Lydia

But dreaming just comes natural / Like the first breath from a baby /

Like sunshine feeding daisies / Like the love hidden deep in your heart

-John Prine

I.

When I think of you, it’s always summer. It’s always strawberry wine and convenience store coffee and forbidden cigarettes and sad songs too loud on the radio some forgetful afternoon.

It’s a day that summer after my junior year and your and Ryann’s senior year when Ryann bought a picture frame.

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The frame came with a stock photo tucked inside, a black-and-white of a brown-eyed boy of vague ethnic origin. I think maybe he was at the seashore, but I don’t remember that part for sure. I remember he was smiling. An eternal placeholder.

To make me and Ryann laugh, you invented a story about how he was your long-lost son, and how you’d been forced to give him up for adoption. You said his name was Phillip.

I remember you just exactly as you were that lazy afternoon, dressed in a fleece vest and jean shorts, your hennaed hair clipped back, your eyes wild as you rolled around the floor of our study, clutching that frame to your breasts and us laughing and laughing.

I remember the way your young, Bangladeshi-brown legs were kicking up into the air and your eyes were rolling back in your head.

You were shrieking: Phillip! Phil-liiiip! NOOOOOOOOO!

Nine-and-a-half years later, you did have a son.

Ten years later, you were dead by your own hand.

I don’t know what you named your baby or where he is now. And I don’t know how you did it, but I think somebody told me it was pills.

112 seasons you were alive. That’s 28 summers, and no more.

Ryann learned of your death by way of a hastily penned Facebook message from one of our high school classmates.

She had written: “Do you remember Lydia from high school? She got the baby blues and killed herself.”

II.

Of course Ryann remembered. You’d been her best friend. And I’d been your best friend’s kid sister, which meant you and I were foisted into each other’s company on a daily basis during our teenage years.

Sometimes I thought you were cool and sometimes I hated you. Like when you borrowed my Grateful Dead T-shirt and wouldn’t give it back, or when you ate my leftover nutty bars without asking first, or when Ryann cried because you ignored her at lunch and sat with your more popular friends instead.

Or like how you’d never, never let me ride shotgun on the way home from school. You were so stubborn! If I tried to sit in the passenger seat, you’d just refuse to get into the car and we’d all sit there in a deadlock with that punchy engine idling until Ryann screamed at me to fucking move already. Which I always did. Then I’d feel angry and call you a “Slut” and we’d trade insults and I’d swear you were the most selfish person ever.

But man, were you funny.

Once, we went to a thrift store and you found this 20-foot-long neon pink stuffed snake in the toy section and you made us buy it for you and you named it “MasterBaker Jack” and wore it around your neck everywhere we went for a good two days.

And Ryann told me about a night when you two got wasted drunk and were trying to sneak back into your parents’ house, and you were so shitfaced you started crawling slow-motion up the stairs to your room on your hands and knees, whipping your head back and singing “Eye of the Tiger.”

The summer before you invented Phillip, you and I decided that one day we’d become romance novelists and get rich writing stories about an exotic heroine named Rosa who’d escaped a life of prostitution to travel the world and take on strange, swarthy lovers.

We spent hours making up the titles for our future books:

“Rosa of the Jungle”

“Rosa Have I Loved”

“Flowers for Rosa”

That was also the summer dad gave us a CD by one of his favorite country musicians, a forgotten old salt by the name of John Prine. To our delight, the CD had a song on it about a fat, ugly girl named Lydia.

We’d play it when we drove to the 7-11 in our little green Toyota Tercel to buy cigarettes and 16-ounce coffees with way too much flavored creamer. We’d smoke our Parliaments down to their crusty, recessed filters, you guys in the front, me in the back, and we’d play that song as loud as it would go:

Small town, bright lights, Saturday night / Pinballs and pool halls flashing their lights /

Making change behind the counter in a penny arcade / Sat the fat girl daughter of Virginia and Ray … Lydia!

