In this series, Quarantine Reads, writers present the books getting them through these strange times.
Quarantine has made me a lonelier woman, but I’ve always held the inheritance of another woman’s loneliness. When my mother was in her early twenties, she left her mother’s house in Bangalore to move to New York City, where her new husband—my father— had been living for the previous few years. It was her mother, my grandmother, who arranged the match. My grandmother was thrilled to send my mother to America, even though my mother didn’t want to marry and didn’t idealize coming to America the way her mother did.
You can be happy anywhere, unhappy anywhere, my grandmother told her. The two of them had a mother-daughter relationship like something out of a Jamaica Kincaid novel: loving but contentious, fraught with discipline and warnings about the difficulty of being a woman.
My mother remembers her early life in New York as a kind of self-quarantine. While my father worked, she spent her days isolated in their tiny studio apartment, going stir-crazy, cooking and cleaning and staring at the clinical white walls. A gossipy relative back home had spooked her into believing she’d be assassinated if she opened the front door in America. Occasionally, she spoke to the women holed up in the neighboring apartments. But most of her downtime, my mother spent sleeping. She slept purposefully and often, trying to reenter her old life in her dreams: the long walks with college girlfriends to the pani puri truck, the yipping of a neighbor’s Pomeranian, the pulse of life as an unmarried woman, alive with vagary and freedom. My mother resented her mother for marrying her off. They spoke once a month, on an international call, during which they’d argue about fate. And then my mother would hang up, miss her mother, and sleep away some more of her time.
Experiences like my mother’s are commonplace for many women. They’re often fictionalized and folded into novels about immigrant experiences, novels many readers from immigrant communities have grown tired of. Can’t we tell stories other than the one about coming to America and assimilating? And yet, those narratives have a pull for me—they contain the stories about women’s loneliness that have always absorbed me.
I’ve read Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy over and over. It’s the novel I turn to when I crave the order of a book I have loved before. First published in 1990, Lucy is about a young woman who leaves her home in the West Indies to work as an au pair for Mariah and Lewis, a well-to-do white couple in the United States. At first glance, Lucy seemed to me like the kind of novel I am built to love: I had always wanted to be a woman rising, and so I liked stories about women rising. Lucy’s premise suggests a narrative about social ascendance—a young, wage-earning woman, a modern governess type who pulls herself up by her bootstraps. It seems, on the surface, to promise to be another immigrant bildungsroman, charting the arc of a young woman’s maturation into a society where things like bootstraps are celebrated.
But Lucy doesn’t care about ascendance or assimilation. Kincaid doesn’t concern herself with a woman becoming, but rather with a woman being. How does a person get to be that way? Lucy wonders, over and over again. What she wants to be—all she wants to be—is alone. She wants to isolate herself before society seizes the chance to isolate her. Solitude is an act of self-preservation, whereas loneliness can be an act of violence, and so every choice Lucy makes is in pursuit of solitude. She chooses to leave her island behind. She chooses to leave her mother behind, a mother who, for all the ferocity of her love, raised her daughter with the same patriarchal hand that had raised her.
Once in the States, Lucy ignores the stack of letters her mother sends her, all the notes of love and punishment and longing. She comes to love her employer, Mariah, like a mother figure, and the two form a bond despite the chasm of their class difference. “The right thing always happens to her,” Lucy says of Mariah. “The thing she always wants to happen, happens.” After Mariah’s marriage breaks apart, Lucy stands by her. But the gap between them widens, and eventually Lucy saves up enough funds to leave her proxy mother, too. With the money she’s made as an au pair, Lucy and a friend move into an apartment together and split the rent. There, her solitude found at last, she finally writes back to her mother. She intentionally signs off with the wrong return address, severing their correspondence forever. But even in her apartment, with its tiny rooms and its barred bathroom window, Lucy isn’t free of her mother. Her mother’s voice lives inside her—it’s Lucy’s voice, too. Lucy is made up of two women: herself and her mother. “I was not like my mother,” she says, “I was my mother.” No one who contains multitudes is ever quite alone.
As I sit, alone, through quarantine, it’s my fourth time rereading Lucy, but I still remember my first. I was in college, and my professor introduced each novel we studied with a chalkboard quote culled from another novel. For Lucy, that quote came from George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Eliot writes, and I have never forgotten:
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow, and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we would die of that roar that lies on the other side of silence.
The quote arrives at a point in Middlemarch when the heroine has just married. She’s crying on her honeymoon. Her new husband, of whom she wanted to be an equal, has relegated her to the position of an assistant. The heroine’s pain is visceral—the claustrophobic friction of a marriage, the realization that a man is what he always was—but it’s also ordinary, and Eliot’s shrewd narrator knows that readers don’t sympathize with ordinary pains. To sympathize with the ordinary would be impractical; it would mean feeling too much.
In solitude, Lucy sees the world with that keen vision and feeling. The ordinary moves her; she sees it down to a depth that others don’t. Some of those depths are painful: I think of a moment when Mariah asks Lucy if she’s seen daffodils before. To Mariah, the flowers are just pretty spring flowers. But Lucy can’t appreciate them. To her, daffodils mean growing up on an island that was also a colony. They mean the time at Queen Victoria’s Girls School, when she was made to memorize an old British poem celebrating daffodils. They mean being made to recite that poem aloud, the sound of imperialism ringing out from her own mouth.
And then some of those ordinary depths are beautiful: on a trip to the lake with Mariah and Lewis, before the family parts, Lucy meets a boy who piques her interest. They talk and later hide away behind a hedge of wild roses. The boy is ordinary and kisses Lucy all over with his “ordinary mouth.” Still, Lucy enjoys their intimacy more than with any man before him. His kisses aren’t just kisses, but metrics of how much Lucy misses home, of how long it’s been since she’s been touched and kissed.
“I was not happy,” Lucy admits at the end of the novel, in the solitude of her bedroom, having successfully left behind all the women and men she loved. “But that seemed too much to ask for.”
These past few months, I’ve done the journey so many of these women have in reverse. I’ve left my life in New York City and returned to my mother’s house. It’s the same house in which I grew up, an hour south of the city, where my mother and father moved after packing up their studio in Queens, one daughter then little, one daughter on the way. I spend my days sleeping away the hours in my childhood bedroom or going stir-crazy to the sounds of the squirrel’s heartbeat and the grass growing, the washer thrumming and the slow thuds of the boxes that pile up outside our front door. Sometimes I hear the sound of a woman grieving under my sheets. And then my mother knocks. “Why are you crying?” she demands. And I want to tell her that I’m unhappy, but that seems too much to ask for. Instead I ask her, as she turns to leave—Aren’t you lonely? And she just shrugs, an expert where I’m only an amateur. “I was lonely like this before,” she says. “Only difference now is that the world is lonely with me.”
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