Isabel | Lillian Fishman | Granta

Isabel

Lillian Fishman

From the threshold of the living room Diana observed the blonde who was presiding over the party. The room was held in a hush, and the woman on the couch twisted her hands as she spoke, until a laugh broke out and she touched her fingers to her hair.

Diana shouldered her way into the living room as the laughter quieted. The blonde was seated in the center of a large sofa, cradling a half-empty tumbler and touching thighs with a bearded man who had begun speaking to her about something apparently urgent.

‘Who is that?’ Diana said to the woman beside her.

She gestured toward the blonde with her beer bottle. ‘That’s Lucy,’ she said.

Lucy wore a white tank top in which her breasts stood at attention, like loyal little pets, and she had the cheekbones and eyelashes that Diana associated with rarified, glossy womanhood.

The woman standing beside Diana introduced herself while on the sofa the blonde, Lucy, toyed absently with her necklace. Diana moved toward Lucy and softly touched the edge of the sofa.

‘Excuse me,’ Diana said to Lucy. She and the bearded man beside her both turned expectantly. ‘Could I get you another drink?’

A mild, appropriate blush washed across Lucy’s face. She was clearly used to being sought. ‘Sure. You know,’ she said to Diana, ‘I could use another drink, I’ll come with you. Okay?’ she said to the man, and rested her hand on his forearm for a moment, like a teacher reassuring a young boy that he will be just fine on his own.

Diana smiled, as much at this gesture as at Lucy’s acquiescence. As she led Lucy to the kitchen, her silver ring and the links of her watch gleaming against Lucy’s white top, she turned to see a crestfallen look in the eyes of the man on the sofa – a look that made her laugh out loud.

‘What?’ Lucy said.

‘Your friend,’ Diana said. ‘I think he’s jealous. What are you having?’

‘A gin and tonic, please.’

Diana arranged the bottles and located a knife in a kitchen drawer. She began to slice a lime. ‘I haven’t seen you here before,’ she said, indicating the apartment. ‘How do you know Minta?’

‘We went to high school together,’ Lucy said. ‘I only moved here recently, we haven’t seen each other in years. It was sweet of her to invite me.’

‘I think it was more a favor to us than to you,’ Diana said.

Lucy turned around on her heels, smiled, splayed her hands on the kitchen counter and leaned forward as though she were about to announce a dare. Diana saw that Lucy’s appeal was in the nostalgia of her looks: Hers was a teen beauty, at home nowhere more than in a miniskirt. Even in her bland slacks and loafers she had the flirtatious, dismissive charm of a girl at the height of her popularity, the challenge and invincibility of a team captain.

Diana poured the tonic into Lucy’s glass. When Diana was a teenager, no girl had ever given her the look Lucy gave her now. After an adolescence in which the very fact of her lesbianism had seemed to disqualify her from the contest of desire, she had, in her brief adulthood in the city, finally become attractive. She had natural qualities that hadn’t initially looked like advantages – height, broad shoulders and a face given to brooding – and she had learned to appropriate the mannerisms that made powerful men suspicious and irresistible, chief among them a degree of directness to which the world capitulated almost unconsciously. The spin, the smile, the crush of Lucy’s tits in the tank top: Diana recognized all this now with the wistfulness of a former adolescent boy who had once jacked off, in frustration, to a teen flick. In an hour she would make this bitch come around her fingers, and that’s how she would say goodbye to it once and for all – those excruciating sexless years – the slurs, the nights spent crying, the year she had starved herself and, perhaps worst of all, the relentless, disgusting, unconsummated wetness she had carried around between her legs, which marked her as an animal.

‘You know,’ Lucy said, taking a sip of her fresh drink, ‘I’m glad I came. I’m making friends already.’

Diana came around to Lucy’s side of the counter and placed her hand on the back of Lucy’s neck, where a light sweat had begun to collect. She could feel the thrum of intention beating in her own chest and along the muscles of her arms. There in the warm kitchen she let her ring rest against the first vertebra of Lucy’s spine and later, after the long charged walk to Diana’s apartment, when Lucy was supine on her bed, she felt with satisfaction the moment when the hard alien contour of the ring surprised Lucy, made her hitch her hips up before she could catch herself. Lucy smiled, to show she was game. From there Diana did what she had learned to do: make a girl feel absolutely surrounded, alternately by forcefulness and by utter softness, as though she were smothered in Diana’s desire. Diana could tell which kinds of girls would like this and which would find it overwhelming, and she intuited that Lucy’s capacity to receive passion had been so distorted by her excessive beauty that only a real showing would satisfy her. At the very end she crouched between Lucy’s legs and began to pet her softly, almost as though at any minute she would give it up. She kept at this for so long that Lucy began to shake, to say raggedly, no more, no more until, just a few moments later, she came with a humiliating trembling in her legs, her body splayed and limp like an empty bag.

