It begins like any other ordinary workday. I'm in my cubicle of an office at Nationweek, too busy to notice my view, a narrow slice of downtown K Street. In clear weather, from a certain angle, you can see the White House, but on a gray, rainy spring day, like today, I'm not missing much, mostly backed-up traffic and people in trench coats hurrying to their next appointments.
Inside, I'm drowning in paper: overflowing files on my floor and desk, a stack of the day's half-read newspapers at my feet, an in box stacked precariously and ready to tip at the slightest movement. I'm trying not to spill my black coffee on anything crucial -- the fact checkers hate it when the source materials are too stained to read.
Although I hate computer jargon, I'm in my usual working-mother multitasking mode: phone cradled under one ear while
I type at the computer, writing one story for business, editing an education piece for the social trends section, rearranging the boys' nursery-school car pool, and calling friends to guilt them into providing homes for a litter of eight gerbils. The queasiness in my stomach is an acute reminder of my promise to Allison.
"I will be at your recital by five," I told her confidently this morning.
"Don't forget the cupcakes," she reminded me.
By noon, my neck and shoulder muscles were tighter than my prepregnancy jeans. Finally, at 4:15, mumbling about an appointment, I duck out of a cover-story meeting and race to the parking garage.
Despite the drizzle, the traffic is light as I head to Bethesda along Massachusetts Avenue. After years of this commute, I automatically zip past the mosque, the Brazilian and British embassies, and the vice president's house, barely registering the sights.
My first stop is a bakery in Bethesda. I am unprepared for the Lydia sighting that awaits me. As soon as I'm inside, the smell of vanilla and cinnamon reminds me that it's been more than eight hours, and four cups of coffee, since my sole meal of the day, a meager but virtuous bowl of bran cereal. I intended to run out for a salad at noon, but the phone never stopped.
As I stand at the counter, I restrain myself from ordering a fragrant cinnamon roll -- about half a million calories. I impatiently glance across the narrow, crowded store. Only the back of her head is visible, but I know instantly that the woman in the black raincoat paying for the six-grain bread is Lydia Finelli. My stomach lurches and my heart rate rises to the level of forty-five minutes on the elliptical machine.
No doubt Lydia has spotted me, but will pretend she doesn't see me. We've only run into each other a few times over the last five years, but that's her pattern. There's no way she's getting away with this.
I stride over, giving up my place in line. "I thought that was you, Lydia. Hello," I say, managing a neutral tone.
"Claire. Oh, hi," she answers as if seeing me for the first time. "How are you?"
"Fine. Ooops. My cupcakes are ready. See you around." No need to linger. I made my point: I'm not invisible. I've got nothing to be ashamed of, no reason to avoid a simple greeting in a public place.
I pull out my wallet. Lydia pats me on the shoulder and waves good-bye as I wait for change. A small victory, I think, walking briskly in the rain to my Camry, and sliding the bulky cake boxes into the front seat. Too bad I lost the war.
The neon clock on the dashboard flashes 4:53. The rain will slow me down but, if I make all the lights, I'll only be five minutes late. As I turn the key in the ignition, I hear a light tap-tap-tap on the window. Opening the window, I lean out, catching a few drops on my face. This time I register Lydia's appearance. Still exceptionally pretty, but she doesn't look well. Pale complexion, gaunt face, the lines around her mouth more pronounced. Her blond, curly hair has been expertly cut and highlighted, but it's not as thick and shiny as I remember.
"Claire, it's such a coincidence to see you. Really. I've been thinking about you lately. A lot." She hesitates. "Listen, is it okay if I call you?"
"It's always been okay, Lydia," I say evenly. "My numbers at work and home haven't changed. I have to run. Allison hates it when I'm late." I touch the cupcake boxes for explanation.
"Of course. I won't keep you. I'll speak to you soon. I mean it."
I back out of the parking spot carefully. Sure Lydia will call. That's as likely as the Publisher's Clearinghouse van driving to my door with the ten-million-dollar check. As likely as a Hollywood producer buying the rights to one of my magazine stories and turning it into a movie of the week. Lydia will never call and I know it. She hasn't dialed my number for five years. Wait until I tell Aaron about this encounter.
The light turns green and I drive off, leaving my former best friend of twenty-three years, the person who once shared the most intimate details of my life, including the play-by-play of my lost virginity, standing alone on the curb in the rain.
* * *
A few days pass, and thoughts of Lydia return to the back of my mind, the repository of the unresolved hurt and angry feelings that have accumulated since she dropped out of my life with no explanation soon after our thirty-fifth birthdays.
Naturally, her disappearance didn't happen overnight. It took me months to realize Lydia was dumping me for good, a process punctuated by me dropping by her house at odd times, hoping to talk, and dozens of unanswered phone messages. When Lydia was home, she would invite me in, but act politely distant, as if I were a pesky neighbor, then recall an urgent errand she had to run. Resentment, denial, hurt, grief, I felt them all, in various combinations. I still do, although with less intensity.
