When Pat Conroy Came to Stay

A Tribute to the Prince of Tides

When I was in early High-school, my parents told me we’re going to have a guest stay with us in Vienna. We’re a private family and didn’t often have visitors, so I knew they must love him and that he’d probably be a character.

The last guest we had stay with us - “Uncle” Bob - lit up the sky over the old city with a flare he launched…from our apartment window…with a teargas bullet. I liked having guests.

All I knew about our guest-to-be was that he was one of my Dad’s author buddies from way back. Honestly, all I really cared about at the time was a girl, Rosamunde. She’d started attending my school that year, and was waaaay out of my league. She was a nerd, a jock, a nordic beauty, and worst of all, genuinely kind. I was (am) none of those things. I was that weird teenage art-kid with pre-trend ADD and shoulder-length hair who listened to bands like Cannibal Corpse and smoked. A real catch.

Undeterred, I’d been trying to figure out an excuse to ask her out on a date. I scored tickets to a fancy private press screening of the biggest movie in the US at the time, Toy Story. It wasn’t set to arrive in Vienna for another six months. I thought it was pretty cool, and apparently so did she because she agreed to come, even though it was at 7:45am…on a Sunday.

I’d been all nerves asking her, but it was way worse after she’d agreed. I’d asked her that Monday, and each passing day felt like taking yet another irreversible stride towards some spectacular disaster. I’ve always had terrible stage fright, but, back then, it paled when compared to “date-fright.”

We had no guest room to offer Pat, but that didn’t seem to bother him at all. He got a kick out of staying in my father’s study, where he slept on the massive leather couch with our 60lbs Bullterrier, Beehive.

Early one cold morning my father and I couldn’t find Beehive anywhere. Exasperated, we quietly entered the study and found Beehive happily stretched over Pat’s big belly, rising and falling with his sleeping breath. We laughed so hard that we woke him up. Momentarily confused by the rude awakening, Pat looked at us, then the ridiculous dog inches from his face, and started to giggle. “Well, hello there!” he said petting her long head. His giggling belly then jostled the dog, which made him break out laughing.

Though it ebbed and flowed throughout the day, that laughter never really went away. Since he’d arrived, his company charged the air like the first warm days of spring.

With him around, the week passed quickly. The night before the big date, my mother had gone all out fixing us supper. In the short time he’d been there, dinner had become something we all looked forward to, especially Pat’s wild and wonderful stories. As we sat there, we started to hear an unmistakably aggressive swell of sound rising from the street outside. We looked out the window and saw a massive protest rally passing by our building. Naturally - and to the great chagrin of my mother - Pat, Me, and my father raced down to get first-row tickets to the unfolding spectacle.

The three of us stood there rubbernecking in yellow lamp light as the shouting mob made its way past us, colliding with the police barricade down the block. The angry mass pooled and oozed into the night towards the old center of the city, leaving tattered banners and bottles in their wake.

The evening left us all wired. Not that I was going to get much sleep anyway. I was wide awake at 5am and watched the rising sun fill the thin skin of window frost with light. All gussied up, I headed out. I sported one of my father’s snazzy grey Italian trench-coats for god knows what reason, and tied my damp hair neatly back into a pony-tail.

Although the cinema was right up the street from my place, I left an hour early, you know, just incase. We agreed to meet at 7:45am inside the movie theatre…or was it outside? Better wait outside. It’s cold, but, you know, I’ll seem “cooler” if I shrug off the cold. Around 7:30, when my hair began to freeze, I was feeling REALLY cool. Around 7:45 I was getting a little concerned for my life. My teeth were chattering, but I couldn’t honestly tell you if it was the cold or anticipation. Around around 8, the cold was the last thing on my mind…

I was sitting on a bench outside the cinema, scanning the far ends of the street when I noticed people looking at me strangely. I shrugged it off assuming they though of me as some burnout still partying from the night before. Finally, a concerned woman approached and asked me if I was alright. Confused, I looked down and noticed that my lap was covered in blood, a lot of blood.

It was so cold I hadn’t felt the blood streaming from my nose. I got up, and it looked like I had been stabbed. I was covered. Despite all this I looked at my watch and it said 8:30. Reality set in. She was not coming, and for good measure, the universe had punched me in the face. Totally defeated, I bled my way home.

I walked into the living room and fell into the first chair I could find, blood and all. I heard shuffling as Pat sleepily emerged from the study. “Well, how did it …boy, what the fuck happened to you!?” he shouted.

He stood in the doorway in his pjs and patiently listened as I told him what had happened. He came closer and pulled up a chair but didn’t say anything for a while. Then he smiled, and involuntarily so did I. He began to tell me about his romantic misadventures he’d had at my age. In no time I was laughing so hard that the caked blood was crumbling off my face.

We sat and talked for a long while until my parents returned from their early breakfast. We quickly folded them into the conversation. A lot of terrible stories about heartbreak were shared that freezing morning, but not a tear was shed.

It was long ago, and I can’t for the life of me remember what he told me that morning. What I can remember is how he made me feel. He made me feel like I wasn’t alone, deeply understood, and that it would all be ok. This was just an epically ridiculous moment - the first of many - that would make for a great story to share with others one day when they were low. Thank you Pat, I think it’s time.

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