[Fiction] Overtaking, By Rachel Cusk | Harper's Magazine

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[Fiction]

Overtaking

“Floating on the Grass, Bailey Island, Maine,” by Barry Stone, from the Drift series © The artist. Courtesy Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery, New York City

[Fiction]

Overtaking

Adjust

Justine was twenty-one years old that spring, Jeffers, the age at which a person begins to show her true colors, and in many ways she was revealing herself to be not at all who I had believed her to be, while at the same time reminding me unexpectedly of other people I had known. I don’t think parents necessarily understand all that much about their children. What you see of them is what they can’t help being or doing, rather than what they intend, and it leads to all kinds of misapprehensions. Many parents, for instance, become convinced that their child has artistic talent, when that child has no intention whatever of becoming an artist! It’s all so many stabs in the dark, the business of trying to predict how a child will turn out—I suppose we do it to make bringing them up more interesting and to pass the time, the way a good story passes the time, when all that really matters is that afterward they’re able to go out into the world and stay there. I believe they know this themselves better than anyone. I was never very interested in the concept of filial duty, or in eliciting maternal tributes from Justine, and so we got to these essentials fairly quickly in our dealings with one another. I remember her asking me, when she was thirteen or so, what I believed the limits of my obligation to her were.

“I believe I am obliged to let you go,” I said, once I’d thought about it, “but if that doesn’t work out, I believe I am obliged to remain responsible for you forever.”

She sat silently for a while and then she nodded her head and said: “Good.”

Because of events in our shared history I had come to see Justine as vulnerable and wounded, when in fact her key characteristic is her dauntlessness. As a small child she had shown this quality, and so perhaps it is truer to say, Jeffers, that we can consider our job as parents to have been accomplished without fatal error or wrongdoing when the small child becomes visible once more in the fully grown being. I have often considered the survival of paintings, and what it means for our civilization that an image has survived across time undamaged, and something of the morality of that survival—the survival of the original—pertains, I believe, to the custody of human souls too. There was a period in which I lost Justine and during which I will never know precisely what happened to her, and it was for signs of damage from this time that I was always on the alert. I told her this around the time that we had the conversation about obligation. I told her that she had lost a year of the care she was owed by me, and that she could consider it a formal debt, to be reclaimed at any time. I even wrote an IOU out for her on a piece of paper! She laughed at me for it, though not unkindly, and I was never handed back that piece of paper, but when she and Kurt returned from Berlin to live with us, it did occur to me that she was perhaps calling in what I owed her.

She had become somewhat of a stranger to me in her time away, and just as a familiar place can seem smaller and clearer when you return there after an absence, and any changes quite shocking at first, I found her somehow distilled, as well as in certain ways startlingly altered. Change is also loss, and in that sense a parent can lose a child every day, until you realize that you’d better stop predicting what they’re going to become and concentrate on what is right in front of you. In that period her small, sturdy physique had suddenly matured, and acquired a density and agility that brought to mind an acrobat: she seemed full of a pent-up but expertly balanced energy, as though at any minute she might whirl exultantly up into the air. Yet likewise when she had no direction or nothing to do she could assume an awful flaccidity, like an acrobat who has somehow got herself stranded down on the ground. She had dismayed me by cutting off all her hair, and had taken to wearing squarish smocks and workaday clothes that stood in stark contrast to her physical ebullience, as well as to the splendor of Kurt’s own wardrobe. I suspected that she was engaged in the pointless squandering of her femininity, and perhaps because I secretly feared I was somewhere to blame for it, I was tempted to lay this wastage at Kurt’s door. The image of middle-aged dullness they formed seemed like something he, rather than she, had summoned up and was doing rather well out of, and I was frequently shocked by little put-downs and criticisms he would deliver to her in a quiet voice, the way parents sometimes lower their voices to criticize their children in front of other people, as a way of burnishing themselves. Yet Justine was slavish in her treatment of him, and would become quite frantic if his needs or expectations were frustrated by a particular turn of events, which meant that I was always slightly nervous while living at close quarters with them in the main house, lest I inadvertently be the cause of the frustration.

Privately, I interpreted Justine’s conduct as the unmediated product of her feelings about her father, around whom I myself had once been nervous and slavish too, and in fact I had found myself beginning to substitute Kurt for him quite naturally. One morning I was sitting beside Justine while she was looking for something in her purse, and a small photograph fell out. I picked it up and saw a close-up image of her with her father, whom I had not seen in person for several years. Their heads were resting together and their arms were around one another’s necks and they both looked very happy, and I was so astonished that I couldn’t even feel envy or insecurity, just simple admiration!

