It’s just after six when the lights dim and the fans stop humming and the sharp, pattered sound of shoes pose themselves directly in her line of vision. She raises her head to meet black pants, a briefcase, and further up, a stern, long face.
Go home. It’s a sentiment she knows well and has heard more times than she can count, except the tired voice above her head isn’t Don’s quiet drone or Joan’s loud pitch (a fact she sometimes forgets.) But Peggy manages a smile anyway, nodding towards her desk.
“I’m almost done and then I’ll leave. I promise.” I stayed late all the time at Sterling Cooper, no one thought it was strange. She pretends to busy herself with a sheet of instructions as he walks away, her shoulders relaxing from their tense stature once the door closes and the light in the lobby flickers into darkness.
Three months. It’s only been three months, and that’s what Peggy tells herself as she inserts the stem of the pencil in her mouth, biting down hard on the wood as if chewing through her thoughts will help her make more sense of her feelings. She doesn’t like admitting to herself, much less anyone else, that it’s been the longest three months of her life. And it’s not that she regrets the fact that she left (the image of Don’s face is still burned into her brain like a branded mark of shame) but she sometimes wonders if maybe she should’ve held out for awhile longer. Maybe things would have changed. Maybe her mind would have decided against leaving after all.
Don’t be a stranger.
Don’t turn into someone I don’t recognize were the basic undertones of those parting words and for awhile, she had worried about doing just that. But what did it matter, anyway? She hadn’t seen Don for months. He certainly hadn’t called and aside from weekly meetings with Joan, no one from the firm had even attempted to contact her. Peggy knows that it shouldn’t matter, that none of it should matter.
But sometimes, it does.
The bar is crowded, but the back room is nearly empty and almost always is (it’s part of the reason she chose to come here, less for the fact that there were a million bars in New York that probably had hidden nooks and crannies and more for the fact that there was a smaller chance of someone bothering her.) Placing her hands against the table, she busies herself by reaching into her purse and lets her eyes travel the crowd before turning to the bartender.
“Thought you didn’t smoke.”
She turns at the sound of the voice above her as Joan lowers herself into an open chair, a smirk of a smile lacing her face. Even in her foul mood, Peggy can’t help but return the sentiment
“I don’t.” She raises the cigarette to her lips while her eyes dare some sort of rebuttal, feeling slightly ironic but not really caring all that much. Joan pulls out her own pack while Peggy slumps forward, pushing a hand through her hair, collected demeanor all but forgotten.
“How…how have things been?” And it’s the tentative hesitation in Joan’s voice (Joan, of all people!) that finally pushes at something in the recesses of her brain.
“Shitty.” Peggy drags a hand across her mouth, struggling and failing to hide the bitterness that passes through her lips. “I’m fighting to be heard in a place I thought I would grow, and my clients are assholes. This isn’t easy. None of this is easy. And I thought…” She pauses, letting a sarcastic laugh escape her lips, because she knows how stupid the words are going to sound once she says them out loud. “I just thought this was going to be easy.”
Joan stares at her for what seems like far too long and finally barks out a laugh, shaking her head. “Honey, we’re women. Do you think this is meant to be easy for any of us?”
Peggy thinks Megan, thinks of Trudy and Joan. Was everyone really faking happiness? Megan, maybe, and being married to Don wasn’t exactly the easiest thing in the world – Peggy could write volumes on what she knew about that. But Trudy seemed to have a good enough marriage with Pete, a daughter and a house and a life that Peggy more than once wished she could be lucky enough to acquire. As for Joan, well…Peggy’s never quite sure what’s going on with Joan and even after years of being friends, she’s learned that Joan prefers to keep it that way. “I don’t know.”
Joan reaches for her hand and in the silence, finally speaks the words Peggy’s been waiting (and dreading) to hear since she walked out of the office and into the bar.
“Don misses you.”
“Thought he forgot about me.” She can’t stop the automatic rebuttal or the caustic tone but Joan simply shrugs, clearly unfazed by the reaction.
“He mentions you a lot. More than a lot, actually. I think...I think he kind of forgets sometimes you’re not there.” Her face relaxes into a smile. “He did appreciate you, you know. More than you realized."
“I realized.” Peggy slowly withdraws her hand, reaching for the glass and swirling the remaining contents of vodka. She suddenly wishes she could just get completely drunk - drunk enough to walk back into Don’s office, drunk enough to admit that the whole thing was a joke, drunk enough to admit that she did want her old job back after all. She lets out a sigh. “The first day we met – you remember that, right?”
Joan smirks in response. “How could I forget? I thought you’d never last."
“Yeah.” Peggy stubs out her cigarette and stares out over the bar top. “Me neither.” As they fall into another silence, Joan shifts in her seat, one perfectly manicured hand brushing against her glass.
“I know this hasn’t been the easiest transition. But I just want you to be happy, you know. We all do.”
We all do. Would she have ever imagined in a thousand years that the woman who she once hated would become her biggest confidant? That the man who drove her crazy would become the person she missed the most? That the dysfunctional family of people who were all so fucked up in their own individual ways would be the only people she would ever feel comfortable using the world “family” for?
“Don’t be a stranger.”
“What?” Joan furrows her brow, clearly confused and Peggy shrugs as she reaches for her purse. “It’s something Don said to me before I left. Don’t be a stranger.”
“Oh.” Joan takes a drag, leaning back slightly in her seat. “Do you think you are?”
Peggy shakes her head, finding the quiet in Joan’s voice vaguely disturbing for a reason she can’t exactly place. “No.” She pauses, reaching for her coat.
“But I’m beginning to think everyone else does.”
When ten rolls around, they mutually agree upon a requisite quitting time and Joan attempts to hail a cab while Peggy opts to walk. She ignores the protests (has more than enough to spare on a cab but walking seems more enticing) and grips at the fingers that tighten around her waist, catching the smirk in Joan’s eye before her friend turns away.
Peggy looks up, wrapping her arms tighter around her body, thinks of Pete and Roger, of Ken and Harry, and as the cab pulls away, she thinks of Megan and Joan. She thinks about how tomorrow she'll call Don, just to tell him hi. Just to say she was thinking about him.
And that she doesn't intend to be a stranger anymore.