‘Christ,’ Lucy said a while afterward, wiping her brow. A dank, sweet smell of success permeated the room.

‘You’ve never been fucked by a woman, have you?’ Diana said.

Lucy laughed – a lovely ripple, her breasts shaking – and then she turned, propped herself up on an elbow. ‘Did you really think that?’ she said. ‘Why do you think I came home with you?’

Diana made a neutral face. So who was that man Lucy had been sitting thigh-to-thigh beside, whose forearm she had touched so awfully – someone she teased for sport? The idea made Diana like Lucy better, maybe even grudgingly respect her. When Lucy left it was with shameless grace, the air of having won something flattering and inconsequential.

In the morning Diana made her way out for a coffee. She felt light and free. She was at home in the blare of traffic, roaming across blocks that smelled of bacon fat and sewage. The sun moved over her, confirming her strength. When she checked her phone, she saw that Minta had texted her. I heard you went home with Lucy! she wrote. Isn’t she special??

As Diana ascended the stairs back up to her apartment the word special echoed in her mind and conjured the disheveled hallway, the hush, the sight of Lucy glimpsed across the bay of heads, the spin of Lucy’s body as if she were suspended over a football pitch.

 

Lucy had been in the city three months. Sure, she said on the phone, she would let Diana show her around. Where did Diana like to go?

‘Well, now that the pools have opened, I like to go to the pools.’

‘You just want to see me in a swimsuit.’

Diana waited for her on Houston Street outside the entrance to Hamilton Fish. The early summer was yellow and jubilant. Lucy arrived wearing a competition one-piece under a denim skirt, carrying nothing but a water bottle and a small makeup kit tied around her wrist. Diana felt a keen satisfaction surveying Lucy’s proportions, the rightness of her shoulders, her waist, even the smart length of her hair.

‘You’ll have to share my towel, is that it?’ Diana said from behind her sunglasses.

The pool was filled with children celebrating their release from school, rowdy and irrepressible. Diana spread her single towel down at the far end and they sat together at the edge, their calves dangling in the water. The pool, protected and bejeweled, spread out before them in its vastness. The sound of traffic on Houston was distant yet comforting.

‘How do you know this place?’ Lucy said.

‘I know all the pools,’ Diana said.

‘Why don’t you go to the beach?’

Diana didn’t explain that she only felt safe in Manhattan, hugged between the rivers, aware at all times of what was up and what was down. She leaned into the reticence which had by now become natural to her, and which took on an air of glamour when paired with bravado. Lucy had no trouble keeping them both entertained. She had a keen memory for what were apparently years’ worth of stolen anecdotes, bar stories, family secrets. Her brother was a frequent protagonist: his troubles, his cruelty, the things he had stolen, the people her father had called to keep him out of prison.

In the second hour, while Lucy’s voice sped along over the contours of past summers, Diana noticed a pair of adolescent girls staring at them across a stretch of shallow water. The girls were long-haired, silky and full of themselves in pink bikinis which presumed more adulthood than belonged to them, and they alternated between whispers and shrieks. ‘But he just did it again the next month,’ Lucy was saying. ‘Can you believe that?’ Across the pool the bolder girl pointed at her, Diana, and gave a high laugh. Diana felt heavy. Her shoulders were too hulking even to remain upright. She hated the girls, their dark eyes and spoiled smiles, and simultaneously she felt grateful to them for their ruthless obedience to the truth. She made the smoothest possible entrance into the safety of the water, so that only her head was visible, and circled around in front of Lucy, shielding her eyes with her hand. Lucy talked charmingly. She hadn’t noticed anything.

