By the early 1980’s, my mother had taken her baccalaureate and quit her nursing job in hopes of opening a Natural Food store with two partners she might or might not have been dating (curly-haired hippie men who, before the doors opened, blew the startup money up their noses). These were optimistic times. We were riding a chunk of cash my father’d relented on, as sick as we were of his sending one- and two-thousand-dollar disbursements every six months. Money we’d erupt into the streets with, paying off back rent, gas accounts, one-two-three-bills slap in the palm out the window of our Volvo. My brother and me upright and buoyant in the sunlit cab of the car, headed for sporting goods stores, the finest clothes boutique in town where we’d pick out a shirt, maybe a pair of pants if mom could finesse the owner. We’d spend it in a day. No pensioning. I recall touching the fine cloth of an imported shirt hanging in my closet, the rest of my shirts flung to the far end of the rod. Hearing the neighborhood kids in the street, I pulled an old t-shirt over my head, paused in the doorway for one last look at the shirt, near shivering, and shut the light, three steps at a time down and off the porch. This was Oregon, but Ashland, Oregon. Shakespearian Oregon where Mondale/Ferraro and Keep Tahoe Blue placards stood in front yards.
My mother befriended a beautiful stylist named Jeanette who cut our hair during those flush months. Popular music pulsed from ceiling-mounted speakers across her sleek modernist salon. No blue cylinders of comb water, no white-smocked barber, no Playboy Magazines stacked on the television, as I’d encountered when lucky enough to avoid my mother’s bowl cut. Jeanette and the other women’s feet seemed barely to grace the floors, their hair shaped like exotic birds. One of the stylists holding a plait of her customer’s hair up in the sunlight from the window: “I’ve never seen anything so shoulder-length. I mean, who did this to you? Your husband?”
Enjoying the invisibility of children in such places I’d smuggle cookies and finger sandwiches laid out on trays and gulp down Perrier. I’d watch the men in suits who’d sit with their eyes closed, flirting with their stylist. I’d study their gestures, unconsciously mimicking them in my lap, then later, alone, I’d sit in my room crossing my legs, brushing the air aside, laughing boldly with women I had not nor ever would meet.
Some days, knowing my mother would be elsewhere, I’d stop in, claiming I’d expected to find her. Jeanette would muss my hair or seat me in front of the mirror and clean around my ears – a service that terrified me the first time because I imagined I’d be expected to pay. But I became accustomed to this luxury, arriving more and more regularly. If Jeanette was with someone I’d hang around shooting off phrases I’d heard pass among the clientele, watching her bottom, faintly sickened and exhilarated by the panty lines under her skirt. Then make out the door with a pocket full of cookies, the bell dinging as I bolted onto the sunlit sidewalks.
Jeanette had me take two photographs of my mother, who was beautiful, but, possibly because my brother and I were born when she was still a child, had never become more than a beautiful girl. One you’d expect to see in a small town. Long straight hair. No make-up. A gap between her front teeth. In the first photograph she’s in a salon chair, tissue around her neck, her body concealed by a black smock so her youthful face and her matte wet hair are disembodied. They appear more like illustrations than authentic body parts. As though the illustration of her face will accompany the word expectant in the dictionary.
In the second photo, my mother is posed in the bleach sunlight in front of the salon. There is a grandness to her stature, the picture having been snapped from the height of an eight-year-old. She stands with her legs wide set, her head pitched back, arms raised in some sort of Egyptian space-age dance, and her red hair is cropped in a tousle of short spikes. She’s nearly unrecognizable, as in black and whites I’d seen of her as a teenager in South Dakota experimenting with lipstick. Jeanette’s leg and arm remain blurred in the foreground. Either out of fondness for my mother’s mane of hair, or through some gift of foresight, Jeanette had refused to participate in the cutting – at one point, while my mother’s red hair stained the floor, Jeanette smoked a cigarette in the salon, something I’d never seen her do before.
In the background of the photo, beyond my mother in her silver leggings, our old Volvo can be discerned waiting under an oak. She never dared park it in front of the salon.
