The following is from Jane Smiley’s Lucky. Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and the Last Hundred Years Trilogy: Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age. She is the author as well of several works of nonfiction and books for young adults. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she has also received the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. She lives in Northern California.

Nothing in my past had taught me what love was. And no songs or movies had, either, especially the ones I liked best (because they had the best tunes), such as “Mary Hamilton” or “The Foggy Foggy Dew.” I certainly didn’t want to find myself in the middle of a real-life “murder ballad” (but I did enjoy “Pretty Polly” floating through my head). I had been very fond of Charlie, but in some ways he was a repeat of Brucie—close, kind, friendly, but more like a relation than a boyfriend. Allen. Well, I admired Allen, but I always knew that he saw me as a distraction from his real purpose. At first, being with Martin was like sensing that you are “the chosen one,” and being grateful and flattered. We would be walking down the street, and he would suddenly turn around and stare at me, then smile with pleasure. We would be looking at something, anything—a map or a tree or a green field—and he would put his arm around me and pull me against himself. There was a steady current of desire—he was very organized in the way that he took me to his place, brought me in, turned on the light, and then took me into the bedroom, folded back the coverlets, and undressed me gently but with plenty of desire. He felt my body all over, touching my face, smoothing my hair, feeling the shape of my shoulders and my hips, taking one of my hands in both of his. He was evidently experienced, but he treated my body like a wonder that he had never felt before, so there was a kind of frisson. And he didn’t seem to have a temper, even at the Green Man. One time, I was eating there and some drunk who didn’t like his food grabbed his plate and threw it at Martin as Martin was walking toward another table. Martin saw it coming, reached up, caught it, and set it back on the man’s table, saying, “May I suggest something else, sir?” It was the manager of the restaurant, who was also one of the drinks servers, who came over and kicked the fellow out.

So, at first my love for Martin was a kind of appreciation of all of his good qualities, but as I got to know him better, I became enthralled by the narrative of who he was—two years older than I was, born in February of 1947, to a well-to-do family (his father was a baron who had survived four years in the Second World War, and his mother’s father was a viscount). His uncles and cousins loved foxhunting and travel, but he preferred walking and reading. His father was strict, but had a kindly streak, and his mother had some sort of health issue and was very loving. Her greatest regret, she had told him, was not being able to give him any brothers and sisters, though he did have several cousins, so we shared that. He didn’t know how to play an instrument, but he loved music of all kinds (and he had a stack of records about three feet tall in his flat). He said he was smart enough to get into Eton, not smart enough to stand out, and so he hadn’t been pushed into some typical career path that would lead to standing for Parliament as a Tory. He had gotten into both Oxford and Cambridge, and had chosen Oxford only for the landscape. He’d lasted two years there, studying literature, and now (his father was rolling his eyes and his mother was very supportive) he was doing various jobs just to see which one he might like—he did not accept any money from his father or the estate because he wanted to understand what it felt like to be on his own. What he liked about being a server in a pub was that he interacted with a lot of people, and learned about human nature by doing that. At the moment, he was contemplating going back to college and becoming a psychologist—maybe research and maybe therapist, but he didn’t know yet.

It was the psychologist side of him that, I thought, prodded him to more or less investigate me. He was curious about Mom’s issues, of course, and got me to relate the details of her driving “episode” more than once. He was also interested in Uncle Drew’s generosity and his choice not to display his wealth, climbing the residential ladder by moving to some prestigious neighborhood, or even to New York. Martin thought it was interesting that my private high school had had a significant number of Jewish students and that, as far as I could tell, they seemed comfortable there. Antisemitism in England was an issue the Brits were only beginning to confront. Since he knew where Missouri was, he also probed my thoughts about Black people and the history of slavery, and I learned more from him than I had at school about the English slave trade.

The downside of our affair was that I couldn’t get the pill in the UK—it was illegal for anyone who was not married. I was still on the pill, but my supply was running low. Martin was aware of this. He didn’t mind wearing a condom, and he didn’t mind pulling out. And he would always make sure that the condom hadn’t split after he used it. Our sex life fit in with everything else—it was relaxed and enjoyable, and I didn’t have any sense that for him, having sex was making up for other things. He seemed to enjoy everything equally, as, perhaps, a psychologist should.

One time, maybe a month after we got together (and I had moved into his flat with him—his mother knew about it), we were walking along a stream in a park not far from the university, and we saw the gawky girl and her husband coming toward us. The path was narrow, so someone had to step aside. Martin was talking about the Cotswolds, but he didn’t even pause—he put his arm around my waist and eased me to the left. The tall guy had intended to do the same thing, and he drew the gawky girl in the same direction, so there we were, nearly bumping into one another. Martin and the tall guy both laughed, and then Martin guided me around them. The tall guy, of course, didn’t know who I was, but the gawky girl didn’t recognize me, either, which I thought was interesting. When I told Martin about this—that we had gone to school together in a small class, sixty-five students all together—he said, “No surprise. Did you see her stumble when they were coming down the slope? You didn’t say anything, so she hadn’t the chance to recognize your voice. You might not have recognized her, either, if she weren’t such a beanstalk.”

Martin had a few friends, but he wasn’t much of a socializer. He told me that he mostly liked to observe people, and he did plenty of that at the Green Man. When he got back to his flat, he liked to think about what he had observed, and sometimes write it down. A member of his social class, in England, was expected to give parties and go to parties and make connections, but he didn’t like that, and the only good thing about his mother’s medical problems was that she wasn’t up to the socializing that would normally be required of her.

