Authors: Margaret Hawkins
ALSO BY MARGARET HAWKINS
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First published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014
Copyright © 2014 by Margaret Hawkins
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Lydia’s party : a novel / Margaret Hawkins.
1. Middle-aged women—Fiction. 2. Parties—Fiction. 3. Female friendship—Fiction. 4. Life change events—Fiction. 5. Chicago (Ill.)—Fiction. 6. Psychological fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For my friends
We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.
Lydia needed to prepare. In ten hours the women would begin to arrive for what they’d come to call the Bleak Midwinter Bash. Lydia gave the party every year, and every year she dreaded it, not the event itself but the possibility of failure. It hadn’t happened yet but this might be the year.
Lydia had named the party after her favorite Christmas carol, a hymn in a minor key. Mostly she liked the beginning:
In the bleak midwinter frosty wind made moan / Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone / Snow had fallen snow on snow, snow on snow
Beautiful, she thought, that ingenious repetition. Clearly written by someone who knew her snow, knew its hypnotic properties, its ability to bury and silence. The song sounded to Lydia like here and now, Chicago in January. Lydia remembered the year the temperature hit 27 below, when it hurt to breathe.
The tradition, if you could call it that, had started nineteen years before, as the Christmas party Lydia didn’t get around to organizing until the last week of January. The date stuck, long enough after the holidays to offer fresh appeal. By then everyone was ready for something again, minus all that red and shininess and expectation, when the seasonal imperative to be cheerful had passed. Being warm and having enough to eat and, particularly, to drink, was party enough, in January.
As often as not the night of the party turned out to be the coldest night of the year. Some years the thermometer read well below zero when guests arrived; those years she’d handed them blankets and shawls at the door in exchange for their coats. One year half the guests stayed overnight. Cars wouldn’t start. Just as well, they’d agreed the next day. None of them was fit to drive.
When her friends asked, Lydia said she didn’t know how many times she’d given the party—didn’t want to appear compulsive—but she did know. She remembered every one and what she’d served and who was there. It was an unlucky thirteen, counting tonight.
The first year had been spontaneous, a whim planned at the last minute for a few colleagues. She hadn’t expected most of them to show up but everyone did, and the next year someone said,
Are you going to have that party again?,
so she did and again everyone came, and after that it was expected. She’d missed a few years early on for various deaths and rough spots, though not lately. Not that there hadn’t been more of those, just that she’d come to realize she had to give it no matter what, that death and disappointment were no reason not to have a party, that in fact they were the best reason of all.
They, the women, Lydia’s friends, would start to arrive around seven. Lydia checked the temperature—two below now, though it was supposed to go up to a high of twelve. She hoped their cars would start, but she no longer worried, as she had in the early years, that they wouldn’t show up. If someone were stranded—Celia, probably, in that old beater of theirs—someone else would collect her. It had gotten to be that important, a kind of summit meeting. Norris was the only one who was iffy but even she had said she’d come this year. Now Lydia just worried they’d show up early, before she was ready.
She had much to prepare—the house, the food, herself. The letters. Maxine needed a walk. Somewhere Lydia would need to fit in a nap so she’d seem bright, unfazed by the effort this was going to take.
• • •
Now Lydia stood in front of her open closet, trying to decide what she’d wear. She’d narrowed it down to two possible outfits, both black, for two of her various selves. She didn’t know yet which one she’d be tonight, though the range of choices had narrowed considerably. Formerly it had included carefree, seductive, demure, bookish, sporty, sexily sporty, sexily bookish, sexily oblivious to how sexy she really looked, recently brokenhearted and sexier than ever.
You get my drift
, she imagined saying, to Celia, if she’d felt comfortable broaching this delicate subject with her, which, lately, she hadn’t. What she would have meant was it had mostly been about men.
