The Irish Tenors, Prime Rib, and Champagne

On the morning of the dinner party, Lydia woke up bright and early. There was an immense satisfaction to the day. Lydia was going to show her friends that she was fine, not a torn down housewife, but a woman who had it together. She had something to prove, even if she was not quite sure who she was trying to prove it to.

Lydia padded down the hallway to the kitchen. There was a nervous flutter in her stomach, but Lydia gave it no heed. A cup of tea and some toast, she thought, would fix that right up.

As she went to pour the steaming water from the teapot, Lydia noticed a slight tremor to her hands. She set the pot back down on the burner and stared at her fine china hands for a second or two. There was something about her stomach and her hands that Lydia should know, something in her brain, a memory, a thought, something that Lydia should be able to realize or understand, but could not for some reason, totally grasp.

She shook her head. It would come to her. Forget the tea, Lydia thought. What She needed an eye opener. Maybe a Mimosa. No! A Bloody Mary. That would do the trick. Tomato juice was basically a breakfast juice anyways. And the Vodka would set her straight. After all, it was a special day. She could have one drink.

At seven o’clock, Lydia took a final look around the house. Everything was all set. The lights were dimmed. The Irish Tenors crooned their ascent to a lovely evening. The smell of prime rib wafted through the house, beckoning guests towards a home cooked meal. The table was one that would have made even Sandra Lee happy. Lydia topped off her champagne glass and realized, a little too late, that she had managed to drink the entire bottle as she made last minute adjustments. With a slight hint of self-loathing and anger, Lydia walked through the kitchen and tucked the spent bottle under the newspapers in the recycling bin. There was nothing she could do about it now.

Once her friends started to arrive, the night went by in a flurry of conversations and food. Lydia was at all times a charming hostess. Drinks were constantly topped off, even when the ladies chimed they had had enough. Nonsense, thought Lydia, what’s enough? With insistences that the ladies all forgo their politeness and etiquette, Lydia would readily mention that tonight was not the night for social convention but a celebration of individuality. Lydia raised her glass and boisterously applauded women’s strength everywhere.

As the night wore on, friends began making their excuses to leave. It was, after all, getting late. Husbands were at home with children. A couple of the women said they had early soccer games in the morning, another that she had to go into the office even though it was a Saturday. Lydia tried to cajole the women into throwing off their shackles and dancing into the night. The women all looked at each other. Lydia caught the shadows of disapproving looks, as if she had said something profane or distasteful. Hastily Lydia back-stepped her plan, laughed it off, and wished everyone a safe drive home as she held open the front door to let them pass.

As soon as the last car drove off, Lydia burst out with a venomous peal of anger. Who did they think they were, coming in here, treating her as if she were some lost child. Pitying her. She was great. Lydia looked in the hallway mirror. There were dark makeup smudges under her eyes and her hair was a little disheveled. With a few quick swipes of her hands, Lydia was put back into shape. She was a good looking broad. Fuck ‘em. She could find a party. There were parties around. Bars. Nice hotels bars with Scotch. Nice hotel bars with twinkling laughter where beautiful, middle aged women could find company at ten o’clock at night.

With renewed energy, Lydia grabbed her car keys and set off towards the Four Seasons to find herself a drink and a conversation.

The Girl at the End of The Hall with the Beautiful Voice

Henry could not remember the exact date he first heard Lydia’s voice. He remembered everything else about that moment, but not the date. No matter how hard he tried to count the days backward, he could never quite capture, with a hundred percent certitude, the day. In fact, Henry wished for very little in life, but he had more than once wished for this knowledge. Henry would have felt better if he could make a factual association to a memory that was anything but factual. Even years later, the mere thought of that moment quickens his pulse. Like everything else about Lydia, the date would forever remain elusive.

When he was just seven, Henry’s parents sat him down in their modest living room and explained to him that his mother had cancer. As his father spoke, Henry’s mother turned deep crimson, uncomfortable with the third person conversation about her body, her future. Henry had now watched variations of this same conversation play out many times as an oncologist. The emotion of powerlessness was not one Henry like reliving, but it provided motivation for his drive and perseverance. Every time Henry wanted to quit, he would remember the shame on his mother’s face when she had to admit that the part of her body that had originally been sexual gratification to his father, nourishment for him, and vanity for her, was now also her death sentence. It was amazing, to Henry, how much havoc a few mutant cells could wreck. As he saw it, cancer was as devastating as it was indiscriminant. Henry made it his life’s ambition to eradicate the terrifying disease.

