Sitting on the back porch, Lydia watched her mother adjust a tiara on her niece’s head. It wasn’t the best day for her mother to be outside, particularly with the chill in the air, but her niece insisted. So, with her mother’s stubborn personality, they had been at the party for over two hours already. Lydia understood why she had to be there but as another stray balloon popped and a child wailed over their spilt ice cream she couldn’t help but try to meet her mother’s eyes. Less of a question and more of an insistence.
Are you okay? A lift of her brow asked. Her mother nodded. Should we leave? To this she hastily turned away. She hated answering Lydia’s questions.
Lydia glanced at her brother. He was at ease with a child’s spill proof glass in his hands as he mingled. He stopped to talk to some of the other dads while also cleaning up. It looked as if caring for his family was a breeze, which Lydia guessed was exactly what he was going for. A perfect example of doing it all. Lydia rolled her eyes.
She looked back at her mother who adjusted the blanket around her shoulders. She knew it’d be time to take her pain medication soon.
Maybe after that… Lydia fantasized. She had a list of things she could be doing but as she slowly made her move towards the door, her mother’s cool voice asked her to stay for a bit longer. “I was only going to ask Ben if he wants help with the presents.”
Later, after sliding into the quiet reprieve of her mother’s car, Lydia noticed the buzz of her phone. She ran her fingers over the glass and read message after message from Nash. He always sent multiples as if what he had to say was urgent. It never was of course. It actually seemed a bit unnecessary for a grown man with two kids.
Come over tonight. It’ll be fine. Unless you have plans with someone. You there? The girls left with Hannah this afternoon.
She sighed assuming they had cleared this up earlier when she had slid out from between his warm navy sheets right as the sun broke through his window. Lydia had already filed his request away in her mind by the time she untied her running shoes and prepared her mother’s breakfast. Yet he had thrown it back into her hands. This was supposed to be her one non-complication. Without responding, she backed out of her brother’s driveway.
“We didn’t know if you’d show up!” Jamie pushed a fizzing glass in her direction.
“I doubt that,” Lydia replied nodding towards the drink. Jamie shrugged in reply and looked away. She hated when Lydia pointed out those small, kind gestures. Hated wasn’t the right word; embarrassed.
She sat down next to her, listening as their table had the usual check in. Lydia had known most of these girls since grade school. Every two or three months Lydia received a group text as if they weren’t all aware that they would order the same drinks at the same restaurant at the exact same goddamn time.
“They have responsibilities,” Jamie had previously defended them while driving her home one night. Lydia responded with an empty glance. “Well, responsibilities they actually care about,” she amended with a smirk. Lydia liked that Jamie never really cared when she had an attitude.
Lydia always chalked up Jamie’s willingness to attend these dinners to the fact she didn’t go to high school with them.
They had first met at a campus bar where Lydia liked the anonymity. How each year the faces changed. The exact opposite of how she felt in her small town.
Lydia would have a couple of drinks before glancing across the bar at Jamie. After a few weeks of this, and Jamie being the last one left as her friends paired off, she had come over to Lydia and introduced herself.
It had almost been a year since then.
Now, Jamie sat next to her and sipped her Jack and coke, interjecting into the conversation right as Lydia’s phone buzzed. She couldn’t know who it was but she had her guesses. Lydia closed her eyes and tried to take a deep breath. It was this feeling that churned up from her gut; the sense of being pestered. The urge to shatter all the glasses on the table. It was ever-present. Gnawing, gnashing, tugging at her conscious; begging for attention. A need to be tended to.
Jamie glanced at her. Concerned eyes probing, she asked if she wanted to leave with a downturn of her mouth. Lydia didn’t respond. She wasn’t sure how to voice it. She gulped her drink and barely had the mind not to slam it back down. Jamie discreetly placed her hand on Lydia’s thigh. Her thumb attempted to rub comforting circles. Lydia wanted to settle into it. The steadiness she offered. Instead, the glaring question of what is this? tugged at her incessantly.
“Your alarm’s going off,” Jamie said.