“What a lovely picture of you with your dad,” I said to her, and jumped out of my skin when she screeched with laughter in my ear.

“That’s Kurt!” she said, cackling and stuffing the photo back in her purse.

Later she told Kurt about it and they laughed again over the idea that I had mistaken him for her father, though I was gradually becoming aware that the misapprehension ran deeper in me than either of them realized. Whenever Tony asked Kurt to help outside, for instance, I would feel a protest leap immediately into my throat, as though I believed that Kurt should be shielded from discomfort and labor. I had believed the same thing of Justine’s father, at one time, which shows how little we are able to truly change ourselves. Yet Justine herself didn’t object to these requests, and the reason she didn’t was because it was Tony who had made them, as I discovered when I myself once casually asked Kurt to help clear the dishes from the table and was treated to flounces and glares from Justine. I’m generally suspicious when people are said to “adore” other people, especially when they’ve been given no choice over who those people are, but Justine did always seem to have taken to Tony right from the start and to have trusted him; and Tony, I believe, could not have loved Justine more had she been his own daughter. Most people are incapable of that disinterested kind of love, but Tony has no biological children and no blood relatives, and can love who he likes. He was determined, in any case, that Kurt should lend a hand and occupy himself. When I told him, mortified, about my mix-up over the photograph, he stopped what he was doing and stood as still as an alligator with his eyelids half-closed for the longest time, and I saw that the similarity between my choice of Justine’s father and Justine’s choice of Kurt had been evident to him all along.

That first morning after L and Brett’s arrival, Jeffers, when I stood and talked to L beside the boat, marked the beginning of a period of unseasonably hot weather. It was spring, which ordinarily is a time of turbulent change, when wind and sun and rain alternate to clear away the winter and germinate the new things.

Instead we received day after day of inexplicable stillness and heat, and the first flowers rushed up out of the raw earth and the trees hastily put on their foliage. Walking on the marsh, I noted dry paths that usually would have been boggy with mud, and clouds of buzzing insects everywhere, and the air shrilled and pulsed with birdsong as never before, as though all these creatures had been summoned up from the earth to some great and mysterious appointment ahead of time.

It was so dry that Tony grew worried some of the young trees and plants might die for lack of spring rain, and so he started to build an irrigation system out of long lengths of rubber hose that he laid all around our land. It had so many circuits and junctions that it resembled a huge network of veins, and he had to pierce all the hoses with hundreds of tiny holes along their sides so that the water would come out in continuous drips. It was fiddly and laborious work and it took him many hours, and I got used to seeing him at a distance, now in one corner of the land and now in another, bent over in concentration. After a while he conscripted Kurt to help him, and then there were two tiny figures in the distance, bending and conferring while the sun shone down on their heads. Every now and again I would bring them something to drink, and it took them forever to notice I was there, while they puzzled out the mechanics of some complicated junction or tried to work out why water wasn’t flowing down a particular tributary. They couldn’t afford to be slapdash or careless: the smallest mistake would result in the failure of the whole system. Tony had planted most of those trees himself and he cared about each one. How arduous and time-consuming it is, Jeffers, to take care of every last thing and not deceive yourself and wave away some aspect of it! I suppose the writing of a poem must work along similar lines.

Kurt was willing enough to do the work at first, but after a while I could see that he was growing bored of it. He was relying on his good manners and on the mild discipline of his privileged upbringing to carry him along, rather than on the mania of the perfectionist or the tenacity of the dutiful soldier. His character—that of a cherished, well-trained house dog—struggled to accommodate this turn of events, in which it was hard to discern a narrative wherein he played the central role, and since he was exhausted by the end of the day in any case, he retreated into a kind of dazed blankness, as though he had received a sort of concussion to his sense of self-importance. The hiatus gave Justine a desire to experiment with her own power, for which Brett was ready and willing to provide the opportunity.

“Brett is such an interesting person,” Justine said to me one afternoon, when she had gone to get supplies for the second place and taken an unusually long time returning. “Did you know that she danced in the London ballet, all the time that she was putting herself through medical school?”

I had no idea that Brett had been to medical school, nor that she was a trained dancer. All I knew was that at this current moment she was lodged like a giant splinter in my life, and that I had no idea how or when I was going to prize her out again.

