23 July 2009 | Vol. 9, No. 2
Lillian in White
Lillian calls Roy out of the blue. It had been so long since they'd dated, for him, anyway, that he doesn't recognize the number in his cell phone. But he knows the voice that speaks and is instantly filled with the warm giddiness of promise, the delusional kind in which Lillian has made a terrible mistake and wants him back. He doesn't know if he wants her back, necessarily, but he swings his feet over his bed and pulls on yesterday's socks.
"Roy, I know it's been a long time, but I have a favor to ask you," she says, her voice breaking up as Roy walks around the room, looking for a shirt.
Favor. Shit. He falls back on the bed, suddenly feeling the need for a few hours' more sleep.
"How long has it been, Lillian?" He tries to remember Lillian's specific features, recalls her perky tits.
"Eighteen months, almost. Look, I know this is probably a surprise to hear from me, but I'm not sure where else to turn…"
"Well, with that opening, how could I refuse?" Not promising in the least. He closes his eyes, rubs his temples, wondering what he could possibly offer her. Does she need a band for her wedding? Maybe his band, Fabric Softener, can play the song he wrote for her. Not a marriage proposal, exactly, but a tacit acknowledgment that two years together had been a long time. Maybe she needs some sort of underhanded loan, or, well, Roy is running out of ideas. He's not the go-to guy for many things. But he agrees to meet her, anyway. He rolls over, trying to erase the suddenly perfect image of Lillian in white.
She is not wearing white when they meet, at one of those shitty trendy coffee places near his apartment. He spent twenty minutes going through the few clean shirts in the closet and is wearing a pinstripe v-neck sweater his mother bought him for Christmas last year. Respectable, somewhat. Or something. Perhaps it will distract her eyes from the mustard stain on his jeans.
It is certainly not his dumpster-diving wardrobe that attracted Lillian to him, however. It was his status as the lead singer of Fabric Softener, his creative genius and promise. Or maybe chicks just really dug guys in bands. Lillian was hot, a theater major at one of the local colleges that was friends with a friend of Sam, the bassist. Lillian was hot. But she also was smart and funny like a friend who is a girl, like the fat chick with glasses who secretly has a crush on you and makes you laugh so hard all the time. And sometimes bitchy. But that's girls for you.
But yeah, Lillian left him. It was hard to believe they'd been together two years, long enough for Roy to feel like it was for forever. Long enough to write a song for her, a song the band never got a chance to play because Roy never shared it with them. It lived, in the closet of his heart and scrawled on the back of a grocery list, unbeknownst to anyone else.
Lillian has a cup of tea. Roy wonders if she quit drinking coffee. He orders a cup, black, and they take a table by the window. The round table is so small his knees brush against hers and he inhales her familiar scent.
"You look good, Roy." She smiles that little smile of hers and Roy feels like something is squeezing meanly in his chest.
He cried—yes, he'll admit it—cried when Lillian left. It was in a coffee shop much like this one, when she dumped him, a Sunday morning after a party at somebody's studio apartment with no place to sit. Why he has agreed to come here today, when his life was pretty good, manageable, he does not know.
"I quit smoking," he answers although, in his opinion, that has made him look worse. Ten pounds worse.
"Congratulations," she answers, and there is a hollow between them that is tepidly filled by the percolation of coffee and people.
"So," he says after a drag on an imaginary Marlboro. "What's up?"
"I'm pregnant," she says simply, directly. It is more her style, a style he always appreciated. Not like the girls he dates now, who break up with him over text message.
It is not his, certainly, but he still imagines the zygote in her belly with his chin and her eyes. An Ava Gardner–Frank Sinatra kind of breeding. Not Kurt and Courtney. He imagines steering her into taxicabs, doctor's offices, on and off his thrift-store couch, delicately and inexpertly like a wheelbarrow. He sees watching An American in Paris on Netflix together while she snacks on Buffalo wings and Peppermint Patties. He sees empty glass jars of baby food, lined and stacked on his counter by Lillian's precise hands, ready to be taken to the recycling bin in the lobby of his apartment building. But if not his, than whose? And why him, why now?
"I don't want it," she adds, unplugging the drain in the sink of his imagination. "He dumped me, Richard. It was an accident. He doesn't know… I wouldn't try to use that to get him back. I don't think either of us is ready to be a parent."
"So you call a guy you haven't talked to in, you say, eighteen months?" If he didn't have this squeeze in his heart, maybe his groin, he would have gotten up and left two seconds ago.
"I'm sorry, Roy." She touches his hand across the table. He wants to pull his hand back, to apprise her that her charm will not work on him, but he leaves it. "I don't know who else to turn to."
