The afternoon in February when Lucy Painter was moving from New York City to the house in Washington where her father had died threatened violent storms.
Lucy stood on the sidewalk outside the apartment on Sullivan Street looking between the buildings at a slate gray, agitated sky, a raw damp to the air.
“Snow,” she said to no one in particular.
“Snowman!” Felix said.
He was standing on the sidewalk next to his mother holding the large yellow chicken Reuben had given him as a going-away present.
“If it’s snowing in Washington, we’ll make a snowman when we get there,” Lucy said, lifting him into the truck she had leased for the journey.
Reuben was sitting on the back of the U-Haul eating a turkey sandwich while Mickey, the boy he had hired to help with the move, carried the small items down the steps of the four-story walk-up.
“Bite?” Reuben asked, patting a seat beside him on the back of the truck.
Lucy pulled the orange wool cap he had given her for Christmas low on her brow.
“I’m not hungry,” she said.
But he pinched off an edge of the sandwich anyway, careful to get plenty of turkey in the bite, and popped it in her mouth.
“I’ll call as soon as I get to the office in the morning,” he said. “And every night before I leave from work.”
Not Reuben’s first promise nor the only mention of his plan for keeping in touch after thirteen years of living within blocks of each other, together several times a week whenever he could make it work.
“And that’s that?” Lucy asked.
“Of course that’s not that, Lucy,” he said. “We have a permanent arrangement.”
She climbed up on the back of the truck beside him.
“Somehow the permanent part always slips my mind.”
He dropped his hand on top of hers, pressing his body closer, and she knew that what he wanted from her now was silence and her company sitting next to him, the heat of their breaths warming the winter air.
“Can we talk before I leave?” she asked.
“We always talk, Lucy,” he said, his eyes half closed. “We’ve said everything we have to say to each other.”
What Lucy wanted was an argument, a chance to fling collected grievances at one another, to set them at serious odds—whatever conflagration that might erupt to alter the sensible path she had chosen, which was to leave New York.
But Reuben Frank wasn’t going to budge. He would be even-tempered and sweet, quietly determined to avoid a scene until the moment she hopped in the driver’s seat and with the children headed south towards Washington, D.C.
“Your choice to move, remember?” Reuben said.
“It wasn’t exactly a choice,” she said.
She watched as the boy, Mickey, brought the work table she’d had since college down the steps, concentrating on the details of what she needed to do in the hours ahead—the boxes and suitcases and odds and ends she was tossing in the trash, toys for Felix in the car, books for Maggie—her list of things to do so she wouldn’t be moved to weep every time she caught a glimpse of Reuben’s shock of red hair falling across his forehead.
“Here comes Maggie,” Reuben was saying as Maggie rounded the corner, her arm around Rebecca Malone—a tendency he had under pressure to register the obvious.
“Rebecca wants to know why we have to move to Washington,” Maggie said, coming up to the truck.
“Because of money,” Lucy said as she had said to Maggie many times. “In Washington I own the house and it’s less expensive to live there than in New York.”
She reached over, brushing her mittened hands across the girls’ cheeks, easy with children, half a child herself as Reuben would say.
“That’s not exactly true about why you’re moving,” Reuben said, the words falling into his scarf so the girls wouldn’t hear him.
“What would you have me say?” Lucy asked. “The truth?”
“I’m just a little surprised that you’re so . . .”
Maggie was leaning over the large bin of refuse in front of the apartment.
“I suppose you threw out my whole childhood.”
She pulled a Raggedy Ann from the trash, shook her, picked dust motes out of the red yarn hair.
“You told me Raggedy Ann could be tossed because she’s covered in cat throw-up,” Lucy said.
“I said she was covered in cat throw-up, not that she could be tossed.” Maggie dropped the soiled doll back in the bin and leaned against Reuben’s legs. “So you’ll come see us?”
“You know I will,” Reuben said.
“We’ll see,” he said. “I’ll come as often as I possibly can.”
“And maybe we can go to the beach this summer?”