The theme around which she organized her closet these days was damage control. Should she be
the woman who has embraced aging
, a look that was sliding dangerously close to
the woman who seems ageless
For years she’d coasted
the woman who looks incredibly young for her age
, but lately things had taken a turn. And it wasn’t just her wardrobe that had to be recalibrated. What about makeup—how to handle this strange color she’d turned? How much effort she put into that depended partly on whether she could risk wearing mascara, which mostly these days she could not, never knowing when she’d dribble sentimental tears.
At least she didn’t have to worry about looking good for men tonight. Men weren’t invited to this party, though someone’s husband or ex or boyfriend or, in the old days, “secret” lover—Lydia’s, usually—posing as a helpful friend or delivery person or unknowing drop-in visitor always sneaked in, determined to defy the no-men ban, pretending to be there to pick up or drop off an invited guest but really wanting to linger and spy, to listen and graze, to suss out the thrilling essential femaleness of it all. Or at least that used to be the case. Not so much these days, Lydia thought.
Spence didn’t count; he lived here.
This aging thing had taken her by surprise. She’d heard tell, of course. She knew it would happen, just not yet, and not all at once. Of course she’d known in the abstract, she just didn’t
. She hadn’t understood how bad it would get, didn’t expect these ongoing losses, this sense of parts falling off the wagon as it rolled downhill. When she was younger she hadn’t fully comprehended that she was part of this cycle, too, that she too would grow older, then old, and only then if she was lucky.
Somehow, all evidence to the contrary, it had seemed for a while, in her thirties, even her forties, that everything would stay the way it was forever or at least until some distant time in the future when she’d just cease to exist. She hadn’t expected this, this process of public dismantlement, this precipitous downward slide, or for it to begin so soon.
Her parents had grown older, of course, but more slowly and gracefully than this, Lydia saw now. Besides, they seemed always to have been old, permanently paused in late middle age. Their white hair had seemed intentional somehow, a style choice, and when they fell off the cliff, from spry to frail, and could no longer climb the steps to her upstairs studio or squeeze happily into the passenger seat of her small sporty car, she’d felt sad, but still, it wasn’t her. And here was the ridiculous and shameful part she hated to admit: she’d thought they’d brought it on themselves. They hadn’t taken care of themselves is what she’d thought. Sometimes she even thought they were that way by choice.
those shoes is what she’d thought. They moved that way because they
to. She’d thought they’d done everything slowly on purpose, to annoy her, that they didn’t care about swiftness or grace. They chose not to square their shoulders when they walked, not to lead with their sternums or tuck their tailbones or hold their stomachs in.
Lydia felt ashamed now, and wildly regretful, thinking of her cluelessness, callousness, even. But what had she known about collapsing spines, collapsing arches, surgical mistakes, insidious diseases that took possession of the body like uninvited guests and then ate it alive from within? Nothing. And her parents hadn’t complained, at least not to her. She saw now that they’d hidden these things from her, that they’d been as ashamed as she was now.
• • •
Lydia stood in front of the bathroom mirror, holding a toothbrush, wondering if she had enough white candles to last the night. Winter light raked unkindly through the slats of the miniblinds. She stepped out of its glare, recalling a time—not so long ago—when she’d enjoyed the sight of herself this way, without clothes or makeup. It wasn’t that long ago, she thought, when she’d looked better out of her clothes than in them.
She heard Spence’s voice, drifting up from the kitchen. He was talking to Malcolm, the cat, in an intimate falsetto. “Who is the alchemist of Malcolmness?” he was saying. “Is it you, my cuddlesome one? Is it you, my darling? Yes, you is.”
Maybe he would have liked having children after all, Lydia thought, filled with regret this winter morning. This delay in her awareness of passing time, Lydia knew, had everything to do with the fact that they hadn’t. Her friends who had—Cel, Betsy, her sister-in-law Liv, Jayne if being a stepmother counted, even Norris, unmotherly as she was—had acquired a sense of slippage sooner. They’d been forced to see a timeline. They recounted matter-of-factly how they compared their own declining energy with the increasing vigor of those smooth, plump, voracious, ever-expanding bodies at their kitchen tables. Lydia knew, even loved, those monstrously healthy, fresh-scented children—the ones who appeared to feed off their own mothers’ flesh—but she saw now that the rate of their alarming growth had been linked all along to her own diminishment.
