The Rest of Life: Three Novellasby Mary Gordon, Mary Gordon
Mary Gordon's luminous new fiction introduces three women, each of whom tells the story of the lover who altered her life. In Immaculate Man, a social worker in her forties whose specialty is battered women becomes the lover of a priest. He has never desired a woman until, at forty-three, he desires her, makes love to her, uses his holy hands to touch her. She teaches… See more details below
Mary Gordon's luminous new fiction introduces three women, each of whom tells the story of the lover who altered her life. In Immaculate Man, a social worker in her forties whose specialty is battered women becomes the lover of a priest. He has never desired a woman until, at forty-three, he desires her, makes love to her, uses his holy hands to touch her. She teaches Father Clement the language of the flesh; he teaches her the language of the Church - once foreign to her. In Living at Home, he is an Italian foreign correspondent, she a psychiatrist who cares for autistic children. He is a man who wants nothing but the woman's body and the sanctuary of their house - until he is seized by news of another revolution, another famine or plague, another destination. And in The Rest of Life, the woman is returning to Turin, the northern Italian town she fled sixty-three years earlier. She was fifteen then; her lover was sixteen. They were rebels, romantics, intellectuals, and they decided to shoot themselves. She chose to live. These three beautifully rendered novellas illuminate the elliptical combination of carnal and spiritual desire in all lives. In stunning prose, Mary Gordon measures the power of the place in which love resides, the way that place shrinks or expands - and is fortified. Rest of Life, Gordon's sixth work of fiction, incantatory in its evocation of love. This is her most radiant and powerful writing.
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The Rest of Life
By Mary Gordon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Mary Gordon
All rights reserved.
For Maureen Strafford
What happened to me on the bus wasn't unusual. The person sitting next to me was surprised and even outraged and that made me wonder for a moment at my own lack of outrage and surprise. It's very easy for me to think that other people are right, more right than I am anyway, or that at least they have more right to things, which is why I always give up arguments. I'm easily swayed and along with that I don't expect too much. Why would I go on with something—anything, a conversation, a debate—when it seemed clear that the other person wanted so much to be winning? When it meant so much to them?
When I was a teenager, I liked reading Russian novels. I wanted to study Russian, but the sixties came and I decided I should help the poor. I became a social worker. I think I was right.
I must have read thousands of pages of Russian novels, but of all those words, only one sentence still stands out. It's spoken by a married woman who goes to a priest every week to confess adultery. Every week she cries and cries. She seems distraught; her whole body is racked with sobs. The priest asks her why she goes on doing it, sinning this way, since she is so contrite. Suddenly she stops crying. She sits up straight. She dries her eyes. I could always see this very clearly: how suddenly she got hold of herself. It must have seemed to her all at once that the priest had never understood a thing. It must have been a bad moment for her: suddenly to feel she hadn't been understood. She must have felt disappointed, and quite lost. But at the same time, contemptuous. At that moment, she must have felt that she could have turned over the whole institution of the Russian church with one flick of her foot. That's how insubstantial it must all have seemed to her.
She looked up at the priest with clear, dry eyes. "I do it because it gives him so much pleasure and me so little pain." Then she left. The priest said nothing. I'm sure that she went right off to her lover.
I don't know why I began talking about all that. I want to talk about what happened on the bus. But, after all, it's not so bad to start out with a story about a priest. This is a story about one. And, I suppose you could say, about adultery. I don't know yet how all this will turn out. I know that whatever will happen, everybody tried.
I was on the bus that day because my car broke down. Otherwise, I never would have gone through it: the trip through Port Authority, the smelly bus with the bathroom door that kept opening and shutting. The only seat was near the bathroom door—I got there late and every other seat was taken—I kept having to smell the disinfectant, and pretend I didn't see people disappearing into that little place.
The walk through Port Authority warned me that there might be marginal types on the bus. But that doesn't bother me, I've worked with lots of different kinds of people. I'm used to dealing with out-patients, or ex-patients, or people who should be patients but there's just no money or no room. I could tell that the guy across from me hadn't been taking his medication. I knew all the signs, and I was ready for an outburst, or at least some inappropriate remarks.
I was wearing a black knit jumpsuit. Nothing special, nothing to make remarks about. But the guy across from me just seemed to love it. "I love what you're wearing. I just love what you're wearing. What do you call that material? What would you call it, cotton?"
"Cotton knit," I said.
"Well I just love it." He took the material of my pants between his thumb and forefinger and fingered it like a tailor.
"Look," I said. "You can't do that. It's one of the things you can't do, touch people when they don't want you to. And I don't want you to, so you can't. It has nothing to do with what I think of you as a person."
I knew how easily people like that can feel devastated. And I didn't think less of him, I really didn't. I just didn't want him touching my clothes. I thought it would be possible for me to make him understand that, and we'd both be no worse off. I'm a great believer in that, it's what I hope for: not to leave people worse off.
"Well," he said, "it's not that I really like the material so much, it's that I really wanted to go to bed with you but I thought it was better to talk about the material."
