The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Jayne, my hairdresser, has just had her eyebrows tattooed. Two black scabs arch across her forehead.
“I don’t dare frown,” she says, “or they might bleed. But, oh, when the scabs fall off, my eyebrows will be deep gold, to match my new hair. And even when I go swimming, I won’t lose my face.”
I sit down in the vinyl chair, and Jayne wraps a flamingo pink cape around my shoulders. I’m here to have my red curls updated.
“I saw a woman on TV who had her whole face done,” she continues. “Now, with her makeup permanently applied, she has an extra half hour in the morning to drink coffee and think before she leaves for work.” Jayne glances at her blond bouffant in the large mirror. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. I’ve always had to worry about my eyebrows.”
“Me, too,” I say. “I drove my car off a cliff once, and it got caught on a stump halfway down. I hiked back up that cliff in my spike heels, sat down on a rock, and pulled out a mirror to see if my eyebrows were still in place.”
Jayne laughs. “That’s nothing. Remember that plane crash I told you about? I spent all night in a tree next to my uncle’s dead body. The branches had broken our fall, but one went right through his chest. There was blood everywhere. It was snowing, and all I could see were mountains and more mountains. I was so cold I thought I’d die. In the morning, when I heard a helicopter coming to rescue me, I got out a mirror and checked my face. Nothing was even smeared.”
Jayne lowers my head into the sink and washes everything out — poufs, puffs, curls, eyebrows: three different brands of hair spray down the drain. I sit up, feeling like a toad, and avoid the mirrors.
Jayne dances beside me, waving a comb. Her glittery hoop earrings jiggle against her cheeks. “You know, we’re wearing our hair softer in the nineties,” she sings. “Less spray. Just pouf it while it’s drying, like this.” She lifts a clump and scrunches it in her hand.
“I try to pouf,” I say, “but the poufs fall over like wet toilet paper unless I spray.”
“Bend over and put your head between your knees, then lift and scrunch. You’ll get that wild, carefree look.”
“That carefree look is a lot of work,” I say.
“I know it,” she says. “You should see what I have to do. I set my hair on electric rollers as big as cans, then blow-dry it, reset it, reblow it — but look.” She pats her hair and smiles. “It’s wild and windblown, as if I’ve been to the ocean.”
“Most of my nervous breakdowns started with my hair,” I say. “Those good old Toni home permanents my mother gave me — they didn’t even last a month. I’d wake up one morning and my hair would be straight again, like turning back into a pumpkin at midnight.”
“God, you’re lucky,” Jayne says. “I wish my hair had been straight. It would have changed my life. When I was in high school, the girls wore those soft pageboys, but my hair was as coarse as a horse’s tail. Whenever I went out on a date, I was afraid the boy would want to run his fingers through it.”
“Then my mother would give me a stronger, smellier perm,” I continue, “so it would last longer, which it did. Oh, did it ever. I couldn’t get a comb through it for weeks. And of course all the kids would laugh at me because my head smelled like a pail of wet diapers.”
“My hair is so curly it’s like steel wool,” Jayne says.
“But at least it does something,” I say. “It doesn’t just lie there and make you look like a nerd.”
“No,” she says, “as soon as it rains, I look like a witch with her finger in a light socket.”
We laugh halfheartedly, then fall silent.
“We should be talking about Rwanda,” I say. “People are getting killed over there.”
We both sigh and look at the floor.
“Oh, well,” I say, “at least they don’t have to worry about their hair.”
“Or eyebrows,” Jayne adds. “I can’t even fight with my boyfriend until these scabs heal. If I frown even once, or, God forbid, cry, they might start bleeding. So of course he’s walking all over me.”
The elderly woman in the chair next to me looks over and snorts. She’s reading a tabloid while having her silver hair set in pin curls.
“Pin curls,” Jayne whispers, “can you believe it? She’s still back in the fifties. I even have one old bird who asks for Marcel waves.”
“You know, those crinkly waves they wore back in the forties. She’s about ninety and wears a little hat with a long, pointed feather. I can hardly keep from laughing when she hobbles over, leaning on her cane, with her Marcel waves covering one eye. ‘Well, if it isn’t Veronica Lake,’ I always say, and she smiles. These old ladies own my soul. I’m just a windup toy to them.”
“Hey, speaking of toys,” I say, “look at my new ring.” I hold up my hand and spread my fingers. “The stone — I forget the name of it — radiates ‘peace and well-being.’ Nothing’s happened yet, but I’ve only had it a week.”