As June meandered into July, Diana introduced Lucy to the Manhattan pools. On Saturdays they tried to visit two or three in a single afternoon. As they trekked on the subway from one set of locker rooms to the next, damp-haired and giddy with chlorine, Lucy outshone whatever else was on offer in the growing summer heat. The freckled tan on her chest had no rival. And the fifteen seconds of the weekend Diana cherished most were those in which she spread a triangle of sunscreen onto Lucy’s upper back: She felt the pressure of Lucy’s muscles straining toward her and the brute inside her shivered.

Lucy enjoyed those miserable cold showers at the pool, she laughed at the ads on the subway, she smiled at the idiot kids who raced around her street on scooters and nearly pushed her into traffic while she coolly produced her building key and shouted, like an overworked sister, ‘Don’t forget to drink some water!’ When Diana, ravenous by the time she got Lucy into bed at seven or eight in the evening, bruised Lucy’s hips without meaning to, Lucy liked this too.

Falling in love was the just reward for Diana’s years of stoicism, for all that grief that had not, in fact, been wasted, because it had yielded her this golden future. But doubts arose after Lucy fell asleep. Diana began to have thoughts that hadn’t troubled her in recent years, during which she had been so callous toward women that she had no need to be afraid of them. If it was the case that when she was a teenager she had been greedy, tactless, wounded, ugly – for she must have been all those, to have been so hated – it was inevitable that those qualities were still lying in wait beneath all her established charms, her boldness and her polished style, her significant silences, the shoulders which she had learned to hold just so. Since she had come to the city she had never disclosed to anyone this ghost that clung to her: the person she had been before. While Lucy slept in the cave of her arm, smelling of Coppertone and the lemon juice she combed into her hair, Diana looked around at the possessions which attested to the extremity of her solitude. The clock above her closet was not accurate, since no one consulted it; the costumes which were her city clothes hung flaccid and emptied of their authority. All these allures she pretended to, the allures that had ensnared Lucy, would soon be discarded as false tricks.

This doubt was a slender cup into which Lucy’s desire fell. Didn’t Lucy call Diana first thing on Saturday mornings and sometimes on weekday afternoons, too? Didn’t Lucy ask Diana about her favorite candies and which breeds of dog she admired when they passed gaggles on the sidewalk? Didn’t Lucy let her fingers linger on Diana’s waistband at the poolside? Diana’s mother, a timid woman who was unequal to what life demanded of her, had said only one meaningful thing about what Diana had endured: that adulthood would be more forgiving. Diana had not believed her, but she had prayed that her own skepticism would be contradicted. And perhaps Lucy was proof that her mother had a little wisdom.

While Lucy was on her arm, among her friends, Diana’s doubt struck her as insubstantial, like a memory left over from another world. Nothing fortified Diana so much as attending a party with Lucy. While lounging beside Lucy on that same sofa in Minta’s apartment, at a party later that summer, Diana felt the warm, lazy safety of a lizard in the sun. She was listening to Lucy and Minta talk about their hometown in Ohio. They had known each other in school, but they hadn’t been friends. ‘I always liked you,’ Minta said, ‘but you were just so popular. No one could get near you,’ and Lucy said, teasingly, ‘But you did get near me!’ and the two of them laughed.

‘The whole thing was just awful,’ Minta said. She looked tired and edging past her prime. Smoking had loosened her skin. In her voice high school seemed especially distant, a place far beyond the rivers. ‘Wasn’t it?’

‘Oh, it was high school,’ Lucy said. ‘It’s so bizarre. Nothing about it made sense. Right?’ And she began to describe the hierarchies and misplaced priorities and the intense, impossible passion she had felt inside herself then, all the time, the sense that she was filled with a manic energy which could only be temporarily relieved through athletics or teary conflict-resolutions. She described this with laughter and a little bashfulness, as though it were embarrassing, in retrospect, how important everything had seemed. Then Lucy said to Minta: ‘Do you remember Isabel?’

‘Isabel Walker?’

‘Isabel Garcia. Who came when we were sophomores?’

‘Barely.’

‘The thing I really remember about high school, to be honest, is how in love with her I was,’ Lucy said. ‘The first girl I was really in love with.’

‘Isabel Garcia?’ Minta said. ‘Really?’

By the time Isabel had moved to town, Lucy said, she had been worrying over her attraction to girls. But when she met Isabel it was undeniable. They got to talking during a biology class and met regularly in the evenings, at each other’s houses, for months. At school they didn’t acknowledge each other. God, it was harrowing to think of now, Lucy explained, since she had been so in love with Isabel, and yet at the time she felt she had no choice but to deny it.

