To love opera you needn’t speak Italian. Or have a soft spot for revenge. It’s not imperative that you recognize “Nessun dorma” as an aria sung by the doomed tenor of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot. Or to know that the English translation of its title—“Let No One Sleep”—does not refer to the early days of motherhood.
To love opera you need only understand one thing: torment.
Each weekday afternoon at preschool pickup I would stand in whatever space I could find to lean against the wall of the entryway, holding my lumpy, gray jacket, waiting for Lydia. I wish I could say the jacket was La Bohème shabby chic. But nothing was chic about me once I became a mother. Not compared to Lydia.
Lydia had reddish-brown hair that was almost straight until it perfectly curved to frame her chin. Blue eyes. Wide, beguiling smile. Everything was symmetrical, even the lines around the sides of her mouth. Her bright orange coat cinched in at the hips, vintage Hollywood. How were her lips never chapped?
After a few weeks of nods, moving onto sotto voce hellos, Lydia and I began to chat while we waited. Our sons were in the Green Room together, taught by young, short-haired, I-think-I-saw-her-do-a-back-handspring-at-the-Halloween-parade Janine. We talked about the class butterfly project. The fundraiser for the dog shelter. Lydia had been a lawyer but wasn’t working. She needed to save her energy. First, she’d tried Clomiphene Citrate, a fertility drug she’d read about online. Then she’d moved on to hormone injections. Entire fields of kale. Still, nothing.
Maybe that is what made her glow: the desperation, the fixation. How did she not recognize the danger? Was it my place to warn her? Ours had become a combination of small and not-at all-small-talk—bouncing between my neuroses and her ovaries and whether they ever overlapped, circling back to the kids’ upcoming performance for Lunar New Year. Plus other bits of minutiae about the classroom. Who bit whom. Whose child refused to eat anything but white pizza.
Lydia and I would stand near a giant Stegosaurus puzzle as she reveled in her anxieties and I tried to shake off mine, the distal fear I faced each afternoon that in a few moments everyone would take the hand of a child and go home waving lollipops to ward off meltdowns, and my child would never emerge, and eventually Janine would catapult out and say, casually—glancing down at her clipboard, as if this was not about to be the most catastrophic moment of my life—”I have him marked as absent.” I would go so far as to picture myself tearing past her shrieking into classrooms that resounded with colossal, unfathomable emptiness. Lydia was intent on conjuring another child; I was terrified I’d lose the one I had.
One Friday in January, Lydia asked my plans for the following week. I’d been waiting for that moment. Asking myself—How does one introduce the idea of grabbing a coffee? It was so casual for some mothers. “Here, let me give you my number,” as if it were a glass of a good sauvignon blanc.
Social media made that easy. Adding a friend there is low pressure, low commitment. It can be done in an offhand way, almost accidental, the way I generally like things to happen. Oh, your name popped up. But I was no longer on Facebook. The lack of response to posts was worse than sitting alone at the lunch table. At least in the cafeteria the bell eventually rang.
If we had gone to high school together, Lydia would have worn Liz Claiborne “Realities” and gotten into Craig Morgan’s pickup truck while I read Shirley Jackson on the back porch and watched them across the clump of trees my mother referred to as “The Grove.”
“I’m going to the opera,” I said. It was rare for me to have a plan. A few days earlier, I’d been given two tickets to an opera called Tosca by the lead soprano. When she asked for a dinner recommendation, I directed her two blocks south to Sichuan. Shredded vinegar potatoes. The soprano had two comp tickets and gave them to me.
“Do you want to go?” I didn’t feel self-conscious asking. Why live in New York if you don’t seize the chance to go to an opera for free?
“I can’t,” Lydia said, before I even told her which night. “We’re going to Brazil.”
“Oh you are?” It wasn’t even February break.
“Not for vacation,” she added, before taking a deep breath. “We’re trying something new.” She went on to describe a fertility ritual that would take place in Bahia, north of Rio, on the night of a full moon. Lydia would wear a white dress and carry a handmade doll as she walked through a path of luminaria to the ocean. She would wade in up to her ankles and release the doll into the waves.
I didn’t like the image of the doll by itself in the water. “You just let it go?” Since childhood I had collected—not on purpose—images that bothered me. Things I’d been told about or read about and wished I hadn’t. The boy who swam underwater for so long a blood vessel in his eye burst or the 14-year-old girl who had been dragged outside her window and shot by her boyfriend because she was pregnant and refused to give up the baby. The images ambushed me when I was folding laundry or cleaning the bathroom sink.
Lydia put her hand on my arm. “Yes.” I looked around to see if anyone else in the waiting room noted this. A skinny woman with a blond ponytail scrolled through her phone. A father rolled an empty stroller back and forth. I thought I heard a seagull. Lydia kept her hand where it was, but moved her body so she was in front of me, looking directly into my eyes. “And you won’t believe this, ’cause you just told me about the opera. This is like synchronicity. As you walk toward the water, you’re supposed to sing an aria.”
