Lydia’s new house was like her: small, exact, four rooms and a bath set around a short hallway. The furniture was modest and precisely arranged, a layout in which each inch mattered. The decorations—an abstract nude, a carved wooden horse—strove to be personal statements. Self-sufficient, Phil thought, as he set the cardboard box of books on the coffee table and glanced gingerly around. He felt out of place, a tall man with a long face and crew-cut gray hair, standing in his ex-wife’s living room. A one-person house, that was it.
Lydia opened the box. “Why don’t I sort these right now? Anything I don’t want you can take straight to the store.”
She wore a yellow stretch tank top and a calf-length flowery skirt. Her clothes, Phil noticed, had gotten bolder. The outfit revealed muscular arms, round breasts flattened by the tight fit of the yellow fabric, a firm belly. Her long hair, wispy and coffee-brown, was dramatized by a red velvet headband. Lydia had never been a beautiful woman, but she was forward about herself, ready to talk about her likes, her dislikes, the first time she met you. Perhaps that was what had attracted him to her that summer seventeen years ago when they happened to be on the same cocktail circuit. No matter that he was married, twenty years her senior. Arrow-like, she had projected herself at him, sure of her mark, and he was flattered because he was not a good-looking man. Nor was he wealthy—his position as vice president of a small Midwest publishing firm placed him squarely in the upper middle class. So she must have loved him, he still believed that. Now that she’d left, he wondered what type of man—men?—she aimed at in her new incarnation.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Lydia asked. “Wine? Juice? I have a nice sparkling water in the refrigerator.”
Phil waited until she stepped into the kitchen, then he settled weakly into a chair. The seat was low, and his knobby knees in his shorts poked up like two bald spots. Over the past year, the difference in their ages had become increasingly apparent. Lydia was forty-eight, Phil almost seventy, and merely saying the numbers to himself opened a gap, vast and hollow. Once they had both thought it sounded vital, enviable, chic.
He forced his thoughts elsewhere, to a series of framed prints on the wall, to an artless—and therefore, knowing Lydia, artful—collection of rocks on an end table. The objects were not familiar to him, not items he would have associated with her, yet they demanded to be noticed, and he felt again that she was reinventing herself, creating a new Lydia to present to the world, a woman with no strings attached.
“I hope you like this.” She handed him a tumbler, and he sipped a cool raspberry-flavored water.
“How have you been? Are you still seeing those doctors?”
“Yes. But it’s nothing serious.”
“Tyler told me on the phone he’s really enjoying basketball camp.”
“The other boys are good company for him.”
She had seated herself on the couch as they spoke. Now she sorted deftly through the top layer of paperbacks. They had agreed Phil should stop by whenever convenient to drop off the last few belongings he was storing for her. Lydia had left behind the sewing machine, most of the furniture, their son. Not abandoned the boy—no, that wasn’t fair. There simply wasn’t room for him here in this small rental house, and Tyler would have had to change school districts, leave his friends, his activities, too much to ask of a fourteen-year-old. Lydia was being unselfish, and so far Tyler’s reaction to the divorce was to play it cool. Too cool—Phil could feel the deep-sunk well of hurt the boy capped with a shrug. Because Lydia hadn’t fought for him, hadn’t insisted Phil be the one to move out of their comfortable ranch home and provide enough alimony and child support to keep mother and son intact. Old-fashioned, Phil would have agreed to those terms. Certainly, when he divorced his first wife, Jane, there had been no question who would get the children, or who would pay.
“Look at these. I can’t believe I used to read this stuff.” Lydia laughed, holding up a worn bestseller from a decade past. “Of course, they were just to pass the time when I took Tyler to the beach. I think some of them still smell of sunscreen.” She sniffed, then poked deeper into the box. “Although there are a few good titles in here. Set these on the bookcase for me, will you?”
She handed him several volumes, and Phil rose and crossed the room. The effort to appear brisk cost him, and he stood before the bookcase several moments to recover. When he lifted his head, his eyes caught a framed photograph on the top shelf: Lydia on a beach with a sandy-haired man. The man looked German or Scandinavian, handsome in a rugged way, and they stood before a Caribbean-style bar, Lydia in front, the man directly behind, his arms flung playfully across her chest in a bear hug. Cheek to cheek, they laughed and mugged for the camera. Aruba—Lydia and a girlfriend had gone there for a vacation in February, shortly after she’d moved out. Look, the photograph seemed to say, I can have fun; I can go places and have affairs. In the picture Lydia wore a hibiscus blossom in her hair, and Phil tried to recall from his early career as a travel magazine editor what it meant when a Hawaiian woman wore a flower over a particular ear, which side signaled she was married, which side that she was looking.