Lucy and Isabel had agreed that their relationship would be an absolute secret: Neither of them was interested in being branded among their classmates. In order to facilitate their cover, they agreed that they were allowed to have boyfriends. Isabel was too busy to have a boyfriend; she spent her afternoons playing soccer on the JV team. But Lucy had a boyfriend already, the first in a series, and she really did feel warmly toward him. Their first explorations had been sweet – his inherent gentleness, her obliging fascination with his penis. But her interest in him was not comparable to her feelings for Isabel. Nights after she had spent a few hours with her boyfriend, she would sneak into Isabel’s house, just two blocks from her own, and spend hours writhing on a basement sofa with Isabel. Isabel was madly in love with Lucy, too. Once, Lucy recounted, she and Isabel had stolen some time together in the back of Isabel’s mother’s car in the afternoon, while her mother was inside speaking to an administrator, and Lucy had pulled on Isabel’s jersey in her hurry to dress before Isabel’s mother returned. Afterward when Lucy went to her boyfriend’s house her boyfriend said, What’s that you’ve got on? Lucy was beside herself with fear that he would realize it was Isabel’s jersey and find her out. But he quickly forgot.

By this point people on the couches around Lucy were listening. Her ability to captivate a room could not be attributed to her beauty alone; perhaps it was that fierce energy she recounted from her teenage years channeled into a new adult expression, animating her face and hands.

‘And what happened in the end?’ someone asked. ‘Between you and Isabel?’

It went on like this for a year, Lucy explained, and by then she had a different boyfriend. Isabel never got a boyfriend of her own. She was heartsick. She was starting to suspect that maybe it wasn’t all bullshit between Lucy and her boyfriend – that maybe there was something real in it. While Lucy was with her boyfriend Isabel would text her constantly, and when she failed to respond Isabel would grow by turns teary and livid. She would approach Lucy’s friends in the halls or the cafeteria and ask: Was Lucy all right? Had they heard from her? But her friends hadn’t known that Isabel and Lucy even knew each other, and this made Lucy terrifically anxious. What am I supposed to do? she said to Isabel. Even though we know it’s fake, he doesn’t! What else can I do?

One evening the boyfriend slept over at Lucy’s house. The two of them were woken in the darkness by Isabel standing over the bed. Lucy and Isabel knew all the back routes into each other’s houses, they knew how to find the hide-a-keys and the loose window sashes even in the dark. You sleep with him? Isabel shouted. With him? Isabel had watched them go to bed from the street, through the window. Lucy forced Isabel out of the house before her parents realized, but the boyfriend knew something strange had happened. In the dark he hadn’t recognized Isabel. But he had heard her. Who was that? he asked when Lucy returned to bed. Lucy, in her panic, could only say: My brother, it was just my brother, go back to sleep.

She and Isabel never spoke after that. Lucy’s boyfriend was confused and alarmed, however much she tried to placate him, and could not decipher the truth of what had happened. They broke up. Later, at a party, Lucy’s friends drunkenly accused her of sleeping with Isabel: What are you doing with that girl? they said. Don’t you know it’s obvious? It was the performance of her life, acting as though that rumor was so absurd it could only embarrass those who repeated it. When inwardly, of course, she was terrified of anyone discovering the truth.

Lucy paused and looked at Minta. ‘Did you know, did you hear about me and Isabel back then?’

Minta had heard rumors about Lucy, but there were rumors about girls all the time, she hadn’t believed it, she remembered merely being afraid of the day when the rumor would concern her, Minta. It was clear why Minta and Lucy had been afraid. After that week when she had asked around after Lucy, Isabel was teased and mocked relentlessly where before she had been ignored. Once she was surrounded by a group of boys and dragged down to the pool, where they threw her in the water along with the contents of her backpack.

But – it was strange, Lucy admitted, she had never understood it – if Isabel was targeted for her relationship with Lucy, Lucy herself, after that terrifying moment at the party, was never accused of having anything to do with Isabel again. And in fact, in the years afterward, she slept with other girls at school, very quietly, with none of the obsession or emotion she had felt for Isabel, and no one was the wiser.