I looked down at Lydia’s hand, still resting on my arm. Should I put my hand on her arm or just keep my arms hanging down straight? “Which aria?”
She removed her hand and pulled out her phone, then leaned against the wall next to me. Scrolling, tapping, searching. For what?
She might as well have been standing on the white sands of Bahia.
The kids came racing into the waiting room then, begging for cotton candy and carousel rides and other outlandish things.
Soon Lydia was being tugged toward the elevator by her son. “Could you send me any homework next week? If there is any?” She flashed a sort of “I’m sorry” smile—sorry to be rushing off but I have no choice clearly as I’m being abducted by this wild thing that is a preschooler in New York City with poor boundaries and an inflated sense of self.
I didn’t have her contact info. Why hadn’t I just asked for her damned number? I tried to follow the crowd to the elevators, but Henry pulled me toward the stairs. When I resisted, he wailed and his knees buckled. Five flights down, I felt flushed, almost tearful as I opened the door to an empty lobby. For a week, no one to talk to at afternoon pickup.
An empty seat at the opera.
When Lydia returned from Brazil, she had her usual glow, and a tan. She put her hand on her stomach and said she had a good feeling.
The skinny blond ponytail mother spotted the motion. “Congratulations!” She squealed and jumped up to hug Lydia.
“You don’t say that yet!” I hissed.
But the two were caught in a pas de deux. “Thank you, Abby,” Lydia squeezed with both arms. Did she even know this woman?
Abby? Who was Abby? I mean, I had seen her. I knew she did obscene amounts of yoga.
I started to show up to the preschool earlier in the afternoons but it had become impossible to catch Lydia without Abby. They would huddle together by the windows, holding their phones out to each other and laughing. At cats or political memes, I didn’t know. If I approached them, Lydia would hold her phone out to show me, too.
“Look at this smiling dormouse!”
“Lydia, what aria was it? In Brazil?”
Abby pulled a black journal out of her purse. “We should get back to the list.”
Was the aria “Vissi d’arte”? Perhaps it was “O mio babbino caro.” Anyone could be forgiven for thinking the latter was a song sung to a baby. I had thought so once, too. “Was it Lauretta who sang it?” I asked.
“Lauretta?” Abby looked at me, scrunched her face up, and shook her head no. “That’s trying way too hard. ‘Look at me. I’m all traditional but with a quirky twist.'”
“We could add it to the list and see.” Lydia smiled at me. Her perfect, symmetrical smile. But only for a second. “But I still like Rose or Cornelia.”
There was nothing I could have cared about less at that moment than names for a baby. Lauretta was the name of the character who sang “O mio babbino caro.” But it was impossible to explain anything with Abby always glued to Lydia’s side. How could I bring Lydia back to our pre-Brazil conversations? To think they’d taken place just on the other side of this same narrow room. Was it the loss of the intimacy with Lydia that felt so piercing or was I just bereft at being left alone? No you can’t sit with us. No, I already have a partner. No, only two people can play.
When Janine burst out with the kids, Lydia grabbed her son and put one hand on each of his shoulders. “What do you think about Cornelia? Wouldn’t that be so sweet?”
Henry came out too. Then a rush of other kids. Jackets dropped on the floor. Enter the whining, the broken granola bars, the ugly clay models of armadillos, the endless “I wants” and “How comes?” and “Why nots?”
Then, for an entire week, only Abby, scrolling and laughing to herself, blond ponytail bouncing up and down.
“Did you play with Liam today?” I asked Henry at dinner Friday night. Very casual. Liam was the child Lydia already had, who must have known what it was like to feel invisible.
“Liam doesn’t go to my school now.” Henry stabbed his broccoli. “Why can’t I get Roadblocks?”
“Are you sure?” I ground black pepper onto my chicken. “Maybe he has strep. Everyone has strep.”
“Liam goes to a different school, I said.”
“Right when you were starting to become friends.” I wiped my forehead with my napkin.
Henry dropped his fork on the floor and made the most twisted, choleric face. “We never even played together after school!” He stared at me.
“We always had to take the damn stairs!” I said in a voice deeper and lower than I knew I could speak. I stood up then and grabbed Henry’s plate with its mutilated broccoli and brought it to the sink. “We lost everyone by the time we got down to the lobby.”
Henry fell asleep watching Paw Patrol. Too bad. Had he not, I would have confessed during our bedtime chat that “lost everyone” was melodrama. That was melodrama even for a boy without a father, without grandparents. I’d been listening to a surfeit of Puccini. A year ago, I’d never heard the name.