Because of the unusually fine weather, in the evenings Tony would light the fire in the big brazier outside at dusk, so that we could sit and watch the sun set over the sea while the coolness of night came in. I would watch the smoke roll up into the sky, knowing that L could see it from the second place and hoping it would draw him to us. Up until then I had barely seen L, and any questions or requests from that household came through Brett, so that it couldn’t have been made clearer to me that he was hiding. Each night Tony built the fire bigger and bigger, as if he had read my mind and was trying to help summon L himself. On the fourth or fifth night, just as darkness was about to fall, I finally saw the two of them winding their way through the shadows of the trees toward us. We all jumped up to welcome them and made room around the fire. I can’t remember what we talked about, just that I was aware of L’s lamplike eyes growing brighter and more penetrating as the dusk fell, like the eyes of some nocturnal animal—and also that he had made sure to sit as far away from me as he could possibly get.

We had a cocktail of some sort in a big jug which we were sharing around, but L didn’t drink his: he accepted a portion, so as not to draw attention to himself, I suppose, and I found it afterward, untouched. He never drank alcohol in the time that I knew him, at least that I saw. We always like to have a good drink at the day’s end, Jeffers, and go to bed sleepy and not too late, along with the birds—it seems to suit our way of life here. So L’s alertness in the darkness was unnerving. I was happy, though, to be in his presence, or more accurately, it was pleasant for an hour or two not to have to puzzle over what his absence meant. But then after that first time he didn’t come again. He stayed at home, while Brett came tripping and calling through the glade to sit in a circle with us every night, usually next to Justine. Kurt, after his day spent with the hosepipes, would be nodding in sleep in front of the brazier before he was halfway through his first cocktail: we woke him up to eat his dinner but he mostly crept off to bed by nine. This left Justine at a loose end, and Brett was right there to pick it up. And so the fire by which I had hoped to summon what I wanted ended by summoning the very thing I didn’t want, which was more of Brett’s company!

I had treated Brett with a cordial wariness whenever we chanced to meet, but now she began to spend more time in the main house, and I saw that I would have to find a more serviceable manner for dealing with her. One afternoon I was passing Justine’s room, and behind the closed door I heard the two of them talking and laughing inside. When I saw Justine later, her short hair was done in a new—and far more flattering—style, and she wore a bright scarf tied around her head that framed her pretty face quite strikingly.

“Brett’s persuaded me to grow my hair,” she said, slightly shamefaced, for I had been dropping hints on that score for weeks.

And indeed she did grow out her hair, Jeffers, all through the spring and summer, and by the autumn her lovely dark curls were falling almost to her shoulders, though by then Kurt was no longer there to see them.

Soon she and Brett were always together, and since they weren’t, I reasoned, all that far apart in age, I somewhat grudgingly supposed it was natural for them to become friends, despite being such different characters. In fact Brett was considerably older, as I discovered later, which might explain why Justine fell under her influence, rather than the other way around—to good effect, I must admit, at least as far as her appearance was concerned.

“What on earth is this?” Brett would say, as I myself didn’t dare to, when she discovered Justine in one of those sacklike garments she had taken to wearing. “Did it come from Mother Hubbard’s cupboard?”

A “Mother Hubbard” was that loose kind of dress certain Victorian ladies used to wear that covered them from top to toe, to avoid having to put on a corset—Brett’s comparison was an exaggeration, but it wasn’t far off! Brett herself, of course, showed off her lovely figure at every opportunity. I believed, I suppose, that Justine’s concealment of herself and her embracing of the cult of plainness and comfort was the result of her shame and self-dislike, and the reason I believed it was because it was what I had always felt myself. At heart I feared I had failed to do something vital with respect to Justine’s womanhood, or worse, had inadvertently done to her the same thing that had been done to me. I had grown up disgusted by my physical self, regarding femininity as a device—like the corset—to keep the repellent facts from view: it was as impossible for me to accept what was ugly in myself as to accept any other kind of ugliness. A woman such as Brett, therefore, unnerved me deeply, not only because she relished self-exposure but because I sensed she was thereby capable—without especial malice—of exposing other people. So when one day in the kitchen she crept up behind Justine and, laughing, grabbed her smock by the hem and whipped it over her head, so that there in the kitchen my daughter’s young body was revealed in its underwear for all the world to see, I was rather too ready to prove that Brett’s game was up.

“How dare you!” I cried, which was what I had wanted to say to her since the day we had met. “Who do you think you are?”

Justine was emitting muffled shrieks, which I soon understood were indicative of laughter, but all the same I was furious and upset, just as if it had been my own flesh that Brett had unveiled so mercilessly.