‘How many?’ Minta said, with a look of admiration. ‘I mean, that time that we kissed, I thought that was a crazy thing, for both of us.’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Lucy said. ‘Ten? Fifteen? But I didn’t get over Isabel. It was all just kind of sad. But I felt like I had to do it. I was trying to feel free, or to like myself, or something. Even secretly.’

Lucy laughed and made a rueful face to show everyone listening that there was no reason to feel sorry for her. It was all so far in the past that it seemed silly to even think of it now.

The room grew loud again with the sounds of other people’s conversations. ‘I could use another drink, baby,’ Lucy said, her hand landing lightly on Diana’s thigh. Diana trembled. She rose and turned toward the kitchen, but Lucy pulled her back.

‘Wait,’ she said. Lucy’s lashes were long and delicate and evenly spaced, and she looked up at Diana from beneath them. ‘You don’t think I’m terrible for all that stuff, do you? What happened in high school? Because, you know, I’ve never treated anyone like that since – I would never treat anyone that way now, the way I treated Isabel. You know that, right?’

‘Of course,’ Diana said. She went to Minta’s kitchen, found the lime, cleaned the knife.

When she had made her excuses to Lucy she hurried home and by some instinct double-locked the door behind her. She was up all night considering it. Lucy was a type she had never imagined before: a girl who, by virtue of charm and a willingness to give blowjobs, managed not only to remain popular and beloved in her adolescence but, throughout that time, to conduct secret liaisons with the other closeted ice cream scoopers and lifeguards of her hometown, sneaking around in cars and public bathrooms and finished basements in an ecstasy from which she emerged only to repeat, at the next house party, the slurs to which she herself was never subjected. And not only this, but Lucy had graduated from this small-town regime of covert and ecstatic hedonism into life in the city, where she was praised for her lesbianism and instantly forgiven the mistakes of her youth. How many girls like this had existed in Diana’s own hometown? How many had there been in any town Diana had driven through, in the towns where she had gone to play soccer? Had they only been the most beautiful girls, the most popular girls? But they couldn’t have been, because there had been the kinds of girls Lucy had fooled around with, too, the girls like Isabel and Minta who she wouldn’t acknowledge at school. And for Diana there had been nothing – only the apparent senselessness of coming out at fifteen, which she had thought noble, and the loneliness she had believed would never leave her. She felt, at the time, that there was no choice about coming out. Everything had seemed so incontrovertible; it had not occurred to her to conceal her impulses, nor did she think she could have. She was too self-righteous to entertain conflicted feelings. And even though she hadn’t intended to come out, hadn’t Isabel been just like Diana – principled, unflinching in her sexuality, unable to stomach even the charade of a boyfriend, tortured by her classmates for these very qualities?

It wasn’t Lucy who had called Isabel names and thrown her into the pool. But wasn’t she responsible? Wasn’t it true that both Isabel and Diana had suffered at the hands of girls like Lucy, perhaps even more so than at the hands of their straight classmates, because it was girls like Lucy who might have helped them, if they had had the strength or the selflessness? No one could have hated Lucy, even if she had come out. The lives of girls like Diana would have been infinitely easier, if only one girl that everyone envied had stood up and said, It’s me you’re talking about.

Early in the morning Diana let herself out onto her stoop, lit a cigarette, and called Minta. On the third try Minta answered. ‘It’s six o’clock, Di,’ she said. ‘Is there an emergency?’

‘Listen,’ Diana said. ‘Aren’t you even a little mad at Lucy? I mean, don’t you think she could’ve – I don’t know – don’t you think it was fucked up, what she put Isabel through? And you too! You kissed, and she acted like it never happened.’

‘So did I,’ Minta said. ‘We were basically children. Did Lucy put you up to this? Is she freaked out or something?’

‘No –’

‘Diana, we can’t talk about Isabel Garcia at six a.m. I’m sorry. Go back to sleep.’

Diana smoked until she was sick and then she ran a couple of miles to remind herself that her experiment with weakness was over. It was Saturday. In a few hours Lucy would call her with that coy, thrilling edge to her voice to ask, ‘Where should we go today?’ – which almost persuaded Diana that she finally belonged in this elevated social realm which she had feared she’d never enter: the realm in which men were rich and women were beautiful, and the frail ugly underbelly of human life was only pavement over which she rode in a powerful car.