"Are you kidding?" He sits back in his chair. Lillian, with her legion of friends and admirers. Lillian could not go anywhere in the city and not run into someone, people standing like crochet pegs as she bounced through her days.
"Well, I don't want anybody to know, my friends in New York. They didn't like him that much and were pretty fed up… it would be the icing on the cake." She twirls her cup slowly in her hands. "And here, God, I don't know anybody anymore. I just wanted somebody to go with me… I'll need somebody to drive me home. I made an appointment way down in Charlotte."
That much made sense. Lillian's father was a congressional senator, a morally bombastic one who was frequently in the media, waving his finger at the perceived indiscretions of the constituents who did not vote for him. Doing these things as far from his district as possible made sense. Roy remembers all too well the night she drank too much gin with Valium and wound up in the papers.
"I'm not sure whether I should be flattered or mad," Roy answers. She has long since let go of his hand. He wishes she would take it again.
"Be flattered, Roy. You were always a good guy. You still are—you came here, didn't you?"
"I'm not the kind of guy who lets himself be taken advantage of," he says.
"You never were, Roy. Besides, when you do things, you do them because you want to, not because somebody forced you."
Roy hated it when she broke out the Ayn Rand shit when they were dating, although he has come to appreciate, in a semi-adult way, the liberating feeling of taking responsibility for one's actions.
"I'll pay you," she adds, smiling.
"I've never taken your money," he points out. Although that is a little white lie—there were certainly many months when her family's money supported the band tours through the mid-Atlantic region, the rent on their one-bedroom uptown, when Lillian decided to pursue her career in theater full-time without the distraction of a shit job. He never objected to a new pack of cigarettes or a fresh round of drinks at Chez Charlie.
"Well, for taking a day off work. I mean, you work? Or maybe you're full time with the band now?"
"I work, but I have vacation days." That was true, although not many, and he neglected to tell her that Fabric Softener had taken a hiatus, although she probably already knew, if she ever hung out at the old places now. After they broke up, he had taken to drinking at different bars until he could not remember when they had been different. "So, when do I need to take off?"
"Thanks, Roy." She smiled that smile of hers, the smile on which a thousand cities could run. Or maybe it was just the years of government-sponsored dentistry. It squeezed on everything in his body until he got up, feigning the need to use the bathroom.
When Lillian had left him, it had been a surprise. Not that they were living in domesticated bliss, but they were every hipster’s daydream. At least his. A large circle of creative, slightly alcoholic friends wove them together, and they were the center square of the quilt. In fact, their life seemed so seamless that Roy never saw the unraveling coming. Sure, he lived like a pig, but Lillian's borderline obsessive-compulsiveness kept their apartment and their appointments in reasonably good shape. Lillian had a flair for the dramatic, but hell, she was theater major. Roy had a smallish circle of groupies that came to shows, but he only made out with a few, and always had an alibi.
But Lillian met some guy, Richard, who rolled into town on the experimental theater circuit. Roy should have seen that coming. After all, wasn't it himself for whom she left Patrick, her boyfriend since junior year of college? The guys in the band told him not to worry; no reason to settle in one's twenties. And Roy assured them he wasn't. And he hadn't had a relationship since Lillian, only a bunch of girls in careless ways. But it wasn't because he didn't want a relationship. He just didn't want anybody else but Lillian.
Lillian left with Richard for New York and, with a sudden hole in the middle, their quilt of friends unfurled into more of a scarf, with Roy running into them ever so often, depending on where they were on the scarf and how it was wrapped around the neck. His apartment became a pigsty. On holidays, his mother felt bad for him and let him run a few loads of laundry at the house. The drummer's sister needed somebody to work at the copy center, where she was a manager. When she left a year later on a Peace Corps stint, he took her place. At night, he didn't think about chords, about the puke/beer stained rugs backstage of the closet-sized clubs where Fabric Softener played. He thought about getting a raise, about how to get toothpaste stains off his tie.
The morning of the trip, Lillian shows up while Roy is in the shower. She is early; he is running late, as usual.
"I've was waiting out there for ten minutes." She inches past him into his apartment, with a bag of croissants and coffee. Lillian never ate donuts. "I thought you were pissing out on me."
"Hey, I'm doing you a favor," he reminds her as he towel dries his hair. "Can you be a little nicer?"
"I'm sorry." She plops down on his kitchen chair. "I'm a little stressed."
He pats her shoulder and tries to eat a croissant while pulling a t-shirt over his head. When his head reemerges from the shirt she is looking at him but he cannot read her. He knows that, whatever this is, he cannot screw it up.