Gnats have nothing on me in persistence. I pursued her like an elusive source until her final snub. When she didn't return Aaron's call, announcing the twins' birth, the door in my heart finally slammed shut. I was too mad to try again, replaying in my head her pregnancy with Colin: all the times I held her head over the toilet, brought her ginger ale or peppermint tea, and drove her to doctor appointments because Matthew, then a lowly intern, couldn't leave the hospital.
For six months, maybe more, I had vivid dreams about Lydia at least a few times a week. Not that I clocked much sleep between nighttime feedings and diaper changing. I longed for some closure with Lydia, but not enough to make any more overtures myself.
The Thursday after the bakery encounter, on an otherwise uneventful workday, as I'm rewriting my lead for the third time, the phone rings.
"Claire Newman," I say curtly, anticipating Tim, the annoying editor who has already nagged me twice about a story that is not due until tomorrow morning.
"Claire, it's Lydia. I know you're mad at me but don't hang up, please. Just hear me out, okay?"
Common sense dictates slamming the phone down but, as usual, my curiosity overrides it. "I hate mysteries, Lydia. How could I possibly hang up when the biggest puzzle of my life is about to be solved?"
"Look, I know I owe you an explanation, big time. I promise you'll get it. But, for now, I need your help." She pauses. "I'm in trouble. I know I gave up my right to your friendship years ago. But, in a strange way, you're the only person I can trust now."
"Trouble? What do you mean?" It doesn't really surprise me that Lydia can still push my buttons.
She hesitates again. "It's complicated. And I'd rather tell you in person. Please, Claire, I know I don't deserve it, but give me one more chance. Please. I'm appealing to your big heart." Her tone is soft, placating.
I'm intrigued. For Lydia, this constitutes groveling. To her, a simple request for help, like asking a dinner guest to bring a bottle of wine, is the moral equivalent of panhandling. She's not inclined to admit that she needs help, ever, especially from me, a person she views as not quite as competent as herself, but luckier. Proud and self-contained, she's my polar opposite, which is what drew us together and caused tension in our long friendship.
We were so close as kids, shared so much history, that it hardly mattered to me that, if we met as adults, we'd have practically nothing in common. All our common memories is why I tolerated her inconsiderate behavior for so many years. Losing Lydia would be like losing a chunk of my past.
Sure, she was smart and funny, but so were a lot of women. Yes, I loved going places with her, especially to museums where she'd drag me through obscure exhibits and dazzle me with her commentary. However, I didn't remain loyal to Lydia because of her interesting views on art history or her gracious entertaining, and certainly not for her political views, which grew alarmingly more conservative each year.
Until it actually happened, I never imagined the day would come that we would stop being friends. It was as unthinkable as not inviting my alcoholic uncle to Thanksgiving. So what if he passed out in the bowl of creamed onions before the rolls were served? Family is family.
So, I do exactly what Lydia, who knows me as well as anyone, would predict. "I'll come by Monday on my way to work. I can be late and skip a few of those boring planning meetings," I hear myself say. "See you then." As I hang up, I notice my hands are trembling.
Trembling hands holding the phone, the brand of black-leather wallets in the pockets of the terrorists who blew up the World Trade Center, these are the sorts of details we traffic in at Nationweek, America's second largest newsweekly.
I'm not one of those journalists who regrets not going to law school or medical school, or who dreams about owning a little newspaper in rural Cape Cod, or who wants to quit to drive car pools and be a fulltime PTA volunteer. Which isn't to say I don't occasionally suffer from the usual work-home conflicts, or feel a twinge when our kids sneak downstairs to our nanny's basement bedroom for a good-night hug in the evenings when I'm home from work.
I joined the Nationweek staff twelve years ago as a business writer, single-mindedly devoted to climbing the masthead. Gradually, my priorities changed, an inevitable result of marriage and motherhood. I juggle lots of balls, but I don't want to drop any of them. I've made my uneasy peace with my double life as a journalist and a mom. Some days, I worry over shortchanging my kids; other times, I cut a few corners at work but, on balance, it works out okay. If I ever slow down long enough to take a yoga class, my mantra will be: "Perfection is the enemy of the good enough."
There's no question that my husband, Aaron; Allison, nine; and my four-year-olds, Max and Zach, come first, although I still care how many cover stories I write versus anyone else, whose title comes above mine on the masthead, who's getting a bigger raise. It's mostly residual competitiveness. I've crashed enough cover stories, broken enough news, gotten enough heavy hitters to call me back on deadline to have built up a pretty big account in the goodwill bank, and my editors cut me lots of slack for soccer games and class trips.
And, financially speaking at least, I could quit if I wanted to, although it would put a noticeable dent in our household spending. We tend to value convenience over frugality, as time, not money, is our scarcest commodity. Aaron's a partner at a top patent and copyright law firm that practically prints money, and he spends much of the week trying cases out of town.
