Margaret’s mother gave her a Barbie doll for her 6th birthday and told her she’ll be just like her someday. Margaret brushed Barbie’s long blonde hair with a plastic pink comb before combing her own hair, tangled and black. Her mother had given her a variety of dresses for Barbie to wear, all frilly and fabulous, including a wedding dress with puffy shoulders and yards of lace. Margaret’s mother helped her put the wedding dress on Barbie and remarked how beautiful she was. When her mother left, Margaret removed the wedding dress from Barbie’s frail figure and tossed it on the ground, leaving her naked. A week later, the dress was back on Barbie, with matching shoes and accessories.
In junior high, Margaret and her friends were required to register for a Sewing, Teens, and Tots course. The objectives were to prepare students, namely girls, for their eventual roles in a household. They would learn how to sew pajamas, cook meals, and take care of children. Her instructor spoke so highly of the “baby think it over doll” experience, where students take home a doll that triggers crying at random intervals, to teach women how to respond effectively to your newborn. Margaret was delighted to be given the opportunity to practice a skill so important. After the first round of students took their dolls home, and came back after the weekend tired and irritated, she concluded that these girls didn’t try hard enough. They didn’t put in the effort required. She knew she would do better, because she wanted it more. She wanted to prove she could. She had packed the best baby clothes from the classroom bin, and her and her baby boarded the school bus on a busy Friday afternoon. By Saturday night, the crying doll was too intense for her so she ripped out the batteries despite her mother’s disapproving glances. She gladly accepted an F on Monday morning.
In high school, Margaret tried out for the track team, and was thrilled to find out she was accepted. After her track meets, still dripping with sweat and dirt, Margaret’s father would ask her if she would rather be doing theater. Her brother, Derek, was on the baseball team heading to the minors next summer. Margaret’s father said they already had a sports star in the family so she didn’t have to keep up with track if she didn’t want to. She loved track, but was also intrigued by the idea of theater. She also knew what her parents wanted her to do. That following summer, when her name appeared next to the starring role in the fall musical, she could see a new beginning forming for her on the stage. She seldom thought about on her time on the track team. A part of her did look back and wonder if that was a door that had been closed for her.
The winter quarter after she started college, Margaret met Colin. He was her constant in a sea of variables. They had met at the coffee shop on campus. Margaret had just come from her painful eight am science class and was looking for the sustenance needed to power her through her afternoon classes; calculus and chemistry.
“What size, ma’am?” The barista asked.
“Bucket size.” The barista, clearly not amused, glanced behind Margaret at the impending line, like ants made aware of free drops of jam a mile away. She tapped her register impatiently, clicking her nails on the side.
“Just curious, has your organization developed the technology to deliver coffee through an IV yet? I’m very interested in the project and am willing to support the efforts,” Margaret produced $5 from her turquoise wallet. “Here! This should—“ The barista snatched the five dollars, dropped it into the till, and poured Margaret the latest roast, in the biggest cup they had.
“That doesn’t look like a bucket…” a voice behind her said. She turned to see the guy who sits behind her in her science class smiling sarcastically. He had a similar sized coffee in his hand. “Yeah, I plan on writing a letter or a comment card expressing my disappointment. How can I properly study with only 24 ounces of coffee? It’s unreasonable.” The man laughed as he brushed his dark side swept hair behind his ear.
“I’m Colin. We have the same biology class together.”
“Oh really?..Oh yeah, we do.” Margaret played dumb, and then wondered why she felt inclined to. “You probably followed me here, didn’t you? If you wanted to be my lab partner, all you had to do was ask,” Margaret smirked. Colin smiled at her teasing, causing his eyes to crinkle into small crescents. A certain gleam was captured then that Margaret found fascinating.
“You know, there is a pizza place downtown that serves their guests buckets…they’re full of rum, not coffee, but I’m sure you could forgive them for that,” Colin said confidently, “I could take you sometime if you would like.”
Margaret was taken aback. She had never been asked out before, and she felt a rising mix of exhilaration and doom stirring up inside of her. What would her mother think? Her mother would tell her to go for it. Finding herself a husband before graduating college would be the ideal choice. Her mother had done the same and it worked out well for her, she always said. Her mother, however, was solely defined by her marriage and was known for hardly anything else.
At one point in her adolescence, after many years of witnessing her parents teeter back and forth between marital bliss and monogamous torture, Margaret began to feel like marriage wasn’t for her. Signing a contract to spend the rest of your life with another person seemed like a prison sentence. The thought of matrimonial unions left Margaret feeling like she was trapped in a box, only escapable if you can survive through the multiple layers of societal shame. Margaret attempted to explain to her mother how she felt about marriage but was met with a dry, stern gaze and a six week cold shoulder.
