The images of buried bones deep in the earth and pieces of bodies in urns on fireplace mantels across America make the back of my throat itch and cause me to stick my tongue there as an attempt to scratch it. I have a secret: I always wait until people leave the room and then I sneak a shake of the urns, listening to the tinkling sound of uncremated pieces, remnants of vertebrae and teeth, and wonder how do we even know that it is our loved ones in the urn, or in the ground, or coffin, for that matter? Maybe they just stick a bunch of dead people in a furnace and shovel the ashes and bone shards into expensive pieces of metal and tell us it is grandma. Only grandma.
Today I noticed my first piece of facial hair on the right side of my face, growing out of what was once an adorable, youthful freckle. I am now a 41-year-old woman who is facing my own mortality. Gray hairs and rogue hairs are signs of aging. Growing old. Giving in. Giving up. Sagging and fading away. I am not truly throwing in the towel of my youth. No hands up in the air, white flag waving surrendering. I am leaving the little hair there. Allowing it to grow a bit. Maybe others will sprout up next to it and I can pull it all in a chignon. A French twist. So glamorous. That actually sounds disgusting. I never understand women who have a mole, a visible mole, with hairs coming out of it. And they leave the hairs there! These women must see the hairs. They must. I imagine them looking at themselves in the mirror and saying, “I’m leaving it there. Fuck ‘em all to hell.” And I feel like it is offensive. Tweezers were invented for this purpose. Screw splinters. Tweezers were made for pulling out the rogue hairs and unibrows. End of story. I have these fantasies of tackling people in public and sitting on their chests and tweezing out their hairy moles.
I recently read an interview of an artist and when asked, “What do you do,” she replied, “Oh, I imagine I’m just like everyone else. I check pockets. I roll socks. I give tips. I skip pages. I fall asleep. I turn it off. I give directions. I scroll down. I make sure it’s even. I leave it out. I lock eyes. I write it down. I say thank you. I walk away. I pretend laugh. I for real cry. I say I voted. I wonder if he really loves me”. I truly enjoy the nitty grittiness of her answer. Her answer meant, simply, that we all do the same things. We fight, fuck, forgive, fall over and get up again. I do it. You do it. We do it until we don’t want to anymore. When I feel like I don’t want to, I do it anyway. I write it down, spit it out, jump to conclusions and take a deep breath and then, finally, I hear the truth. The truth is quite often ugly mixed with some pretty insane moments where we figure out, in parts, what the heck we are all doing.
I have a 3 o’clock appointment with Shimmy – yes, like the movement. Shimmy is your modern, stereotypical punk hairdresser, complete with full sleeve tattoos and piercings, but she sobs while dying my hair. Every single time. And this intrigues me. Each time, I think that today she won’t cry…today she won’t crinkle up her nose and her beautiful eyes won’t fill up with thick water. I am wrong, because each time, while stirring the hair color in the blue plastic bowl, she bites her lip, her eyes squeeze shut for a moment, and she apologizes, she apologizes again. She touches my shoulder and then it happens. She cries. She begins to paint the color onto my roots and she lets out little whimpers, sucking in tiny breaths, blows out her lips, and scrunches up her forehead (her perfect little cheeks begin to dimple). I usually just sit there and stare into the mirror at her, watching little beads of sweat form above her lip. I watch her lick the sweat. While watching her, I imagine that I console her. I have practiced it at home. I practice in front on my bedroom floor length mirror that I have propped up against my wall, with its large, ornate wooden frame and its peeling paint. I found it in my rich neighbor’s trash and lugged it home one day last year in the rain. I often sit on the floor in my room and stare at myself, often acting out conversations, practicing what I may say. Things I want to say. Things I can’t imagine saying. Things I wish I had said. Asking questions that I want to know the answers to. Like, “Would you know how to raise a child if you had one?” I frequently practice how I will move my mouth, how I will blink, how I will hold my tongue, how I will purse my lips during the strong points of the conversations. I imagine that consoling Shimmy involves smoothing of hair, head held in lap, fingers touching the space between bottom lip and chin, eyelashes fluttering, words whispered that sound like “I’m so sorry,” but may only be, “tell the story.”
I arrive to my hair appointment six minutes early. Not too early because I hate to sit in the waiting lounge for my turn with Shimmy. I get nervous. I begin to fidget and then get more nervous that I look ridiculous or crazy or ridiculous and crazy. One or the other – not good. I have perfected my time schedule for these appointments. 15 minutes is too early, 4 minutes is not enough. I feel rushed. 6 minutes gives me the perfect amount of time needed to open the door, check in with the receptionist with split ends, run to the bathroom to put on the cape, and once that is all done, I walk out, am handed a beer by the “lounge attendant” (what is a lounge attendant? Someone who hands the waiting clients their beers? – this is all that I have seen the lounge attendant do) and then Shimmy walks out, hugs me and guides me with her hand on my lower back to her chair.
