A Perfect Failure: Mary Gordon’s “City Life”

Several Ploughshares issues lined up on a bookshelf with the spines facing out.

This is the final post in the series “From the Archives.”

I always get a little nervous when a fictional character broadcasts loudly and forcefully what he wants. It’s the definitiveness that makes me uncomfortable, because that clarity of desire kicks off an unhealthy obsession; in the end, disappointment seems inevitable. Gatsby wants Daisy. Lear wants declarations of love. We know how these stories end. We might sense early on that regardless of how earnestly a character pursues her desire she’ll never get it, and her entire journey is in pursuit of unavoidable failure. Alternatively, we might see that a character will never be happy even if he does get what he wants. It’s this latter outcome I find most tragic: when a character forms her desires early and firmly, gets everything she wants, then slowly awakens to the reality that she’s not so sure she wants it anymore, or ever wanted it to begin with. It’s not so easy as simply changing one’s mind; there are consequences even to getting your way.

At the opening of Mary Gordon’s story “City Life,” published in Ploughshares in 1997, Beatrice meets her future husband, Peter, at college in Buffalo. She offers him the most cursory sketch of her past: “My parents are dead. We lived in Western New York State, near Rochester. I am an only child. I have no family left.” That he doesn’t probe for details is one of the reasons Beatrice marries him. She doesn’t want to disclose the poverty of her childhood or her alcoholic parents. She wants to avoid above all else the memory of the house she grew up in—its isolation, flimsiness, and filth.

“She had awakened each day in dread,” the narrator tells us, “afraid to open her eyes, knowing the first thing they fell on would be ugly.” From this place of anxiety and fear Beatrice forms her first important desire: “to keep the horror of her parents’ life from everything that could be called her life.” She buys a colorful Indian bedspread to divide her side of the bedroom from her parents’ side. The gesture isn’t about privacy or even an attempt at beauty so much as an assertion of difference. That’s your life, this is mine. It’s the first of many barriers—physical, emotional, and psychological—that Beatrice erects between herself and her parents, and her marriage to Peter provides her with the ultimate barrier: silence. With his promise never to pry or to question, she’s offered a way out of her past and the freedom to plan the future.

Beatrice and Peter move from Buffalo to Ithaca. They have three boys. She finds the best furniture at antique stores and auctions. They add a sewing room to the house, and a greenhouse. It’s a life of “clean linen and bright rooms, of matched dishes and a variety of specialized kitchen items: each unique, for one use only, and not, as everything in her mother’s house was, interchangeable.” Beatrice’s careful curation is the perfect antidote to her childhood.

This life is threatened when Peter gets a job at Columbia and Beatrice is forced to begin again in the city. For a month she manically scrubs grout, scrapes window frames, sews curtains, bleaches the bathroom floor, re-erecting all those barriers to keep the memories of her past from intruding. Yet the past does intrude, and not in the way she anticipates. One afternoon the downstairs neighbor comes knocking:

The man at the doorway was unlike anyone she had spoken to in New York, anyone she’d spoken to since she’d left home. But in an instant she recognized him. She thought he was there to tell her the story of her life, and to tell Peter and everyone she knew. She’d never met him, as himself, before. But he could have lived in the house she’d been born in. He had an unrushed look, as if he had all the time in the world. He took a moment to meet her eyes, but when he did, finally, she understood the scope of everything he knew.

Although the neighbor has only come upstairs to ask for quiet, Beatrice recognizes in his greasy jacket, missing front teeth, and messy hair a bit of her own past, and the old fear of being found out overwhelms her. She retreats to the bedroom and shuts the door. She stays in bed four days, cuts herself off from her husband and children, just as she had done with her parents as a child, only now it isn’t a flimsy bedspread that separates them but a door and a lifelong lie.

The two worlds eventually collide when the neighbor returns and Peter answers the door. We’re offered a glimpse into how Peter might have reacted to Beatrice’s past had she shared it. Her decision to remain silent seems all the more justified. She makes a surprising attempt at reconciliation, not with Peter (who is plotting the neighbor’s eviction), but with the neighbor himself. She slips out of her apartment to warn him of her husband’s plan. It’s a voluntary return to a cluttered and filthy space, one that offers more comfort than she expects. We might see the visit as an apology or an act of empathy, but by this point it’s too late. The neighbor just wants her to go away. She leaves—reluctantly—and goes back upstairs to her husband and children, to the apartment with its scrubbed counters and bleached floors, resigning herself to the life she always wanted.

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