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The Choice

How a Stranger Changed my Life

By Harmony KentPublished about a year ago Updated about a year ago 10 min read
Top Story - April 2023
The Choice
Photo by Chloe Evans on Unsplash

As usual, Bradly led the way while I followed behind with my head hung. My eyes echoed my mood and scraped along the scuffed shop floor. I did not want to be here. This posh clothing store served old ladies, not a fashionable 19-year-old woman. But he’d insisted. He always insisted. Always got his way. After a couple of years in the relationship, I’d learnt the hard way to just give him what he wanted. Safer that way, and a lot less hassle. No point in being the slow horse, who needed to feel the bite of the whip before obeying. No, much wiser to gauge his mood and comply as quickly as possible.

The rows of racked clothes crowded the narrow walkways and enhanced my feelings of claustrophobia and desperation to escape. But to where? And from what? Myself?—a bit difficult to run from my useless life and even more ridiculous attempts to feel attractive and needed.

At the sight of the skirt-and-top outfit my boyfriend held aloft, my already tight throat constricted further, and the smirk of superiority on his face didn’t help. My eyes burned as hot tears threatened. I can’t cry. Not in here. God—as if I’m not stupid enough. A middle-aged woman caught my gaze over the top of the carousel in between us. Was that pity in her eyes? A sigh huffed from my aching chest. She must think me an absolute imbecile. Quickly, I lowered my gaze so I didn’t have to look at her or my partner. What did he ever see in me, anyway?

After Bradly brandished the hanger-draped garments inches from my nose, I gaped in horror at the maroon monstrosity of pleated, shin-length skirt and paisley jacket-style top. Without thinking, I blurted, ‘That’s like something my Grandma would wear.’

His frown was immediate, dark, and menacing. My shoulders hunched forwards, and I shrank in on myself, waiting for the verbal slap. Any physical retribution would wait until we were back in the privacy of our home and where nobody could interfere. The burning in my eyes intensified, and my throat felt almost closed solid. I gulped and struggled to breathe around the lump which had formed in my airway.

Bradly scoffed. ‘What would you know? You’re clueless when it comes to how to dress. I mean, come on, when have you ever shopped in a proper store like this?’ In other words, You’re council estate poor and don’t know what elegance is.

My complexion blanched even as my cheeks flushed crimson and stung with the fierce rush of heat. I dropped my head lower still until my chin brushed my chest. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. It was no good, though, and I had to blink furiously and try to redirect my thoughts of self-loathing onto something less dangerous.

Frantic to avoid the eventual humiliation of having to actually wear the grannyfied two-piece, I cast my gaze around the other offerings on the carousel rack in front of me. A straight, black pencil skirt hung beneath a mustard-coloured jacket-style top, edged with an inch-wide black border and boasting four large, ornate gold-coloured buttons down its centre—there for decoration only as the jacket was actually a pull-on top. While not my first choice by a long shot, it was a damn sight better than the ugly-granny-outfit Bradly still waggled in the air. His next words undid the power he’d gained and stirred my anger, turning it outward instead of its usual inward trajectory. ‘My mum would love this.’

I’m not your mother, I wanted to yell in his face. She’s retired. I’m still a teenager. But, of course, I verbalised none of this. Mute, I showed my newfound defiance by yanking the black/mustard suit from the rack and holding it up in front of my face.

His hard voice showed me his fury without my having to brave his glare. ‘You are not wearing that.’

Still with my head lowered, but my chin now jutted out, I demurred. ‘I like this one. That one’s horrible. It would suit your mum but it’s not me.’ If I’d hoped my last words would placate him, that silly aspiration found a quick but painful demise.

‘This looks better for you.’ He refused to relinquish his choice of outfit for me.

A tentative yet firm female voice interrupted our argument-not-argument. ‘I think this one is more you.’

I glanced up and met the kind smile and warm, sympathetic eyes of the woman I’d caught glancing at me earlier. With deliberation, she moved her eyes slowly from me to the black/mustard outfit. When she spoke again, she held my gaze and acted as though I stood there alone. In gentle tones, she said, ‘The maroon one is too old for a young thing such as you.’

