A short story, originally published in The Junction
Lidia stopped to take in the orange and teal of the rising dawn. As she walked, she heard the morning birdsong and the discordant honking of geese penetrating the silence of the world. As she was about to cross the street, she noticed the street lights were still on. They sparkled a silvery light against the bluing sky. The cool December wind bit at her face as she walked to the sparsely populated bus stop. She found her usual spot to stand and wait for her chariot to arrive.
Others came. Some ran as they saw the bus approaching. It made a great big swooshing sounds as its brakes restrained its wheels and brought its steel body to a forceful stop. The doors opened. There was always one or two people like Lidia who said good morning to the bus driver. He would only nod in return. The stops were the only time he could drink his coffee.
Twenty minutes and several stops later, Lidia stepped onto the grey salty sidewalks. Men stood in the nearby square. Day workers. Where did they come from? Central America? Mexico? Would their children have better lives? She wondered what their stories were and worried about their families. She wished the best for them.
She thought about her own children and wished they had had better lives. There was no American dream for them. At Michael’s funeral, his coffin was draped in the flag. That was not the American dream she had envisioned for him. She was sorry from the moment he enlisted. Why did Emil think it was a good idea for their son to go to war? Well, he couldn’t have known what kind of war it would be.
She walked down the alley. Two dumpsters flanked the employee’s entrance. That wasn’t where the doctors and nurses entered. They enter through the front door. Lidia entered from the back. The steam from the basement laundry flowed out of the vents. She walked down the rubber covered steps to the locker room that smelled of bleach and lemons. There she took off her coat and changed her shoes. She put her things away in the tall green locker that was first assigned to her five years earlier.
After straightening out her uniform, she went to the linen room and grabbed her cart and stocked it with towels and sheets, trash bags, tissues, and mouthwash. She pushed it to the elevator and her transformation was complete. Now she was invisible. She’d be invisible for most of her eight hour shift.
The breakfast carts were making their way down the hall. She began with the empty rooms. Patients left their beds messy. Some had gone home, others were out of their rooms getting tests or surgery. Maybe a few had died. She never knew what happened to the people who lay in the beds she made every day.
On the fourth floor she found a few smiles from the nurses at their station. She smiled and said good morning. Lidia still had an accent and sometimes people would ask if she was Russian. They didn’t understand what an insult that was. She’d just smile and say, “no, Polish.” Other times, she’d say, “no Polish, much better” and smile. People seemed to like it when she said that. Americans didn’t like Russians either.
When she entered room 412, she saw a nice older man sitting in a chair drinking coffee. He was familiar, like someone she’d known all her life.
“Good morning. Why you look too healthy to be here.” She often said these words to the patients to make them feel better, but he really didn’t look like he belonged there.
“I am healthy and I plan on staying that way.” He smiled at her.
“Well, I bet you will then. Now I make your bed.” Lidia said flashing another smile at him. Although they knew one another, they never acknowledged their relationship.
“Thank you.” He answered. His voice had a timbre that echoed inside her.
Lidia could feel his eyes on her as she worked. She felt her cheeks flush. It had been a long time since they had done that. It had been ages since she felt the gaze of a man on her.
As she smoothed the sheets, she prayed for him. Then she heard him say. “It’s my birthday today and here I am in the hospital.”
“Well, I guess I know what your birthday wish is.” She smiled as she looked into the greenest part of his eyes.
“Actually, that wish has already come true. I’m cancer free and they’re letting me go home this afternoon. I’m just waiting for my son to pick me up.”
“Oh, I’m happy for you sir. I bet your son is happy that you’re doing so well.”
“Yes. Well, I hope he is.” He laughed, “he’s doing so well himself, I’m sure he’s hasn’t been giving too much thought to the fact I’m delaying his inheritance.”
“Oh, now, what could ever make anyone as happy as family? I’m sure money never could.”
“No money never can replace family. Do you have children? I’m sorry, I can’t read your name tag.”
