She was born Mary Dunne. A New York actress in a stalled career, she’s previously been known as Maria and Martha. Married three times, she’s also been called Mrs. Phelan, Mrs. Bell, and currently, Mrs. Terence Lavery—wife of the esteemed playwright. No wonder Mary Dunne forgot her name this morning at the hairdresser. She has no idea who she is anymore. Or maybe she’s just crazy. She’s curious to find out.
Over the course of a single day, Mary tries to recall more than her name. But as memories of her past come trickling back—infuriating, illuminating, and grievous—she realizes there’s so much she’d prefer to forget. As she tries to escape what she calls “the dooms,” Mary must confront what she’s done with her life—deliberately, haplessly, or by default. If only she were going crazy; it would be so much easier to explain it all away.
Hailed by the Globe and Mail as a “feminist novel written before the wave of feminist novels began,” I Am Mary Dunne is “as complex and satisfying as anything Moore has yet done” (The Observer).
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Cogito ergo sum. I close my eyes and go back sixteen years. Mother Marie-Thérèse writes it on the blackboard. Her arm is bare to the elbow: the sleeve of her habit is rolled up to avoid chalk dust. 'I think, therefore I am,' she says. Where the Latin was just something to translate, the English jumps and my hand is up (unlike me, that) and when Mother sees me I ask wouldn't it have been more correct for him to have said, Memento ergo sum?
'Memento?' With that winter frost smile of hers.
'Yes, Mother. I remember, therefore I am.'
She sends her smile searching among the other girls in the class. But no one has a comment. As for Reverend Mother's smile, it could mean, 'A silly girl has misunderstood Descartes,' or 'See how we have engaged the attention of Mary Dunne.'
'And why would you say that?' she asks me.
'Because' (I am fifteen) 'we are what we remember.'
'Interesting,' says Reverend Mother, but did she really think so? Did she remember our conversation an hour after class? I have remembered it sixteen years and now I wonder. If we are what we remember, did that girl I was die because I forgot her? As now, perhaps, I am beginning to die because some future me cannot keep me in mind.
Now why did I think that? I was coming along nicely until I had that thought about dying and now my heart's beating loud again, stop, stop, remember how comforting it was to close my eyes, go back and find them waiting for me, Mother Marie-Thérèse and the class. If I can remember that far back and so clearly then shut up, heart, calm down, there's nothing to be afraid of.
I tell this to my heart as I would tell it to a very stupid person. I tell it it is a perfectly normal heart: the reason it's acting up is anxiety. I tell it no wonder it's acting up after a day like today, and especially tonight with that story about Hat. But that has nothing to do with me, no matter what people say, it has nothing to do with me, all that is over and done with, I'm in love with Terence, I'm happily married at last, the only thing we haven't got is children, but that will come, the doctor says we're both fine so that will be all right too. In fact, if I were pregnant tonight, my heart wouldn't be thumping like this, because the real reason I'm upset is physical, I'll be starting my period any time now, that's why I was confused all day, that's why this panic about forgetting. It began this morning when the receptionist forgot my name, that's what started the whole thing and I'll bet that, far from losing my memory, I could, if I put my mind to it, remember every single thought, word, and deed which happened to me today. But what would that prove? When people say they remember everything that happened in their lives, they're deceiving themselves. I mean if I were to try to tell anyone the story of my life so far, wouldn't it come out as fragmentary and faded as those old snapshot albums, scrapbooks, and bundles of letters everyone keeps in some bottom drawer or other? What would I remember about my life, wouldn't it be just some false, edited little movie, my version of what my parents were like, the places I lived in, the names of some of the people I've known, and would any of it give you any idea of what I feel about, say, sex, or children, about something trivial like cleaning the oven broiler or something terrible like this thing about Hat?
Down Tilt. I mustn't think about Hat. Far better to do something constructive, like try to figure out why I forgot my name this morning. I should begin there for the day really did begin there in the Golden Door Beauty Salon about eleven thirty this morning while I was paying for my shampoo and set. I remember I looked back into the salon and they'd changed the colour scheme of the place since the last time I was in. I saw six women wearing scarlet smocks, their heads under the freshly painted pink cones of hair driers and the cones reminded me of mitres; the women became cardinals sitting in their pews at High Mass and that put me in mind of those distorted paintings of cardinals by Francis Bacon and I wondered if I first saw those paintings in the Museum of Modern Art or was it later with Terence at the big Bacon show in the Guggenheim? Anyway, I was miles away when the receptionist asked me about my next appointment. I said Thursday, a week from now, my regular time. The receptionist gave a little cough, then smiled. 'Isn't it awful,' she said. 'I don't know what's the matter with me this morning, but I've forgotten your name.'
I remember that I was angry. I thought damn you, you've seen me often enough, I'm a regular customer, why must you forget my name when you remember the name of every other customer. I've heard you many's a time with your Mrs This and Mrs That to anyone who walks in off the street. I know I was unreasonable, but just before my period I am unreasonable and there she was, waiting, her pencil at the ready, her book open and my name, oh God, I couldn't remember it either.