“Well, I’ve got something that’s giving me peace and . . . whatever-you-call-it,” Jayne says, bending down to whisper in my ear.
The old woman in the chair next to me strains to hear.
“I’ve bought a gun,” Jayne says. “A .357 Magnum. I’m taking lessons, too.”
“Doesn’t it make a lot of noise?” I ask.
“I like the noise,” she says. “When I shoot it, it knocks me back a little. It’s so powerful — like a strong man.”
The old woman tilts her head in our direction, and leans sideways.
“Every woman should have one,” Jayne says, “on account of all the times we get raped.”
The woman flaps the pages of her Inquirer.
“Shoot ’em all, I say.” I raise my voice so the woman won’t strain her neck.
“Shh,” Jayne says. “These ladies can’t take it. They’re from another generation, you know.”
“Oh, that’s right,” I whisper. “How careless of me.”
“Hello, Mrs. Finklestein,” Jayne calls, waving and smiling to a woman entering the shop. Mrs. Finklestein is wearing a long gray coat, and frowning. She folds her arms across her bosom.
“I’ll be with you in a jiffy,” Jayne sings, then whispers to me, “It must be ninety degrees out, and the old bat’s wearing a coat.”
“What did you say?” Mrs. Finklestein barks.
“I said I’ll be with you in a —”
“I don’t want my hair so blue this week!” Mrs. Finklestein shouts.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Jayne says. “I thought you said —”
“I said silver, not blue!”
“But last time you said it was too gray, so I added more —”
“I want it pearly silver, like the picture I showed you.”
“Well, that’s just what we’ll do then,” Jayne says, still smiling.
“Hmph,” Mrs. Finklestein says, and heads for the magazine rack.
“The old biddy’s only got a few strands left on her head,” Jayne whispers, “and she shows me a glamour shot and says she wants her hair to look like that. And she doesn’t tip either. Now, what were we talking about?”
“Rape,” I say.
Another woman pokes her head out from under her dryer and stares. Her eyes glitter, and the dryer continues to roar. I don’t know how she heard me over the noise.
“I feel so positive about my life,” Jayne says, “now that I have my very own gun.”
“I’ve got one of those cayenne-pepper sprays,” I say. “Of course, it will probably be in my other purse if I ever need it.”
“Well, I’m carrying my gun.” She nods at her tote bag. “That baby goes wherever I go from now on.”
“It’s got black pepper in it, too,” I continue, “and it’s supposed to be organic. . . . I guess I could spray a little in my chili.”
“Well, I’m not into being raped anymore,” Jayne says. “Not that I ever was. But now especially, my nerves just couldn’t take it. They’re shot, believe me!”
“Mine are, too,” I say. “No excitement for me. I just coast on my memories.”
“I can’t count how many times I got raped by my husband’s — excuse me, ex-husband’s — friends,” Jayne says. “It was grounds for my divorce. And you know what he said? Right there in the courtroom, he said, ‘It’s not fair. You’re judging me by my friends.’ Can you imagine me being married to someone like that?”
The woman in the chair next to me leans over almost sideways.
“We’d go out drinking,” Jayne continues, waving the scissors between snips at my hair, “and everything would be hunky-dory until the third drink. Then my husband would vanish. Poof! He’d be gone. So one of his friends would have to drive me home; only, on the way he’d stop by the side of the road, and —” she lowers her voice to a whisper — “he’d rape me.”
Mrs. Finklestein snaps her tabloid shut. On the cover is a picture of a baby with two heads.
“It always took me a while to realize that I’d been raped,” Jayne says. “In those days, it was hard to tell.”
“The way I see it,” I say, “if you did it when you didn’t want to, that’s your first clue.”
“Yes, that’s how I see it now, too.” She’s rolling my hair around pastel rods. “I mean, if you thrash around and scream, and they do it anyway, believe me, I call that —” She stops and looks around. “I think we’d better change the subject,” she whispers. “Someone might be listening.”
We’re both quiet for a few minutes. Then Jayne says, in a loud voice, “I had a wonderful marriage!” She looks right at the woman in the next chair. “We had three beautiful children, lots of wonderful friends, and . . . uh . . .”
“You ran the PTA,” I say.
“Yeah, that’s right: I ran the PTA. Hey,” she says, turning her attention back to my hair, “if you’re going to use that heavy spray, just do the roots. That way the ends will be soft, and you’ll have that wild, sexy look.”
