The Light We Lost (Page 5)

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“No idea,” I said, sticking some English muffins in the toaster. “Before her dad was born. So . . . 1940s?”

You whistled.

I know we didn’t stay there often, but I bet you remember that apartment. It was hard to forget. The two huge bedrooms and bathrooms, that breakfast nook we used as a library. And the ceilings that were about twelve feet high. I didn’t appreciate those details then, but I did appreciate the apartment. Kate was in law school, and her dad said it was cheaper for her to live there than for him to pay for housing down by NYU. It worked well for me, too.

“We visited Kate’s grandma here when we were in middle school,” I told you, as we sat on the couch with our breakfast plates on our bare knees. “She was a docent at the Met until she got sick. She’d studied art history at Smith back before most women even thought about college.”

“I wish I’d met her,” you said, after a sip of coffee.

“You would’ve loved her.”

We chewed quietly, our thighs against each other as we ate, my shoulder grazing your arm. It was impossible for us to be in a room together without touching.

“When does Kate come back?” you asked, after you’d finished swallowing.

I shrugged. She’d met Tom about a month before, and that night was maybe the second time she’d stayed at his place. “We should probably get dressed soon.”

I felt your eyes on my breasts.

You put your plate down, done with breakfast.

“You have no idea what you do to me, Lucy,” you said, as you watched me rest my fork on my plate. “All morning, you without any clothes on. It’s like being dropped into one of my fantasies.” Your hand strayed to your lap and then you were touching yourself slowly through cotton.

I’d never watched you touch yourself, never seen what you did when you were alone. I couldn’t stop looking.

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“Now you,” you said, tugging yourself free of your boxers.

I put my plate down and reached for you, already turned on.

You shook your head and smiled. “That’s not what I meant.”

I raised my eyebrows, and then I understood what you wanted. I slid my fingers down my stomach. You’d never watched me touch myself either. But the idea of it thrilled me. I closed my eyes, thinking about you, thinking about you looking at me, thinking about sharing this personal moment with you, and I felt my body shudder.

“Lucy,” you whispered.

My eyes fluttered open and I saw you stroking yourself faster.

It felt more intimate than sex, the two of us performing this act for each other, an act that was usually private. The lines that separated “you” and “me” were blurring even more into an “us.”

While I kept touching myself, you leaned against the couch, taking your boxers off completely, your eyes on me the whole time. Our hands sped up. So did our breathing. You bit your lip. Then I watched your grip tighten. I watched your muscles clench. I watched you come.

“Oh, God,” you said. “Oh, Lucy.”

I moved my fingers more insistently, to join you, but you clasped your hand around my wrist.

“May I?” you asked.

I shivered at the sound of your voice.

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Then I nodded and you shifted so I could lie down along the length of the couch, so you could slide off my underwear. You moved closer and the anticipation made me squirm.

As you slipped your fingers inside me you said, “I have a secret.”

“Oh, yeah?” I asked, arching to meet your hand.

“Oh, yeah,” you said, stretching out next to me, your mouth against mine. “Whenever I touch myself, I think about you.”

A shudder rippled through my body. “Me too,” I whispered between breaths.

I came thirty seconds later.

x

In those first six months, I was always learning new things about you—things I found sexy, surprising, endearing.

Like that day I came over to your place after work, and you were sitting cross-legged on the floor, piles of paper squares around you, each the size of a small Post-it note.

I dropped my bag on the kitchen table and shut the door behind me. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“It’s my mom’s birthday in two weeks, September nineteenth,” you told me, looking up from your paper sorting. “Since I can’t fly home for it this year, I wanted to come up with something meaningful to send her.”

“So you’re making . . . a paper mosaic?” I asked, walking closer.

“In a sense,” you said. “They’re all pictures of my mom and me.” You lifted up the squares of paper to show me. I looked closer and saw you and your mom at your high school graduation. The two of you in shorts, your feet dangling in a pool. You giving her bunny ears on your front porch.