 

They went to the Dry Dock Pool. Lucy wore a white swimsuit which was too bright to look at directly, and which Diana could only take in by holding up her camera: Lucy belonged in that little screen. Diana felt the absurdity of having believed she might belong on a little screen, too, at full brightness.

‘God, when Minta said you were special, I had no idea,’ Diana told her when they were in the water.

Lucy smiled without surprise. ‘What do you mean?’

‘You know what I mean,’ Diana said. She swam up to where Lucy sat with her legs dangling at the edge of the pool and pulled herself up between Lucy’s knees. ‘Haven’t you noticed I’m falling for you?’

This was the way to say it to a girl like Lucy: like it was a challenge, like the girl was at risk of being made a fool. You couldn’t be mistaken as a beggar or a suitor. You couldn’t offer it up like a free gift.

‘Are you asking to be my girlfriend?’ Lucy said.

‘I’m not asking,’ Diana said, grinning, so that it was like a joke between them. ‘What else do you think I am?’

Oh, she had been right, right about every single thing. Lucy bit her lip, squeezed her knees around Diana’s waist. Around them were the shouts of ‘No diving!’, the blare of a horn on an adjacent block. Lucy laughed, and then said, with a plump, impish kiss – ‘Well, I guess it’s official.’

In the weeks that followed, when Diana made those love confessions she had never made before and heard Lucy return them, she was thinking of Isabel Garcia. These were the slick lashes Isabel had seen when she admitted her devotion. This was the trembling mouth from which Isabel had heard those impossible words – I love you, I love you – this was the frenzied energy with which Isabel’s face and neck had been covered with kisses. This was the obscene, perfect body which Isabel had lain beneath on the couch in the basement, this was the spot at the small of the waist where Isabel had pressed her hands. Lucy was so intoxicating that in moments Diana almost believed in the love she was imitating, she felt suffused by Isabel’s passion. Then she remembered to ask herself: What had Lucy’s face looked like in the hallway, in the cafeteria, with her boyfriend’s arm slung over her shoulders? Had Isabel been picturing that passing face when Lucy nuzzled her in the basement? When Lucy sighed, had Isabel envisioned her knees on a sticky carpet, blonde strands caught against her cheeks, her mouth stretched around a purple cock?

 

‘I should’ve known you’d go for a girl like her,’ Minta said to Diana at their neighborhood diner. By then the summer had meandered into its dog days.

‘A girl like what?’

‘A men’s-fantasy girl. The kind of girl you have to fight over at the bar. Who likes it when men fight over her.’

‘Was that what that whole Isabel story was about?’

‘The thing about Isabel Garcia?’ Minta said. ‘I don’t think so. I appreciated her honesty about all that. What could any of us do back then except try to get through it? Kimmy’s the only person I’ve met who’s all smiles about it,’ she said. Kimmy was her girlfriend. ‘She talks about high school like it was so cozy, just being with her family. And you’ve never complained about those years either. You have no idea what it was like for me and Lucy, the town we grew up in.’ She shook her head, as though to shake herself awake. ‘Has something happened between the two of you?’

‘Not really. I just thought that story was kind of an attention-whore thing.’

Minta rolled her eyes. ‘Come on. You were obsessed with her about ten minutes ago.’

Diana wondered: Did Lucy confide in Minta about the canceled dates – the way Diana sometimes left before midnight, as though she had somewhere else to be – the times Diana screened her calls – the way Diana hid the face of her phone when they lay next to each other? Had Lucy begun to notice?

In the bottom of her mind, where her slender doubt lived, Diana felt again the imperviousness that had sheltered her in the past few years. When she looked at her phone she saw that Lucy had texted her, but she put off responding. Probably Lucy had never waited half a day, let alone a full one, on delivered. But Diana knew how it felt: the rereading, the ambivalence, the follow-up text, the sickening daydreams. What was especially painful was the moment in which that breezy response finally came and immediately it was all rescinded – everything you had felt – the dark and lonely futures you deserved which had opened up before you like tunnels – and within minutes you believed wholeheartedly that you had never worried at all, that you had always been busy, happy, disinterested.

 

On the eve of Lucy’s birthday, in August, Diana arrived on her stoop bearing flowers and a wrapped jewelry box. Lucy answered with surprise. They had been seeing a little less of each other, owing to Diana’s new, contrived avoidance; they had exhausted the local pools. Their relationship had become almost casual again, and because this is not the natural order of intimacy there was an awkwardness to it.

