KARL LUNTTA - LYDIA
He watched his wife shut the front door and walk to a waiting Uber, which took her to JFK, then to a flight with a stop in Chicago and on to San Francisco to the house of a man whose name he didn't know.
The day she left him trembling at the doorway, he resisted his more maudlin impulses, and he knew he had them -- the shuffling, the questioning. He thrust his hands deeply into his pockets, so deep his clenched fists nearly reached his knees, and he had this thought: I am blind, I'm an idiot, I am wrong in all ways.
Joe thought this over and over, standing still behind the door, staring at it as if it were alive and breathing, a flat, white animal. He stood there in the apartment's silence until he felt dizzy, and leaned into the door for support. The dog snuffed around his sneakers for a clue about what had just happened.
For a time after she left, he thought of himself as handicapped, somehow physically hurt. An image from his childhood surfaced, the one where he imagined what his soul looked like, its color and shape. Most often it was a matte silver, like mercury without the shine, a thick, viscous fluid that held no shape but permeated him internally, just below the surface of his skin, molding to his organs and bones. He'd imagined this soul's ability to instantly shrink to the size of a microscopic cell when his body was invaded by pain or fear, and he thought now his soul's hiding act was going to be permanent. It had secreted itself somewhere deep inside, possibly to never resurface.
He went from pain to bitter to numb in a familiar, slow-motion transition: first disheveled and confused, then forced-happy and mostly drunk at numerous Manhattan bars, first with friends and going-nowhere dates, and, inevitably, alone.
Two years and three days after she left him fist-clenched and dizzy at his breathing front door, he was introduced to the woman who might have been the last person on Earth to look at him had it not been for Jasper acting like the dog he was.
She was the new-agey pop psychologist and sometimes poet Lydia Johns, signing copies of her latest book at a Third Avenue bookstore, one which Joe frequented and liked when there were no crowds. He hadn't expected to see an author there and had to think for a moment before identifying her. He was helped by a poster on an easel by her book-laden table.
"Women With, Within, and Without" was her latest. The cover featured a photo of a young woman languishing under the low bough of a tree, facing a sunset, a pen and notebook in hand. A portrait of the artist as a young woman. He hadn't read anything Johns had written, but was aware of her work. The subtitle of the book said "Poetry by America's Leading Psychologist."
Psychology combined with poetry was a concept he hadn't thought much about. At all. Freudian Free Verse? Jungian Haiku? Why not. Overwrought poetry could not be any worse than overwrought self-help books.
He knew Johns was thought of as brilliant and accomplished, and she had a large following online, as well as for her podcasts and television appearances. Her books sold in the millions.
Her skin was alabaster, her wrists and hands frail and delicate. She wore a coal-grey suit and a medium-brimmed, black … was that a gaucho hat? Yes, yes it was. Her eyes were dancing, wet and bright and playing her crowd.
Jasper bolted for the table and the leash popped out of Joe's hand. The cocker spaniel mix immediately buried his snout under Johns's skirt and, from beneath, his tail wagged.
The writer's reaction was instantaneous and efficient. She said excuse me to the woman holding a book to be signed and grabbed Jasper's stump of a tail and pulled him from beneath the skirt, then turned and, almost imperceptibly, kicked his tail end. Jasper yelped and Joe was already on his way as she let the dog go and turned, smiling, back to her fans. Joe grabbed the leash and stood to the side of the line, wondering if he needed to say anything.
"So that's how you meet women?" she said, not looking at him.
"Well, I never wag my tail. I hope," he said. Heat rushed to his face.
"Good use of a wingman, though. Or pawman," Johns said, still not looking. "I'll give you that."
"I don't use him to meet women," Joe said. "I don't think he could take the punishment, frankly. But, I'm sorry."
"Oh, I'm not offended," she said. "I mean, he's germy and all, but at least he's attentive."
"He's got some good points," Joe said.
"Funny," she said. "I've always hated dogs in this city. The small ones are rats and the large ones drool rivers."