A tingling warmth suffused my stiff limbs and loosened the habitual tension I carried with me. My eyes filled with tears, but this time from gratitude rather than mortification or fear. With my choice gripped protectively against my chest, I took a step toward the stranger and smiled tentatively. She guided me to the nearby full-length mirror and stood behind me. Together, we arranged the skirt and top so it hung from its hanger at shoulder height and down my front. In the reflection, she nodded and gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze.

Off to the side, momentarily forgotten and not liking it, Bradly huffed and scoffed. However, he stayed silent, which left me shocked and shaken. I’d expected him to berate the woman in the same way he always rebuked me. What’s going on? I glanced from him to my new friend, and when she met his eyes, hers had grown hard and cold—a far cry from her soft, encouraging demeanour toward me.

Though I didn’t know the woman, and though I would have to face the music once we got to the car, her support gave me the boost in strength I so badly needed. Resolved, I tugged the hated outfit from Bradly’s slackened grip, shoved it back onto the rack, and strode toward the tills.

At first, my boyfriend didn’t move. Shock, I supposed, kept him rooted in place. The woman moved away, and I felt bereft and afraid once more. Then I noticed she shadowed me but from a non-invasive distance. I felt torn. On the one hand, to choose this outfit was to humiliate Bradly. But on the other, the woman was right, and surely it should be up to me to pick what I liked?

A moment of epiphany struck me—there and gone in a flash, but the seeds were planted in eager soil—my partner chose my hairstyle and even decided my level of make-up … every aspect of my appearance, in fact. He controlled my everyday existence, and it wasn’t okay. Today, he’d suggested I wear my hair down with no hairspray or other styling aids. Because it was so fine and fly-away, I hated wearing it like this, but he told me it suited me better, so I went along with it. The same with his comment that I didn’t need make-up because I had good skin. While I welcomed the compliment, I resented being told how to present myself. This brief glimpse of wrongness, along with the support of the kind stranger, emboldened me, and I took my choice to the till. A thunder cloud followed me out of the store and toward the multi-story car park.

The wrathful storm broke only once we were seated in the relative privacy of the Ford Escort with nobody else in sight, except for a lone mother and toddler in the distance. ‘How dare you embarrass me like that?’ He was so angry his words came out in a breathy hiss, and spittle flew from his mouth and speckled my hands, which I clenched in my lap. Terrified, I kept my head down and my mouth shut.

‘Don’t ever do that to me again.’

I gave the barest of nods. Once again, my throat tightened and the familiar burning afflicted my eyes. My cheeks stung with heat of their own. Shame and pride warred within. Though not my nicest wardrobe item, the mustard and black two-piece would become my favourite outfit from here on in. The fact that I’d chosen it for myself, and even defied Bradly, gave it an allure it would otherwise never have held for me.

By Stefany Andrade on Unsplash

When we eventually got together with Bradly’s family for his mum’s 65th birthday party, and everyone said how nice I looked, I quite enjoyed the restrained-rage glower on his face. After that, I wore the skirt and top as often as I could get away with, and the stranger’s warm smile and sympathetic gaze found a permanent home in the back of my mind and sustained me through the hard times to come.

Though it took a few more years, and a lot more hard knocks, the seeds she planted bore fruit, finally, and I got myself out of that abusive relationship. A difficult road lay ahead, but each independent step smoothed the paving stones beneath my clumsy feet. Without that woman, I never would have spotted how unacceptable Bradly’s controlling behaviour was. Nor how much value my opinions and choices held. I could never have begun to recognise or unpack my devastating self-esteem issues. And until we see a thing, we cannot hope to heal. In our blindness, we allow such self-loathing and judgement to wield its power over us with neither challenge nor surcease.

To this day, I remain grateful to that stranger and regret I never got to know her or thank her. At the time, I couldn’t have known how significant that brief encounter in the store would prove to be or how much it would change my life. Without the beacon of hope her passing ship illuminated for my dark and sinking vessel, I may not have survived let alone thrived. For certain, I wouldn’t be here today to tell you this tale.

Coercion and control are never okay. No matter the gender or age or relationship. It took the bravery and compassion of a stranger to guide me to this all-important truth.