“I’m sorry,” Brett said, putting her pretty, remorseful face too close to mine and her conciliatory hand on my arm. “Was that too high-spirited?”

“We’re not all exhibitionists here,” I said, spitefully.

Justine, however, wasn’t angry with Brett at all after the incident, and even allowed herself to be called Mother Hubbard on occasion, which I privately fumed at until I realized one day that the sackcloths were no longer in evidence and that my daughter was undergoing a transformation. I came out of the house into the bright sunlight one afternoon and saw two figures sitting on the grass, and for a moment I didn’t seem to know either of them—two fresh and laughing young women, their limbs bared to the sun, like a pair of nymphs in the dawn of the world who had alighted on our lawn!

“Brett wants to teach me to sail,” Justine said soon afterward. “Do you think Tony would let us use the boat?”

“You’d better ask him yourself,” I said. “Are you sure she really knows what to do? It’s not like motor-boating on the Mediterranean out there. I think he’d be worried.”

“She once sailed single-handed across the Atlantic!” Justine burst out when I made these objections. “They even put on an exhibition in New York of the photos she took of the journey!”

Well, I could barely stop myself from unmasking Brett as a fantasist there and then, and forcing Justine to acknowledge the outlandish nature of her claims about her own life, but it seemed reasonable enough to expect that the facts would come to light on their own. I left it to Tony to shine that pitiless torch on Brett, and I felt secretly guilty that I had allowed Justine to become attached to someone who lied and aggrandized herself, as well as chagrined to remember that it was L who had brought her uninvited into our midst.

“She can do it,” Tony very much surprised me by saying, after I had forced him to go and talk to Brett about sailing the boat. “She’s got the certificate. She showed it to me.”

This was an international qualification, Jeffers, that apparently enabled the holder to skipper large yachts anywhere in the world. Our old wooden dinghy barely counted! Justine had always loved going out on that boat with Tony, though she had resisted his own attempts to teach her how to sail it. I think it would be true to say that she wasn’t sure the adults in her life could teach her anything, not even Tony. But also she couldn’t see the point of learning, she had said, since she would be unlikely ever to keep a boat of her own, and Kurt had seemed to reinforce that outlook, in which fear masqueraded as common sense or even disdain. I could almost see him thinking that if Justine learned to sail, she might one day just get in a boat and sail away from him! In this and other ways she and Kurt had seemed to be turning their backs on risk and adventure. But now I saw her begin to rebel against these prescriptions, even as I had privately resigned myself to them and to the future in which they had promised to confine her.

What I am trying to say, Jeffers, is that in watching Justine begin to separate herself from Kurt and question his control over her, I was in the strangest sense watching her overtake me, as though we were running a race, at different points in time but over the same terrain, and in the place where I had catastrophically fallen she leaped with superior skill and strength and ran on. The resemblance I saw between Kurt and her father was a striking product of my unconscious mind, because I was frightened of the latter and therefore saw him as something menacing and large, whereas Kurt I dismissed as clinging and weak. But Kurt wasn’t weak: men never are. Some of them admit their strength and use it to the good, and some of them are able to make their will to power seem attractive, and some of them resort to deception and connivance to manage a selfishness of which they are themselves somewhat frightened. If Kurt was weak, in other words, then so had Justine’s father been, and this was what the incident with the photograph had revealed to me. So much of power lies in the ability to see how willing other people are to give it to you. What I had dismissed as weakness in Kurt was the same force that had ravaged my life all those years before, and which even now I had only recognized by mistake.

Those first weeks of L’s visit, while Tony laid the irrigation system and Brett trespassed into our lives and the hot weather held us in a kind of thrall, had a quality of intermission or interval, and the changes that occurred were like the changes of costume and scenery that go on backstage. And there was I, an audience of one in the stalls: it felt, almost, as though I were looking at it all through the wrong end of a telescope and seeing things from a greater distance than I usually did, perhaps because I myself was not especially the focus of anyone’s attention. These periods can feel like intimations of death, until one remembers that it is the presence of the audience that allows the whole show to be put on in the first place. But I was aware of an empty seat next to mine, where L should have been: I felt we could have watched and understood together. My disappointment and my sorrow were held in check by the hope that soon he might reveal himself.