Panic. Standing there smiling idiotically at that idiotically smiling girl, my mind going over and back, over and back, whatsmyname whatsmyname whatsmyname? And, as my mind emptied, a piece of nonsense rushed in to fill the vacuum, a silly English music-hall song I heard years ago, and haven't been able to get out of my mind since, so right there in the middle of my whatsmyname whatsmyname whatsmyname panic, this song started up in my head:
Big Gertie's daughter, I am, I am,
And so there I stood with Big Gertie's daughter, Big Gertie's daughter singing away inside my empty head and what if I told her my name was Big Gertie's daughter and that thought eased the panic so that I found myself saying, 'Mrs Phelan.'
'Of course,' she said. 'Mrs Phelan.' And wrote it in her appointments book. While I opened my purse to put the change away in my little Mark Cross wallet and there, in the wallet, were credit cards. The top card was a Bloomingdales Charg-A-Plate made out to Mrs Terence Lavery, 201 East 78th Street, NYC.
Down Tilt. My name isn't Phelan. Phelan was my name when I was married to Jimmy and I realized that when Henri who does my hair looks in the appointments book next week and sees Phelan he'll pass me over to one of the juniors thinking I'm a new customer. But, even as all this was going through my mind, I was saying to myself what can I do about it except make some joke about my 'ex' and I can't bear women who make glib remarks about things like that, so I said nothing, shut my handbag, and went out of the beauty parlour on to Madison where there was an awful wind coming up the street. I'd forgotten to bring one of those little plastic tie-on things to protect my hair, so eight fifty, ten with tip, would go down the drain unless I could find a cab at once. I tried to shield my hair with my handbag and ran to the intersection to wait for the light to change so that I could cross over and get a cab going uptown. A man came up and waited beside me. I was shielding my hair so I didn't really look at him, but I knew, almost subliminally, that he was an Ivy League type in his thirties or forties, no drunk, no threat. Then, the light changed. I went to step off the pavement but the man put his hand on my wrist, detaining me. I turned to look at him and saw his flushed face, bright eyes, breathy, excited smile.
'I'd like to fuck you, baby.'
He was smiling as he said it, the tip of his tongue showing, and I knew it gave him a hard-on to watch the outrage in my face. He let go of my wrist, stepped off the pavement, going across the street, quick-quick, disappearing into the crowd on the other side of the street as though he had never been. While I stood there like the cat in the movie cartoon after the sneaky mouse has handed it a ticking bomb. The bomb explodes and, when the smoke clears, there's the silly cat staring at the remains of the bomb in its paw. Pause. Then (quietly) the cat cracks into a thousand pieces.
Well, in the moment before my crack-up, I stood there on the pavement and ran through a revenge scene in my mind. What if I managed to catch up with him? What if I grabbed him and hit him over the head with my handbag? A crowd would collect, a cop would show up and there I would be, listened to by a crowd of strangers as I tried to explain to the cop that this man, this well-dressed respectable-looking man had said he'd like to fuck me, and while I'd be telling that to the cop, I can imagine the man exchanging meaningful looks with the bystanders, and perhaps saying, 'Some people have vivid imaginations, women especially.' The cop would digest this, then say, 'Tell me, lady, did this gentleman touch you or harm you in any way?' At which point in my fantasy of revenge I splinter like the cartoon cat. You can't fight male solidarity.
All this time I was staring stupidly at the green traffic light, knowing I should cross. But didn't, until the light changed back to red. Then I ran into the traffic, signalling a cab which seemed to be free. The driver saw me and pulled in up ahead (probably breaking some traffic law) while I rantowards him, sure, as are all New Yorkers, that someone else would get to him before me. But he was free. I got in, shut the door, and when I opened my handbag and looked at my hair in the pocket mirror, it wasn't the way it had been when they combed it out fifteen minutes before, but it could have been worse. As I gave the driver my address I remembered an article I read once about the trial of Hess, the Auschwitz commandant, an article in which the Polish state prosecutor was quoted as saying that the main crime of the Auschwitz camp guards was not sadism; it was indifference. The majority of the guards were not sadists; they simply could not conceive of the prisoners (those Jewish and gipsy bags of skin and bones) as men and women like their German selves. In the cab, thinking about that, I decided the real crime of the man I'd just encountered was that, to him, women were not human like himself, but simply objects he wanted to penetrate and to hurt. I know that's not well reasoned (as Mother Marie-Thérèse used to say) but it's what I thought then and I went from that pervert in the street to Jimmy who believed he loved me but always said, 'You're beautiful. I want you,' as though I were a new car he could show off to his friends. And, as the cab went uptown, I decided that Jimmy didn't want me, he simply wanted a face and body which happened to be mine. Of course I know that's not well reasoned either, but it's what I thought in the cab. I was in a Down Tilt. In a Down Tilt things are black and white.