Lydia tensed as she reached into the pocket of her jeans. The overflow of messages and guilt she knew had to be waiting just behind the screen. Wordlessly, she switched off her mother’s evening alarm.
“How was the party?” Jamie asked as she drove along the empty streets.
“Mom lives for get-togethers like that. Screaming kids, mingling with neighbors-”
“Yep,” Lydia felt her eyes droop. Exhaustion, alcohol, probably a mix of both.
“You’ve been tense all night.”
Lydia let out a deep sigh.
“Perpetual exhaustion? I feel that,” Jamie glanced over at her.
A tilted head moving against the headrest, she met Jamie’s eyes for a brief moment.
“How’s work been? That co-worker giving you an attitude?” Lydia asked.
“Of course he is! Makes me want to pull my hair out.”
“I’m sorry,” she watched the red-light shadow over Jamie’s face. “Does he still carry around that massive bottle of tomato juice?”
Jamie groaned in response, “I’m so sick of the smell.”
Silence settled around them as Lydia rubbed her eyes. It wasn’t even midnight, yet she felt the pull to crawl into bed. Tug the sheet over her head and let the deepest sleep pull her under.
Her brother had called earlier and said he brought their mother home after the party. His tone was clipped, which she expected. It was his questioning of where she had gone, how long she’d been out that was unexpected. Why would he want to hear about the goings-on in her life? Lydia was sure he wanted her to feel guilty. And she did feel a little bad for leaving the party but she couldn’t find it in herself to apologize, much too tired for that sort of thing.
“Why can’t you talk to me anymore?” Jamie broke the silence. Her hand was up before Lydia could respond. “Don’t feed me bullshit. You’re my best friend. I know.”
Whatever conversation Jamie wanted to have, it already sat heavy on Lydia’s chest. Something else to tend to. She didn’t want to be a bitch, she just wanted to breathe for two damn seconds; nobody asking anything of her. The only response she could muster was a small shrug.
“Is it because of what I said the other night?” Jamie looked dejected. A better friend, a better whatever they were would’ve offered her some sort of comfort.
“I swear that isn’t it.” Lydia tried to put as much meaning as she could into her words yet they still fell short.
“I’m just as confused about this as I think you are,” she said. “Clearly we don’t regret it.” She raised her eyebrow, as if there was a question she wanted to ask but couldn’t bring herself to. “I can’t read your mind, Lydia. You have to give me something.”
“I don’t regret it,” it was the smallest piece of solace Lydia could offer. Still, it left her feeling exposed. “Things have been busy…”
Jamie didn’t look convinced. Her face was flushed, which Lydia knew was a sign that Jamie was close to crying.
“I’ll call you?”
Jamie rolled her eyes but nodded.
“Thanks for the ride.”
“Yeah, well I wasn’t about to let you drive home.”
Lydia didn’t have a retort. At least one person cared enough to get her home in one piece.
“You know Lydia, I do all of this because you’re my friend. Because I care about you,” she swallowed hard, “But lately you’ve made it so hard for me to like you.” Jamie wouldn’t look at her.
Lydia opened the car door, the need to throw something pounding through her eardrums. She shut the door but without slamming it. She didn’t really want to upset Jamie anymore. She once again hated that part of herself that caved in to cordiality.
They stared at each other for only a moment. As she watched Jamie back out of the driveway, she felt a lump form in her throat.
The car was disappearing around the corner as Lydia’s eye caught something and she jumped.
A dark blue sports car crawled up the hill. It was too dark to see in through the windows. Her stomach clenched, imagining Nash behind the wheel. Yet as the car moved on she tried to convince herself it wouldn’t be him. Why would he be out this late driving around? Her mother lived in a big subdivision. The odds it’d be him were slim.
Even still, he knew the red glow of tail-lights would tint her fitful night of sleep.
Another run. Another heart-healthy breakfast for her mother with no less than five color coated pills she had to coax her into taking. It always took a solid hour to get them all down after she put up such a fuss. By then there was lunch and appointments. The haphazard nap she’d try to talk her mother into while she stole away for an hour or so to scroll through job applications. Inevitably she’d end up on social media, scrolling through everyone else’s life.