Because Tony was so busy with the hosepipes he didn’t have time to plant out the spring seedlings in the vegetable garden, and so I had to offer to do it myself, even though I dislike having to do work of this kind. This isn’t out of laziness, but rather the feeling that my life has entailed too many practical tasks, so that if I add even one more to the total, the balance will be tipped and I will have to admit I have failed to live as I have always wished to. The trouble lay in finding anything to put on the other side of the scales: I was quite capable, as I have said, of spending all my free time just sitting and staring in front of me. And yet the second anyone asked me to go and do something, I immediately felt oppressed! Tony understood this about me entirely, and hardly ever expected me to move a muscle, and the only thing that irked him was that I couldn’t expend more of this need for inactivity in sleep and in mental passivity. I always sprang out of bed in the morning, careening around full of energy and will and quite capable of building Rome in a day, only this other part of me wouldn’t let me do it. Tony slept deeply and long, and when he rose he carried the balance of his pleasures and his duties along with him, so that he never strained any one part of himself with too much of either. I would watch him in fascination, Jeffers, trying to learn. He made and ate his breakfast with excruciating slowness, while I wolfed mine down like an animal, so that it was gone long before I had stopped feeling hungry. He would go to an immense amount of trouble over certain things that filled me only with impatience, like the broken old radio I had wanted to throw away but he was determined to fix, even though we had replaced it with a new one. He spent the longest time over it, and for a while our kitchen table was covered with all the parts, and then just as we had started to argue over it, it disappeared. A few days later I had to go and tell him something while he was down at the field on his tractor, and as I approached across the grass I distinctly heard an aria from Handel’s Alcina pealing out over the noise of the engine. He had installed the machine in his tractor, so that he could listen to music while he drove up and down!

Tony believed that I had done more than my fair share of work, and that what was required of me now in my life with him was to enjoy myself, but what he hadn’t reckoned with was the difficulty of finding pleasure and enjoyment for someone who has never really valued them. He thought I should take pride in what I had survived and what I had achieved, and go around like a sort of queen bee, but meanwhile I had come to view the world as far too dangerous a place in which to stop and congratulate myself. The truth was I had always assumed that pleasure was being held in store for me, like something I was amassing in a bank account, but by the time I came to ask for it I discovered the store was empty. It appeared that it was a perishable entity, and that I should have taken it a little earlier.

What I wanted now was work or distraction of a meaningful kind, but try as I might, I couldn’t find meaning in those seedlings! Nonetheless I put on my old boots and found the trowel and rake, and with much sighing I trudged down to the vegetable beds to begin my task. Just as I was unloading the trays of little green shoots from the wheelbarrow, who should appear by my side but Brett, all fresh and lovely in a primrose-yellow dress, with silver sandals on her feet that offered the greatest possible contrast to the muddy, ogreish affairs on mine.

“Need a hand?” she said cheerfully. “L’s in a foul mood this morning, so I thought I’d better make myself scarce.”

Well, Jeffers, with all my irritation over Brett’s presence and my feeling of being imposed upon, I admit I hadn’t thought once about how it might be for her to be stuck out here among strangers, sharing a confined space with a man of famed intractability to whom her relationship was unclear. I’m not the kind of woman who intuitively understands or sympathizes with other women, probably because I don’t understand or sympathize all that much with myself. Brett had seemed to me to have everything, and yet in that moment I saw in a flash that she had nothing at all, and that her intrusive and uninhibited manner was simply her means of survival. She was like one of those climbing plants that has to grow over things and be held up by them, rather than possessing an integral support of her own.

“That’s good of you,” I said, “but I wouldn’t want your nice clothes to get dirty.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” she said. “It’s a relief to get dirty sometimes.”

She picked up the trowel and squatted down beside the trays of seedlings.

“If we dig a little trench,” she said, “it will make it easier.”

I was quite happy to let her take charge, and I sat back on my heels while she made a low trench very deftly and neatly all along the bed. I asked her whether L was often bad-tempered, and she stopped what she was doing to throw her head back melodramatically and laugh.

“Do you know what he says? He says he’s going through the change!”

“The change? Like a woman?”

“That’s what he says. Except I don’t think women actually use that word anymore.”

I found this idea quite interesting, Jeffers, despite Brett’s laughing at it: it seemed to me like something that might well happen to a creative artist, where a loss or alteration in the sources of potency had occurred. Oh, the bitter feeling of release from one’s service to blood and fate! To be led and then discarded by one’s urges: Why should an artist not feel it more than anyone?

“If you ask me,” Brett said, “it’s everything else that’s changing, not him. He preferred it like it was before. He’s sulking, that’s all. He wants back all the things he pretended to take for granted.”

