How could this have happened? How could it have happened here? Things like this don’t happen here. People don’t get that carried away. Lila’s brain was working overtime.
Thornclyffe was an affluent village located within the Town of Philipstown, New York. It may not have been New England, but it was as picturesque as any postcard representation of a New England town you’re likely to see. The harbor was the focus of the town. That might seem odd considering the focus usually lies at the center of something, but there was nothing more beautiful than when the sailboats were docked in various places of anchorage in the water. In the fall, when the foliage burned with oranges, reds and yellows you couldn’t find a more gorgeous place in which to take a stroll. Life was easy and genteel. People greeted each other with more than a nod.
Of course the harbor wasn’t the only thing to see. In the center of town stood the Presbyterian Church; home to almost every wedding and funeral in the village since it was built in 1901. There was also the Clementine Hotel; built in 1918 at the end of the Beaux-Arts era and named for the daughter of the man who owned it. That building alone had seen its share of liaisons. Main Street, the historic district, was lined on both sides with shops old and new. The streets that curved through the village passed by many august estates hidden amongst the trees.
There was history, families that had lived there for generations. The place might be small, but for most of its residents leaving it was out of the question. New York City was just a train ride away if the desire for something bigger than ones own life was called for. However, a return past the Welcome to the Village of Thornclyffe sign was always a welcomed sight at the end of the day.
Of course, behind the closed doors of houses that dot every beautiful landscape there are secrets. Thornclyffe, it turns out, was no exception.
Lila saw a custodial employee enter the room in the reflection of the mirror. The lady was about Lila’s mother’s age. She met Lila’s reflected eyes and gave her a kind smile. Lila turned around to face her.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, trying to prevent her spout of tears from starting to flow again.
“There’s no need to apologize, sweetie,” the lady said as she started to mop up the coffee spill. “Things happen. Lot’s worse things happen in this place than just some spilled coffee. You don’t worry yourself about it now, okay.” She was kind and smiled a warm smile at Lila.
“Thank you,” Lila responded mustering the best sorry grateful smile she could.
Lila stayed standing until the lady had finished mopping up the spilled coffee. It was out of respect that she chose to do so. She couldn’t fathom sitting down while another person cleaned up a mess she had made. When the lady was gone Lila sat back down in a chair and placed her forehead in the palms of both of her hands. Somewhere down the hall she heard a little girl laughing. It seemed odd to hear childlike laughter in such a solemn place of a fear and waiting. Children don’t know the same kind of fear as adults. She got up from her chair and walked to the doorway to peer down the hall in the direction of the laughter. She saw two little girls holding hands walking behind a woman whom Lila presumed to be their mother.
It reminded her of when she and Cordelia were little girls.
Cordelia had a way of getting what she wanted. She could convince a person of anything without trying. She was a master manipulator. Sometimes the manipulation was used for good and sometimes it was used as a ploy for her own enjoyment.
One afternoon on the playground during their early prep school days, Lila had witnessed Cordelia in devious con artist mode.
Some of the kids were trading food. It was a daily game, pitting one snack against another. Inevitably, there was always something someone saw as gross that another found irresistibly enjoyable. So the trading would begin.
Cordelia had watched this happen during snack time many afternoons on the playground. Although she herself had never traded before. She had devised a plan and had decided that day was the day she would put it into action.
She had a beautiful piece of fudge covered in butter cream icing. It was small and round; if cut into quarters it would give four people a triangle that could be eaten in two bites. She claimed to have made it herself, but was not feeling quite up to such a rich dessert during playtime that afternoon. Therefore, she explained, she had decided to take part in the “trade” ritual.
The kids were intrigued. It definitely looked amazing. It made your mouth water. Anyone who had eaten fudge, or butter cream icing for that matter, knew what those flavors tasted like. It smelled rich with vanilla. She stood at the center of everyone’s attention as they all offered her their treats in the hope that she would bestow upon them hers. Cordelia, used to being the center of attention as an only child, was perfectly at ease commanding the barker’s stage with her fudge.
Lila was watching Cordelia, her long brown hair blowing slightly in the wind. It was years before she would have her signature pixie cut. At this time her hair was long and straight and she always had part of it tied meticulously with a bow.
Cordelia ended up choosing a perfectly dull rice crispy treat for the trade. Of course, rice crispy treats just happened to be her favorite, but it was still trading down as far as any of the children were concerned.
She took her rice crispy treat over to where Lila was sitting watching the action. She had a cat-who-ate-the-canary smile on her face that Lila didn’t understand. She sat down and immediately turned to watch the scene play out. Without looking at her, she mouthed to Lila to watch. Lila turned her face towards the group of children who had gathered around the recipient of the trade to watch in sadness as he, not they, bit into the fudge.
Lila was shocked to see the fudge being spit to the ground, the onlookers scattering. There was a fierce look of anger on the boy’s face and he searched the playground for Cordelia. When his eyes locked on hers he strode over to her with a purpose Lila had never seen a child use before. He was spitting the entire time.
Cordelia was sitting on the bench watching his approach with a look of mischief on her face. She was waiting for what he was going to do, but not scared of him. In fact she took a breath and sat up straighter as he stopped in front of her.
“Mud?” he said and he threw the remaining “fudge” at her feet. “What gives?”