"Want me to drive down?" he offers. She extends the keys to him, and they are off, through the city. She comments on different restaurants that have popped up, asking him his suggestions, and he wonders if she knows he can't afford to eat out but is asking anyway, carelessly, to make conversation, or trying to find out whether his life is in better shape, at least on paper. When the buildings disappear, replaced by trees and highway, she looks for a radio station, bemoaning the lack of good alternative radio stations, at least compared with New York.
"So why did you move back?" He interrupts her torrent.
"Well, I was offered a job at Backstage," she answers.
"Some sort of associate actor thing?"
"No—public relations. I haven't been doing a lot of acting lately. I was in the graduate program at Columbia, but I took some time off."
"Why? You always talked about Columbia."
"I just… was emotionally wiped out, you know? Depression. I think it must be genetic. My mother suffered through depression through most of my teens."
"What about him?"
"Richard? He just wasn't very supportive—said I was being dramatic. He was in the middle of a run of this one-man show he developed, so he was really busy."
"Do you think you were being dramatic?"
"What kind of question is that?"
"I don't know; you were a little dramatic when we were together, but you also weren't depressed."
"I don't know. I was depressed, and I needed a little support. I mean, I know it was a tough time for both of us, but I would have been there for him. I mean, I was there for you, you know? Like when your father died?"
"You were," Roy agrees. Lillian had written all of his thank you notes to various relatives, gotten his suit dry cleaned, made him mac ’n’ cheese for a week. "So are you like, depressed now?"
"I'm on medication. I mean, I'm okay. It's just this… starting over and discovering this."
"How far along are you?"
"Is that safe?"
"Yeah. It's totally safe. I was just worried about being woozy driving home."
"So you don't hang with anybody down here these days?"
"Well, it's mostly a new gang at Backstage, and everybody we seemed to hang out with seems to have moved on as well."
"So I was your last hope, huh? How did you find me?"
"The phone book."
"Were you surprised that I was still in town?"
"No." She laughs shortly, but good-naturedly. "Remember in The Outsiders where Ponyboy talks about people who go and people who stay? You're somebody who stays."
"The Outsiders—you know guys don't read that kind of adolescent garbage."
"Oh, that's right; guys don't read. At least you never did."
"Nope—not even instructions. You think I learned to play guitar by reading a book?"
“Well, you were just such a prodigy. How is the band, anyway?"
"Really?!? Wow, times have changed. But do people?"
"I'm the manager at Carbon Copy. I get pretty good benefits and stuff. And I've learned a fuck ton about computers. I'm thinking about taking some classes and stuff."
"Well, you go, Roy Johnson You prove them wrong." She goes back to fiddling with stations on the radio.
At the clinic, Lillian is immediately given an ultrasound and blood test. Then they wait in the reception area. She informed him in the car that it could take up to four hours, the waiting and the procedure. Roy, not a reader, packed food to help him pass the time. He munches on Doritos discreetly while Lillian, unable to read, flips through a baby magazine. Roy is amused, or maybe surprised, that there would be baby magazines in the waiting room of an abortion clinic. Maybe they are there for the indecisive girl, the kind known to turn tail at the last minute. They are not there for Lillian. Lillian is as stubborn as she is anal, characteristics completely unattractive in most people, in Roy's mind, but damn sexy in Lillian. In fact, he has already, shamefully, thought of having her in the little bathroom to the right of the reception area, desires he quells by staring at the oversized baby faces on the magazine covers, faces like moon pies.
"I don't mean to be rude, but the Doritos and Mountain Dew are making me sick," Lillian says, and Roy knows she means business, because she's never been so nice and polite in her requests. He stuffs everything under his seat, where he will forget it later, and looks around the waiting room at the other girls, heavy with pregnancy. They assume, probably, that he is Lillian's boyfriend, a misconception he wears with pride and shame. Stone throwers, Roy thinks of his imaginary critics.
"I really appreciate you taking me down here today, Roy. I mean, you had no reason to," Lillian says.
"I wanted to," Roy assures her. "I only do things I want to do."
"You were always a good boyfriend, Roy. Even if I wasn't always a good girlfriend."
"Hey—we're not going to get into this blame bullshit now." He takes her hand. "Are you okay still?"
"I'm scared. But maybe it’ll be like getting a cavity filled or something."
Roy can't imagine it being like a cavity getting filled, but he doesn't say anything. He's not sure what he'd be feeling right now if he were Lillian.