She and Jeanette began going out nights, dancing. My mother, who I believe had been (maybe still is) waiting for some stroke of life luck, must have felt as if everything was coming together. These jubilant nights – dancing in the arms of out-of-town business men - far as they were from the small rental we still slept in, would be life from here on out.
Of course the money was running out, my father refusing her phone calls. About the time I became aware the natural food store would never open – which could’ve been weeks in delay, I was a child - I overheard her on the telephone as I brought an empty cereal bowl into the kitchen. “Well, I can’t very well sell my hair anymore, can I?” she said. “Jesus, Patti, why didn’t someone tell me?”
After a brief dismayed period when I believe she simply couldn’t come to terms with the hemorrhaging of money, our apartment stacked with wholesale boxes of bulk grain, almonds, pastas, the landlord cupping his hands to look through the windows where my mother sat alarmingly still on the sofa, she started interviewing for work. The positions in the newspaper were menial: clerks, personal attendants, retail. She’d been so close to owning something of her own. Now, interviewing with her hands folded in her lap, her hair grown out awkwardly.
I was selling magazine subscriptions door to door for a school contest. I’d stick to the wealthy neighborhoods, the high houses set into the hills, dragging my hand along the sides of Mercedes as I came up the driveway. I was well versed. “Some are quite sophisticated,” I’d shoot off. “From House & Garden to female matters.” Always my prospects would raise their eyes from the list and smile, shocked. Occasionally a woman would cover her mouth or touch my arm. “And at one third the newsstand,” I’d say.
I’d ready the coupon book they received with the purchase of a subscription.
One afternoon my mother and I stood waiting in the lobby salon of the only four-star hotel in town. She didn’t say anything as the staff bustled about without noticing us. Then, as if suddenly awakened, she went to the counter and negotiated a walk-in that even then I knew she’d pass a bad check for.
“There,” she said, sitting, taking up a magazine, crossing her legs. “That wasn’t so bad, was it? Tea?”
She folded something in her hand and refolded it, running her fingers along the edge, and in the gloss of it and the color at the edge I recognized one of the coupons from the subscription gifts. When she saw me looking she crossed her eyes and made a face, something she did when we were joking. “It’s not as nice a place, is it?”
A short, bony, strict-looking woman matadored the smock over her. She stood behind my mother, touching her hair, conferring with her in the mirror. I couldn’t hear anything for the noise of hairdryers. The two of them went back to the sinks, my mother’s legs switching from under the smock. She snuggled her head into the contoured neck of the basin, leaving only her chin and the tip of her nose visible. The bony woman rapped on a dividing wall and a young Mexican girl came out chewing, wiping the corners of her mouth with her thumb and forefinger. She didn’t look old enough to have a job. Maybe a few years older than me, a teenager. She patted her hands on her thighs, then washed them quickly in the sink next to my mother. When she came over and tested the water in the basin, my mother sat up quickly and smiled at the girl, then I didn’t see her face again until I returned from the lobby.
I had to move; I went out and walked along the carpeted hall under a huge tinkling chandelier. My head pitched back, turning so the thing rotated galactically over- head. Only when a bellhop grazed me did I become self-conscious again, believing both the counter men, in ties and vests, were watching me. I nodded expertly to them and cruised as nonchalantly as I could past a young girl holding to her mother’s leg among their suitcases. I jumped down a set of stairs, through a pair of double doors, and leaned finally over the railing to the empty flat surface of the indoor swimming pool. I felt for the bottom of the water with my eyes, the softened white bulge where the floor rose to the shallow end. I climbed to the middle wrung of the rail, my knees pressed to the top, and leaned out into the soundless wobbling light.
“What’re you waiting for?” a man’s voice startled me. I’d not seen him, lying on a towel, barechested, as if he were sunbathing. “Somebody ought to swim in the thing, we’re all paying for it,” he said. “And god knows, the rooms are a disgrace.”
“Ours doesn’t even have cable,” I said. I don’t know why I lied, or what it meant to me for a hotel room not to have cable television, but when his laugh echoed in the hollow walls, I smiled.
“Where the hell are we?” he said. “Oregon?”
I looked at his tan legs crossed at the ankles and at the heaviness of his body, his hands behind his head. He stared off over the water at a woman in uniform passing back and forth in one of the dim rooms above us, vacuuming. I made a dismissive gesture, and sloughed off up the stairs.
