Home > My Name Is Lucy Barton(5)

My Name Is Lucy Barton(5)
Elizabeth Strout

I have since been friends with many men and women and they say the same thing: Always that telling detail. What I mean is, this is not just a woman’s story. It’s what happens to a lot of us, if we are lucky enough to hear that detail and pay attention to it.

Looking back, I imagine that I was very odd, that I spoke too loudly, or that I said nothing when things of popular culture were mentioned; I think I responded strangely to ordinary types of humor that were unknown to me. I think I didn’t understand the concept of irony at all, and that confused people. When I first met my husband William, I felt—and it was a surprise—that he really did understand something in me. He was the lab assistant to my biology professor my sophomore year, and had his own solitary view of the world. My husband was from Massachusetts, and he was the son of a German prisoner of war who had been sent to work the potato fields of Maine. Half starved, as they often were, this man had won the heart of a farmer’s wife, and when he returned to Germany after the war, he thought about her and wrote her and told her he was disgusted with Germany and all they had done. He returned to Maine and ran off with this farmer’s wife and they went to Massachusetts, where he trained to become a civil engineer. Their marriage, naturally, cost the wife a great deal. My husband had the blond German looks I saw from photos of his father. His father spoke German a great deal when William was growing up; though when William was fourteen, his father died. No letters remain between William’s father and mother; whether his father really felt disgust for Germany, I don’t know. William believed he did, and so for many years I believed that too.

William, running from the neediness of his widowed mother, went to school in the Midwest, but when I met him he was already eager to get back East as soon as he could. Still, he wanted to meet my parents. This was his idea, that we would go together to Amgash and he would explain to them how we were going to be married and move to New York City, where he had a postdoctoral appointment waiting for him at a university. In truth it had not occurred to me to worry; I had no concept of turning my back on anything. I was in love, and life was moving forward, and that felt natural. We drove past acres of soybeans and corn; it was early June, and the soybeans were on one side, a sharp green, lighting up the slighting sloping fields with their beauty, and on the other side was the corn, not yet as high as my knees, a bright green that would darken in the coming weeks, the leaves supple now, then becoming stronger. (O corn of my youth, you were my friend!—running and running between the rows, running as only a child, alone, in summer can run, running to that stark tree that stood in the midst of the cornfield—) In my memory the sky was gray as we drove, and it appeared to rise—not clear, but rise—and it was very beautiful, the sense of it rising and growing lighter, the gray having the slightest touch of blue, the trees full with their green leaves.

I remember my husband saying he had not expected my house to be so small.

We did not stay with my parents an entire day. My father was wearing his mechanic’s coveralls, and he looked at William, and when they shook hands I saw in my father’s face great contortions, the kind that frequently preceded what as a child I had called—to myself—the Thing, meaning an incident of my father becoming very anxious and not in control of himself. After that, I think that my father did not look at William again, but I can’t be sure. William offered to take my parents and my brother and sister into town to eat dinner at some place of their choice. My face felt as hot as the sun when he said that; we had never once eaten in a restaurant as a family. My father told him, “Your money is no good here,” and William looked at me with an expression of confusion and I gave my head a tiny shake; I murmured that we should leave. My mother walked out to where I was standing alone by the car and said, “Your father has a lot of trouble with German people. You should have told us.”

“Told you?”

“You know your father was in the war, and some German men tried to kill him. He’s been having a terrible time from the moment he saw William.”

“I know Daddy was in the war,” I said. “But he never talked about any of that.”

“There are two kinds of men when it comes to their war experience,” my mother said. “One talks of it, one doesn’t. Your father belongs to the group who doesn’t.”

“And why is that?”

“Because it wouldn’t be decent,” my mother said. Adding, “Who in God’s name brought you up?”

It was not until many years later, long after, that I learned from my brother how my father, in a German town, had come upon two young men who startled him, and my father had shot them in the back, he did not think they were soldiers, they were not dressed like soldiers, but he had shot them, and when he kicked one over he saw how young he was. My brother told me that William had seemed to my father an older version of this person, a young man who had come back to taunt him, to take away his daughter. My father had murdered two German boys, and as my father lay dying he told my brother that not a day had gone by when he did not think of them, and feel that he should have taken his own life in exchange. What else happened to my father in the war I do not know, but he was in the Battle of the Bulge and he was at the Hürtgen Forest, and these were two of the worst places to be in the war.

My family did not attend my wedding or acknowledge it, but when my first daughter was born I called my parents from New York, and my mother said she had dreamed it, so she already knew I had a baby girl, but she didn’t know the name, and she seemed pleased with the name, Christina. After that I called them on their birthdays, and on holidays, and when my other daughter, Becka, was born. We spoke politely but always, I felt, with discomfort, and I did not see any of my family until the day my mother showed up at the foot of my bed in the hospital where the Chrysler Building shone outside the window.

In the dark, I asked my mother quietly if she was awake.

Oh yes, she answered. Quietly. Even though it was only the two of us in this hospital room with the Chrysler Building shining at the window, we still whispered as though someone could be disturbed.

“Why do you think the guy Kathie fell in love with said he couldn’t go ahead with it once she left her husband? Did he get scared?”

After a moment my mother said, “I don’t know. But Kathie told me he’d confessed to her he was a homo.”

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