"Guys definitely have it easier," he replies vaguely. "I'm sorry you have to go through this. And the only person you have to go through it with is me, which sucks."
"Roy, you're silly," she laughs. "I miss your brand of silly."
Roy is happy he is not screwing this up, although it's become bigger than a second chance. It's become a moon pie in Lillian's stomach. He wants to name it. He wants it to look like the one on the cover of BabyLife June 2005, in the little dress with lollipops. He is surprised he wants a girl, a little Loretta Lynn and not a Johnny Cash. This sudden epiphany makes him squeeze Lillian's hand harder, as if he could transmit his thoughts down his arm and up into her body, that maybe she is the type to turn tail, that people do change.
"Ms. Finch." A nurse appears in the doorway. "We're ready for you."
"Are you sure you want to do this?" He stands up with her. "I… I'll help you. If you decided, you know, to keep it."
She shakes her head wildly, tears forming in her eyes. He is not sure if what he said was wrong or if it's the whole gravity of everything but he decides on the everything part because she walks past him toward the nurse, leaving him alone with his Doritos and baby magazines.
A few hours later, Roy is led into a small recovery room. There, barely displacing the sheet, is Lillian's body, hidden under white. He helps her out of bed as she grabs her clothes and disappears into the bathroom. Roy catches a glimpse of her ass, but it is just a lump of skin sticking out, like a pimple. He wonders if she had ever done this to his baby, without his knowledge. He wonders about the many things Lillian has kept from him, not that it matters now. He thinks. All he knows is that he can't wait to get out of this place, a place where things are sucked out of you and discarded.
"Can I have some of your Mountain Dew?" Lillian asks, once they are on the interstate.
"Shit. I left it at the clinic," he answers, eying the road signs. "I can stop somewhere and get you something."
"Sounds good. I'm hungry." She leans her head back against the headrest. He steals glances of her profile, her small nose and dark hair and carefully plucked eyebrows.
"So… do you want to talk?" he asks carefully.
"You mean about it? It didn't hurt as much as I thought. But I'm going to need to change the pads a few times on the way home, I'm just warning you."
"But what about… it?"
"You mean the baby? I feel terrible. But it's done. I don't want to think about it. Please. I can’t."
He wonders if she remembers his offer back at the clinic, if she realizes he really meant it. He tries to remember how it was when they were dating. Lillian had her future planned out carefully; it certainly didn't include children, at least not in the immediate future. But it never really included him, either. The few times he brought it up, like now, she didn't want to think about it.
"I miss him so much," she blurts out suddenly, and at first Roy thinks she's talking about the baby but realizes she means Richard. "God, I did so much for him. And then, then when I need him, just for a little while, he can't fucking deal. God, I didn't deserve that."
Roy rockets into the next available rest stop. Lillian stays in the car, still gulping and gasping and holding her shoulders when he returns with some value meals and shakes. He wants to tell her where to stick it, that the bastard wasn't even here, didn't even know she was in the parking lot of a fucking McDonald's with a Maxi pad between her legs. Instead he reaches over and hugs her.
"Don't cry," he repeats over and over. "Everything's going to turn out okay. You'll find somebody better."
"You don't understand." She disentangles herself from him. "You just don't understand."
"Oh, I fucking understand." He opens his visor and lets his emergency cigarette fall into his lap. "I fucking understand all too well, being dumped. Don’t even go there. And I don't want to hear about the bastard for the rest of the way home, you got it?"
She stands up and gets out of the car, disappearing into the restaurant. He wonders if he should go after her or wait for her or if he should just drive away. The digital sounds of the Ramones come from the passenger seat floor, and Roy realizes Lillian has left her phone, that it's ringing Ramones. He picks it up and looks at the caller ID. RICHARD H. Roy clicks "answer" and listens to Richard's disembodied voice fill the car before he clicks "hang up" and then powers it off. Lillian reappears from the restaurant and gingerly gets back in.
"Sorry, Roy." She looks over at him. "My pad was full."
He gives her a hamburger from the bag in silence and lights up his emergency cigarette, not watching her eat.
"I'm sorry." She touches his arm. "I didn't mean to make you smoke. I'm so sorry about dragging you into this. I just… I don't know. I'm so stupid."
"Did you grade any of the graffiti in the bathroom?" He asks after awhile. It was something that he always laughed about, that she was such a stickler for grammar. In all the clubs they'd frequent, or restaurants, Lillian would always report back what graffiti was in the stalls and the letter grade she'd written on each with the permanent marker she kept in her purse.
"No… wow, I'd completely forgotten about that," she laughs.
"You mean New York has been adrift without your grammatical direction all this time?"
