I have known Lydia for years and am visiting her in St. Louis to celebrate the opening of her second store. She sells futons. I didn’t know you could make a living selling futons, but apparently you can, and a good one at that.
Lydia has named her store Light as a Feather and it is an attractive space, painted in earth tones, with lots of light streaming through the storefront windows. There are rows and rows of futons in a broad array of colors and styles. Many are more ornate than I ever imagined futons could be.
“What do you do with these things?” I ask her.
She sighs slightly and smiles. Lydia has a way of tolerating me that skates clear of condescension but does come close. She thinks of me as someone not up on anything and unaware of fashion and trends. To Lydia, I am lost in time and not disturbed by that one bit.
“Oh, Cynthia, for God’s sake,” she says. “Futons? They’ve been around for ages.”
“They’re folding foam beds. And space savers,” she says, reaching over and opening one up. “See, you can use it as a couch and then open it up into a bed.”
“Very versatile,” I say.
“Yes. As we like to say here, ‘Every size, every style, for any space’.”
“Nice slogan,” I tell her.
“It works,” she says. Then she’s off to catch up with a mover who is about to put a rather large futon in the wrong place. “Over there,” she’s shouting as she races toward him.
I look at all the futons in her shop, and they remind me of a car lot. So many colors, so much bright, shiny chrome, and so many sleek shapes. The wooden frames, too, are almost sensuous in their deep, enticing shades. I can see how these might be an attractive item in someone’s home until, in my opinion, you had to pull them out into a bed. At that point they would lose all their magic. At least for me. But as Lydia would tell you, I have eccentric tastes.
It’s good to see Lydia again. It’s been about five years. She hasn’t changed much—still as driven and intense. The last time I saw her was when her mother died. God, what a horrible mess. Her mother had driven her car right into an eighteen-wheeler doing 70 on the interstate. It wasn’t an accident. It was a suicide. There were no tire marks, no signs that she tried to brake or to swerve out of the truck’s way. Nothing other than that she pulled out of her lane and just plowed straight into the truck. A direct hit, the police had said.
In our own ways, we both knew this was coming. Lydia’s mother was married to a bastard of a husband who had a real talent for psychological torture. Over the years, he had broken her spirit with vicious criticisms and public humiliations. And she had tried before to escape. Lydia had found a piece of tubing attached to the gas furnace in the basement. She knew what it meant, that her mother had tried and failed to find some way to die. Lydia disconnected the tubing and put it on the kitchen table where her mother sat drinking coffee. Her mother was horrified, frightened, so ashamed—yet immobilized. For the thousandth time, Lydia pleaded with her mother to leave. “You can live with me,” she said. “Anywhere would be better than this. You have to leave him. You have to! Don’t let him kill you!” And then Lydia started crying, and her mother drew her close and stroked her hair, saying, as she always did, that Lydia’s father really was a good man. You just had to understand him and be patient. And that she was all right. The tubing was part of a repair she was trying to make. It wasn’t what it seemed. And Lydia felt the same futility and bitterness she always did when her mother lied like this and tried to make Lydia believe that everything was just fine. Even when her father released his alcoholic rages on Lydia, her mother would make excuses, tell her this wasn’t really her father—he had been drinking, and he wasn’t always like this. “No, mother!” Lydia would shout. “He is always like this. This is who he is, cruel and heartless, and he’s destroying you and me.” But her mother would have none of it. There was always the promise that things would be better in the morning. Her father would regret what he had done, and everything would be calm again. Lydia knew how much her mother had to believe that, but Lydia did not. She never believed it, and things never did get better. Two months later, her mother drove her car into the truck on a stretch of interstate with cars going by and people living their lives and her mother ending hers.
