This story is by Marjory Harris and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Lily swung open the door to Happy Hour on a Friday night. She expected no one to notice her as she sought solace in white wine. In her daydreams, Mr. Right would rescue her from her boring existence. But she knew what Martha, her best friend since high school, would say: “Mr. Right doesn’t hang out in singles bars.”
But Martha was now a voice in Lily’s head, buried five months ago after a long battle with lymphoma. Lily sensed a part of herself died. She didn’t feel fully formed. “You need to work on self-esteem,” Martha said time and again.
Lily caught her own reflection in the mirror behind the bar, dark hair bobbing over her second glass of wine, and that of a man approaching.
“Hi, I’m Marc. Do you mind if I sit next to you? Or were you expecting a friend?” Remembering Martha’s cynical view of men in bars, Lily scanned Marc’s left hand. Not seeing a ring or a tan line, Lily was assured this wasn’t someone’s husband. On her third glass of wine, she accepted Marc’s invitation to have dinner.
Martha’s death left Lily with only one close relationship, her mother. They would sit at the kitchen table, heads touching as they hunched over coffee. Lily vented about her disappointment with her dead-end job and how lonely she felt without Martha. Her mother would pat her hand and murmur consoling words.
Lily was seeing Marc every day. She now saw a different face in her bathroom mirror, glowing, alive with the joy his attention inspired. Lily was over the moon when Marc asked her to quit her job and live with him outside the city.
When Lily announced this to her mother, she was shocked. “You met him three months ago! You hardly know the guy, and you’re going to live with him?”
Lily defended her new love. “Marc is loving and generous. He makes me happy. I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.”
“Maybe you should,” her mother said. “At least look awhile longer before making so many changes in your life.”
Lily heard Martha saying similar things. “When you fall in love, you fall into a state of stupidity. It’s the worst possible time to make life-changing decisions.” Lily brushed aside Martha’s and her mother’s skepticism. She felt loved and cherished. Her inner void shriveled up in Marc’s embraces.
In Marc’s quiet country house, Lily devoted herself to making Marc happy. Looking back months later, after the falling-in-love phase petered out, Lily realized she was lonely. She wasn’t alone unless Mark was at work, but she felt disconnected from herself and others. She missed going out to restaurants and movies. And most of all, she missed seeing her mother.
“Why do you spend so much time with your mother?” Marc asked.
Lily answered, “She doesn’t have anyone else. She’s getting older and needs me.”
“I need you, too,” Marc said. “Is it your fault she never made any friends? You can skip a visit once in a while.” Marc knew that Lily had no way to visit her mother in the city. She didn’t have a car and he would not drive her.
Lily would call her mother and chat, but she missed the hugs and the comfortable habits of a lifetime. She could be herself with her mother. With Marc she felt like someone else.
Marc dismissed her request for a dog or cat. “They just shit and shed. I’m the only pet you need.” One evening her handed her Mastering the Art of French Cooking. “You need a hobby,” he said. “Just tell me what equipment you need, and I’ll pick it up in the city.”
Lily was filled with dismay. A former boyfriend once said she could burn water. Afraid of disappointing Marc, she labored her way through the tomes. She ate her creations and developed womanly curves. “They’re in all the right places,” Marc said, caressing her hips through the tight dresses he brought home from the city. Lily put aside her discomfort in wearing revealing clothing. Only Marc would see her since they never went out.
“I have a surprise for you, sweetheart!” Marc said as he came through the door, carrying a large package.
He stared at her with an intensity she used to find alluring but now seemed ominous. She feared his anger if she showed her real feelings, so she acted surprised and happy when she opened the box.
Inside was a slinky red satin dress, cut deep in the front and back. Lily knew it would be tight across her hips and backside and would barely contain her bosom. With a weak smile she said, “I don’t think this will fit me. It’s too small.”
“Try it on,” Marc said. “You have the figure for it.”
“Where would I wear a dress like this? We never go anywhere.”
“That’s about to change,” Marc said, winking at her. “I’ve made reservations at a nightclub to celebrate your birthday next week.”
Marc stroked her straight brown hair. “Have you ever been blonde?” he asked.
Lily laughed. “When I was 15, I bleached my hair at a girlfriend’s house. I caught holy hell when I went home. It took months of dyeing and cutting before it was back to natural.”
“I’d like you to try it again,” Marc said. It sounded more an order than a suggestion.
Lily said, “I think my mother was right. I don’t have the coloring to look good as a blonde.”
Marc was now standing before her, his arms crossed over his chest. “You know damn well your mother has never been right about anything. I think you’d look great as a blonde.”
A few days later, with more makeup than she used to wear, her face now framed with soft blonde curls, Lily gazed into the bathroom mirror. She didn’t recognize herself.
Marc stood in the doorway, leering at her reflection. He dangled the red satin dress. “Time to try this again.”
Lily knew it was useless to resist. Marc would pout, slam the door on the way out and be gone for hours. She would feel more alone, isolated by his disapproval.
That night she sat in the nightclub at the edge of the oval where people danced. Marc enjoyed watching men admire her as they looked over their partners’ shoulders. He beamed with pride of ownership.
Lily’s body was in the red satin dress, but she felt remote, alienated from the woman she now appeared to be. Lily smiled with closed lips, not wanting Marc to know how uncomfortable she felt. He would get cranky and accuse her of ruining the evening.
Marc told her again how sexy she looked. “You look so much better than when I met you,” he said, squeezing her thigh.
Lily went to the ladies room. She studied the girl in the mirror. A curvy blonde with too much makeup in a revealing red dress stared at her with a vacant look. Lily thought, This isn’t me. Before I was unhappy, but I knew who I was. Now I’m unhappy again. I have no idea who or what I am. Lily wondered what her mother would say if she were there. “Just be you, you’re fine as you are. You just need to believe that.” And her mother would chew Marc out and accuse him of making her daughter look like a slut.
The next evening Lily was preparing Marc’s favorite meal. Martha intruded into her thoughts and said, “What Marc calls love is servitude. When you’re a slave, you have no separate identity. You’re just there for him as he wants you to be, not as you really are.”
Marc came up behind her. “There’s my girl, making me happy with her fine cooking.” He pressed against her back as she leaned over the sink and tightened his arms around her. “And making me horny with her sexy body.”
Lily felt his lust and froze in his embrace. At that moment she realized he would never let her leave him unless he wanted to be rid of her.
Hours later, Marc snored, sated from the meal and rutting. Lily went downstairs and dialed a familiar number. “Mama?” Lily’s whispered, not wanting to wake Marc. “I have to get away from Marc. I’m afraid of him and what he’s done to me. He’s made me over, into someone I don’t know or like. I need to find myself again.”
Her mother said, “I’ve been so worried about you. I’m relieved you’ve come to your senses.”
“Mama, will you go away with me? We could go someplace warm, like you’ve always wanted. We won’t be alone anymore.”
“Of course, my dear! Grab your bag, call a cab, and leave,” her mother said.
“Yes, Mama, I need to go before he wakes up.” As she ended the call, she heard Martha say, “Good riddance to that jerk! You deserve better.”