It was Abby who told me the good news about Lydia. Well, showed me. A picture of the “mom-to-be”—radiant, luminous, in a blue and yellow sundress with both hands on her belly. Smiley faces and heart emojis filled the comment stream.
“Like,” I said, making little air quotes, but Abby had already pulled her phone back toward her lap and was looking down. “I don’t have Facebook,” I said. Abby nodded slowly. I thought a woman sitting to my left said something, so I turned to look. Her head was down. She was reading Silvina Ocampo.
Lydia’s baby was a girl, born the following December. Sagittarius. Azure blue eyes like Lydia’s. For a month, Abby showed me photos. The baby sleeping. The baby cuddling. The baby wearing an adorable panda bear bath towel. The baby and Liam making a mess at the table. And then one day in early January, the pictures stopped. A week went by with no status updates, then almost two.
“Do you think something happened?” I asked Abby. Her face looked gaunt. All that yoga. Too much yoga. “To the baby?” I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to erase what I’d said.
No, everything was fine. Everyone was fine. If only Liam hadn’t switched schools. Lydia and I had been so close to becoming people who would meet up for chai lattes. Or even margaritas. I always wanted to be one of those margarita people, in the afternoon. Guacamole and chips and you make a whole dinner out of it. I hadn’t known how fragile our conversations had been before Brazil, how temporary, like the fleeting happiness in La Rondine, before Magda flies off.
“I mean it’s just so weird. She was posting pictures every day,” I said, more to myself than Abby. It had been a mistake not to warn Lydia. You can’t ask the universe for something it doesn’t want to give you.
“I wouldn’t read too much into it,” said Abby. She gave me a look like she was onto me. Onto what? I felt like I’d sat at the wrong lunch table. Showed up at the wrong party, carrying 7 Up instead of Corona.
I leaned into the wall. Abby didn’t even know half of what had gone into bringing that baby into the world. “Maybe I should look for Lydia. Just to make sure everything’s okay.” I glanced out the window onto the roofs of West Chelsea, the water towers and the hideous new steel construction. “Did you say she’s on the Upper West?”
“You’re going to look for her in person?” Abby’s mouth dropped open.
Where the hell was Janine?
“That’s so 90s.” Abby laughed and looked back down at her phone. “People stalk online now.”
“Can you ask, just real quick. Like message her, ‘Is everything okay?'”
“You do it.”
When Janine came out with the Green Room kids, I asked if she had heard anything from Liam’s family. She said she had not, but she did have some of his artwork.
“Let’s go!” Henry tugged on my arm.
“Do you know them?” Janine asked. She gave a thumbs up to a nanny picking up a girl with pigtails.
“I can get the artwork to Liam’s mother,’ I said. Janine sprang back to the classroom. I told Henry to occupy himself with the dinosaur puzzle. Instead, he fell forward on a chair and started kicking his legs. Janine was happy to give me the phone number as well. My phone had died since they left the school, I explained. That was true. Never mind that Lydia’s number had never been in it.
Out on far west 34th Street, Lydia was pale. She’d lost her tan and her “new mother” glow. She was squinting as she approached me, even though the sky was gray. The baby was tucked against her chest in one of those kangaroo pouches.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you,” I said, giving her a hug. As I pulled back, I glanced up close at the baby’s sweet, sleeping face. All that worrying for nothing! Here she was out and about. Cute little knitted yellow cap and everything.
I handed her the stack of Liam’s paintings. “I should have come to your neighborhood.”
“I had to come downtown for an appointment anyway.”
I caught the scent of something, maybe that enchanting new baby smell, like lily of the valley. Maybe it was Lydia’s perfume.
“Liam is really sick.” Lydia took a deep breath and looked both ways at the corner of 34th and 10th before stepping onto the street.
“Liam?” I asked. Liam can’t be sick. He’s in school on the Upper West side. He’s drawing sparrows and watering bean plants. It was the frail, delicate baby that might be in trouble. The baby Lydia had forced into being with the aria and the luminaria.
We were on the other side of 10th avenue now. Lydia stopped and turned to look at me. Her lipstick was too dark. Her eye shadow, too. A deep silver gray. “He’s been sick for a long time.” The baby was fussing now, and the paintings were swinging back and forth in the wind.
We walked silently, stopping at the Hudson River, a forgotten stretch where the sand and rocks are exposed at low tide.
Lydia set the paintings down and put her purse on top of them. She turned to the river.
“Do you mind if I go in?” she asked.
“Into the water?”
“Just for a minute.” Lydia unbuckled the straps on the baby carrier then pulled the baby out and handed her to me.
February is summer in Brazil, and at first that seemed confusing, but we’re losing our seasons. Here it’s warm in February now, too. That wasn’t the odd part about going in the water. Maybe there was nothing odd at all. I wanted to watch Lydia in the river, but I couldn’t stop looking at her baby. She was so much sturdier than I’d expected. So capable and strong.