If you aren’t a mother, it’s hard to make friends in Lesser Hollows. Moms flock together for their own activities, like mommy meetups at the park, where they command the paths with their strollers. Moms discover each other through the PTA, the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, Little League, the 4-H club, baby-and-me activities at the library, and church.
About a month after she moves to Lesser Hollows, Diane attends a church down the street from her apartment. It smells of damp wood and incense, dust and floral perfume. After the service, she hovers by the pale green and lilac walls as families clump together and parents greet parents. Vibrating with tension, she perks herself up with a smile, even as her insides wilt with pessimism. One person, a young woman with a bowed back, gives her a quizzical smile and quickly looks away.
Slipping out of the church, Diane wonders if they somehow know about her. That she can’t easily leave Lesser Hollows, because her driver’s license is suspended. That she burned away past friendships by not knowing how and when to stop drinking.
She can’t even meet people through her job. She works from home as a technical writer. On days when she doesn’t talk to her clients, she talks to no one.
One Tuesday a couple of months later, she’s at the supermarket three blocks from her apartment. She’s lingering in front of a quilt-like display of soup cans. It’s her way of delaying the moment when she’ll need to return to the two rooms she now calls home, where the light bulb is naked over the dining table and the walls are bare. That’s when she meets Lucia.
“What soup should I get?” says the woman who will later introduce herself as Lucia. She is slight with frizzled blonde hair, and her skinny arms have flopped open, as if she’s saying, What can anyone do with all this soup?
“What kind of soup do you like?” Diane ventures.
“Creamy tomato. But they don’t have the brand I like. I might go with lentil or minestrone.”
Lucia looks to be in her 50s, a couple of decades older than Diane. Her elfin stature gives her the air of a child, but her neck, the backs of her hands, and her limbs, more spindly than supple, reveal her real age.
“So?” Lucia prompts. “What should I get?”
“Uh… I’d go with lentil.”
Diane huffs. “I don’t know. Just pick whatever you want.”
She’s about to turn away when Lucia says, “I think homemade soup would be better. Right?”
“I don’t have any at home,” Lucia confesses. “Maybe we can eat out.”
Diane discovers that she can still feel surprise. She thought she lost that ability close to a year ago, after she woke up to a cop banging on the driver’s side window of her car. Apparently, you can be charged with driving under the influence even if you’re at a standstill in a parking lot. If the engine’s running and the results of your breath test are appalling, you don’t have to drive anywhere to get hauled into court.
“I’m busy,” Diane says.
Lucia snorts. “No, you’re not. You’re as alone as I am. I know the signs.”
There’s nothing in Diane’s shopping basket. She visited the supermarket yesterday for the bulk of her groceries. Today’s visit is only an escape from her apartment.
She sets the basket aside.
“Great!” Lucia says. “We’ll get dinner. I’ll pay.”
Lucia’s car looks like it has forded some creeks on the Oregon Trail. Diane settles into the front passenger seat after moving aside a few books about serial killers.
“Don’t worry,” Lucia assures her with a honking laugh, “I’m not getting any ideas from them.”
They drive 15 miles out of town to an Italian restaurant with baskets of flowers hanging at the windows. In a level voice, Diane turns down the offer of wine. She sips water and eats ravioli, lingering over each pudgy piece as Lucia’s life story unspools.
Lucia is a widow. No kids. After her husband’s death, she downsized to a tiny apartment in Lesser Hollows. She works as a substitute teacher and as a driver for an obscure rideshare company. She’s reading her way through the true crime and mystery section of the library. She leaves some of these books in her car, because they sometimes spark fascinating conversations with passengers.
Diane supplies the appropriate signs of attention throughout the monologue, but her mind keeps returning to the question of why she’s at this restaurant with this woman. The answer is a recurring image of the emotional dead zone she calls an apartment.
“What about you?” Lucia says.
Diane shrugs. “There’s not much to tell. I moved here a few months ago.”
Lucia nods slowly, as if this is a profound revelation. “You’re in recovery?” she asks, a splattery tail end of spaghetti smacking her chin.
When Diane merely stares at her, she adds, “You didn’t order wine. That’s not always a sign, but it was the way you didn’t order wine. The way you looked at the wine menu and said you didn’t want any.”
Diane sets down her water. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Why not?” Lucia wonders.
