When Rachel shifts or crosses her legs when she sits in the salon chair at Stuart’s, he bats at her shoulder, his other hand menacing with glinting scissors or straight razor.
“Sit up!” he says. “Je-sus.”
The idea that she spends one hundred and sixty dollars to have her hair styled while listening to Stuart’s problems makes her blood pulse in the tops of her ears, enough so she can see them shiny and red in the mirror.
Worst of all is that today, she had an appointment with her lawyer right before coming to Stuart’s. One hour with Lester Richards, JD, who refuses to do email, talking into one of those old Dictaphone things that his poor “girl” will transcribe later. Rachel is furious she hired him, but she could barely stand to interview one lawyer, much less the recommended three her best friend Lexa suggested. If Rachel ever gets divorced again (which would first necessitate dating, which she knows she can never do) she will hire her almost ex-husband’s lawyer, a mean, hard woman who gets everything he asks for.
Unlike Lester Richards, the mean lawyer would never ask, “Are you being reasonable?” when Rachel asks about their kitchenware and linens and dishware. The bedroom dresser. Her wedding china.
The mean lawyer would never say, “Do you really want that stuff?”
The mean lawyer would just get it all for her.
Yes, of course, I want that stuff! she wants to yell at Lester Richards. And now, noting a white and rose teacup on Mindy’s station next to Stuart’s, Rachel recalls the hours she spent picking out her wedding china. There she’d been, 22, thumbing through a binder filled with patterns that all looked the same, being polite to the smiling clerks with the endless questions about dresses and flowers. It was so important then, as if her long, good marriage, her house, her children, her eventual old age with her old, known husband certainly had to begin with a set of twelve dinner, salad, and dessert plates.
“What is wrong with you today?” Stuart says, scissors up, strands of her hair falling to the floor at his feet. “You look like death.”
Rachel could say the same to him. She’s been coming to Stuart for over ten years. The past two, he’s been whittled down to bone, his face the face of a man their age, mid-forties, cheekbones starting to sink, wrinkles around the eyes. He’s let his hair go gray despite all the dyes around him.
He isn’t HIV-positive, and he doesn’t have AIDS. He is not on a drug regime or immunosuppressant cocktail. Rachel knows this because he often tells her that he gets tested every three months, which seems excessive, given that he’s married to Jay, a political advisor to the mayor of a big town. Stuart won’t tell her which town, though he tells her everything else about Jay, including that he has a hairy back and that they never have sex, not anymore. Not for a long time.
“So?” he asks. “Issues?”
“The divorce,” she says, trying not to move, lest he bat at her again. “I saw my lawyer today.”
“Again? Jesus,” Stuart says. “Is that still going on? I thought you’d be done by now.”
Rachel thought she’d be done, too, but she and her still-husband Dean are arguing over a small vacation home Rachel’s father left her. When she was growing up, it was the tiny two-bedroom house in Sonoma her family went to for the long summer break, her father Howard driving up from Walnut Creek on hot, dusty Friday afternoons. Rachel and her sister Tina would hike, play in the river, and ride bikes to the downtown square during the day, licking ice cream cones in the shade of store awnings. It was so hot in the afternoons that blobs of gum melted on the sidewalk in slick, waxy pools and even the sparrows stayed hidden under the bushes.
At night, the four of them would sit out on the big back deck and look up at the stars, telling stories and jokes; there was no television in the house until she and Dean bought a satellite dish years later. She can still hear the sound of her mother opening Cokes with the bottle opener, a sweet hiss in the night, her mother’s lipstick a pucker on the glass bottle.
After first Rachel’s mother and then father died and when Tina, who lives in Connecticut, wanted cash more than her share of the house, it was Rachel’s. But Dean put a lot of time and money into it, adding a third bedroom, a hot tub, a new chef’s kitchen. Every summer, they spent a month there together, though in recent summers the boys rarely came, preferring to travel or work between college semesters. And lately, Dean went up on trips with his buddies to play cards and smoke cigars, Rachel imagining the conversations to be about golf and work and maybe, later, when the whiskey came out, women other than their wives.
Blinking against her bangs in her eyes, Rachel wonders if Dean told his good buddies all about his girlfriend, the woman Rachel has never seen but has said, “Hello, is Dean there?” to on the phone. The woman she now knows existed before the day Dean left and never came back.
