Kate held up a foot-long strand of my wavy brown hair and opened her scissors. “Are you sure you want me to do this?” she asked. “Because yesterday you said you wanted a pageboy—why the sudden demand for a crewcut?”
“Cut the hell out of it,” I said.
Kate shook her head and then chopped my dark lock to the roots. I gritted my teeth as fat curl after fat curl spiraled down. When I looked down at the slaughtered curls on the concrete floor, Kate pressed my temples to straighten my head.
“Don’t move, or you’ll wind up bald.”
“The receptionist thought I was somebody’s kid. She actually asked if I was looking for my mom. I said, No, she’s in Holy Sepulchre.”
“You did not.”
“Went right over her head.”
“But what were you wearing, Maggie?” Kate asked.
“It should be about my art. Not about what I’m wearing.”
“You were wearing those overalls again.”
“I ran straight from the darkroom to the train. I didn’t think I needed to put on a pinstriped suit.”
“I’m not saying that,” Kate said.
“The receptionist had a pink Mohawk.”
“And you were sporting your trademark Laura Ingalls braid.”
“I barely got the prints loaded in my portfolio by noon. Maybe I should have waited, but I promised myself I’d shop my portfolio to one gallery before we take off tomorrow.”
“At least you put yourself out there.” Kate herself had spiked black hair with a spot of blue at the temples.
“The owner treated my portfolio like a turd. He actually put gloves on.”
“Or maybe he didn’t want to smudge the pictures. Which ones did you show him?”
“The alley shots. And the broken windows at the steel mill.”
“Those are pretty good,” Kate said.
I slid my fingers under my thighs. The vinyl chair was wet with sweat. The scissors whistled and snipped. I closed my eyes. Having that receptionist think I was twelve was bad enough, but the gallery owner had really gotten to me. He’d called the photos “decent beginner’s work” and that he’d been seeing a lot of this “urban decay stuff” lately. “Jumping on that bandwagon, huh?” Christ. He was right. My work was crap. I felt my face start to burn in front of him. Then he said, “I like the composition in this one.” So patronizing. He saw right through me. Then he told me to come back in a year.
Everybody at Southtown Community had loved my photos. What did that tell me? Southtown was shit, my work was cliché. Why had my instructor encouraged us to shop our portfolios around? We had to get used rejection, she said. Check. Got that done.
A year ago, I’d deferred acceptance to the super pricey Rhode Island School of Design. My dad couldn’t swing the tuition. But after a year of schlepping to Southtown Community, I was ready to move on. I needed to live, to see another side of life. I hoped this trip to Ireland would do the trick. I could beef up my portfolio. After all, the gallery owner had told me to come back in a year. That was encouraging. Sort of. What he really seemed to be saying was that my work wasn’t original. It did make sense. Everybody was photographing rotting doors and alley cans. Even if my lighting and composition were decent, the subject matter was run-of-the mill.
I opened my eyes. A quarter inch of hair poked from the right side of my head like black Astroturf. The left side was long and wavy. “I look like a Medieval warrior.”
“Zoltara, Queen of the Barbarians.”
“Samsonette. I gain strength when you cut my hair.”
“Then off it comes. Finally. I can’t believe you’re finally letting me cut your hair.”
I touched the side of my head. The hair felt bristly, boyish. “I haven’t really cut my hair since my mom died.”
“It’s like I wanted to still look like I used to when she …”
I looked in the mirror and Kate met my eyes, nodding. “But we don’t want bad hair making you look like a bad artist.”
“It’s going to be great. Especially after you bleach it.”
“That’s the hard part. Peroxide doesn’t tickle.” Kate emptied an envelope of powder in a plastic bowl, tipped in a handful of water, then whipped the concoction with a boxy brush. I had tried to talk her out of going to beauty school, with my aloof opinions about education, but things had turned out well for her. She made great money, and what did I have? A portfolio nobody wanted. She looked so expert, powdering her hands with Baby Magic, slipping on clear rubber gloves.
I sat back and enjoyed the feel of her strong fingers towel-drying my hair. At first, the gentle sweep of the peroxide-coated brush felt cool as she painted my hair from scalp to nape. Then the paste warmed, started to tingle, and burn. I grabbed the bottle of beer by the throat.
“Almost done.” With several burning strokes, she finished it off, then dabbed the back of my neck and hairline. She wiggled her toweled index fingers in my ears, rode the maze of cartilage, and wrung my earlobes. Breathing into a plastic cap, she snapped it over my head.
After thirty minutes, the first pass was done, and my hair flamed orange as Ronald McDonald’s. Another round of peroxide and my hair was pure white, old-lady white, I-just-saw-a-ghost white. Kate worked in a cool, silky toner and the hair grew more yellow, lemony soft.
I couldn’t believe it. The stark, hip hair was a stranger’s. My ears stood out like two washed pieces of marble. My brown eyes looked huge against the white hair.
“Do I look like an alien?” I asked.
“A foxy alien, baby. Nobody in Ireland will take you for one of those junior-year-abroad dorks.”
“That’s my goal in life.”
“I know what your real goal is.” She pursed her lips and wrapped her arms around an imaginary man, grinding. “Have you even been with anybody since you dumped Jerry?”
“He kinda thinks we’re back together.”
“Did you disabuse him of that notion?”
“He’s my weak spot.”