“Maybe we can go to the beach,” Reuben replied, which Lucy noted was a lie. How could he possibly get away from his real life long enough to take Maggie to the beach. And what would he plan to tell Elaine?
“What does a lot mean?” Lucy asked after the girls had headed down the street.
“I don’t know what it means,” Reuben said, agitated the way he got when pressures bore down on him as they had when he first met Lucy and again and again in the years they’d been together, more or less together, depending on the point of view. “This is a trial, Lucy, and of course I want to see you as much as possible.”
“Just don’t say, ‘We’ll see.’”
She could feel his furtive glance, sense the familiar fear mounting in him as he scouted an escape route the way he always seemed to do when she wanted more than he was capable of giving.
That was the nature of their lives together. His terms.
Lucy pulled her cap down lower on her eyes so the wool brushed her lashes.
“I won’t say ‘We’ll see,’” Reuben said. “And I won’t lie to you.”
“Oh Reuben.” Lucy said. “You have only lied to me.”
She didn’t mean that, didn’t mean to make a scene on the day of her departure, not in front of Felix, who was sitting beside her while the truck was loaded. Not in front of Reuben especially, who had counted on her free spirit and independence, her willingness to live sufficient unto herself, which was all that had ever been possible between them.
But she couldn’t help it. She wanted Reuben to ache for her the way she did for him.
He had opened the New York Times to the front page, retreating to the newspaper to avoid a discussion of his personal life with Lucy.
“Have you been reading about Watergate?” he asked, crossing his legs, leaning against the side of the truck.
She shook her head.
“Every day on the front page. Did you see that Gordon Liddy and James McCord were caught up in this shindig?”
“I don’t read the newspaper when there’s bad news and there’s always bad news.”
She seldom read the papers at all and never the national pages. The news of her father’s death had been reported in the national section—on the front page of the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Evening Star, all over the country according to her mother. Sometimes she read the features, personal stories in the Metro section and occasionally the arts. But never the real news that had marked for Lucy the end of one childhood and the beginning of another.
“Well, all of them are lying to us, certainly Nixon,” Reuben said. “Lying again as happened with Viet Nam, and how much else don’t we know about the truth? There’s a regular culture of lies infesting our lives.”
Felix had scrambled off the truck, dropping the yellow chicken in Lucy’s lap, trotting over to play in the square of garden next to Lucy’s building with his friend Ernie.
“If I spend any time thinking about lies, it has to do with you and me.” Lucy said, wrapping her arms around her legs, resting her chin on her knees.
Reuben folded the paper and put it down, uttering a sigh of defeat.
“Have you thought again about telling the children what happened?” he asked.
“With you?” Lucy slipped off the back of the truck.
“I won’t tell the children anything if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Not asking,” he said. “Wondering.”
He leaned over, his lips against her temple.
“You know, Lucy, you’re really kind of an original.” There was weariness in his voice, or irritation or sadness. “Otherwise you’d join the Movement and wear that red and black Women on Top T-shirt and leave me for good.”
“Maybe I will,” she said. “Not the T-shirt but maybe I will leave you for good.”
Mickey was loading up the U-Haul with boxes and lamps wrapped in blankets, the couch Lucy had taken from the curb after graduation, left there by students at Brown or friends of hers at the Rhode Island School of Design.
“Our furniture is junk, Mama,” Maggie had said the day before as they were packing up, Reuben dropping by with tacos for dinner. “Maybe we should leave it here.”
“But it’s our junk.”
“It’s secondhand. Other people I know have firsthand furniture. Even Rebecca has firsthand furniture and her mother is poor as a church mouse.”
“Your mother’s an artist, Maggie,” Reuben had said. “She doesn’t worry about furniture.”
“She writes children’s books. That’s not exactly an artist.”
“I’m her editor, bumblebee,” he said, grabbing Maggie’s hand, twirling her into his arms. “Lucy Painter is an artist and your perfect mother.”
