*Featured Image: “How Grey Was My Garden” by Elizabeth Cassidy
L Y D I A
by Anne Hosansky
I was sitting beside my husband’s bed in the hospice, reading to him to keep his mind off the death that waited in the corner, when I was told there was a phone call for me.
“I’ll be right back,” I promised Paul.
The phone was at the reception desk, the voice was Lydia’s.
“I managed to track you down,” she said. “When this is over come visit me in Oregon. It’s gorgeous here in the spring.”
This was February. I grasped those words—visit, spring, beautiful—kept on the phone too long. When I got back to Paul’s room he was asleep, the book still waiting in the chair beside him. We only had a few more pages left of Love In The Time of Cholera. Our love was trying to prolong the moments in the time of cancer.
I never finished reading to him. He died the next day.
When I look back on my strange friendship with Lydia that phone call enrages me. Why did I leave Paul those final moments? What right did she have to intrude?
But Lydia always took whatever she could get.
It struck me later that she hadn’t mentioned Paul. But I’d long sensed that she resented him. Once she came for a visit and wanted time alone with me.
“I’m stealing your wife for a few hours,” she told Paul.
We went to a beautiful park. There was a wedding, the bride’s white gown shimmering in the shadows beneath the trees.
“Marriage,” Lydia said, waving her hand dismissively. “Should we warn her?”
We had met in—of all places—a weight loss company. I was the sole editor, nobody to share the excitement of a good story. No one to talk to who didn’t harp on how many pounds she (usually a she) had lost or gained, how she “survived” a party (God forbid, an extra hors d’oeuvre).
I edited behavior modification booklets for the staff psychologist, tiptoeing around his indignant objections to my changes. Then Lydia came along, a therapist hired to work with him. It was a relief to be told I should now go to her with my questions.
I saw a tall dark-haired woman who conveyed enviable assurance. We quickly discovered a mutual history of peace marches, sharing our rage at the stupidity of the world. I agreed to every fervent word she voiced, eager for whatever linked us.
When she saw the photo on my desk of Paul and myself, his arm around me, she said, “How sweet.” It sounded as if she were mocking her own words. She was divorced, she told me.
It wasn’t long before Lydia invited me to her house for lunch—It was near the office, but I told her it would have to be quick so I could get back to work in time.
“It will be a business conference,” she said in that same mocking tone.
The formal brick house didn’t seem to fit her. She’d bought it for the “proverbial song,” she said. No one else had wanted it, because the former owner had been found dead in his bedroom.
“Not exciting enough to be a murder story. He died of old age. That’s just as murderous, isn’t it?” she said, with her husky laugh. The house was falling apart, so she’d renovated it herself. “Better job than any of the men around here could do.” Lydia was never shy about proclaiming her triumphs.
She confided that she’d actually been divorced twice. “Now I’ve switched to women,” she added, as if it were another accomplishment. I was suddenly aware of the way she kept stroking my hand.
When I got back to the office after a longer than two-hour lunch, I realized no one had noticed I wasn’t there. After that I stopped rushing away from what became our weekly “conferences.”
It was as if she were thumbing her nose at the corporation and its rules,
especially what she called our “goldfish bowl” cubicles. We each had a private
office that wasn’t private because the Chief Financial Officer insisted on glass walls
in order to keep an economical eye on whether we were actually working. He had
a highly verbal fit when Lydia hung up a large silkscreen of seagulls to cover the wall.
“Not permitted,” he told her.
Lydia turned on the most charming smile in her arsenal. “I’m sure you want
me to be productive, but I can’t think when people peer in. It’s like being in a zoo.”
The executive fumed, but he’d met an immovable obstacle. After a series of
“URGENT” memos between him and the CEO, Lydia was informed the seagulls could stay “on a trial basis” for one month. The deadline came – and went.
But Lydia had already decided her job was too boring, boredom being something she couldn’t tolerate. So she was moving to Oregon, since she’d never lived there and was always looking for something new.
