Home > My Name Is Lucy Barton(10)

My Name Is Lucy Barton(10)
Elizabeth Strout

The doctor, who wore his sadness with such loveliness, had come to check on me the night before. “I had a patient on another floor,” he said. “Let me see how you’re doing.” And he swished the curtain around me as he always did. He didn’t take my temperature with a thermometer but held his hand to my forehead, and then took my pulse with his fingers to my wrist. “Okay, then,” he said. “Sleep well.” He made a fist and kissed it, then held it in the air as he unswished the curtain and left the room. For many years, I loved this man. But I have already said that.

Other than Jeremy, the only friend I had in the Village during this time in my life was a tall Swedish woman named Molla; she was at least ten years older than I, but she also had small children. She passed by our door one day with her kids on the way to the park, and she started talking to me right away about really personal things. Her mother had not treated her well, she said, and so when she had her first baby she became very sad, and her psychiatrist told her that she was feeling grief because of everything she had not received from her own mother, et cetera. I didn’t disbelieve her, but her story wasn’t what was interesting to me. It was her style, her forthright spilling out about things I didn’t know people spoke of. And she was not really interested in me, which was freeing. She liked me, she was nice to me, she was bossy and told me how to hold my babies and how to get them to the park, and so I liked her back. Mostly she was like watching a movie or something foreign, which of course she was. She made references to movies, and I never knew what she was talking about. She must have noticed this, and she was polite about it, or maybe she did not believe that I could have a blank face when she spoke of Bergman films or television shows from the sixties, or music too. I had no knowledge of popular knowledge, as I have said. At that time, I barely understood that about myself. My husband knew it about me, and would try to help me out if he was around, maybe saying, “Oh, my wife didn’t see a lot of movies growing up, don’t worry.” Or “My wife’s parents were strict and never let her watch television.” Not giving away my childhood of poverty, because even poor people had TVs. Who would have believed it?

“Mommy,” I said softly that next night.


“Why did you come here?”

There was a pause, as though she was shifting her position in the chair, but my head was turned toward the window.

“Because your husband called and asked for me to come. He needed you babysat, I believe.”

For a long while there was silence, maybe it was ten minutes, maybe it was almost an hour, I really don’t know, but finally I said, “Well, thank you anyway,” and she did not reply.

In the middle of the night, I woke from a nightmare I could not remember. Her voice came quietly, “Wizzle-dee, sleep. Or if you can’t sleep, just rest. Please rest, honey.”

“You’re never sleeping,” I said, trying to sit up. “How can you go every night never sleeping? Mom, it’s been two nights!”

“Don’t worry about me,” she said. She added, “I like your doctor. He’s watching out for you. The residents know nothing, how can they? But he’s good, he’ll see to it that you get better.”

“I like him too,” I said. “I love him.”

A few minutes later she said, “I’m sorry we had so little money when you kids were growing up. I know it was humiliating.”

In the dark I felt my face become very warm. “I don’t think it mattered,” I said.

“Of course it mattered.”

“But we’re all fine now.”

“I’m not so sure.” She said this thoughtfully. “Your brother is almost a middle-aged man who sleeps with pigs and reads children’s books. And Vicky—she’s still mad about it. The kids made fun of you at school. Your father and I didn’t know that, I suppose we should have. Vicky’s really still pretty mad.”

“At you?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“That’s silly,” I said.

“No. Mothers are supposed to protect their children.”

After a while I said, “Mom, there are kids with mothers who sell them for drugs. There are kids whose mothers take off for days and just leave them. There are—” I stopped. I was tired of what was sounding untrue.

She said, “You were a different kind of kid from Vicky. And from your brother too. You didn’t care as much what people thought.”

“What makes you say that?” I asked.

“Well, look at your life right now. You just went ahead and…did it.”

“I see.” I didn’t see, though. How do we ever see something about our own self? “When I went to school when I was little,” I said, lying flat on my back on the hospital bed, the lights from the buildings showing through the window, “I’d miss you all day. I couldn’t talk when a teacher called on me, because I had a lump in my throat. I don’t know how long it lasted. But I missed you so much, sometimes I’d go into the bathroom to cry.”

“Your brother threw up.”

I waited for a moment. Many moments went by.

Finally she said, “Every morning before school in fifth grade your brother threw up. I never found out why.”

“Mom,” I said, “what children’s books does he read?”

“The ones about the little girl on the prairie, there’s a series of them. He loves them. He’s not slow, you know.”

I turned my eyes toward the window. The light from the Chrysler Building shone like the beacon it was, of the largest and best hopes for mankind and its aspirations and desire for beauty. That was what I wanted to tell my mother about this building we saw.

I said, “Sometimes I remember the truck.”

“The truck?” My mother’s voice sounded surprised. “I don’t know anything about a truck,” she said. “What do you mean, your father’s old Chevy truck?”

I wanted to say—oh, terribly I wanted to say: Not even when there was the really, really long brown snake in there with me one time? I wanted to ask her this, but I could not bear to say the word, even now I can barely stand to say the word, and to tell anyone how frightened I was when I saw that I had been locked into a truck with such a long brown— And he moved so quickly. So quickly.

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