Henry: 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. Henry would have felt better if he could make a factual association to a memory that was anything but factual.

 

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 indiscriminate. Henry made it his life’s ambition to eradicate the terrifying disease.

Night after night, Henry paced the quiet halls of the hospital. 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 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 found time to read before. But maybe life was too hard fought for people to read hard fought literature too. Maybe, he thought, we all need happy endings.

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 loss. 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 streets 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. He ran his fingers through his dark curly hair and 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 thoughts. 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 rounds 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 crisp 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 donned 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.

Dancing in the Aisle

With an audible chuckle, Lydia realized that with Henry gone, she could drink all she wanted for as long as she wanted. All pretenses, all confines, were now lifted. She could dance and sing, play the Ramones at full volume, and dance around in her skivvies. She could lounge in the hot tub and drink margaritas. She could stay up all night watching movies and drinking champagne. It would be glorious, like a vacation in her own home. For the first time in a long time, Lydia felt free.

With nervous anticipations, Lydia pulled into the parking lot of the liquor store. Normally, as Lydia loaded up her cart, she would make casual references to a party she was throwing or friends coming over for dinner, something that might justify the large quantity of booze in her cart. Today, though, she didn’t care what anyone thought. She was on a mission. Manically, Lydia began counting on her fingers all the supplies she would need for her vacation. She would need several bottles: vodka, rum, tequila, some club soda, diet coke, mixers, limes. And a carton of cigarettes. Henry didn’t let Lydia smoke because of the cancer. But fuck him. He left. She could do whatever she wanted and what Lydia wanted to do was smoke. Drink and smoke and dance.

Lydia wondered if she should take the time to stop at Whole Foods before going home. She paused as she was reaching for the Bombay Sapphire. Food. How long was this bender to last? Two days? Four? A week? A smile crossed Lydia’s lips. This was going to be great. In anticipation of nothing, Lydia added three more bottles of gin to her cart, just in case. She would stop by the store. She wanted everything all set so she could enjoy herself without any restrictions or thoughts of having to leave the house. She imagined free-range, organic, roast chicken and scalloped potatoes au gratin with a Sauvignon Blanc for her vacation dinner. Oh, wine. How could she have forgotten the wine? Aargh. Lydia swung the cart around and made for the back aisle.

Lydia

Lydia liked to drink alone. She liked to drink with people too, liked the camaraderie, the gradual loosing of ties as the twinkle of laughter increased in volume and frequency. But drinking, Lydia thought, was best done in solitude. Only alone could she shape her environment perfectly. And only alone could Lydia drink the quantity she wanted without having to hear that irritating throat clearing sound Henry makes when he feels like she had had enough. Who did he think he was, monitoring her drinking? Every time he did it, Lydia wanted to punch him straight in the throat. But alone, in the house, Lydia was happy. Today, Lydia planned to be happy.

Whether or not she knew it conscientiously, Lydia had a routine surrounding her alone drinking. Far from the casualness that once surrounded the popping of the occasional bottle of wine, Lydia’s routine surrounded a very complex series of deceptions.

Lydia had long stopped going to the local Spec’s Liquor Store for fear of being judged by the counter help. One afternoon, Lydia walked in with her usual nonchalance. The counter girl looked up as Lydia entered and politely pointed out that the Smirnoff was on quantity sale, buy six bottles and Lydia would get 10 percent off. Lydia spun around and stared at the girl through the dark tint of her Gucci sunglasses. The girl showed no signs of being derisive. In fact, she looked like she was being helpful. Maybe she did not even know Lydia mostly drank vodka out because she incorrectly believed it lacked odor. Lydia looked at the girl for a couple more seconds. She bought her liquor that day, but made it white rum and kept it to a single bottle. She hadn’t been back since, except for a emergency bottle every now and then.

Lydia got into her car on the blistering Houston afternoon to make the long drive to the store before rush hour traffic. Lydia resented how much her actions, even drinking, even buying the alcohol, were dominated by what others thought of her. Lydia wanted nothing more than to be left alone to be who she was. Some days she felt every part of her was a fictitious reflection of someone’s opinion of who they thought she ought to be.

As she drove down Memorial Drive, Lydia reflected back on the person she thought she might have been back before she got cancer. Just like that, with not a skip of a heartbeat, anger exploded in her chest. It was the god-damn cancer! Every time. Lydia slammed her fist down on the armrest of her car. It changed everything. It changed how her parents and friends thought of her, with that worrisome pitying in their eyes. Oh, she’s so strong, they would say. Lydia might have portrayed strength, but she certainly didn’t feel it. What Lydia felt was terrifying, heart-wrenching despair. She was too young to die. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair. That was what Henry had seen in her. That is what she had fallen in love with. Henry didn’t need her to be strong. He knew, somehow, that she wasn’t strong. Lydia slammed on the brakes as she almost read-ended the Mercedes in front of her. With a flick of her thumb across her cheek, she wiped away her tears. Lydia turned up her radio. Fuck him. Fuck ‘em all.

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.

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 sun 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 just 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 live 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. She loved her place amongst their society. She even loved the trees and the sparkling pool. And she loved the bourbon.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Of course, I would have people read more.

Hi Mrs. Ann!
Here are the questions. Thank you again for helping me out!

Questions:
1. Do you think that there is too much hate in today’s society?

I do think there is too much hate, but I think any hate would be too much. Hate is a powerful word that carries strong connotations. Hate is not annoyance or irritation. Hate is anger and fury and spite.

2. Do you think there is too much love in today’s society?

I have found through the course of my life, a surprising amount of love on the planet. It sometimes appears from the unlikeliest people and manifests in ways that never cease to amaze me. But, if you ask me if there is too much if it… No, I think we could probably do with a little more.

3. Is there any personal experience that is behind your opinion?

A little over seven years ago, I can to the realization and understanding that I was an alcoholic. My life was very sad. And especially lonely. I did not know what to do. I think now, that I could have probably gone to my family and asked for help; my family is kind. But at the time, that idea seemed too far-fetched, too humiliating, too debilitating.
So, I turned to complete strangers for help. These people, AA, showed me that I could live a better type of life. They taught me how alcohol manifests from the worst part of my psyche. Then they showed me how to be happy. I hated myself and who I was. I hated that I was a failure. That I let so many people down. But the women of AA “loved me until I could love myself.”
And they still do.

4. In general, what are some examples of too much hate and too much love?

I think one just has to look around to see examples of hate and love.

Drive down one of Houston’s freeways. You will see drivers cut one another off. Some drivers speed dangerously, swerving in and out of lanes, because where they are going is of far more importance than another’s safety. You will see drivers slow down to see if the accident is a fatality.

But you will also see people let others calmly merge. You will see people stopping at accidents to call for help and then stay to serve as witnesses.

5. Why would people in today’s society show too much hate towards others?

People have always had a fear of the unknown. There is a philosophy that says that people cannot know themselves. All one can know is what they are not. In other words, I look out in the world. You say, Ann what do you like? And there is too much of everything. How am I to know? Where do I begin? So I start by trying something, taking something, listening to something, seeing something. I say, I do not know what I like, but I know it is not that.

I think this philosophy is right.

People look out in the world and it scares them. And they see someone of a different race, who has a different culture. Rather than exploring or learning or understanding, they say, I do not know what I am, but I know I am not that. That mentality, the fear, that’s what spreads hate.

6. How would you think of solving this problem?

Of course, I would have people read more.

– Victoria

P.S Based on the answers you give me, I may make up new questions for my paper… thank you!