Loneliness hung on her shoulders like a heavy shawl, neither burdensome nor comforting, but a constant reminder of her decision to leave. Lillian walked home along the tree-lined street and observed homes lit from within, families on display like life-sized dioramas. Many of the scenes were people on couches, their faces changing color with the reflection of television screens. But one scene gave her pause; a family of five standing in the living room. She realized they were playing instruments as the music floated through an open window and dusted her with diffused camaraderie. Lillian experienced a longing and tried to shake it off as she walked home, but the feeling clung to her.
”Home”, a one-bedroom apartment above the garages behind a stately home suited her well. The stylish apartment seemed perfect for an individual with high standards and a small budget, a place to enjoy her newfound freedom and relish in tranquil solitude. Most days. But tonight Lillian craved something else, some type of disarray. She wished to see evidence that another person shared her life, such as a pair of socks on the floor, dishes in sink, or even a lifted toilet seat would suffice. Instead, everything would be exactly as she had left it that morning, including the light she had the foresight to leave on for herself.
Arriving home, Lillian could not fling off the loneliness the way one could shrug off a shawl. She didn’t get to hang it on a hook behind the door. The feeling enveloped her as she turned on more lights throughout the house and opened windows. Air conditioning wasn’t necessary in the old apartment, due to the close proximity of the Pacific Ocean. She couldn’t see the ocean from her place, such a view would be costly, but the ocean breeze generously wafted through her open windows keeping the place cool in the summer. The crank windows and bench seat had been two features that assured she would sign the lease as soon as it had been offered, but she didn’t find herself sitting there as often as she anticipated.
Instead, her habit to escape loneliness often led her straight to the computer screen immediately after work. She might video call her only son who lived in a college dorm, or play a game of online scrabble with a few witty friends. There were many forms of social media at her finger tips, but they all required looking into a small screen, a screen that had begun to feel like a window into a distant world. Tonight she chose to keep the virtual window closed and enjoy the view of reality instead.
On this evening the window seat looked inviting, and Lillian wanted to step deeper into her loneliness, the way a child will step into dark water to prove they are not afraid. “See, I’m doing it. And I’m not running from it either.” Each confirming dip into the vast lonely water gave her renewed strength afterwards, and each immersion confirmed the feeling would only be temporary. She would not drown in loneliness.
As she told her son during a recent video call, “I’m not afraid to be alone. I’d rather be lonely because I am alone, rather than feel unimportant.”
Her son hated to hear her talk that way, stating if she really felt that unhappy, she should have left years ago instead of waiting for him to go to college. What he didn’t understand was that his presence had made it bearable. After he moved out of the house, the silence in the home had become deafening. Her husband did not put up a big resistance to her leaving, almost as if he considered her a wayward teenager instead of a forty-five year old woman. It seemed he expected her to get her little outburst out of her system and come back with a renewed attitude and the same can-do gumption that he applied to everything except the marriage. Even when he received the papers letting her know the seriousness of the matter, he shook his head at her childishness. He continued to criticize and chastise her decisions that would somehow affect his future. “Book stores are doomed, you’ve said so yourself. I predict you’ll go out of business in one year,” or, “Why would you want to live in that neighborhood? You need to get a better car. Renting an apartment, Lillian? Really?” But the decisions were her own; where to live, where to work, what to do, what to drive, what to think.
Lillian poured herself a glass of water and sat down by the open window. No ocean in sight, but plenty of sky, treetops, and the lovely garden below gave her plenty to take in while she sat with her thoughts. The smell of jasmine mingled with the sea air and drifted up to evoke an olfactory memory without words or images. The memory included a dog’s jangling collar, but then Lillian realized she actually heard a dog. Baron, the border collie companion of Henry, the elderly gentleman landlord from the front house, let out a bark. Lillian stuck her head out of the window to say hello, but it wasn’t Henry in the yard with Baron. Instead, a bearded man threw what looked like a big knotted rope that the dog retrieved after each toss. The man shouted and encouraged Baron with accolades of “Good dog” and “atta-boy” as Lillian sat mesmerized by her unexpected and unaware companionship. The pair seemed tireless and Lillian thought about how Baron wasn’t accustomed to this amount of attention, when the man seemingly reading her thoughts said, “Okay boy, that’s enough for now. Let’s go inside.”
A panic rose up in Lillian that they were leaving too soon, and she stood without thinking and tossed the contents of her glass out the window. “What the – “ she heard from below. Her heart raced as she stood in place, stunned by her own actions. Had she really just thrown water on that man? The sides of her mouth curled up in a devilish grin, but quickly downturned at the pounding sound of someone running up the stairs. Oh, crap. Lillian stood frozen. Should she hide? Rap, rap, rap, he banged on the door, “I know you’re in there. Open the door.” After a brief pause, he added, “You’re not in trouble, I just want to talk to you.”
Lillian stood motionless, eyes locked on the door. What the hell did I just do? Rap, rap, rap. “You better answer. I’m going to tell your mom and Henry if you don’t!”
Lillian laughed, tell my mom? The man seemed decidedly less intimidating at that moment, and clearly a friend of Henry’s. More important was the ludicrous fact that he just threatened to tell her mom. That thought brought a new smile to her face, for she hadn’t heard such a threat in many decades. But her mom, even in her advanced Alzheimer’s state, would not appreciate hearing that her daughter had been throwing water at a stranger. Rap, rap, rap – sounded on the door again and Lillian decided she’d better face the music and attempt to explain her inexplicable actions.