The woman next to me huffs and picks up a magazine. The one drying her hair puts her head back under. Mrs. Finklestein sighs, unbuttons her coat, and reaches for another Inquirer.
“So,” Jayne continues, “I’d say to my husband the next morning, ‘You know, another one of your sleazy friends raped me last night.’ ”
Plop! Mrs. Finklestein’s tabloid hits the floor.
“I’d cry, and he’d act like it was no big deal that I’d been raped — me, the mother of his children!”
“Well,” I say, “I stayed with one of my husbands for years on account of the laundry. The food and diapers were delivered, but I had to go out to wash the clothes. I didn’t see how I could push a stroller, carry a baby, and drag a laundry cart, so my hubby always stayed with the kids while I went to the laundromat. That was my big once-a-week outing. I got to sit there while the machines thumped and roared, and have a moment to myself. One day, it hit me: the foundation of the whole marriage, the glue that held us together, was a big pile of dirty clothes.”
“That doesn’t sound very romantic.”
“Not only that, but the longer I stayed with him, the more babies I had, and the more laundry there was.”
“So what’d you do?”
“I set up a clothesline in the hall, washed everything in the bathtub with an old tin washboard, like a pioneer, and told him to hit the road.”
“Of course, I met another no-good bas—”
“Shh,” Jayne says. She’s quiet for a moment, then continues, “Last time I was married, I stuck with it because my dog was dying. She had cancer, and I needed someone to be home with her while I worked. So there I was, my children all grown, and I was stuck in this lousy marriage because I needed a father for my dog. The day Lulubelle died, I told him, ‘Buddy, you’re out of here!’ ”
“Of course, I brought home another freeloader within a month.”
All three women are leaning forward now, like dogs eyeing a steak.
Robert, the other hairdresser, emerges from the next room. “I’m ready for your comb-out, Mrs. Bixbee,” he says, leaning down beside the woman under the dryer and touching her arm. She jerks it away and growls.
“All the old ladies love Robert,” Jayne whispers. “He swishes around and flutters his hands, and they say, ‘Oh, Robert, I wish my grandsons were as sweet as you!’ ”
“Hello, Mrs. Winterbottom,” Jayne calls to an arriving customer. “I’m running a teensy bit behind. How’d your surgery go?”
“I couldn’t move my bowels for a month,” Mrs. Winterbottom says.
“Oh, dear, that must have been . . . cumbersome.”
“I was up to here,” Mrs. Winterbottom says, holding her hand against her heart. “And all the anesthetic made my hair go straight.”
Her hair, bright red with silver roots, is standing on end.
“Oh, spikes,” Jayne says. “And they’re two-tone. You’re right in style.”
“The hell I am!” Mrs. Winterbottom roars. “I want my peekaboo curls back.”
“Well, you just have a chair,” Jayne tells her. “I’ll fix you right up.”
“I took e.s.t. in the seventies,” I say, “and got into this we-create-our-own-reality crap. I don’t believe it anymore. I’m back to being a victim.”
“Sometimes we just are victims,” Jayne says, “victims of love.” And she sighs.
“Anyway,” I say, “I was hitchhiking one time, and this guy picked me up and asked where I was going, and I said, ‘Oh, nowhere. I’m just on the road.’ So he took me up to the mountains and told me he was going to rape me. So I said, ‘Well, if you do, it won’t be your fault,’ and he said, ‘What?’ and I explained how we create our own realities, and all about e.s.t. and Werner Erhard and —”
“Mrs. Bixbee!” Robert shouts. “Your comb-out! Please come!”
Mrs. Bixbee drags herself across the room, still staring at me.
I raise my voice: “He said, ‘Lady, I’m gonna rape you, and that is not your fault.’ So I said, ‘Oh, yes it is,’ and he said, ‘Oh, no it isn’t!’ and I said, ‘Look, I am responsible for everything that happens to me,’ and he said — actually he pleaded — ‘Believe me, lady, I’ve done this before!’ So I said, ‘Well, I’m responsible for that, too!’ Then he shook his head and said, ‘You’re nuts!’ and I said, ‘No, I’m not. We are all connected in this universe, and anything that happens to anyone is everyone’s fault’ — no, I mean ‘responsibility.’ ”
“The poor guy,” Jayne says. “What happened?”
“Well, he just stared at me for a while, and then he hung his head and said, ‘You know what? I’ve changed my mind.’ So I said, ‘That’s OK. No hard feelings. Would you mind taking me back to the freeway?’ ”
“Yes, and he drove real fast, like he couldn’t wait to get me out of the car.”
