Elizabeth Meyers, USA
NEWLY BARE SKIN
"Damn, we're going to be late!" Mom honks at a red Mercedes crawling in front of our dented white Honda. She crosses the double yellow line then gracefully merges back into her lane. I watch the Mercedes grow smaller through the sideview mirror.
It's my twelfth birthday. Finally, it's fallen on a Saturday so I can really enjoy it. I start Junior High at a public school on Monday so Mom is treating me to an expensive hair cut at the new Salon de Salon. She drives fast along Brookside Blvd, a four lane road divided by a grassy median, droopy and charred. We pass large stucco houses with their hilly lawns straw colored from a month of drought. The summer has been relentlessly hot. I've spent most of it swimming at the Jewish Community Center or standing in front of our one air conditioner, the icy breeze numbing my hot skin.
With our windows rolled down, strands of our hair whip in front of our faces. Mom wears her hair loose about her shoulders except for a few pieces pulled back with tortoise shell combs secured behind each ear. The combs match the frames of her sun glasses, large ovals that make her face look tiny.
We're zooming down Warnall road toward The Plaza and I stare at the sky wishing for rain. I want to see angry black clouds roll and twist themselves into knots, then explode in a torrent of heavy drops the size of marbles that pop against the ground. I stick my head out the window like a dog, the warm air against my face.
"Don't do that," my mom orders.
I pull my head inside and tug at my frizzy shoulder-length hair. I'm looking for a miracle at Salon de Salon. Maybe they can turn this mess into hair like a Barbie's, straight and manageable. I continue to tug at my hair and stare out the window as we pass the turn-off to my old school. It's funny going to a Catholic school when you're Jewish, but my parents thought it was the best school around. No one ever tried to get me to believe in Jesus or anything. I said goodbye to my classmates at St. Ignatius last May. I'm not going back because of the divorce.
"Getting a divorce is very expensive," my dad told me, when he was still living with us but sleeping in the guest room. As he studied his check book, I noticed the black hair falling into his eyes was turning gray.
The thing I'll miss most about St. Ignatius is my sixth grade teacher. Barbara let us call her by her first name. She's not returning either. She used to have the most beautiful hair, a thick chocolate brown river that flowed past her curvy hips. Most of the time she wore it in long braids twisted into the shape of big cinnamon rolls, held with bobby pins above her ears. On special occasions or when she was late to school, she wore it down. When her hair started to fall out, Barbara wore colorful scarves, wrapping her head like a gypsy. Now the cancer in her breast has spread all over.
Mom drives over a concrete bridge that divides a residential neighborhood from The Plaza. The river below is low from a rainless August. Scrub brush grows where water should be, and the basin is dirty at the edges as if someone pulled the plug after a long bath. The outdoor shopping center with its red-tiled roofs and white washed facades glows in the sun.
Turning left onto La Puerta Street we hug the length of the river, then head north on La Mesa Street. Mom pulls to the curb with a jerk of the wheel, puts the car in park and turns toward me, her tanned skin shiny with sweat.
"Here we are, birthday girl. Or should I say, young lady?" She smiles. Her face is flawless but the space between her front teeth gives it a fragile look. Squeezing my shoulders, she reaches into her purse and extracts a crisp twenty dollar bill. "Don't spend it all at once."
I'm peeling my bare legs from the vinyl seat, which feels like ripping a Band Aid off a hairy arm, when Mom says, "Your father will be here at three to bring you to his new apartment." Then, as if speaking over loud music, "Be a good girl!"
I close the car door behind me, making sure not to slam it or roll my eyes. Mom can really bug me sometimes.
"Don't forget your backpack," she points to the back seat.
I lean in and pull it through the open window.
"And remember to tip your hairdresser," she calls.
Puzzled by her last remark, I wave as she drives away, then sling my backpack over my shoulder and turn to face Salon de Salon. Usually we never shop in The Plaza because Mom says the prices are inflated. Instead, she drags me to the Junior League shop near our house where rich housewives with straight blond hair and flawless skin smile at us like nuns doing God's bidding. Here, the sidewalk seems to glitter with crushed diamonds. Beside the salon door, banks of tall windows the color of smoke reveal only shadows. Heat rises from the ground like steam from a boiling kettle.
As if someone has pushed it toward me, I pull the door open easily. A gust of cold air smacks me hard in the face and my arms grow instant goose bumps. Why didn't I bring a sweater like I do when I go to the movies? The interior is black and white like the Queen's domain in Alice in Wonderland. Two polished statues of a man and a woman stand by the entrance. Behind a silver desk, like the lectern from speech class, stands a tall blond woman in a sleeveless hot pink dress. A matching sweater is draped over her bronze shoulders. Her lips, eyelids and finger nails are all hot pink. I think of spumoni ice cream. I look down at my white shorts and see a small patch of yellow crust, my breakfast of eggs. It doesn't budge when I pick at it with my finger nail.
"May I help you?" Spumoni Lady stares down at me. "I'm here to get my hair cut." "Your name?" Her perfectly plucked eyes brows twitch.
I stutter. "Rebecca, Rebecca Kellerman."
"Yes, I see you here." The shiny black robe she thrusts toward me looks like what they give you at the doctor's office, except it's not made of white paper.
"Get changed in there," she snaps and points her long pink finger nail down the hallway to my right.
I hear her bark behind me, "The robe ties in front."
The hallway is lined with metal shelves with mirrors fastened to the walls above. A girl's reflection confronts me, oily skin, a few pimples, hair forced unnaturally into a Farah Fawcett do. I look away.
Inside the airless dressing room I let the door close behind me with a whoosh. Lifeless clothing hangs on hooks lining the back wall. What do I hang on the hook? Sweat drips from my under arms, down my sides and into the waist of my shorts. I just can't ask Spumoni Lady.