And yet. There's no logical explanation, but my Down Tilt balanced out as the cab pulled in at our apartment building and I saw Harold, one of the doormen, coming towards the kerb in his bottle-green uniform, white dickey, and clean white gloves, so cheerful and polite with his, 'Good morning, Mrs Lavery,' opening the door for me while I paid off the driver, then moving ahead of me to hold open the glass front door of the building, telling me he had a package for me, moving off to his cubbyhole to get it while I stood there in that pleasant lobby where there's a reproduction of a T'ang horse discreetly floodlit in one alcove and, in the other, a marble pier table with a white bowl filled with flame-coloured gladioli, the whole building so well kept up and pleasant I remember thinking the girls I went to school with would envy me this. I thought of my schooldays because, through the glass doors of the lobby, I saw a fat little boy who was standing on the kerb outside, reining in a poodle on one leash, a beagle on the other and, at the same time, this fat little boy seemed to be waving at me. I smiled at him (who was he?) and, as soon as I did, he dragged on the dogs' leashes and came across the pavement and in the door. Came right up to me.
'Hi, Mrs Bell.'
'Hi,' I said. (Who was he?)
'How's Bell? I mean Pete.'
While I (whatshisname? whatshisname?) said Pete was fine, just fine.
Wanausek. I remembered I used to have trouble pronouncing it. I was always surprised at the way it slid so neatly out of Pete's childish lips. New York private schoolboys have this habit of calling each other by their last names. Pete and Wanausek were classmates when Hat and I lived on West 13th Street.
'Is he still at Lawrence?' Wanausek asked me.
I said I thought he was (although I don't know where he is) and the moment I said 'thought' I saw Wanausek give me that changeling look which children sometimes assume when, suddenly, their childish bodies seem possessed by the personality of an adult with whom they are in contact. In Wanausek's case the unknown Doppelgänger must be a schoolmaster for now, miming the gestures of a middle-aged martinet, he dragged the unfortunate dogs to heel and, glaring at me, asked in a censorious bark, 'What's the matter, don't you see Bell, I mean, Pete, any more?'
I said no. I said, 'Pete's father and I have been divorced.'
'Oh.' For a moment he stared at the ground, a stiff little schoolmaster pondering a pupil's excuse. Then, 'You aren't Bell's real mother, are you?'
'No, I'm not.'
'Oh.' He nodded again. Excuse accepted. 'Well,' he said. 'If you run into him, say hello for me, will you?'
'The name is Wanausek,' he said. 'Dick W-a-n-a-u-s-e-k.'
'Yes. I remember.'
He did not believe me. With a name like his, why should he? 'Wanausek,' he said again. He dragged at the unfortunate dogs. 'Come on, Hugo, come on, Rochester. Let's go, you bums,' and he and the dogs went out just as Harold came up with my package which was the Lily Daché bath oil I'd ordered from Bloomingdales. I thanked Harold and went up alone in the elevator. I only had Pete for a month in the summers and a week at Easter, so I never really got to know him. Except for that two months when his mother was ill and they (the grandparents) sent him to live with Hat. Pete didn't look like Hat. I suppose he looked like his mother.
I remember getting the mail out of our box in the back hall and, going through it as I went up in the elevator, deciding there was nothing interesting there. Some advertising junk, a letter for Tee, a Life subscription notice, a telephone bill which I put in my handbag to pay, and, when I let myself into our apartment, I saw that Ella Mae, our cleaning woman, had arrived because the paper bag she keeps her street clothes in was plonked down on the hall chair as per usual. I have lots of closets but do you think I could get her to use one? I called out asking if anyone had phoned, thinking perhaps Janice Sloane might have called, but Ella Mae shouted back, 'No, ma'am.' I put the mail in the Mexican bowl on the captain's chest in the hall and, as I did, a letter slid out from behind the Life subscription notice, a familiar white envelope with a blue airmail sticker and a Canadian stamp. I don't know how I missed it before, but it was my mother's handwriting. I took it up and went into the living-room to read it. Even now it jumps up at me, that sentence in among the years of sentences. Sentences like: Madge Gordon came over and we played a hand of cards, cold all week and snow, the back porch is completely blocked up. Oh, Mama, I can see you sitting in the little back room because it's warmer, the stove's in there, arthritis in your hands, the trouble you have to hold a pen, but down the years the letters were written, letters to me and Jimmy in Toronto, letters to me alone in Montreal, then to West 13th Street, when I was with Hat. Letters. It was cold all week and we had some-rain, the lawn is flooded, Madge Gordon came over, Dick's eldest boy has the measles, my arthritis is giving me the pip. Once, long ago you were the whole world, you were what mattered. I can remember scolding my doll in your voice, standing beside you in the kitchen, learning to bake johnny cakes the way Mama did. And later, away from you, even after the divorce from Jimmy, then Hat, no, it wasn't until Terence that there were no more visits. Still, you wrote: Madge Gordon came over and we played a hand of cards, it's been hot all week, thank God for the summer, what we get of it, Dick's second has chickenpox, but is mostly over it and always, at the end, must go now, love from Mama.
Excerpted from "I Am Mary Dunne"
Copyright © 1968 Brian Moore.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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