I loved Lydia since back when we were kids, growing up in the cracked pavements and litter-filled gutters in the Southside of Chicago. She had the softest brown eyes and skin like twinkling midnight. She loved dancing, and every spring and summer she'd dance everywhere. In school, on the block, at the diner she worked in. And man could she dance. She made Alvin Ailey look like he had clubfoot. When she danced, there was light and laughter in her movements. The only thing she loved more than dancing was flowers. Even the shitty, not-really-a-flower-but-a-weed flowers. We didn't get to see a lot of flowers in southside, 'cept dandelions, and she was content with those.
None of us really had any money in our neighborhood. The people who had some needed it, and the people who had a bunch, well, it wasn't exactly taxable income, y'know? I was broke as hell growing up, so I could never get Lydia the flowers she deserved. I kept on schemin', though. I had to do something.
After high school, Lydia went off to school somewhere on the east coast, and I got a job working in my uncle's body shop. It wasn't glamorous work, but it paid, and that's really all I wanted. I got to work with my hands all day, which was always kind of therapeutic for me. It was honest work. As the years went by, I had girlfriends; some good, some bad, some really bad. Like, gangbanger brother trying to put the fear of god in me every weekend bad. It was only when she dumped me (I hated her by then but I wasn't gonna risk being the dump-er) that he stopped hanging around my house. Through all these girls, Lydia kind of faded out of my mind. She stayed away for a long time, didn't even come back for summer or Christmas. I heard that her mom stayed pretty bummed about that.
When I was 28, my uncle passed away, right after the new year. He was 57, and way too young. He had a stroke in his sleep, and my auntie found him like that when she woke up. It was a rough time for my family. At the reading of his will, I found out that he'd left the body shop to me to run. I was touched by it, and sad. I'd miss working with him.
Running the shop turned out to be easier than I'd imagined. I spent less time with the cars, and more time in the office, trying to balance budgets and stuff like that. It was hard at first, figuring out what was what, but I steadily got the hang of it. It left me with a lot of free time, though, so I started doodling a lot. Mostly just dumb shit, but occasionally I'd make something I thought was pretty good, and I saved it in a drawer in my desk.
That same year I knocked up my then-girlfriend. My mom was happy for me, thought it meant I'd be settling down and starting a family. My dad just rested a heavy hand on my shoulder, and looked at me with tired, aging eyes. I think I knew what the message was. I didn't marry that girl. In fact, she skipped town with some cholo pretty soon after our son was born. I didn't mind it too much. She'd have been more of a hassle if she stuck around. Still, I felt bad that my son, Leo, would grow up without a mom. My heart broke for him. I promised I'd never let him down like she did. Never.
I was 33 when I finally saw Lydia again. She moved back to town in the winter. I didn't even know it for about two weeks. I was so preoccupied with Leo and the shop that I didn't get out much anymore. Leo was in kindergarden now, and full of energy all the time. It still killed me when he asked where mommy was. All I could tell him was that she was away. It satisfied him for now.
I saw her one cold Wednesday morning, after dropping Leo at school and making my way to the shop. She was inside a little deli, drinking coffee and reading a book. At first I didn't recognize her. She'd grown up so much. She looked... I don't know. More worldly? Something like that. She looked more satisfied than when I last saw her. I went in to the deli to say hi, see if she remembered an old friend from the neighborhood. I brought the cold in with me, and she looked up to see the source of the chill. She saw me, and smiled wide. That smile brought back all those old feelings I had for her. It made me feel good to be myself.
I sat down across from her and we talked. We talked for a long, long time.
Three years later, and we were getting married. I'd have done it sooner, but she didn't want to rush it. Turns out, all the time I had a crush on her, she had a crush on me. She told me that she'd see me out on the street in the neighborhood, and she would start dancing, hoping to get my attention. She danced for me, she said. I never knew. She said that she moved so far away after high school because not only did she find a great dance school, but she never saw any sign from me that I wanted her to stay. I told her all about the puppy love I had for her, and the real love that had always been waiting underneath.
We started dating tentatively. I told her about Leo, and Leo's mother, and how we were coping together. She wanted to kill the bitch who'd left her son behind, but she also said that the bitch had done her a favor. I couldn't follow, but then when she came around and met Leo, maybe a month into the relationship, she opened with 'mommy's home.' I don't think I could've ever loved her more than in that moment.
I'm 68 now, and Leo's all grown up and got his own family started. I couldn't be prouder of that boy. He went off to school, got his masters in biology. He works at Northwestern doing research. I don't understand a damn thing about it, but he's excited about it, and that leaves me happy.
When Lydia came into our lives, everything brightened up. We had a happy household, though we never had any more kids. Lydia was every bit Leo's mother, though, and a damn good one, too. We loved her all the way through, and she loved us. We were a proper family. I always felt bad that I could never get her the flowers she'd always loved so much. So I started taking my doodles more serious. I took classes at the learning center and worked on making something beautiful for her. I wanted to show her how much she meant to me. I wanted her to have flowers that would never die.
On our 35th anniversary, I gave her just that. I'd worked two years straight painting her a picture of all the flowers she could ever want to see. When I gave it to her, she broke down crying happy tears. She loved it, and I was happy for that. The painting hangs now in our living room, on the wall between our two armchairs. We sit, sipping wine, and stare up at our everlasting garden every evening together, the flowers of our lives.