Work Header

the neighborhood beauty (but)

Work Text:

Sundays were Sarah's favorite day of the week.

Steven usually wasn't home — weekend business trips — so she woke up early in an empty bed. She did the dishes first thing, because she hated seeing a sink full of dishes but she also hatedwashing them late at night. Then she'd pull her robe on over her nightie and, if the weather was bad, curl up on the couch with some jazz and a book she'd read a dozen times before; if the weather was nice, she'd move out to the porch swing (her favorite part of the whole house, the main reason she'd begged Steven to buy it in the first place) and paint her toenails and people-watch until lunchtime.

It was a nice neighborhood for people-watching.

There was a lot about her life Sarah wasn't fond of, but she liked her neighborhood.

(Even if she was pretty sure she and Steven were a popular subject of neighborhood gossip. You couldn't have everything, and anyway, she had to admit they certainly provided a lot of fuel for gossip. She still couldn't remember the fight in which she'd ended up screaming at him from the window don't bother coming home if you can't be bothered to wash off another woman's perfume first without feeling mortified.)

She wasn't the only one with a Sunday morning routine. There was the paper boy, of course, fifteen-year-old Tony on his bike, but there was also Max down the road working in his garden as soon as the sun was up, and Nick washing his car at 9AM like clockwork, and around 8:15 Jo stumbling down her front walk, still in her flannel pajamas, to collect her morning paper and call a hello to Sarah.

Sarah envied Jo, desperately.

Jo didn't have a husband, one with a wandering eye and a short temper or otherwise; she had a four-year-old golden retriever. Jo owned her house and didn't have to worry about mortgage payments, or about someone else in the house spending those mortgage payments on 'business trips'. Jo was a songwriter and worked from home; she got to sleep in whenever she wanted and then spend the day with her guitar or her piano, making music. Jo wore old jeans and band tees and ponytails; once, when she'd been invited to an awards ceremony with a strict dress code, she'd bribed Sarah with a bottle of wine to be her stylist and dress her up. It had been some of the most fun Sarah had had in years, even if the end result — Jo in a simple black dress, hair curled and pinned into a pretty updo, a couple of tasteful gold statement pieces for jewelry — didn't look much like Jo.

(When Sarah was in high school, she'd wanted to be a fashion designer. Or an artist. Or both, because fashion was art, wasn't it? She'd applied for the Savannah College of Art and Design, and the Rhode Island School of Design, and on a wild whim the Fashion Institute of Technology. RISD sent her a thick packet welcoming her to the program. And then Steven had proposed and it had all been so romantic and, well, she'd been seventeen, of course there was plenty of time for school later.

She never made it to Providence.)

"Morning, Sarah," Jo called over the hedge. "What color today?"

Sarah wiggled her toes, willing them to dry faster. "Lime green."


"Anything good in the news?"

"Huh?" Jo looked at the rolled-up paper in her hand like she'd forgotten it was there. "Oh. No, probably not. There never is."

"And yet you read it every Sunday."

"Well, you know," Jo said vaguely.

She didn't. "Any big plans for today?"

"Same as always. Pretend I'm planning to get some writing done but really just eat junk food and play video games. Maybe watch a movie if I get real ambitious."

Sarah laughed.

Jo grinned at her. "How about you? Big plans? Adventures and excitement and really wild things?"

"Oh, yes," Sarah said. "I'm going to clean the bathroom today. Very exciting. Glamorous, even."

"You do lead such a jet-set life."

They chatted for another couple of minutes before Jo went back inside her newspaper — reluctantly, as always, but Sarah was never sure why that was. Writer's procrastination, like she was always joking about? Or something else?

Steven came home late Monday. Like usual.

Also like usual, Sarah had dinner ready for him by the time his car pulled into the driveway, and she pretended not to notice the hickey only half-hidden by his shirt collar, and he pretended not to notice that she'd burned his steak when she knew he preferred it rare, and it didn't matter anyway because they ended up in a screaming fight by eleven. Also like usual.

They rarely fought about the things they were actually fighting about, and Monday night was no exception. They fought about bills and housekeeping and money and who brought that up anyway? and I never said that! and by the time he stormed off to bed she was crying.

She started cleaning up the long-cold remains of dinner and then gave up, took the phone into the bathroom, climbed into the tub still fully dressed, and called Jo.

It was entirely possible that Jo was magic — she answered right away, even though it must've been past midnight at that point, and listened patiently to Sarah's sobbing, incoherent explanation of the fight, and said all the right things to calm her down.

(Sarah had been fifteen when she met Steven, seventeen when he proposed, eighteen when they got married. Her maid of honor had been Steven's cousin, because the few girlfriends she'd had in high school had all been busy with college things and she had no sisters or cousins she was close too. It hadn't seemed to matter, at the time. All these years later, sitting in a bathtub crying over the phone at her neighbor, she wondered if maybe it should have.)