Lydia was staying with me at the time. Actually, she was supposed to be with me, but she was restless, and the last day of her visit, she decided to leave early and fly to San Francisco. She was somewhere in a plane when the call came in to me from Lydia’s aunt. Is Lydia there? No. Do you know where she is? She’s flying to San Francisco. I’ve got to reach her—I just have to! What’s wrong? It’s horrible, just horrible. What is it? And then she tells me the story, and I feel sick and weak in the knees, and my hand hurts from holding the phone so tightly. Oh my God, oh my God, I’m saying, and I begin sobbing. And that’s all I remember except that I must have told her aunt I would reach Lydia on her cell phone when she landed, because that is what I did. I told her she needed to fly back here as I had something to tell her. Her tone is light and she almost laughs. Fly back there? I just got here. Can’t you tell me over the phone? No, I can’t, Lydia. I can’t. What is it? she says. Your mother, I say, and there’s an enormous silence and then a horrible sound. I think she’s screaming, gasping for air, and then she says, Is she dead? Yes, I say, whispering into the phone, Yes. I tell her she must call her aunt, she knows more than I do. Call her, Lydia. Call her. I’m saying it as much to console myself as Lydia, but I know it’s no use. Everything has gone hollow now, empty and lonely. There are no words. It’s too horrific that her mother would rather die than find a way to live. We know it, and it silences us. Then there is a dial tone, and I am praying that Lydia will call her aunt and her aunt will know what to say.
The funeral was a painful event. It had rained all day, and the sky was filled with thick gray clouds. Not many people came—a handful of her mother’s friends and a few of her father’s business associates. Lydia’s father had been drinking, and he looked like he hadn’t slept. He kept rubbing his hands together, and when the service began, he cried. Lydia and I were stunned. He took out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes and blew his nose, he had cried so much. And other than his crying and the somber intonations of the minister, the room was heavy with silence and the presence of a casket that could not be opened. It was a violent death. There must have been an enormous sound when the car and the truck collided. But now there was mostly silence.
“So, can I sell you a futon, Madame?” Lydia says to me. She has a smile on that she must reserve for customers. It is smooth and slick, and her eyes are sparkling.
“What do you recommend?”
“Lunch. You’re not really the futon type.”
We have salads at a restaurant near her store and finish with cappuccinos. Lydia is interested in how my life is going.
“Good—all things considered.”
I have managed to avoid any significant entanglements, so my heart has not been broken. I have had my disappointments, though, I tell her. Not everything is what it’s cracked up to be.
“That’s for certain,” she says. “So what are you going for?” she says. “A little romance?”
“That would be nice. Mostly lately I’ve been on the downhill side of romance.”
“More like fade outs, or burn outs to be more precise.”
“I see. That is disappointing.”
“Yes. It makes you question your judgment. Like what did you see when you thought you were in love? And why doesn’t it look like that later on?”
“Reality,” she says. “Plain and simple.”
I take a sip of my cappuccino. “Has all this been enough for you?” I ask. “The futons, I mean.”
“How is that?”
“How is anything? You like it enough to make do, and sometimes it even surprises you with more than you expected.”
“Ah,” I say. “Like with success?”
“Yes,” she smiles. “Success.”
“Well, I must say, it agrees with you. You look great.”
“Aging well, I guess.” For some reason, that tickles her, and she begins to laugh. “Isn’t that something?” she says, “when your best achievement is aging well?”
“Would you like another round?” she says, pointing to my cappuccino.
“Sure. Why not?”
We are smiling at each other as we wait. It’s a gorgeous day—beautiful sunshine and a light breeze. Cardinals are moving through the branches of nearby trees like small red flames.
Lydia seems to know what I’m thinking. “Spring is coming,” she says.
“Yes. Spring is aging well, too.”
That makes us both laugh, and we are nearly hysterical when the waiter brings the cappuccinos.
“You know I love you, don’t you?” she says.
“Good. Because that matters to me. You matter to me. You are my dearest friend.”
“I’m probably your oldest friend, too.”
She mulls this over. “Yes, you are,” she says.
We take a sip of our cappuccinos.
“You know,” Lydia says, “sometimes when I drink these cappuccinos, I get some whipped cream up my nose and I have to sneeze.”
“You too?” I say. “I thought I was the only one on earth who did that.”
“No. You share that with me, too.”
I smile at Lydia. I don’t have the words, but I know I want to freeze this moment in my memory.
“Here’s to us,” she says, hoisting her cappuccino up into a toast. “We’re some tough gals,” she says. “We made it.”
I take that in. We have made it. And there will be no letting go.
“Thank you,” I say. “For everything.” I hope it says enough, means enough.
“You can’t ask for more than that,” she says. “Everything.” She’s smiling—a sweet, soft smile, and her eyes are radiant with appreciation.
Somehow she finds a way to say it all. And I love her for that.