Martin worked from about five until about eleven Tuesday through Friday, and then during the day on Saturdays. He had Sundays off except for festive holidays. I would go to the pub with him at five and have something for supper or dinner or tea—dinner in England didn’t actually begin until six thirty. I would walk home in the early-evening sunshine, noticing, as the summer edged into fall, how quickly the daylight dimmed. Since I felt safe in Winchester (whether I should have or not, I had no idea), I enjoyed the changes. I always carried an umbrella, but I didn’t always use it, even if it was raining. I was much more tolerant of rain, knowing that there wouldn’t be any tornadoes (or actual hurricanes, Martin said, thanks to the Gulf Stream, which brought warmth and took the bad weather west).

When I got back to the flat, the first thing I did was clean up whatever mess we had made during the day, and then I sat down in a chair in the corner, with a wall on one side and a window on the other, and thought about music. Sometimes my thoughts were memories, and sometimes my thoughts were ideas. I wanted to write more songs, both the lyrics and the tunes. It was easy to hear songs on the radio in England, and Martin’s collection was up-to-date— Little Feat; Love Story, by Johnny Mathis; If I Could Only Remember My Name, by David Crosby; Songs of Love and Hate, by Leonard Cohen; a live album by Aretha. The way I did it was to listen to music with Martin in the morning—I let him choose, and he often chose Leonard Cohen, sometimes Aretha. While we were listening, we would eat breakfast and read, then we would turn off the music and go for a walk. When I came back after dinner, I would sit down and do what I had always done—write down some thought that came to me, and then expand it. The first thought that turned into a song was “Why me?”

During our walk that day, because it was rainy, we had gone to one of the museums, and as we were looking around, Martin stopped to say hi, in his usual friendly way, to a blond woman who, I suspected, was a couple of years older than he was. I immediately noticed that she was happier to see him than he was to see her, and that she glanced at me, gave me a polite smile, and then went back to staring at Martin. He said, “Lidia! How are you, love?”

She evidently had a sense of humor, because she said, “You tell me, darling!”

He looked her up and down, and said, “Good health, evidently active, omelet for brekkie with a side of toffee.”

She laughed.

He squinted, then said, “Ah—treacle toffee.”

She said, “No, hazelnut,” and all three of us laughed. Then she said, “And you?”

He put his arm around me and said, “Rice Krispies!” We all laughed again (for breakfast we had had porridge and bits of ham, plus a split scone). Martin said, “Where are you living now, love?”

“Still in London. In a flat in Greenwich, actually. I gave up on Carnaby Street.” She looked serious for a moment, then smiled again.

Martin said, “Still designing tie-dyes?”

She said, “I’ve moved on to silk underwear. That’s where the money is.”

She kissed him on the cheek and headed for the door. Just by looking at her, I knew that she still loved him, that whatever had come between them seemed to her to have been a bad idea, and I guessed that maybe they hadn’t seen each other in a couple of years.

Martin didn’t tell me anything about her and I didn’t ask. I looked at him a few times, but it didn’t appear that he was holding anything back, only that he didn’t think it mattered.

That evening, when I stared at the words “Why me?” the next words I thought of were, “She had such blue eyes / As blue as sadness / As blue as the skies. / Darling, I saw the tears. / Did you?” (Chords and percussion.) I thought up the chorus—“Did she know it? / Did I show it? / That I wished / Right then / To look like her?”

I tapped my fingers on my knees and wrote the second verse, “Darling, did you stare / As she fled away / Stumbling down the stairs / As she wiped away the tears. / Tell me, did you?”

Then the chorus, slightly changed, “Did you know it? Did she show it? / Even then, I still wished it, / To look like her.”

I got up and walked around the room. It was almost dark, and the lights in the buildings nearby were turning on. I didn’t turn mine on, because I was waiting for some sort of inspiration.

I sat down. “What do I see / When I look in the mirror? / Brown eyes, brown hair / Fading in the gloom / All of me sliding away.” Then the third chorus: “Do you see it? / Do I show it? / What do you wish? / Should I look like her?”

I leaned back in the chair and closed my eyes. I could hear a few cars go by below (our street was too narrow for trucks) and then I could hear some people, men and women, laughing. I waited for silence, then wrote, “You open the door, / And switch on the light / My heart is sore, / But your kisses are slow / Your smiles are love . . . / Why me? Why me? / Only you would know.”

Then I altered the final chorus again: “You see it, / You show it, / Love, for us all, / Is the ultimate riddle, / The great windfall.”

I mouthed the words, so that I would remember them, and then read them over again and folded the paper. I knew that the rhythm was a bit off, but once you think up the tune, then you can fix it.

I turned on the light and felt a sense of relief as the room brightened. I picked up our copy of the Guardian and looked through the culture section. I still thought a movie, even a comedy, about a man with a transplanted dick would be too weird, so didn’t want to see Percy, though Martin had shown some interest. I thought we could see Carry On Loving, since the village where it took place was named Much-Snogging-on-the-Green. The next night, though, Martin wanted to see When Eight Bells Toll. I thought that it was a little scary, but I loved the landscapes. Martin said it was “decent.” I wasn’t ready to sing him my song.


From Lucky by Jane Smiley. Used with permission of the publisher, Knopf. Copyright © 2024 by Jane Smiley.

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