Everyone in the neighborhood knew who Lucy Painter was when she walked through the streets of the West Village shopping for dinner or books or off to the playground with Felix or P.S. 117 with Maggie. She was small and girlish with a mop of black curls, in short flowered skirts she made herself like the one on the back of her book jackets, striped tights, a long scarf wrapped around her neck hanging to her knees. Especially the children loved her.
“That’s Lucy Painter,” they’d call out to their friends or their mothers. And Maggie, walking with Lucy, would whisper, “How embarrassing!”
But she loved her famous mother, loved the way she looked with her bright cheeks and big boots, her tiny hands like the hands of a child.
at the time of Samuel Baldwin’s death, Lucy’s father had been a special assistant to President Truman appointed in September 1945, following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—a gentle, principled man of value to the White House for his wise and measured opinions. After the article about his death on the front page of the Washington Post with the news of what had really happened, after the Friday service at St. Vincent’s on Capitol Hill which Lucy did not attend—“Not under the circumstances,” her mother had told her—Lucy and her mother left by plane for Santa Fe.
Her mother’s idea to disappear into a strange landscape—to take up residence in a town just east of Santa Fe above the Rio Grande.
In Santa Fe, her mother changed their name from Baldwin to Painter, fearful that someone might trace Samuel Baldwin back to them.
“But Baldwin is our name,” Lucy said. “It isn’t true to make up a new one.”
“It is better, a story of who we are,” her mother had said. “And besides, it is a good name for us. Baldwin is too Anglo-Saxon for a Frenchwoman, and Painter is a name with the sound of song.”
Caroleen Peinture, she called herself.
The dry, brown, craggy-moonscape geography of New Mexico peppered with dots of intense color became a visual expression of Lucy’s state of mind.
Lucy was twelve when her father died, and for the next six years until she left New Mexico for the Rhode Island School of Design, she waited. The mind’s-eye picture she had of herself was of a girl sitting on the flat brown rock in the backyard of their cottage outside of Santa Fe.
“What are you waiting for?” her mother had asked.
“I’m waiting to go back to Washington,” Lucy said. “The place where I grew up.”
“You can go back, of course, but I wouldn’t recommend it,” her mother said in her crisp, matter-of-fact manner. “426 A Street, S.E., just beyond East Capitol. I have no interest in ever seeing the house again.”
“Never?” Lucy had asked.
Never was her mother’s chosen refrain. Never tell anyone your real name, Lucia, or where you were born or who your father was, she would say. He’s dead. That’s all a person needs to know.
Never go home.
Sometimes Lucy imagined the inside of the house on Capitol Hill, room to room. She’d follow the narrow corridor, the bathroom with its claw-foot tub, next to her bedroom with a bay window where she sat on a seat between the bays overlooking A Street. In winter, the mated cardinals arguing on the leafless dogwood branches, the nervous sparrows on the telephone wires. In spring, the robins, fat with foraging. And lying on the back porch of the Santa Fe cottage where they lived, she’d watch the broad-tailed hummingbird, its shiny green feathers and white throat speckled iridescent bronze, its long beak plunged into the nectar center of a yellow hibiscus, the stem winding around the posts on the back porch. There were yellow hibiscus in a pot in the garden of the house on A Street too but Lucy didn’t mention that coincidence to her mother, wondering occasionally what went through her mother’s head. Did she ever think about her husband and her marriage? She never spoke of him.
After Lucy left for college, her mother returned to the city of Arles where she had grown up and where her sister, the aunt whom Lucy had never met, still lived.
At RISD, out of the shadow of her mother’s shame and disappointment, Lucy invented a public self to live among strangers. A demeanor of mystery and whimsy, the promise of intimacy, but she was skittish if anyone came too close.
“Untouchable,” she was called by the other students. She became a subject of conversation.
Lucy met Reuben Frank when she was nineteen.