"You should come over tomorrow," Jo said when Sarah had (mostly) stopped crying, had even laughed once or twice. "We'll order Chinese food and watch bad movies and whatever. I'll let you paint my nails."

"Can I paint them pink?"

"Um, maybe."

Sarah managed a wobbly smile and hoped Jo could hear it through the phone line. "Thank you, Jo."

A pause, and then Jo said quietly, "You're welcome."

"I know I shouldn't say this," Jo said the next day, while Sarah was painting was painting her nails for her (dark blue), "But it really doesn't seem like staying with him is a good idea for you."

And the thing was, Sarah knew full well that she should leave Steven. Neither of them was happy in this marriage anymore, if they ever had been to begin with — she couldn't remember the early days well enough to know for sure if they'd been happy then, or if she'd only been kidding herself. She wasn't dumb. She knew the answer was simple. Leave.

But the other thing was, she'd been Mrs. Steven Rudy for so long she wasn't sure she could learn how to be anything else.

Everything seemed so much simpler in books and movies and songs.

So she said that. More or less. "It's not like one of your songs. It's not as easy as just packing a bag and hitchhiking out of town because your marriage hit a rough patch." If a ten-year-long stretch could be called a rough patch.

"I don't know what songs you've been listening to," Jo said, playing it off like a joke, but she looked hurt and Sarah felt bad. "But I wasn't saying it would be easy. Just. You know. I want you to be happy."

"I don't know if I know how to be happy."

"Don't say that." Jo's voice cracked. "Of course you know how to be happy. And don't listen to me, I'm an idiot, what do I know about marriage? You just do whatever you have to do. Just. If you need someone to talk to. I'm here. You know?"

"I know," Sarah said quietly, and bent back over the nail polish so Jo couldn't see her face. "Thanks."

She wondered how her life might have turned out if she'd had someone like Jo around when she first met Steven.

Three Mondays later, Steven came home smelling of cheap perfume and sex, and Sarah didn't have dinner on the table for him. He snapped at her about that, and she didn't say anything, just sat on the couch and thought: do you know that everyone in the neighborhood calls you "Mr. Ugly" behind your back? Do you know that Becky at the corner store overcharges you for your morning coffee and undercharges me when I stop for a candy bar? Do you know that there's a betting pool about when I'm going to leave you? Do you know that no one thinks I know these things, but I do?

I know what I need to do.

I just don't know how to do it.

"Are you even listening to me?" Steven shouted at her, slamming another cupboard door closed.

"No," she said. "I'm going out."

"Going out? Going where? It's almost midnight!"

"Somewhere not here," she said, and got up to find her shoes. It felt like she was watching a movie or a play, watching someone else act these lines, wondering what was going to happen next. Wondering if Steven would try to stop her leaving. Wondering what she would do if he did.

He didn't try to stop her. He just watched in blank disbelief as she pulled on a coat and went out the front door. It was just that easy. Maybe it had been that easy all along.

Still in her own haze of disbelief, she walked over to Jo's house, thought I should've called, and rang the doorbell, thought she'll be asleep.

But a moment later the door opened and there was Jo, in flannel pajamas with a pen stuck in her ponytail, and Sarah burst into tears, her protective haze vanishing like fog burning away in the afternoon sun.

"Whoa, hey," Jo said, alarmed, and pulled her inside. "Are you okay? What happened? Did he hurt you?"

Sarah shook her head, choked out, "He didn't hurt me," between sobs, and could tell Jo didn't believe her. She wasn't being very convincing, even if it was the truth. "He didn't hurt me," she said again. "But I think I just . . . I think I just . . . "

"Sit down," Jo said, steering her to the couch. Handwritten sheet music was scattered over the coffee table and Jo's favorite guitar was leaning against the wall. She'd been working. Sarah was interrupting. "I'll get you something to drink. Just . . .take a moment. You don't have to explain. Just . . . " She didn't finish the sentence, disappearing into the kitchen.

So Sarah sat and took a couple deep breaths, or tried to. It was hard. She kept remembering the look on Steven's face — not pain or grief or anything like that, just blank incomprehension that she might actually leave — and that set off the tears like they were new. She wasn't sure how much time passed before Jo was sitting on the couch next to her, trying to get her to sip from a mug of tea that had been spiked with whiskey. Whiskey for shock, Sarah thought giddily, wasn't even sure that was true. Probably not. But once she'd had a few swallows, she was at least able to stop crying. "I think I just left my husband," she said once she could form complete sentences.

"Oh," Jo said in a small voice. Then, "Are you gonna be okay?"