Through the salon’s glass doors my mother seemed both delicate and unnatural, seated too upright in the chair. She didn’t look at the women grouped around her, though something in her profile made clear her anxiety. The bony woman a step back directed another two whose postures looked like those peering in on an animal. I came through the door; they all looked at me briefly. Except my mother. She remained still, her eyes looking in the mirror at the other customers who sat waiting, some turning to watch.
One of the stylists looked again, pushing the hair aside, her mouth turned down. “Just eczema, I think.”
“Just?” the bony woman said.
“It’s worse when I’m stressed,” my mother said. I looked up, thinking in her voice that she’d turned to me. But she hadn’t. They were still the three of them all looking at each other in the mirror. “I’m sorry, I should have mentioned it.”
“No, no,” the third woman said. “It’s – “
“It would have been helpful,” the bony woman said. “You’re probably used to it but I’m not.” She held her hands up slightly. “I’m definitely not. I think Maria will finish you.” The two other stylists looked at her dubiously. “Maria will finish her,” she repeated to them. She patted my mother on the shoulder in what seemed to me a very strange gesture.
My mother said something I couldn’t hear, looking up at the woman as she turned away. She said whatever it was again, but the woman didn’t respond. She watched her interrupt the girl who was shampooing another customer, and when the girl looked over towards my mother, she looked down, then quickly towards me, and smiled without parting her lips. She made a motion to wave, but the smock tented over her hand.
“No, he wants to keep that surfer look,” my guardian said from the swivel chair, his hairdresser, Sherry, tousling his hair as she looked over at me.
“What a heartbreaker,” she cooed.
I got up and looked out the glass front door of the Mane Attraction, at the wintering parking lot, our lone car sooted from the salt roads. Then the two hairdresser’s cars and, farther out, below the limp pendants a row of secondhand cars with snow on their hoods. Tractor-trailers wheezed through their gears on the roadway, dwindling into the smudged distance. In the few days since I’d arrived in Iowa it had snowed eighteen inches while I sat in the house watching HBO. When Tim, my guardian, got home from work we’d hustle out in the cold to dinner at a pool hall where he had league matches. I’d watch the silver-haired men shoot deliberately from ball to ball, cracking their necks between shots, bantering. Sometimes they’d have me rack for them, get a wild game between matches, or I’d shoot on the dollar tables with women who frequented the place. Women in outdated clothes whose breasts and perfume would smudge my cheek when they hugged me. We’d gone out to the mall for winter clothes one weekend and I’d watched the other teenagers milling around outside the theatre, their hands tucked in the back pockets of their girls’ jeans. And even in the arcade, I’d stood over the shoulders of a few kids my age as if waiting for the game they were on, in hopes of striking up a conversation.
“It’s no beach out there, is it?” a second beautician said, snapping her gum. She was seated in her own chair, filing her nails. There were no other customers.
“I can’t believe school’s not canceled,” I said.
“So Tim says you’re from the West Coast,” Sherry said.
“Oregon,” I said. I looked at her and the other woman for response. “I was born in California.”
The second Beautician held her hand out to look at her nails. “Just say California, sweetie.”
A week later I revisited the Mane Attraction, driving the unfamiliar roads in the old pickup I was allowed to use. I barreled through the slush, risking the tail end, savoring the loose exhilaration of it drifting along the edge of control, sliding to a halt at stop signs, or through them, finally stopping angled midway through the intersection.
I’d begun at the high school on the north side of town. The bell ringing through the halls, I’d duck into the chaotic bathroom, where boys pushed at each other, talking pussy, eyeing the new kid as I washed my hands, giving myself just enough time to check my collar for dandruff. Then in class with the teacher tapping away on the chalkboard I’d lean forward on my desk, glancing back quickly at whoever sat behind me.
Because I was early for my appointment I walked out in the bleak cold of the used cars, leaning to have a look in a few of the windows. The interiors looked stiff and dusty and unused. A salesman finally shuffled out with his hands in his pockets, and I waved him back toward the modular building.
“I’m just waiting for a haircut,” I said.
