Dinnertime at the Sullivans
The house was clean and cool. The barely opened blinds let in the light from the setting sun. Supper was made, the silverware cleaned, and napkins folded. The singular light above the kitchen table illuminated the roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, and baked asparagus, almost making them glisten. The ice in the short glasses clinked against one another, as the dark alcohol melted the cubes.
Lily Sullivan sat at the dining room table alone. Her feet throbbed in the red heels her husband loved. The makeup on her face itched but she wouldn't dare disturb it. The dress she wore was a gift, black with ruffles she thought were obnoxious, but she didn’t wear it for herself. She stopped doing a lot of things for herself since she married. She was forgetting how. Lily was only twenty years old. She was a frail little thing, her clothes always had to be tailored to fit her small stature. Her hair had never not seen a box perm and she made sure it stayed that way. Lily’s eyes were her favorite feature about herself, they were big and brown, reminiscent of a baby deer. But her husband John’s favorite thing about Lily was her hands. They were small and soft, almost childlike, and had never seen a hard day’s work. He would caress and kiss and admire her hands while calling her beautiful. She had married her husband John Sullivan when she was sixteen. He was much older, but she didn’t know how much older. It simply was not ladylike to ask, or so her mother would scold. John was a friend of her father’s and had known Lily since she was born. John was the first man that ever-made Lily feel loved. At their wedding, John said he had loved her from the moment they met, and Lily vowed that she would always love him.
It was ten minutes to the hour. Lily practiced smiling and greeting her husband. Her feet were planted on the dining room floor anticipating his arrival. Every now and again, she checked the clock and listened for his Volvo’s motor. A few moments later, right on time, she heard the purr of the car, his footsteps approached the door, and the key turned in the lock. She painted on her smile and made her way to the front door to greet him with a kiss.
“Hello, dear,” she said.
“Hello, beautiful,” he answered, kissing her hand.
Lily blushed as she took his briefcase and coat as John headed to the table. He took a deep breath and Lily heard him take a gulp from his drink from across the room. Lily joined him at the table and looked down at her lap. She knew better than to speak first. She’d done it once before, when she and John were first married and had not done it since. She still had to cover the bruise. Lily began to make John’s plate first. Breast not thigh. Six spears of asparagus. Potatoes from the side of the pan, not the middle. Lily would glance up at her husband between each step and John would nod slightly, granting the approval that Lily craved.
“How was your day, beautiful?” he finally spoke.
“Wonderful”, Lily responded, “I went to the Macy’s and looked at a new dining room table. I found a perfect dress for dinner after church on Sunday with Pastor and the congregation.”
“Did you buy the dress?” he asked, pouring himself another drink.
“Of course, not dear, I wanted you to see it first.”
The last thing a man wants is a greedy woman, Lily thought to herself. She could hear her mother’s voice repeating it over and over in her head as she fixed her own plate. Leg, not wing. Three spears of asparagus and a spoonful of potatoes from the middle of the pan, not the side. During their last visit, Lily’s mother made sure to tell her she had in fact gained weight, despite Lily telling her otherwise. She had not eaten all day, but Lily made sure to watch what and how much she put on her plate, as though her mother could see her and be disappointed from two-hundred miles away.
“Would you say grace dear?” Lily asked, partially because she still did not know how to do so without sounding stupid.
John was very religious. He’d grown up in a shack-like church on a backroad in Alabama. His father was a pastor, and his mother was in the choir. He went to Bible study on Wednesday and attended morning, noon, and night service every Sunday. John said grace before every meal and would pray every night before he went to bed. He and Lily were married in his childhood church and have since attended a church about fifteen minutes from their home. John insisted that Lily attend, in order to bring her closer to God. Lily hated church. She thought it was ridiculous, the whole concept. The screaming women in their big hats, the sweaty and loud pastor, the giant crosses, all were unbecoming to her. She never had to go to church when she was young, her mother never took her, and her father worked too much to have a say in the matter. She didn’t even know if she believed in God sometimes. She hated church but John would never know, because she loved him.
“Yes, I will,” John replied.
As John rambled on and on about God and his devotion to him, Lily’s eyes shot open when John thanked God for providing him and his beautiful wife with a nourishing meal, as though Lily had not slaved over the oven and stove for three hours. John never told her thank you.
In fear of getting caught, Lily ignored her husband's prayer and closed her eyes again, doing her best not to scoff at the nonsense John was spewing.
Lily again was stricken in silence, as she could not bring herself to speak before John. The two sat at their dining room table, subtle chewing and sipping the only sounds in the whole house.
After what seemed like twenty minutes and John was on his second helping of chicken and potatoes, he finally broke the silence.
“Lily," he spoke.
She froze, John never called her by her first name. She was always “beautiful”, “my love”, or “darling”. Never Lily. She really did not even recognize her own name in his voice, it was foreign to her. Since she had known John, she can’t remember the last time he had called her Lily.
“Yes dear”, her voice shook.
Lily could feel the tears begin to form in her eyes. He was going to leave her, she thought. “I’ve given him the wrong piece of chicken. The potatoes are runny. The asparagus aren’t crisp enough. He’s going to leave me”.
Lily had never been without someone telling her what to do. For a long time, it had been her mother. Telling her what to wear, how to act, how to eat, how to be a good wife. Lily’s mother had given up raising her at fifteen, because in her small town, fifteen was a woman. Lily was a woman. Then, for a while, her father had taken the reins. He would tell her what a man liked and didn’t, how to please a man, how to make sure they don’t leave. Lily’s parents, in their eyes, had done everything right because their little girl got married.
