The college was started back in the day when educational opportunities for women were limited. It had grown over almost a century into a venerable institution with a Gothic style campus dotted with majestic oaks. Several buildings on campus were named after Ellie’s wealthy family who were prominent donors. Ellie was a large, short-sighted girl who wore this inheritance awkwardly. She was self-conscious about her weight, not particularly academically gifted, her innate kindness hidden under shyness. Lily and I were scholarship girls. My family were blue-collar, and I was the first to go to college. That made me unusual among the daughters of the wealthy elites who comprised most of the student body. I was regarded as a curiosity, but other than the occasional snide comment or snigger when I made some social faux pas, was not singled out. Lily referred to herself sardonically as the token Asian. Her parents had met in Vietnam. When her father brought her mother and baby Lily back to the States, his family promptly cut him off. He succumbed to PTSD and addiction, leaving Lily’s mother a single parent in a hostile community. Tall like her father, with her mother’s flawless complexion and black hair, Lily was an exotic beauty, fiercely intelligent and totally fearless. Woe betides any of the students who tried to patronize her, much less insult her. They grudgingly learned to respect her but refused to befriend her. Ellie, Lily and I drifted into a friendship of circumstance, nicknamed the three Musketeers, though we might equally have been called the three misfits. Lily was the leader and instigator of our hesitant attempts to try alcohol, meet boys, smoke or otherwise misbehave. I am sure she found us frustrating because Ellie was too timid, and I was too worried about losing my scholarship to be adventurous. Lily charmed her way out of any trouble she got into. I doubt that we could have done the same.
We kept in touch sporadically after graduation. To the consternation of her family, Ellie became a social worker, thriving on the challenges of working with disadvantaged teenagers.
“My mother cannot understand why I don’t want to wear pearls and meet suitable young men,” she said, when we got together for dinner a few months later. Her awkwardness was gone as she talked passionately about her career plans, eyes sparkling. “I love what I’m doing. Those kids don’t care how much I weigh or what my name is. What about you?”
“Totally clichéd,” I said. “I’m working in an insurance office during the day and bar tending at night while all my manuscripts of the great American novel are being regularly rejected.”
Our laughter died away as Lily appeared, beautiful as ever, but looking distressed. She ordered a martini immediately.
“Sorry, girls,” she said, taking a big swig. “It’s been rough. My mom was killed in a car accident last month. I lost my job because I had to take time off to deal with all of that, and now I’m about to get kicked out of my apartment because I got behind on the rent.”
Ellie and I stared in shock. Ellie gently patted Lily’s arm.
“I can talk to my parents. They have plenty of room now that I have my own place. You could stay there till you get back on your feet.”
Lily stared at her, tears welling.
“Really? You’d be willing to do that? I’d do housework, whatever…”
Ellie and I glanced at each other. Lily was notorious for her lack of domesticity. Her dorm room typically looked as if a tornado had gone through it.
“Thanks for the offer, but my parents already have a housekeeper. Give me a moment. I’ll step outside and call them.”
She returned a few moments later, beaming.
“No problem. You can move in whenever you want.”
Lily hugged her.
“I can’t thank you enough. It will be temporary, I promise.”
I was busy for the next few months working and applying for grad school. One evening my doorbell rang. Ellie was standing there, weeping bitterly.
“Ellie? What’s wrong?” I said, guiding her inside. “Come in and sit down.”
She was crying so hard that she was incoherent. I passed tissues and made tea, waiting until her tears had subsided to an occasional choking sob. She clutched the mug and sipped.
“It’s Lily,” she finally said, looking exhausted. “She’s taken my father.”
“What do you mean, taken him?”
“While she’s been staying with my parents, she’s been having an affair with my father. He wants to divorce my mother and marry her. I could kill them both.”
“That is gross! He’s twice her age. How could she repay your mother’s kindness that way? Have you talked to Lily?”
“According to her, she never meant for it to happen, but love finds a way, or something equally nauseating. I don’t believe that for a minute. She always was single minded when she decided to do something. My mother and I have had our differences, but I hate to see her humiliated like this under her own roof. It’s not fair. When he strayed before, it was out of sight, out of mind. She could pretend it didn’t happen. He’s besotted this time.”
I hugged her and headed to the kitchen, waving a corkscrew.
“Girl, I think we need something stronger than tea.”
She smiled tremulously.
Ellie’s parents did split up and her father married Lily as soon as the divorce was final. Ellie did not attend the wedding.
“I know all I need to about my new step-mother,” she said bitterly.
Lily and her new husband were in the news from time to time at various public and social events over the next few months. He lost weight, colored his hair and had his teeth whitened. Lily, always beautiful, even graced some magazine covers, dressed in designer couture and borrowed jewelry. Ellie threw herself into her work and avoided them both. She called to invite me to lunch one day a few months later.
The restaurant she had suggested was very upscale. I looked nervously at the menu prices, doing frantic mental arithmetic with my budget. Ellie laughed.
“Don’t worry. It’s Mother’s treat. It was her idea. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course I don’t mind. It’s just that I remember when you two couldn’t be in the same room together.”
“Very true, but things can change. Here she comes. You’ll see a big difference.”
I blinked again as her mother approached. Her stiff, frosty blonde hair was now in a youthful pixie cut and in place of her pearls and twin set, she was wearing dangling handcrafted earrings and an embroidered blouse. She hugged us both and sat down. We ordered our food, and she poured the wine. She beamed at me.
“How are you, dear? I must thank you for standing by Ellie during such a rough patch.”
“It’s fine,” I stammered, embarrassed. “I’m sorry... I mean, we never suspected Lily would, was a, a…”
“A home wrecker is the quaint, old-fashioned term. Don’t worry about it. She did me a big favor although I didn’t appreciate it at the time. Ellie’s father always was a tom cat, but I didn’t have the courage to challenge him. Scared, I suppose. Now I can't believe I put up with it for so long. When the Lily situation came about, it forced my hand. Ellie helped me grow a backbone. She made sure I got a sharp divorce lawyer. I’m well situated financially, and I am enjoying my freedom.”
“Speaking of divorce lawyers, Father is now looking for one.”
“Well!” said her mother. “How do you know that? Have you talked to him?”
“Yes, he took me out to dinner the other evening as a peace offering,” said Ellie, enjoying our rapt expressions.
“I'm not surprised. I didn’t expect it to last,” said her mother. “Did she get tired of him already? With her looks, she’d have no trouble meeting someone her own age.”
“No, he’s the one who’s met someone his own age,” said Ellie, laughing. “I don’t know whether Lily loves him or his money, but she certainly has been taking his health seriously. He’s had to go to the gym and the doctor and watch his diet. She makes him do Sudoku, go to intellectual films and read books. Mental activity prevents dementia, according to her. He can't take it any more. It’s funny. He should have been careful what he wished for.”
Ellie’s mother shook her head.
“This is a man whose idea of exercise was riding round the golf course in a cart and going back to the clubhouse for a steak dinner afterwards. His only reading material was the financial news. Kudos to her for trying but I could have told her it was a lost cause. Who’s the new woman?”
“Her name's Felicity Snodgrass. He said she is an old friend he had lost touch with. They recently reconnected and he's been crying on her shoulder .”
"Hah," said Ellie's mother. “Old friend? That's one way of describing her. He had a fling with her years ago while we were married. She’s gained fifty pounds since then and her idea of a good time is going shopping, getting her hair done and gossiping. She’s as intellectual as a doorknob. They’ll suit perfectly.”
She raised her glass.
“Cheers, girls. All's well that ends well."