The art market had completely collapsed, she went on, after years of crazed overvaluing, so there were a lot of people in the same boat as L—and far worse, because they didn’t have his pedigree. But there were others—a small number—whose reputations and fortunes were surviving unharmed.

“Some of them happen to be younger than him,” she said, “and a different color, and a couple of them are actually women, which adds to his feeling that the world is against him. The trouble is, he feels impotent.”

“But he is somebody,” I said.

Brett lightly shrugged her shoulders.

“I think he was settling in for a long and luxurious retirement as an artistic eminence. He has a lot of rich friends,” she added, in a low voice. “It would have taken him a whole year just to visit them all, and by the time he’d finished he’d be ready to go back and see the first one again. Most of them were heavy investors in his work, and if he paid them a call now, they’d all be sitting staring at walls that have had ninety percent of their value wiped off them. I believe,” she went on, nimbly lifting the seedlings from their trays and starting to stand them in a line down the trench, “this might be the best possible thing for him. To be stripped down to nothing again. He’s too young just to sit drinking martinis by someone else’s swimming pool.”

I asked her how old she was herself.

“I’m thirty-two,” she said, grinning, “but you have to swear not to tell anyone.”

She told me that she had met L through her rich cousin, the same one who had flown them here.

“He’s an awful creep,” she said. “He used to shut me in a cupboard at family parties when I was little and put his hands up my dresses. He looks like a sea monster now. But he became a collector, as they all do. They have so little imagination, they don’t know what else to do with their money. It’s funny, isn’t it, how determined they are to prove that the thing that can’t be bought can in fact be bought after all. I actually first met L at his house, and then later I persuaded him to buy a whole tranche of sketches L had sitting around in his studio, and since he knows nothing about art he was happy to pay far too much for them and then fly us here into the bargain. That’s all the money L has,” she added, “for now.”

“And what about you?” I said, rather aghast at all this.

“Oh, I’ve always had money. A lot of it’s gone, of course, but I have enough. That’s been my problem. No motivation.” She grimaced and made quote marks with her fingers as she spoke the words. “I was drawn to L because he seemed so bitter and angry and rebellious, and I hardly ever meet people like that in the world I live in. I didn’t ask myself what he was doing there in that world himself!”

She told me how much she liked Justine.

“She has so much honesty,” she said. “Did you make her like that?”

I said I didn’t know. I’d certainly always been honest with her, but that wasn’t quite the same thing.

“People can get tired of too much honesty,” I said. “It makes them want to cover things up again.”

“It certainly does!” Brett said. “By the time I was eleven, I was so tired of people showing me things they pretended weren’t for my eyes, I decided to become a nun! I was always deciding to be things—I think I did it in the hope of finding something I couldn’t do.”

She asked me how I’d met Tony and come to live out here, and I told her the story and about how it had happened entirely by chance. It was a strange thing, I said, to live a life that had no connection whatever to anything you’d ever done or been. There was no thread that led to Tony, and no path between here and where I was before, and so my knowledge of it and of him had to come from an entirely different source. There was a place not too far away, I told her, a sort of archipelago where the sea has made these great fissures in the land, and on opposite banks of one of these very long and narrow bodies of water there are two villages that face one another. It would take literally hours to get by road from one to the other, going miles and miles inland and then coming back out again, yet they can see one another so clearly, right down to the clothes hanging on their washing lines! Something of that separation, I said, which was composed not of distance but of impassibility, illustrated my own situation: I was more familiar with what I looked at than with where I actually was, and so I knew exactly what it would have been like to be over there, looking across at here. What I wasn’t so sure of was what here looked like. But I knew I was lucky to have met Tony.

“It’s frightening to live on luck,” Brett said, somewhat wistfully.

Then she asked me, straight out, if I thought I was in love with L!

“No,” I said, though the truth was, Jeffers, that I had been starting to wonder the same thing myself. “I just want to know him.”

“Oh,” she said. “I wondered what it was.”

“Are you in love with him?” I asked.

“I’m just a pal,” she said, dusting the earth off her hands and putting the empty trays back in the wheelbarrow. “He was really crazy about me for a while. I think he thought I could fix him sexually, but I can’t. He’s all finished in that department. Instead I’m getting him to teach me to paint. He says I’ve got some ability. I think that’s going to be my next career!”

 is the author of many books, most recently the Outline trilogy. Her new novel, Second Place, from which this excerpt is taken, is out this month from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


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