Marie, who is not a very sexual person, who cannot forgive her body or its middle-aged alterations, gets almost all her needs met at The Cut Above, Alvin Myerson's beauty salon. When Alvin opened the shop, some friends told him to change his name to Andre or even to Alain. He couldn't be bothered and put his licence, with ALVIN ROY MYERSON printed in large type, in the very front of the salon. 'I traffic in illusion,' he said, 'not in lies.' Marie, who cherishes her sons and loves and resents her husband, likes Alvin. She thinks they have something in common. All of Marie's women friends seem happy enough with their lives, those who aren't come over to Marie's house to make eyes at her handsome husband, who sometimes makes eyes back at them. Marie knows what attracts Henry and it isn't women like her friends. They are all too maternal, too dark, too much like Marie for her to worry about.

Marie has gone in to discuss, for the third time, whether or not she should dye her grey-and-brown hair. She has been looking forward all day to feeling Alvin's strong hands on her shoulders as he pulls her head from side to side, describing the elegant, youthful woman she will become when he uses just a rinse to restore her natural colour. Alvin makes it sound like she is only retrieving something that belongs to her, not doing something foolish and vain. Marie's fear of appearing vain, her conviction that she has nothing to be vain about, keeps her from making more than the slightest effort to look attractive.

'Come on,' Alvin had said last week, bending down to whisper in her ear, 'let yourself be beautiful.'

'Henry's the beautiful one,' she'd said, in a voice so hard and scared that the women sitting near her thought she must hate her husband.

When Joyce, the receptionist, tells Marie that Alvin is home today with the flu, Marie stares straight ahead at the racks of mousse and gel so that she won't cry; it's ridiculous to cry because your hairdresser isn't there, even if he is your good friend and you haven't seen him in a week. Marie drives much too fast to her father's bakery.

'Hiya, sweetheart. No work today?'

'I'm on a break, Pa. Let me have two of the baguettes, please.'

'Sure, two baguettes. The boys like the white bread, you know. Hank likes the raisin pumpernickel. Having company? On a Wednesday?' Marie's mother died two years ago, and her father is in her house more than he is in his own.

'No. I've got a sick friend, so I'm bringing some bread and soup.' Marie carefully skips pronouns. Her father wouldn't approve of her having a male friend, not even a hairdresser.

'Good girl, just like your mother, taking care of everyone. Hello, Mrs Lottman.'

Marie goes home to defrost a container of chicken and rice soup. She calls Alvin and tells him she'll be right over.

'I'm a mess, darling. Really. The place looks like shit and I look worse.'

'Five minutes, Alvin, and don't get out of bed. The super can let me in.' Marie grew up in Brooklyn and believes that all apartment dwellers are watched over by her uncle Sario or the local equivalent.

'Marie, there is no super. This is a condominium, and the manager, whom I have, never, ever seen, lives on the far side of Chapel Hill. I'll let you in and then I'll crawl back into bed. God bless you.'

Marie puts a few magazines and a quilt in the car while the soup microwaves, and writes a note for Henry saying she'll meet him at Claude's softball game.

Alvin looks just as bad as he said. His sandy brown hair is plastered to his skull, exposing his receding hairline, usually hidden by his bangs. At the shop he wears loose white wool pants and looks like the captain of the cricket team; lying in his king-sized bed, he looks like a dying John Barrymore, the face ravaged, the bones magnificent. Marie slices bread, reheats the soup, and gives the kitchen counters a quick wipe-down. She bustles, parodying her maternal self so that he won't be embarrassed. She cannot bear to embarrass him, she cannot bear for him to ask her to leave. She carries in the quilt and holds it up for his approval. Marie wants to tuck it in around him, to smooth it down the length of his torso.

'Gorgeous pattern. Rose of Sharon, right? You stole it from some old lady.'

Since Alvin is trying to smile through a cold sweat, Marie pretends to be indignant. She puts the quilt over him, touching his damp cheek by accident.

Alvin takes both her hands in his and bends his head over them. 'You have nice hands, Marie. Can I say something?'

'Sure. Say anything.'

'No more of this coral shit on your nails, OK? You have small, pretty hands and pale olive skin. True reds and clear only, OK? And let's keep the nails oval, not pointed.' He kisses the back of each hand and slides down beneath the quilt, which smells slightly, pleasantly, like the soup. 'You're a doll,' he says, closing his eyes.

Marie pats the quilt down around his shoulders and washes all the dirty dishes she can find and straightens up the living room, which doesn't take long. Alvin is as neat as she is. She doesn't want to leave. She writes her home number by the kitchen phone, wraps the baguettes in foil so they can be reheated, and meets her sons and her husband at the softball game, thinking of Alvin's wet white face, and she cheers whenever Henry cheers.