Joe tried to gauge her anger and felt none. "Jasper's a medium mutt," he said. "We saved him from elimination at the hands of murderous New York City canine death squads. He's a rescue. He's been grateful ever since."
Right, and where had that come from? "He's just mine now, for the last couple of years."
She squinted. "Well, I'm sorry, he might not be feeling too well right now."
"He'll get over it."
"They always do, don't they. Men, I mean." She looked at Joe but held her hand out for the next book. "So, how do you, then?"
"How do I what?" Joe said.
The air seemed to thicken and Joe looked at the line of people. "Good question. I don't really know."
"You don't know how to meet women or how you meet women?"
"You're going to make me say it out loud, aren't you. Okay, I don't really meet women."
She leaned back and smiled at the woman holding a book. Johns asked her name and signed it into the book.
"You don't meet women and why is that?" she said, not looking again. "To borrow your line, your dog is yours alone now, yes?"
"Yes, he is. We're both free men."
"Well, then, you've just met one," she said. "A woman, I mean." The crowd shifted and looked at Joe, heads turning at once like the audience at a tennis match.
Joe coughed and tightened his hold on the leash, conscious of his mouth working quicker than his thoughts. For some reason he wasn't completely sure of, he had to ask.
"A woman? Ask your dog the gynecologist." She smiled and drummed her pen.
"Got it," he said. "Alone, I meant."
"Am I married? Oh God, no," she said, then looked up as a middle-aged woman held out a book to sign. "No offense," she said, and the woman nodded, smiling.
As she signed the book, she said, "This is where you ask me what I'm doing for lunch." She looked up at the woman and winked, "Him, not you."
For a short second Joe actually thought about what he was doing for lunch, staggered by the sudden brilliance of the light around him. "I'll bite," he said, "what are you doing for lunch?" Jasper yelped at a squirrel out on the sidewalk, searching for Central Park, no doubt.
"Why, oddly, I'm free," she said.
"I'll be back at one," Joe said, and walked out to the sidewalk, pulling the dog behind. He realized he'd forgotten what he'd come there for. From behind came the faint sound of applause.
* * * * * * *
He returned to the bookstore at one, no more confident or less so than when he'd left. In fact, he felt a bit lost leaving Jasper at home. Where was the support animal when you needed him?
They took a cab downtown for lunch. He was surprised by what seemed like an undercurrent of nervousness from her. They were both that way, more or less, alone, with no crowd to cushion their banter. They had a giddy, expensive and drunken lunch, and Joe caught himself more than once in a babble, almost out of breath talking about growing up, living with a single mother, reading both Batman and Hemingway with equal vigor. "They're the same," she said, "if you think about it."
They avoided talking about relationships, and their own relationships. Lydia's eyes were half closed when she suggested they go back to his place to wash the dog. Joe said, "Is this a euphemism? First time I've heard that one."
She said, "I only use euphemisms when I talk to priests, or my mother."
They picked up another bottle of wine and wove their way through the city, laughing and walking, stepping over rubbish, kicking paper into the streets.
"My, my," she said when they got to his place on Second and Eighty-Third. "What do you do for a living?"
"I walk dogs," he said as they got into the elevator.
Jasper greeted them at the door, yapping and jumping at their legs.
He said, "He needs a treat."
"I need a drink," Lydia said.
"Only when I don't get my way. Right now, I just need a drink."
"Let me get a corkscrew."
But she reached out and grabbed the arm of his coat. "Let me smell you," she said. The room moved slightly, shifting under him, as he stood with the bottle of wine in his hand. She lifted his coat and buried her head in his chest. She moved to his arm, his neck, his chin. Her eyes were closed and she leaned back, her nose inches from his lips.
"We need to let the wine breath for awhile, right?" she said.
"It's not uncorked," he said.
"But I am," she said.
They dropped to the couch.
Later, Lydia called the bookstore and apologized, saying she'd be out for the rest of the day but would be happy to come back tomorrow to make up for it. They fixed dinner together, a frozen pizza and ice cream, and watched, he couldn't believe it, Netflix. Then back to bed.