And at the sound of your name, you’d shriek and giggle and do that nervous thing you used to do where you’d rake your hair back and then pinch your nostrils together with your thumb and pointer fingers. Because you knew you were nothing like that. You were pretty and popular and all the boys adored you.

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III.

I remember you told me about how once in third grade at recess, two boys got into a fight over which one of them was going to be your boyfriend, and you chose by flipping a coin.

And I remember how in your messy bedroom you had dozens of dried bouquets of roses hanging from the ceiling, gifts from all the lovesick boys who had chased after you.

Boys with names like Karl and Jon who drove you around in their big trucks on warm, lazy afternoons and pawed at your large, soft breasts and said that all the songs that came on the country radio station reminded them of you.

The same summer our dad gave us the John Prine CD, you met Jimmy. He was older and drove a big truck and looked like a trashy Matt Dillon. Once that August, when you two came over to hang out, he was drinking a Big Gulp soda he’d laced with liquid bleach, because he had to get a drug test and he’d heard that drinking bleach would help you pass.

I asked him if I could taste it, but I got scared at the last minute and only pretended by sucking on the straw and making a pinched face.

I’m not saying anything that came after was his fault, but I remember Jimmy liked guns, and there was one time when Ryann had a party at our house that year and he scared all the girls by saying he had a gun in his pocket, so they locked him out on the porch and he got really mad and you had to go out there and calm him down.

IV.

After high school, I saw you less. By the summer after you invented Phillip, the year I graduated and you and Ryann finished your first year of college, you were different. You chain-smoked – Marlboro Reds by then – and you were about to get engaged to Jimmy. You’d gained weight around your middle and you wore too much makeup. Ryann told me how the two of you went to hang out with some high school friends and she felt embarrassed by you because all that makeup made you look like a clown and you kept bragging about how all the guys wanted you when they really didn’t. Not anymore.

I was housesitting for my aunt and you and Rye came over and we chain smoked and played that old song for each other and laughed and laughed:

Hot love, cold love, no love at all / A portrait of guilt is hung on the wall.

Nothing is wrong, nothing is right / Donald and Lydia made love that night

I remember this day that same summer when a group of us went down to the Clackamas River to hike and swim and eat granola bars and bagel sandwiches. I remember you in front of me on the trail, your hair pulled back beneath a bandana, your brown skin and your sports sandals. You kept saying you had vertigo and shrieking and stumbling around it was making everybody laugh. I was taking pictures with my camera.

It was nothing, really: a hot summer afternoon at the end of our shared youth, the end of our friendship, the end of everything. Us, sunning our young bodies atop baking river rocks. Smoking. You, eating a peanut butter and jelly bagel, a look on your face like maybe you weren’t quite ready for the shutter to click. You with your dizzy head and your glistening eyes and your sultry, doomed laugh.

V.

It has always seemed unfair to me that there is no way to conjure up a sense of true nostalgia or dread for a moment you are still in. The present recedes from us, eternally. And it is invisible.

I was just merely taking pictures. I didn’t know it would be the last time.

We did not become romance novelists. Instead, you married Jimmy, and you dropped out of college, and you started working at a daycare, and eventually you got pregnant. I went on through college and into early adulthood, thinking of you less and less, until that day years and years later when Ryann called to tell me the news.

A newborn baby. Some pills. You, dead by your very own hand.

I don’t know where your grave is, or what you named your boy. And honestly, I don’t even really think of you so often, except when I occasionally find myself down on the banks of that old, unchanging river, or when I see some soft seventeen-year-old girl with dark brown eyes like yours, or when I hear your song on the radio, always unexpected and somehow indescribably terrible.

 And then I think of Rosa, and I think of your baby, and I think of that brown-eyed, brown-haired boy trapped inside the picture frame.

And especially I think of us three – you, me and Ryann – but I mean the versions of us that never grew old: their tanned legs and their shiny hair and their gone-away bodies laughing powerful into the white-hot summer sky.

Frozen. Hapless. Love, hidden deep in their hearts.

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