There it is. She can hear it now despite the whine or a nearby hairdryer. The men’s laughter in the dark, starlit night.
Now it’s unclear if Lester Richards will manage to save her family home or if it will be split into equity and divided like poker chips.
“I thought I’d be done, too,” she says, feeling as though she could sink to the ground in this chair, which she could if Stuart stepped on the pedal and let her fall. But she wants more than ground level. She wants to keep going, down, down, down into the ground where it’s dark and she doesn’t have to look at anything anymore.
“You need to move on. Drop all of it like a bad habit,” Stuart says, clipping at her bangs. Flicks of wet hair fall past her nose. “And you know, I still think you should go red.”
Red, Rachel thinks, is the color of everything inside her.
Once, three years ago, Stuart convinced her to go brunette. She finally fell for his constant refrain: “Your skin and your hair match. You look washed out. You need some diversity.”
While her brunette hair may have made her look diverse, she felt simply brown, invisible, and small, like a dusty robin. When the blonde seeped through, Rachel let it, and at her next appointment, Stuart tinted her hair a brighter blonde.
“I need sunglasses,” Dean had joked when she walked in the front door that time. “Where’s the suntan lotion?”
Now when she looks in the mirror, she sees who she always has seen. But Rachel knows that this view will end. She’s growing older, the skin under neck not what it once was, actually more of what it once was. She has her mother’s deep lines on either side of her mouth. Before she died, her mother joked that she could hide pennies in her face, warning Rachel to stay out of the sun. But it’s all too late. Rachel’s not the woman who married Dean, and she’s not even the woman who heard him say two years ago, “I want a divorce. I don’t love you anymore.”
She is someone else, even though she refuses Stuart’s red offer, staying the color she’s always been except for that short brown stint.
“Whatever,” Stuart says. “When this ridiculous divorce nightmare ends in conflagration, you can do a whole makeover. Tint your eyelashes. And eyebrows. And guess what? We have this woman who comes in here once a month. Gives the filler shots. Botox, too.”
He puts his finger on the lines above her nose, the two straight ones that mean worry. “Here? Gone. Here? This nightmare? Over. And enough said about your mouth.”
Rachel watches him dig in a drawer for the thinning shears. He picks up a shank of hair and then makes a cut two inches up, cut, cut, the scissors making a slight metal saw saw. The first time he used them on her, she almost screamed, afraid that he’d lost his mind and decided to give her a mohawk.
She wouldn’t scream now. What is hair, anyway? Who cares about hair when one minute you have a family and then in a clean, slick snip, everything is gone?
Stuart’s fingers shake a little. For the entire appointment, his voice has been a little slurred, but he’s not drunk, no whiff of anything on him. Last haircut, he told her he was on antidepressants, but she didn’t ask why, not wanting anything more depressing in her life.
When Stuart tells a story, he stops the haircut or the tinting or the application of hair dye, both hands up—scissors or comb or brush—and he looks her in the mirror, needing her gaze on his. He needs her to say “Right” and “Yes” and “Uh huh.” He needs her to nod and smile.
He’s told her about periodic, sexual encounters at parties, his terrible childhood, his sister’s obesity. She knows about his absent father, his aged mother’s memory issues, and Jay’s inability to follow his dream of being a writer.
Rachel wants to say “Just cut my fucking hair,” but she doesn’t swear, and in ten years, she’s never told him to hurry up though every single time she sits in this chair, she wants to. After each appointment, she thinks she will never come back, but the idea of going to someone new exhausts her, the small, getting-to-know-each-other talk, the questions, the tenseness in her body as she forces herself to smile into the mirror.
Stuart is even walking funny, she realizes, staring at him as he goes to another station for a better blow dryer. Sort of a lurching, halting gait, not the “to hell with you” saunter he always used to have, his ass swinging a one, a two. Nothing about Stuart is like it was, his blonde, shiny hair and his tan gone, his colorful T-shirts, his slightly rounded belly things of the past. He’s turned into an unhappy man.
Rachel looks down at her hands, knowing she should care more.
“This way?” he asks, as he always does, never remembering her part.
Rachel nods, feels the hard brush bristles jabbing her scalp. She hates this feeling, and she hates the way Stuart blows her hair dry. When she used to live with Dean, she’d arrive home after an appointment, and he’d shake his head. “You went to Stuart.”
What he meant, she learned, was “I hate the way you look.”
