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Beach Music

In 1980, a year after my wife leapt to her death from the Silas Pearlman Bridge in Charleston, South Carolina, I moved to Italy to begin life anew, taking our small daughter with me. Our sweet Leah was not quite two when my wife, Shyla, stopped her car on the highest point of the bridge and looked over, for the last time, the city she loved so well. She had put on the emergency brake and opened the door of our car, then lifted herself up to the rail of the bridge with the delicacy and enigmatic grace that was always Shyla's catlike gift. She was also quick-witted and funny, but she carried within her a dark side that she hid with bright allusions and an irony as finely wrought as lace. She had so mastered the strategies of camouflage that her own history had seemed a series of well-placed mirrors that kept her hidden from herself.

It was nearly sunset and a tape of the Drifters' Greatest Hits poured out of the car's stereo. She had recently had our car serviced and the gasoline tank was full. She had paid all the bills and set up an appointment with Dr. Joseph for my teeth to be cleaned. Even in her final moments, her instincts tended toward the orderly and the functional. She had always prided herself in keeping her madness invisible and at bay; and when she could no longer fend off the voices that grew inside her, their evil set to chaos in a minor key, her breakdown enfolded upon her, like a tarpaulin pulled across that part of her brain where once there had been light. Having served her time in mental hospitals, exhausted the wide range of pharmaceuticals, and submitted herself to the priestly rites of therapists of every theoretic persuasion, she was defenseless when the black music of her subconscious sounded its elegy for her time on earth.

On the rail, all eyewitnesses agreed, Shyla hesitated and looked out toward the sea and shipping lanes that cut past Fort Sumter, trying to compose herself for the last action of her life. Her beauty had always been a disquieting thing about her and as the wind from the sea caught her black hair, lifting it like streamers behind her, no one could understand why anyone so lovely would want to take her own life. But Shyla was tired of feeling ill-made and transitory and she wanted to set the flags of all her tomorrows at half-mast. Three days earlier, she had disappeared from our house in Ansonborough and only later did I discover that she had checked in to the Mills-Hyatt House to put her affairs in order. After making appointments, writing schedules, letters, and notes that would allow our household to continue in its predictable harmony, she marked the mirror in her hotel room with an annulling X in bright red lipstick, paid her bill with cash, flirted with the doorman, and gave a large tip to the boy who brought her the car. The staff at the hotel remarked on her cheerfulness and composure during her stay.

As Shyla steadied herself on the rail of the bridge a man approached her from behind, a man coming up from Florida, besotted with citrus and Disney World, and said in a low voice so as not to frighten the comely stranger on the bridge, "Are you okay, honey?"

She pirouetted slowly and faced him. Then with tears streaming down her face, she stepped back, and with that step, changed the lives of her family forever. Her death surprised no one who loved her, yet none of us got over it completely. Shyla was that rarest of suicides: no one held her responsible for the act itself; she was forgiven as instantly as she was missed and afterward she was deeply mourned.

For three days I joined the grim-faced crew of volunteers who searched for Shyla's remains. Ceaselessly, we dragged the length and breadth of the harbor, enacting a grotesque form of braille as hoods felt their way along the mudflats and the pilings of the old bridge that connected Mount Pleasant and Sullivan's Island. Two boys were crabbing when they noticed her body moving toward them beside the marsh grass.

After her funeral, a sadness took over me that seemed permanent, and I lost myself in the details and technicalities connected to death in the South. Great sorrow still needs to be fed and I dealt with my disconsolate emptiness by feeding everyone who gathered around me to offer their support. I felt as though I were providing sustenance for the entire army in the field who had come together to ease the malignant ache I felt every time Shyla's name was mentioned. The word Shyla itself became a land mine. That sweet-sounding word was merciless and I could not bear to hear it.

So I lost myself in the oils and condiments of my well-stocked kitchen. I fatted up my friends and family, attempted complicated recipes I had always put off making, and even tried my hand at Asian cuisine for the first time. With six gas burners ablaze, I turned out velvety soups and rib-sticking stews. I alternated between cooking and weeping and I prayed for the repose of the soul of my sad, hurt wife. I suffered, I grieved, I broke down, and I cooked fabulous meals for those who came to comfort me.

