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The Face of Pain


None of this is to say that I was Lucy’s only friend, or the only person she could really talk to, or the person with whom she had had some kind of fundamental breakthrough in intimacy. The truth was that Lucy had a genius for friendship. At any given moment, she could think of 50 different people she could call for coffee. There were at least a dozen people who would have taken her in and taken care of her for years at a time. She loved her friends, and we all loved her passionately. She was able to offer up the deepest part of herself over and over again to people she liked, and in return, we were willing to do anything for her. “There are a lot of people who think they’re my best friend,” Lucy liked to tell me. “But you actually are my best friend.” I always imagined she said it to a lot of people, but it didn’t matter. That was her gift: herself, her intimacy. After we left Iowa, I would always feel a tremendous sense of relief whenever we were together again, as if I was now finally able to speak my own language after having to stumble through for so long in awkward French. Again and again in her letters, she spoke of how we should plan to go away to another country, replicate the Iowa years of our life. I made a mistake not taking her up on it.

Lucy tried constantly to find and fully participate in any joy that was available to her, but still she was pulled into blistering bouts of depression. Her grief about feeling ugly and her desire to be loved in a way that would be huge enough to meet her needs would regularly roll her into a little ball and paralyze her. She would cry for hours and then for days. I had grown up bearing witness to depression, but Lucy’s darkness terrified me, in large part because it made such perfect sense. No matter how anyone argued for the virtues of her talent and her friendships, the many jewels of her life, there was no denying the fact that what she had been through and what was still ahead of her seemed insurmountable. She would tell me she wanted to go out to the cornfields wearing a light jacket at night, drink a bottle of whiskey, and lie down in the snow. I would pull her into my lap and hold her and kiss her hair.

I came to understand early on that I could not worry about Lucy, that it was just too enormous for me to manage and that worrying about her would swamp me. It happened one night while we sat in a sports bar drinking, waiting out a terrible rainstorm before we could walk home. We had just gone to see an especially stupid romantic comedy, and now she was crying, saying she was always going to be alone and that she couldn’t stand it anymore. I was stunned by the rawness of her pain. I decided then that I would take all the hours of my life that could so easily be spent worrying and instead try to help her. I would do anything I could.

Lucy stayed on in Iowa for a while after I went back to Tennessee. I brought home the man I had been dating in school, thinking that marrying him might solve our innumerable problems. Lucy went to London and stayed with her sister, Suellen. Suellen read an article about a plastic surgeon in Aberdeen, Scotland, who was doing pioneering work in facial reconstruction. Lucy went to meet with Oliver Fenton, and it was agreed that she was an excellent candidate for the procedure, which would take about three months. When I got divorced a year later, she was still there.

“Got home from the hospital today to find my Saint Lucy medal waiting for me,” she wrote from Aberdeen. “I have always wanted one of those. Thanks: it’s just so amazing to me how good you can make me feel, more than anyone else (sounds like a pop song, I know).

“My eye is still swollen, not so bad as Friday, but it’s still a real problem aesthetic-wise. Monday Mr. Fenton came round and said there wasn’t anything he could do, that I was stuck with the problem, that maybe it would get better, maybe it wouldn’t, and in the meantime I had to decide did I want anymore surgery as that would surely make it worse. He was so flippant about it; so short and curt, as if he were telling me anything other than that all of this had been a total flop. It really upset me, what he had to tell me and the way he told me. I spent the night crying uncontrollably, all the nurses trying to console me. Finally the head nursing sister came and talked to me and she said she’d let him know how upset I was. The next day he was supposed to come talk to me, but in the end he didn’t have time, so now I’m supposed to go back on Monday. I just don’t know, Ann, I just don’t know. Sometimes I feel real calm and wise and accepting and other times I’m totally on the edge. When I wear the guise of alienated poet I do okay, everything seems if not actually good, then at least placable. When I try and wear the guise of a woman, it’s a disaster.”