“I’m sorry,” she blurted out as the she simultaneously flung the door open. “I really don’t know what got into me. That was just a spontaneous, absurd, and . . . I don’t even know. I have no explanation.”
The man’s expression morphed from stern to bewildered. He stretched his neck in attempt to see if someone else were actually to blame. He looked back to her face and shook his head slightly. “You’re not what I expected. I thought I’d be yelling at a kid. A boy. Not a woman.”
“I know. Totally juvenile move. I don’t know what came over me, I just flung my water out the window,” Lillian shrugged and held her hands out.
“It was just water?”
“At first I thought someone spit on me.”
“What? Ew, sorry, no. Just water.”
The man continued to stare, perplexed, and then stretched his neck again to see behind her.
“I’m not harboring any fugitives, really. It was me. Completely out of character, but me, nonetheless.”
He looked back to her eyes, seemingly satisfied, nodded and said, “The place looks great.” Registering the confusion on her face, he explained, “I used to live here. I’m Henry’s nephew. This was my home for a while, but it never looked this good when I lived here.”
“You lived here?”
“Yeah. Two years.”
“And you’re a writer?”
“What? No, I mean sort of. But no, no. Why would you ask that? Did Henry say something?”
“There’s a book I found in the bathroom drawer. That Stephen King book on writing. Is that yours?”
“Yeah, well . . . I read everything by Stephen King, but I don’t fancy myself a writer.”
“Oh.” Lillian paused, unsure what to say next but relieved the focus had shifted off away from the water tossing incident. “Do you want it back?”
The man studied her now, blatantly sizing her up and coming to the obvious conclusion that she is older than him. Lillian felt a fresh wave of embarrassment over her water tossing and worried that he might think she meant to flirt with him, but she hadn’t known of his handsomeness when she watched him in the dark.
“I guess so,” he said, “I mean, I didn’t even miss it. I kind of gave up on writing.”
“Oh? That’s a shame.”
“Why would you say that? I might suck for all you know.”
“True, but I just love reading and . . . here. I’ll go get it.”
Lillian went to retrieve the book, thinking she better end or prolong the conversation, but unsure how to do either. But the man took the lead upon her return, “You like to read?”
“Yes, yes I do. I own the book store on Broadway.”
“Oh you bought ‘The Dusty Jacket?’ You’re the new owner that turned it into a new book store?”
“Man, I used to love that place. What’d you do with all the used books?”
“I rented storage space after I took stock of the inventory. I sell those books online now. I wanted to change the retail environment to attract impulse buyers. You know, tourists headed to the beach with a shiny new bestseller in their tote bags. Browsers. So the store is for new books, but more than half of my business is used books, but not the cheap ones. First editions, collectors, you know . . . “ Lillian became conscious that she might be over explaining, unsure about the cocky grin on his face.
“And do your customers know you are the kind of lady that would throw water on a stranger for no reason?”
“No, no, I think they would be quite surprised by that fact. I’m still a little stunned myself.”
He maintained his grin and held out his hand. “Jason. Now we’re not strangers anymore. Hell, we’ve already had a water fight, although decidedly one-sided. Next time I’ll be prepared. Plus we’ve practically co-habitated, if you disregard the limiting factors of time and space. We’ve drank from the same faucet, showered in the same bathroom, even pissed in the same toilet.”
Lillian laughed, unsure how to answer, but his demeanor was so easygoing and playful that it put her at ease. She figured the age difference made it safe to flirt back without worry of intentions, so all in good fun she answered, “Yeah, we’re practically kinfolk.” His beard might have led her to use the country word.
“Kissin’ cousins’,” he joined in with a little twang and a wink. He became decidedly more charming by the second.
“Ah, cousins. That explains why I felt compelled to throw water on you.”
“Oh yeah? Well next time I’ll be ready. I’m going to stock pile water balloons and declare an all-out war.”
Lillian laughed at the thought. Having a water balloon fight with a handsome young man would be the kind of thing to give her ex-husband a heart attack. “I’m in. It will be a full-on war.”
“Will you wear a white t-shirt?”
Lillian frowned, thinking what a flirt. A likable flirt, but still. She decided to play innocent. “You can wear a white t-shirt if you want. I’ll be in a swimsuit.”
He now had a hand on his chest and excitement in his eyes, “This is going to be fun.”
She handed him the book which he took as a sign to say goodbye. “Thanks. I might give this another look. Or I might just stop by the bookstore to get his new book.”
Lillian smiled and said, “It was nice to meet you, Jason.”
“You too, Lillian.” He turned to walk down the stairs. “Goodnight,” he said half way down the steps, and she watched him for a moment before closing the door.
That was weird, she said aloud to the empty room, weird but fun. She felt proud of herself for being willing to step into her loneliness and felt that fate had rewarded her with a friendly exchange with a handsome stranger. Such a charmer. She shook her head thinking he must flirt with every woman he meets, but it had been fun nonetheless and she had felt attractive regardless of the age difference. Her loneliness had temporarily dissipated, and she wore a grin, but then something occurred to her. She hadn’t remembered telling Jason her name, but he used it when he said goodbye.