We met in the middle of a blackout.
It was searing hot and there wasn’t any running water and New York City had lost its mind. People were sweaty and edgy, thronging the streets, leaking heat and anxiety. Traffic lights dangled dead over the intersections; taxis lurched through the dark. The ATMs didn’t work and bodegas were charging insane amounts for bottled water and I was thirsty, hungover, and almost out of cash. I felt defenseless every time I walked up the ten flights to my apartment carrying a lit candle in the ghostly stairwell.
I was nearing panic when a friend called and told me he had the water back on in his building down by City Hall, and a grill out on the balcony. As I walked there, on the cobblestone streets just north of Washington Square Park, past an intersection where a woman in a sundress was directing traffic, down into the lighting district—window after window teeming with powerless, shimmering chandeliers, the people in the apartments above drinking beer on the fire escapes—the city seemed less like a nightmare and more like a carnival.
My friend had said he had a houseguest in town, visiting from California: Lucy. She was golden-skinned and green-eyed in her white shirt, and she smiled with all the openness in the world when I walked in the door. She had the radiant decency of a sunflower.
It felt as if I had conjured her out of the dark. Not just the bewitched darkness of the blackout, but all the nights that had come before then, when I went to bars and parties, searching for someone who wasn’t there.
The sky was soft and humid, up above the steaming sidewalk. Our friend grilled all the meat that had thawed since his freezer lost power, and Lucy told me about San Francisco, where she had lived for two decades, where I was going soon, by chance, to report a story. I was immediately struck by her wholesomeness—her clean, easy competence. I liked that she was a decade older than I was, that she was an athlete, that she had a real job as the director of development for an environmental nonprofit, and that she owned her own home. All the girls—and the boys before them—whom I’d dated lived in rentals furnished with dusty junk. I could feel her ambition buzzing away like mine, just under her joie de vivre. I’d never thought it possible to have such a crush on someone so obviously suitable for me in every way. My fantasies about Lucy were extravagantly domestic, almost immediately.
I was in my late 20s. I had spent my childhood desperate to flee the dark, leafy confines of the suburbs, the lonely quiet of my parents’ house. I’d decided then to be a writer—someday I would travel the world like Pippi Longstocking and tell its stories. The years since I’d graduated from college were spent in ferocious pursuit of that objective. I was accustomed to yearning for escape, accomplishment, excitement. I was new to craving commitment.
It would have been easy to sleep over that first night. I could have said I didn’t want to go back to my hot, dark apartment. I could have stayed on the couch and Lucy and I could have found a way to kiss, at least. But I walked home, swooning in the summer night. I didn’t want an encounter. I wanted a partner.
Only she lived with another woman—Lucy was wearing a ring when we met. They had a house in Oakland, with a slate patio and leggy nasturtiums in the backyard. Lucy told me about terracing the garden in one of the first emails she wrote to me, about how she’d studied the slope and carefully planned the drainage before she planted Meyer lemons and lavender. I was dazzled: Could there really be someone so wise as to understand drainage?
We started writing each other incessantly. I would rush home from things to check my computer (there were no iPhones yet; I didn’t even have a cell). She told me about the summer she helped build her brother’s log cabin on Orcas Island, in Washington State: “There were only three of us living in tents on the property. We flossed, we hammered, we went swimming in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.” Everything she did sounded upbeat and virtuous.
Lucy grew up in a little town outside Portland, where you could smell wood pulp from the paper mills when the wind blew. Her father, a tall, competent man who had served in MacArthur’s honor guard in the Pacific theater during World War II, was the town doctor for half a century. When Lucy was little, they used to go to a cabin on the Toutle River during the summertime, and her father lifted giant rocks and rearranged them to make her a paddling pool. He would introduce her to people by saying, “My daughter is six years old”—or seven, or thirteen—“and she’s never done a single thing wrong.”
When she was a child, Lucy asked her parents to call her Joe—which they did, blissfully (or willfully) unaware that it was a harbinger of her homosexuality. She would borrow her brother’s summer-camp uniform to survey the neighborhood, and patrol the perimeter of Lake Sacajawea wearing his coonskin cap. In the fourth grade, she came very close to convincing a new girl in school that she was a boy named Joe, and that they should go steady. Lucy got in trouble when their teacher found out about it, but she hadn’t meant to be duplicitous. To her, it was the truth.
