On the morning of her ex-husband’s wedding, Lydia Modine set the table for four. She had always made sure that her family ate breakfast together— orange juice, granola and milk, strawberry yogurt topped with wheat germ. “How many kids eat wheat germ?” the children used to complain.
“Only the ones who live forever,” Lydia would say.
Now they were grown, and a year and a half had passed since Lydia had seen them together in the Detroit suburb she called home. Despite the circumstances, she planned to enjoy this time. She sliced a loaf of zucchini bread that she’d baked yesterday and laid out batik napkins and earthenware bowls on the kitchen table. It was almost eight, about an hour before she’d have to wake up the kids and hurry them downstairs.
She had once assumed, then later hoped they would all live in the same place, even the same neighborhood. But with Ivan in D.C., Jessica in Oregon, and Davy in Chicago, this had become more of a dream. The Empire of Lydia, Jessica had said on her last trip home—Jessica, who had moved so far away for reasons she had yet to explain—Welcome to Historic Lydiaville. But Lydia wanted no such thing. Just the company of her family. Was that really so much to ask?
Waking before dawn this morning, she had pulled her knees to her chest, burrowed into the slide of pillows, tossed about on the king-size bed that Cy had bought for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. The bed had only put more room between them, and sleeping alone these days on this great raft, Lydia stayed close to the edge. When she couldn’t keep her eyes shut any longer she got up and went downstairs, still in her nightgown. She had heard the kids come in late last night from the rehearsal dinner; they’d left cheese and cracker crumbs and an empty jar of olives on the kitchen island. Lydia rinsed the dirty plates and dropped the jar in the recycling bin, wondering if Cy and his bride-to-be had run out of food for their guests. She hoped there had not been enough food. She hoped the toasts had been embarrassing, that the whole evening had gone badly.
But she would not allow herself to think about that now. Her children had come home and here she was, up and about and for some reason excited, as if today were her day, too.
The morning sunlight filtered through the kitchen’s sliding glass doors and spread over the table. Lydia unloaded the dishwasher and arranged the clean glasses in the cupboards, tall in the back, small up front. She wiped the countertop, swept the floor, ran a cloth over the tops of the picture frames that hung in the kitchen and along the hallway. She took a bottle of Windex to the mirror in the foyer and to the same glass doors that she’d already made sparkle yesterday. She cleaned the pictures in the living room—the fences and haystacks that her father had painted in high school, the architect’s drawing of the Mackinac Bridge, which linked lower Michigan to the Upper Peninsula. She dusted the clock and the miniature pushcart on the mantel, and as a finishing touch straightened the cloth dolls that sat on the living room sofa. “One for me, one for Ivan, and one for Davy,” Jessica liked to say. “What better way to keep an eye on us? Go on, Mom. Give my arm a twist.” Lydia went along with the joke, but it made her self-conscious about the dolls, these floppy-limbed harlequins in doublets and checkered skirts. To Lydia they were whimsical, with their orange, blue, and purple yarn hair, their bright expressions of knowing and surprise. When the children were young, people had marveled at the way Lydia could do so much at once—write books, help support a family, hold the household together, all with a seemingly absent-minded ease. She was more fluid then, with no time to worry over the details. But now she had too much time, and Jessica in particular no longer seemed awed by her mother. To Lydia the dolls brought a little life to the room; she thought they might cheer her back to the person she once was.
She did a final check of the downstairs, and, seeing that all was in order, she went out to the back patio. It was a beautiful day for a wedding, she realized with a mix of anticipation and regret. A clear sky, warmer than usual for mid-May. She breathed in the scent of lilacs. Last week solid rain had brought up the tulips in front of the house, and the magnolia bloomed magnificently beside the garage. She looked forward to getting on with the day, vaguely imagining the bride or groom panicking and calling off the whole thing. Such lovely weather seemed almost too auspicious for something not to go wrong.
Lydia remembered her own wedding day, in the height of summer 1965. The forecast had called for rain, and all morninng the sky had threatened. As she got into her dress she kept looking out her bedroom window, her mother calling the wedding coordinator at the Book-Cadillac Hotel every fifteen minutes. In the afternoon it grew dark, the temperature dropping below 70. So the reception had been moved from the rooftop, with its view of the Detroit River and the lights of Belle Isle, to a ballroom on the first floor. Everyone seemed to have a good time, but Lydia couldn’t help feeling disappointed, especially since, after so much trouble, it didn’t rain after all.
Now she checked the patio chairs and table that she had spray- painted forest green earlier in the week. The chairs needed touching up, but no one would notice, certainly not today. She crossed the flagstones and admired her tidy patch of perennials and herbs, freshly weeded, bordering the patio. From the garage she got a pair of scissors and cut a bunch of day lilies. Licks of flame to brighten up the kitchen.
The sounds of animals from the Detroit Zoo drifted over the trees. It was the one exotic aspect of her quiet suburban neighborhood. As a social historian of the automobile, with four books to her name, she had always eyed the suburbs with suspicion, the way they leeched off cities, drawing all the benefits without paying the costs. And yet here she’d lived for more than twenty years, albeit just outside Detroit off the main thoroughfare of Woodward Avenue. Cy had won the battle over where to settle down, appealing to Lydia’s sense of protectiveness. He had promised her that Huntington Woods had better schools, cleaner streets and parks than the ones in midtown Detroit, where they’d lived for the first years of their marriage. And while she’d felt compromised at the time, she had grown to love her house, this simple American foursquare with its roomy interiors and wide front porch.
Back in the kitchen she put the lilies in a vase, set them on the table, and went upstairs to shower and dress. The three doors at the top of the stairs remained closed. Lydia took a quick shower, careful to save hot water, then stood in front of the bathroom mirror in her towel and checked for gray hairs.
People always assumed that she dyed her hair, but at sixty-one she was still a glossy auburn. She pulled her hair back into a bun and pursed her lips, thinking they could use some color. She hadn’t worn lipstick since before the divorce, three years ago, but searching the medicine cabinet she found a single abandoned tube. It smelled like a box of old crayons. The color was more orange than she’d remembered ever wearing, a matte persimmon hue that she blotted with a Kleenex. She added a touch of mascara, just enough to darken her eyes, then rifled through the bathroom drawers for the bottle of Eternity that Cy had given her for her fifty-sixth birthday. At the time she had resented him for not knowing that she didn’t wear p...