“That’s a long appointment,” Dean would say after she came back from a cut and tint.
What he meant was “Why do you go?”
Rachel’s hair is curly, but Stuart pulls her hair straight, giving her a “blow out.” Sometimes, people tell her she looks great after her appointments with Stuart, but she doesn’t feel great. Often, she gets home and jumps in the shower to wash her hair, the expensive products and gels sluicing down the drain.
“Doing anything fun this weekend?” Stuart asks. “Like finally going on a date? It is so time to get on with your life.”
“No,” she says, not asking him about his weekend because he will tell her and all she wants is to get out of the chair. A few years ago, she asked him a question about his plans, and he told her the entire itinerary of his trip to Palm Springs and the events of a White Party weekend, a gay bash where everyone wears white and pretty much—Rachel figured out—did what they wanted with whomever they wanted.
But Stuart hasn’t mentioned another White Party since, and she can only imagine that he goes home every night to Jay and his hairy back, and they live their lives like anyone else does. Except her, because she goes home to her house that is hers only until it goes on the market. Both of her sons are away at colleges across the country, Dean is living in a condo in downtown Walnut Creek, and she can’t seem to make the moves she needs to for anything good to happen. Rachel doesn’t even really know what those moves are.
“You need to let me cut this shorter one day,” Stuart is saying, holding the dryer close to her head, the heat almost hot enough to singe. “Your hair is so fine and limp.”
Fine and limp. The wrong color and the wrong color going slowly gray. And too long for a woman nearing fifty. All that and she’s getting wrinkly and saggy. Time has passed and disappeared. And what does she have to show for any of it?
The brush hits her forehead, the bristles piercing. She tries not to react, but she does, jumping slightly.
“Sorry,” Stuart says, moving to another lock of hair. “Stay still for god’s sake.”
What else has she done but stay still? she thinks as she stays still and watches him work on her head. Staying still everywhere. She’s lived with her husband until he left. She’s stayed at her job at the local bank in town because it was easier than trying to find another one, and until Dean left, there wasn’t any need to move beyond being a bank manager. She had good hours and was able to drive their kids around, taking them to tutors, sports activities, afternoon parties. She could make snacks after school and keep track of what was going on in town, chatting in the bank lobby with the basketball coach, the freshman English teacher, the cafeteria manager. She had Dean’s retirement savings as well as her own, so no need to start another 401K or invest in the employee stock option program. She had her father’s house for vacations. She’d been at the bank so long, she had five vacation weeks a year.
“Why?” she’d asked Dean as they sat at the table.
He’d looked at her, shook his head, a start and stop of words on his tongue. Then he looked down at one hand as the other moved like a bird in flight, circling the room, as if to indicate, All of this. Everything. This is the reason.
Then Dean got up from the table, picked up a bag he had packed (When? The night before?), and left. He never came back, sending his best friend Frank to get his personal belongings and then later, hiring movers to get his “half” of their furniture. All the while, Rachel stayed.
“I’m leaving Jay,” Stuart says, the blow dryer on.
Rachel blinks, looks up through her bangs. “What?”
“I’m leaving him.”
“What about the kids?” Rachel asks. Stuart and Jay adopted two boys over the past six years, both from bad homes in bad places with bad parents. Rachel had heard bullet points on each boy since Stuart and Jay brought them home.
“They’ll stay with him. He wanted them in the first place. You know that. I told him I wouldn’t be a good parent.”
She can’t breathe, the smock tight around her neck almost chocking her. She hears Dean again, feels his words in her chest. “I don’t love you anymore.”
Rachel doesn’t understand how love turns off. People say that, as though love were a faucet. On. Off. Just a flick of the wrist.
But it’s never the way it is. Dean must have felt his love turning off for months. Maybe even years. Maybe from the very beginning. Maybe he’d moved on from the life they were both leading without mentioning it at first, a conversation with her going on in his head long before he finally left. Like Stuart, there had to be signs, but Dean didn’t have anything like Stuart’s weight loss. Dean kept his signs held close, tucked away. Or else, Rachel thinks, she didn’t want to notice. But she noticed Stuart’s changes, so she must not have wanted to see Dean’s.
“They’ll miss you,” Rachel says as Stuart pulls her head toward him. “They’ll be devastated.”
“They’ll get over it,” he says.