“I’ll miss you,” I said, thinking how dull the office would be without her.
“I’ll give you my seagulls to remember me by,” she said. “On condition you promise to hang them on your glass wall.”
I did, with an assertiveness she’d inspired. “They’re still flying,” I wrote her.
When I left the job a year later, I took the seagulls with me.
Then came Paul’s illness, the months of knowing I would have to live without him. It was unimaginable, I’d loved him since I was a teenager.
When he died Lydia sent me a teddy bear, wearing a button that read Hug Me.
I needed more than a stuffed animal.
Lydia kept phoning, urging me to come for a visit. “April’s beautiful.” But I was too wounded by Paul’s death to want to be with anyone. Then it became May—June.
“My house is by the ocean,” she said. “Wait until you see this view. Don’t wait too much longer.”
I tried to explain how numb I felt, what poor company I’d be. But she insisted.
The truth is, I wasn’t sure what Lydia wanted from me. The way she’d gently touch my face or brush her hand across my shoulders, something unspoken in the air.
The next time she phoned I managed to say, “I think…you see…I have a feeling you want… I mean… more than friendship.”
“My dear,” she said, ”I value you as a friend. Come to Oregon. I promise to keep my hands off you.” Her laugh made me feel absurd.
I said I would come, because, really, I was incapable of saying anything else.
Her house faced the ocean, with tall windows overlooking the waves. She took me on a tour of the rooms, everything in intimidating order, as if waiting to be photographed for House Beautiful. In her bedroom. I saw a king-sized bed abundant with flowered pillows and two large Raggedy Ann dolls. Other dolls were sitting in an armchair as though waiting for her. Was there a needy little girl beneath that assured façade?
My room was so big I felt lost in it alone. The king-size bed made me crave Paul’s arms. I wanted to ask Lydia for one of her dolls to hold.
The first evening she said, “I’m taking you for a walk by the ocean.”
It was too dark to see the waves as we strolled barefoot on the cool sand, but we could hear the insistent roar and then the whispered sound like a sigh as each wave retreated.
“Eternal, isn’t it?” she said.
“Eternal,” I echoed—and burst into sobs.
She put an arm around me. “Do you prefer to cry now or later?”
I laughed for the first time in months. We strolled on, her comforting arm around my waist.
In the next few days we walked by the sea many times, watching waves crashing against those huge rock formations. As we sat together on the sand, she’d stroke my thigh, bare beneath my shorts. It made me feel cared for, but uncomfortable. Unsure of what to say, I said nothing.
Between walks she parked me on the porch, a captive audience, and showed me detailed chapter-by-chapter outlines of the psychology book she was planning to write, mounted on tall easels.
“Storyboards,” she called them, “like they use on movie sets.”
I was thinking of writing a book about Paul and myself. But to plan in such detail was beyond me.
“I plan everything,” she said. Even, she boasted, spending every last week of December creating a plan for what she would do in the new year – but not garden variety resolutions. Lydia’s was a diary in advance, what she would do each day, each hour. “It’s the way to have control.”
She made me write down what I planned to do in the fall.
“I’m going to try to write a book,” I confessed.
“What hours will you write? What will you work on the first week, the second?”
She was a stern tutor. Except that really it wasn’t my style. But I was afraid of saying anything that might create distance between us. For if I did, wouldn’t I be alone in a world without Paul?
My visit was to be for ten days. She’d been explicit about that. She’d also planned that on the sixth day we’d drive north into Washington and visit the San Juan Islands. “I want you to see the black rabbits that come out at dusk,” she said.
The day before we were to make the trip we walked farther than we’d gone
before. Suddenly she said, “We better get back before the tide comes in.” But the tide was already turning and the beach was becoming dangerous, huge waves sweeping in. I was struck by the fear in her face. She seemed vulnerable for the first time.
We climbed higher on the rocks for safety, but I was fascinated by the swirling waters below.
“I’m going down there,” I told her.
“Don’t be crazy,” she said.