After he gets over the flu, Alvin won't let Marie pay for her haircuts, or for the colouring she finally agrees to. They are friends, and he is going to make her beautiful. Marie comes home with shining mahogany hair shot with copper highlights, cut short to show off her slender neck, and the women at work say she looks completely different. Henry says he never knew she had such a pretty neck. Alvin even leaves in a few silver strands so that no one will think she dyes her hair. On Wednesdays they have lunch together in the back of the shop, and on Sundays Marie assists Alvin with the brides and the mothers of the brides. She hands him bobby pins and rattail combs and spritzes hairspray so clear and strong you could keep a full head of hair standing straight up if that was the look you were after. Alvin teaches her to do chignons and twists and French braids and to arrange white flowers in the bride's hair. All the women are happy, despite their nervousness, and very, very grateful to Alvin and Marie.

Alvin says, 'The next van is going to say 'Alvin and Marie's Wedding on Wheels'.'

Marie has fallen in love with beauty. Henry notices that she has stopped going to Mass, but he doesn't say anything; he doesn't mind, since helping Alvin makes her happier than church ever did. She looks better too. Marie has no occasion to go back to Alvin's apartment, and he never comes to her house.

One Sunday morning Marie is running late and Alvin rings the doorbell. Henry, in his black velour robe and bare legs, opens the door. Although Henry has never even wondered about Alvin's appearance, he knows immediately who he is. Alvin thinks Henry looks just the way he thought he would, maybe a little greyer, just as handsome.

'Come on in, she's almost ready,' Henry says. 'Coffee?'

'Coffee'd be great. I've got a bride, a mother of a bride, and two bridesmaids waiting for me in Laurel Springs. Hair and make-up. You don't want to get into that without coffee. Intravenous bourbon wouldn't hurt.'

Henry laughs, surprised. He didn't expect Alvin to sound like such a regular guy. 'Come into the kitchen. I was just making a cup.'

'Nice house. Marie said you designed it.'

'Yeah. When we moved down here, we saw this lot. It came out all right. My father's in construction too, we did the work ourselves. No point paying someone else to screw it up.'

'Right. I'd rather do for myself too. I worked in someone else's shop for two years, that was enough for me.'

Henry is suddenly glad to be pouring a cup of coffee for Alvin, a fellow entrepreneur and probably a tough little bastard in his own way.

Marie comes running down the stairs just as Alvin is taking his first sip of coffee.

'Hi.' Alvin doesn't stand up and kiss her cheeks, the way he always does, and Marie is so hurt she wants to slap them both, sitting there like the Goombah Brothers.

'I'm ready,' she says, jamming her hands into the pockets of the fawn suede jacket Alvin told her to buy. 'Let's go, Alvin.'

'Let the guy finish his coffee, honey. You two have a big morning ahead of you. You want another cup?'

Shut your face, she thinks. Alvin takes two more quick swallows and winks at Marie.

'Let's do it. Henry, thanks for the coffee. Good to meet you.'

'Same here.'

They shake hands while Marie finds herself rocked by feelings that make no sense to her.

'Bye, honey,' Henry says, lifting one big hand to wave to her.

'Bye,' Marie mumbles, forcing herself to wave back. 'The boys won't be home until two.'

Henry smiles and reaches for the newspaper as they leave. The house is his.

'I love that jacket on you,' Alvin says as he pulls the car into traffic.

'You do? I'm glad you made me get it, everyone loves it and it is the softest thing. OK with these pants?'

If Marie had her way, Alvin would lay out her clothes every morning. They don't talk about Henry.

When the invitation to the International Stylists' Convention comes, Alvin hands it to Marie.

'Come on, we're going to Miami. You'll be my tax-deductible guest. Get a little sun, mambo at night. You have to come, I can't do it without you.'

'Do you really mambo?'

'Darling, you are looking at the Latin Ballroom King of Jersey City.'

'All right, tell me what to pack,' says Marie, wondering what Henry will have to say about this, seeing herself dancing with Alvin beneath the Miami moon.

The lobby is a white and silver cavern, with plexiglass stalactites spiralling down to meet the tips of silver-sprayed palm trees bearing sparkling white coconuts. Alvin begins laughing in the lobby and is still grinning when they are shown to their adjoining ice-blue rooms, both accented with raspberry flamingos etched in the mirrors and appliqued on to their queen-size bedspreads.

Alvin and Marie have a ball. Every night Alvin does her hair a little differently and lays out her clothes. The second night, as she is watching in the mirror, Alvin picks up her turquoise silk dress and begins to cha-cha around the room with it, a Latin Fred Astaire.