Night after night, Henry paced the quiet halls of the oncology unit. In the quiet of the wee, small hours Henry did his best thinking. And it was in the wee, small hours, sometime in October, that Henry first heard Lydia’s soft voice coming from one of the rooms at the end of the hall.

The voice was quiet and yet held a calm confidence. It was the voice of slow moving water. As he neared, Henry slowed his gait. Usually so in command of his habits and physical space, Henry did not know why he suddenly felt an intruder in his own hospital. Henry stood outside the door that day listening to the peaceful voice. She was young. The voice had a clear innocence that age often washes away. She was reading a book. He did not recognize it, but the writing was lyrical, a masterpiece. Henry often thought it strange that in their last days, most patients preferred to read cheap, dime store novels from the grocery store checkout line rather than read the great pieces of literature they’d never gotten to before. But maybe life was too hard fought for people to read hard fought literature too. Maybe in our last days, we all needed a happy ending.

Henry did not know how long he had been standing there, listening to the girl softly read. Then just as quietly, she stopped reading and began to cry. The tears were not the tears of anger, nor were they the tears of desperation. To Henry they were gut wrenching. As he blinked away his own tears, he realized they were the tears of acceptance. He had shed those same tears thirty years ago into his own pillow at home. After a few moments, Henry moved away as silently as he had approached.

And that was the date Henry wish he knew.

That was the date Henry wish he knew, cause that was the date he fell in love with the girl, the girl with the beautiful voice at the end of the hall.

A couple of years ago, Henry splurged on the extra-long sofa to fit his lanky frame. Most mornings when he woke, his first thought was usually along the lines of how the comfortable sofa had paid for itself many times over. On that morning though, Henry’s first thought was of the girl at the end of the hall.

Henry stretched as he turned on the coffee pot. As the smell of French roast permeated the stale office air, Henry looked out on the awakening street of the Texas Medical Center. Already cars were backed up at the stoplights. Houston’s traffic was notorious. Henry relished the day when the construction in the Med Center would be complete.

Henry paced around his office. Rarely did he wake up agitated, and never was the source of the agitation a woman when he did. Henry ran his fingers through his dark curly hair. He made an audible sigh of frustration as he grabbed a towel out of the closet. Maybe, he thought, a cold shower would set him straight.

For days afterwards, Henry avoided the room at the end of the hall. The girl with the lonely voice was not his patient, so in theory, this was not hard. Reality, though, was a whole other thing. Henry yearned to see the owner of the voice. Always focused, Henry found himself lost in thought on more than one occasion. Even the nurses were starting to whisper.

Finally, Henry could no longer allow a simple voice to occupy his ever-waking thought. As a rational man, a scientist, Henry determined that he had exaggerated the experience. Too much work and not enough sleep had culminated in an almost hallucinatory occurrence.

On a sunny morning in November, Henry fell into the oncology round that included the girl at the end of the hall.

It was only as he stood looking at her, did Henry realize that if he had expectations of what the girl at the end of the hall would look like, it all vanished as he saw the beauty that was the reality. Henry sighed as he thought of the memory. He knew now, that Lydia was far from a traditional beauty. In fact, most men would probably consider her average. But on that November morning, and every day since, Lydia has been the most beautiful woman that Henry had ever seen.

Lydia sat upright with her arms wrapped around her legs. Her auburn hair fell lightly upon her shoulders. She wore no makeup. This was common in the hospital, but unlike other women, the lack of makeup did not lessen Lydia’s beauty, but highlighted it. As Henry saw it, Lydia’s high cheekbones, jaunty nose, and naturally rosy lips made for an astonishing combination.

From her neck down, Lydia wore a crisp white cotton nightgown. It was the old-fashioned kind of nightwear with a big ruffle around the top and buttons all the way down. Henry knew at one glance that the garment was one of those deceptively simple outfits and that while it may have looked like Aunt Sally sewed it, that the nightgown probably cost the equivalent of a week’s wages from Neiman Marcus. The simplicity was simultaneously innocent and sexy. Henry yearned to slowly tug at the little ribbon at the neckline.

When Henry finally looked up, he caught Lydia’s eye. She had been watching him as he stared at her. Her emerald eyes sparked with satisfaction. She looked at him without a speck of self-consciousness or fear. Normally his gaze had the ability to unsettle some people. Never had someone else’s gaze disarmed him. The combination unnerved him. Inadvertently, Henry took a step back.

Henry shook his head. Never had he had sexual feeling towards a patient. Never. It was unethical. It went against everything he stood for. Disgusted with himself, he turned and walked out.