I had second thoughts that day about agreeing to Lydia's request. But, like most reporters, I'm a relentless snoop, and Lydia was counting on that. One riddle I never solved is why Lydia bailed on our friendship. It's a phenomenon harder to explain than how my life became the caricature often portrayed in Nationweek and other trendy magazines: the women who complain too much, who have everything they've dreamed of, except the time to enjoy it.
Lydia, despite her degrees in art history, and her long-ago promising career as a museum curator, took a different route after her son Colin was born a dozen years ago. She abandoned her career and wholeheartedly embraced home and hearth. I suspect her change in direction was related somehow to our rift. Anyway, that's one of my many theories on the subject.
More on that later. What I'm trying to explain, or rationalize, is that, at the time, Lydia's phone call seemed like a gift -- one of life's rare opportunities to tie up a loose end. I didn't realize then how one phone call could set in motion a series of events that would eventually transform so many lives, including my own.
Unable to sleep Sunday night, I wander into Allison's bedroom. Surrounded by stuffed animals and Beanie Babies, she's snoring like a barnyard animal, a trait she inherited from Aaron. I pull up her quilt and stroke her thick brown hair. I leave her door open just a crack, the way she likes it. Down the hall, the boys are sprawled in their bunk beds, inert as deflated soccer balls. I kiss the tops of their matching red heads, whose color matches my own.
Without thinking, I touch my forefinger to Max's wrist, then Zachary's. Taking their pulses is a habit that began with nightly forays into Allison's nursery, commando attacks against sudden infant death syndrome. When she turned two, I gave up pulse checking after reading somewhere that premature boys are at the highest risk for SIDS. Comforting news, at least until the twins arrived a month early, weighing barely five pounds each. Until they were eighteen months, I got out of bed two or three times a night to check their pulses and watch their little chests move in and out. I don't share all of my phobias about the children with Aaron -- if he ever turns against me he could have me committed -- but, every so often, when he comes with me to kiss them good night, I catch him looking as I hold their small wrists and silently count. He knows exactly what I'm doing.
The weekend flies by in the normal blur of soccer games, birthday parties, and errands. At odd moments I reflect on Lydia and her mysterious troubles. Divorce, illness, a reversal in Matthew's prosperous neurology practice? Not likely. MRIs certainly weren't getting cheaper, or brain tumors more rare. Or was Lydia's problem more specific to our friendship? Something that only I, in my new role as savior, can fix?
Monday morning, I'm so distracted during the four-mile drive between my house and Lydia's that I barely hear Morning Edition. How is Lydia going to behave? She wouldn't dare act aloof after begging me to come. Or would she? Probably she'll act polite and formal and force me to endure too much small talk before she warms up. I hope she's made coffee. Zach's crisis over his missing lunch box had eclipsed breakfast. Not that I expect Lydia to offer me so much as an English muffin. She has no interest in eating. Caffeine is her primary food group.
I pull into the driveway, behind Lydia's navy blue Volvo, which must have replaced the white station wagon. A few years ago, I stopped driving past their house periodically, finally realizing that turning down their street was unlikely to yield any clues about why Lydia dropped me. Those stealth drives made me feel like a stalker.
I smile, noticing a black Mercedes coupe has been added to their fleet, parked behind Matthew's beloved Porsche. Lydia used to scorn such flagrant displays of materialism, but they must be rolling in it now.
I ring the doorbell. No answer. I ring again and wait a few minutes. No footsteps. I turn the knob. The door's unlocked. Should I just walk in? I weigh the awkwardness of barging in against Lydia's invitation to come over. Should I call her from my cell phone in my purse? What the hell. I turn the knob.
The house is quiet. I'm right on time, but maybe Lydia has overslept or is in the shower. Slowly I take the stairs to her bedroom, noticing no coffee smells emanating from the kitchen. "Lydia," I call tentatively, wondering if she will be offended by my boldness. Maybe I should go back outside and knock harder. Or use my cell. No, I'm already inside. And I'm an invited guest, not a burglar.
Her bedroom door is closed. I open it, gasp, and freeze against the door. I hear a high-pitched shriek and realize it came from me. It takes only a few seconds to achieve full comprehension.
Lydia has an impeccable excuse for not answering the doorbell. She's dead.
Copyright © 2003 by Beth Brophy
A Novel of Suburbia
My Ex-Best Friend
A Novel of Suburbia
But when Claire arrives at Lydia's house, she finds her ex-best friend dead. While all the obvious signs point to suicide, Claire can't shake the feeling there's something very wrong. The irrepressible, feisty Claire starts investigating, and soon the list of suspects includes Lydia's neurologist husband, her psychiatrist neighbor, and even her son's handsome soccer coach. As Claire uncovers the secrets of her friend's past, and their relationship, the puzzle becomes even more complicated, and she finds that she really didn't know Lydia very well at all.
But knowledge comes with a price, and as Claire unravels the mystery of Lydia's death, she puts herself -- and the people she loves -- in harm's way.
Smart and funny, with razor-sharp storytelling, My Ex-Best Friend is the debut of a fresh new voice in contemporary fiction.