“My name is Lidia. Yes. I had three sons.”
“Had? Please don’t tell me you lost them.”
“Yes. My son Michael was in the Marines. I lost him eight years ago. He was all set to go to college, but he became a Marine instead. I know he regretted that decision. He told me so the last time I saw him. Now he’s buried in Arlington National Cemetery and it’s too far for me to visit him.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Was he in Afghanistan or Iraq?”
“Both. First it was Iraq and then transferred to Afghanistan and that was where he died. They said he was a hero, but to me — you know, he was just gone.”
“War is so senseless.” The man dug deeper, “What happened to your other children?”
“Well, they’re not happy stories. My son Peter was killed in a car accident. My youngest boy Richard was driving. They had been out drinking. It was a couple of weeks after Michael’s funeral. They took his death very hard. They put Richard in prison for the accident. I’m going to visit him after work today.”
“You and your husband must wish Michael had never even heard of the Marines.”
“Yes. I wish Michael had never joined. I’d have all my boys with me today if he hadn’t. My husband wanted him to join. We were immigrants. He was so proud to be an American. Our families fled communism in Poland when we were kids.”
“Communism was nothing like Marx dreamed it would be.”
“I don’t know what the dream was. The reality was a nightmare. I remember just a little but I remember all the horrible stories my parents told. My husband was older, he remembered more.” She looked at him and smiled. “What about your children? Are they happy?”
“Yes. My three sons are doing well. They are married. I have three grandchildren with a fourth on the way.”
“That’s wonderful. I would have liked to have seen my sons married with children of their own. I would have loved to take care of my grandkids. But I have my work to keep me busy, and I have my church.”
“I wish your Michael had never joined the Marines.” Lidia looked up at him and saw how much he was sharing her sorrow.
“I wish he had never joined too. He was a good man. He wanted to change the world.”
“Lidia, with all my heart I wish you had your sons with you today and that you saw them married with children of their own.”
“Thank you sir, that’s kind of you.” Lidia felt her eyes growing dewy. “Now I have made your bed and you can lie in it whenever you want. ” She laughed and added, “Have a good day.”
“Thank you, Lidia. God be with you.”
“May he be with you too.” No one at the hospital had ever spoken to her like that. Lidia felt a smile grow inside her that was fighting with the tears she wanted to let fall. Speaking to him made her feel as though she had swallowed light like she tried to do when she was a little girl.
Lidia felt her cheeks flush again as she rolled her cart down the hallway to her next room. No one at the hospital knew her story. No one ever asked. She carried her sons in her heart every moment of every day. The joy of their first steps and their first words. The way they helped each other learn. Michael encouraged both of his brothers to walk and then to run. He pretended to read to them before he could read himself. Peter and Richard worshiped him.
They never fought. They teased each other and played tricks. The house roared with their laughter every waking moment. Emil used to beam with pride at his beautiful strong sons. Oh Emil, Lidia smiled and sighed when she thought of her wonderful husband. The best man on the earth. Their families were best friends. When he was 18, she was only 6, she told everyone she would marry him when she grew up. It surprised no one when she did. No woman had a chance with him, Lidia’s adoration had cast an unbreakable spell over him and he had to wait for her.
She made beds. Emptied trash cans and changed the towels. The day went by quickly. When her shift was over, Lidia returned to the locker room and gathered her bag and coat. She walked to the bus stop and boarded the 303 only to doze off to the rhythmic rattle of the ride. She woke up one stop before the prison.
Lidia had to walk through the parking lot to reach the visitor’s entrance. There was another woman walking in the same direction a short distance ahead of her. She had a small boy in tow. He was pushing his mother’s hand away when she tried to hold it. He was saying he would tell his father everything, whatever that was. Lidia felt sad for him. No child should have to see their father in prison.
After she passed through security, she got in line with other visitors. When it was her turn, she told the guard she was there to see Richard Nowicki.