This is the kind of thing that often happens. I try to make things better, or at least not worse, but the worst seems bound to happen. I often wonder whether the worst will happen anyway, whether it's useless to try and stop the worst from happening.
After the man had told me that what he really wanted was to go to bed, what was there left for me to do? Nothing. Nothing but to stare ahead at a fixed point in space and pretend, like most of the people in his life, that he didn't exist. I suppose I could have talked to him about it. But, you know, that would have required a very different kind of person.
What kind of person would that have to be? Woman, I mean. Someone more unusual, more confident, more detached. What would the woman be like who could have a conversation with a man, an unacceptable man, an undesirable man, a man she didn't want to go to bed with, after he'd told her that what he wanted was to go to bed. Not like me. I've said that. So like what? I'm not sure. I have two ideas, completely different from each other.
One idea is about a kind of woman who didn't know much about sex, the other is about a kind of woman who knew a lot, had been through a lot, perhaps even been abused, and wasn't very interested. So she could say, about herself and sex, "Well, yes, he wants that but I don't. Let's go on." Someone who'd had a bad time with sex, or even too much of it, but still kept her interest in life. This does happen. The other kind of woman I thought about, who didn't know anything about sex yet, would be bound to run into trouble sooner or later. Probably she would end up abused.
I see her, maybe a religious girl, someone who has faith in people, someone brought up to have faith in people, someone who wants sex, but has been brought up not to think about wanting sex, that might be selfish, someone brought up not to be selfish, to be helpful. This kind of woman can get into really dreadful trouble with the worst men. Can fall so easily to the bottom of the pit—unrecognizable, even to herself. But how do any of us recognize ourselves? By being around familiar objects, by performing actions that have some similarity to the actions of the past. I think that's all.
I tell you I've seen trusting girls, well-brought-up girls, girls who were trying to be unselfish or thought that there were things that they should learn, I've seen girls like this end up at the bottom of the pit. Some of them climb out, leave it behind, all that—by which I mean sex, sex with men at any rate, some of them find happiness with women—and go on, still interested in life, in stories.
I know about these women because it's what I do: I work with abused women. I used to run a shelter; now I'm a consultant.
I have never been abused. But I know that someone who could go on talking to an unacceptable man after he'd told her he wanted to go to bed with her would be on one or the other side of abuse. Before or after.
Or maybe not. Maybe there are some women who are so interested in hearing stories that they forget about protecting themselves. They know they could be in danger, but they'd rather hear the story. There must be women like that, women who went to Africa or joined the army. What was sex like for them, when they had it? Another story? You can't imagine a woman like that abandoning herself. Turning the machine off so the story stops being told or recorded. To have sex, you have to be willing to give up the line of the story.
I like stories, I've always liked stories, and I've never been abused. Perhaps because I married early. So the things I know about the painful kind of sex I only know from other people's stories.
What would it be like to think of sex as just another story? Your own story, but only one of them, and maybe not the most important.
But I was talking about what happened on the bus. I'd given up talking to the guy, I was staring straight ahead of me, and I heard some kind of kicking going on, someone kicking the back of one of the seats.
"Cut that shit out, man," I heard someone say.
"I'm not doin' any shit," said the guy who wanted to go to bed with me.
"You move that seat back up. I don't have room for my legs. You keep moving it up and down. Just keep it where you had it. I don't want trouble."
It was a young black man who was speaking, quite well dressed. He wasn't going to take any crap. I thought what he'd define as crap and what my friend would think of as his rights had a good chance of colliding.
"I have the right to move my seat back. You can't take away my rights."
"There's no room for my legs, man. Just move the seat up and leave it where it is."
I thought each of them had a point, and it didn't matter, something bad was going to happen soon. And there was nothing I could do to help.
I expected some kind of fight. But no, what came next was a perfectly civilized threat.
"You better cut that shit out, man, or I'm going to tell the bus driver you cracked that window banging your beer can on it."
"Bullshit, man, that window was cracked before I got on this bus. And you know it."
"I know that I saw you crack that window with your beer can. Some kind of crazy behavior. So just cut that shit out or I'm telling the bus driver about all that."
That quieted my friend, my admirer. He pushed his seat upright. The young black man had enough leg room. He put his Walkman phones into his ears. He was satisfied. Then my friend (I'd already begun to think of him that way: he seemed so familiar) lit up a cigarette. When the first hint of smoke got to the middle of the bus, a woman wearing a long full cotton skirt and black Reeboks popped up, as if the smoke signaled real fire, not a cigarette. She walked up to the bus driver; righteousness was on her side. She whispered something in the driver's ear.
He pulled out of the traffic lane and stopped the bus on the shoulder of the road. He stood up. He had short black slicked-down hair, and he pulled his pants up, putting his thumbs through his belt loops. He walked heavily, rolling, lurching up the aisle as if he were aboard a ship. He stopped heavily at my friend's seat.
"Now I've had all the crap from you I'm about to take. We're just going to get off the bus right now and wait for the troopers."
My friend began to cry. "Please," he said. "I'll get sent back. I'm on probation. I swear to God I won't make any trouble. Whatever I've done here today, it's not so bad that it's worth what's going to happen to me."