Diane shakes her head. She wonders if Lucia is cultivating her as a regular rideshare passenger.
“Nothing to be ashamed of,” Lucia says with another splattery slurp.
“Yes, there is.” Diane’s voice is low and cold. “When you…” Her hand closes in a fist around her fork.
“When you what?” Lucia prompts, blinking at her.
Diane is breathing hard. “When you sneak drinks in the bathroom at your job, and you get caught, and they fire you. When you wake up with vomit in your hair. When you make an ass of yourself at so many birthdays and anniversaries and dinners that no one invites you anywhere anymore.” Her voice shrivels to a whisper. “When you throw up at your mom’s funeral.”
Lucia nods sagely. “Happens to the best of us.”
“No,” Diane snaps, her neck stiffening with rage. “That’s a stupid comment.” She releases her fork, before she can act on her impulse to stab. “When your DUI isn’t even for driving. It’s for turning your car on and passing out while the engine is running.”
“At least you didn’t hit anyone.”
Diane shoves away from the table.
“Where are you going?” Lucia wonders.
The restaurant with its tinkling mandolin elevator music is too small for Diane’s rage. She storms outside to the parking lot and stalks around the border before bracing herself against the hood of Lucia’s battered car. Tears are streaming down her cheeks.
Lucia emerges from the restaurant with a takeaway bag. She totters towards Diane and says, “Oh, don’t cry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any harm.”
Diane gives her a sharp nod and swipes at the tears with her fingers.
“I just wanted you to know I wasn’t sitting there judging you.”
Diane feels the clutch of Lucia’s bony arm, pulling her down into a hug. She knows she can pull away and demand that they leave already. Or she can ugly cry in the parking lot for several minutes more.
Diane’s spine seems to melt, and she weeps against the older woman’s shoulder. She doesn’t care that Lucia’s blouse is sopping up the tears, and Lucia doesn’t show any signs of caring either; soft, senseless murmurs are her only response.
When Diane pulls back, Lucia sighs. “I never have a handkerchief when I need one. There’s tissues in the glove compartment.”
Diane’s voice is nasally and quiet. “Sorry about your shirt.”
Lucia waves a dismissive hand as she unlocks the car. “I got it for eight bucks at a blowout sale.”
Back in the passenger seat, Diane pats at the splodginess of her face with a fast-disintegrating tissue. She feels numb and flat, as if she’s full of wet sand. As Lucia drives past the large green sign welcoming people to Lesser Hollows, Diane experiences a passing idea of killing herself. Her eyes cut to Lucia, and she wonders if the older woman will pick up on this dark thought, as she seems to have picked up on the signs of loneliness and recovery.
“We didn’t stick around long enough to have dessert,” Lucia says, pulling into an unfamiliar street. “I’ve got vanilla maple syrup ice cream.”
She turns into a small lot next to a building that looks like a large gray shipping crate. Lion’s Head Court is its name, and Lucia lives on the second floor. They climb the stairs because the elevator is out of order. “We need to work off the pasta anyway,” Lucia declares.
“You aren’t going to murder me once we’re inside, right?” Diane murmurs.
Lucia struggles with the lock. “Of course not. Only because I wouldn’t know what to do with your body,” she says with her honking laugh. “I don’t even have a bath tub where I could dissolve it in acid!”
Diane finds that the only way to live at the moment is to not think too far ahead. She accepts a bowl of ice cream and a corner of the burgundy sofa. She accepts Lucia’s suggestion to watch some of the second season of Murder She Wrote. She pictures dregs clumped at the bottom of a glass of wine, but she doesn’t dwell on that image.
She and Lucia aren’t dregs. What they are, she doesn’t know. The only thing she’s sure of is that she now has a small claim on this part of the couch, and on one of the two barstools at the kitchen counter. And that Lucia has some claim on her too. Diane thinks about what she can offer the older woman: a rusty voice, a wounded mind, a living body in a home that feels like a grave.
It takes her less than half an episode to nod off. In her semi-sleep she feels Lucia reach over to brush her hair away from where it has dropped into the ice cream bowl in dark brown coils.
“You have pretty hair,” Lucia says. “Try to keep it out of the ice cream.”
“Ok, Mom,” Diane murmurs.
At Lucia’s honk of laughter, Diane manages a smile, even as she comes close again to weeping.