“How do you spell that?” The uniformed officer asked looking at his computer screen.
“Write that down for me.” He said handing her a piece of paper. Lidia complied and handed him the paper with his name written in bold capital letters.
“No. No one here by that name.”
“What do you mean? My son has been here for almost seven years. Has he been released? Why didn’t he tell me?”
“No, Mam, there’s no one by that name in the system. There’s never been a Richard Nowicki here or in any other prison in the state. I double-checked.”
“But I saw him here two weeks ago.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. He’s not in my computer. He’s not here. You can’t visit him.”
“You people can’t make my son just disappear.”
“Keep it down. You’re confused. I can’t help that. You should go now. Call his lawyer. I can’t help you. He’s not in the system.”
“I’ll go. I will contact his lawyer and find out what’s going on.”
“You do that, lady. Have a good day.” The man spoke without looking at her and Lidia was surprised by how much she wanted to smack his face and the bureaucracy that put him there.
Lidia did not understand what had happened to her son. Was he there but erased from the computer? Were they covering something up? As she walked through the parking lot, the guard’s words echoed in her mind and she nearly lost her balance. When she got to the bus stop, she was grateful for the waiting bench.
When the bus finally arrived, she got on and stared out the window and watched the world pass by. It was all a blur. No one else cared about her son. She would find him. Then she realized that by the time she got home and found the lawyer’s phone number, it would be too late to call and she began to sob.
When she got off the bus, Lidia felt a pain in her chest, it spread to her arms and her legs. One moment she felt a well of tears rising, the next, she felt numb. She had been walking for 15 minutes but her apartment was still 3 blocks away. She prayed. It was all she had left. But when she thought about how god had taken all of her sons from her, she got angry and wondered why she believed in the church. Wasn’t it just something her parents did to rebel against communism? What reason did she have now? God had betrayed her. He was treating her as cruelly as he treated Job.
When she reached her building, she searched her purse for her keys. When she pulled them out, they looked odd. There was a key fob with Ford written on it. Were they her keys? How could she have gotten someone else’s keys? None of the keys worked on the front door. Fortunately a neighbor came out, and she could get through the front door. Then she found that none of her keys worked on her apartment door either. They weren’t her keys.
Lidia decided she would go back to the hospital to see if her keys were in the lost and found. As she walked to the bus stop, she heard a phone ringing. The ringing was coming from her bag. But she didn’t have a cell phone. She looked at the bag as if it was something foreign and reached in and found a phone with an Apple logo. She pulled it out and looked at it. The screen said “Answer” and “Decline.” She pushed the green answer button.
“Mom? Is that you?” A woman asked.
“No. I think I must have picked up the wrong handbag. I need my bag. Who is this?” Lidia wondered if the woman could help her get her bag and her keys.
“This is Maggie. Mom, the kids are upset you weren’t there to pick them up at the bus stop. Then they went home and found you weren’t there either. They went to the neighbors to call me. Where are you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. This is Lidia Nowicki. Who is this? Who are you looking for?”
“This is Maggie Nowicki. Lidia — what’s wrong? Are you okay? I called Michael, and he’s worried about you. Where are you? I’ll come and get you.”
“What do you mean you called Michael? My son Michael is dead.”
“Lidia. Where are you? Let me come get you. Please, please trust me. You’re confused.”
“I went to his funeral. I’m not confused. How could I forget the funeral of my oldest son? I don’t know who you are or what kind of cruel game you’re playing.”
“Where are you? We’re all worried about you. Your grandkids especially.”
“I don’t know who you are. There’s some kind of mix up. I think I have the wrong handbag. My keys didn’t work and I don’t have a phone.”
“Please, let me come get you and we can work this all out.”
Lidia didn’t know what else to do, so she told the woman where she was. At first, she wasn’t sure if she would stay and wait for her, or if she’d get on the bus and go back to the hospital to find her bag. Then she thought about it. It was horrible that someone would pretend to be the wife of her dead son. She wanted to meet this woman so she could report her to the police.
