Hello to the Cannibals

by Richard Bausch

Hello to the Cannibals

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Book Summary

Pregnant, newly married, and living with her in-laws, Lily Austin writes a play about famed nineteenth-century British explorer Mary Kingsley and finds inspiration in her subject's writings, which include a cache of letters written to an unnamed woman of the future. Reader's Guide available. Reprint.

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Excerpt: Hello To The Cannibals

Hello to the Cannibals

Excerpt

Chapter One

Toward the end of her junior year of college, her parents separated, and that summer, the hottest summer anyone could remember, she heard them discuss their dissolving marriage individually, to different people, in distressingly composed, matter-of-fact voices. They might as well have been talking about refinancing a mortgage. With her, they were mutually reserved, polite, careful not to criticize each other. They spoke of reciprocal respect, of what was best for everyone; and it seemed that no rancor existed between them. Indeed, once it came to the final arrangements, they both appeared rather self-satisfied for having accomplished everything with a minimum of pathological scenes. Even the lawyers called it amicable.

In Lily Austin's mind, there was nothing about splitting a household in two that could be called anything of the sort.

Her roommate, Sheri Galatierre, attempted to divert her, asking her along to parties and other social events. Lily mostly demurred. As it had been for years, now, she was troubled by the company of strangers, though she didn't express it that way. She didn't know, really, how to say what she wanted.

Sheri had a way of getting down into her sorrow with her that made her feel worse, though the other woman obviously meant to help. Dominic Martinez also tried to distract her, being goofy and chattering, clowning for her. He had come to the university that year, having transferred in from North Carolina. He'd walked up to her after one of the performances of the drama department, and said, "Ronda Seiver's party." It had startled Lily, and for a moment she hadn't recognized him. "You got the book that had the lady explorer in it."

"Dominic?" she said.

He bowed, exactly as he had that night at Ronda's house.

They had become rather like brother and sister, since then. Dominic sometimes refused to indulge her. He would tell her to grow up and stop twisting her own knife in herself. Strangely, that helped some.

Yet in the hours when she was alone, nothing quite reached the place where she was hurting. The facts hurt; the knowledge of what had lately transpired between her parents caused a deep, unreachable, continual ache. She couldn't shake the old, terrible, familiar sense of having been betrayed. And so while everyone around her spoke in terms of romance, and while it was in all the books and the plays she was reading - and last spring she had played the most romantic of parts, Rosalind, in As You Like It - Lily had decided that the whole thing was a lie and a cheat.

Her father, completely serious, and without a trace of irony, had an affair with someone he worked with. He spoke about falling in love. He used the phrase, telling Lily's mother about it, confessing to her that it had been going on for more than a year, crying idiotically and begging her to forgive him. Lily's mother, who had felt the weight of her own increasing estrangement from him, went into an almost surreptitious sixweek-long depression, then gathered strength and called a lawyer. Everything was decided with an efficiency, a courtesy, that Lily deplored. It was as if her parents had decided to close a long-running play in which they had performed the lead roles.

This was in 1988. Bush and Dukakis were running for Reagan's soon-to-be vacated office, and Lily, entering her last year of college, found that she couldn't care less. In the fall, back at school, she went through the strangeness of writing to and communicating with her parents separately, and of having to speak to the young woman, a set designer, to whom her father was now married (a civil ceremony in Maryland, three days after the divorce was final, in late July). The strain worked on her in unexpected ways: she had experienced episodes of panic and sleeplessness. And when she could sleep at all she had nightmares - one, quite recently, about her fourteenth birthday. She was more upset about how it made her feel than she was about the nightmare itself; inexplicably, it was worse waking from it than being in it.

She had registered for double the normal hours, having lost a semester when she switched majors, and wanting to graduate on time.

Her teachers liked her ability to lose herself in whatever role she tried, and others commented favorably on her performances. When she had played Rosalind, there was a certain pleasure in being recognized. But she was already discovering that she had no taste for being in front of people. There was something in herself that she defied by continuing to perform, though her sense of this was visceral, flying in the face of her own increasingly introverted feelings. Her discomfiture after the performances, her absence at most of the celebrations and cast parties and social gatherings, had become the subject of talk among the other members of the drama school. She went her own way; and people began to leave her alone. Even Dominic and Sheri kept a certain respectfull distance at times.

The panic she managed mostly to keep at bay, though trying to decide what she might do after college, after all this relentless work, was cause for anxiety, too. The anxiety, whatever its source, plagued her. When one was suffering through this kind of distraction, it was nearly impossible to concentrate on memorizing large masses of text. It was difficult enough just getting through assigned reading.

On one of the last football weekends of her senior year - a crisp, breezy Saturday with the smell of burning leaves in the air and a pleasant coolness that seemed a kind of mingling of the fading summer and the coming winter - Sheri cajoled and begged her into accompanying her to the game. The Cavaliers won big, though since she didn't know anything about football ...

(Continues...)



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