Home > My Name Is Lucy Barton(4)

My Name Is Lucy Barton(4)
Elizabeth Strout

“Well, he’s alone now, and she’s alone, and one day they’re going to die.”

“True,” my mother said.

I became distraught that day, over the fate of Kathie Nicely, while my mother sat at the foot of my bed. At least I remember it that way. I know that I told my mother—with a lump in my throat and my eyes stinging—that Kathie’s husband should have taken her back. I’m quite sure I said, “He’ll be sorry. I’m telling you, he will.”

And my mother said, “I suspect she’s the one who’s sorry.”

But maybe that wasn’t what my mother said.

Until I was eleven years old, we lived in a garage. The garage belonged to my great-uncle who lived in the house next door, and in the garage there was only a trickle of cold water from a makeshift sink. Insulation nailed against the wall held a stuffing like pink cotton candy, but it was fiberglass and could cut us, we were told. I was puzzled by that, and would stare at it often, such a pretty pink thing I could not touch; and I was puzzled to think it was called “glass”; odd to think now how much time it seemed to take up in my head, the puzzle of that pretty pink and dangerous fiberglass we lived right next to every minute. My sister and I slept on canvas cots that were bunk beds, metal poles holding one on top of the other. My parents slept beneath the one window, which looked out over the expanse of cornfields, and my brother had a cot in the far corner. At night I would listen to the humming noise of the little refrigerator; it would go on and off. Some nights moonlight came through the window, other nights it was very dark. In the winter it was cold enough that often I could not sleep, and sometimes my mother heated water on the burner and poured it into the red rubber hot water bottle and let me sleep with that.

When my great-uncle died, we moved into the house and we had hot water and a flush toilet, though in the winter the house was very cold. Always, I have hated being cold. There are elements that determine paths taken, and we can seldom find them or point to them accurately, but I have sometimes thought how I would stay late at school, where it was warm, just to be warm. The janitor, with a silent nod, and such a kind expression on his face, always let me into a classroom where the radiators were still hissing and so I did my homework there. Often I might hear the faint echo in the gym of the cheerleaders practicing, or the bouncing of a basketball, or perhaps in the music room the band would be practicing too, but I remained alone in the classroom, warm, and that was when I learned that work gets done if you simply do it. I could see the logic of my homework assignments in a way I could not if I did my work at home. And when my homework was finished, I read—until I finally had to leave.

Our elementary school was not big enough to have a library, but there were books in the classrooms that we could take home and read. In third grade I read a book that made me want to write a book. This book was about two girls and they had a nice mother, and they went to stay in a different town for the summer, and they were happy girls. In this new town there was a girl named Tilly—Tilly!—who was strange and unattractive because she was dirty and poor, and the girls were not nice to Tilly, but the nice mother made them be good to her. This is what I remember from the book: Tilly.

My teacher saw that I loved reading, and she gave me books, even grown-up books, and I read them. And then later in high school I still read books, when my homework was done, in the warm school. But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone! (But it was my secret. Even when I met my husband I didn’t tell him right away. I couldn’t take myself seriously. Except that I did. I took myself—secretly, secretly—very seriously! I knew I was a writer. I didn’t know how hard it would be. But no one knows that; and that does not matter.)

Because of the hours I stayed in the warm classroom, because of the reading I did, and because I saw that if you didn’t miss a piece of the work the homework made sense—because of these things, my grades became perfect. My senior year, the guidance counselor called me to her office and said that a college just outside of Chicago was inviting me to attend with all expenses paid. My parents did not say much about this, probably out of defense for my brother and sister, who had not had perfect, or even particularly good, grades; neither one went on to school.

It was the guidance counselor who drove me to the college on a blistering hot day. Oh, I loved that place immediately, silently, breathlessly! It seemed huge to me, buildings everywhere—the lake absolutely enormous to my eyes—people strolling, moving in and out of classrooms. I was terrified, but not as much as I was excited. I learned rapidly to imitate people, to try to have the gaps in my knowledge about popular culture be unnoticed, although it was not easy, that part.

But I remember this: When I came home for Thanksgiving, I could not fall asleep that night, and it was because I was afraid I had dreamed my life at the college. I was afraid that I would wake and find myself once more in this house and I would be in this house forever, and it seemed unbearable to me. I thought: No. I kept thinking that for a long time, until I fell asleep.

Near the college, I got a job, and I bought clothes in a thrift shop; it was the mid-seventies, and clothes like that were acceptable even if you were not poor. To my knowledge, no one spoke of how I dressed, but once, before I met my husband, I fell very much in love with a professor and we had a brief affair. He was an artist and I liked his work, though I understood that I did not understand it, but it was him I loved, his harshness, his intelligence, his awareness that certain things had to be forgone if he was to have the life he could have—like children, they were forgone. But I record this now for one purpose alone: He was the only person I remember from my youth as mentioning my clothes, and he mentioned them by comparing me to a woman professor in his department who dressed expensively and was physically large—as I was not. He said, “You have more substance, but Irene has more style.” I said, “But style is substance.” I didn’t know yet that such a thing was true; I had simply written it down one day in my Shakespeare class because the Shakespeare professor had said it and I thought it sounded true. The artist replied, “In that case, Irene has more substance.” I was slightly embarrassed for him, that he would think of me as having no style, because the clothes I wore were me, and if they came from thrift shops and were not ordinary outfits, it did not occur to me that this would mean anything, except to someone rather shallow. And then he mentioned one day, “Do you like this shirt? I got this shirt at Bloomingdale’s once when I was in New York. I’m always impressed with that fact whenever I put it on.” And again I felt embarrassed. Because he seemed to think this mattered, and I had thought he was deeper than that, smarter than that; he was an artist! (I loved him very much.) He must have been the first person I remember as wondering about my social class—though at the time I would not have even had words for that—because he would drive me around neighborhoods and say, “Is your house like that?” And the houses he pointed to were never like any house familiar to me, they were not large houses, they just weren’t at all like the garage I grew up in, which I had told him about, and they were not like my great-uncle’s house either. I was not sorry about the fact of that garage—not in the way I think he meant me to be—but he seemed to think I would be sorry. Still, I loved him. He asked what we ate when I was growing up. I did not say, “Mostly molasses on bread.” I did say, “We had baked beans a lot.” And he said, “What did you do after that, all hang around and fart?” Then I understood I would never marry him. It’s funny how one thing can make you realize something like that. One can be ready to give up the children one always wanted, one can be ready to withstand remarks about one’s past, or one’s clothes, but then—a tiny remark and the soul deflates and says: Oh.

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