THE REMAKING OF LILLIAN
by Rona Simmons
Lillian packed everything she owned into the smaller of two suitcases stashed in the back of the closet she shared with Sullivan James. The closet was the only thing they had shared during their one-year marriage. They had his and her sinks in the bathroom, his coffee cups, her teacups, his magazines, her books.
Issue #142 soundtrack: Will Stratton “Some Ride”
Tomorrow Lillian James, no longer Sullivan James’ wife, no longer teacher of eighth graders, would begin life anew. Lillian’s sister, Belinda, had said, “You’re moving on. Turning the page, so to speak. Starting a second career.” After repeating another string of advice she’d pulled from the pages of Oprah magazine, Belinda had added what she thought was a knowing nod. But her sister only knew the half of it. The way Lillian saw it she was escaping the world of Belindas and Sullivans, a world stuffed with clichés and someone else’s expectations. Belinda and Sullivan would never understand. Even Lillian was unsure where she was going. Tomorrow was uncharted—as if she were entering the void at the edge of the known world.
But this morning had been like any other of Lillian and Sullivan’s brief life together. With little more than a nod of recognition, they sat down to breakfast at seven, Sullivan burying his head in the newspaper, Lillian drumming her fingertips beside a bowl of oatmeal. She had pushed her thoughts of the day ahead from her mind and kept her face arranged as she had for the last year, a conforming half smile on her lips, calm brows, and her eyes fixed on her husband. She watched as he drained his cup of coffee, the prominence on his neck squirming with each swallow like a creature trapped under his skin. He folded his napkin, rose, pecked her on the cheek, and then headed for the door. Lillian shivered, waiting for “See you later, alligator,” the phrase Sullivan uttered every morning as he passed through the door.
Lillian hurried to Sullivan’s study. She tore a page from a notepad squirreled away in his desk and penned a note short on details, no forwarding address, no phone number. The last thing she wanted was Sullivan to come after her. She printed her attorney’s name and address, wrote the word “Goodbye” in her teacher-precise script, then signed her name, Lillian James.
At four o’clock, Lillian pulled the front door closed, dropped Sullivan’s spare key through the mail slot, and walked away.
Inside the furnished studio she had secured two weeks earlier, Lillian stretched a florescent orange top over her head and pushed her arms through the sleeves. She squinted at her reflection in the mirror. Sullivan had liked her “just the way she was,” he’d said once; and Lillian had let well enough alone. Her stub of a body appeared less like the forty-year-old self she imagined and more like the glow-in-the-dark fire hydrant in Sullivan’s corner lot.
She turned and sucked in her tummy. From the rear, head twisted over her shoulder, her dimpled buttocks bulged where she had imagined two round, firm cantaloupes.
Lillian sighed. The only thin aspect of Lillian James was her life. She’d grown up in a middle-class family, the second of three girls, in a middle-class neighborhood, in the middle of “fly over” country. She’d graduated from high school, then college, where she achieved an unremarkable fifty-sixth place in her graduating class, and then taken a job as a teacher. Eighth grade was an unremarkable grade, not seventh grade or ninth grade, the promising bookends of middle school.
As a young woman, Lillian had dreamt a very different life. Two years ago, she’d tried to recapture the dream on a Roman holiday. She cringed at the memory. Twenty-five travelers and, of them, twenty were women about her age, most unmarried or, like Lillian, never married. They drifted from site to site in a loose gaggle, accompanied by an olive-skinned man who spoke with his hands, gesturing, pointing, throwing them in the air, and every so often sliding them along a shoulder or the small of a back. Paolo. Fellow travelers Wendy and Irene from Nebraska hung on his every word and jotted in little red notebooks secured by straps around their necks. They twittered when he came close, laughed, and gave him knowing looks when he flirted.
He had flirted once with Lillian, too, after finding her alone on a second floor hotel balcony, the stars overhead, the moon a sliver hugging the rooftops. He pointed out the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Victor Emmanuel Monument, and the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, stepping closer with each attraction he named. The heat of his body was palpable, the heavy cologne overwhelming, the wine on his breath sharp. He tried to put his mouth on hers and his hand God knows where. He was in that near embrace when Wendy and Irene stepped onto the balcony. At the twin gasps, Lillian reeled back, bumped a table, and knocked a vase of flowers to the ground. For the rest of the journey, from Rome to Florence to Venice, Lillian walked the fringe of the group, keeping her distance from Paolo and his fluttering hands.
Not long after the trip Lillian met Sullivan. They met by accident at a book signing, or rather at a bookstore where a signing was taking place. Neither had come to hear the obscure author discuss his equally obscure text, but instead collided in the fiction aisle where, as they discovered, they were seeking the same title. A conversation ensued, more on Sullivan’s side than Lillian’s, but he hadn’t tried to paw her or put his mouth on hers and so she agreed to a cup of coffee in the bookstore’s cafe. A month later they married.
He found her exciting, for what reason Lillian never knew, but that’s what he’d said. And the Lillian from before had raised an eyebrow and accepted his words as fact. She’d guessed she was in love with him.
In retrospect his life had been emptier than hers. He would smile and prod her to continue when she told him of her day, listening with rapt attention, whether she said bananas were fifty cents a pound or someone had had a flat tire on the highway.
Sullivan had added nothing to her life. It remained thinner than thin. A big fat zero. White space trapped inside a circle.