I thought he was right. I wanted to tell the bus driver to give him another chance. But I could tell that the passengers weren't on my side; I thought it would be a useless gesture. I thought of the position I'd be in for the rest of the ride if I made an unsuccessful plea. And it was bound to be unsuccessful. At least I convinced myself of that. I've never been sure; I've never quite forgiven myself for not trying.
"The trouble with scum like you is you have too many chances to ruin the life of decent people like my passengers here."
I could feel the passengers come together; each breast swelled with a sense of group pride. Except mine. I was ashamed.
The boy was sobbing as he walked down the aisle and out of the bus. I saw how handsome he was. He had a high color—from emotion, perhaps, or sun. Maybe he was part Indian. His thighs were strong and he had James Dean hair that fell into his eyes. I wondered what it would have been like to go to bed with him after all. Sometimes women like me do go to bed with men like that. Someone I used to work with married one of her clients who was a prisoner. Of course it turned out badly. But so many things do.
The troopers came and handcuffed my friend and made him spread-eagle against the car. All the time he was crying and begging for another chance. I could see how dirty his hands were, and his trousers. I was wondering how he lived.
One of the troopers, a woman, came on the bus to take statements from anyone who'd seen the man outside "engaged in acts of disruptive behavior." The young black man who'd been annoyed by him testified that he'd been annoyed, and that he'd seen the guy crack the window with his beer can. No one else had seen it though; no one could remember whether or not it was cracked, as my friend claimed, when he'd got on the bus.
The woman who sat next to me, a small, oldish woman who was knitting, poked me with one of her needles.
"Aren't you going to tell her what he did to you?"
"What?" I said. "I don't remember what he said. It was no big deal anyway."
"Well, what is it?" she said angrily. "Either you don't remember what he said or it's no big deal."
"I guess I mean it's no big deal."
"You should speak up," she said. "You should always speak up."
"I just don't feel it's worth it," I said.
She looked at me with real hatred. "It's people like you who are the cause of everything," she said.
It took the trooper an hour and a half to take down all the statements. Then they drove away with my friend in the car. I wished that I were handcuffed in the car with him.
I saw everyone's position; I thought everyone was right.
That was the day that I met Clement.
But I don't want to talk about meeting him, what he said, what I said, how we seemed to one another. That would get things off on the wrong foot, as if this were the sort of story that would end well. I suppose it won't end well.
It was such strange weather when I met him. I'm from Southern Illinois and we lived near a river; I grew up in fog you might say. My parents were good people. I'm not sure of that. Can you say someone's good if he or she hasn't been tested? That's the kind of thing Clement and I talk about. Perhaps it's better to say they were nice people, my parents. But that's not fair, that says too little of them. It certainly seems fair to say that they were kind. I know that's true, even though I believe they were never tested. They never met anyone too different from themselves, anyone who behaved really outrageously, or made demands on them that they had no reason to expect. But maybe they thought they were sorely tested; maybe they thought they'd lived their whole lives on the rack. Maybe my mother was in love with someone else; maybe my father nursed a secret thirst he subdued at great cost each day. I'll never know. She's dead now.
I'm forty-eight; my mother's dead, my father has Parkinson's disease. This is slightly on the dark side of the national average, I suppose, but it's not tragic. You could say the same thing of the fact that I'm divorced, after a marriage that went on for fifteen years and ended when he met somebody else. But we weren't in love; it all seems a long time ago. It's worse than what my parents wanted for me, my life that is, but not nearly so bad as what a lot of people have.
I've seen what a lot of people have, have done to them, or visited upon them. The kind of work I do has given me that. And I know this about myself: I've never been outside the web, never been in extreme circumstances: danger, degradation, absolute abandonment. I have two children and they're both healthy. That's the only thing I couldn't bear. If anything should happen to them. A lot of people don't get that: to be spared the one thing they couldn't bear.
Something almost happened to my daughter once, and I was with her, and I couldn't stop it. No, it was worse than that. I didn't stop it. As it turned out, I didn't need to, but it's a good thing, because in the moment that we all fear, the extreme moment, I failed her. And I have to live with that.
We were swimming at Nantucket. We were on vacation at the beach; it was a perfect day. My daughter was ten; this was a while ago; she's seventeen now. And my son's fourteen. There we were on the beach, and everyone was in the water. People's voices rose and fell; little screams, echoes, a flat buzz of talk, all of it so far away. We were vacationing with my best friend and her children. We would all wake at different times, eat anyhow, clean up haphazardly, read, talk. It's not important that you know any of that.
My daughter and I went into the water. I ought to have known. Now I know: a riptide makes a channel in the other water, a clear stream, as though it were fresh water in the thicker foaming water of the ordinary waves. The children were in my charge. I ought to have known it, I ought to have known about the riptide. My daughter could have died, it would have been my fault if she had. She didn't, and I had nothing to do with that.
We were laughing, swimming. Then we understood that we were being carried terribly far out. We tried to swim back but it wasn't working. However hard we swam, it didn't matter. We just kept being pulled out.
Excerpted from The Rest of Life by Mary Gordon. Copyright © 1993 Mary Gordon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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