"Ha… well, I can't say I brought any direction to New York… or New York to me. You know, I really do think it's great that you're the manager of the Carbon Copy and that you're taking classes and stuff. Even your apartment seemed a little neater."
"Not really," he laughs, throwing it into gear and navigating them back on the interstate. "I just straightened up a little bit because you were coming."
"Really? Well, you were always honest to a fault. Look, I'm sorry for what happened back there in the parking lot. I'm just all hormones and stress."
They lapse into silence for several miles. Roy wants to ask so many questions, have so many blanks filled between the time she moved herself and her things out of his life, things he doesn't want to hear. The life she thought she had but now doesn't, the life she will have, whether he will be in it. Lillian is content to play with the tuner knob on his radio, talk about the upcoming production at Backstage, an Edward Albee play. She would have been perfect as the young woman, she muses, Woman Number One, the naive and brassy dame who thought she knew everything.
"Would you have… would we… have had kids?" He hears himself asking. He can't let it go. He wants to know fully what he has lost. He's too scared to know what he will or will not gain.
"I don't know, Roy. We were so young… we're still so young. That seemed so far off. With Richard, too. A baby wasn't—isn't—in my plans. Why? Are you thinking about becoming a father?"
"Don't know." He wishes he hadn't already used up his emergency cigarette. "Maybe. Eventually."
"Well, you've become quite the grownup. I mean that in a good way, of course."
"Now that you're back in town… do you want to hang out a little? Have dinner sometime? We always had fun, you know. We could have some fun."
"Yeah, that would be nice. It'd be nice not to feel so lonely in my hometown."
Roy imagines a few weeks of dinners, drinks, maybe a movie. And of course he'd come to see the play, imagine her as Woman Number One, tell her she would have been much better than that actress fresh from the drama school at Yale. Maybe one night he'd invite her to the place for takeout Thai, and they could curl up on his couch and watch old movies. Maybe it would get late, and he'd say, just spend the night. I learned how to make pancakes.
He looks over at her, but she is not looking at him. She is looking for something, reaching under the seat and feeling around. Her phone. She finds it, in the console between their seats and looks at it.
"Shit, I think my battery died." She presses a few buttons, and the phone lights up back to life.
"Richard called," he says, and he can feel a shift in her body, as if a whip has coiled through it.
"Richard? How… do you know?"
"Your phone was ringing when you were in the bathroom."
"And you answered it?"
"No. I turned it off."
"Oh." She looks at the phone, running her fingers over the buttons.
"You can call him if you want."
"No—I would never do that. Besides, I don't want to talk to him… right now."
They drive the rest of the trip home in near silence. They make one more stop at a gas station so that Lillian can change her pad, and Roy buys a pack of cigarettes in the little store attached. Roy can't wait to get home, lie in bed in his boxers, and have a cigarette. Then he'll noodle on the guitar. He's had some ideas for a solo project he put off. Now maybe is a good time to start it.
"So, thanks." Lillian squeezes his shoulder when they pull up to his apartment building. "I can't begin to tell you how much I owe you. And I'll pay you back, Roy. I mean it."
"You sure you don't want to come up?" He leans over, catching her eyes. "I can make you something to eat. Watch a movie."
"No… I really just want to crawl into bed. But maybe we can grab a bite in the next few days, when I'm feeling better?"
Roy draws her face to his with his hand and kisses her. She does not open her lips, stroking his face lightly when he pulls away.
"I'm not really in a good place right now, Roy. For anything. But I really appreciate a good friend."
"Sure," he smiles, feeling a familiar squeezing. It is a feeling he has felt too rarely in the last year and a half, too much in the past week. He stands by the driver-side door as she comes around. She kisses him on the cheek and slides into the warm dark womb, adjusting the seat.
"I'll call you," she says, pulling the door closer to her. "You're awesome, Roy. You always were."
She idles while he lets himself in. Roy runs up the stairs and to the apartment, not turning on the lights and approaching the window. He can see her adjusting her mirrors, cell phone cradled between her cheek and her shoulder. He stares at his phone in the darkness, wondering if she's changed her mind, if she's forgotten something, but it doesn't ring. From the window, however, he sees her talking, her car sliding neatly into traffic, as if it had always been a part of its unending motion.
About the author:
Jen Michalski's collection of short fiction, Close Encounters, is available from So New Media. Her work has been published widely, including McSweeney's Internet Tendency, failbetter, storySouth, Gargoyle, the MacGuffin, the Potomac Review, Pindeldyboz, and others. She is the editor of the journal jmww.