“I want a baby. I want a son. Now. I think it’d be good for you too, give you something else to do,” he finished.
Lily did not know what to say. She did not know why John emphasized “now”, as though she could make his first-born son appear as she did with the week’s dinner. Lily had never thought of herself as a mother, in fact she’d never even considered it. For the past four years, it had only been her and John. She found so much peace in her solitude, she loved cooking and cleaning for John, and only John. It was almost a miracle she hadn’t had kids yet. Lily and John had been legally married for four years but had been together for nearly six. Every other girl from Lily’s hometown already had multiple children and her own mother had Lily at fourteen. Lily knew she did not have babies solely because John did not want them. Perhaps Lily got too comfortable.
Lily couldn’t find nice enough words to say no.
She couldn’t open her mouth loud enough to tell him to go to hell.
So, she said,
“Oh my, that sounds nice dear. Very nice.”
And that was the end of it. Dinner ended. Dishes were washed. But John never knew that Lily would rather die than bear a child, and he never would because Lily Sullivan would do anything he asked. In bed that night, after John drank his last glass of whiskey and Lily had drawn her bath, John kissed Lily’s hands. He caressed her face and hands and called her beautiful. John made her feel so beautiful. His breath reeked of liquor and asparagus, but Lily kissed him back. She did not have enough foundation to cover another bruise.
John kissed her and called her beautiful and kissed her and called her beautiful. But John did not stop kissing her that night, even after she said “no” and “please, no”. But this wasn’t the first time John did this, and now that John wanted a baby, Lily knew that it would not be the last. But Lily loved him, so she would do anything he asked.
Lily did not remember going to sleep. She remembered her tears ruining her makeup as John kissed her. She could still hear herself crying out as her husband ignored her pleas. She remembered their conversation at the dinner table the night before. John had already gone off to work when Lily woke up. He had tucked her in and kissed her forehead, like always. Lily had done what she would do every day when John left; clean, wash clothes, and prepare dinner. She sobbed as she scrubbed the tile off the bathroom floor. And wept as she pinned John’s button-downs to clothespins. She even thought about praying for a second. But instead, Lily made dinner. A roast with carrots and sliced potatoes adorned the dining room table. Lily sat at one end, her makeup done and itching, heels that hurt her toes, and another black dress with ruffles. She sat at that table for hours and awaited her husband's arrival. Lily heard the Volvo. She heard the key click in the lock. She popped out of her seat to greet John.
“Hello, dear,” she smiled.
“Hello, beautiful,” he answered.
Lily took his briefcase and coat and could hear the marriage of ice and that same whiskey behind her. She took a seat at the table and began fixing John’s plate first, silent until spoken to, John nodding at her from his seat.
“How was your day, darling?”
“Wonderful, dear. I tried a new recipe, I do hope you like it.”, Lily answered as she set the feast in front of him.
“Oh, I love anything you do, beautiful, anything.”
John waited for Lily to finish getting her plate before he began praying. Lily did not close her eyes this time. She looked at John the entire time during the entire prayer. She wondered if it was God who told John to do what he did to her. To marry her at sixteen, before she had a boyfriend her age. To give her a black eye and broken nose the one time she spoke first. To tell the doctors at the hospital that she was clumsy and fell. To kiss her when she pleaded for him to stop. To tell the neighbors that she was just on the phone and was just a loud talker when she yelled “please” and “no”. To force her into motherhood without her consent. To make her raise his son. Was that his God?
“Would you like some more whiskey dear?” Lily asked.
Lily rose from her chair and made her way into the kitchen. She retrieved the last bottle of whiskey from the ice box, the frost running from her fingers. She placed new ice cubes in John’s glass as whiskey poured from the bottle. For a while, Lily stood at the counter in her kitchen. She looked out of the window that sat just above the sink. The cool breeze made the curtains wave, the sunset almost looked fake. She thought about John and what he would do to her if she refused to have a baby. She thought of all the foundation she would have to buy. She thought of all the nights she would have to have John kiss her when she told him to stop. She could cry at even the thought.
Lily had to step over John’s body to get back to her seat. She kissed his cheek and used her pointer finger to shut his eyes after the white foam poured from his mouth and his skin turned bright red. A single teardrop fell, in the same spot where she kissed him. Lily knew that she would miss John and the way he called her beautiful. John always thought Lily was so beautiful. Lily cleaned the dishes, took her bath, and put away the rat poisoning and whiskey. She took off her makeup and allowed her straight hair to frizz. She laid in her and John’s bed alone, for the first time that night. To her surprise, she was able to sleep without him.
The next morning, Lily did not cry as she wiped the bathroom floor or swept the kitchen. She did her laundry and prepared to go to church and dinner with the Pastor and congregation. She pulled the big cardboard box out of the bottom of her closet, where she knew John would never look. Lily smoothed her hand over the dress she purchased from Macy’s days earlier and admired its beauty.
When Lily looked in the mirror, she hardly recognized herself. Her hair had reverted to its natural state and her bruise was left uncovered. She waved as she walked past John where she’d left him and headed to church for the last time.
“Good morning, Lily, where’s John this morning?”
“Oh, he just couldn’t make it, he drank a little bit too much whiskey at dinner last night.”
Madison Thompson is a native of Atlanta and a senior at Spelman College. A Political Science major and Writing minor, she also participates in several organizations, including the Honors Program, NAACP, and the Spelman Pre-Alumnae Council. She has always loved writing and is grateful and honored to share her work.