She waited at the bus stop and when the bus came, she stayed there and continued waiting to meet the horrible lying woman. After twenty minutes, a blue minivan pulled over. A dark haired woman in her 30’s pulled over.
She looked at the woman and still had no idea who she was. A window in the back of the car opened and three kids called out to her, “Grandma!”
Lidia sat there confused. Did they want her meager savings? What kind of con game was this?
“I can’t park here at the bus stop, do you want to get in the car or do you want me to park down the road?”
Lidia looked at the woman who called herself Maggie Nowicki. She looked like a nice person. The kids looked like good kids. She wasn’t sure why they were calling her grandma. Were they in on it too? She decided to get in the car because she didn’t know what else to do. Besides, the woman said her son was alive. She wanted to see him again.
“Grandma, we were worried about you. Are you okay?”
“Yes. I’m fine, kids.” She looked at the two boys and the girl. They looked like they could be her grandkids. She saw familiar features, the family nose, Emil’s chin was clearly being worn by the younger boy. “I had a bad dream that seemed very real.”
“How about we pick up some pizza on the way home?” Maggie asked, looking in the car’s rear view mirror at her brood.
The children squealed with pleasure. The woman place a call on the phone through her car’s speakers. Lidia had seen people doing that on television, but never in real life.
As they traveled, Lidia looked out the window and thought about her life. She thought about her little apartment and visiting Richard in prison. She enjoyed her work at the hospital and Sundays at church. Was that all a dream? Why was the dream so vivid and why did these people think they were all related? It seemed less likely that this was a game or a scheme of some kind because the kids believed she was their grandmother. And, wasn’t this what she had always wanted? Her life had changed in a flash. Was it that man’s wish for her? Did it come true?
After a few minutes of silence, the woman asked, “Are you feeling any better, Lidia?”
“I had such a dream, Maggie. It was so real. I don’t know how I got so mixed up. I have a terrible headache.”
“You’ll feel better when we get home. If you want, I can take you to the doctor’s office tomorrow.”
“That’s very kind of you. Let’s see. Maybe by tomorrow I will be all better.”
When they got to the woman’s house with the pizza they picked up along the way, she set up dinner for the children in the kitchen. Then she suggested that Lidia might want to go to home and relax until Michael came home for dinner. Lidia hid her confusion as best as she could and said she wanted to sit with her grandchildren for a little while. It took only a few minutes to discover their names. The oldest boy was named Michael after her son, the youngest boy was Emil after her husband. The girl was named Lidia after her. Sitting there with them made her want to cry. She was certain it was a dream and soon she’d wake up and lose them just the way she lost her sons.
Lidia wanted to be with the kids and she wanted to go home and collect her thoughts, but she didn’t know where her home was. When the kids were finished with their dinner, the boys raced into the living room and little Lidia followed. She had her mother’s dark hair, but she had her grandmother’s blue eyes. They were exactly the same pale blue-gray as her own.
Lidia followed the children. Little Michael had turned on a cartoon. She sat on the sofa and then she heard the woman’s voice in the kitchen.
“Yes. We’re home and everything’s fine. But Michael, I’m worried about her.” There was a pause, then she said, “I don’t know, another dream, you were dead this time. She said she went to your funeral.” After another pause she heard, “I don’t know if she needs to be in a nursing home, probably not. Yes, I hope not too.”
After hearing that, Lidia realized she wanted to stay with her new family. A nursing home would be like a prison and she was perfectly fine. She was just confused. It was her world that had changed, not her. No one would ever believe her if she tried to explain.
She asked little Lidia to walk her home. The girl was probably five years old. She put her little hand in her hand and walked her down the stairs to the basement, and through the room where there was a ping pong table and a washer and dryer, then back up another set of stairs and a door that led to another half of the house. It was a “Mother/daughter house” she realized. She had her own living room and kitchen. Up the stairs she must have her own bedroom.