Colin and Margaret mutually agreed that they would start out casual, but Margaret took their agreement too literally. After their first non-date, Margaret joined Colin back at his apartment for more drinks, and then drinks and music, and then drinks and music led to casually sleeping together. She knew in her mind that keeping it casual would help keep the focus on her and her plans. But inevitably, casual turned to intimate, which morphed into serious, all-consuming, overwhelming, head over heels love stuff. After almost four years of dating, they walked the graduation carpet together and were engaged before that following summer had concluded. Before she knew it, her life had shifted from ‘her plan’ to ‘our plan’.
“OH! You’re getting married?! My baby’s getting married!” Margaret’s mother shrieked as she flew across the room, her stiff pencil skirt barely containing her enthusiasm.
“Yes mom. We don’t want to make a big deal about it. Just something small, like on a beach somewhere—“
“Oh no no no. This is (and should be) your only wedding, Margaret. This is an occasion to celebrate! Don’t you want a big wedding like you see on all those TV shows?” Margaret thought about her mother’s DVR, 85% full of feminine-centric programming with little left for her dad’s sports shows.
“It’s just not really my thing mom. I’m the wallflower, remember?”
“Yes, Margaret. I’ve never understood that. I was always in the spotlight at your age and I assumed you would be just like me. Hmm…”
Hanging around her home, Margaret’s mother had wedding pictures plastered to every wall. Her mother decked head to toe in tulle, her dress cascading down the breathtaking cathedral steps. Margaret wondered if she would ever regret not having photos like that from her own wedding. Something as evidence that she had done it, like everyone else.
“Won’t you do it for me then?” Margaret’s mother asked. “I want you to have a big day Margaret, like I did.” Margaret could hear the desperation in her mother’s voice. The whiny pleading she grew so accustomed to growing up.
“Ugh. Fine. But nothing over the top! No band, no gifts, no doves- nothing like that. It has to be as simple as possible…” Her mother leapt around rejoicing and clapping her hands, rambling incessantly about tiered cakes and lace gowns and swing-style bands and lily centerpieces. Margaret rolled her eyes. “I said NO BAND!”
The diamond on Margaret’s finger anchored her to the hotel bed. It was the night before her wedding, and a part of her wondered if her bridesmaids would notice her leaping down the fire escape. Margaret had rented a big room at a ritzy hotel downtown to share one last hurrah with her best friends. She had expected girly movies, mimosas, and good old-fashioned gossip, not spending the night in the gentle arms of a panic attack.
“Tomorrow is the most important day of your life, are you excited?” Bethany said, shaking Margaret’s shoulders.
“Of course,” she replied, pushing open the window. A gush of salty city air enveloped her whole, finally letting her exhale. An emotional fever was raging inside of her, something she had come close to before but had never quite boiled over. Her friends were cackling loud, like geese, about their childhoods together, and which one of them actually guessed that Margaret would get married first out of all of them. A ripple of restlessness cascaded through her body, reverberating down and around and back.
The phone rang and it was Margaret’s mother, reminding her about when the photographers were showing up and to remember to bring Colin’s ring.
“Did you pack your dress?” Margaret’s mother asked.
“Don’t get snippy, I’m just trying to help. Have you tried it on recently? I told your father just the other day ‘if she keeps eating pizza all the time she’ll never fit in that dress.’ You need to try it on, Margaret.” Margaret started rubbing her forehead habitually like she always has done when her mother needles her about what she needs to do.
“Yes mom. I’m going to head to bed now, talk to you tomorrow.”
“Wait, Margaret. I just want to say before you go that I am really proud of you. I’m so proud of the beautiful woman you’ve become and nothing makes me happier as a parent than seeing you so happy. I really mean that.” Margaret wasn’t expecting niceties from her mom, especially after she listed multiple things she was lacking. A portion of the anxiety that locked up her body dissipated as she lay down to go over the list of to do’s in her head before tomorrow.
Margaret woke up a woman ready to get married. She had a cloudy memory of the night before, but swallowed it down with aspirin and several servings of fresh mimosas. Her mother arrived to wrap her up in the dream, head to toe ivory satin. She was waited on hand and foot, being passed off from one person to another, make-up-hair-nails-etc, making sure the end product was as beautiful as possible. Margaret’s mother snapped photos and chimed in often, reminding people that this was a big day for her too.
After the lengthy photo session an hour later, the girls retired to the bridal suite to relax and take advantage of the free champagne and snacks provided. Margaret snuck down the hall and peeked through the curtains to see the elaborate setting she designed with her mother for the occasion. Flowers decorated every table, cascading down transparent vases. Drooping chandeliers caught the intimate candlelight from every angle, reflecting back on the faces she loved. Colin shook her father’s hand firmly, smiling and remarking on the atmosphere, both with drinks in hand. Margaret leaned in to hear them but couldn’t over the ambulance passing by outside, roaring its urgent protest. Above the two men, a banner read, “Mr. and Mrs. Colin Hamilton” in black and teal. It was at that moment that Margaret realized this wasn’t a union, but a transfer of possession. This small affair her mother promised her had turned into a circus, and she felt trapped as the headlining act.