He smiled and motioned over at the salon without moving his head, the way a person does when they’re huddling the heat into themselves. “I hear you,” he said. “I’d be over there every day if the wife wouldn’t catch on.”
I stomped my boots in the door of the Mane Attraction, waved briefly to Sherry, looked around the bare rectangular room, the heavy rear end of the other hairdresser. I was suddenly disappointed in the place. I’d allowed myself to explode the beauty parlor into something grander, had moved Sherry through it elegantly and, if not in bold ways, erotically. It was actually quite cold and undecorated, a thin carpet, and then linoleum under the chairs. Everything smelled of candy hair products. The building may have been an office once.
I watched Sherry in the mirror, dropping the hydraulic chair to her height, bringing the back of my hair up in her fingers. She was small, as I’d remembered, and her clothes were girlish, as if she were trying to keep up with a time that was not hers.
“Don’t tell me you want to cut this all off,” she smiled at me, “cause I won’t do it.” She held up the spray bottle to warm me and shielded my eyes. “Imagine you’re in Hawaii.”
It was the first time, having closed my eyes, that I realized music was playing. Piano and saxophone rung out a lazy White Christmas. She began picking through my curls, tugging my head, and I kept my eyes closed. “All this snow would melt,” I said.
She made a sweet sound in her throat. “They’re not gonna stand a chance around here,” she said.
She drew my wet hair up between her fingers, scissored dark clumps down the slide of my apron. I glanced at them in my lap for signs of dandruff. Then at her hands working, her thin waist where her shirt was tucked in and then rose over her breasts that pressed against me intermittently. For some reason the photographs of her children along the edge of the mirror reinforced my adolescent idea of her as a sexual woman – not that she had a home life, kids storming the house in the afternoon, a husband she breakfasted with, but that she was someone who had had men between her legs and had the desire to be found attractive. With no other objects of affection I’d spent nights with her hovering idyllically over my new bed. Waking in the morning, dragging myself to the breakfast table, Tim had said more than once, And the dead has risen.
“Do you like cutting hair?” I asked her.
She nodded, her head tilted sideways, still cutting. Then she looked up at me, stopped working. “You know, I’ve never had anybody ask me that, but I do.”
She combed my bangs down to measure across my forehead and I looked at myself and felt that I didn’t look my best but I smiled to her anyway. “You know, I really like running my hands through people’s hair,” she said.
“Jesus, Sher,” the other stylist said. “It’s a kid, you’re not interviewing for work here.”
“I do though,” she said. “I don’t know why. Is that crazy?”
“I understand,” I said, wanting to.
She laughed. She stepped back over me and messed up my hair in her hands, her fingers pressing my scalp. I closed my eyes over the other stylist’s gum cracking, and imagined the jostle of my head as the movement of both of us bumping along in the cab of my truck, crossing a field, maybe in springtime, no, evening, a summer evening, why not, fireflies thrusting over the silvered grasslands where suddenly she is transported, naked and illuminated in my headlights.
At twenty-two, never having been to Europe, never for that matter to New York. I had a thousand dollars in my duffel folded into a La Guardia/Heathrow itinerary. In the dome light of the Greyhound across Pennsylvania, I found myself taking my passport out, flipping the empty pages soon to be filled with foreign stamps, even pretending to hand it over for inspection to the seat back in front of me.
Twice the lights of the city hazed the hilltops in front of us. Then in the headlights, mile markers hovered brightly over the roadside: New York 110 miles; New York 63 miles. And already mighty and visible and trembling against the sun-fallen sky.
It was on the crest of this bubble that a friend – a Long Islander whose wedding I was to attend before flying out – convinced me that we should have our hair cut. Don’t come back looking stupid, his fiancé said as we shouldered our coats at the door.
The women in the salon didn’t stop laughing or barely regard us in the doorway.
“What is so funny?” the younger stylist said. She’d dropped her comb and scissors to her side dramatically. “I’m not gonna apologize for knowing what I want. A baby by 30,” she counted on her fingers. “And I want to be with my husband two years before the baby. So, that leaves a year to find a husband.”
“Well I hope the dog rolls over and sits for you,” a second, heavy-set beautician said.