"I don't know." Sarah put the mug down and pressed her hands to her eyes. They ached. She ached. "I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't know why I came over here, I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking and I just barged in on you — "

"Hey, no, I'm here for you anytime. You need a place to stay, you can stay here, you need money or a ride or whatever, just let me know, I'll hook you up."

She felt like crying all over again, but didn't; it was possible she had no tears left. "Why are you so nice to me?"

"Because I . . . you . . . " Jo stopped talking. Started over. "Because I'm your friend."

"I'm not a very good friend."

"You're a great friend."

She was pretty sure that wasn't true. "Can I stay here tonight?"

"Yes," Jo said immediately. "Stay as long as you need to."

"You might regret saying that," Sarah said, trying to make a joke of it, and then, "Thank you."

"You're welcome."

Sarah kept expecting Steven to show up at Jo's door — to apologize, to yell at her until she agreed to come back, to dump off a box of her things and tell her he never wanted to see her again, something — but day after day passed and no sign of him.

She stayed inside. Played card games with Jo. Cooked and cleaned, though Jo kept telling her she didn't have to. Read a lot — Jo had an excellent book collection. Browsed the classified ads in the newspaper, trying to figure out if she was qualified for any of these jobs — she hadn't worked for wages since she was seventeen and selling cosmetics at the local department store part-time to pay for her art supplies. But she'd need to get a job. That was what you did when you left your husband. She was pretty sure of that.

"You could go back to school," Jo suggested one night, over a dinner of take-out pizza.

"That costs money," Sarah pointed out in return.

"Oh, yeah, true. But they do scholarships and stuff."

"True," Sarah said, although she wasn't sure anyone would be willing to give her a scholarship. "I think I'd like to get a job. I've never really been self-sufficient."

"If that's what you wanna do, I think you'd be great at it."

"What's it like, having a job?"

"How would I know?" Jo said, peeling a piece of pepperoni off her slice. "I'm a writer."

Sarah laughed. It was amazing to her how quickly she'd adjusted to living with Jo, and how different it was from living with Steven. She couldn't remember the last time Steven had made her laugh, but Jo made her laugh every day.

"Why are you staring at me like that?"

"I don't know," Sarah said, hastily dropping her gaze down to her own pizza. "Lost in thought, I guess."

She got a job, as a receptionist with a doctor's office. On her first day of work, Jo presented her with a sketchpad and a set of colored pencils. "For your downtime," she explained. "Or your lunch breaks. Whatever."

So on her breaks, Sarah began sketching, tentatively at first, just adapting the clothes she saw around her into sketches, retraining herself to see the ways different fabrics moved and draped, how different cuts accentuated different things, how color and line worked together. Remembering how much she'd loved this. Remembering how to create.

And after work she went home to Jo and they took the dog for a walk together and talked about their respective days. And sometimes Jo made dinner, and sometimes Sarah did, and sometimes they ordered in or went out or just made sandwiches. On weekends Sarah went for walks and talked to the neighbors and people-watched and life was, for the first time in a long time, good.

So of course that was when Steven made his presence known again.

He was waiting for her at the end of the driveway when she went out for her walk on Sunday morning.

"Considering that we're neighbors, I'm surprised I haven't seen you sooner," she said, when she could convince her heart rate to slow back down, when she was reasonably sure she could sound normal.

"I was trying to give you space," he said. He looked smaller than she remembered. How had that happened? "I miss you, Sarah."

She believed him. Sort of. At least she believed that he missed having a wife waiting for him at home, which wasn't quite the same thing.

"How's living with Jo?"

"It's good," she said. "We get along."

He nodded. "She's always liked you."

Sarah looked away. "What do you want, Steven?"

"I don't know," he said, and that she believed unquestioningly. "We used to be happy, didn't we?"

She couldn't remember.

"I hear you got a job."

"I did."

"When we got married I promised you you'd never have to work. That I'd take care of you."

"I'm tired of being taken care of," Sarah said. "I like my job."

There was another awkward silence. Steven wouldn't look directly at her, which was all right with her. She didn't want to look at him either.

God, they'd been married for more than a decade, she'd been Mrs. Steven Rudy almost as long as she'd been Sarah Reilly, and yet she felt like she didn't know the man at all.

As if he'd heard what she'd been thinking, he said, "I'll leave you alone. I'll . . . " He swallowed, hard. "If you want to make it official I can get a lawyer to draw up the paperwork."

"I think that would probably be best, yes."

"I did love you, Sarah," he said.

She wanted, so badly, to believe him. "I loved you too," she said, and hoped it was true. "But this died a long time ago."

He almost nodded, not quite. "I'll let you talk your walk now. I know Sundays are your favorite," he said, and headed back towards their — his — house, not looking back.

Sarah took a deep breath, straightened her jacket, and set off at a brisk pace. Her walk. And then home, to Jo and a whole new future of possibilities.