“Wow,” I said.

“I spent most of the day printing them,” you told me, “and now I’m organizing them by color. I want to make it look like a kaleidoscope.”

I sat down on the floor next to you, and you gave me a quick kiss.

“Why a kaleidoscope?” I asked, picking up a picture of you and your mom, back to back, you a smidge taller. Your hair was the same curly blond—it was hard to tell where she ended and you began.

“I was fourteen,” you said, looking at the picture over my shoulder.

“You were cute,” I said. “My fourteen-year-old self would have had a crush on your fourteen-year-old self.”

You smiled and squeezed my leg. “Without even seeing a picture of you at fourteen, I’ll go out on a limb and say the same would be true in reverse.”

Now it was my turn to smile. I put the photo down. “But why a kaleidoscope?” I asked again.

You rubbed a hand across your forehead, pushing your curls out of your eyes. “I’ve never told anyone this story before,” you said quietly.

I picked up a couple more pictures. You and your mom blowing out candles on her birthday cake. Your mom holding your hand as the two of you stood in front of a Mexican restaurant. “You don’t have to tell me,” I said, wondering if your dad had taken the pictures of the two of you from before you were nine—and who had taken them afterward.

“I know,” you said. “But I want to.” You moved so we were facing each other, knee to knee. “The year after my parents split, money was really tight. I would come home from school to find my mom crying more often than painting. That year, I was pretty sure if we did anything for my birthday at all, it would suck. I told her I didn’t want a party with my friends. I didn’t want her to worry about paying for it.”

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I was struck again by how different our childhoods were. There wasn’t a time I ever worried that my parents wouldn’t be able to pay for a birthday party.

“But my mom . . .” you said. “I had this kaleidoscope that I loved. I would look through it for hours, turning and turning the disc at the end, watching the shapes shift and change, focusing on that instead of how sad my mom was, how sad I was that I couldn’t make her happier, how mad I was at my dad.”

You couldn’t look at me while you were talking; all your focus was on getting the words out. I rested my hand on your knee and squeezed. You gave me a brief smile. “And?” I asked.

You took a breath. “She turned the whole house into a kaleidoscope,” you said. “It was . . . it was incredible. She hung pieces of colored glass from the ceiling and turned a fan on low so they’d twirl. It was stunning.”

I tried to imagine it, a house transformed into a kaleidoscope.

“My mom and I lay there on the floor, staring up at the colored glass. Even though I thought of myself as a big kid since I’d just turned ten, since I was taking care of my mom as best I could, I started to cry. She asked what was wrong, and I told her that I didn’t know why I was crying, that I was happy. She said, ‘It’s the art, angel.’ And I think in some sense she was right, it was the art, but in another sense . . . I don’t know.”

“What don’t you know?” I asked, unconsciously rubbing circles on your knee with my thumb.

“I wonder now if it was relief. If I was crying because my mom was acting more like my mom again. She was taking care of me. And even though she was in this dark and broken place, she was still able to create beauty. I wonder if that art proved to me that she was going to be okay. That we were going to be okay.”

You put your hand on my knee now.

“She was strong,” I said. “She loved you.”

You smiled, as if you were feeling her love right there, in that room. And then you kept talking. “My mom and I lay there, both of us crying, and I couldn’t help thinking about my dad. How if he were there, we wouldn’t have done this. Living with him . . . I told you, it was unpredictable. It was like I imagine it must have been in London during World War Two, knowing the air-raid sirens would go off and bombs would fall at some point, but never having any idea where or when they would hit. I whispered to my mom then, ‘We’re better off without him,’ and she said, ‘I know.’ I was only ten, but I felt like a grown-up when I said that.”

There were tears in my eyes as you finished talking. I was imagining your ten-year-old self on the floor with your mom, thinking about your dad, feeling like an adult, feeling loved, surrounded by art that she created just for you.

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