a highway on the way home from eagle-watching. It's advertising Riverdance. In unison, we say, "I've always wanted to go to Riverdance." Then Charlie drops me off at the MacDonald's on I-95, where my car is parked. We say good night, and exchange a peck on the cheek.
By the next morning, Charlie has two tickets for Riverdance, and within the week, we go. Instead of the sort of thing you wear to go out to breakfast when the point is to be noticed in a crowd of strangers waiting for a table, or the jeans and heavy winter jackets you need for standing on the deck of an eagle-spotting vessel in the dead of winter, I get to dress up. I meet Charlie for dinner near the Oakdale Theatre. I take off my new black coat with that cute nipped-in-at-the-waist cut. The hem skims my knees. (I'd run out to Macy's to find a dressy-ish winter coat earlier in the day and as soon as I go into the coat area, there is the perfect coat on a mannequin standing right in front of me. I'm so happy, knowing this is not the occasion to look for something on the sale rack which is what I normally do.)
I wear a soft black cashmere sweater that envelops my Sea Cups fairly snugly. I also wear a gray flannel miniskirt. I wear miniskirts in the 60s and never stop. Also tights and way high heels. At the theatre lobby, we first go to the restrooms. I come out first, my cute little coat over my arm, and pose. Charlie comes out, his eyes do a tenth of a second scan from the top of my head to my boots, and he says, "You look great, Wonder Woman."
I say, "I know it."
He is taken aback and then smiles at me. He has dimples, be still my beating heart. Then I say, "Thanks, Charlie. You look great, too."
He does, what with his big wide shoulders. He looks great in everything he wears so far.
We love Riverdance.
Then, throwing eHarmony to the wind, he invites me to dinner at the German-American Club in Bridgeport, where his father got a job after emigrating from Germany in 1935. Charlie says to me, "The club is great—they celebrate every holiday there is. It's a St. Patrick's Day dinner dance. Time for us to do some dancing on our own, no? They always have a great band."
I say, "It is time."
"We'll have fun."
I know we will. I like to dance. I say, "And it's always nice to have corned beef and cabbage once a year."
He looks into my eyes. "Is it all right if I pick you up?"
He is alluding to the eHarmony warning: The woman is not to let the man pick her up at her home for at least six dates. By the sixth meeting, it is apparently safe to assume you can tell the fellow is probably not an axe-murderer.
I consent to the pick-up.
Then, very carefully, he says, "A couple of my friends will be there. At the dinner dance. Is that okay?"
I tell him I look forward to meeting his friends. That's true, I do. He gives me a major smile, accompanied by major dimples.
In preparation for going out dancing with Charlie, I root around my closet for a certain blouse I never wore. I buy it at Bonwit Teller in New York at Christmastime, the first Christmas after I get divorced. I cannot bare to stay home that Christmas. I cannot bare to put up a tree. I gag on egg not. So, I go to New York for Christmas week.
I end up walking all over Manhattan and go to all the places I always wanted to see just like I used to do with my father. My father takes me to New York every year on my birthday, along with one of my all-time favorite people, my cousin Paul. Having an autistic brother, who can't tolerate the loud noise with which a birthday party is rife, precludes the typical celebration. Over the course of ten years, Paul, me, and my father go to every tourist attraction you can think of: Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, Haydn Planetarium, Grant's Tomb, Bronx Zoo, Coney Island, Museum of Natural History, and one birthday where we spend an entire afternoon in Times Square, watching old black and white comedies starring Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, and Abbott and Costello. My father and Paul and I laugh our asses off, and having memorized, Who's on First? We say Bud and Lou's lines right along with them. The rest of the audience does, too.
Newly divorced in New York, but alone this time, I wil go to MOMA, the Guggenheim, The Niue Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the symphony, the Met, and the reading room at the New York Public Library, where I fill out little pieces of paper, and the librarian brings me the first six of my books that were thus far published. I am glad to say, my father at least got to buy copies of the first four before he dies. There is a scene in my first novel that takes place in the viewing rotunda atop Grant's Tomb. It isn't open to the public. It's open to Paul and me on my tenth birthday because my father gives the guard a Monte Christo, a cigar from a box someone brought him from Cuba.
I love all that I do in New York as an at-a-loss divorcée, even if I am alone. On my last night, I see Carrie Fisher's one-woman Broadway show, "Wishful Drinking." It's absolutely rip-roaringly hilarious, with terrific visuals, for example, a screen drops down behind her and there she is with the rest of the cast of the original "Star Wars," only just their heads, each head atop a Pez dispenser! Honestly, if I were an actor, I'd rather be honored with the head of a character I'd played atop a Pez dispenser rather than an Oscar any day. (If you're ever tooling along I-95 across Connecticut, keep your eyes peeled for the Pez museum sign if you want to be an hour late for wherever you're going and experience a flood of childhood memories, while you eat Pez's.)