[Author’s Note: This all took place in or around 1991, when my experience of the world showed it to be a much more male dominated place than in recent years. However, with the changes in law regarding abortion and what feels like a steady undermining of hard-won women’s rights, it seems as if we are moving full circle and going backwards. Domestic abuse, as well as stranger danger toward women, is once more a full-blown problem that occurs so often it feels normal to fear going out alone, even in broad daylight, never mind in the dark of night. Though that fear has never truly gone away, it looms large anew. Now, more than ever, we need to protect one another and call out abuse when we see it. Even if all we can offer is a gentle nudge and a nebulous show of support—which reduces the chance of retaliation—it’s better than turning away and pretending we don’t see what’s happening. Who knows when a mere smile or a simple nod of encouragement could change a victim’s life?]


About the Creator

Harmony Kent

The multi-genre author who gets write into your head

I began writing at 40 after a life-changing injury. An avid reader & writer, I love to review & support my fellow authors.

Find Me:


Story Empire

Amazon Author Page




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Comments (44)

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  • educa earnabout a year ago

    Please read my story

  • Grace Morganabout a year ago

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  • Diana Peachabout a year ago

    I figured out how to comment, Harmony! What a powerful story and powerful message about kindness. Sometimes the smallest show of support for someone who's struggling plants those important seeds of change. I appreciated your personal comment at the end. We must refuse to slide backwards into those dark times. Hugs and congrats!

  • Leslie Writesabout a year ago

    I’m so glad you got out of that relationship. You are strong and brave. That woman’s kindness was only the seed. 🌼 Amazing story, beautifully written!

  • D.L. Finnabout a year ago

    An amazing story, Harmony. It broke my heart it was true, but reminded us how we can all help each other too. Xo

  • Oh my, even I'm so grateful to her! This story was so inspirational! Congratulations on your Top Story!

  • Mae Clairabout a year ago

    This is an amazing story, Harmony, but gut-wrenching to know it's true. I am so thankful for the woman who paved the way for you to step out in courage, and I applaud your strength.

  • Mark Gagnonabout a year ago

    It's amazing how one simple act of compliance can lead to years of servitude to a bully but one act of defiance may eventually lead to freedom.

  • Dark Moon Empireabout a year ago

    Im so proud of you for walking away from that situtation. The woman you become when finallt freeing yourself from that is unexplainable. This was beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  • Claireabout a year ago

    Congratulations on top story:) It is well deserved, you have articulated your experience and emotions so well. Thank you for sharing

  • Shadow Jamesabout a year ago

    Thanks for such a wonderful and inspirational read. Great job escaping that relationship!

  • Caroline Cravenabout a year ago

    I’m glad you got out of this relationship. I think you were incredibly brave then, and I think you’re incredibly brave again now sharing your story.

  • Kristen Balyeatabout a year ago

    Thank you for this very vulnerable share, Harmony! You are so brave! I'm so happy you found your way out of that relationship. My heart broke for you, but I also silently said "f*%$ yeah" when you boldly wore the outfit you chose. I will carry your story with me. No doubt it will make me even more aware of the needs of strangers. Thank you for sharing!

  • CS Boyackabout a year ago

    Outstanding work, Harmony.

  • Mohammad Awais Khanabout a year ago

    you did well. Amazing story

  • Brenton Fabout a year ago

    Very well written! And if I may say so, Bradly seems like a bit of a dick!

  • Farhan Mirza about a year ago

    awesome work

  • Miriam Hurdleabout a year ago

    Excellent writing and insight! I've seen it happen.

  • J. R. Loweabout a year ago

    Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry to hear you had to go through all of this but I’m so happy it worked out in the end. Thank you for sharing such a raw and beautifully told story about your life. Really inspiring stuff 👏❤️

  • Kendall Defoe about a year ago

    Screw Bradly. I am glad you shared this with us and I hope that you are in a better place. Great work!

  • Staci Troiloabout a year ago

    "My eyes echoed my mood and scraped along the scuffed shop floor." That line did more to describe this "character" than a full novel would have. Nicely done, Harmony.

  • Strong and Well vocalized 😍❤️😉✨Congratulations on Your Top Story✨🎉🎉💯❗❗❗

  • Mary Haynesabout a year ago

    Fantastic story! Riveting and as it occurred to me that there was as truth and personal experience in the story. Yes, we have to keep fighting. We can’t go back to being possessions on display or useful servants!

  • John W. Howellabout a year ago

    An incredible story, Harmony. I'm so glad you were inspired to leave that relationship. Maybe your account will help someone else see the light as well.

  • Kayla Lindleyabout a year ago

    I know this based off of true events, however your dialogue is natural and realistic, which made everything feel more authentic.

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