Henry walked downstairs. He needed air. He needed to escape the confines of the one place he always felt at home. He shook his head as he walked down the sidewalk towards his second favorite home. What was he doing? Never had he been so derailed by a single woman. Even though it was November, Henry was forced to take off his lab coat and roll up his sleeves.

By the time he reached Shipley Do-nuts, sweat was being to form on his brow. Henry ordered a coffee and against all habits, two glazed do-nuts. Although he loved sweets, he tried his best to keep them to a minimum. But this was no normal day. To Henry, problems of this magnitude required two do-nuts.

As he slipped into his regular booth by the window, Henry contemplated his next move. His morals demanded he make an apology for his behavior today, but just having to state aloud what he knew she already knew brought heat to his cheeks. But to not acknowledge the action, to not apologize, seemed reprehensible somehow. Maybe if she had not caught him, he could have buried his desire deep down in the pit of his stomach where hydrochloric acid would have begun the process of decomposition. Alas…

After a few more minutes of people watching and contemplating, Henry pulled himself up from the booth. There was only one thing to do. Confront Lydia. Make an apology. And regain his dignity. With a new determination and a slight smirk twitching at the corner of his mouth, Henry strode back to the hospital.

When Sad Things Happen on Sunny Days

It is somehow worse, Lydia thought, when sad things happen on sunny days.

Lydia sat by the pool, two ice cubes melting under the stare of the hot in her glass of bourbon. Any other day, any other time, one might have thought she was luxuriating under the elms in order to bring a rose hint to her cheeks. But today, unable to move, to move put one foot in front of the other, she was sitting.

He just left. He came home, packed a bag and left. There was no fight, no hysteria. She wanted to muster the energy to throw something or cause a scene, but a scene for who? Why? To what end? He had left a long time ago, or so it seemed. All he did now was occupy a space in the closet. Its good he’s gone. Lydia thought for a moment about the kind of fear, stagnation that caused a person to stay, against all hopes of happiness, for just a little longer.

Yes, there should have been an argument, Lydia determined. It would have looked better. It would have made a better story for the girls. Lydia imagined a handful of select women scattered around her den, sipping some sort of cocktail appropriate for the solemn occasion. Someone would pat her back as she sobbed and recounted the tearful accusations, the appeals to stay, the shattered Baccarat, and finally the pointed finger showing the way out.

But instead, he just left. He came home, packed a bag and left. Left a note. She wouldn’t have even noticed he was gone had he not left the note. Lydia looked down at the bonded paper she had been holding this whole time. There was no need to read it again. It held no answers. Nor did it need to. Lydia knew the problems. Had known it for years. She originally said she was staying for the kids, but they had left a long time ago, off to lived their own lives in distant places. But then she still stayed. With a sigh, Lydia realized she stayed because she wanted to. No, it was true; the marriage was over a long time ago. But Lydia loved the house with the trees and the sparking pool. She loved her place amongst their society. And she loved her husband.

As she put the rocks glass against her lips, she smiled. She loved the bourbon.

What Lydia did not love was being the subject of speculation. It was hard to contemplate Christmas while the shone so brightly, but she knew it would be here faster than she could imagine. Lydia squinted off into the distance as if this small change in perspective would somehow give her foresight into the future. In her daydream, Lydia saw women leaning conspiratorially over the dinner table to their husbands, “But we can’t invite both of them. It’s too soon. Do you think she found out?” Lydia and her husband had this conversation themselves many times over. They feigned concern, but in the light of the summer afternoon, Lydia admitted to only the trees that it was really just a way to pass idle gossip off as something more than it was. They would invite her husband, of course, save a select few.

Lydia looked down at the empty glass. She wanted more. But she usually wanted more. That was nothing new. Lydia hoisted herself up from the pool chair and walked towards the backdoor. That’s the odd thing about change, it seems to happen quickly, without warning. He just left. He came home, packed a bag and left. It felt like an instant, but in reality, it had taken years. One shirt in the bag this year, a pair of shoes the next, until twenty-five years later the bag was packed.

Lydia paused as she looked at her reflection in the glass of the backdoor. She was still young. Weathered, perhaps, but still beautiful in certain lights. Lydia knew one day she would have to sell the house and leave the neighborhood that she knew she could not afford by herself. But she will find a new house. And new friends. She will find a new lover, feel new fingers press into her hips. A sly smile crossed her lips. She might even quit drinking. Lydia took the bottle in one hand, the glass in the other, and walked further into the recesses of her dark house. But none of that would happen today. All she had to do today was this.