The big bonus for the "Wishful Drinking" audience is that the seats are three-quarters empty because a predicted blizzard is already seeing to three inches of snow on the ground an hour before the curtain rises. When the curtain does go up, Carrie is sitting in an upholstered, overstuffed, comfy chair, stage center, gazing at us. Instead of saying her lines, she first thanks us for braving the storm, then invites us to come on down and fill up the orchestra seats. How cool is that? We all grab our coats and stumble down the steps and Carrie yells, "House lights!" which come on and none of us kill ourselves.
Once she proceeds, I'd say half her lines are ad-libbed, each funnier than the last. She is a riot without, seemingly, trying. And, holy hell, am I ever needing a riot at this point in my life.
Need I tell you that the show ends with a standing-O? All of us are doing our best to make more noise than a full house would have. Carrie makes a zillion curtain calls. I feel connected with her—based on her autobiographical show, she has nowhere to go after the show, either.
Thank you, Carrie. I so mourn the loss of Carrie Fisher.
I join the audience in a walk out into whirls of fat snowflakes blowing horizontally, the streets and avenues empty of traffic and covered with a six -inch deep, shimmering, blue-white, down comforter. And oh, the lights! Dazzling with the absence of headlights. The circles of light from the street lamps, and the walls of neon give the snow that other-worldly sheen of blue.
I meet up with some German tourists walking my route through the deepening snow, while everyone else is waiting for taxis that will never come. One German asks me, "May you direct us to see Rockefeller Center?"
Since I'm not concerned about finding a taxi and feeling a need for company, I may.
I say, "Follow me." I wish I could say it in German, but I took French in high school. I can't speak French either. The Germans understand English just like all Europeans, since they take English starting in infant-care school and every school ever after.
I lead the way, and we stop to buy big boots from a boot-vendor standing on a corner alongside a couple of garbage bags full of boots. The Germans first confer, and one asks the boot-vendor, "Please excuse, but…. They are not leaking?"
The vendor waves his arm over his head and says, "This be snow, man."
All the way to Rockefeller Center in our new green boots, the Germans keep saying, "This be snow, man." They laugh and laugh just like Carrie Fisher's audience.
We stare at the big tree and the half-dozen New Yorkers, who are skating around after climbing the wall around the rink, which is closed because of the storm. No one stops them because there are no cops or guards around. Nobody is around. Then I take the Germans to see the big star hanging over 5th Avenue, and then the crèche at Saint Patrick's. When we walk past the windows of what is no longer Bonwit Teller, I see a beautiful blouse. It's black, kind of a sheer gauze with a bit of subdued ruching in the front and a pattern of teeny, tiny, barely visible white rings reminiscent of the cigar smoke rings my dad used to blow into the air for me to put my finger through. The blouse also has a sparse scattering of clear sequins for just the right amount of subtle holiday sparkle. Maybe I'll come back next day and look at it, but I doubt I'll be trying it on because a store on 5th Avenue is beyond expensive.
The Germans then insist on buying me a German beer at the Plaza, which the bartender sees to pouring into steins. He says, "On the house." Do I love New York? Yes. When I decide to head back to my hotel while I can still walk a straight line, the Germans don't notice me leaving because they're singing. The bartender does, though, and calls out for me to be careful and not fall into a snowbank. The Germans turn and wave their arms, calling for me, in German, to come back. They are holding two steins each, and a great deal of beer is splashing forth. They can see I mean to go, and I hear a chorus of donke shons behind me.
The snow is almost over my boots. When I get to my hotel at around three in the morning, the doorman holds the door for me, and says, "We were so worried about you." Nice. This is a time in my life when I appreciate someone worrying about me, as well as having a bunch of merry Germans to share a blizzard with, and Carrie Fisher inviting me to take an orchestra seat at her show and making me laugh. Poor Carrie Fisher.
I wake up the next day feeling calm for the first time in a long time. I go back to the store that is no longer Bonwit Teller's and buy the blouse. This is a serious splurge, but it's the first item of clothing I buy since the divorce. I don't look at the price tag. I try it on, look in the mirror, and it really looks good. I look awful. My mother would have said, "You look like the wreck of the Hesperus." (As an English major in college, I learn that "The Wreck of the Hesperus" is a narrative poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Digging further, I come up with my favorite piece of trivia ever: The poem first appeared in a magazine called "Weirdos and Creeps."
So, maybe I can wear the pretty blouse on New Year's Eve. Yeah, right. Once home, I stash it in the back of my closet. That New Year's Eve, I'm watching the ball come down on TV. I am not totally depressed because my son is somewhere in Times Square amidst a zillion people. Jere will report back next day that a Navy ship was in the harbor and there were sailors all over the place including "girl-sailors." Jere and his friends form pee-circles for the girl sailors. Do you know what a pee-circle is, Dear Readers? The fellows form a circle, turn their backs, and the girls get inside their makeshift, private restroom, pull off their jeans—or, in this case, the bottom half of their Navy uniforms—and pee.