Lucy took the flowers from Diana. They sat at a little table by her kitchen window, the air hot and fragrant, the sounds of the subway serving as gentle reminders to Diana that she belonged to the streets and the underground, as a stray animal belongs. Lucy unwrapped the chain bracelet Diana had brought, and Diana clasped it for her. The sight of Lucy’s fine hand, which Diana had so craved when she had seen it touch the forearm of the bearded man, was overwhelming. She lifted Lucy up onto the windowsill and softly lifted her dress. She breathed to Lucy that she loved her.

Lucy kissed Diana on her cheeks, on her neck.

Diana could feel the presence of doubt glimmering between them, a wariness in the compact, gracious way Lucy held her body. It terrified her that Lucy’s gestures claimed to emanate a warmth which Diana could not feel. Yet this wariness was the effect Diana had hoped for over the previous weeks. She reminded herself that power and terror went hand in hand, that any extreme sense of supremacy or impotence was a place from which other people looked distant and unlikely, and could not be understood.

The next day a picnic was being held in the park to celebrate Lucy’s birthday. Diana went out for beer and arrived late. In the meadow she lingered among her friends, said hello to Minta. Lucy, radiant in a sleeveless red dress, was surrounded by well-wishers and little coolers of ice cream and drinks.

‘She really can be a bit over the top,’ Minta said as she watched Lucy gesticulate, with a frown that made Diana’s heart punch up. It was she who had done this – changed Minta’s mind.

When Lucy finally spotted her Diana steeled herself. She touched her silver ring and dug her heels into the ground. Lucy made her way through two groups of girls, smiling, touching forearms gently, until she reached Diana’s side and leaned forward to kiss her. At that moment Diana put her hands in her pockets and leaned away.

Lucy’s face shifted. Diana could see confusion rise and alongside it something worse – what she thought was resignation – as though, while a part of Lucy could not believe it, another part of her had been expecting this. Once again Lucy moved to embrace Diana and once again Diana leaned away, as if Lucy were contagious.

‘What are you doing?’ Diana said.

Minta was watching them silently. Lucy raised her hand again. It hovered there for a moment.

‘Aren’t you going to wish me a happy birthday?’ she said finally.

Diana laughed and said to Minta, ‘What’s going on with her? She’s obsessed with me.’

Lucy’s waist as she walked away was haunting in its sweetness, so too her shoulders which had grown freckled on their poolside afternoons. Diana closed her eyes against the sight. She heard the faint hiss of a can opening, and Minta’s voice saying, ‘Diana, what the fuck?’

She had wanted urgently for Lucy to comprehend some shadow, at least, of what she herself had inflicted on a girl she claimed to love – some semblance of that anxiety, that despair, finally that violent public rejection, not just rejection but in fact the denial of any involvement at all. Diana was certain that now some essential balance would be restored. It was not for some people to suffer everything, and others nothing. Not while she had her wits and her resources.

She opened her eyes to glimpse Lucy just disappearing over a small hill at the edge of the meadow and felt instead, with gravity, her own regret. The sight of Lucy’s back seemed to radiate pain. This was what she had intended. But for what had she punished Lucy? If not to offer her the chance to step down from her rarified place, deepen her empathy, show she was human?

She found Lucy on a bench beyond the meadow, where the picnickers would not see her. Facing the bench was an artificial lake crossed by a little stone bridge. Diana sat beside Lucy, took her hand between her two palms and kneaded it. Lucy allowed her hand to be taken. The sun moved over Lucy’s cheekbones and lashes, over the red folds of her dress and the skin of the lake. Diana was beginning to comprehend Lucy’s experience: So this was what it felt like to inflict pain and to participate in it. This was what it was to relish power and – she watched pain and shame battling in the jaggedness and trembling of Lucy’s lips – to simultaneously regret it. She felt a profound sense of understanding settle over her, her body anchored itself against the bench, and she held Lucy’s hand more tightly. How could she have been so stupid, how could she have hoped she and Lucy would love each other, when they couldn’t yet understand each other? She had known nothing of Lucy’s effortless power, and Lucy had known nothing of the obscure, miserable frustration of being excluded from the contest of love. She could feel in the tangle of her fingers that Lucy was experiencing this breadth of empathy too. The past seemed to retreat to a small and pivotal place in the distance. Diana would forgive Lucy for the story of Isabel, and Lucy would forgive her for this ruined birthday.

