After Leaving

by Shannon McLeod

There’s a surrender and ease in being told what to do. It was something I never would have anticipated missing after leaving him.

Once I’ve settled in at the Best Western, I think of calling my sister, Astrid. I’d hate to disturb her, though. She’s recently given birth to twins. I don’t want to burden her. I’ll wait to talk until she asks me for help, I think. She may want a babysitter soon.

I decide I’ll take myself out for dinner. It’s been so many months since I’ve been out to a restaurant. Date nights dwindled after the early stage of our relationship. I suspect he didn’t feel proud of me anymore, didn’t feel I was worth showing off or spending money on.


Downtown, the trees lining the streets are turning orange There’s a sweet scent of decay in the air. I’ve always liked autumn best. He used to say it’s because I’m a melancholy woman. The same reason I find sad songs the most beautiful.

There are too many options: Thai, Vietnamese, French, that cafe with ten types of soup. I step towards a bar and grill, read the menu in the window. I step away, arrested by doubt. My throat starts to tighten and my chest caves in. I do the same with the pizza place. Inside, people sit at the counter along the window. There’s no other seating. I think I’ll feel too exposed, like an animal in a zoo exhibit. I walk away and sit on a bench. I take deep breaths. I tell myself, There’s no wrong answer! Just pick!

I choose Tavola, an Italian restaurant I’ve always wanted to try. Inside, the decor is impeccable, the scent divine. Garlic and herbs and yeasty bread. But the noise is overwhelming. The tables too small and close. They’re all filled with friends or lovers or families.

An stylishly dressed couple gets up to leave. They look at me as they pass, the lonely patron waiting to request a table for one. My insides contract further. He liked to say I fear people, that it’s best I just stay home.

It was true, I feared the infinite possible judgments of strangers. At least his I could anticipate.

What would you do without me taking care of you?

When the hostess arrives, I panic and ask to place an order of fettuccine alfredo to go. I sit down at the chair by the door and scroll through unsettling headlines on my phone.

At the park, I find a picnic table by the river and eat my fine meal with plastic utensils. It was too expensive. I should have just picked up a sandwich from the gas station. It seems every decision I make is the wrong one. I wonder whether I should have just stayed.

I venture toward the paved trail, as though I can walk away from the thought. And it works to some degree, as physical movement often does, shaking loose whatever mental loop I might be trapped in.

The sounds of the river always calm me. The moving water gives off a slight breeze. I pass several dogs with their owners. Their grateful snouts make me feel happy for a moment. My phone rings. I need to change the ringtone because its familiar sound makes my chest hurt. On the screen, it’s not his name, so I can breathe again. It’s my neighbor, Ciely. She says her internet is out again and she doesn’t know why. I tell her I can be there in thirty minutes, and I turn around to head back to my truck.


I like visiting Ciely. I like her softened old couches covered in dog hair, the collection of frog figurines on every available surface. I like helping her with technology, with walking her dog. She says she’s too old to walk Harrold as much as she should. She’s too exhausted. Visiting my neighbor was one of the rare places I could go without all the constant texts and phone calls to check in on me, without him grilling me about who I saw and where I went after I got home.

“What’s wrong?” Ciely says, her face concerned but voice void of pity, when she opens her front door. She has a matter-of-fact way of talking that I find comforting. Especially when I don’t want to feel what I’m trying not to feel.

“Taz and I broke up.”

After a moment of staring at me, she says, “Welp, you’ll find someone else.”

I nod and go to the router by the mantle, which is covered in framed photos of her children, now grown. I can’t help but think, You never did.

I tell her I found a cheap basement apartment just outside of town, where I can move in on the first of the month. The new landlord, who lives on the top floor and spends most of his time on the porch, gives me the creeps. My reluctance to walk by him when I go out matters little. I’ll feel safer inside my new home, and that’s got to be more important.

My phone rings. It’s Astrid. Ceily tells me to take it, but I silence the ringer and let it go to voicemail.

I ask her how to live alone. It feels okay with Ciely to admit I’ve never done it before.

“You need routines. And a pet. A dog is great because they’ve got the routines built right in.” She picks up Harrold and scratches his head, like she’s just remembered he’s sitting dutifully beside her. “They’ll get you out of the house for walks. Good if you’re a bit of a hermit like me.” She gives me a knowing look and sets Harrold down.

“You’re still young and pretty, so you should get a big, scary dog.”

I picture myself with a pit bull. It occurs to me this is perhaps the same reason I chose a Silverado when the Civic lease ended. Little props might earn you some distance when you’re a woman, when everyone feels entitled to your space.

I troubleshoot the internet, unplugging and plugging back in the router. It’s working now. It just so happens I can do things on my own.

She thanks me, sends me home with some recently expired Tylenol she’s acquired from a hoarder friend. “Whenever I visit her house, I put a few things in my purse when she’s not looking. It helps her out.”

For all the times I’ve come over here, we’ve never touched. I ask her for a hug and she says, in a tone that’s almost scolding, “Of course!”

I try not to cry with my face resting on her shoulder. I hold my eyes tight and bite my lip. When I pull away, I look at her, and her mouth makes a faint line of sympathy.

“Welp, I’m sure you have lots to do.” She grabs my forearm with one hand and taps my wrist with another. “You’ll be okay.”


There’s cable in the hotel room. Still, I end up on ABC, where the new season of The Bachelorette is airing. I linger here, feel a bloom of shame, then flip the channel to PBS. I flip back, remembering Taz saying reality TV is fake, it’s for idiots. But he’s not here, and his opinions are not facts. There’s a flutter in my chest when it comes back on, this pink-faced woman before much possibility.

My body has warmed the sheets overnight, and they release the scent of cheap detergent. The light comes through the sheer polyester curtains and illuminates the empty hotel walls. Sometimes I wake up so lonely I feel like I might spontaneously combust. Too much nothing. I think resentment feels better than nothing.

Then I think, This nothing will eventually be filled with something better.


Shannon McLeod is the author of the novella Whimsy (Long Day Press, 2021) and the forthcoming collection Nature Trail Stories (Thirty West, 2023). Her writing has appeared in Tin House, Prairie Schooner, Hobart, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other publications, and has been nominated for Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net, and featured in Wigleaf Top 50. You can find Shannon on her website at

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