I forget all about the New York blouse until Charlie comes along and invites me to the German Club for a Saint Patrick's Day dinner. He mentions there'll be dancing. Sequins are meant for dancing. I bought it because of German tourists, and I'll wear it to Charlie's German Club. Meant to be, wouldn't you say?
I find it still neatly folded in tissue. I try it on. It looks better than I remember, and I look a hell of a lot better than the day I bought it. I'm happy instead of melancholy. I buy black velvet skinny jeans and a pair of smashing boots to wear with it. So listen, Dear Reader, have you read Love, Loss, and What I Wore, by Ilene Beckerman? The very book that the late, and sorely-missed Nora Ephron turned into an off-Broadway play, in collaboration with her sister Delia. The play is as heartbreaking and exhilarating as the book . If you haven't read it, do it—paperback, seven bucks—because, maybe you'll remember the new blouse you didn't wear when you were going through loss. Maybe it's still in the back of your closet.
I'm looking forward to St. Patrick's Day, need I say?
NEXT SUNDAY, MAY 27, CHAPTER 7.
A BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY
I was born and raised in Hartford, Connecticut and have lived in Connecticut until I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon. There, I lived in Buea, a town situated on a series of ledges five thousand feet up the side of Mt. Cameroon, an active volcano, its peak nearly 14,000 feet above the equatorial sea. Having aspired to be a beach bum, I am happy to say I now live a half-block from the Gulf of Mexico in the town of Fort Myers Beach, a barrier island that takes the brunt of any hurricane leveled at the city of Fort Myers. Most fortunately, I have a water-loving family and a labradoodle named Saltalamacchia, also a water-lover. Salty is my first dog.
My grandparents on my father's side emigrated from the Italian Piedmont, and on my mother's, Quebec. My fondest childhood memories are of sweltering summers blue-crabbing with my French-speaking grandfather from 5 a.m. until 5 p.m., my grandfather wearing a worn three-piece suit and cap, and me, my underpants. When I told my Italian grandfather that I would be going to Cameroon as a Peace Corps volunteer he told me there were very good grapes grown in Africa.
My brother was autistic, a savant, who would not allow singing, laughing, sneezing, electronic sound (including television, radio and anything that produced music), and the flushing of the toilet except when he was asleep and he never seemed to be asleep. He had a library of over two thousand books all on WWII. As his adjutant, I attained a vast pool of knowledge on such things as identifying fighter bombers from their silhouettes and why we dropped the atomic bomb. "To win the war," Tyler told me. "But it didn't work so we dropped another one. Victory at last."
The relationship with my brother was one of three influences on my writing; the second, my father's bedtime poetry and prose following the Our Father and Hail Mary: "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look upon my works ye mighty and despair!" The third influence was the shelf of classic children's literature my mother kept stocked with such gems as The Swiss Family Robinson, Bambi, Tom the Water-Boy, Silver Pennies, King Arthur and the Round Table, The Child's Odyssey. Somehow, The Bedside Esquire (1936) found its way to the shelf and I read the extraordinary short fiction within, including Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," Gallico's Keeping "Cool in Conneaut," Salinger's "For "Esmé with Love and Squalor," Hecht's "Snowfall in Childhood," and my favorite, "Latins Make Lousy Lovers," by Anonymous who turned out to be Helen Lawrenson, the only woman with a piece in the collection. (Sheesh.) There was also an excerpt from the novel, Christ in Concrete, by Pietro Di Donato, that so bowled me over I decided I would be a writer, too, just like all the writers who wrote fiction for Esquire Magazine in 1936.
After Peace Corps service, I taught, worked as a librarian and got my first freelance writing job with Reader's Digest. The Digest editor assigned me sports and games for How to Do Just about Anything, a book which sold 50 million copies world-wide. Reader's Digest made a vast fortune on that book alone, while the writers earned $25 to $75 dollars per article. I learned economy of language writing such pieces as "How to Play Tennis" in fifty words.
In 2010, I was awarded the Diana Bennett Fellowship at the Black Mountain Institute at UNLV, where I wrote my most recent novel, The Honoured Guest: Anne Alger Craven, Witness to Sumter, in Her Words.
My work has been reprinted in several foreign languages. I have taught fiction and memoir writing at many venues including the Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT, and on the Aran Islands through the National University of Ireland, Galway, and online via this website.
Presently, I spend time in Fall River, MA, where I went on a tour of the Lizzie Borden house. By the time the tour had ended, I knew who killed Lizzie's parents and it surely wasn't Lizzie. The competition, however, is stiff. Since I started writing this novel, another novel with an entirely different take on the crime was published. And there is a film presently in the works, again, with another take altogether. I'll keep up my work on my own version, which, I'm convinced, is the real one.