"Can I say something?" Lydia said. It was morning.
"You are a lovely man."
"Well, you are, too. Lovely, I mean, not a man."
"I get it. I understand words," she said. She exhaled, heavily it seemed. "So, you were married."
Joe stopped short. "I was. How did you know?"
"Because you can make love even when you're drunk, and you leave the toilet seat down. That's a married man."
"Or a considerate man? Maybe?"
She leaned over to find her phone on the nightstand, and Joe leaned back on the bed. Time? Yes, had to be. He took a breath.
"Look," he said, "I haven't done this in a long time, maybe forever. But I'm overtly up front about these things. I'm not sure I can be in, you know --."
She quickly turned over and said, a little too loudly, "A relationship? Love? Who said anything about that? I hardly know you, except for the better parts, so don't go sentimental on me. It's unseemly."
"Sorry," he said.
"Besides, I don't even know your name. For the record, I can't not love someone whose name I don't know."
"Joe," he said.
"I would have thought Joseph," she said. "Like Alan, not Al, or William, not Bill."
"I'm a nickname kind of guy, I guess," he said.
"Well, Mr. Joe I-already-don't-love-you," she said, "you've still been evasive about what it is you do to be able to take a day off to go get drunk with a famous writer and yet afford this rather fabulous two-bedroom flat in Yorktown."
"I'm afraid to say it," Joe said, and he was, because, really, right now?
"Try me, I'm tough. You sell sexual favors, am I right?"
"Nope, I'm a cheap date. I guess I want to write, like you. I mean, like you're a writer, not like a writer like you."
"It's clear. I understand words," she said.
"I'm just starting, got some ideas, that sort of thing."
Lydia leaned back on the bed and smells from beneath the sheets drifted out past their faces. She sighed and closed her eyes. "So you're a writer. That's swell."
"Like I said, I'm just starting."
"And is that why you said you can't love me, because I'm a writer?"
"I don't know why I said that. It was knee-jerk, like sneezing. I'm sorry."
"So what do you not yet write?" she said. "Not romance, I hope."
"I don't know. I've written a few tech articles over the years. Right now, it's short fictions. I've got half a novel down. I don't know if I should talk about it. Old fashioned, I don't want to jinx anything."
"Well stay away from romance," she said. "It's the highest and lowest form of literature, and no one does it well." She turned her head and closed her eyes, and they dropped it.
The stayed together for the rest of the day. They made food, coffee, and banter. They walked the dog.
"So what do you do if you haven't sold any of your writing?" she said. "Really."
"I have a company, I'm afraid to say," he said. He plunged forward, to get it out of the way. "I had luck with developing some apps, specifically one of the early apps about dogs. You know, tracking your pup's shots, weight, age, eating habits, lineage. Sharing photos and videos. Chats with vets. Anything to do with your dog. Jasper, we called it, after, you know. Google eventually licensed it, we all did really well, and here I am, a failed writer."
"I've heard of it. I have to ask, though, because not only am I nosy, I'm a bitch, did the app happen before or after your wife left?"
"Mostly after. I'd been developing it. That's half the reason she left me. We were going nowhere with it, long hours, no end in sight, no money."
"Half the reason?"
"The other half was the guy. Whatshisface. A dentist, apparently."
"So she left you, a soon-to-be-wealthy man with a writer's imagination and superior bathroom habits, for a dentist?"
"Her canines are in good hands all around," he said. "Look, can I admit something? You're famous, I've never read anything you've written."
"Neither have I," she said. "Anyway, don't bother, it's cliched and boring, like me. But you're not the academic psychology, self-improvement type, are you? And you don't strike me as a poet."
"Not often," he said. "Not gonna lie."
They walked out, and eventually made their way back to the bookstore. Joe was about to drop her off when he said, impulsively, "Can I see you again?"
Because he wanted to. That was clear.