But they won’t. They won’t get over their impoverished, alcoholic first families and they won’t get over Stuart leaving. They won’t get over the new person who comes into Jay’s life, trying to be the parent Stuart was and then wasn’t. They’ll need years and years of therapy, and that won’t even guarantee that one day they won’t be sitting at their own dining room tables listening to their spouses say, “I don’t love you anymore.”
Rachel stares at Stuart, sees his shrunken cheeks, feels his shaking hands. He’s touched her head more than any other person on the planet aside from her mother during all the childhood baths, but Stuart has only done so because she’s paid him.
She has never touched any part of him, doesn’t know the texture of his skin, soap or scissors or tint or dye between them. There is no hugging, no kissing, not even any handshaking. That’s the contract—the bargain—nothing more. The talk, the banter, the information they’ve shared over the years is small talk, a way to pass the time, to make business feel like living. If they met each other on the street, they’d have nothing to say to each other. Here, in this salon, they have the bargain and the time. And time, Rachel knows, doesn’t mean that much even when the bargain is deeper.
It is possible, she knows now, to break anything.
She reaches up and pulls the plastic tab at her neck, hears the Velcro strips rip apart, feels the smock loosen and begin to fall down her body.
“Hey, girlfriend,” Stuart says, standing back, the blow dryer running. “Where are you going?”
She pulls it off, brushes hair from her dress, and stands, just like Dean stood that day in their kitchen, pushing back from the table, stuffing his hands in his pockets. His eyes had been dark and sad, but he’d left anyway, closing the door behind him, starting his car, pulling out of the driveway as if he’d been going to work. She waited by the living room window for an hour, sure he would change his mind. Somewhere down the street, just as he passed the Safeway, he’d come to his senses and turn around illegally—ignoring the irritated drivers’ horns—and rush back home, up the stairs, holding her, whispering, “No, no. I’m sorry. Hush. It’s all right. I’m back. I’m here to stay.”
After he left, she waited for him until she had to go to the bathroom, the daylight gone from the room, the air cold. Rachel waited, hoping she would stop hearing the last words he said to her: “I don’t love you anymore.”
She’s still waiting for Dean, she realizes. Even now, she knows she hopes that when she turns to face the salon door, there he’ll be. But inside him had been what’s inside her now, but bigger, and he couldn’t stay and he couldn’t come back either. He was sad, but he left anyway, the contract expired, the bargain over.
“Excuse me,” Stuart says, clicking off the dryer, his voice loud, surprised. “Hel-lo? We aren’t done here!”
“Thank you,” she says, thinking of all the times Stuart has washed and dried her hair, rubbing her head with the puffy white towels, telling her about Jay or his children as he moved the towel over her head, his words muffled. As she looks into the mirror, she can imagine all the times he’s focused on her, standing behind her as she sat in the chair, a hand on either side of her face, pulling on locks of hair to check for an even cut.
Rachel brings a hand to her neck, the short hair at her nape sheared, prickly, slightly wet. No one will cut her hair like Stuart has, but someone else will cut her hair. She just needs to find him. Or her.
“Thank you so much,” she says. “For everything.”
Stuart stares at her, mouth open, and so does Mindy.
“Thank you?” Stuart asks, blow dryer up.
Mindy pauses too, her scissors open, ready, her client turning toward Rachel, eyes wide.
“I’m done now,” Rachel says as she picks up her purse, feeling the way leaving runs through her. It is exactly like water, the way you can leave land and jump in and flow with a current. You have a reason that lifts you up and pulls you in, first a toe and then legs and body, the water wrapping around you tight. Leaving has a movement all its own, and she just goes with it, knowing now how Dean kept driving all the way down Claremont and San Pablo and Main Street. She knows how the freeway swallowed him up and never spit him back.
She grabs the one hundred and sixty dollars she takes out of the ATM before her appointments and puts it on Stuart’s station, not caring that her hair is half-dry, that he hasn’t gone over it one last time to check length. She puts the money down, and she moves into the river of leaving and pushes off, floating down and out the door, into the sunlight.
Jessica Barksdale’s fourteenth novel, The Burning Hour, was published by Urban Farmhouse Press in April 2016. A Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Waccamaw, Salt Hill Journal, Little Patuxent Review, Carve Magazine, Palaver, and So to Speak. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California, and teaches novel writing online for UCLA Extension. She holds an MA in English Literature from San Francisco State University and an MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.