The girl snipped at her customer’s hair for affect, her lips pursed so as not to laugh with the others. “I don’t see the crime in a woman knowing what she wants?”
“Don’t we all,” the heavyset one said. She had her comb in her mouth, thumbing through the appointment pages. She gleamed up at us, “Aren’t you two lucky I’m a hard worker.”
I sat and switched through outdated hairstyle manuals. Men with tightly shorn beards, rosy lips, their hair perfectly wet. A few I held up for my friend to glimpse out of the corner of his eye, but the beautician straightened his head in the mirror.
I got up, had a waxed cup of cider from a thermos. Watched a small electric train shimmy its way around a built-in shelf below the ceiling. Its tinsel noise pushing through some snow-covered New England landscape. The whole place was Christmas lights and ornaments hung from the latticed walls. Several women came in from the cold and disappeared behind a bamboo curtain and tikki lamp. They’d come out fifteen minutes later, bright, their eyes racooned, retucking their shirts, looking themselves over in the mirrors. They were obviously regulars, paid on account, made small talk with the stylists, had cider, their down coats folded over sunburned arms.
“No, seven days, seven nights,” one said emphatically.
“You make it sound like two whole weeks.”
“I hear those boats,” said the young one, stooped, eyeing her color job. “I hear you wanna jump off by the end.”
When the heavyset one cinched the smock on my neck I had to stretch my chin out to free my Adam’s apple. I looked up to find her waiting for me in the mirror. “I trust you,” I said. “Just shorter than it is now.”
She spritzed my hair, shielding my face with her plump hand. She drew my hair up between her fingers, snapped at it, let it bend over in wet plates, drew up another row and went on. Her freckled chest pressed my shoulder. I raised my eyebrows to my friend but saw his shape go out the door.
When a telephone rang in the back, no one moved for it. The young stylist looked up from the aluminum foil of her color job after a few rings, and I understood someone was back there, working, or on break, and would answer.
In the time just after the phone stopped, my stylist said to the young stylist, “I’d think you’d be answering every call.” She let out a sharp laugh, covered her mouth with her hand holding a spray bottle. “I’m sorry, I’ll quit,” she said. “I’m sure you’ll get exactly what you want. We all will, won’t we?” She spritzed water into the air for no reason, and it fell whitely around us.
A woman came out from behind the bamboo. “Brittany,” she said.
The young stylist held up the brush and Tupperware as if to show she was busy.
“It’s for you,” the woman said.
“Well, I understand that, but can you bring it to me?”
My stylist raised her eyebrows at the back and forth.
“It’s in the back,” the woman said. Everyone was looking now, the customers in the mirrors, and the woman from the back shot a look at my stylist that made me uncomfortable.
The girl handed her the Tupperware and went out.
“I think it’s about her grandmother,” the woman said, coming near.
Both of them looked to where the tikki lamps stood at an angle. “I was just giving her a hard time.”
“The hospital doesn’t just go around calling people.”
I looked quickly out the door where in the dim evening light my friend jogged across the street to a convenience store.
“The dear thing still lives with her, doesn’t she?”
“Her grandmother?” asked the color job.
The woman from the back nodded, but firmed up as if territorial with the information.
There was a noise from behind the bamboo. The woman from the back turned and stood rigid, Tupperware in hand, while the heavyset one started combing my hair over and over, without cutting. Everyone looked vaguely in front of themselves as the girl appeared from behind the bamboo. She retrieved the Tupperware and, without hesitation, examined her client’s hair, finding where she’d left off. She sniffed once audibly, stirring the color. The woman from the back stood with nothing to do. Mine continued combing my hair, parting one side, then the other, glancing at the girl out of the corner of her eye. The train tooted coming out of the snow-covered tunnel. And my friend appeared in the glass door lit intermittently by the Christmas lights. He crossed his eyes and squished his cheek and nose, whitening them against the glass. I tried to motion to him without moving; all of the women watching him horrified, all but the girl concentrating on her work. He plugged his nose, pretended to swim with one arm, then the other, crossing the blue oval of glass, his silent slow movement, kicking a leg, rising as if through an aquarium, up and over the grey streets.