It was only a short time after we buried Shyla that her parents sued me for custody of my child, Leah, and their lawsuit brought me running back into the real world. I spent a dispiriting year in court trying to prove my fitness as a father. It was a time when I met a series of reptilian lawyers so unscrupulous that I would not have used their marrow to feed wild dogs or their wiry flesh to bait a crab pot. Shyla's mother and father had gone crazy with grief and I learned much about the power of scapegoating by watching their quiet hatred of me as they grimaced though the testimony regarding my sanity, my finances, my reputation in the community, and my sexual life with their eldest child.

Though I have a whole range of faults that piqued the curiosity of the court, few who have ever seen me with my daughter have any doubts about my feelings for her. I get weak at the knees at the very sight of her. She is my certification, my boarding pass into the family of man, and whatever faith in the future I still retain.

But it was not my overriding love of Leah that won the day in court. Before she took her final drive, Shyla had mailed me a letter that was part love letter and part apology for what she had done. When my lawyer had me read that letter aloud to the court, it became clear to Shyla's parents and everyone present that laying her death at my feet was, at best, a miscarriage of justice. Her letter was an act of extraordinary generosity written in the blackest hours of her life. She blew it like a kiss toward me as a final gesture of a rare, exquisite sensibility. Her letter saved Leah for me. But the ferocity of that court battle left me exhausted, bitter, and raw around the edges. It felt as though Shyla had died twice.

I answered my wife's leap from the bridge and the fierceness of that legal battle with a time of disorientation and sadness; and then with Italy. Toward Europe, I looked for respite and hermitage, and the imminence of my secret flight from South Carolina again restored a fight spirit within me. I had made a good living as a food and travel writer and running away had always been one of the things I did best.

The flight to Europe was my attempt to place the memory of both Shyla and South Carolina permanently in the past. I hoped I would save my life and Leah's from the suffocation I was beginning to feel in the place where Shyla and I had come of age together. For me, the South was carry-on baggage I could not shed no matter how many borders I crossed, but my daughter was still a child and I wanted her to grow into young womanhood as a European, blissfully unaware of that soft ruinous South that had killed her mother in one of its prettiest rivers. My many duties as a father I took with great seriousness, but there was no law that I was aware of that insisted I raise Leah as a Southerner. Certainly, the South had been a mixed blessing for me and I carried some grievous wounds into exile with me. All the way across the Atlantic Leah slept in my lap and when she awoke, I began her transformation by teaching her to count in Italian. And so in Rome we settled and began the long process of refusing to be Southern, even though my mother started a letter-writing campaign to coax me back home. Her letters arrived every Friday: "A Southerner in Rome? A low country boy in Italy? Ridiculous. You've always been restless, Jack, never knew how to be comfortable with your own kind. But mark my words. You'll be back soon. The South's got a lot wrong with it. But it's permanent press and it doesn't wash out."

Though my mother was onto something real, I stuck by my guns. I would tell American tourists who questioned me about my accent that I no longer checked the scores of the Atlanta Braves in the Herald Tribune and they could not get me to reread Faulkner or Miss Eudora at gun-point. I did not realize or care that I was attempting to expunge all that was most authentic about me. I was serious about needing some time to heal and giving my soul a much needed rest. My quest was amnesia; my vehicle was Rome. For five years, my plan worked very well.

But no one walks out of his family without reprisals: a family is too disciplined an army to offer compassion to its deserters. No matter how much they sympathized with all my motives, those who loved me most read a clear text of treason in my action. They thought that by forcing me away from South Carolina, Shyla's leap had succeeded in taking Leah and me over the rail with her.