Maybe I needed to be. For I climbed down and stood in that icy water, struggling against currents that tore at my legs trying to pull me into the depths.
“Come back!” she screamed.
I climbed back to her, wet and cold, but triumphant. I’d done something I was afraid of—that even she was afraid of.
“Very brave,” she said sarcastically.
Back in her house I was shivering in my wet clothes.
“You need a hot bath,” Lydia said.
She ran hot water into the tub, poured in oil scented with the aroma of roses.
“Your bath, Madame,” she said, closing the door behind her.
I lay back in that fragrant water, my head resting on a foam pillow. The door
opened and Lydia came in, carrying a goblet of red wine.
“I’ll have it later,” I said, embarrassed by my nakedness.
“Silly girl, drink this in the bath. Don’t you know how to be sensuous?” Her voice curled around the word.
She handed me the goblet, blew a kiss, and left.
I lay back holding the wine safely above the water, feeling—yes, sensuous. Pampered. Loved.
Was it the wine? For lying there I drifted into imagining what it would be like to lie beside her in that flowery bed of hers, surrounded by those perennially smiling dolls. To embrace, kiss, her lean body against mine. My mind couldn’t go beyond that. My God, I thought, what would Paul think? But desire was surging inside me, stronger than the waves in that treacherous ocean.
Desire for someone to hold me. Caress my starved body.
I wrapped myself in the fluffy robe she’d put out for me, and went in search
of her. I found her in the laundry room, folding towels.
“Feeling better?” she asked, without looking up.
I put my arms around her. She pulled away, startled.
Did I tell her, I want you? Love you? No, I was mute with longing.
“It would be clumsy,” she said brusquely. “Go to your room. Get some sleep.”
I stumbled away, ashamed. In the solitude of my room I cried like a child whose mother has turned out the light and left her alone.
The next morning I walked hesitantly into the kitchen prepared to say I’m sorry, it must have been the wine.
“Coffee’s ready,” she said calmly, as if last night never happened. “We better start for the San Juans by nine.”
Not a word about the previous evening, not even in the long hours of sitting side by side in her car. Not once did she reach out to touch me.
Had I misunderstood her? Had those caresses been merely “friendship”?
We stayed overnight in a motel where she’d made a reservation. She had arranged for a basket of flowers to be delivered to me, the card reading Love You.
Did I imagine that the boy who carried in the flowers glanced at the one bed, then at us, and smirked?
“What lovely flowers,” I told Lydia. She shrugged. What had I spoiled for her?
One bed. She must have known when she made the reservation.
She got into bed first. “Sleep well,” she said, turning toward the wall.
I lay there holding myself away from her, staring into the darkness.
So we went to the San Juan Islands and saw the rabbits and drove back and the last two days it was all formal, silent currents swirling beneath our polite words.
Then my days were up and she drove me to the airport. She said she didn’t have time to wait for me to board, too much to do.
I struggled for some way to say something beyond our careful chatter.
I thought you wanted me—I was lonely. I’m sorry. But what were all your caresses about?
That would have taken more courage than battling the waves in that stormy ocean.
“I’ll call you,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. The briefest of hugs and she was gone.
On the plane I kept my face turned toward the window so the hand-holding young couple beside me wouldn’t see my tears. I tried to console myself with cheap
airplane wine, but it only reminded me of the gleaming goblet she’d offered.
I kept thinking, I love her. The voice within me saying, a woman?
Not just “a woman”—Lydia.
At first I phoned over and over again, wanting her to tell me to come back. Across the space of 3000 miles I heard the cool voice of a stranger. I wrote my book (under the strict schedule she’d mandated) and it was published. Flushed with success I phoned to tell her. She sounded indifferent, apparently her book never got further than those story boards.
Eventually the years stretched into silence.
Nearly a quarter of a century has passed. I have long since grown to recognize the thin line between love and neediness.
Yet I’m still haunted by a sense of betrayal–though whether hers or mine I’ll never know.