My best friend Kate gathers my thick brown hair into a ponytail and shakes it gleefully. “I’ve been waiting a hundred years for this day! You sure?”
“Positive.” I haven’t done more than trim my hair since my mother died six years ago. But now it’s time for it to go. The wavy bulk, the split ends—all of it must go. I’m sitting under a bald lightbulb in the chilly, unfinished basement of my fiancé’s South Side bungalow. I watch in the mirror as Kate straps on her hairdresser’s holster. Her tiger-print pouch holds scissors, combs, sheers, a razor, and complicated clippers.
“You’re the only one I’d trust to do this,” I say. “But not at Sassoon.” I just can’t waltz into her Gold Coast salon with all those contrast-heavy Nagel prints of Joan Collins and sultry, red-lipped brunettes. I don’t want a bunch of fussy hairdressers giving me the side-eye for my French braid.
Kate pulls a comb from her pocket. “What about Bobby?”
“That’s why we have to hurry!”
“He’s going to freak.”
“Maybe not. And, it’s going to be a big change. I can understand…”
“Does he come straight home after market close?” she asks.
“It’s Monday, so he might come straight home.”
“We’ve got a couple hours,” she says. I close my eyes, not wanting to think or worry about Bobby’s reaction, and what this radical hair change will mean to him, or how it might manage to offend him. But I’ve made up my mind. I need a change.
“Let me make a braid. You can save it,” Kate says.
“For you.” Kate digs the comb into my scalp and divides it into three thick plaits. The comb hurts, but I can take it. She binds it with a hair tie, then starts to braid, mildly painful tugs at my temples. “Have you got anymore shit from people about the holiday party?”
“No. And at least I don’t have to see anybody until after winter break.”
“They’ll get over it.”
“I dunno,” I say. “They thrive on gossip.”
“Bunch of pretentious assholes.”
I won’t defend my fellow grad students because their pretentiousness is the one topic on which Kate and Bobby agree. But I want to be accepted by my art-school cohort more than my best friend and fiancé could understand. The photos I’ve shown this first semester of my MFA haven’t been great. It’s hard enough to be judged on my art, but I’m also judged for being twenty-four and already bound to a twenty-seven-year-old stockbroker who acts like he’s forty. Everybody else in the program is so free—making out, staying out, clubbing. At the holiday party, Bobby fulfilled all their expectations, by being an arrogant jackass. He argued about the inflated art market with my professor, Peter. Kate might be right that my program mates are pretentious, but Bobby didn’t need to be so ruthlessly rational about the long-shot nature of what we’re all trying to do: be artists. Is it so farfetched to imagine making a living this way?
Kate’s scissors catch the light from the dangling bulb as she opens them. “Ready?”
“As I’ll ever be.”
“I swear this is going to look awesome.”
It’s not easy to cut through my thick hair, but Kate has the strongest hands of any woman I know. She saws through the hair and hands me the heavy dark braid. I drop it in the hammock of my skirt and close my knees to hide it.
“You down with the Annie Lennox look?” Kate asks.
“I think so.” Annie Lennox has a bleached-blond crewcut. Sweet dreams are made of this. Princesses have long hair, braids that touch the floor. I think of Rapunzel trapped in a castle. I think of Samson, and I hope that Kate’s right, that cutting off my hair will have the opposite effect: I will gain power by losing it. She thinks this is all about changing my style, getting edgier. She doesn’t know about Peter’s cutting remarks during critique about apple-cheeked Midwestern girls in overalls and braids. Even a pixie cut won’t work. I need something drastic, something not docile: a crewcut. I want walk into the photo studio looking like totally different person next semester. Maybe I’ll feel that way too.
I’ve tried to act tough in class, but I’m not a great actress. I can’t stay in character. I slip back into being nice again, because—because of the Midwest. That’s how they all see me. The first week of class, L.A. Vivian said, “You look so apple-cheeked today, Maggie.” I was wearing Clinique blush. I must have put on too much. Now they sometimes call me the Michigan Apple, even though I’m from Chicago. She said my photos of garbage cans in alleys reminded her of “after-school specials” about poverty. That my photos pothole puddles, cyclone fences overtaken by weeds in vacant lots would make great calendars. Once Vivian Clark says you’re on that boring Urban Decay bandwagon, or the Peter says your work is “poverty tourism,” then there’s nothing you can do. Nobody takes your side. Your work gets worse because of it. Even I couldn’t find the rosy spin.
