Home > My Name Is Lucy Barton(6)

My Name Is Lucy Barton(6)
Elizabeth Strout

“Gay?” I sat up and saw her at the foot of my bed. “He told her he was gay?”

“I suppose that’s what you call it now. Back then we said ‘homo.’ He said ‘homo.’ Or Kathie said it. I don’t know who said ‘homo.’ But he was one.”

“Mom, oh, Mom, you’re making me laugh,” and I could hear she’d started laughing herself, though she said, “Wizzle, I don’t really know what’s so funny.”

“You are.” Tears of laughter seeped from my eyes. “The story is. That’s a terrible story!”

Still laughing—in the same suppressed yet urgent way her talking had been during the day—she said, “I’m not sure what’s funny about leaving your husband for a homo gay person and then finding it out, when you think you’re going to have a whole man.”

“Killing me, Mom.” I lay back down.

My mother said, musingly, “I sometimes thought maybe he wasn’t gay. That Kathie scared him. Leaving her life behind for him. That maybe he made it up.”

I considered this. “Back then I don’t know if that’s the kind of thing a man would make up about himself.”

“Oh,” said my mother. “Oh, I guess that’s true. I honestly don’t know about Kathie’s fellow. I don’t know if he’s still around or anything about him at all.”

“But did they do it?”

“I don’t know,” my mother answered. “How would I know? Do what? Have intercourse? How in the world would I know?”

“They must’ve had intercourse,” I said, because I thought it was funny saying that, and also because I believed it. “You don’t run out on three girls and a husband for a crush.”

“Maybe you do.”

“Okay. Maybe you do.” I asked, then, “And Kathie’s husband—Mr. Nicely—he really hasn’t had anyone since?”

“Ex-husband. Divorced her quick as a bunny. Anyway, I don’t believe so. There seems no indication of such a thing. But I suppose you never know.”

Maybe it was the darkness with only the pale crack of light that came through the door, the constellation of the magnificent Chrysler Building right beyond us, that allowed us to speak in ways we never had.

“People,” I said.

“People,” my mother said.

I was so happy. Oh, I was happy speaking with my mother this way!

In those days—and it was the mid-1980s, as I have said—William and I lived in the West Village, in a small apartment near the river. A walk-up, and it was something, with the two small children and having no laundry facilities in the building, and we also had a dog. I would put the younger child in a carry pack on my back—until she got too big—and walk the dog, bending precariously to pick up his mess in a plastic bag, as the signs told one to do: CLEAN UP AFTER YOUR DOG. Always calling out to my older girl to wait for me, not to step off the sidewalk. Wait, wait!

I had two friends, and I was half in love with one of them, Jeremy. He lived on the top floor of our building and he was almost, but not quite, the age of my father. He had come originally from France, from the aristocracy, and he gave that all up to be in America, starting as a young man. “Everyone different wanted to be in New York back then,” he told me. “It was the place to come to. I guess it still is.” Jeremy had decided in the middle of his life to become a psychoanalyst, and when I met him he still had a few patients, but he would not talk to me about what that was like. He had an office across from the New School, and three times a week he went there. I would pass him on the street, and the sight of him—tall, thin, dark-haired, wearing a dark suit, and his soulful face—always made my heart rise. “Jeremy!” I would say, and he would smile and lift his hat in a way that was courtly and old-fashioned and European—this is how I saw it.

His apartment I had seen only once, and this was when I got locked out and had to wait for the super to show up. Jeremy found me on the front stoop with the dog and both children, and I was frantic, and he had me come in. The children were immediately quiet and very well behaved once we got inside his place, as though they knew no children were ever there, and in fact I had never seen children going into Jeremy’s apartment. Only a man or two, or sometimes a woman. The apartment was clean and spare: A stalk of purple iris was in a glass vase against a white wall, and there was art on the walls that made me understand then how far apart he and I were. I say this because I didn’t understand the art; they were dark and oblong pieces, almost-abstract-but-not-quite constructions, and I understood only that they were symptoms of a sophisticated world I could never understand. Jeremy was uncomfortable having my family in his place, I could sense that, but he was an exquisite gentleman, and this was why I loved him so.

Three things about Jeremy:

I was standing one day on the front stoop, and as he came out of the building I said, “Jeremy, sometimes when I stand here, I can’t believe I’m really in New York City. I stand here and think, Whoever would have guessed? Me! I’m living in the City of New York!”

And a look went across his face—so fast, so involuntary—that was a look of real distaste. I had not yet learned the depth of disgust city people feel for the truly provincial.

The second thing about Jeremy: I had my first story published right after I moved to New York, and then it was a while, and my second story was published. On the steps one day, Chrissie told this to Jeremy. “Mommy got a story in a magazine!” He turned to look at me; he looked at me deeply; I had to look away. “No, no,” I said. “Just a silly little really small literary magazine.” He said, “So—you’re a writer. You’re an artist. I work with artists, I know. I guess I’ve always known that about you.”

I shook my head. I thought of the artist from college, his knowledge of himself, his ability to forgo children.

Jeremy sat down beside me on the stoop. “Artists are different from other people.”

“No. They’re not.” My face flushed. I had always been different; I did not want to be any more different!

“But they are.” He tapped my knee. “You must be ruthless, Lucy.”

Chrissie jumped up and down. “It’s a sad story,” she said. “I can’t read yet—I can read some words—but it’s a sad story.”

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