Red Lipstick

September 13, 2008
During the war, back in those nightclubs with the swinging skirts and the soldiers, Lilly lived. Really lived. She drank Coca-Cola with a straw, slept in curlers, and wore red lipstick all the time. Every day.

For some reason, Lilly wakes up this morning thinking about those days, the nights at Dizzy’s Nightclub, where Willy played the trumpet and the boys and girls danced, tapping their feet, swinging their hips. She’d set up her friends – Ella to dance with the tall boy in the corner, Gloria with the sailor with the big brown eyes. Lilly danced by herself, or she danced with others, but she always gave a kiss on the cheek. Always.

She thinks about that one night, when Robert came home from Japan again. He was upstanding and handsome with his military haircut, compact but strong limbs and khaki army uniform. Lilly was never shy but she was more demure with Robert, when they stood outside and the smoke from the cigarette they shared pervaded the air. Smoke and silence, except for a desperate high note from Willy inside or a faraway siren from Tribecca or Harlem.
The last time she’d seen him, his arm was caged in a sling and he couldn’t dance, so they had sat in a booth, drinking champagne to celebrate.

When he was restationed in Japan again, he island-hopped and she pretended she wasn’t waiting for him. At the clubs, she danced with other boys – kisses goodnight but no champagne, but when she got home at night, her stomach clenched as she imagined his death – shot by a Japanese soldier on the beach, slaughtered, or stricken with one of the rare diseases she’d heard about. But all he had to show for it was that broken arm, the makeshift burlap sling.

“It’s no good out there,” Robert told her. “In a few weeks they’re stationing me back at Okinawa.”

Lilly took a puff from his cigarette, curled auburn hair draping over an eye. “I’m sorry.”

But Robert grinned. He had a toothy grin, an unexpected, boyish kind of smile. “You are beautiful,” he told her. “I’ve missed you.” He had hope in his eyes, but that night outside, with his cigarette and toothy grin, has been their last. What was in his eyes when he was shot?

She wore a red polka dot dress and fake pearls then, but today she wears pink. A faded sweat suit and gray loafers, her husband and father of her children gone now too. Their son and daughter were long gone and immersed in their own lives with the grandchildren Lilly adored but couldn’t remember the names of.

They visit at Christmastime, high pitched voices squealing, “Gramma Lilly! Gramma Lilly!” and her daughter covers the receiver of her cell phone with her hand and says emphatically: “Mom, Mom, doesn’t little Julie have your eyes?”

Lilly longs for the sounds now, or the din of the laughter and the trumpet she barely heard on those chilly nights outside with Robert. Just out of reach, but palpable. In some moments of frustration, she’s jealous of Robert, or angry that he left her pale and useless – no more red dresses and no more dancing – only a walker and daytime television. He gets eternal youth, and even though he died young he died clear. He died beautiful. His teeth stay white as hers decay and turn brown – no more Coca Cola either.

She is decomposing slowly, the clubs forgotten and the yearn for lust an evaporated relic.

A strange face peers down at her and it takes a moment for her to recognize Lorraine, the nurse.

“Good Morning, dear,” Lorraine says richly. “Would you like some cereal? Some Cinnamon Toast Crunch?” She doesn’t. “You’ve got to eat, sweetie.” But all Lilly wants is a tube of red lipstick, a Coca-Cola and a shared cigarette. All she wants is too far to reach, too long ago to even grasp her wrinkled fingers on – not even for a fleeting moment.

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miss.bliss1 said...
Sept. 28, 2008 at 5:30 pm
That was an awsome story. Very we'll writen and SO beautiful. I volenteer every wendsday with elderly pepole and now..I'm gona think of this everytime i'm there.
ivyj13 said...
Sept. 25, 2008 at 9:42 pm
This story makes me so sad... it's beautifully written. It makes me wonder whether it is better to die young.
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