Kate’s scissors whiz around my head, cutting as close to the scalp as she can. She pulls out her electric shaver and runs it up my neck. The razor buzzes, it whirs, it’s the sound of my father shaving. It’s a masculine song in my ears. I start to believe in it.
The razor moves over the slight bump on my head, a spot that’s always been sensitive. I once fell backward onto manhole cover. Every time the tine of a comb or the foil heads of Kate’s razor touch that spot, I remember the summer day, sitting on a neighbor’s lawn, when a neighbor boy playfully pushed me backward, and my head bounced off the metal. The grass was so high, we hadn’t seen the sewer cover. A lump popped up and never completely went away. But what has lingered most in my mind is Joey’s remorse, how sorry he felt, and how sweet his apologies seemed, coming from a boy.
Kate moves over to the cement utility sink, and I touch my hair, feel the soft bristles. My spine shivers with the chill. I’m colder without all that hair on my neck. I open my knees and warm my hands under the braid, cradling this weighty manifestation of my past. Would I dare to do this if my mother were still alive? I look over as Kate attaches a rinsing hose to the tap, then tests the temperature with her index finger. She blows into a pair of rubber gloves and slips them on. She pours a packet of powder into a steel bowl, adding water, and whipping it with a boxy brush. I love watching her. She looks so professional, even if she is wearing a blue flannel, ripped jeans, and leather motorcycle boots. Her own short hair is Flock-of-Seagulls long on top, with a spot of blue at the temple. She skipped college and went straight to beauty school after high school, and she’s worked her way up to Sassoon. She’s a coveted, always booked hairdresser, and she makes so much cash she doesn’t need to work for months at a stretch, which supports her great passion: backpacking in far-flung locales. She’s heading to Thailand in April to meet up with an Irish girl she met in India. She’s in love.
She wags the peroxide brush at me. “You sure you don’t want to stick with your natural hair color? This isn’t going to tickle.”
Kate dips the brush in the paste and starts to layer on the peroxide, and at first, it’s cool, but then it starts to really tingle and burn. This burning feels like an initiation, and when I grit my teeth with the pain of it, Kate says,“You’ll live.”
In my neighborhood, we goad each other on with these phrases: You’ll live. It won’t kill ya. It’s a question of degree. Take any difficult situation. If it won’t kill ya, then you’ll get over it.
Kate carefully stretches a shower cap over my burning head, and then sets a timer for 40 minutes. While we wait, she pops a cassette of X’s More Fun in the New World in my boombox. The opening riffs get me off the stool, makes me cock my head pigeon style. Kate turns it up louder, so I can’t hear the shower cap crinkling in my ears anymore. We thrash around the basement, dancing, playing air bass. We dance with no inhibitions, mirroring each other’s hackneyed and comical pirouettes, and when one of us settles into serious oneness with the music, the other lifts an arm, training an invisible spotlight on the other, nodding in head-thrashing approval. When we sing, “We’re having much more fun!” I feel like we’re shouting at all our enemies. To the tune of an aggressive, exhilarating punk backbeat, we mix all the dance moves from two decades of friendship: the monkey, the nose-dive, the twist, the bump. Kate jabs a finger at the low ceiling, punk John Travolta-style, and comes back with cobwebs threaded between her fingers. She shakes them off, laughing, then grabs my hand and we do a rockabilly jitterbug, spinning each other across the concrete. We’re panting by the end of the “Breathless,” so we raid the basement fridge and chug a couple of Bobby’s Michelobs. We use her hairbrushes as microphones to serenade each other. “I must not think bad thoughts!” We shimmy to the floor, we do bad ballet moves till we’re spent, till the timer ding-ding-dings.
She leads me to the sink, and I lean back in a swivel office chair so my neck rests on the cold lip of the sink. The warm water feels wonderful, as she rinses away the peroxide. Water drips into my mouth and it tastes like metal. I arise from the cement basin a clown, my brown hair now Ronald McDonald orange.
“Don’t worry. This is actually the ‘Sweet Dreams’ color. You need the ‘Here Comes the Rain Again’ color.”
“I don’t have the bone structure to pull off orange hair,” I say.
“You do,” I say. Because Kate is a 5-foot-9 knockout lesbian who came out to me a couple years ago. With all she’s had to deal with, growing up where we do, you’d think I’d have the guts to tell her what’s really been happening in grad school. It’s not that I don’t trust her. I’m just not ready to admit some things, even to myself. Behind Peter’s put-downs, I sense something else—like he’s cutting me down and coming on to me too. Which I really don’t get. I’ve caught him many times glancing at my engagement ring, the 2-carat cathedral solitaire that Bobby had chosen himself.