“I just wanted to see if I could convince someone to take it without doing anything.” Cordelia responded. “It was a test.”
“It’s gross, that’s what it is,” he responded, spitting again.
“Well, don’t think you’re getting the rice crispy treat back. A trade is a trade and fair is fair.”
“There’s nothing fair about trading a rice crispy treat for mud, but I wouldn’t dream of asking for it back,” he responded, calming down from his initial anger. “I took my chances and lost.”
“Well, thank you,” Cordelia responded with a smile, every bit the entitled princess.
“You’re welcome, you shyster.” He smiled back at her, spit one more time for her benefit then turned to walk toward the playground water fountain.
“Was that a mud pie?” Lila asked, shocked before Cordelia could answer.
“Yes,” Cordelia answered with laughter in her voice, beaming with pride. “I mixed it with vanilla flavored milk. Our housekeeper, Syrene, knows that I don’t like the taste of milk so she mixes fresh, crushed vanilla bean in it. I think she calls it infusing. I saved mine from yesterday,” excitement in Cordelia’s voice.
“You made a mud pie with milk?” asked Lila, astonished.
“Yes,” Cordelia giggled again. “I poured the milk into a container and kept adding dirt from Mom’s flower bed until it was thick. I used one of our biscuit cutters to make it round. Then I put it in the refrigerator to harden. The vanilla in the milk helped cover the mud smell. Adding the butter cream icing helped even more. We just happened to have some because Syrene was making a cake. It was a challenge to get some of it without her noticing, but I did.”
“That’s disgusting. I can’t believe Ryan took a bite out of it.”
“I know. I just wanted to see if someone would take a bite out of it based on what I said it was.” She smiled and laughed to herself. “It is funny though, don’t you think?”
Thinking about the absurdity of watching the wealthiest boy in school take a bite out of a mud pie Lila started to laugh as well. “Yes, it is pretty funny.”
They laughed even harder.
“That doesn’t make it right though,” Lila said, always the good girl.
“I know, but at least Ryan talked to us,” Cordelia responded, the mischievous grin returning to her face. “How could I have known he would be the person to actually have something I wanted?”
Lila shrugged her shoulders as they heard the bell ring to end their afternoon recess.
Turns out Ryan appreciated Cordelia’s cunning and wasn’t too mad that a blend of dirt and vanilla was still vulgar on his tongue. Their friendship started that day and by extension his friendship with Lila.
As the mist of memory began to clear, Lila couldn’t help but smile as she watched the two little girls walk into the elevator. One of them had a bow in her hair. Maybe that’s what had triggered the memory of her and Cordelia as 12-year-old girls. It didn’t really matter why she remembered it; the point was she’d remembered it.
The longer two people are friends, the easier it is to accept the way they act and overlook when their actions might be inappropriate. Cordelia was always looking for amusement and a good time; she was never one to stand for boredom. Lila had always been happy to be part of Cordelia’s inner sanctum. Right now, however, she couldn’t believe how she’d become unconscious to Cordelia’s actions in the name of friendship.
Lila left the waiting room doorway and walked down the hall in search of the restroom. She needed to splash some cold water on her face. When she opened the door there was a slight change from the florescent lights of the hallway. The bathroom lights were slightly more kind to her face, slightly.
As she stood there looking at herself in the mirror she couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that it was a mud pie that had brought Ryan into her life. She also couldn’t help but notice that she looked much older than her 21 years.
The coolness of the water felt refreshing as its iciness made her nerves tingle. Her skin felt renewed as her cheeks turned pink.
As she patted her face dry, she took the opportunity to rid it of the raccoon eye look that was a result of too many tears.
Walking back down the hall toward the waiting room she saw Dr. John Martin. He was a friend of her parents. She wanted to know if there was any news, but she also didn’t want to bother him. Just before she walked through the door of the waiting room he saw her.
“Lila,” he called to her.
“Hi, Dr. Martin,” she responded with an insignificant smile.
“How are you?” he asked.
“I – I guess I’m as well as can be expected,” she said, fighting the urge to ask him about Ryan, fighting the urge to cry.
“Lila, this is completely against protocol, but I don’t think anyone will mind if I take you to Ryan’s room.”
Lila’s heart leapt at the possibility of seeing Ryan. She was so appreciative that she hugged Dr. Martin before she could stop herself.
He pulled her out of the hug and held her by her shoulders, looked into her eyes. “Lila, I can only let you stay for a minute. He’s not awake. He probably won’t even know you’re there, but I know you want to see him.”
She nodded her head yes. It was an acknowledgment of understanding and confirmation.
When they arrived at Ryan’s room Lila approached his bed cautiously. Dr. Martin stood in the doorway. Ryan was hooked up to machines. The beeps seemed to be coming from everywhere. She reached out and took his hand. It was warm. She wanted him to move it, to clasp her hand in his own. He didn’t.
“Lila, come on now,” Dr. Martin said in the voice of a parent, stern yet loving.
Lila leaned down and kissed Ryan on the cheek and whispered, “I love you” in his ear. She gave his hand a final squeeze before turning back to Dr. Martin and walking to his waiting arm.
She couldn’t keep the tears at bay as they walked back to the waiting room. Dr. Martin kept his arm around her the entire time. She was thankful. She needed something strong; she needed to feel protected.
©2011 Michael Rohrer