Finally the girl leaned her head back as though she had a bloody nose, smiled and flicked her hair with the back of her gloved hand. But her chin trembled. She pinched her lips together so they disappeared. We were all watching now as she began to sob. “Oh,” she said. “This is so silly.”
My friend out on the sidewalk bowed grandly, his arm draped like an elephant’s trunk. The heavyset stylist let out a sharp cry or laugh, I couldn’t tell. None of us had any idea what to do.
I had not spent much time in automobiles in Italy. As the interpreter swerved through traffic, connecting quarters of the city that, as a subway commuter, seemed to me like a system of ponds, I began to connect them one to another. He took the opportunity to tend to several errands with the car the agency had loaned him while I waited in the double-parked Fiat. Motorini zipped up and over the high cobbled surface of the piazzas, sending pigeons into the bright sky above the flower vendors and their newspapers.
I’d hoped when we set out that the interpreter would simply take me to a prearranged salon. Possibly that the agency would pay for it. But when he settled back into the seat after his last stop, sighed, then bumped us out into traffic, he said without looking at me from the side view mirror, “And now, my friend, my pleasure. Where do we go?”
At the salon I sat rigid as the interpreter and stylist talked. The interpreter had gone for coffee while she washed my hair, then failed to return until midway through the cut. Flopping in the vacant chair next to me, he winked. “Looking very good,” he said.
I regarded him out the corner of my eye. “Well, I told her exactly what I wanted,” I said.
He laughed and spoke to her and she laughed, but politely, for him. He got up and held his cigarette in front of her mouth unexpectedly. She hesitated, then leaned forward, smiled sheepishly through the smoke at him. He watched her exhale, his hand on my shoulder, eager to offer another drag, but she insisted he sit, glancing nervously around at the others in the shop.
The whole place was black, modern, great orchids stretched from the countertops like miniature giraffes. It was striking, the resemblances to Jeanette’s salon. There was even a young boy in a school uniform who had several times been scolded by his mother when he lost a handle on an orange he was tossing from hand to hand.
A male employee escorted a customer past and heckled my stylist gently. I understood only Americano as she tried to continue working but couldn’t help glancing at me in the mirror. I smiled with my lips together. The interpreter called something after the man, and the schoolboy looked up, surprised at the exchange. He stood and craned his neck, but was told to sit again although his mother and her stylist had stopped as well to watch. The interpreter spoke in a loud slow unaccented Italian, covering his heart for effect. He tried to egg the stylist on, but she only made brief eye contact with me in the mirror and went on with her work. She combed my hair down around the ears and flat against the back of my head, then focused on a point in the back, pushed it up with her comb, and studied it again. I edged up in the chair. There was a roar of laughter from the man in the back. The kid stood again, his mother having forgotten about him. Then in the quiet the girl said something to the interpreter. She motioned to the spot, and from under the smock I actually brought my hand back and felt my head.
“Marca de diavolo?” the interpreter said, rising from the chair. “Black hair? It does not look black to me,” he said loudly, in English so no one understood him. He laughed anyway.
“It’s a birthmark,” I said, relieved. “My father had black hair.”
One of the other stylists came over and stooped to look for herself. I shifted uncomfortably in the seat.
“She wants to know if you color it,” the interpreter said.
The woman picked up several cut pieces of hair from my apron, squinted at them, then rolled them in her fingers until they fell separately into her palm.
“What’s she doing?” I asked.
The interpreter shrugged me off, watching her. He said something and she smiled to herself, laughed finally, then clapped her hands clean as my stylist pulled the smock off unannounced and stood back waiting for me to stand.
“Eighty?” I said to the stylist at the counter. I looked at the interpreter, who shrugged.
The stylist said something to him that seemed annoyed.
He replied, gesturing apologetically toward the window where it was displayed: Primero - L 50,000.
One of the other stylists looked up at us from her cut. She said something and there was a quick agitated back-and-forth.
“Never mind,” I said. I counted it out on the counter, then threw another twenty in, waving the money away.
The woman took only the eighty.
“Sir,” the interpreter said. He put his hand on the extra money. “You don’t need to.”
“No, please,” I said. I moved his hand from it.
“It is not custom.”