She had gone to New York City at her art professor’s recommendation to show her portfolio of strange, supernatural animals painted in the brilliant colors of the desert to publishers of children’s books. She was sitting on a bench in the lobby of 555 Fifth Avenue where George Barnes Books, Inc., was located, gathering the courage to take the elevator to the seventh floor, when Reuben, carrying a bag with his lunch, the New York Times under his arm, rushed through the revolving doors into the lobby and saw her.
Her shoes were what struck him first, her feet curled under a short orange flowered skirt, her shoes, red ballet slippers with satin ribbons, resting toe to toe under the bench.
“Hello,” he said. “Can I help you?”
“I am looking for Mr. Reuben Frank of George Barnes Books,” she said. “I have an appointment with him.”
“You do?” Reuben asked.
“More or less,” she said.
She had found the name Reuben Frank in a book listing New York editors and publishers but had not called in advance to arrange an appointment, had not even thought to call. She simply expected that Mr. Frank would be happy to look at her work because her professor at RISD had told her she was an artist of unusual talent.
“At least I hope I’ll be able to meet with him when I get upstairs,” she said. “I’ve brought my pictures.”
“Luckily you’ve run into the right person,” he said, watching as she wriggled her feet into the ballet slippers. “I can arrange that meeting instantly.”
In the elevator, Lucy leaned down to tie the satin ribbons around her ankles, her hair parting to expose a curve in the shape of a half-moon at the nape of her neck.
“That did it,” he told her later. Just the sight of her small neck had moved him.
On the seventh floor, the elevator doors opened and he led the way down the corridor, past the cubicles of editors, past the design room, the front desk with a young girl on the telephone, and into his office with its large window overlooking Fifth Avenue.
“So,” he said clearing off his desk, “I’m ready to see your work.”
There were six paintings, only six she realized when she saw that they all fit on the top of the desk looking more strange than she remembered—the color maybe too bright, the animals unnaturally thin and pointy.
“So what do you think?” she asked quickly.
“I don’t think about illustrations,” he replied, raising the venetian blinds behind his desk, picking up one of Lucy’s drawings. He held it at an angle in light that spread across the room from the south-facing window.
“You don’t think they’re too queer to put in a book for children, do you?” she asked, sensing Reuben’s hesitation.
He was leaning over his desk examining a hedgehog-like creature with brilliant yellow eyes.
“I think I love them,” Reuben said, reassembling the portfolio, setting it on the edge of his desk. “I can’t tell you why exactly. I simply know what I love and what I don’t.”
Lucy put her feet up flat against the side of his desk, flushed, her heart pounding.
“So now what will happen?” she asked.
“Now I’m going to be your editor.”
“You are? And that’s that?”
“More or less. You’ll go back to school and imagine a story for these creatures of yours and then we’ll do a book together.”
“Not together,” she said quickly. “I do everything alone. Always completely alone.”
“We’ll try it,” Reuben said. “If it doesn’t work between us, it doesn’t work.”
He was falling in love. With Lucy. With the wild imaginative figures she had brought to him. With the possibility of flight.
He was thirty-five and married and childless.
“This is very lucky, isn’t it?” Lucy said as they walked back down the corridor to the elevator.
“Certainly lucky for me,” he said. “These wonderful original illustrations.”
He reached over, running his finger lightly down the bridge of her nose.
“Goodbye, my new surprise,” he said as the elevator doors opened.
“Hello, my new editor,” Lucy said, stepping through the doors, her head down, looking at her red ballet slippers as the doors closed.
For hours in the next months, she would lie on her back in the tiny single room of her group house at RISD imagining Reuben, his hand on her belly, his breath in her hair. There was no stopping the rush of feeling, no instinctive fear or hesitation in loving Reuben. He would leave his wife. They would marry as he had said would happen in their long conversations from his office. As he hoped would happen. Not a good fit with Elaine, he told her. It was as if the whole of her life since her father’s death had led to this particular man, gentle like her father had been, certain of himself. Her editor who could be counted on for everything.
After she graduated from Rhode Island School of Design, after her mother was killed in an automobile accident outside of Paris, Lucy moved to the West Village, fifteen easy blocks from Reuben Frank. The geography was Reuben’s idea. Lucy was pregnant.