I was living out my own disaster on a smaller scale: I was 25, divorced, out of a job, and back home. My stepfather, knowing that the best chance I had of getting over things was being with Lucy, bought me a ticket to Scotland.

Lucy's darkness terrified me, in part because it made perfect sense. No matter how anyone argued for the virtues of her talents and her friendships, there was no denying the fact that what she had been through and what was still ahead of her seemed insurmountable.

Lucy had two tissue expanders in Aberdeen, first on the right side and later on the left. The expander is a process of surgically placing a balloon under the skin and then injecting a small amount of saline solution into it every day so that the skin is stretched and then can be used in surgery. When she came to meet me at the airport, she looked like she had a tire of flesh stitched beneath her face. Her face, normally faulted for being too small, her jaw an unfinished ledge that simply dropped off into nothing, was now huge. When she saw me, she was already crying, the weight of so much time being alone over now for a little while. She climbed into my arms there at the gate and I held her.

Aberdeen was largely a rig town, which meant the men worked three weeks off-shore on the oil rigs and then came into town for a week, fat with cash and wanting to stay as drunk as possible. It was a brutal place for tissue expanders. Lucy was chased, harassed, and teased with a viciousness she had not endured since junior high school. She told me she would sometimes run out of food and be too terrified to go to the store around the corner. But together we spent our nights in Café Drummond and our days in a restaurant called the Nile. Her room at the time was a kind of YMCA dorm, six girls each with a tiny bedroom sharing a kitchen and a living room. When we put up my cot, there wasn’t an inch of remaining floor space. For both of us, those weeks together were the happiest we had that year.

One night, coming home late in the freezing damp wind after a couple of drinks at Drummond, I was struck by the terrible mess I had made of my life. Walking up the street in the darkness, I complained to Lucy: I was divorced, I’d quit my teaching job to get away from my husband, I was broke, I felt impossibly far away from writing.

“Oh, you’ll be fine,” she said lightly, wanting to move ahead to another topic. I stopped. “I’ll be fine? That’s it? I’ve wrecked my life, come to Scotland, and all you have to say is that I’ll be fine?” I had spent plenty of time on her sadness, and now I wanted a minute for my own.

Lucy looped her arm through mine and pulled me forward. “It’s true,” she said, leaning her head on my shoulder. “It’s your blessing and your curse. You’re always going to be fine.”

Lucy worried as much about whether she would be a writer as about being alone: “I’m still racking my brains to figure out where I went wrong. I am very negative about ever getting any sort of luck in writing or love or anything at all. It’s not just luck, I know I have to make it happen, but in the end you can’t force someone to publish your work or accept your love,” she wrote. She worked hard on her writing, and when she finally got out of Scotland after three years, she had won a Bunting fellowship at Radcliffe College. There she wrote an essay for Harper’s about her face, the thing she had been hoping to transcend. The essay led to a book contract; another long fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown; and finally, in 1994, the publication of Autobiography of a Face.

I’ve never known a writer who hated to write quite as much as Lucy did. On any given day, you could find her at the Governor Bradford in Provincetown, having a drink and shooting pool, talking about how awful it was to live under the pressure of a book that was due. At the same time, there has never been a writer who took more pleasure in her success. Lucy’s true destiny, it turns out, was to spend her afternoons doing photo shoots at fashion magazines, stay out late at every fashionable dinner party, and then get up early for a spot on the Today show. She was comfortable and eloquent with Charlie Rose and Lenny Lopate and CNN. She was everywhere. She got a good-size loft on Mercer Street in Soho. The supermodels called out to her as they all tripped home on the cobblestone streets in the early hours of the morning, “Hey, Lucy! Hello!” But she only nodded slightly and turned away, seeming too cool for the likes of them.

I had learned early on in our friendship why it was that Lucy never talked to me in college: She had no idea who I was. Everyone knew her name, remembered her story, and spoke to her. She had long ago given up on keeping a world of strangers straight. She put absolutely no effort into remembering people, so that it was quite possible to talk to her on ten different occasions and still have her say at some point, “Have we met before?”

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