Chapter One: Lolo, Solo
In the dream, she leaned her head against his chest, warm, safe, contented. "Where do you want to go on vacation this summer?" he murmured, stroking her hair. "Hawaii? Or do you want to see what life on the Adriatic Sea is like?"
She lifted her head to look at him, laughing, to see if he was serious. The movement lifted her out of the dream to the dreary light of the room, and her heart broke again. "Tom." Her whisper didn't echo in the room, it fell out of existence, and she was almost glad that the sound of her voice was gone; his name was too precious to be uttered in an ugly place like this. Wrapping the blanket closer to her neck, she wished to be able to fall back into the dream. Never wake from it again.
But even with her eyes closed, she couldn't conjure the sensations. The slight scent of old carpet, the chilly, clammy air, the tick of the battery-powered alarm clock built a wall between her and the happy reverie. She sighed, opened her eyes to see that the alarm was set to go off in about three minutes. Picking the little clock up from the floor, she sat up on the couch, blankets wrapped around her. Alarm off. Feet in slippers.
Lolo shuffled over to her side table and poured bottled water into the electric teapot, switched it on, got the jar of instant coffee from the shelf beneath that also held a few packets of ramen noodles, some cans of assorted soups, and a plastic bottle of dish soap. From the table's drawer, she removed a teacup and a spoon.
She folded one of her blankets into a compact pillow shape and shook the sheet that had covered the sofa, tucked it under the pillowed one.
Today is her big day. Getting married to Joe Brady. Philli, soon to be known as Mrs. Brady. Lolo shook her head, disbelieving that Philli could even stand to look Joe in the eye and say marriage vows, disbelieving that the woman she had thought of as her friend would stoop to marrying for money.
The second blanket became a housecoat, one end over her shoulder, the other under her right arm and flipped over her back. Before the mirror in the bathroom, she combed her hair and pinned it up into the roll she wore for work. With her coffee on the vanity, she first primed her face with a good conditioning lotion, turned on the lighted make-up mirror, then applied a first coat of mascara to her eyelashes. Next, a foundation makeup to even out the blotchiness of her skin, and a touch of blusher. She examined the effect closely in the mirror. A drop of water finished the transition from foundation-face to merely-lotioned neck.
Now the eyes. The eyes were what would catch the glance of customers, make them look at her a second time, maybe a third. The eyes would make her glamorous, as perfect as the finish on the king-cab truck they lusted for, as exotic as the convertible they could imagine themselves in, flying along the cliff roads of Highway 1. All they had to do was look, come a little closer for the second look, and then she would greet them with a smile rising into her eyes, letting them know it was all right to look at her, and then ... then she would gently deflect the gaze to what they were really there for, and tell them everything they wanted to know about making their automotive dream come true. Another coat of mascara for the lashes, a very light swipe of gray eye shadow across her eyelids, and then the eyeliner at the base of her lashes, making them look even longer.
She finished her coffee and put the lighted mirror away, a tool of the trade, and one of the few things she didn't have in a storage unit. This mirror, the sofa, the small table by the wall; one dining room chair and an end table and lamp. That was it. There was no room for anything more.
Everything was about the job. After the economic crash this past year, any work was good, and she knew she was lucky as hell to have kept in contact with other car salesmen so that when a position opened up -- one of the guys having to move his family out of state to survive -- she was the top candidate, got the job, and would work her ass off to keep it. Seven days a week, the owners getting around the labor laws by making the employees salaried; shit-poor salaries, but with nice commissions on vehicles sold. Didn't matter to Lolo -- what was she going to do, come back to this dull room for relaxation? For enjoyment? This was a sleeping room, nothing more, an unused bedroom in a very shabby ranch-style house in an older, fairly decrepit neighborhood loaded with the same kind of sagging, peeling rental houses.
She got the job because she was good-looking, knew her cars, and was willing to work any hours. She got the rented room because she was willing to put up with whatever she had to in order to have a roof over her head. There just weren't any apartments out there that she could afford until she'd managed to save up some money.
She tried not to dwell on the luxury apartment she'd lived in last summer, with the pool on the roof and the views of the city, spending her days off curled up with a book, mourning Tom, touching the furniture that he had touched, seeing him in her memories -- them together at the oak table with a candle lit, sipping red wine as they ate their steaks, remembering helping him cook in the kitchen, one of his arms around her so that she would not stray too far away.
Every bit of time with him had been precious, and she had promised herself that there would come a day when she would have the leisure to wallow in remembrance of their love. But that time was not now. Now was survival. Get up, get off to work, lose herself in the work, eat enough to live and then sleep and get up and do it again the next day.
