Claire would’ve had to been blind to not see the stain. It was so colorful, so bold, so vibrant with life that it seemed to be smirking at her with its waxy lips. She didn’t immediately enter her room, but instead, stood in the doorway and stared at the bed like she was studying a crime scene. The fuchsia lipstick stain on the pillowcase, the crumpled navy comforter, and twisted pale blue sheets were indisputable evidence of Stanley’s cruelty. She was used to him cheating on her but never thought he’d be so brazen as to do so in their home, especially while she was visiting her dying father. That was low, even for Stanley.
Claire could feel a good cry rising in her, hot and tight, all the way up to her flushed face. Don’t you dare, she thought. She pushed the sensation down by going over her to-do list. She had to unpack, set up a hair appointment to touch up grey roots that had sprouted while she was away, do the laundry, and cook dinner. By the time she finished thinking about her tasks, Claire didn’t see evidence of a betrayal, only a room that needed cleaning. Life would go on as it always had. She would pretend that she never saw the lipstick stain, just as she had with the flirtatious text messages on Stanley’s phone and the panties she found under the car seat.
Claire slid the pillowcase off in one swift motion, then took it with her to the small bathroom connected to the bedroom. She soaked a fat cotton ball in alcohol and sat down on the tiled floor, all the while avoiding her reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror. She was still wearing the yellow paisley dress she wore that morning when she hugged her father goodbye. Years ago, he had once told her she looked pretty in it, but he didn’t remember the dress, or her.
As Claire dabbed at the stain, she imagined the bedroom with a different color scheme. She was sick of all the blue. Maybe she’d redo it with warm colors, perhaps a creamy blush tone. It was while Claire was picturing this, that she first sensed someone was in the bathroom with her. The feeling was so strong that she checked behind the shower curtain—just in case. No one was there. Claire went back to daydreaming and dabbing, but no matter how much she dabbed, the stain wouldn’t come off, so she gave up. She went to the sink to rinse the alcohol off the fabric and her fingers. Just as she turned on the faucet, she thought she heard a woman call out her name—Claire—in a breathy voice. The sound seemed to come from the pillowcase clutched in her hand.
Maybe her therapist was right, she thought. Maybe she wasn’t fine, maybe she didn’t have everything under control.
“Why do you put up with it?” the stain asked.
The lips didn’t move, but instead, stayed fixed in a luscious pucker. Claire brought the pillowcase close to her face. She touched the stain, then jerked her hand away as though it might bite her.
“Put up with what?” she asked.
“I think you know,” the stain said.
But Claire didn’t know. She had no idea what the stain was talking about.
“He’s so disrespectful,” the stain said.
Suddenly, Claire was no longer fearful, she was furious. Tell me something I don’t know, she thought. She was about to tell the stain to mind its own fucking business, but before she could form the words, she began to weep, quietly at first, then, before she knew it, she was bawling.
She felt like a blubbering fool. She had always kept up appearances. To the outside world, she was Dr. Stanley Fuoco’s lovely wife, Claire. But now, as she stood at the sink with a talking pillowcase judging her life choices, memories of her marriage came at her in vicious little flashes. She thought about the cheating, the emptiness, how much Stanley seemed to adore her in the beginning, and how he grew more distant with time. They’d been together for over 30 years. If she left Stanley now, it would mean that she had wasted her life. That thought was more unbearable than the cheating.
The stain was quiet as Claire continued to weep and, eventually, cried herself to sleep.
As an oncologist, Stanley was used to giving bad news. Not just bad news, devastating news. The first time he had to give someone a grim prognosis, he threw up in the bathroom and couldn’t eat for the rest of the day. But now, years later, he could give someone terrible news, compassionately, of course, register the fear in their eyes, and still be upbeat when he met a friend after work for a drink.
The only person Stanley couldn’t give bad news to was Claire. The first time he tried to tell her he wanted a divorce, the words wouldn’t come out. It was as if his throat locked up. After that, he decided to try a subtler approach. One evening, when they were sitting on the sofa watching a true-crime murder show, he turned to her and said, “You know, I’d still take care of you even if we weren’t together.”
“What are you trying to say, Stanley?” Claire asked, not taking her eyes off the television.
This was Stanley’s chance, but as he looked at Claire’s profile while the narrator on TV described a quiet town where no one locked their doors, he couldn’t bring himself to say the word divorce.
“Nothing,” he said. “Just wanted you to know that I’d always take care of you.”