I understood completely, but I was so burnt out I did not care. I threw myself at the Italian language with gusto and became fluent in the street talk of the shopkeepers and the vendors of our neighborhood. In the first year of our exile, working all the angles of my trade, I completed my third cookbook, a compilation of recipes I had gathered over a ten-year career of dining out in some of the best restaurants in the South. I also wrote a travel book on Rome that became popular with American tourists as soon as it hit the giornalai. I urged every American who read it to understand Rome was both sublime and imperishably beautiful, a city that melted into leaf-blown silences and gave a splendid return to any tourist adventurous enough to stray from the main trade routes of tourism. All the pangs and difficulties of my own homesickness went into the writing of that book. The artfully hidden subtext in those first years was that foreign travel was worth every discomfort and foul-up, but took a radical toll on the spirit. Though I could write about the imperishable charms of Rome forever, I could not quiet that pearly ache in my heart that I diagnosed as the cry of home.

I kept that cry to myself, in fact, did not even admit that it was something I heard or felt. I concentrated on the task of raising Leah in a culture alien to me and I hired a maid named Maria Parise from the Umbrian countryside and watched with pleasure as she took over the task of mothering Leah. Maria was a simple, strong-willed woman, God-fearing and superstitious, as only a peasant can be, who brought an undiminishable joy to the raising of this small motherless American.

In a short amount of time Leah became part of the native fauna around the Palazzo Farnese, a beloved romanina adopted by the people who loved and plied their trades around the piazza, and she rapidly turned into the first real linguist produced by my family. Her Italian was flawless as she navigated the teeming stalls along the Campo dei Fiori with its wild rivers of fruit and cheese and olives. Very early on, I taught Leah how to tell where we were in the Campo by using her sense of smell. The south side was glazed with the smell of slain fish and no amount of water or broomwork could ever eliminate the tincture of ammonia scenting that part of the piazza. The fish had written their names in those stones. But so had the young lambs and the coffee beans and the torn arugula and the glistening tiers of citrus and the bread baking that produced a golden brown perfume from the great ovens. I whispered to Leah that a sense of smell was better than a yearbook for imprinting the delicate graffiti of time in the memory. I knew that Leah had developed a bloodhound's nose when in the middle of the second year she stopped me as we passed by the Ruggeri brothers' alimentari and said, "The truffles have arrived, Daddy, they're here," as I caught the signature odor of pure earth. As a reward, I bought Leah a fraction of that truffle, priced as dearly as uranium, and sliced it into her scrambled eggs the next morning.

The raising of Leah consumed a large portion of my days and made me place my own sorrow over the loss of Shyla in a seldom visited back lot of my life, allowing me no time to devote to my own complex feelings over her death. Leah's happiness superseded everything in my life and I was determined I would not pass our family's infinite capacity for suffering on to her. I knew that Leah, as Shyla's child and my own, would get more than her portion of the genes of grief. Together, our families contained enough sad stories to jump-start a colony of lemmings toward the nearest body of water. I had no idea if the seeds of our madness burned in secret deposits in my beautiful child's bloodstream or not. But I vowed to protect her from those stories, from both sides of her family, that could set in motion the forces that had brought me spiritually bloody and beaten to the Fiumicino airport in the first place. I confess that I became the censor of my daughter's history. The South that I described to Leah at bedtime every night existed only in my imagination. I admitted no signs of danger or nightmare. There was no dark side to the Southern moon that I recalled to my daughter, and the rivers ran clean and the camellias were always in bloom. It was a South that existed without sting or thorns or heartache.

Because I have inherited my family's gift for storytelling, my well-told lies became Leah's memories. Without realizing it, I made the mistake of turning South Carolina into a lost and secret paradise to my daughter. By carefully editing what I thought would harm her, I turned my childhood into something as glamorous as forbidden fruit. Though Rome would mark her with its most exacting emblems, I did not note the exact moment I touched my child with a lust to see the fierce, rarefied beauty of her birthplace. Even as Leah became part of the secrets that Rome whispered, she was not a native of the city, not indigenous like the flowery lichens that grew along the wall that held back the Tiber.

Beach Music
by by Pat Conroy

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 800 pages
  • Publisher: Dial Press Trade Paperback
  • ISBN-10: 0553381539
  • ISBN-13: 9780553381535