Home > My Name Is Lucy Barton(15)

My Name Is Lucy Barton(15)
Elizabeth Strout

New York audiences can be tough, but they understood what she meant, and heads nodded and people whispered things to one another. I looked behind me at the man in the back row, and he appeared to be without emotion. At the end of the night I heard him say to a woman who’d come to speak to him, “She’s always taken a stage well.” He did not say it nicely, is how I felt. And I took the subway home alone; it was not a night I loved the city I have lived in for so long. But I could not have said exactly why. Almost, I could have said why. But not exactly why.

And so I began to record this story on that night. Parts of it.

I began to try.

The night in the hospital when I felt I had been unkind to my mother by saying that I did not think she ever cared what it was like to be famous, I couldn’t fall asleep. I was agitated; I wanted to cry. When my own children cried I fell to pieces, I would kiss them and see what was wrong. Maybe I did it too much. And when I had had an argument with William, I sometimes cried, and I learned early that he was not a man who hated to hear a woman cry, as many men are, but that it would break whatever coldness was in him, and he would almost always hold me if I cried very hard and say, “It’s okay, Button, we’ll work it out.” But with my mother I didn’t dare cry. Both my parents loathed the act of crying, and it’s difficult for a child who is crying to have to stop, knowing if she doesn’t stop everything will be made worse. This is not an easy position for any child. And my mother—that night in the hospital room—was the mother I had had all my life, no matter how different she seemed with her urgent quiet voice, her softer face. What I mean is, I tried not to cry. In the dark I felt she was awake.

Then I felt her squeeze my foot through the sheet.

“Mommy,” I said, bolting upright. “Mommy, please don’t go!”

“I’m not going anywhere, Wizzle,” she said. “I’m right here. You’re going to be all right. You’ll have a lot of stuff to face in your life, but people do. I’ve seen some of it in your case, I mean I’ve had some visions, but with you—”

I squeezed my eyes shut—Don’t you fucking cry you little idiot—and I squeezed my leg so hard I almost could not believe how much it hurt. Then it was over. I turned onto my side. “With me what?” I said. I could say it calmly now.

“With you, I’m never sure how accurate these things are. They used to be accurate with you.”

“Like when you knew I had Chrissie,” I said.

“Yes. But I didn’t—”

“Know her name.” We spoke this together, and in the dark it felt to me that we smiled together too. My mother said, “Sleep, Wizzle, you need your sleep. And if you can’t sleep, just rest.”

In the morning the doctor came and swooshed the curtain about me, and when he saw the red bruise on my thigh he didn’t touch it, but he stared at it, then he looked at me. He raised his eyebrows, and to my horror, tears slipped from the sides of my eyes. He nodded kindly, though it took him just a moment. He put his hand on my forehead, as though checking for a fever, and he left it there while the tears kept slipping from my eyes. He moved his thumb once, as though to brush away a tear. My God, he was kind. He was a kind, kind man. I gave a tiny smile to say thank you, a tiny grimace-smile to say that I was sorry.

He nodded and said, “You’ll see those kids soon. We’ll get you home with your husband. You’re not going to die on my watch, I promise you.” And then he made a fist and kissed it, and held it out toward me.

Sarah Payne was teaching a weeklong class in Arizona, and I was surprised when William offered to pay for me to go. This was a few months after I had seen her at the New York Public Library. I was not sure I wanted to be away from the children for that long, but William encouraged me. The class was called a “workshop,” and I don’t know why, but I have never liked that word: “workshop.” I went because it was taught by Sarah Payne. When I saw her in the classroom I gave a bright smile, thinking she would remember me from our meeting in the clothing store. But she only nodded back, and it took me some moments to realize she didn’t recognize me. Perhaps it is true that we wish for some tiny acknowledgment from someone famous, that they see us.

Our class met in an old building on the top of a hill, and it was warm and the windows were open, and I watched as Sarah Payne became exhausted almost immediately. I saw it in her face. By the end of one hour her face looked like it had fallen the way white clay loses its shape when it’s not cold enough, that is the image, that her face had dropped into a strange shape from fatigue, and at the end of three hours it seemed even more so, as though her white clay face was almost trembling. It took everything out of her to teach that class, is what I am saying. Her face was just ravaged with fatigue. Every day she would start with a little of the sparkle, and within minutes the fatigue set in. I don’t think I have seen before or since a face that showed its exhaustion so clearly.

There was a man in the class who had recently lost his wife to cancer, and Sarah was nice to him, I saw this. We all, I felt, saw this. We saw that this man fell in love with a student in the class who was a friend of Sarah’s. It was fine. The friend did not fall back in love with him, but she treated him decently, there was something decent in the way this woman and Sarah treated this man who was in pain from the death of his wife. There was also a woman who taught English. There was a Canadian man who had pink cheeks and a very pleasant way about him; the class teased him about being so Canadian, and he took it well. There was another woman who was a psychoanalyst from California.

And I want to report here what happened one day, which is that through the open window a cat suddenly jumped into the room, right onto the large table. The cat was huge, and long; in my memory he may as well have been a small tiger. I jumped up with terrible fear, and Sarah Payne jumped up as well; terribly she jumped, she had been that frightened. And then the cat ran out through the door of the classroom. The psychoanalyst woman from California, who usually said very little, said that day to Sarah Payne, in a voice that was—to my ears—almost snide, “How long have you suffered from post-traumatic stress?”

And what I remember is the look on Sarah’s face. She hated this woman for saying that. She hated her. There was a silence long enough that people saw this on Sarah’s face, this is how I think of it anyway. Then the man who had lost his wife said, “Well, hey, that was a really big cat.”

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