Lying on her stomach in the apartment where she lived alone on Sullivan Street, Lucy spent hours on the phone with Reuben cloistered in his office.
“Not that things won’t work out between us,” he said to her. “I didn’t know what it meant to fall in love, not with other girlfriends, not with my wife. I want to be with you always,” he said. “I can’t just yet imagine that conversation with Elaine. But I will.”
He wanted her to be sure about the baby.
“I am sure,” she said. “Whatever happens, I want the baby.”
Of that she was certain. She wanted this baby for herself, is how she thought of it. She had no family except Reuben, and if things didn’t work out with him, if, in the end, he couldn’t leave Elaine, she would still have the child.
At least, that was what she believed was possible in the magical way she had learned to construct a private world of parallel realities.
Maggie was born when Lucy was twenty-two, the year her first book Belly Over the Banana Field was published about Belly, a too-small boy with a too-big belly dropped from the sky into a field of bananas, a book for which she won the Livingston for the best illustrated children’s book of 1962.
On the title page of Belly, just under her name, Lucy had drawn a tiny broad-tailed hummingbird.
“What little thing is this?” Reuben had asked when he got the final proof.
“A hummingbird,” she said.
A sign, she’d thought. She would draw a hummingbird on the title page of every book and mothers and fathers who bought her books, children leaning into their parents listening to them read a Lucy Painter story would think of Lucy and the hummingbird as one.
She told Reuben about the days spent lying on the back porch in Santa Fe watching the hummingbird arrive at the hibiscus. So swift and small. Nothing in the still air, no sound of whirring wings and suddenly the hummingbird.
The first night they were together, she drew a broad-tailed hummingbird on the palm of Reuben’s hand.
“Indelible ink,” she said.
The year that Maggie was born was the happiest one of Lucy’s life—so far, she told herself. She was a young mother with a baby girl, a successful book, and a love affair.
“Soon,” Reuben had promised her about the eventual demise of his marriage. “Just you and me and Maggie.”
In March of 1963, two months after Maggie’s first birthday, Reuben’s daughter Nell was born.
“This is a total surprise,” he said when he told her that Elaine was pregnant. “I don’t know what to say.”
Lucy’s first reaction was fright.
“What will become of us?” she asked.
“We will continue our lives somehow,” he said, holding his head in his hands. He was tentative for the first time since they had been together and Lucy drew back, not wanting to alarm him.
Months later, sitting across from Reuben at Belinda’s coffeehouse on the corner of Sullivan and Sixth, Elaine still in the hospital with baby Nell, Lucy asked about their future again.
“I love you, Lucy,” he said. “This is extraordinary what we have together.”
She wanted to ask him what “this” meant now that Nell had arrived, now that Reuben had the conundrum of a daughter with his wife and a daughter with his girlfriend.
“I don’t know how but we will work this out,” he said.
She wanted to believe him.
It was still possible to persuade herself that someday Reuben would leave Elaine just as she sometimes imagined that one afternoon, she’d walk into a coffee shop and there her father would be sitting alone in a booth with a cup of coffee and a cigarette reading the morning newspaper.
Mickey climbed in the back of the truck with the two lamps from the living room, a poster announcing the publication of one of her books, and under his arm, a stuffed Dalmatian missing its tail.
“Done,” Mickey said. “The apartment’s empty.”
Reuben slid off the back of the truck.
“So you can get on the road early, ” he said.
“There are still boxes in storage in the basement,” Lucy said.
Reuben pulled up the collar of his jacket. The wind had picked up.
“Books and things I haven’t looked at since they were packed up in the house where I was born.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in the storage room,” he said. “I’ll go get them.”
“I’m coming too,” Lucy said, leading the way down the narrow, winding stair, flipping on a light in the storage area where wire cages lined the walls in a room smelling of mold and the dank reminder of residential rats.
