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Chilled afternoon, gray like the sky and the falling rain. People wrapped in newspaper go by half-sprinting, and others scuffle along huddled beneath large umbrellas. Maureen, the hairstylist, is as gray as the day. Her pale blonde hair is matted against the sides of her face, and she slumps against the faded red brick walls of the building’s back porch. A cigarette smolders in her grim-lipped mouth, and sizzles each time a droplet finds the cherry, threatening to go out. Maureen doesn't seem to notice—her eyes float in their sockets, lacking focus, idly staring at nothing whatsoever.

Maureen had not moved for some time. Already her clothes were soaking through, and perhaps even if it began to hail she'd remain, with her dying cigarette and her far-off eyes, oblivious. The door to the back porch opens.

“Your smoke break was finished with ten minutes ago!”

Maureen starts, and through the everywhere curtain of water sees her boss, Trinka, hands on hips and eyes narrowed.

“You’re soaked, Maureen! And we have customers to deal with! Inside, inside!”

The wet hairstylist nods and flicks her cigarette, turning wordlessly to the door and stepping inside.

“Get yourself cleaned up now, I can’t have you cutting hair like this. Use the bathroom.”

Maureen nods again, and moves toward the bathroom.

“Not there, not there, can’t you see that’s my only good rug? Go around!” Maureen looks to the back door and twitches, as if she means to run for it, but after a moment her eyes stop darting and she steps aside, tottering along on the linoleum instead. She reaches the bathroom door and steps over the rug, sighing.

“Clean up all the water on the floor, too. And don’t be long in there, Maureen, I’m not paying you to mope around. What’s the matter with you, anyhow?”

In the doorway, Maureen turns. “My husband. Left me for another woman. Monday.” But Trinka hadn’t waited around for an answer, had waddled back into the showroom and Maureen hears her addressing a customer. Her voice is high, tittering with too much zeal.

Maureen towels her hair, wrings her clothes. Another ten minutes and she is holding an old woman’s dark hair in her hands, shearing it slowly and without much precision. Her mind is somewhere else.

“Girl, I have somewhere to be in twenty minutes,” the old woman says, clicking her tongue. Maureen’s eyes refocus, and her snips quicken. “I’m sorry. I must be a little off today.”

“Got something on your mind, have you?”

“Hmm? Yes, I suppose I do. My husband left me for another woman. Can you believe? Just this Monday.”

The old woman blinks, and sniffs, adjusting herself in the seat as she rolls her head further back. “Oh. Well, you’ll get over it. Happens to everyone.”

“I got home from work and all of his things were just-”

“You know, I think I might want highlights. All of the younger women are doing that nowadays. I could look decades younger.”

Maureen’s car idles in front of her home. She glances at it. Too empty, she thinks, and makes a decision. Her friend Rita, a sorority mate from university. She lives in the city, and Maureen will visit. Drop by anytime, hadn't she said that? Yes, Maureen thinks so. Rita will listen, will understand. This, or the absence of her husband in the house they had bought together. Maureen dashes inside to write down the address and is off again just as soon.

The door opens and Rita is standing there with her mouth shaped like a Q and with eyes that don’t quite register what they see. She is wearing a black sequined dress and pearls around her neck, her hair poised above her head like a nest of serpents ready to uncoil.

“Oh. Dear Lord. Muh...Maureen? Is that you? Oh! I haven’t seen you in - well, since.” The woman clears her throat. “Come in, don’t stand out there. I’ve missed you, what’s the occasion?”

“I came by because. I needed a friend, I needed to not be alone.”

“Oh? How unfortunate.”

“I was hoping we’d be able to talk.”

Rita clicks her tongue. “Ooh. It’s not the best of times. Peter and I were just getting ready to leave for a dinner party. I would invite you but, well, you just couldn’t show up looking like that. You’d have to change, and by then...”

Maureen looks around. There's a couch in the living room, but Rita hadn't asked her to sit.

“Oh, of course, Rita. I should have called. And thank you about the dinner party, but it’s best if I don’t go, anyway. I have things to do at home.” The thought of home chills her, the place is no longer one of love. “I’m sorry for intruding.” A man’s voice calls from the other room.

“Rita, I can’t find those cuff links you bought me, have you put them somewhere?”

A man walks through a hallway door. “Oh.”

“Peter, this is Maureen. One of my oldest friends. From college. Maureen, this is my husband.”

“Hello.” Maureen nods. Peter tips his head forward to look at her over the tops of his glasses. “Hello. You look...are you all right?

“She’s fine, Peter, she just came to say hi. We don’t have time, I told her we’re on our way to a dinner party.”

Peter waves his hand. “Nonsense. You haven’t seen Maureen since college? Talk! The dinner party doesn’t start for another forty minutes anyhow. And between you and me,” he winks at Maureen, “If you knew about the dinner parties Rita has dragged me to you’d know how much I hate being early, or even on time.”