She could feel the candles licking her legs maliciously, setting fire to her skin and spiraling her into a fever. The chandeliers blinded her vision, while the faint aroma of lilies overpowered her, causing her stomach to revolt. She was pulled inside herself and was then guided by strings.
She could see the ribbon-ensconced archways, the castle of pink pastel wedding gifts, the guests milling around the cocktail table aimlessly. She couldn’t be around any of it anymore. Even inside the gown corseted to her body, she was gasping for air. Quickly she stole a cutting tool from the catering trays and scurried to the safety of the women’s bathroom. Using the mirror, she turned to see herself slicing through the silk ivory ties that confined her. Nothing had ever sounded as satisfying as a designer wedding gown being ripped in half with a dirty box cutter.
Margaret found mercy on the cool marble-tiled floor, lying half naked in white lingerie.
After a lengthy search for the missing bride, Bethany found Margaret in front of the bathroom mirror, and Margaret’s dress in chaotic tatters on the floor. Margaret was examining her pupils carefully, unaware or unashamed by her state of dress.
“Margaret…,” Bethany said. “I don’t even know where to start…what are you thinking?” Margaret turned toward her like she was the answer to her escape.
“Bethany, go get my cocktail dress, the one I packed for after the reception.”
“Go now. Don’t tell anyone about what you’ve seen and don’t come back without it.” Bethany looked as if a light had been extinguished inside her. Margaret held back the urge to put the dress back on and shout for her mother. Part of her wanted to do just that.
The bathroom door swung open to reveal Margaret’s mother with Bethany peaking from the crook of her mother’s angered stance.
“I’m sorry, Margaret. I had to tell your mom. Clearly there’s something wrong with you…” Bethany stammered as Margaret’s mother shut her unceremoniously out of the bathroom. Her mother gazed upon the frayed, dissected remains of the designer wedding dress she had paid for. She looked around, catching sight of the box cutter on the corner of the sink, and finally taking in Margaret’s exposed body.
“I don’t even know where to start, Margaret.” Margaret shifted uncomfortably, her juvenile slouch returning, like a child being chastised after caught writing on the walls.
“Do you know how many people are here for you? How many people are our friends and family- what will they think? Were you listening to your rambunctious friends again? I always said you should have surrounded yourself with happier people but-“
“It’s not them, mom. It’s you. It’s this whole thing,” Margaret motioned towards the dress and what lay beyond the bathroom door. “The flowers, the dress, the venue, the wedding- it’s all too much.”
“But it’s what you wanted, Margaret. We are here for you.”
“No, mom, this is what you wanted. It’s always about what you want. I have spent my entire life trying to carve my own path in life, experiment with new things, but you always steered me right back to how you lived your life. Did you ever consider that I might want more than what you’ve done?” Her mother’s face shriveled, on the verge of either an eruption of tears or unfiltered anger. Margaret considered stopping, but instead rocked her shoulders back and kept going.
“This whole wedding thing is not who I am,” Margaret lifted the lifeless dress from the floor and threw it at her mother’s feet. “It is who you are. It was hard enough for me to agree to marriage in general. I tried explaining that to you at one point but you treated me like a leper for speaking out against an American family tradition…”
“Margaret…” her mother put her hand up in protest. “You’re my only girl. I just wanted to give you the life that every little girl wants. I have always worked so hard to give you the fairy tale you deserve.” She picked up the crumbled wedding dress and spread it out across her chest, smoothing down wrinkles and tears.
“But what if I don’t want the fairy tale?”
Margaret and her mother stared at each other for a moment, both considering what has happened now and over the past 25 years. The obligatory bond they shared up to this point was just that, a relationship completely fabricated and erroneously measured against what was expected of a mother-daughter connection. One of them had a list of requirements, flowed down from years of societal expectations, while the other one was working from a blank canvas. Margaret’s mother put the wedding dress back on the bathroom floor and stretched out her hand to Margaret. The two embraced silently before Margaret slumped back, remembering that she was standing in a public bathroom, in front of her mother, in an intricate design of white lingerie.
“Yeah, sorry,” Margaret laughed. “I kind of freaked out there for a second.” She looked around the bathroom for clothes, finally reflecting on the fact that she never came up with a back up plan. Her mother smiled.
“I’ll go get you the cocktail dress you packed.” She started for the door but Margaret caught her mother by the elbow.
“Mom…what should we tell everyone?”
“Whatever you want.” Her mother smiled before exiting. Margaret shifted back towards the mirror to wash off the sheets of make up caked on her face. As the colors from the foundation and blush coiled down the sink drain, she contemplated black sand beaches, Mai Tais, and Colin at her side.
*Nicole McCarthy is a Writing Studies major at the University of Washington Tacoma, where she is also the Editor in Chief of the literary arts magazine, Tahoma West. After graduating in 2015 she plans on pursuing an MFA in creative writing. She lives south of Tacoma with her awesome husband and two fur babies.