At least the rented room had a private entrance, such as it was, a door hastily hacked into the wall beside the window. It was poorly framed, and badly insulated, but it locked, with stepping stones that led to the driveway so Lolo didn't have to walk through a muddy lawn.
Thank God I have a job, she thought as she pulled out onto the street. Perfect excuse to NOT go watch Philli get married. I wish her all happiness, but ...
That she and Philli had become friends at all was what she should have been surprised at, but once they met, she could absolutely see what Tom had loved in her so well. Philli was tough as nails, ready to deal with anything or anyone that came across her path. The courage it had taken to walk up to Tom and her in the restaurant, take a seat as though invited, and say, "Well, here we are. I'm Philomena Melton, Tom's wife."
Tom had smiled and welcomed Philli warmly. "Will you join us for lunch?" he'd asked, as though having his wife and his mistress meet unexpectedly was simply a non-issue.
It wasn't an issue for him. He made it clear that he loved me without reservation. And he made it clear that he loved Philli, and that he was not going to put her aside, which somehow, if he had, I would have thought less of him.
Traffic was still reasonably light on McHenry as she drove north, stores not yet open for Christmas shopping, allowing her to muse upon the odd relationship the three of them had had. Neither Philli nor I was willing to get involved in some kind of screaming, hair-pulling match, because we both knew Tom would hate that. So we just shrugged it all off, and just didn't say things like, Oh, Tom and I had great sex last night, or Tom's meeting me in Reno for the weekend. We didn't talk about the kids, or who he favored, or what he bought for us. He was happy with us, happy with his two separate lives and loves.
She and Philli had simply politely ignored each other, although on the few occasions their paths crossed, they were pleasant with one another. It wasn't like one of them was taking Tom away, he just managed his time well. Thinking of it that way made Lolo chuckle. She checked her watch while she was stopped at the light at Briggsmore. It was when Tom died -- we knew that we were the only two women who loved him that much and would miss him that much -- that's when we stopped being just Tom's lovers and became friends. We reminded each other of Tom's life.
Lolo pulled into the lot of the dealership, parked her car in the back. She was early enough that she could slip over to Breakfast Only and get a quick and affordable egg and toast, and an orange juice.
After carefully breakfasting to keep crumbs off her suit and her make up intact, Lolo walked back to the big Toyota building, her mind turning again to Philli's wedding.
We shared Tom; we both wished we didn't have to share him. We respected each other because of Tom's love for us.
But I guess this is where we're different. I can't imagine loving anyone more than Tom, and I sure as hell wouldn't want anyone else getting in the way of my remembering him. He may be dead, but I still love him, still miss him every day. Philli is ready to move on, and I'm not, maybe will never be.
And here's the thing; after today, Philli won't be Tom's wife any more. But I will still be Tom's former mistress. I'm not giving that up.
She wondered if Gloria, Will, and Ben would be at the wedding, and what they thought of it all. Well, she knew that Gloria wasn't keen on the idea, and Ben had been furious when he found out his mother was remarrying, but that had been a few weeks ago. What did they think now?
Until Lolo had lost her job when the last dealership closed, and she could no longer afford her apartment, and her friend Philli offered to let her stay at the Melton's house, Lolo had never known Tom's kids, and only met them at Tom's funeral. Philli had assured her that Tom had never told the kids about his affair, thinking it was really none of their business. And I was glad of it, because teenaged kids would not have been able to understand what Philli and I came to understand. They would have thought less of him, and I couldn't have borne that.
Meeting the boys had been a treat, both of them enthusiastically welcoming her to the Melton household. Gloria -- not so much, but she had her father's open heart, and she had become a friend, too. But Ben. His voice a young imitation of his father, his face a young portrait of his father. His welcome of me into his home, what had been his father's home, that was what I loved about that place. Seeing Ben every day brought Tom to life again. Made me feel alive again. Ben's humor was more like his siblings than like Tom's, than Philli's, but it made my heart happy.
Philli, once she had Joe for a fiancé, didn't want to be friends any more, didn't want me to be friends with the kids any more. Maybe she didn't want to see us all together, maybe it reminded her too much of Tom's way of living life, welcoming the unusual, breaking society's rules. I loved Tom. I love Ben. And Will, and Gloria. Will is going to go on to his own path, but Gloria, I think she and I will always be friends. Ben ... I know I can't give him up.
One last thought before she closed the door behind her and hit the sales floor:
How can Philli look at Ben, and not see the spitting image of Tom? And then go on to walk down the aisle with another man?