“I don’t get it,” Kate said. “He’s just so boring.”
Jerry McMahon and I had been super serious in high school, but things cooled off after he went to the University of Wisconsin. Still, every break we hooked up for a little something, and then he would consider it a full-on reunion. I had to stop doing that. He had come home from school a couple weeks ago, and blam, same-old, same-old.
“You hate all the guys we know.”
“Because they’re all so schtewpid,” she said. “What’s he majoring in? Accounting?”
“He can finance this.” Kate turned and pointed at her ass.
“Nobody can underwrite that.”
“Maybe I can get Jerry to take us to the airport…”
“Cheryl’s coming. And I would not let you turn our Big Escape into some sappy farewell scene. He’ll ask you to be faithful. Then the whole trip you’ll be feeling guilty if you talk to some other guy.”
“No, I won’t.” I said, resting my chin on the back of my hand. “I’m a whole new girl already.”
* * *
The next morning, I snuck out of 11:45 Mass early to meet Kate. Just as I was escaping down the steps, I heard Jerry call my name.
“Didn’t you see me in church? And what happened to your hair?”
I turned to face him. He was fit as usual, broad across the shoulders with that sensual mouth beneath a boring nose. “I’m waiting for Kate. We’re gonna be late for our flight.”
A car honked. I looked a few blocks down—there was Kate, hanging out of the passenger window of Cheryl’s white Cadillac Eldorado.
“Will you wait one minute? I need to tell you something.”
“It’s just that I met someone. I wanted to tell you before you took off.”
“So you came to church to dump me?”
“I called you three times yesterday. Andrea wanted me to make things clear with you. I’ve been seeing her since March.”
“We’ve been together four times since March!”
“I’m sorry if I led you on. But I had to come clean with Andrea and now with you.”
“Look, I’ve got a plane to catch.”
Wow. Did it feel good to deliver that line.
The two-door Caddy pulled up to the curb. Kate opened the massive door, jumped out, and folded back her seat. “Magpie! Hop in!” She saluted Jerry with a curt hand gesture. “Gotta fly, Jer-Bear!”
I tossed in my bag and slid across the pillowed leather seats. Kate barely had the huge door closed when Cheryl peeled away from the curb. I watched Jerry waving good-bye from the rectangular opera window in back.
“What’d he say?” Kate asked.
“He’s seeing someone else.”
“Perfect!” Kate punched the ceiling and let loose an exuberant karate chop of a laugh. Ha! “Cheryl, this guy was the worst. So uptight. So into himself.”
“I never knew you hated him so much,” I said.
“I don’t hate him. He’s just so. Status conscious. Like, and this is going to sound bad, but like he wanted to steal the limelight from you at your mom’s wake.”
“He just acted like the Mayor of the Funeral Home. He should not have been at the casket.”
“I asked him to be there.”
“He shouldn’t have been there. She wasn’t his mother. People thought he was one of your brothers. He should have sat the fuck down.”
“All right, Miss Etiquette.”
“It’s not about etiquette and you know it.”
Had it crossed my mind that Jerry got a perverse pleasure out of being in the center of the scene when my mother died? Yes, it had. I leaned back in the seat and closed my eyes, sinking into the plush cushions. Over the last few months, I’d assessed the past with a little more lucidity. The dark clouds that had hovered over my high school years had cleared. I could admit now that Jerry hadn’t really noticed me until word got around about my mom’s diagnosis. His interest in me was the only glimmer of happiness then. I liked having a boy to lean on. He fit in with my dad and brothers.
At first, people acted as if having a sick mother might be contagious. Most kids didn’t know what to say, so they avoided me. Or they gave me these soulful, pitying looks, behind which I always read this: I’m glad I’m not you. Jerry’s sudden attention sheltered me from that. Some girls even envied me, which I preferred to their pity. All the cafeteria talk about dances and football games had started to make me bitter. But with Jerry, I could actually attend some of those events. He made me go out even when I didn’t feel like it, but if I was having a shitty time, he took me back home. No questions asked. Sometimes, I even had fun, I almost forgot about my mom’s vomiting, her strands of gray hair that draped the couch cushions, swirled on the bathroom floors,
I didn’t notice that it hurt Kate. I was caught up. She complained that Jerry was always around. I didn’t get it. Since she came with her mom every Friday afternoon—for pizza and movies—that seemed like plenty of time. If Jerry had gained status or a weird satisfaction from being there for me, I couldn’t really begrudge him. Kate didn’t understand that Jerry only felt OK when he was being the Good Guy. It was sort of sad. I blamed his mom. She was shallow—he never could do enough. I might always be grateful to him though. Those cups of cold water in Styrofoam cups that he brought me during the wake. The mints.
But gratitude didn’t equal being in love. I mean, I loved him, but I’d been surprised at how little I’d missed him when he went away.
I leaned forward and held the seat. I wanted to tell Kate that Jerry wasn’t her rival anymore, but that would have sounded too much like the truth. And sometimes the truth wasn’t cool.
Eileen Favorite‘s first novel, The Heroines (Scribner, 2008), was named a best debut novel by the Rocky Mountain News. Her essays, poems, and stories have appeared in many publications, including, The Butter, Triquarterly, The Chicago Reader, Diagram. She received fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council for poetry and for prose. She teaches writing and literature classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.