“We’ve got to be more careful what we talk about,” Jayne whispers. “I’m afraid I might lose some of my customers.”
“What do you usually talk about?” I ask.
“Oh, you know — how expensive everything’s getting, how out of control kids are these days, what the doctor said, what the world’s coming to. I always just agree with everything they say.”
“Then I look at pictures of their grandchildren. No, wait — great-grandchildren. I’m the grandmother! I show them pictures of my little grandson.” She looks in the mirror and quickly touches her hair. “It’s so hard to believe.”
“I know. I’m a grandmother, too,” I say. “But God isn’t making grandmothers the way he used to.”
“Lord, no,” Jayne says, giggling. “He’s come out with a new model for the nineties.” She flutters her eyelashes. “I’m so glad I got my eyebrows tattooed.”
“I wish I could afford it,” I say, “but my hair keeps me broke.”
“I’m getting my lips done next. I’ll never have to wear lipstick again. And it won’t come off when I kiss either. Then, as soon as I save the money, I’ll have some permanent color put in my cheeks. You know, emphasize the cheekbone. But what I really wish I could afford —” she pauses and looks up as if praying — “is a new face.”
“A new face?”
“Yeah, when you get older your skull starts to cave in. That makes your nose look bigger, and your chin start to disappear.”
“Oh, no. I wish I wouldn’t find these things out.”
“So they insert something — God knows what — right here.” She points to her chin. “And then they lift the skin, and pouf up your whole face. It’s as simple as blowing up a balloon, or so I’ve heard.” She looks in the mirror and her smile turns into a frown. “But it’s sooo expensive.” She sighs.
“Shit!” I say. “Now every morning I’m going to look in the mirror to see how much my skull has collapsed during the night.”
“Well, when I get old — I mean, older,” Jayne says, “at least I’ll always have my makeup on, even if I can’t see very well. Believe me, that’s a relief.”
“My worst nightmare,” I say, “is the thought of squinting through bifocals, trying to dab on the paint and goop. I’ve seen those old leftover Ziegfeld girls from the twenties, with their eyebrows on top of their heads — they always look like they’ve just seen a mouse.”
“I know,” Jayne says, “and their memories are so bad that they dab it on rough and forget to blend it in.”
“Or wear blue glow-in-the-dark eye shadow — under their eyes.”
“Boy, I’ll take a heart attack over that any day.”
Jayne removes the rollers, rinses my hair, and poufs each curl. Water drips into my eyes, causing mascara to run down my face.
“Good old black tears,” I say, wiping each cheek.
“Yeah, but look at all those ringlets,” Jayne says.
I look in the mirror and smile, touching one of the curls. “Oh, boy,” I say, “I’m a cute li’l old thing again!”
“Pouf it forward,” Jayne says, “and the curls will wisp around your head like a halo.”
“I’ll be darling,” I say, wiping my cheeks, “as long as I remember not to cry.”
“You know,” Jayne says, “maybe you could get your face done slowly, one thing at a time. That’s how I’m doing it.”
“I couldn’t risk it,” I say, getting up from the chair. “With my luck, I’d end up lying in my deathbed with only one eyebrow.”
“Oh, dear,” Jayne says.
“And of course, with my upbringing, I’d still be trying to ‘put on a happy face.’ ”
“And ‘look for the silver lining,’ ” Jayne sings back. Then she turns and calls, “Mrs. Finklestein! I’m ready for you now.”
Mrs. Finklestein gets up, grunting and dragging her coat, and stops on the way to greet Mrs. Winterbottom. “How’d your surgery go?” Mrs. Finklestein asks.
“I couldn’t move my bowels for a month,” Mrs. Winterbottom replies.
“Ha!” Mrs. Finklestein shouts. “After my surgery, my bowels wouldn’t stop. I spent Yom Kippur on the toilet. How do you like that?” She heaves herself into Jayne’s chair. “It’s too damn —”
“Blue,” Jayne says.
After surviving another abysmal Nebraska winter, I spent a week in Honolulu, Hawaii, to thaw my body and mind, and to visit my sister, Phoebe. Just before I boarded the return flight to Nebraska, Phoebe handed me a few magazines, the bright pink March issue of The Sun among them.
Somewhere over the Pacific, I read Loraine Campbell’s story “Poof,” and began laughing out loud, something I almost never do. The man sitting next to me was curious, so I gave him the story to read. Soon he was laughing with me. The other passengers must have thought we were a couple of escaped lunatics. It was the perfect ending to a perfect vacation.