Suddenly I'm standing in the locker room of my old school a year earlier. It's the first day of gym class and I'm holding the regulation gym suit, blue and white striped polyester top and shorts. Removing all of my clothes, I slip the scratchy material over my naked body but when I look up I see the other girls staring at me. Their bodies are safely covered in undershirts and panties. Humiliated, I wait by my locker until the room is empty, then I get dressed and leave. I'm crying as I enter Barbara's classroom.
"When someone's parents get divorced it makes everything else seem a lot harder," Barbara wipes the tears from my face.
Inside the hot dressing room, I decide to keep my bra on, but wonder about removing my t-shirt. Finally I do, hanging it on an empty hook along with my backpack.
A small woman greets me with a smile as I open the door, the robe wrapped tightly around me. Her teeth are crooked and yellow, her skin the color of fudge. She takes my elbow and guides me past a long row of chairs where women sit like greedy children. The sound of scissors clicks in my ears as I follow her white smock and white pants to the black basin.
"Sit down, please," she says with a Spanish accent.
As I sit, she guides my head into a cool hard groove that makes my neck feel long and thin. She hums to herself, washing my hair. I can see up the sleeve of her shirt. Sharp black hairs push through the skin of her armpit.
I like how she massages my scalp with strong fingers. The shampoo smells like an exotic fruit and suddenly I'm a Hawaiian princess being groomed for a lavish party, my hair wrapped in a ceremonial turban. She sits me on a throne, my feet perched comfortably on the silver footrest.
"Someone will be with you in a moment. You want a magazine?"
"Sure," I say. The fashion magazines she gives me are all boring except Seventeen. My favorite model is on the cover.
One section tells you what's in style and lists the cost of assembling the perfect back to school wardrobe. I can't afford any of it.
"You must be Rebecca?"
"That's me," I mumble.
A slim man stands behind me, his dirty blond hair cut close to his head like a cap. "Hi there, I'm Ritchie, your stylist. Let's make you look beautiful!" He waves his arm.
"Ok." My voice too loud.
Untangling my hair with his finger, Ritchie asks, "Do you have anything in mind?" He fastens a slick black drape too tightly around my neck.
I point at the magazine cover. "I want this!"
"Hmm." Ritchie looks disappointed but pulls a comb from a black plastic cart to his right and begins combing through my hair. He's quiet for a long time like he's studying for a test.
"It looks to me like you have forward hair!"
I stare at him blankly.
He steps in front of me, the comb moving in his long fingers. He combs my hair forward, leans in for a better look then backs off, smiling.
I look at the magazine cover. The model's hair is parted down the middle, her feathered bangs blending seemlessly into her chest length hair. I look up at Ritchie hopefully.
Ignoring me, he taps the pointed end of the comb to the crown of my head. "See, this hair grows toward the front of your head not to the back like hers. It's a scientifically proven fact."
"But I want this haircut."
"But you can't have it. I won't do it. It won't look good on you because you have forward hair!" He's practically yelling now and a woman sitting near by, her hair wrapped in tin foil, looks up from a magazine.
Ritchie lowers his voice. "Trust me."
Suddenly he's cutting. Long pieces of hair plunge into my lap as I close my eyes and think of my new school and how empty my house feels without my father in it. I imagine him living in a dark room with a lumpy mattress on the floor and dirty dishes spilling from a small cracked sink. He sits in a high-backed chair facing the only window. Cigar smoke escapes from his mouth and forms a question mark.
Before I know it the hair dryer is roaring in my ears. The sound reminds me of my parent's last fight. My father stood a safe distance from my mother who listed his sins at the top of her voice. Knowing my father would leave before my mom was done, I waited on the front porch. Walking past me on the way to his car, he brushed his finger tips through my bangs then softly kissed my cheek.
"This is good. Really a masterpiece," Ritchie yells through the noise. "You'll be the envy of all your friends."
The dryer stops. A Barry Manilow song drones through the speakers. I feel Ritchie's fingers sweep forward through my hair, his nails meeting my forehead.
"The drum roll, please!" When I raise my eyes I see a girl I don't recognize. Her bangs cut dangerously high on her naked forehead. Her wide nose looks doubled in size, her tiny chin a shrunken acorn.
"What do you think?" Ritchie grins ear to ear as he spins me around in my chair.
I want to cry out, "Where are my bangs?"
"It looks great," I say. "Really great." Praise echoes through the room, ghostly and remote. I look down at the small mound of hair in my lap which Ritchie quickly brushes to the floor.
I'm fighting back tears as I struggle out of the strangling drape. Hair pricks my skin as I hurry down the row of chairs past the women sitting there, their faces wrinkled, their mouths contorted into unnatural smiles.
"That will be twenty dollars," Spumoni Lady says after I change into my t-shirt, her smile, mocking.
The twenty I extract from my back pocket is snapped out of my hand. Halfway through the door, remembering the tip, I dig in my pockets then stop. Do you tip even if you hate your hair cut?
I slide into the passenger seat of my father's car and feel him looking at my hair then my face. He knows better than to compliment me. But with his large soft hand he touches the nape of my neck, then runs his hand up the back of my head and down the front of my face.
Driving in silence through the city, we pass what will be my new school. Someone stands on a ladder, arranging letters to form a greeting. The sign is a broken phrase waiting to be completed.
"Welcome Stud..." my father reads aloud. Then he laughs, "I guess you have a lot to look forward to."
When I manage a smile he smiles back. "Just tell them you're French," he offers softly. "We'll work on your accent over dinner."
We drive along in silence. My head suddenly feels cooler. An afternoon breeze tickles my newly bare skin.