Tears crept down Lucy’s face. She held Diana’s hand more tightly. The bracelet Diana had given her was hot against their entwined wrists. ‘God,’ she said. Diana held her.

‘I have to go back,’ Lucy said then, freeing Diana’s hand.

Diana couldn’t go back over the hill yet. ‘I’ll come tonight,’ she said. Lucy walked with square shoulders, her back held straight.

That evening Diana walked to Lucy’s apartment with a fierce, rare feeling of joy. Tonight Lucy would repent for what she had done to Isabel, and Diana could made amends and show her sincere self to Lucy: the self which had not always been rakish but had once been outcast, the same self which loved Lucy and forgave her. But she found, when she arrived, that there was no answer. Perhaps Lucy had drunk too much at the picnic and passed out already, or lost track of time at some party?

Diana waited half an hour in the warm darkness, aware that she was in the grip of a hopeful, piteous devotion to which she had hoped to be invulnerable. Then she walked home and slept with the windows open.

In the morning she went back to Lucy’s. The sun moved over her, and she felt hopeful and lightly sick. She rang Lucy’s bell four times. Finally Lucy appeared on the stoop. She was still wearing the red dress, though it had suffered some grass stains since the previous afternoon. Diana remembered the immaculate desire she had felt when she first encountered Lucy, fervent and doubtless, and the greedy pleasure of watching her bewitch a whole room. She reached out to embrace her.

‘Don’t touch me!’ Lucy said, pushing the hand away. Her face was tight. ‘Why are you here? Why the fuck are you here right now?’

‘Won’t you just have a cigarette with me?’ Diana said, after a moment. ‘Please, come outside?’

They walked a block in silence. At the corner Diana bought a pack and a lighter and they stood under the bodega sign together in a raw breeze. Lucy’s lashes were clumped together a little, but Diana loved her no less.

‘Why are you here?’ Lucy said, waving the lighter around. ‘You’ve been shitty to me for a month! And what the fuck was that in the park yesterday? Okay, I get it, you don’t want to be with me anymore, but did you have to shit on me in front of my friends, on my fucking birthday? Couldn’t you just tell me like a human being?’

‘But that’s not what’s going on, not at all,’ Diana said. ‘I do want to be with you, I just – I thought –’ and she stopped. She looked at Lucy. ‘You don’t understand,’ she said, ‘do you? This is about Isabel.’

‘Isabel?’ said Lucy. ‘Isabel who?’

‘Isabel Garcia!’

Lucy squinted at Diana. ‘Do you know her?’ she said. ‘Do you know Isabel from somewhere?’

‘No, I was trying to show you – I wanted you to understand. About high school. What it was like for Isabel. What it felt like if you were gay then, and if you –’

‘High school?’ Lucy flicked ashes onto Diana’s shirt. ‘High school?’

 

Diana could make it over the bridge, out of Manhattan, all the way down to Sunset Pool. She knew where the river was; it had only switched sides.

If she lay on her back at the poolside and braced the concrete, with a shirt draped over her face to shield the sun, she became a part of the wide, generous summer. She could hear the size of the pool, the moods of the children shouting, the little dives that splashed the water up and the obligatory shouts of the lifeguards. Early September: The air had a bright, soft sound to it. The cry of the whistle was silver.

When the sun had exhausted her, she gathered her things and went to the bank of showers. She rinsed her face in the stream. She heard the slap of flip-flops, the dull sound of metal keys. Then she heard the voice she knew was Minta’s saying, ‘No, put that under the towel, over there.’

She turned and saw Minta and her girlfriend, still dry, with their arms full of towels and magazines.

She shook the water from her hair and moved toward Minta. She didn’t feel afraid. She had crossed the bridge and drunk up all that light. Adulthood was more forgiving. ‘Hey,’ she said, and touched Minta’s arm. Minta turned toward her. Her cheeks grew taut with surprise, the aging looseness of her face disappeared, and as her mouth curled with disgust she looked as fresh and livid as she must have at sixteen.

 

Photography © Poppy Thorpe, Lucy, 2022

Lillian Fishman

Lillian Fishman is the author of the novel Acts of Service. She writes a monthly column, 'Higher Gossip', in The Point. She lives in New York.

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