When I was in the process of changing oncologists, I was haunted by my hairstylists. I had relationships on my mind—paid relationships, fragile as any romance, with even murkier codes of conduct. In the weeks that led me closer to Dr. Y as I contemplated how to say goodbye to Dr.X, the plaintive faces of my hairstylists kept knocking against each other in my river of daily thoughts.
I had blood on my hands. I had treated them very poorly. After months, even years of every-six-or-seven-weeks compulsory conversation, I just picked up and took my business elsewhere, chasing the next set of dexterous wrists that came along—or, as was sometimes the case, returning to a set I had already known.
Eva, my current hair stylist, is a case in point. Last summer I dropped back into her life after an abrupt absence of eight or nine years, without a word of explanation. It was my daughter who drew me back. She had begun getting her hair cut by Eva on her trips home from New York City and the two of them were hitting it off, Eva’s name bandied about in our household on the tails of every cute and shaggy cut.
It’s hard not to hit it off with Eva. Genuine, free-spirited, a responsive and intuitive listener, a graduate from the School of Hard Knocks, a haircut by Eva is more than a haircut; it’s soul-fortification.
Hearing tales of Eva, I was besotted with nostalgia. I scheduled an appointment, which meant leaving Carmen, whose only faults were that she had been cutting my hair a tad too short and nervously treated every cut as though it were a buffet of choices that only I could decide.
Ah Carmen, into whose hands I had the good fortune to come running after all my “chemo curls” had disappeared during a devastating cut. Carmen, who, in spite of her youth, had been so patient and kind, settling next to me on the vinyl couch, listening to my cancer hair debacle without flinching, nodding her headful of warm, red, abundant curls as though I were telling her an old, old story.
Though a relative novice, she always did a bang-up job, really fussing over my hair. I’d praise her profusely. But when the cut was done and she stood at the register while I struggled with my math for a tip, she always looked a bit doubtful, a little sad, as though maybe I wouldn’t return. Then one day I didn’t.
Carmen was my rescue from the bob that bombed. Martha twisted and swept her brush gamely to fill the void where nature failed—or won—both of us hushed before the genetic theater playing out before us. My first post-chemo cut with Martha had been a smash success, when I still held favor in the land of curls. Now, in exile, I couldn’t go back, in spite of the intimate history Martha and I shared. She had also cut my wig—right on my head as I wore it—in the private back room of her salon.
I chose not to wear my wig and said so in an article I wrote for our local paper. But in the hail storm that was breast cancer, Martha was a honey-blond beacon of roughly my own age who groomed me tenderly at various stages of hair loss and growth. When she sprinkled my nose with my own fine hair during an unscheduled bang trim, it felt like fairy dust. I sometimes see her out and about. Once I looked the other way. Another time she collected my ticket at a local jazz event. She smiled and said hello, tearing my heart right out of my chest.
Before Martha was Terri—just once—and before Terri was Kara, a single mom who took a job at JC Penney, but I just couldn’t follow her there. Prior to Kara was Kim, who injured her shoulder in a car accident, speeding up her early retirement, which must have pleased her, since she’d been transitioning to horse doctoring anyway. Cheerful, confident and collected—Kim was a super-pro I had been seeing for a very long time.
I was loyal to Kim. I followed her from salon to salon as her disputes with management propelled her, ever-onward, in search of greater autonomy. But Kim could not be contained. Fiercely independent, always reaching, always searching, her boundless energy at last caused her to try a teaching gig, and she passed me along to Eva, whom I quickly adored.
And so I saw Eva for several years. A parade of short, spiky cuts; meandering, insight-laden, Eva-inspired conversation. But I had been edging into perimenopause, and the leopard prints, brooding paintings, and deep reds and purples of the salon’s funky aesthetic—formerly so delightful—began, just a little, to oppress my spirits. My world had shifted, ever so slightly, into melancholic tints and anxious undercurrents. Meanwhile, Kim was glimmering on the horizon like a shot of serotonin. She’d resurfaced at the brightly lit venue where we first met and was trying to scare up her old client base. I returned to her, without a word of goodbye to Eva.
Now I’ve come full circle, having swallowed a bird to catch the spider to catch the fly that wiggled and wiggled and tickled inside me, a causal chain of whim, escape, hand-me-downism, and sudden exits through invisible trapdoors. Eva and I don’t speak of my vanishing, but I see her questioning eyes.
Kim, Eva, Kara, Martha, Carmen—I owe them a debt of thanks for their sweet, imperfect gifts. Marooned with me on their styling station islands, they opened up, revealed parts of themselves, saw me through crises cataclysmic and mundane. I don’t agree that consumers owe nothing to those they pay for services; every relationship deserves a conclusion. Having persuaded myself that no thanks comes too late, I’ve already dispatched a few cards of gushing gratitude. I’m a little embarrassed, but I feel energized, mobilized, a bit like an activist—an activist of thanks.
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