When do we lose or gain something? What happens in that exact moment of transformation? Do we transfer from one intellect to another with a flick of the wrist? I wonder these things while sitting on the toilet, sometimes while having sex after I realize that I’m not going to come no matter how hard she tries. Sometimes in the car when I’m pretending to itch my face but I am really picking my nose instead I ponder our connections to things and how these connections are determined; I think about the moments when our own consciousness is altered, never to return to where it was before we learned something new. After I experienced my first heartbreak, my first orgasm, my first fuck, my first screaming of “fuck you,” I have never returned to that prior innocence. It’s gone like a lightening strike, but you know it happened, you know it existed, because what is left behind is a burn mark swirled with the acrid smell of singed hair. Sweetness.
I imagine that there must be some people who are attracted to this type of transformation. This type of knowledge could be intoxicating to some. These are also things that I think about while I am strolling through the supermarket and staring at people. I wonder about the story about the woman who was so heavy that one day she couldn’t get up off the toilet and just stayed there. For years. Her husband brought her all of her meals and she ate them while sitting on the can. He gave her sponge baths and sat on the edge of the tub and they conversed about their day. I imagine that she said, “Well, today I watched birds fly around outside the window for hours and I smelled the neighbor cutting the lawn, it was a mixture between Budweiser in a can and sweat fused with wet grass clippings. It was really quite beautiful. Today was a good day for me.” And I imagine that her husband would push his wife’s hair back behind her ear and reply, “Honey, I love our daily talks. I love how well we communicate. I love that you observe things that I would never notice. Like the smell of someone cutting his or her lawn. I mean, you have a gift!” His wife would smile and attempt to reach for him in the same second that she had almost forgotten that not only could she not lift herself off of the toilet, but she remembered the horrible fact that her skin had grew and folded over the seat into the bowl, and she was now stuck. She remained this way for years until one day a neighbor realized that he hadn’t seen the wife in months and decided that the husband had probably killed her because he appeared more disheveled than usual and so, the neighbor called in the authorities and viola! They found a woman with her ass stuck to the toilet and they had to unscrew the lid from the bowl and it took the six large paramedics to lift the woman onto a stretcher and shove her into the ambulance. The husband was almost charged with neglect by the Adult Protective Officers after they arrived at the hospital and learned from the surgeons that it was an eight-hour surgery to remove the seat from her rear-end, and she would require up to seven skin grafts in which they would be taking the skin from her thighs and back to replace the skin that they couldn’t save from the toilet seat. The authorities realized that the husband did really love his wife after he offered up some of his own skin after he had heard the plastic surgeon’s plans for saving his wife’s ass.
No one could have seen this happening. The transformation must have taken years to occur but the butterfly didn’t emerge until the day that she couldn’t lift herself off of the toilet. Maybe the wife saw no point anymore of living in any other room of the house. Maybe the view from the window and the acoustics that the tiles gave off while she sang were better than any other place in their home. The husband was a small, wiry man. How could he lift his wife? And they still had a good relationship. She never complained that she lived in the bathroom for a few years. He fed her and combed her hair and their talks were better than any talks they had had before in their 20-year marriage.
I silently begged with my open eyes for Shimmy to kiss me while she was rinsing out my hair color. I was also simultaneously praying to the gods that she was able to cover my new grey hairs, while also hoping that she didn’t notice them to begin with. She was kind of straddling my hair/chest area because they still have the washbowls where the stylist has to stand from the side to wash your hair instead of the newer ones where the stylist stands behind your head. I hate those types of shampoo bowls. I feel like this is part of what should happen while you are having someone touch your hair. It is too intimate to make believe that it isn’t, and not seeing the person who is touching your head feels dirty.
I sneak stares at Shimmy. I quickly look away or blink if she looks down into my face. I act like there is something quite interesting and intoxicating on the ceiling behind her head. And then I slowly shift my gaze to her face and nod while she is talking and looking at me. I act highly interested not only because I really am, but because I feel like she deserves this. She deserves for someone to care about her and the things that she says. I can do this for her.
The brilliance that comes from years of screwing up is priceless except for the small, pretty fact that it costs you everything you thought that you know so well. Your way of life is all that you have and I imagine that it feels gigantic when it is drifting away. I have actually watched someone lose their habits, their ticks and tocks, their idiosyncrasies, right before my eyes. It made my mouth go dry. I sat silently in the corner for a few hours, thinking that their old ways would return soon enough. I thought that if I didn’t blink and remembered big vocabulary words from when I was in elementary school, I could save someone else’s soul.
As a kid, I used to sit under the kitchen table and pick at the linoleum flooring while silently praying that the woman above me wouldn’t cry too much. My mom would say, “It’s ok. You are so brave.” I remember my mother standing, kind of hunched over the table, and I would see her legs, smooth like maybe she had used extra lotion that morning. There was a mustard yellow glass lamp from the living room that she had plugged in and had sat on the kitchen counter and took off the lampshade to provide more light for the procedure. The blinds and curtains were drawn and the stereo was on at a quieter volume than usual and a record played with a woman singing while playing acoustic guitar. This was how it was when the women came over for the procedure. My mom took babies out of women. It was a word-of-mouth type of business, as she said.
