I watched this show almost every weekend. It was as great a part of the evening's entertainment as seeing Jules et Jim. Being shy myself, I did not come to shout her name until our junior year. By then she would wave to the audience as they screamed for her. She would bow from the waist. She had cut off her hair so that it was now something floppy and boyish, a large cowlick sweeping up from her pale forehead. We could see her face clearly. It was always changing, swollen after a surgery or sinking in on itself after a surgery had failed. One year she walked with a cane and someone told me it was because they had taken a chunk of her hip to grind up and graft into her jaw.
We knew things about Lucy the way one knows things about the private lives of movie stars, by a kind of osmosis of information. I do not remember asking or being told. It was simply passed through the air. Not only did we know about Lucy's childhood, her cancer, her bravery, everyone in school knew that Lucy was the poet. Better than a very good college poet, she was considered by both teachers and hipsters to be a serious talent. She was always picked to give readings in the coffee shop on Parents' Weekend. People pressed into the little room to listen, her voice as small as it was when she directed us to the emergency exits on Friday nights, but more self-confident.
"When I dream of fire," she read, "you're still the one I'd save / though I've come to think of myself / as the flames, the splintering rafters."
As I sat in the audience, watching, I believed we had something in common even though I wrote short stories. People liked my work but had trouble remembering me. I was often confused with another writer named Anne who was in one of my classes, and with a girl named Corinna who lived downstairs from me. Unlike Lucy, I had a tendency to blur into other people. I had come to Sarah Lawrence from twelve years of Catholic school where we were not in the business of discovering our individuality. We dressed in identical plaid skirts, white blouses, saddle oxfords, and when we prayed, it was together and aloud. It was impossible to distinguish your voice from the crowd. There is an art to giving yourself over to someone else and as a group we mastered it. While Lucy had discovered that she was different from all the other children in her grade school because she was sick and was different from all the other children on the hospital's cancer ward because she continued to survive, I had discovered I was so much like every other little girl in the world that it always took me a minute to identify my own face in our class photo. Still, I thought, in my shyness, my blurriness, it would not be so unreasonable to think that the famous Lucy Grealy and I could be friends. But when I waved to her in passing or said hello in the cafeteria, she would look at me blankly for a minute and then turn away as if we had never met. Once I stopped her at the window where we returned our trays and dirty dishes.
"My father and stepmother live in Los Angeles," I said. "They invited a couple of the midshipmen from the Naval Academy over for Thanksgiving dinner and it turns out one of them went to high school with you. His name was Bobby something."
She stared at me as if she could not possibly imagine why I was speaking to her. I made another stab at my story. "I guess Sarah Lawrence came up and they figured out we both went there, so he asked my parents to ask me to tell you hello." I gave her a little smile but it went nowhere. "So, hello."
"Okay," she said, and walked away.
Lucy Grealy was much too cool for the likes of me, a girl from Tennessee who did not go to clubs in the city.
I graduated from college early and went back home to Nashville. When I got Lucy's letter, I never considered telling her no, she could find her own place to live. Lucy had the pull of celebrity, and while she had always ignored me, I was flattered to be asked for help. Besides, she would be the only person I knew in Iowa. I borrowed my mother's car and drove up in June to look at the cut-up houses and makeshift rooms used to store graduate students through hard winters. I quickly found that there was not a single apartment Lucy could afford, nor was there a single apartment I could afford. There were very few that we could have managed if we pooled our resources, and so I rented the only practical thing I could find, half of a very ugly green duplex on Governor Street for $375 a month, where we could at least have our own bedrooms. When I got home, I wrote Lucy and told her we would be roommates. It was not one of the options she had given me, but the numbers spoke for themselves. Neither of us could manage more than $200 a month.
From Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.
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