Kate wheels me back to the center of the room, and I cradle my braid, as she layers on the peroxide. It doesn’t hurt as much, but still I wince when she brushes that tender spot, and I’m not reminded of the freckles on remorseful Joey’s cheeks; no, I’m remembering the clank of my head against the manhole cover.
“Hurting?” Kate asks.
“Beer helps.” Yet the initial buzz is dwindling into a queasy fatigue, and a glance at the clock fills me with familiar dread. It’s after four, and Bobby might be home in twenty minutes and if not, then he won’t be home for hours. For once, I’m hoping that he goes out drinking with his trader buddies.
After we rinse out the final coat of peroxide, Kate towel-dries my hair and then works in a cool, silky toner. “This will make it more lemony.”
She guides me toward the mirror, and I stare at my face. The stark hip hair is a stranger’s. My ears stand out like two washed pieces of marble. My brown eyes look huge against the lemony-white hair.
“Do I look like an alien?”
“Like a foxy alien, baby!” Kate says.
A car door slams in the driveway. Bobby’s home. Kate and I lock eyes. We both get quiet, the only sound the tumble of towels in the dryer. His dryer. I count the empty beer bottles, wanting to toss them quick, but we hear the squeak of his Ferragamo wingtips coming down the basement steps before we have a chance to prepare. Kate grabs her fancy scissors and holds up her hands, showing her weapon. She rolls her eyes, cementing our regression to rebellious kids, with Bobby cast as the Grown-up, the established, hetero male, the college grad, the captain of industry. It’s a force we’ve always rebelled against, and Kate still can’t quite understand how I fell for Bobby two years ago. Kate’s never spoken against him expressly, while he’s always seen her, my friend who I’ve known since birth, as a threat.
As he comes into the basement, I’m flooded with both dread and a strong desire to melt against his gray suit jacket, to get ahead of his response. My fiancé is 6” 2’, lean as a greyhound, with pearl-grey eyes and straight brown hair. The only way Bobby can reach a state of light-heartedness is if he’s high as a kite or having sex, which means the bedroom is the only place where I can win. Bobby’s very sensitive, but others don’t get it, they don’t see what I see in him. Though sometimes I wonder what the difference is between sensitivity and touchiness. Where do you draw the line?
He sets a pile of mail down on top of a table. “Somebody’s parked in the driveway! What the hell, Maggie? What’d you—What’d she do to your hair?”
“Don’t blame Kate,” I said.
“How’s it going, Bobby?” Kate throws back her shoulders and shakes a Camel out of her pack.
“Jesus H. Christ. You look like a dyke, Maggie.”
Kate snorts,. “Nice, Bobby.” She places the cigarette between her lips, freeing her hands so she can zip up her leather jacket. “Look, Mags, I gotta split. Call me tomorrow.”
“Sorry, Kate. He didn’t mean it that way.”
“What do I care?” Bobby throws up his hands, dropping his head and stooping in the exasperated gesture of the Misunderstood Man. “It’s your hair!”
“It sure is, Mags.” Kate says, as she heads toward the stairs. “And hold on to that braid. Maybe I can reattach it for your wedding.”
Bobby starts collecting the beer bottles and putting them in a can by the sink. After I hear the door shut behind Kate, I turn to him, wrapping my fingers around his wrist. “I can dye it dark again if that’s what you really want,” I say.
“I can’t picture a wedding veil on that hair. Are you planning to wear a tux, too?”
“Our wedding day is two years away.”
“You’ll need white combat boots,” he says.
Upstairs in the guest room closet is a shoe rack full of pumps in in every shade—black, red, navy, even powder blue. When we met, Bobby said all my funky flats looked like waffle irons. I was blown away when he took me shopping and spent hundreds on new pumps. “I don’t want to even think about a wedding till I’m done with grad school.”
“And maybe we can both have best men!” he says. “Or Kate can be your Man of Honor.”
“Shut up. She’s not even butch. She’s a total femme.”
“She’s a total femme!” he mocks me. “She’s in love with you.”
“That’s so stupid it’s not even insulting. She’s my best friend.”
“How do you know for sure though?”
“I know for sure because I know for sure.”
“You’re so naïve. It’s like those assholes in your program. You’re so much better than them. You can’t see the truth. They’re a bunch of wannabes.”
“There’s a huge difference between Kate and them.”
“I’m just trying to help you. Remember what I said. You have to check people’s passports. You can’t just let anyone invade your borders.”