But Lillian would not face another day as her former self. She would not watch reruns of Downton Abbey or Brideshead Revisited with Sullivan or hear him say, “Whatever you want to watch is fine with me, dear.” She’d not babysit for Tina Marie, the seventh grade teacher, while Tina and her doting husband went out on a Friday night. She’d not unlock her neighbor’s home to check on Milo, empty his litter box, and change his water bowl while Sandra Foxworth sunned in Cancun. Instead, single again, Lillian would go to the gym and rebuild her body and maybe her life.
The gym was a riot of chrome and steel under bright overhead lights. Between beats of what Lillian presumed was hip hop music, testosterone-infused grunts and groans echoed and metal clanged against metal as weights rose and fell.
Eight treadmills faced her, seven grinding away as three women and four men slapped their feet against the belt like caged hamsters. Lillian approached the empty machine. She could walk, couldn’t she? That required no skill, although the keypad and lighted display panel did. Lillian stared at the buttons and dials. She punched “go” but the belt did not budge. Then a beep sounded and the lights on the dashboard flashed, mocking her.
“You’ve got to push the green button,” a woman’s voice to her right said. “This one.” The woman on the next treadmill pointed to the green button on her own dashboard. She smiled and looked at ease despite the deep V of sweat on the throat of her gray outfit.
Lillian nodded and smiled back. She pushed the button, and the belt crept forward.
“First time?” the gray woman asked, one earbud in her hand as she spoke.
“Yes,” Lillian said. Her feet were moving. It was all she could do to keep her balance and match her pace with the speed of the belt. She dared not look up again, but from the corner of her eye she noticed the gray woman jump off her machine and a flutter of fingers in the air as she left.
“I was married for one month.” A male voice on Lillian’s left. She opened her mouth to speak, but saw the man was speaking to someone to his left. “Yeah, from Argentina. Met her, got engaged, got married. Her green card came in the mail thirty days later. And the next day she was gone. Vanished.”
“Wish I were. Cost me three hundred dollars to hire an attorney, place ads in the newspaper, and sue for material abandonment.”
“Yeah, and how about you? What do you do?” Another man had taken the gray woman’s place on Lillian’s right.
“Well.” A pause. “I’m with the Secret Service,” a man to his right said.
“Yeah, really. I live here but work out of D.C.”
“No kidding? What do you do, that is, if you can say?”
“Yeah. Sure. I’m part of the First Lady’s detail.”
“Sounds pretty interesting.”
“I have a two hundred word Spanish vocabulary now.” It was the man to Lillian’s left again. “Buenos Dias. Como esta? Arbole. Vestido.”
“Could have done Rosetta Stone for less.”
“It’s not actually.” Back to the right. “And besides, she’s a pain in the ass. Nothing’s ever right. She’s had three other agents reassigned. You got to kiss ass and keep your mouth shut. Not my style, but it’s a job.”
“How old are you?” From the left.
“Seventy-eight. Been married three times.”
“Twice to the same woman.”
Lillian was growing dizzy. She pressed the red button and prayed for the belt to halt. When it slowed, she stepped off and walked away.
Along the far wall, astride another contraption, the gray woman whooshed back and forth in a rowing motion. Lillian approached the machine next to hers and took a seat. She gave a sideways glance at the gray woman to see where to place her feet and how to grab the pull bar. Then, again, she stared at the dashboard, flummoxed.
“Looks like you need help.”
“I’ll figure it out,” Lillian said.
“No bother.” The woman rose and came to Lillian’s side. “By the way,” the gray woman said, “I’m Stella.”
“Nice to meet you,” Stella said, placing one hand on Lillian’s shoulder. “First you set your time. Here. Then your pace. Here.” Stella pointed at the dials on the dashboard, but her eyes stayed on Lillian’s face. “Then, slip your foot in here.”
Lillian slipped her right foot into the stirrup. Stella pulled the strap over Lillian’s instep and tightened it. “How’s that?” she asked, her hand resting on Lillian’s ankle, her fingers warm against Lillian’s skin. Lillian held still, hoping Stella would not move.
Lillian picked at the florescent orange fabric where it stuck to her collar bone and breasts. “No. That is, I was.” She drew a hand across her forehead, wiping away beads of sweat. “I married a man from Argentina. Met him, got engaged, got married. His green card came in the mail thirty days later. The next day he was gone. Vanished.”
Stella rose and resumed rowing.
“Yes. It cost me three hundred dollars to hire an attorney, place ads in the newspaper, and sue for material abandonment.”
“Way. Say, Stella, what do you do?” Lillian asked as she tugged the pull bar, sending her body in motion, matching Stella’s pace.
Rona Simmons is the author of the contemporary suspense novel The Martyr’s Brother and two works of historical fiction, The Quiet Room and Postcards from Wonderland, published by Deeds Publishing. She is a freelance writer and blogs for The Huffington Post Blog. Her articles have been published in Deep South Magazine, Points North, and The Persimmon Tree. For more, visit ronasimmons.com and follow her on Twitter.
Helena Kvarnström is a writer and photographer currently living in Hamilton, Ontario. Prints of her work and her Novella, Violence, can be found on her website: helenakvarnstrom.com
Will Stratton is a New York-based songwriter, composer, and arranger who was previously featured in Storychord as Issue 10's musician. His most recent album, Gray Lodge Wisdom, releases May 12 and is available on Bandcamp. Will also previously appeared in Storychord Issue #10 in 2010. For more, visit Will online at willstratton.com.