“Here you are, Grandma.”
“Thank you, Lidia. Do you think I have a cookie for you in the kitchen?”
“Yes.” The little girl flashed a full face smile and giggled.
“Why don’t you go look?” Lidia smiled and felt her heart bursting. She had a family. She lived with her family.
“I found a cookie, Grandma.” Lidia shouted from the kitchen.
“I hope there are two more for your brothers.”
“Okay, you can take them home and eat them all together.”
The little girl smiled with the cookies in her hand and opened the basement door to go back to her brothers and the cartoons.
Lidia decided to keep telling them she had a bad dream and all day she couldn’t shake it. It had been so real. It must have been because the doctor gave her some sleeping pills to try.
Lidia didn’t know how much time she had before Michael would come home. She wanted to see him more than anything. She wanted not to cry when he said hello. But crying is exactly what she wanted to do. She was grateful. He heart was bursting with joy. Her sons were alive and free! She had grandchildren! No longer would she spend day after day alone in her invisible life.
She looked around for clues about her life. Lidia found papers and photographs. She wished she kept a journal, but if she did, it was hidden too well. She found a calendar that had birthdays and anniversaries written on it. That seemed like a good start. She tried to memorize the anniversaries of her sons and her grandkid’s birthdays. She wondered what Peter and Richard were doing and where they were living. Oh, her living sons! She smiled and did a little twirl of a dance. Then she heard a car pull into the driveway. It was Michael.
Lidia looked at her son through the window. He was tall and muscular. He started to walk to the front door, but then stopped and leaned against his SUV holding his phone, looking at the screen. Then he typed something. He continued reading the screen and typing for five minutes when a call came in. He got back in his car.
Was it business? Was he having an affair? Lidia hoped her son was a nice man, a good man. But he was acting strange. Cheating husbands in TV movies acted the way he was acting. Then she became afraid that he was talking about her, making plans to put her in a nursing home. No. He wouldn’t do that. Not so quickly. She took a deep breath, it was probably a business phone call.
Lidia wondered what Michael did for a living, and Richard and Peter too. Then she remembered. Her eldest son worked for the US Marshall service. She sighed. Looking around, it all came back to her.
She’d been slipping in and out of different lives. It was all she had left to do since Emil’s death. She kept looking for a life where she could get him back.
This time, she slipped into a life where Michael had gone into the military like Emil had wanted. But it turned out badly and Emil sent her back again. He always showed up in her alternatives, which is what she liked to call them. This time he was a man in a hospital room. Last time, he was a priest. The time before, a kind man at the park.
Why did men always die before women? She should have expected it. He was so much older.
She sent Maggie a text. I’m going to have dinner at home tonight. I have a migraine.
They wouldn’t trouble her. They were used to her migraines. Lidia had never had so much as a slight headache in all her life, but saying she had a migraine allowed her to be left alone. She learned the trick as a teenager.
She fixed herself some soup. When it was ready, she sliced a piece of bread and sat down to eat. Her latest adventure into another alternative had been very sad. They always were sad. Lidia realized that wherever she went, she took her broken heart with her.
When she was done eating, she washed her dishes and cleaned up. Lidia shut off the lights and went up to her room to lie down. She put Emil’s picture on the pillow beside her and looked at him. When she closed her eyes, she could bring him back to life.
Emil was her home. Life without him made her feel untethered. It had been five years, and it was no easier. Her family seems to think her body and her heart were too old for love, or for missing love. But she ached for his touch, for the way they made love with the lights on. Emil was the only man. If she could have loved another man, she would have. But it was impossible.
When she concentrated, she could feel him beside her. To be with him again, what would it take? There had been so many nights when she tried to will herself to die so she could join him wherever he was. The sunlight streaming through the windows in the mornings would tell her time and time again, you cannot see him again Lidia, he is gone.
She closed her eyes and drifted off into a dream. She dreamed of their wedding night when he unlocked the secrets of their souls.