He went back to watching the show with Claire about people murdering their spouses for insurance money, and the topic was never mentioned again.
When Claire woke up, she was lying on the bathroom floor and her cheek was wet with her drool. The pillowcase was still in her grip; the water was still running. For a moment, she thought it must’ve all been a dream, but then the stain started talking, once again giving Claire unsolicited marriage advice.
“You don’t need him,” the stain said. “What are you holding on to?”
Claire didn’t respond. She had nothing to say, and besides, she was quite sure that she was losing her mind.
Stanley couldn’t decide between a shade called Crimson Revolution or one called Girl About Town. It was all so overwhelming, the rows upon rows of reds and pinks, all so similar with only the slightest gradation separating the colors.
“Need any help?” a 20-something woman wearing a thick layer of foundation and long false eyelashes asked.
“It’s for my wife,” Stanley stammered, holding up the two tubes of lipstick. “I’m not sure which one.”
The saleswoman pointed to Girl About Town. “That one’s very popular,” she said, “and it goes with a variety of skin tones.”
“OK,” Stanley said smiling, “I’ll take it.” He was itching to get out of the brightness of the store and back to his car.
As Stanley waited in line to pay, he thought about how Claire would never wear such a vivid shade. She’d think it too flashy, too vulgar. When Claire did wear makeup, she stuck with nudes and soft pinks, so soft, you could barely tell that she was wearing makeup at all.
Back home, in the bathroom, Stanley took the lipstick out of its packaging and puckered. He had no idea if puckering made a difference, but he had seen women do this. The advertising on the box was right, the lipstick really was a velvety delight. It glided smoothly over Stanley’s thin, wrinkled lips. After he was done, he regarded his reflection—a hard weathered face with lush, almost pretty lips. He felt like a clown. He felt even more foolish when he climbed onto the bed, pouted his fuchsia lips, and kissed the pillowcase.
For her sanity, Claire knew she had to get rid of the stain. But how? That was the question. Throwing it in the wash seemed too cruel. Could the stain feel? Would it feel like it was drowning in the washing machine? Claire needed a method that would be quick.
In the living room, she lit a twisted sheet of newspaper, then used it to light the kindling in the fireplace. Once the fire started, she poured herself a glass of vodka, kneeled on the carpet, and sipped as she watched the flames grow. When she was good and tipsy, she went back to the bathroom to get the pillowcase. She carried it to the living room with both hands, as though it were a small limp body, and pressed her mouth to the stain in an almost kiss.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered before throwing it into the fire.
Stanley sat in his car, parked in the garage. The radio was still tuned to the classic rock station he liked, but it was all white noise to him. The uncertainty of what would happen when he walked through the door was making him nauseous. Would Claire lash out? Would he find her calmly packing her things or his things? He dreaded the thought of her crying. He’d rather she scream at him or even strike him. He’d apologize. He’d agree that he was a jackass. He’d agree to a divorce. Claire could have the house, the summer house, anything she wanted, and he would finally be free.
Stanley turned the engine off and grabbed his bag from the passenger’s seat. When he unlocked the door, he was immediately hit with the scent of garlic and the sound of Claire humming to herself.
“Dinner’s almost ready,” she shouted from the kitchen.
“Great!” Stanley said, hanging up his jacket. He excused himself, then practically sprinted up the stairs. He was sure she must have not seen it yet.
When Stanley got to their bedroom, he let out a small shriek. The pillowcase and all the bed linen were gone. In its place was cream-colored bedding that he didn’t recognize.
“It’s ready,” Claire called out from downstairs.
“Great!” he shouted back.
His legs felt wobbly as he walked back down the steps.
“Have a seat,” Claire said, and Stanley did as he was told. He sat down at the table in their tastefully understated dining room.
“How’s your dad?” he asked.
“Better,” Claire said as she placed the roasted potatoes on the table and sat down.
“Anything interesting happen today?” he asked.
Claire took a giant gulp of her chardonnay. “Not really,” she said.
“Nothing?” Stanley asked, this time his voice cracking.
“Well,” Claire said, pausing a moment as if she were contemplating something grave.
“I was thinking we should redo the bedroom. What do you think? Maybe dusty rose.”
“That would be nice,” Stanley said, his voice thin and lifeless.
Claire smiled, Stanley smiled back at her, and nothing more was said. They ate and drank in silence while a shared misery hung over them like an uninvited guest.