Joan and Mavis had stopped lying to each other ten years ago, or they stopped pretending they weren’t when both knew they were. Watching the crowd rush by from the patio at the market, they recognized how fortunate they were. Hundreds of people trudged by with shoulders slumped and eyes glazed, trying to get through another meaningless day. They didn’t seem to notice the smells and sounds of the water or the rhythm of the farmers and fishermen who were still stacking their wares and getting ready for another busy day. Every day for these two old friends, there were possibilities, not an extravagance but small moments of appreciation and wonder.
Mavis had three healthy children, all working in their chosen fields, which friends from the community auxiliary reminded her wasn’t usual anymore. James, her eldest, was a lawyer who was only slightly embarrassed by his mother because of impropriety he was involved in a few years ago. Robert worked for the government as an auditor and seemed happiest when he was on the trail of some accounting mischief. Finally, Elizabeth managed a team of designers who filled the homes of the nouveau rich with expensive artwork and bric-a-brac. Liz didn’t earn the same money as her brothers but always appeared to be the happiest of the three. Mavis didn’t have any grandchildren yet, but that would come, she hoped.
Joan was widowed and somewhat estranged from her children but enjoyed great friendships, the occasional date, and being the master of her own life. Her calendar was filled with volunteering for art organizations – mostly ushering for two theatre companies that allowed her to see all the plays in both their seasons without buying a subscription. There were days she felt lonely, but “everybody did.”
Oh, there were some minor ailments. Joan felt twinges of arthritis when the seasons changed and still needed to watch her diet because of problems with being regular. If Mavis climbed too many stairs or extended her morning walk, her irregular heartbeat seemed more erratic. But, all in all, they enjoyed good health.
As for the creature comforts, they both had more than enough money to meet their expenses and enjoy an annual vacation, usually together. They lived in simple homes. Joan’s downtown condo had two bedrooms, which gave her enough room for quilting or the occasional guest and allowed her to enjoy the bustle of the city. Mavis was still in the rambling bungalow that had been her home for nearly 30 years. It was a comfortable community where she knew some older neighbors, even though it was ‘changing.’
The current change resulted from those new people moving into the neighborhood. Joan had heard Mavis complaining for months about them. They had too many guests, too many cars parked on the street, didn’t put out their garbage bin on Tuesday night (like everyone else), didn’t cut their lawn on Saturday morning (like everyone else), and now they were painting their house – blue.
Mavis and her neighborhood friends didn’t like any of this. Everything had been fine until they moved in. “Why couldn’t they get along and go along with everyone else? Was there a language or cultural barrier? They did have a different accent and had only been here (in Canada) for about a year. But didn’t they have garbage pickup and grass in Poland? Didn’t they know that a blue house would stand out and they wouldn’t be like everyone else?”
This wasn’t the first time Mavis bent Joan’s ear about ‘those people.’ There had been a series of phone calls last April when they moved into the house down the block. “It looks like they have a huge family. There are always lots of cars in front of the house.” “Now they are having a bbq in their backyard with music.” “I saw him coming home at 3:30 in the morning. I wonder what he is up to.” She hadn’t brought it up, for a while, at their weekly lunch until a couple of weeks ago, and now Joan wished that she hadn’t asked: “how are things with the neighbors?” She treasured this time when they could enjoy a meal, a glass of wine, and casual conversation while watching the bustle of the city around them. This complaining was ruining the experience and the relationship for her.
Joan had suggested that “being different might be a good thing” the first time the subject was raised, but this was dismissed quickly, and the matter was changed. But, this idea of being different stuck with Mavis. She realized that, on her next birthday, in two months, she would be 55 – not an insignificant landmark. What had she done that had been remarkable? Raising two kids, entertaining her husband’s clients, keeping house, and volunteering at the bake sale once a year. None of this seemed remarkable. What had she done that was different from thousands of other middle-aged women? What would set her apart? What would be her legacy?
The itch to do something was irritable but hadn’t become unbearable yet. She was able to go about her life with the niggling thought that there could be more, without acting on it, until she saw the purple coat. It caught her eye as she passed Oneill’s Ladies Wear about three weeks ago. Her first reaction was, “who would ever wear anything that gaudy?” but the image stayed with her all day. She found herself standing in front of the window the next day admiring the lines, and within the first week, she had gone in and tried on the coat. The assistant said, “this is the only one we brought in, and it fits you perfectly; what luck.”
Mavis didn’t succumb to the sales pressure or compliments, at least not immediately. But on Friday, ten days later, she was at the shop writing a cheque for $929 (more than she had ever spent on a coat). She snuck it home and hid the box in the spare bedroom closet, embarrassed by her foolishness and excess.
Each evening, the coat came out, and the ritual would begin. The box was opened, and the bright purple shone against the white packing tissue. She would stand and admire the vibrancy of the purple against white and marvel at the emotions and yearnings that it stirred. Pride and shame swam together against a current of curiosity and disgust. Then the coat was removed and laid flat on the bed. The perfect human torso shape that called out as part of the seduction. Buttons, large, black, shiny buttons, begged to be opened. The coat screamed, “put me on, put me on, please.” Anticipation was part of the ceremony, so she gently lifted the garment, turned it, and observed it from every angle. Slowly, she absorbed how the sleeves fell like a soldier standing at the ready. The collar stood proud on the shoulders, almost lifting the coat into the air.
She turned to the mirror and held the coat in front of her body. Every time she reached this stage, her face flushed, accenting the purple serge against her steel blue eyes and grey hair. Then, a fleeting thought, “I am still beautiful; why hadn’t I noticed?” The realization emboldened her, and her left arm slid into the sleeve – a chill as the silk lining rubbed along her forearm, and then with a quick turn away from the mirror, the coat was over her, embracing her in luxury and lust. The real rush came when she whirled and caught the first glimpse of the finished product. Over the past week, she had learned that if there was an unbearable delay before the unveiling, the anticipation heightened the sensation.
A transformation happened in this small, defiant, bold act; Mavis was still Mavis but more. Paradoxes presented themselves; good versus evil, prim versus naughty, cautious versus carefree, and most importantly, assured versus curious. Her assurance that her ideas, life, and way were right seemed under siege. The scaffolding of her life shook- unexpected and uncomfortable but somehow exciting. Occasionally, the fear of change made the coat disappear quickly into the box, but more recently, the status quo keepers were kept at bay, and the purple coat worked its magic.
It was as if a trance overcame her, and Mavis found a voice, her voice, saying, “There is more. There must be more to life. What is it? How do I see it? Where do I find .. what will I find?” As the words flowed from her lips, they seemed to envelop her like the coat, gently, provocatively, and uplifting. These thoughts occupied her for hours after the ritual, not disturbingly but with lingering anticipation. Then, finally, the routine of the day began to fade the cloud of words, and Mavis, old Mavis, returned to her everyday actions – the same actions she had been taking for more than 30 years. But the purple coat waited.