She’d had dogs, of course. Lydia knew well the doom
love always led to. She’d seen them go from the sweet energy of puppyhood to robust maturity to long naps and then cruel putrid decrepitude and finally bitter nothingness. But that was different. You expected it. Animals were a parallel universe of collapsed time, and when they went you were so blinded by grief you didn’t stop to think it would happen also to you.
What to do? She knew what her brother would say.
. He’d tell her to go back to church, to the God they’d been raised to believe in. Sometimes she almost wanted to.
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil
. What a comfort, to believe in that, eternal life.
Lydia splashed cold water on her face.
She felt alone, left without a strategy. In better days, she would have figured something out. She’d been working on it, even, weighing two possible approaches to what she’d expected to be the third third of her life. She’d figured it was a little like the two approaches to money—saving and spending. According to one way of thinking, the way she’d been raised, if you had something, looks or cash, say, you saved it. You put it away and pretended to yourself it wasn’t there while in some secret part of your mind you husbanded it, you stewarded it, you watched it like a hawk. Kept it fit and firm and fungible, slathered on cream and did sit-ups, bought treasury bills and blue chip stocks, and when you were old you pulled it out—ta da—and there it was when you needed it most.
It was stingy though, Lydia saw now, and it didn’t even always work. It assumed health and longevity, of the market and the body both. It assumed the market wouldn’t be hijacked by some diabolical pied piper of a Ponzi schemer or that you wouldn’t be struck by a drunk driver on the way to the party or the way to the bank, that you in fact would not be the drunk driver, who plows into the lamppost or the oncoming van full of Sunday school teachers on your way home from a boozy dinner with your college roommate on the eve of your fifty-fifth birthday.
It assumed you wouldn’t get cancer and die at fifty-four.
Ah there’s the rub
, as Lydia’s Shakespeare-loving father would have said, though it had been his idea to be so tight.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be
she could hear him intone, refusing to give her a loan. The rub was, the body wouldn’t keep. Money sometimes either, but the body, never, no. Try your best to preserve it—go ahead, try—when you went to cash it in, you’d find it gone.
All of which led her by logical necessity to the other approach. Use it up, spend it down. Carpe diem, as an old boyfriend of Lydia’s used to say, writing it in the steam on the bathroom mirror, in the dust on the trunk of her car. He’d meant that Lydia should hurry and take off her clothes, but she saw now the expression had other applications as well.
Lydia’s thrifty father would have disapproved, of course. Even now, so many years after his death, she felt him sensing her thoughts, spitting out his own ashes to reclaim his voice, to disown her from his grave, for turning profligate in middle age. But, though she was raised to be a saver and meant no disrespect, she’d decided to switch camps.
It was harder than she’d expected, making a change like that. She wasn’t in the habit of spending, didn’t know what to buy. She’d splurged on two dozen pink tulips for the party, but they hadn’t opened, and she could see it had probably been a mistake, in this cold. They were turning more wrinkled and gray by the hour, like a dead man’s testicles.
She’d begun to shop online, trying to find the pleasure in it that other people seemed to. So far she’d bought two bathrobes she didn’t wear, an indigo lace bra that didn’t fit, curtains she hadn’t hung, books she’d never read, an upholstered chair she had no place to put, and a raincoat that cost more than she’d spent on her first car.
Sometimes Lydia didn’t even open the packages. The pleasure—what little there was—was in the ordering, not the thing itself. At least she’d opened the fleece blankets she’d bought for tonight, in different colors, to give as warming gifts when each guest arrived, in exchange for her coat, the last to keep for herself. She’d bought them as much for the names of the colors as the warmth they were purported to give—Spruce, A-maize, Pumpkin Dream, Thrush, for herself, which the picture had made seem blue but was closer to olive drab.