She would blink and it was time for dinner.
The daily routine.
You’re still ignoring me? Fine. Can we meet? I want to know what’s going on. It’s all I’m asking for. You can manage that I’m sure.
As dusk arrived, Lydia laced up her running shoes and made her way up hill to the house around the corner. It was in the midst of being built. It was a few doors down from where Nash and his family lived. A convenient middle ground for when his wife was in town.
The foundation of the house came together within a day or two but after the sheets of plywood formed the walls and the roof had been attached, it was left empty. A for sale sign stuck against the curb. She hadn’t seen anyone come by to look at it in months.
Lydia watched as the plastic fluttered in the breeze.
Today she had given in. She and Nash had never made any sort of commitment, their entire relationship built on sex and her need to get away from her mother’s suffocating house. But if she was to start mending things, figuring out what the hell was going on, maybe it was best to start with someone who had the least attachment. And ever since she saw the ease with which Jamie pulled away, she had wanted to try and fix things.
“Wasn’t sure I’d see you,” Nash stood against the banister where a set of stairs were only partially complete.
“I said we could meet. I wanted to talk to you, too.”
“Is this about you not coming over at all this week? Or, you ignoring my messages?”
Lydia sighed, wiping the sweat of her palms on her shirt, “I should’ve said something.”
“You’re damn right you should have.” His eyes flashed with anger. He inhaled a shaky breath.
“Nash, listen. There were other things going on and I couldn’t–”
“Is that why you were out with her the other night?”
“I saw you with her.”
Lydia felt suddenly cold.
“This wasn’t meant to be serious–”
“That isn’t for you to decide! Clearly you have time to go out with your little friends,” he spat the words as if extracting venom.
This wasn’t the reaction she had pictured. Had he been this disgusting all along? Was it something missed as she had snuck out of his house, consumed with her endless duties of pills and appointments?
Lydia thought back to her niece’s birthday party. A slow-motion haze of her brother and mother laughing together as she got on her hands and knees. She cleaned up the drippings of ice cream. A child crying nearby as she scooped up a dollop of icing. All in the name of being a helping hand. There had been a rise of panic as she felt cemented into the moment. Like this was a snapshot of her life thus far. And this is what she had accomplished. A picture frame she couldn’t escape from. Lydia had watched the ice cream roll down her niece’s arms in carved out paths. Little rivulets of milk and sugar that met at her elbow, only to pause before descending onto the concrete.
Lydia was pulled from the memory as Nash slammed his hand against the wall.
“What the hell is going on?” Nash’s face was red. She noted his anger but still said nothing.
Wasn’t making the decision to break things off just something else she had to waste time thinking about? None of it mattered. None of it was important. She could shut her phone off for days; let her mother’s house suffocate her so she wouldn’t have to face any of them again. Wouldn’t have to face what might come next.
Her heart had begun to pound. That all too familiar warning of being exposed.
“I need to go,” Lydia said.
“What?” His expression hadn’t changed.
She took a step back at the same moment he reached for her arm.
“We haven’t talked about anything! Especially not that friend of yours that you have so much time for.” His voice reverberated so loudly in the empty home, “just stay for a minute dammit!”
He gripped her arm right above the elbow.
“You need to listen,” he said. “I don’t know what the fuck has gotten into you, but you need to straighten it out.” His face was so close to hers that she wanted to pull back, but she was frozen. A cold dread that wouldn’t allow her to speak. Her body was ice.
“Do you hear me?”
She nodded. It was the only response she could manage for a brief moment.
Something inside was whispering to keep calm. Deescalate. But she couldn’t listen.
She yanked her arm and his grip loosened. One more tug and she had backed away. She ran through the frame where a front door was missing.
Nash’s words echoed even though she couldn’t make sense of what he said.
Lydia’s body buzzed with energy. A tremble that started in her feet until it echoed inside her. Bouncing off one organ and hitting another. She forced herself to run. Her mother’s looming house in the distance.
Only a few more yards away. Her knees wanted to lock.