“Kate and I are from the same country.”
“Maybe. But she’s moved to a whole other continent.” He twirls his finger by his temple.
“She’s moved to Lincoln Park. To get away from all the racist bigots around here.”
“So you’d rather be with all the fruits, nuts, and flakes around Wrigley?”
“I’m fine on the South Side. I like our neighborhood.”
“I’ve got my eye on a bigger house,” he says. “With a coach house. So you can have a studio.”
“Really?” I immediately picture a yellow clapboard coach house with a pitched-roof and rectangular skylights. I’d have a shelf for all my cameras, light stands, light modifiers and reflectors. Maybe some backdrops too. I see vertical files filled with slides, and I can almost smell the vinegar tang of the developing fluids I’ll have in the basement dark room. “When did you start looking? You didn’t tell me.”
“Just put the word out to Tommy Costa. He’s doing real estate now. The Bozo franchise thing didn’t work so hot, surprise surprise. But we’d probably need tenants in a coach house to cover the mortgage the first couple of years.”
“I knew there had to be a catch.”
“What do you want from me, Maggie? I’m already paying—”
“My tuition. I know. I know.”
“Well, you and Kate act like I’m some overbearing ogre. I’m doing my best here.”
“I know you are.” I walk over and hug him, draping my arms around his neck. His hands reach for my waist, and he pulls me close. His tight embrace always seems to swallow me, as I’m a good six inches shorter than he is. My mouth pressed to the itchy wool of his suit jacket, I say, “I know” again. I know how far he’s come. His mother always expected the most from him—valedictorian, captain of the football team, yet it was never enough. To others in the neighborhood, she’d brag about “Her Bobby,” but at home, with him, she could hold a three-day’s grudge if he forgot to take out the garbage. Ignoring a ten-year-old for two or three days demands a particular talent. People in the neighborhood didn’t know that she’d been caught stealing a can of tuna when Bobby was five. She had planted the can in the back pocket of his pants, but a cashier noticed it and asked him to put it on the checkout belt. But his mother made a production out of it, scolding him and insisting that the cashier call the manager. Bobby stood shamefaced, unable to tuck his face into his mother’s lap, as the manager scolded him, while his mother opened up her wallet to show all the dollars she had, more than enough to pay for a pitiful can of Chicken of the Sea.
“What do you want to do for dinner?” he asks. “Should I order a ‘za?”
“Yeah. I’ll clean up down here.”
He heads up the stairs, and I grab a broom from the utility closet. His basement’s layout is exactly like the house I grew up in, where my dad still lives, alone. I knew Bobby only from a distance back in high school. It wasn’t till I was a junior at DePaul that our worlds overlapped. His pursuit of me was swift; he outflanked his rivals with traditionally romantic maneuvers that he dubbed “pitching woo”: chocolates, roses, Anaïs Anaïs eau de toilette. He ascribes to the dyad of Maggie-and-Bobby as some kind of holy force, but I don’t really need a creed to stay committed in the same way he does. If you read his love letters you’d think that we were engaged in an endless crusade against a cruel world, especially the meddling forces of most of my friends. He uses phrases like “true love,” which, I’ve noticed recently that X calls “The Devil’s chokehold.”
I sweep the stray hairs into a pile on the cement floor, then pick up the braid from the top of the washing machine. Wrapping it like a stole around my neck cuts the draft of cold air that wafts down my damp collar. I touch my head, and the bristles tickle my fingertips. Rubbing the soft fur on the back of my neck feels like petting a hamster backwards, a happy comfort that I wish Bobby could experience. What’s the big deal, anyway? It’s just hair. As my mother used to say, “It’ll grow back.” That’s the tack I should take with Bobby. He gets in a funk about stuff like this, and he needs me to lighten the mood. That’s how we work best. Isn’t that what love means? Your bad point, my good point. Puzzle pieces that fit together? It’s perfectly natural, I think, for a glimmer of pity to underpin one’s love.
Eileen Favorite’s first novel, The Heroines (Scribner, 2008), has been translated into six languages. Her essays, poems, and stories have appeared in many publications, including, The Toast, Triquarterly, The Chicago Tribune, The Rumpus, Diagram, and others. Her essay, “On Aerial Views,” was a Notable Essay in the Best American Essays 2020. Eileen was named a 2021 Illinois Arts Council Awardee for nonfiction. She teaches teach writing and literature classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. her TEDx Talk, “Love the Art, Hate the Artist” is available at eileenfavorite.com.
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