He tells me he’s been with Lydia, that woman with red hair. She isn’t a petite beauty, Lydia, she’s almost masculine, and it raises some questions in the college circuit—Gay or what? He tells me he’s been with Lydia while we huddle by the bonfire, the big bonfire outside Stables, the nickname for the lacrosse team house. A party is going on and girls are walking in the snow in high heels.
I am floored. Lydia? Lydia, who could carry a sack of potatoes over one arm, carry ten children on her hips, that farm-girl, milk-fed look—that he could have been with her, my thin little friend.
He’s not so physically small, but his carriage, the way he hunches himself over books, the pouting expression as he touch-types on his Tablet. The dutiful vintage clothing, too-short pants and rolled-up socks, the thick glasses, the faux café intellectual, the faux cynic, my defensive friend.
His best friend outshines him just by walking through the door, his Golden Boy best friend. Mark with the same short pants and Dali mustache, Mark in the tight blue Christmas sweater, but it all suits Mark, the ironic clothing, the soy latte philosophizing, the fact that he plays clarinet in the orchestra, women love him. The international Poli-Sci majors with Dubai internships and the Connecticut English majors who ride horses and line up cocaine, they go to Mark’s clarinet concerts.
Mark with the conquests—my friend is not Mark.
My friend told me he took Lydia home. To his house off-campus, a wood-and-glass house with a view of the woods that he can afford but Mark can’t. To his wood-and-glass house that he pays nearly all of the rent but Mark brings the women. To his wood-and-glass house where he hears women in Mark’s bedroom and sometimes has her friend in his own, but he never feels that Mark hears him. The wood-and-glass house where Mark makes everyone espresso in the morning, where Mark shows off the AeroPress, where the women coo over cappuccinos they way they coo over his clarinet, while my friend lights an early joint. My friend who bought the machine.
My friend tells me that Lydia was not drunk and neither was he, that they had only had a couple of craft beers at the party before their conversation moved from the class they shared, Ethnic Conflict, and the topic they both wrote their midterm on, China and Tibet, when Lydia told him she’d broken up with—“What was his name?”
I say, “Michael Lesontag, that photography major, half-Vietnamese—“
“Right, Lesontag, she broke up with him”—
Lesontag was untrustworthy, Lydia said, getting closer to him, in the crowded basement of a house nicknamed The Alexander, a house for the Outdoor Society, a house for the hikers and bikers on campus. Lydia got closer to my friend and he began to smell her freckles over the beer. Lesontag had cheated.
My friend says Lydia leaned so close to him that he took it as confirmation and took her hand. He drove them away from The Alexander and to his wood-and-glass house where he said Lydia ran a hand over his expensive sheets before climbing into bed.
We stare into the bonfire. Everyone jostles us, beers in hand. I see Lydia coming towards us, flat stomach in a white-knit sweater, legs in black tights and heavy black boots.
I tell my friend, “She’s here.”
His eyes sharpen and flatten like a piano.
“She had a game this weekend,” he says.
Lydia passes us by. He says hello. She gives him a vague smile, a smile that is vague and not shy.
My friend says, “Hi Lydia.”
She says, “I’m tipsy.”
My friend says, “That’s unusual,” and she smiles again, an indifferent smile, a smile that has known nothing of my friend.
He asks about the game. Lydia says Virginia cancelled because of the snow.
She says, “How did you know I had a game?”
My friend manages to say “Class” before she strides away. Long, strong legs in black tights, two men beside us turn to stare.
My friend lights a cigarette, his hands shake with the lighter.
Mark approaches us in a red pea coat, he tells my friend they are going downtown. My friend inhales deeply and nods. Mark asks me if I’m coming, I say I will.
Mark says, “I called a cab, meet out front in ten.”
We look at Mark’s retreating figure. My friend does not look at me.
Last spring my father told me he was not expanding his company in Denver but seeing a woman there. That the company project in Denver ended after a month but for a year he’d been finding reasons to go. My father told me that the woman sometimes met him in Chicago or Los Angeles, long work weekends that my mother spent alone.
My father told me over our oblong dining room table, told me and said, But you still love me right? I said nothing. He said again, You still love me right? Tell me you still love me, my charismatic father that women loved. I hurled M n M’s at him, picked them up from the crystal bowl in the table center and threw them at his shoulders. In his shock, he picked one off his vest and started eating it.
I knew he was overworked, that my mother could be cold to us all, that all my father wanted was more love, more admiration, that he thought they were the same thing. I knew he was lonely, I hated him for it. Loneliness was private, it was contagious. I didn’t want to know what loneliness had driven him to.
Furious, devastated, I called my friend a liar.