When I went to San Francisco for my story a month after the blackout, I stayed at a guesthouse near Dolores Park. Lucy picked me up in a convertible she had rented for the day and took me to see Muir Woods. I dressed carefully for the occasion, in a pair of tiny red shorts and hiking boots I’d bought to go trekking in the Himalayas years before. I told Lucy about that trip as we tramped through the cool shade of the redwoods, the clean smell of forest rot rising around us.
I had traveled across Asia for six months with a backpack when I was 22. My mood on those exotic days in Kathmandu and Danang alternated between euphoria and lonely terror. I had traveler’s checks that I kept with my passport in a little sack that I wore under my T-shirt at all times, afraid that someone would snatch it and then I would be completely fucked. American Express let you receive mail at their offices then, and the first thing I did whenever I got to a city after a long bus ride was rush to collect a small stack of envelopes and postcards—reports from my friends in New York who were managing to keep our corner of the East Village running without me. Then I would read my mail and cry in my tea.
I had planned to stay for two weeks at a monastery in southern Thailand that hosted a silent meditation retreat for novices. The night I arrived, it was too late to go to the huts with the other foreigners; the monk who met me at the gate brought me to what had once been a stable. Lying on my sleeping bag on the straw floor, I could see the moon in the dark shining sky out the open window. I heard animals, small and busy, moving up in the rafters. I did not feel frightened or alone.
The next morning the monk came back and took me in his truck up the road to a place where strange young white people with dreadlocks went about their chores, stone-faced. In addition to being silent, we were not supposed to read or write while we were there. I lasted three days.
That trip was like all my life, distilled: a compulsion to thrust myself toward adventure offset by a longing to crawl into the pouch of some benevolent kangaroo who would take me bounding, protected, through life. Lucy said she had gone backpacking once in Kanchenjunga. “At the end of the trek, the Sherpas told me they had given me a nickname,” she said. “Boy Scout Lady.”
A wild flock of green parrots had migrated to Telegraph Hill at the turn of the millennium, and I could hear them, flutelike, in the sky when we drove back to the city in Lucy’s rented convertible. She took me to the Zuni Café, where there was a long copper bar and the air smelled like wood fire and rosemary, and a dazzlingly butch woman made us tequila gimlets. It was clear that I needed to move to San Francisco, immediately. Once we lived together, I figured, Lucy and I would go for drinks at that bar at least once a week—it would be one of our things. (During the decade we were married, we did return there consistently, but it was more like once a year.)
When it started getting dark outside, she had to go. She kissed me goodbye on the corner of Gough Street and Market, and I drifted off down the hill feeling molten and golden and saved.
She came to New York often for work in the months that followed. I had just moved into a cacophonous apartment on Fourteenth Street—when ambulances went screeching past every fifteen minutes on their way to Beth Israel, it felt like they were plowing directly through the living room. I scheduled a housewarming party when I knew Lucy would be in town, but pretended it was an accident. The night before, she stayed up late with me making deviled eggs. Lucy told me about wandering her small town with her brothers as a child, plucking apples and plums from the neighbors’ trees: “the fruit tour,” she called it.
During my own insomniac childhood, when I was the only person awake to battle the armies of the darkness at four in the morning, I would put the Free to Be . . . You and Me album on my record player to buoy morale. A fleeting feeling of safety and relief came over me as I heard the opening sequence—Marlo Thomas offering the warbling promise: The world is not all bad! Persevere. Lucy’s presence had a similar effect on me. With this person, I could be normal, content, blessed. Cleaned by her goodness.
A more-or-less married 41-year-old who is secretly renting convertibles and flying to New York City to see her 28-year-old mistress might not sound like someone with a contagious case of virtuousness. But Lucy’s relationship was over. After a very short time, it seemed more like she was cheating on me when she went home to her girlfriend than the other way around. Not that the thought of them together made me jealous or angry: It made me sad. It pained me to think of Lucy feeling lonely, out of place, in her own house.
I didn’t want her girlfriend to suffer. But I didn’t feel particularly guilty, either. They seemed so far from love, I even thought (stupidly) that the girlfriend might be happy to have Lucy taken off her hands.
They had become strangers. Maybe they always had been. And we were magic.
From The Rules Do Not Apply, by Ariel Levy. Copyright ? 2017 by Ariel Levy. To be published by Random House on March 14, 2017.
Sittings Editor: Lindsey Frugier
Hair: Lucas Wilson; Makeup: Junko Kioka