I have always been a confident, independent person. That is, I was before I met Bill Chesley.
The first time I saw Bill, he was leaning against the bar, sipping a Rusty Nail (Chivas and Drambuie on the rocks, in that order). He was not a very attractive man. His thin, straight brown hair revealed a bald spot forming on this crown. Although he was the right weight for his height, he gave the impression on being fat. The skin he inherited from his English ancestors was pale and easily sunburned. Even so, he was magnetic and attractive in some mystical sort of way. He was dressed in a hand-tailored suit, made from the finest of imported English cloth, with buttons on the sleeves that really unbuttoned. His shirt was also hand-tailored and of the purest white cotton—never starched. He wore no jewelry, not even a watch. The only gold he sported surrounded the thick, bifocal lenses that made his eyes appear a little less beady.
As particular as he was about the way he looked, he was even more so about me. Three months after we started dating, I gained five pounds, shooting up to 119. He handed me a pair of shorts in a size twenty. “You look like you’re about six months pregnant.” I was innocent enough at the time to take it as a joke and laugh it off.
Joke or not, I lost the weight and Bill began to fill up my wardrobe. He had very specific tastes. St. John knit dresses that sculpted my figure were his favorites, and at about five hundred dollars each, I put up little resistance to him. My closet abounded with silk suits, matching purses, and shoes. With every outfit, I was created more in his image of the ideal woman, my own identity being creatively replaced.
I took him to meet my mother that first year. We ate lunch surrounded by pictures of my family, white lace doilies, coffee mugs with pictures of geese on them, and all her other country knickknacks. After lunch, Bill and my mother were seated on the couch, looking across the room at me. Bill remarked to her, “Karen has so much class. I just don’t know where she gets it.” Mom smiled and turned to him to share the joke. He wasn’t laughing. Seeing his expression unchanged, the smile faded from her face, replaced with a hard, disbelieving stare that would forever appear in his presence.
Knowing how much he liked dark hair, I surprised him one day and dyed my blonde hair blue-black. We were going to dinner, and I dressed in my finest knit dress. It was a red St. John with long sleeves and a sculpted neckline. The skirt draped the curves of my body like water flowing gently down a hill. It was something that Nancy Reagan might have worn for tea on the White House lawn. With my black hair, youthful figure, and red spiked heels, the dress looked more, on me, like the attire of a high-fashion model on a Cosmopolitan cover.
We went to Harry’s Kenya, a fine restaurant in downtown Houston, popular with the theater crowd. We entered the archway, my arm on his. I felt a hush fall over the restaurant. For just one minute it seemed as if every eye turned my way. As we followed the waiter to our table, I was careful to keep my attention straight ahead, trying not to glow with pride. For that one night at least, I was royalty.
I stayed with Bill for five years. I was his prize, and he flaunted me in many exciting places: Las Vegas, Acapulco, Club Med. Then I committed an unpardonable crime. I injured his creation. The call came at dusk.
“Your wife has been in an accident. She’s asking for you.”
I was covered in blood. My nose was broken and bleeding, clothes stained, lip smashed with skin and muscle lost. He glanced at me once, not showing any emotion and said, “When they’re through fixing you, you’ll look even better than you did before.”
When I was released from the hospital, he went with me to visit my plastic surgeon, Dr. Stal. I had chosen Dr. Stal because he was genuine and honest with me. He had already hold me that it would be at least six months before he could do anything to fix my lip. My body would have to do most of the healing itself. Bill sat with his arms tightly folded against his stomach, not looking at me or bothering to hide his disgust as he asked the doctor, “Can you fix it? How long is she going to look this bad?”
I wanted to find the nearest hole to crawl into. What right did I have to shown my torn face in public? I was a disgrace. Then slowly, like a ship lost in the fog coming finally to port, I heard the truth as Dr. Stal looked straight into Bill’s eyes and spoke.
“Karen has been through a very traumatic experience.”
My eyes began to water.
He continued. “Your attitude isn’t helping her. She needs your support to heal the emotional trauma as well as the physical scars.”
My heart broke, releasing all the unshed tears in streams down my wounded face. I realized that Bill’s support was something I would never have. My heart was touched with the almost forgotten knowledge that someone could still care about me. Those simple words that Dr. Stal had spoken cleansed my soul and gave me strength. I knew what I had to do.
I loaded the last box on to the U-Haul. The cardboard cube was filled with mixed memories; pictures of my family next to postcards from Club Med, silk lingerie from Victoria’s Secret being cuddled by the teddy bear my daddy had given me for my fifth birthday. As the doors of the moving van slammed shut, the sun seemed to break free from its prison of clouds, and I knew that I was free to create a new me.
© Karen Farrell 1994
This short story was published in the Spring 1994 Bayou Review.