“But Peter,”

“Sit. Talk.” He smiles at Maureen and walks back into the bedroom. Rita regards Maureen politely and touches the ring of pearls around her neck. “So. Come into the kitchen. I don’t see why we can’t sit for a minute.”


The kitchen table is wiped clean, an angelic pair of salt and pepper shakers smiling widely. Maureen looks at her lap. Rita licks her lip and Maureen thinks for the first time, Maybe I shouldn’t have come, I’m inconveniencing her. She doesn’t even want me here.

“My husband. He left me a note. Monday and he was gone, he took all of his clothes, his things. He said it was another woman, he said.” Her lips tremble but she does not cry. “He never said goodbye and he was my.” She doesn’t say it. “When I found him I was done looking. It’s not true, they say it’s not true, that love is a myth and it’s all just. But now that he’s gone it’s like he’s dead.”

Maureen looks to see the effect of her words, but sees none. Rita is drumming her fingers on the table.

“Monday. It happened Monday,” Maureen says. It's all she knows for certain.

“Yes, well.” Another sigh from the other woman. “You know, my dear, it was bound to happen, of course. I was there when you were married, you remember. I told you then that he would never be able to stay faithful. That it was only a matter of time.” She leans in, whisper-ing, “And there is no changing the fact that he probably wished he had married someone more...well, Maureen, you were never the most beautiful girl in the room.”

“He wrote me a note. In the note it said he loved me.”

“Of course it did. Do you know why he left? Was there someone else? How was the sex? Men only know one thing. Was that it? If you can’t please your man in the bedroom, you can’t expect him to stay with you.”

Maureen’s throat closes up and she begins to wonder what she’ll do when she leaves here, when she finds herself back in her car, alone.

“No, I...I suppose that might have been it.”

“There you are then. I wouldn’t be so upset about it, it was going to happen. You know that. You saw it coming, didn’t you?” Maureen’s eyes close. She saw no such thing. She can’t think straight. “He was gone when I got home, he was gone and the note and he never said goodbye and I don’t know how I’m going to—”

“Yes, yes. It’s a bad situation.” Rita was standing up. “But I really must, I mean, Peter and I really must be going. The dinner party isn’t going to wait for us, you know.”

“Oh. Of course. Thank you for listening.”

Rita comes forth with a wide grin and an arm that wraps around Maureen’s shoulder like a snake. ”Of course, Maureen. You’ve always been a dear, dear friend.”

She’s ushered to the door. “Thanks again,” she says, as the door shuts. From inside, she hears, “Peter!”

In the car on the way home Maureen tries not to think. Being alone is even worse at this point than being told to consider the possibility that it was her fault her husband had left her. It hadn’t been, had it? She had loved him as hard as she’d been able. Still did, in fact. If she gets home and he is there waiting for her, asking for forgiveness she'll give it. Even if he isn't asking for it. She’ll even vow to never throw it in his face during an argument. The thought spurs her on, drives her foot into the gas pedal as her car speeds up. The night air whistles past the tiny crack in her driver’s side window and she turns up the radio, the drone of some call-in advice show filling her ears but not her head. Her head is filled with thoughts of her husband. He's home. She can feel it. He'll be there, waiting for me. His car parked on the road. It's almost certainty at this point, and she can’t bear to think how she'll feel if she's wrong.

But the spot is empty. What Maureen feels is disbelief.

At work the next day her eyes are hot and red from lost sleep. She cuts hair, and she can see in their faces that she’s not there; that she’s not human to them. Just a necessary thing. A cashier at the head of a check-out lane. But she keeps catching her mouth opening, her words spilling out. “My husband.” She needs to talk - it's like her need to drink, or urinate. Soon it will be four days since her husband left and she still hasn't talked about it properly. She ought to mention how he'd whispered in the dark how he couldn’t believe he’d gotten so lucky, how she’d been unable to stop smiling, even when he couldn’t see. She ought to say just what the letter had said, word for word, and how she’d fallen to the ground clutching her heart, screaming for him in case it had been some sick joke. Her listener would hold her hand, sigh and nod in all the right places. Maureen would tell, and her listener’s eyes would grow dark and tearful, and she’d hear how sorry they were.

Two more customers come in, and Maureen’s hand is itching for a cigarette. She notices one of them, a man.

“Maureen. Hello," the man says. "You remember me from yesterday, don’t you?”

“Peter. Yes.”

He climbs into her chair and smiles at her.

“Guess today was my day for a haircut.” Then, furrowing his brow, “Are you all right? You look terrible.”

She giggles. “I’m going insane. My husband left me. I can’t-”

”Your husband left you?” he takes her hand. “How horrible.”

She closes her eyes and can feel it coming, a waterfall of sorrow, dropping words onto her tongue. “I don’t want to be a bother. It was Monday.”

“No, no. I want to hear.” He looks into her eyes and Maureen is dizzy with relief.

Peter's face is a mask of concern. He sits, waiting.

Maureen is carried away and tells him everything.

Pay what you want

This story appears in Clayton's Secret Notebook. Get the collection on

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