It is the morning of February 1, 1969, my wedding day, and the Riverside Salon is awash in panic. I should be at the church already, but my long hair simply will not dry. Hairdressers are coming at me from every angle with blow-dryers and curling irons, holding clips in their mouths, cursing. A half-hour later, with the groomsmen scheduled to arrive at the back of the church, I am careening down ice-covered streets in my father’s Oldsmobile, the frosted window rolled down and my head stuck out to dry. My hair is still damp.
In the driveway of my parents’ house, my soon-to-be father-in-law hurries toward me across the ice, wheezing and yelling for me to slow down and not fall. Running past him, I drop metal rollers and bobby pins in my wake. In my bedroom, seven anxious bridesmaids pour me into my dress, and in the confusion I wind up wearing, for a moment, not one bra but two. All anxiety is focused on my hair.
“Your hair,” my mother says from the doorway. “Will it ever dry?”
Hair time was dead time: you could not leave the house with your hair in rollers, even in disguise. In the house, rollers in place, I was held captive by my own hair.
It never occurred to me to cut my long hair. This was the sixties, when long hair meant freedom and entry into the world of sexuality: long hair held out an inviting, Rapunzel-like welcome that short hair did not. It also never occurred to me to do my own hair before my wedding. I knew there were times when hair required the ministrations of other hands. In the beauty shop, its air thick with fruity sprays and fragrances, you can close your eyes while someone else strokes and brushes and fusses over your head. In the beauty shop, there is the promise that when you awaken you will have become a different person — that ideal self you always knew you could be.
My long, thick red hair may not have dried on time, but it lasted longer than my youth — and more than two decades longer than that marriage.
Watching the Summer Olympics, I wonder where the bouncing fourteen-year-old gymnasts find the time to practice their splits and triple vaults on the balance beam. When I was fourteen, on a summer’s day I would be lying on a raft on the lake, listening to the Beach Boys and spritzing my hair with lemon juice in an effort to tease its redness into long, flowing blondness. Later, after washing out the lemon and dipping my hair, strand by strand, into a glass of flat beer to give it more body, I would wad my hair around thick rollers and subtract from my life the hours it would take to dry. Hair time was dead time: you could not leave the house with your hair in rollers, even in disguise. In the house, rollers in place, I was held captive by my own hair.
It is no accident that fourteen-year-old gymnasts have short, wedge-cut hair that blows dry in a flash. For them, hair is time that could be better spent on the balance beam. For me at fourteen, time was hair.
Going back even farther: It is morning, 1953, and I am already late for school. My mother is braiding my hair while I sit on the ottoman in front of her. She parts it into ten sections with the end of her rattail comb, then yanks at each section, moving up from the nape of my neck until she tucks the hair over each ear into a braid. I try to turn around, but she frowns and tells me to hold still, intent on injecting order and discipline into my first-grade life with her fingers. Each time I move one of my legs, the ottoman holds on to the skin and stretches it like rubber. When they take the class photograph, my bangs are crooked because my mother has read that the correct way to cut bangs is to wet them down and plaster them against the forehead. When dry, my bangs flip up in odd patterns.
My braids are a curious appendage, both me and not me. Behind me in line at the water fountain, girls absent-mindedly toy with my braids or use them as drumsticks to tap my shoulders, making my scalp tingle and the hairs rise on the back of my neck. When I go ice-skating in fourth grade, Richie Collins pulls me around the rink on my back by the blades of my skates, my braids trailing on the ice behind me. The part down the back of my head is numb and soft with frost.
Red hair attracts attention. Bees hover and dip into my hair as though it were nectar; disappointed, they sometimes sting. In the classroom, my head flashes like neon. Nervous, nearsighted nuns catch me at everything. “Sue-zay-hun,” they say, “would you please stop being so social? Would you please stop fiddling with your braids? Would you please stop!”
It is 1996. I am sitting in a unisex beauty shop on the north side of Chicago, where I have just shown three hairstylists my new day planner. They have written down the 800 number to call to order planners of their own, so that they, too, can organize their days into numbered, bite-sized pieces.
“I’m going to make you look a little whiskey,” my Ukrainian hairdresser says to my face in the mirror, holding my head between her hands. She means wispy. She points her scissors toward the top of my ear, and I close my eyes. When I open them, the long, blunt strands that have always surrounded my face like a veil are gone.
“You like?” she asks, but her question — like all her questions — sounds more like an imperative. I feel lightheaded and off balance, as though my head were floating, disconnected, above bare shoulders. Without hair blocking my peripheral vision, I have a more wide-angle view of the world. My hair is now quick, the way my legs used to be. A few minutes under the blow-dryer, and I am done.
I have read that hair is dead. I know this, having found enough of it lying around the house as I vacuum to experience firsthand its impermanence, how it tumbles away from its source without ever feeling the pain of separation, the cut. Yet my attachment to long hair has been unequivocal: I’ve clung to it as if it were an old friend. Until now. Now I’ve become more attached to what time I have left. My hair, like my time, is getting shorter.