She leaned back slightly, squinted, and said, "That's a twist. Sure, I'll swing by later today, after the signing. Say, about eight?"
"Today?" he said. He wondered if it was a test of some sort.
"We have unfinished business."
"I guess we do."
At eight, he pushed himself away from his laptop and checked on Jasper, who was dozing by the TV, where Happy Days was playing on an oldies channel. "Time for a walk, buddy. It's been an hour since you last peed on the carpet. In front of the door. Sorry about that. I was into something."
A buzz, the doorman announcing Miss Lydia Johns was here.
"I hate New York," she said at his doorway. "Your whole life here is about third-party intervention. First it's Jasper. Now your doorman."
She stepped into the foyer. Jasper looked up, and, recognizing something, stood up, stubby tail wagging, and started to snuffle at her shoes. "Look, Joseph. Joe. I want the dog."
"What?" he said.
"Jasper. I want Jasper." She smiled, tilted her head. Joe looked down at the little cocker spaniel, his tail moving like the prop of a toy airplane.
"Jasper?" he said. "My dog?"
"I've visited this apartment as recently as this morning," she said. "And unless there are a whole bunch of other Jaspers in this place, then, yes, my pretty, your little dog, too. Jasper." Still smiling.
"I don't get it," he said.
"I don't either," she said. "This is pure impulse, call it, say, knee-jerk. But let me explain the entirety of my feelings up to this very moment. This morning you told me you couldn't fall in love. You put up a border wall of emotive control."
"It's not what I meant," Joe said. "I meant--"
"Let me finish," she said. "I have finally met a man who puts down the toilet seat and loves his little dog. And, this is hard for me to say, so close your eyes and pretend it's not me saying it."
"I mean it, close your eyes."
He closed his eyes.
"I like you," she said. "A great deal. Most girls, when their boyfriend boots them out, will steal something, a t-shirt or a pair of cufflinks, little fetishes that remind her of him. Not me, I'm not even an official girlfriend. So I want a living thing, I want a heartbeat. I want Jasper. Now you can open your eyes."
He did. "But, Jasper's my … I love Jasper. I mean, he's my company."
"I will love him, too. I do already. He's the best good boy. And he can still be the face of your company."
As if by recognition, Jasper sat on his haunches and yapped once at Lydia.
"There, it's settled," Lydia said. "You'll have full visitation rights of course. You can walk him any day, even take him for weekends. And of course when I go out on a book tour you'll have to take him back for a while. Done. Does that work for you?"
Joe stood and turned over in his mind how this had occurred. He'd missed something, some word, some clue.
"How did we get to this?" he said.
"No matter, it's a done deal. Life comes at you fast, big boy. Now, I've got an Uber on the way, and you've got some food and a leash and his toys to bag up, so let's get to that part, stat."
He turned and looked at the scattered toys and the blankie, and Jasper, and knew it. This was the way it would be. Had to be. Inside, he sensed the mercury poke out to have a look around. "The squeaky bone is his favorite."
"I could say almost anything here that would be completely inappropriate," she said, "So I'll say this instead. What's your last name?"
"Whitman," he said. "Joe Whitman. I know."
"Oh, please," she said. "You cannot be serious. Can you?"
"Then take that as a sign for your writing voice. Irony. It's you."
They packed up the rest in an old backpack with hardly a word, Jasper bouncing about between them as if he knew life was one big adventure and he was going to the mountaintop.
The intercom buzzed and the doorman let them know the Uber was here.
Lydia put her hand on Joe's elbow and smiled, but her eyes had misted slightly. "I am a highly trained, professional psychologist," she said. "I know what I'm doing. Exactly what I am doing. And I suspect you do, too. You have the other half of a book to write, so get to it. Jasper is in good hands."
"I understand," he said. And he did.
"I left a business card on the bedstand," she said.
"Call me absolutely only during daylight or nighttime hours."
She held up Jasper and kissed the dog's face, while Joe leaned in and kissed the other side. Jasper licked his nose.
And they walked out as he shut the door, gently.
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