My mother never set up the table before the women arrived because she had many women scheduled to come who never did, and she considered that a waste of time. I remember watching my mom set up, always doing everything in the same order. Wipe down table with blue sponge, close blinds, draw curtains, flip over record and lower volume, go into basement and bring up her kit, set out a pink towel on the kitchen counter and lay out the contents of her kit which she referred to as her instruments, and then she would give the woman a robe and direct her to the hall bathroom, instructing the woman to take off her clothing and shoes, even her underwear and come into the kitchen when she was ready. I would usually lie under the table and play with my dolls or build houses and dogs out of molding clay. Other times, in a particularly difficult procedure, my mother would have me act as her assistant. I remember the first time I got to hold a flashlight up against a woman’s thigh while balancing on the step stool and leaning over the table. The table was a grey speckled linoleum-topped table with stainless steel legs and I used to feel the cold surface against my belly where my shirt had crept up. I would take my position as an assistant very seriously, washing my hands a few times first and attempting to hold my hand very steady as to not shake the flashlight and affect my mother’s work. I would sometimes look up at the woman’s face, trying to see what she was feeling.
I will ask Shimmy out one of these days. I know that I will. Maybe today. I haven’t decided yet because every time I attempt to talk about anything other than about the weather or work, my mouth starts to feel weird. Like maybe I just ate pineapple or mango skin. I last asked a woman out over a year ago and that turned into an 8-month fiasco full of days of ignoring one another and weeks of make-up sex. All which left me feeling tired and annoyed and empty like a glove. Since then I have been ignoring advances from stock brokers that come into my restaurant that fail to pay attention to the knowledge that I am a lesbian and offers from women who know that I am. Shimmy just touches my scalp while she washes my hair in a way that feels primal. Like maybe she is pruning me and saving me from a lifetime of lice and nits. She is a nurturing chimpanzee and I am her life mate in the monkey troop.
I have been cooking since I was seven, beginning on the petal pink EasyBake Oven® that I got for Hanukkah from my mother after a lot of begging. She was dead set against it because of the pink plastic and that was precisely why I coveted it. I promised my mother that I would not become a “princess” girl if she gave me a pink toy. She caved and so began my love of all that is cooking and baking. And I do like the color pink and I have been called a princess on one occasion but it was Halloween and I was dressed like a serf and was told that it wasn’t my “calling.”
After months of cooking and baking pouch brownies over a light bulb, I moved into the kitchen to help my mother in ways that didn’t include abortions. Rather, we cooked up ambrosia salads, broccoli casseroles, and many other recipes that my mother pulled from her Moosewood Cookbook that was stained and torn. I always thought it weird that if we didn’t have an item in the house to complete the meal, my mom would move onto another recipe. My thought was to just throw something else in and call it dinner. I thought that any spice could replace salt or pepper or use something in place of eggs. When I would suggest these things my mother would just look at me like I asked to have an abortion on our kitchen table. She would just stare at me and blink. I took that as a “no.”
My cooking now is full of trials and errors and a dirty kitchen and a closet full of failed cookbooks. I guess I just don’t like being told what to do and when a recipe calls for something that I don’t have, I laugh in its face and thrown in some garlic salt in place of table salt and the meal sometimes comes out just fine and other times it becomes an ingredient in my compost pile.
Shimmy is almost finished washing my hair and delicately removing all of the remaining color from my hairline by softly rubbing the pads of her fingers across my skin. I watch her face intently while she does this because her mouth is doing something that I have never seen it do before. She is almost smiling. Grinning maybe. The edge of her lips are curling up slightly and her eyes look like she is seeing something dreamy or hazy and she knows that no matter how hard she looks, she will never make out the forms in front of her so she just surrenders to the muddled sight. Acceptance comes and maybe that is why she appears happy. Content. She is the remover of color and the coverer of grey hairs. She is the fragile caregiver to my age and my estrogen. Her bliss comes through now. I am in love.
Shimmy escorts me back to her chair and begins to spin me around. She faces me to look at my self in the mirror for what she calls the consultation. I imagine that all stylists call it a consultation but for some reason, it feels much more investigative from Shimmy than I imagine it would feel from another stylist. She spins me around again. Facing her now. She asks me what I want. I shrug my shoulders. I can barely look at her but my eyes are stuck. I have no idea how to say what I want. Although she means, what do you want done to your hair, I pretend that she wants me to answer what I want to do with her. I pretend that I am brave enough to say, I want to spread you open like an apple and pick out your seeds and plant them in my yard and watch a tree grow. I want to curl around you while you sleep in my bed and I want to press myself into your back and feel your heart beat into my chest. I want to lick those tears that squeeze out of your eyes and swallow them slowly. I want to feel your fingertips against my thighs, tracing out your promises.
Instead of this all, I say three words. Come with me. She slowly spins me back around to face the mirror and begins to cut my hair silently. I just watch the tears slide down her face. I smile.
We are transformed.
Elise M. Johansen graduated with her MFA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her thesis was a collection of short stories, although she also writes creative nonfiction. She lives in Maine with her wife, their five dogs and cat. She has a terrible memory, a vast imagination and a deep love for all things in their most human moments. She has most recently been published on Webdelsol.com’s Writers on the Job series about the lives of writers, edited by Thomas E. Kennedy and Walter Cummins. She is currently working on her first novel.