The stylist said something that I spoke over.
“Of course she can. Please,” I said to her. “It was a pleasure.”
I squeezed the money into her complacent hand, held it there, nodded to her. She looked at the interpreter helplessly, and I pulled her hand closer, reached up her wrist with my other hand. I tried to get her to make eye contact with me, but she spoke to the interpreter.
“What did she say?”
He looked from my face to where I continued to hold her arm. “She’s sorry if you’re angry with the price.”
She looked at me.
Over her shoulder several of the clients and stylists had stopped and sat watching. The boy’s mother had come out nearly to the middle of the room.
“No,” I said. “Forget it.”
I took the wadded bill from her hand, held it up between my thumb and forefinger for the boy to see. Then gulped it into my mouth exaggeratedly, brushed my hands together like a stage magician, and opened my empty mouth to him.
For nearly a year our unmarried house floated injuriously through the celestial whiteness of our daughter. I often lingered in her room after putting her down for the night, replacing her books on the bookshelf, preparing a morning diaper on the night-lit changing table. I’d look down over her dark eggshelled eyelids, her warm breath releasing, then stretch out on the floor dozing finally as the street lamp out the window broke apart into sleep. Anything to avoid the endless pursuit of arguments that awaited me downstairs.
Our own sleep was mainly cold, a draft of unfinished arguments as we tossed under the blankets, our shins bumping and retreating from each other. Or, I’d leave in one of the cars and park in an unfamiliar neighborhood. (I once looked up to see the iridescent street sign, Oregon St. – which seemed impossibly distant now – hovering in the night.) I’d cover myself in jackets and sleeping until in the early dawn I’d have to run the engine for heat. Couples would emerge from their houses as if from Disney movies, kissing on the porch, and I’d think very melodramatically that it would be a long time before I had another woman. I’d stretch my face out in the rearview, looking for something I no longer saw in myself. It seemed clear to me my efforts to weather the cohabitation in order to be with my daughter would eventually be obscured by my leaving. I would be an absentee father, with a child growing up outside his home. I’d often start ill-fated conversations with women in grocery lines, or over the opened door of my car, asking for directions to a place I knew well, only to harass myself with the disappointment of the interaction for days.
It was on a morning like this, eating breakfast in the car, leaning forward so as not to spill on my shirt, that I watched a young woman hurry through the rain with her purse held over her head. She opened a salon and the lights came on in the grey street front. She stood in the oily window taking her shawl off, shaking it, squinting out at the cars raising walls of water towards the gutters. It was winter, northern California. Under the storm clouds the row of buildings seemed very low and dark, though it must only be the way I’m remembering it, like night. It must have been 9 AM. But even that, for a salon, struck me as wasteful and somehow romantic. As if the place would remain vacant a few hours, the young woman alone mooning over the books or sweeping the place. Maybe she would dance by herself, twisting from mirror to mirror.
A man ducked in under her awning and peered out into the torrent like a wet cat. He propped his collar up. Then turned startled when she opened the salon door behind him. I hit the wipers to see them better. She motioned him in, but he refused, gesturing down the street. He was just getting out of the rain. She went back in and he raised his shoulders and ducked into the rainfall, splashing with each footfall.
I peeked my head in the door and then came into the loud music before she finally realized I was there. “Oh,” she said, covering her heart.
“Sorry,” I said. “Are you not open?”
“No, of course.” She hurried to turn the music down. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Rock’n and roll’n in here,” I said. I wiped the rain from my eyebrows, trying to smile as she looked me over. My disheveled appearance probably wasn’t reassuring. I hung my jacket and rolled my sleeves to the elbow to cover the wrinkles. Then flattening the chest a bit, tucking the shirt bottom around my waist, I said, “May as well be sleeping at the office these days.”
She gave me a pained look.
“Actually, do you have a bathroom?”
She motioned to a door beyond a set of mirrors and stood awkwardly as I passed her.
“Oh.” I stopped. “Do you have any open appointments?”
She nodded. Her face was younger than I’d imagined.
“Good.” I turned but stopped again. “How much?”
“Seventy-five dollars?” I tried to act casual, patting my front pockets. “Do you take cards?” I said, hoping they wouldn’t, I could say I’d be right back with cash, and disappear.
