Second Place Prize Winner in the SiN Short Story Contest

Hello everyone:

It’s time to share another winning story with you. This one is by faithful SiN supporter Peggy Lauzon. A big congratulations again, Peggy.

Here’s her story:

Bad Hair Day

By Peggy Lauzon

“Just a trim,” my mother instructed the hairdresser before she clicked out the door on high heels. It was the week before school started: grade one. But if it was just a trim, why was the first cut – snick – under my right ear? I jumped at the sound, then felt my stomach fall with the first length of strawberry blonde hair hitting the floor. The scissors flashed around my temples. I wanted to get up and run, but I couldn’t. I scrunched my eyes tight instead, powerless to move, held down in the too-big salon chair by the waterproof cape draped over me like a tent. When my mother returned, I could tell that she was as unprepared as I was. I couldn’t meet her shocked gaze. I looked into the mirror instead, embarrassed to see my red-swollen eyes. My ears were poking out and my forehead gleamed pale and freckle-less. My school photo would be ruined now. Every night I had brushed my hair right down to my waist. My dad tucked a length of it behind my ear when he kissed me good night. He called me his copper-haired princess, but who would I be without my long hair?
Pooling and sticking to my bare feet, clumps of hair pour off of me along with the steamy hot water. Yesterday, when the oncologist at the day clinic had said that my hair was starting to fall out, I hadn’t wanted to believe him. I mean, it wasn’t actually falling. There were just some loose strands tangled up in my almost shoulder-length curls. Now, I close my eyes, praying against this moment, bracing one hand on my shower wall. I pull a foot out of the soggy mess, but it’s no good: no matter how hard I kick, the hair clings like long, wet grass clippings. I open my eyes. The scene leaps: hair stuck on the emerald green tiles, smeared across my belly, one large chunk gliding down my wet thigh. I try removing it, spraying with the detachable shower head, but water is ricocheting off surfaces in every direction. The drain is backing up, the tub filling. I leap out of the infested waters and rip the shower curtain closed. Bits of hair – like splattered moths on a windshield– peer at me through the wet dotted surface of the translucent plastic.
The mirror is more merciful. As I turn and reach for my tee shirt and jeans, it slides across my vision: a flat, soft grey rectangle reflecting nothing. That’s how I feel, too, all of a sudden: nothing. Fog from the steam-filled room is wrapping me up, creeping into my hollowed-out places, muffling my brain. I face the medicine cabinet and, in this new, strangely calm state, I start wiping away the mist to see patches of bald skin reflected in the mirror.
My hand continues clearing back and forth, back and forth, but my stomach jolts from the starkness of the sight. Where the hair is gone, it is really gone: in its place my eggshell smooth scalp gleams almost shiny, almost white. Clumps of flattened, wet-dark curls string across bare skin. I reach up to part a section, pull it back, start hesitantly, then continue exploring my whole head with probing fingers, uncovering large and small bald patches all over my scalp. In one shower about half of my hair is gone.
I get dressed, wrap my head in a bath towel and ease the bathroom door open. The house sounds quiet. Good, I am not ready for my two daughters to see me like this. I slink downstairs, go into my bedroom, and close the door behind me. My friend Linda – a professional hair dresser – has prepared me for this moment and I have a wig and some pretty batik scarves in my dresser drawers. What did Linda say to do with the wig? I look down at it in my hands – a tarantula of curls – turn it over, examine its belly: soft strips of webbing crisscross the inner surface and run inside the hair line. Tiny bits of flexible wire are sewn into the temples. I line these up on my head and look in the mirror. Oh my God. My eyebrows are pulled back and the wig sits like a bowl on top of my head. What’s worse, there’s still too much of my own hair left, long strips poking out around my face from under the hairpiece. With unsteady fingers I twist and tuck, then shove and stuff, examining the effect in the bedroom mirror. It’s no use. I pull the wig off and push it into my back pack. I choose a fringed, dark green cotton scarf instead, with generous amounts of fabric, but I am not sure what to do with all the folds of material. I tie it around my head. The result feels clumsy, the knots insecure. The closest I have ever come to tying a scarf before is wrapping my wet hair up in a towel the way my mother taught me when I was a little girl.
Up until I was eight years old, my mother washed my hair in the kitchen sink. I would lie down on the cold, hard counter with towels under my neck: my mother’s fingers, foamy and smelling of Johnson’s baby shampoo, rubbing into my scalp, with me squirming and giggling under her touch. Even though she was massaging my head, somehow I would feel the tickle in my right side. My grandfather had the same ticklish spot, my mother said.
Once I was ready, my mother taught me to wash my hair by myself in the shower. Not the cold little sprinkles of water we kids would stand under before getting into the public pool: I remember that I was unprepared for the roaring sound as the warm water poured over my head, splashing my face and stinging my eyes. When it was time for the shampoo, I cupped my hand and my mother reached in to pour the clear yellow liquid into it. Most of it drained away between my fingers. Still, it foamed into a soft lather all over my hands and on the top of my head and the smell was so comforting, so familiar.
Afterward, I remember my mother waiting for me down on one knee on the bathroom floor, big white towel outstretched. She wrapped me up in its embrace, rubbing my back, arms and legs dry. The satisfying scratch of the towel made my skin tingle. My body felt alive and clean from the inside out. I leaned into her weight, resting my head on her wet shoulder. We stayed like this, enjoying the warmth of this room until my hair started to soak through the towel, making my back cold and wet. Mom wrapped my hair up in another white bath towel and twisted it – like a turban, she said, as I held my head at a slight angle to balance the lopsided pile on top of my head. I wanted to see what it looked like so she picked me up and held me at her waist, but the medicine cabinet mirror was too foggy to reflect anything. I remember reaching out a finger and tracing lines in the mist, back and forth, droplets running from my finger, slowly revealing our faces pressed together.