Only a few more feet. Shallow breaths in and out. Thoughts racing so fast she wanted to laugh.
As she neared the house, instead of feeling any ease she only had the urge to keep running. The house couldn’t calm her pulse at all. There was no waiting embrace of relief inside. Instead, she slid into her mother’s car and locked the doors.
I’m outside. Can you come meet me? Please?
Lydia paused between typing each message. She was no longer shaking but she still felt a tremble settled right below her skin. She was parked outside of Jamie’s office. She just wanted someone next to her to tell her it was all going to work out. Everything felt as if things had veered off track in some past moment she knew existed but couldn’t pinpoint. And all she wanted was for Jamie to look at her full on and remind her it would all be okay. Maybe Jamie could offer that reassurance at least.
Or more like it was her turn to apologize. Tell Jamie everything that had been going on with Nash.
I know I’ve been… What could she say? Her throat felt constricted, a sob willing its way up. I just want to talk. I know I should’ve been talking to you this whole time but it’s been hard.
Lydia stared at her messages. An ellipsis appearing for a moment only to disappear. She stared at her messages longer, pressing against the glass when the screen would darken. But there was no response. No waiting arms to be found here either.
Ben stood with his palms pressed against the counter. The tips of his fingers growing white. He had called while Lydia sat waiting for Jamie; an offer to sit down and talk for a bit. It wasn’t the person she wanted but it was someone nonetheless.
“You need to stop pawning this stuff on me and grow up,” he said.
“Ben, she doesn’t want to hear anything from me.”
“It’s the way you treat her Lydia, I swear.” He let out such a long sigh, “I know things have been tough lately. I really do.”
“I can barely take care of her. Mom won’t listen to me.”
“She’s stubborn but it isn’t that dramatic.”
Lydia wouldn’t meet his gaze. He didn’t know. He had his own family with his own problems. He didn’t really care.
“I try to help but I don’t know what else you want me to do Lydia,” he shrugged.
“Can’t you just listen to me then?”
Lydia was silent for a moment. She didn’t want another fight.
“Maybe she should look into staying somewhere, you know?”
He shook his head, “Don’t start this bullshit up again. It’s pointless.”
“Of course it is. Anything I suggest is bullshit to you, right?” Lydia scoffed.
“Just…talk to her Lydia. You’re her daughter after all. She doesn’t need to go anywhere else,” he offered a faux sympathetic look that nauseated her. “Or maybe you should try to listen for once.”
Lydia sat in her mother’s car. The only sound a quiet hum from the engine. An old keychain Ben had given their mother when he was a kid dangled from the ignition. Lydia’s only refuge had become a car that didn’t even belong to her. It seemed so fitting.
What did she even want? Her personhood had been reduced to a simple fixture. She was supposed to be content with standing in the corner, being reliable, yet here she was. Screwing that up. Forcing even the people she wanted away. It felt like her last life-line had dissolved.
Lydia knew that Ben would never leave their mother to fend for herself. Swooping in to save the day was a boost to his ego as the eldest. He took all the credit but he would never learn when to refill each prescription. He couldn’t tell you how their mother would mindlessly tap her foot when she was ready to go to bed. He didn’t know that she was always more tolerable on Thursday’s after her weekly call to her friend, Ayla.
There wasn’t any where to go. Lydia knew that. But sitting here only made that realization more prominent. The weight of having to stay here wasn’t one she could bear any longer.
Her hands hovered above the wheel for a moment. A split second of hesitation.
And then a chime from her phone broke the spell. Lydia glanced at it just as her mother’s evening alarm began to go off. She silenced the noise and turned it face-down.
The hum of the engine loosened the knot that had been tightening within her gut. She switched on the radio to break the silence and she put the car in drive.
Taylor Sheppard is (mostly) a prose writer with a love for female-led stories and YA literature. She recently completed the creative writing MA at Newcastle University and received her BA in Psychology from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, which she affectionately calls home (mostly because her cat lives there). More of her writing and musings can be found at https://lovenotesonnapkins.wordpress.com/