“By the way, did I tell you I painted the bedroom?” Her voice was bright behind him. “It used to be an awful pea-green color. Makes you wonder what kind of person lived here before. Go on, take a look.”
Phil crossed into the bedroom, noting the double bed with brass headboard, the oak bureau, mauve armchair. A rich cream color blushed on the walls, cream—the color of Lydia’s skin. And Lydia, too, was freshly painted, working in a glass-blowing shop she termed a “gallery,” promoting herself as an emerging artist/sculptor/instructor, all the hobbies she had dabbled in and now meant to take seriously, to mold into a fulfilling career. Phil observed the careful placement of each dish and bottle on the oak bureau. Was this what a woman wanted—a space entirely her own, every last item chosen for its relevance to her life, her sense of proportion, her needs? As though the mere act of being married to him and having a child, the child she had insisted on as a condition of marriage, had usurped an identity she meant to reclaim. Phil shook his head, denying it. She’d always had time for herself, money. How had he stopped her from doing anything?
“How do you think the portrait looks above the bed?” she called.
“It’s fine,” he replied, though he had barely glanced at the canvas, one of several around the walls. When he did, he felt disjointed. The picture was a large oil, a portrait of Lydia done by a young artist she’d known in her twenties. Phil had never liked it—the style was rough, it made her look old—and Lydia had sent it willingly to the attic when they set up house together. Its reappearance in this place of honor sent a stab of anger through his chest. Not a memento of himself, not a photo of Tyler anywhere, but above her bed this tribute to an old lover while some Scandinavian stranger merited a living room display. Damn her! This was not how he’d intended to end his life.
Last November the doctor had given him the diagnosis: prostate cancer, a year at best. This was July, and he could feel the battle for his body going against him. He hadn’t told Lydia. Even before the illness, his age had begun to show—winded after a set of tennis, a habit of dozing off early in the evening, passion an effort, enjoyment rare. He would have been content to be friends then, but when he hinted, Lydia was unsympathetic. And she dropped deliberate clues of her own, remarks that let him know she was planning her freedom. If he’d told her about the cancer, would she have stayed—or moved out sooner? Would it bring her back now?
His gaze traveled back to the bed. Lydia was a vigorous lover, and he had been shocked and excited by some of her requests. He remembered what Jane had said when he announced his involvement with Lydia and desire for a divorce. “Sex? Is that what you want, more sex?” She shook her head in anguish and disbelief, a faithful wife of thirty years fired on two weeks’ notice. He was so in love with Lydia, he had expected Jane simply to go along, even to be happy for him. Lately, he’d thought of calling Jane to let her know how it was turning out, allow her to gloat if she liked, though that had never been her style. But he wasn’t sure where she lived or if she had remarried, and as their three daughters reached womanhood each had severed all connection with him.
“I’m done,” Lydia called sprightly.
“Yes, coming,” he replied.
Lydia was repacking books into the cardboard box. Set to one side was the pile she intended to keep, and Phil pictured her slotting them into her bookshelf, one at time, obedient to her new sense of order. He didn’t tell her he’d sold the bookstore, a part-time occupation since his retirement. He would take the unwanted volumes and add them to the inventory to be passed to the new owner.
“The house is very nice,” he said.
“Thank you. There are still one or two final touches I’m planning to make.”
Lydia surveyed the room with pleasure. It was an adventure to her, Phil realized, and she had no idea how short-lived it would be. In four months or less he’d be dead, and she would have to leave her self-defined space, move back to their old house with Tyler, work at a relationship the boy knew she had betrayed. And though she might keep her job at the glass-blowing gallery and sculpt an occasional figure or two, it would be less easy to have affairs in Aruba, to shape her life according to no one’s whim but her own.
“Here you go.” Lydia smiled, handed him the box, offered to rise. “I’ll get the door for you.”
How easy should he make it for her? She didn’t want his money; she had moved out to prove it. And she wouldn’t accept guilt, just as he had been immune to Jane’s grief long ago. “Don’t you understand what you’re doing to my life?” Jane had sobbed. “Don’t you realize how this feels?” No, he hadn’t—until now. All he had known when Lydia cast herself at him was that his life was taking a momentous turn, and he had rushed to embrace it. Now Lydia’s life was turning; she was flinging herself away from him. How could he blame her when what he wanted, above all, was to forgive himself?
“It’s no trouble.” He motioned her to stay seated. “I’ll let myself out.”
“All right. Thanks for stopping by.”
She gave him a cheerful smile, and Phil made his way to the door. Over his shoulder he glimpsed Lydia drawing up her flowery skirt, shifting the strap of her yellow tank top, arranging herself on the couch, making each inch matter.
(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1998)
New Orleans Review, Volume 24, Number 1, Spring 1998