Now, standing in my bedroom with a half bald head, there is no one to hold me this time. I call Linda who is working today at the hair salon in the big downtown mall. Over the phone she says, “Oh Kate, don’t worry about an appointment, just come down now.” Holding my head gingerly, the twists of the scarf already loosening, I go looking for Andrew, my regular babysitter’s boyfriend, who is here today to help me with the children. When I first received my breast cancer diagnosis, Andrew explained that his mother had raised him by herself. He remembered the times when she had been sick, how hard that had been, and said he just wanted to help me. I find him in the kitchen. There is something comforting about the sight of his broad shoulders and even the spike in his pierced ear and the wide indigo tattoo entwined around his wrist. I pull on Andrew’s sleeve, leaning in to whisper, “my hair is starting to fall out. I’m going downtown to see Linda.” As an afterthought, I turn back to him and say, “I think it’s all over the bathroom. My hair is, I mean.” I can’t quite manage to ask him to clean it up for me.
Heading for the car a few minutes later, I hear small voices and laughter. Jessica and Molly are playing in the backyard. I walk quietly to the edge to check on them. They are past the flower border, hunkered down, picking strawberries. Too far away for me to see in detail what they are doing, I know anyway. Jessica, at age seven, will be turning over the cool, spreading leaves with careful hands, looking for the very darkest red berries, eating them slowly one by one. Her younger sister, Molly, with leaves and stems poking out between her fingers, will pick just anything: even the pale pink strawberries, even the hard white ones – ready or not.
Closer to the house there is Andrew, with the shower curtain spread out on my back lawn, hosing off the tiny bits of hair he hasn’t already managed to clean up. As I drive downtown I say a small prayer of gratitude for this big man so tenderly carrying out this strange, small domestic task; and for Linda, who is expertly navigating me through the process of losing my hair.
I have known Linda for as long as I have lived in northern Ontario, first as my neighbour in the countryside near Sault Ste. Marie and now in town. She has a warm femininity and strong sure hands that are as comfortable peeling logs for the house she helped to build for her family as they are calming a crying baby. I have been following Linda’s advice and have let her cut my hair shorter and shorter – especially in the front – over the past few weeks leading up to today. Only last week she cut my hair and the wig we had picked out together in the same tousled style. I remember her saying, “You don’t want to watch it falling out over and over. Once it starts, we’ll cut it all off and get it over with.”
Now I am sitting in Linda’s salon chair as she carefully unwraps the layers of scarf. She examines my head with the gentle concern a mother would show her small daughter over a scraped knee.
“Okay, there’s not enough here. This all has to come off. Okay?”
I nod.
She cuts, trims, shaves.
“Not too close. We don’t want the bristles to irritate your skin.”
Soon there will not even be any bristles left. I find the almost invisible bits on my scarves, my wig, the dresser, the pillow folds. When they are ready to, they brush off as easily as cigarette ash on a coat sleeve: the lightest of touches – brush – gone.
Standing behind me, Linda keeps up a steady stream of conversation to my reflection in the mirror in front of us. Last week, she tells me, she held her friend’s baby, the folds of her tiny neck smelling of warm milk. We remember my children as babies. Jessica, whose thick, dark brown hair had needed a trim when she was just five weeks old to get the bangs out of her eyes. We marvel over the words Jess invented before she turned two. “Bio” meant really, really bad. We speculate where that could have come from. We laugh. “And Molly,” Linda remembers, “with those wispy blonde curls and the bluest eyes – the angel” she says: “our baby. Look how big she is now. She had to go and grow up on us.”
My smile slides and crumples. I watch it in the mirror. The image is starting to blur as I realize that it is not a reflection in a mirror that this is happening to – this is my face, my hair – me. Linda sets the scissors down and now she is in front of the chair, facing me. She puts one hand on each cheek – pressing in so that I feel her strength – and kisses my forehead.
Quickly the wig is out of the backpack, shaken out. Plop – onto my head. She fluffs it up, trims it a bit more, treating it with the same respect as any real head of hair. She hands me a small mirror and turns my chair to show me front, back and sides. Thanks to her expertise, the wig looks very much like my own hair. In one hour, it is as if all of the events leading up to this – diagnosis, surgery, chemotherapy – have been erased.
Well, almost. I know I still have a long journey ahead of me, but some things that were lost have been found again and the momentum of this carries me through the next few days.