'Just my colour, don't you think?'

Marie can tell that there is something he needs to hear. 'It does go with your eyes, I guess turquoise is your colour.'

He blows her a kiss, and they go out to eat stone crabs and drink just one Mai Tai apiece. When Marie is out with Henry, there's always a big fuss over the wine list, and she has to have a glass of something bitter and flat so that he can enjoy the other three glasses. Henry makes fun of her daiquiris and Singapore Slings.

After their triumphant Botticelli bridal arrangement, Alvin orders room service champagne, and as they sit on the tiny terrace, he toasts her.

'To my darling Marie, the most beautiful woman in North Carolina.'

Marie blushes with pleasure and looks down at the hem of her ivory dressing gown.

'What would you like?' Alvin asks, his voice so soft that Marie isn't sure what he's saying.

'I have everything I want. This has been the most wonderful three days of my life, and I owe it all to you.'

Alvin smiles and kisses her hand.

'What would you like?' she asks, knowing that whatever he says, she wants to give it to him. Even if what he wants is sex, she wants to give it to him, never mind Henry, never mind her own well-known lack of interest, which is at this very moment dissolving.

Alvin tells her that what he wants is to dress in her clothes, in her lingerie, that she is so beautiful he wants to feel what it is to be her, to be even closer to her. He looks right into her eyes at first, but he ends by looking down into the courtyard. Marie has no idea what to say, she refuses even to think the hurtful words that Henry would use. Whatever Alvin wants, she wants to give him. She nods her head, hoping that that is enough.

Alvin walks over to the dresser and takes out a chemise and a half-slip and a pair of pantyhose. Marie watches the waves beyond the terrace. She doesn't trust her own face.

Alvin goes into the bathroom, wanting not to frighten Marie, wanting not to embarrass either one of them. He knows what he needs to do. Slowly, he sweeps foundation up from his jawline, over his high cheekbones, all the way back to his ears, making sure there's no line on his neck. He takes out a new, sharp-edged pink lipstick, brushes on one coat, presses a Kleenex to his lips, and puts on a second coat to last. He doesn't do much with his small blue eyes, just a little dark brown mascara and the pale rose eye shadow he's taught Marie to use, to make her eyes look brighter. He passes the blush-on brush over his cheeks lightly.

Alvin pauses, looking at himself, closing his eyes a little. There's so much he can't fix, can't fix right now, anyway. He takes out the wig he bought in Germany five years ago, six hundred dollars' worth of beautiful long blond hair, no frizzy polyester, just some young fraulein's decision to go short one summer, and there it was. He puts on the pantyhose and the half-slip and the matching chemise he had persuaded Marie to buy, hoping that he would be wearing it with her. He wraps his navy silk robe around him and finds the navy silk mules he got while picking out the ivory ones for Marie. He loves Marie's small round feet and spares himself the sight of his own well-shaped but too large feet sliding into the heels. If he wore anything larger than a 10, he would go barefoot rather than be one of those jumbo transvestites, big-knuckled hands made pathetic by pale pink nail polish, thick necks hidden by carefully tossed scarves. Alvin lets himself think only about Marie, about how much she loves him and admires him. He knows she does. You can fake a lot of things, Alvin knows, but you can't fake love. He adjusts the wig quickly, tucking up his light brown bangs, and walks out of the bathroom, away from the mirror, toward Marie.

Marie has turned down the lights and drawn the sheer white curtains closed. In the gold, shining moonlight, Alvin really looks, for one moment, like a pretty woman, strong-shouldered, with a narrow waist and long legs under her rustling silk robe.

'You look beautiful,' Marie says.

'Marie, angel, right now, I feel beautiful. I feel like you. You know I think you're a beautiful, beautiful woman. I want us to be closer. I want to be very close, OK?'

They look at each other directly, breathing uncertainty and tenderness. Alvin kneels down, carefully, hoping he won't tip over in his heels, and he removes Marie's ivory slippers. He takes her by the hand and lays her down on the bedspread. Marie relaxes a little more; when Henry wants to make love, he always pulls the covers back.

Marie cannot stand to watch Alvin's lipsticked mouth moving down her breast, but she responds to its warm shape, pressing and gently tugging. The muscles in her back ripple, and her brown hair flutters like the leaves of a small bronze tree in the wind. As the tips of his long blond hair brush lightly across her chest, Alvin looks up just in time to see Marie's slight, astonished smile, and he pulls her closer, opening her robe.

'Beautiful,' he whispers.

'Beautiful,' she says.

(Photographs omitted)