“These are books,” Lucy said, unlocking the combination to her storage room. “And the boxes marked Lucy, 1951 are from the house on Capitol Hill where I used to live.”
That morning before Reuben had arrived with the U-Haul truck, Lucy thought of opening the box with her father’s things to show Reuben the story from the Washington Post about his death. The story itself with the news she had already told him. He was the only person she had ever told about her life.
The books were packed in boxes of ten, author’s copies from George Barnes Books—Fervid P. Drainpipe Lost in the Chinese Museum of Art was stamped on the side of one of the boxes and there were several boxes of Belly Over the Banana Field and two of Loop de Lupe and the Spider Monkey from Dordogne.
Reuben lifted one of the old boxes, clouds of dust rising in the air collecting just above his head.
“Have you ever even opened these, Lucy?” he asked, clearing his throat of dust. “The cardboard is actually disintegrating.”
“Once at RISD I opened one box and taped it back up,” she said. “I didn’t want to look at my childhood then.”
“You’re going to have to repack them when you get to Washington.”
He struggled up the staircase, leaving Lucy to carry the smaller boxes which had followed her since they were packed, traveling from Washington, D.C., to Santa Fe to Providence, Rhode Island, to New York City, now back to Washington.
“I hope you won’t be too lonely, Lucy,” he said. “Sometimes you keep too much to yourself.”
“I’ll be fine,” she said, but Reuben knew her too well.
She longed for company, for friends drinking tea in her kitchen, sitting in the window talking as dusk came on while the children played just within hearing. She wanted to be close in the way that she felt to the strange little characters she wrote about in her books, to lie in bed after the children had gone to sleep, alone as she often was, and shuffle through the playing cards of people she could call in the morning or ask to come when Maggie had the flu. A best friend. Someone she could tell about her mother and father. About Reuben.
But always there was with Lucy a conditioned reserve.
The closest she had come to the friendships she imagined beyond the casual gathering of telephone lists from Maggie’s school for bake sales and class trips and potluck suppers was walking through the Village with her children smiling at the people who knew her from her books.
In Washington and without Reuben, she would change that.
Darkness was coming on early—not the ordinary slow-curtain fall of a winter day’s end but quickly, a storm-chased afternoon.
They finished packing up the U-Haul and locked the back door. It was almost four in the afternoon and already dark, the storm threatening but no report of snow on the weather station. Lucy lifted Felix into the cab and Maggie climbed up behind him.
“Do you want to check the apartment to see that everything’s okay for the next tenant?” Reuben asked.
“I suppose I should.”
“We’ll be right back, guys,” Reuben said, asking Mickey to stay with the children until they returned.
The apartment was empty. Lucy’s breath caught in her throat. She wanted to leave quickly, to hurry down the stairs and out the door into the weather, to tell Reuben goodbye without lingering over what remained between them.
“I’ll check around,” he said, leaving her in the living room, opening the closet doors, the kitchen cabinets, the tiny cupboard in the front hall where Lucy had kept the children’s toys. He was standing at the toy cabinet when she turned around, and headed towards the door.
He put his hand on the small of her back and pulled her towards him.
“Your smell isn’t here any longer, is it?” he said. “It smells of cigarette smoke.”
“You’re the one who smokes,” she said.
He took her hand, a veil of dust between them, his hands dry.
“Don’t say anything,” she said. “Not a word.”
“I was just going to say it’s dusty in here.”
“It was always dusty.”
“I never noticed.”
He kissed her sweetly, softly, pressing her body against him.
But she turned, pushed his arms away, and headed down the steps and out the front door to the truck.
Finally it was beginning to snow.
“Don’t forget to take the tunnel out of town,” Reuben called, standing beside the truck as it pulled away from the curb.
Lucy could hear him from the open window but she didn’t check the rearview mirror for one more look. The traffic was heavy in the city and the trip was going to be long. Already, Felix had asked to stop to pee.
You Are the Love of My Life
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
- ISBN-10: 0393345947
- ISBN-13: 9780393345940