Outside the bathroom window were a few sodden dumpsters in a courtyard they shared with a restaurant. No exit. Seventy-five dollars was a full day’s work at both the jobs I’d taken (one doing yard work, and then at night, after putting our daughter down, crossing town to feed and bathe and carry to bed, in odd repetition of my rituals with my own little girl, a grown man stricken with cerebral palsy). There were better things – for my daughter, for the house – to spend the money on. But I was here, splashing water on my face in the bathroom. I’d sent out resumes for better work. Maybe through some act of grooming, or care – through some love act – the woman could hold my fears at bay, if only for an hour.
She massaged my head for several awkward minutes before I finally realized this was part of her service. I was able to relax, my neck loose in her hands, but was never able to forget where I was. I had never been in a salon alone before. Only her working, and me, watching her crane her neck to work the top of my head or scratching her own part using her third finger as she stood back and looked at my thinning hair. We were both quiet, the place cold; some of the rear chairs remained in near darkness. I listened to the scissors shear through a tall stand of my hair, falling around me, and puffed up the lap of the smock, pushing the hair to the floor. Her ankles there where she stood on the linoleum. Next to her another hydraulic chair. Cars passing in the rain. Twice someone stopped under the awning to get out of the rain before making a break for a car.
“I keep thinking they’re gonna come in,” she said. We both smiled towards the door where the back of a woman stood in the humid window. “I wish they would. I should probably switch all the lights on.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I kinda like being in here alone. It’s nice. Makes it feel like we’re at your house and you’re just cutting my hair. This is a very fancy garage.”
I hoped that she would laugh, but she only smiled.
“I don’t think there’s anything I like less than hair salons.”
She raised her eyebrows at me and snorted. We both laughed in the mirror.
“I’m serious. Rather be at the dentist,” I said. “I feel like everybody’s watching me and that I have something wrong with my head. Even now, with nobody else around, every time you stop I watch you in the mirror to see if there’s something wrong.”
She put her fingers on the top of my head like a claw and turned it a little. “Seems like a perfectly good head to me.”
“I know, it’s juvenile,” I said. “I don’t know, do you like cutting hair?”
She didn’t look up and I thought she would let it die. With her head tilted, combing my hair through she said, “It’s work. And you know, it’s creative. In some ways. Or I keep it creative.” She looked up at me as if to affirm something she was about to say. “I call the women that come in Milady. The boss doesn’t like it, but it’s alright. They like it. And to some of the men I jokingly say, ‘Milord, how is the vestry today?’” She smiled to herself working again. Her concentration returned. “It’s steady work. People will always need haircuts I guess.”
“Milady,” I smiled.
“That sounds totally ridiculous doesn’t it? Milady,” she said. Her hands fell to her side and she looked off towards the dim back end of the place. “I rolled my car last week – it’s all I think about,” she said. “I rolled my car and listen to me, all I can do is say into the backseat – to my dog – ‘Hang on Buster, we’re going over!’” She laughed outrageously, put her hand and comb to her mouth to try and stop herself, but couldn’t. “His name is really Buster,” she gagged. Her body twitching out some laugh against her will until finally, a deep breath, wiping a few tears from her cheek, she said, “Oh, do I like cutting hair.”
At home, I hopped the fence and went around to the back door where I stopped briefly in the heavy drops from the eve and watched through the window as my daughter, in her long sleep shirt, came and went dragging an open umbrella. She scrunched her nose at me when I came in and we both looked at her mother who was talking to her, and hadn’t noticed I’d come in.
“ –down and eat your breakfast.”
I shot my daughter a look and squatted and she ran to me and took me around the neck. “Papa hair,” she said.
“You went out and got a haircut?” her mother said. She snorted. Tossed a spoon in the sink.
I looked up at her over our daughter’s head. “It came with the room at the Hilton,” I said.
She looked at the two of us, the girl like a chimpanzee on my chest now, and me dodging her hand with my head.
“You look militant.”
“You trying to cut my hair too?” I said to my daughter. I growled at her and showed my teeth.
She shrieked, kicking up on my hip to reach my hair.