Walking down the street with it, I studied its amazing contours in shadow. The hair loomed above me, spiny and monstrous.
When I was a child my hair was cut so that my head resembled the shape of a cauliflower. Not once, but repeatedly. Often I’d stand in front of the mirror, patting its uncertain contours and crying.
That’s all right, that’s all right, my father would say. Maybe if you smiled more.
There is a woman with whom I am no longer speaking, although her company helped me through a difficult time. Whenever this woman called me on the phone, I would say, “hello” and she would say, “What’s the matter?” It was flattering for a while, this devoted scrutiny of my emotions, her handling of even my lightest remarks with concern, but soon our conversations became tedious.
This friend of mine is not a beautiful person, and yet I notice she requires compliments and takes them well—the sort of compliments I am suspicious of and would never believe if given to me, and she put the idea in my head that my parents did me a disservice by never suggesting that I was pretty. “Didn’t they ever say etc. etc.?” she asked; and what struck me as odd was not so much that my parents didn’t, but that hers—apparently, with some lunatic frequency—did. She has somehow absorbed it, believes she is pretty and has a right to be told so. In fact, she is rather heavy. A feral hair grows out of her chin.
There is something unwholesome about her features, which should not be photographed and cannot be explained.
So there I was, with this friend of mine who was not a friend, but who behaved like a friend since I had failed to inform her of the change in our relations. We were in a restaurant, eating soup. I was enraged but inconspicuously. We had arranged to meet for soup and I did not have the courage to cancel. In fact, it seemed easier to go than to call her up and cancel. I don’t know why, but it was so. I knew that if I called and canceled, she would press me for reasons, and when I hung up the phone I would be guilty and sweaty and would talk at the walls for an hour or so. Defending myself. Whereas this way I could go and fulfill my obligation. She was writing poetry those days and apparently she was a good poet, I should say things were really happening to her, readings, grants, scholarships, all sorts of things were landing on her doorstep, people were very excited about her work, and it was impossible for me to drum up any enthusiasm. I have never read her poetry. I read no poetry. She wears a tee shirt that says Long Live John Clare. We are total opposites, as you can see. “Well,” she said, “you have cut your hair since I last saw you,” even though I clearly did not want to discuss it.
I went to a coffeehouse. I had recently cut my hair and was preoccupied with the prospect of it growing out.
Before my mother’s chemotherapy she was warned, by a number of doctors, that she would lose her hair, so she went to a wig shop, in the company of her least frank friends, and was fitted for a wig that closely resembled her own hair. The fact that this hair style had never flattered my mother’s face was of no importance to her; the fact that it curved in an unlovely way about her ears, or that Clairol Number Seven, and a habit of spending hours in the sun without hat or scarf, had helped her to obtain the reddish blonde color that looked implausible next to her ruddy skin—these facts, as I say, did not matter. Her only desire was to retrieve some version of the self she knew.
In photographs that I keep from this period the wig roosts on my mother’s head like an unfortunate bird, or perhaps not like the bird at all but like its accident, the surprisingly hardy loosening of its bowels; and this woman is a parody of my mother, a puppet I have propped up on the couch; her posture is bad, and she seems to have aged, rather rapidly, thirty years.
I met my brother, weeping in the park. He was walking around an apple tree that had fragrantly burst forth into blossom. Two or three blossoms had fallen and clung to his hair.
“If you look at her stretched out in the bed, it looks as though she has already died,” he said.
“I couldn’t stay.”
I looked at my hands to conceal my annoyance. They are such small hands they often provoke exclamations, but on close inspection you will notice the largeness of my thumb, which I am said to have inherited from peasant ancestors. My fingers are short and stubby; my nails, too wide to bother polishing; and my cuticles, also untended, have grown rather bulky. On the top of my right hand there is a bum mark, which prompted my mother to say, “no one will want to hold that hand.”
“The doctors say her chances are good. The cancer is only in her breast and lymph nodes, you know. Do you know what a lymph node is?”
“Yes,” he sniffed.
My own notion was a little bit foggy. Where do people learn these things? The doctor had gone over key terms, but I was too distracted at the time to absorb them. “Good. Are you going to eat that orange?” I asked and peeled it for him.
Once I came upon her caring for the wig, washing it delicately in the sink. She was quite fierce on the point that I keep my distance, guarding the thing the way a she bear guards its young—or so they say. I am usually faking my references to the animal kingdom. I don’t say that I was jealous of the thing, but she spent an awful lot of time soaking it and swishing it about in the solution; and her gestures were those of one who has done more than come to terms with her misfortune. There was a dramatic, show-off quality to it. See how I have been suffering. So my mother seemed to take a niggardly pleasure in washing her disunited head of hair in front of me.
After the cancer she took to wearing rich, full-flowing capes, made for her by a friend who is costume designer of a lyric opera company. The wig, which had slept its nights on a styrofoam head, was drowned (another ritualistically reckless moment) in the neighbors’ pool, then tossed unceremoniously into our garbage pail, where it remained until “garbage day,” which happened to be six days later. I don’t know what transpired in that voluminous head or rat-sized heart of hers, but after this incident it became evident that her baldness no longer shamed her; in fact, she displayed her head with a regal pride.
I saw her occasionally about the house, when I came around to read the paper or collect a cereal box. On these occasions she seemed to regard me in a stiff and uncommunicative way. Possibly she was angry with me, but she didn’t say. She was careless enough to leave a notebook around the house, a conspiratorial black leather diary sort of thing, which betrayed—one rainy afternoon when she had gone up to the attic to make sure the windows were closed—that she was writing pensées, auto-portraits, and haiku:
This mole on my arm Blossoms like a velvet seed—Could it be melanoma?
A little while later, she stripped the house of unnatural fabrics, stocked the cabinets with ginseng, and took up the less aerobic versions of the martial arts. She liked to practice Tai Chi in the parks, or on a grassy, highly public plot on Shutford, where passersby could admire the grace of her movements and snicker at the grossness of her enormous bald head.
Her transformation did not affect me. I was preoccupied with my own matters.
For instance I had begun to look after my education. When I was young I had gone to boarding school (a very fine one, nestled on a lake, the name of which I forgot, constantly, even when I went to school there; I often lose my way), but the school failed to provide me with solid grounding. For years I had gotten by pretending to be bored with things I only dimly understood to be existent. After a while it began to bother me that there were many things I did not know, such as where the Baltic Sea was, or the exact meaning of this term “horsepower.” These are things which schoolchildren know, and yet I did not know them.
My plan (conceived after I had spent twelve hours in front of the television, wrapped in a blanket, eating the borrowed cereal) was to purchase a magazine from the newsstand each week and read it, cover to cover, even the parts which did not interest me and which relied chiefly on words I did not know. I would read slowly and force myself to think about the ramifications of every sentence. Usually I took the magazine to a café and rewarded myself, upon the completion of columns or paragraphs, with sips of a hot chocolate. The rate at which I read invariably meant that I finished the drink when it was cold.
If I kept this up for a matter of weeks, assiduously I mean, I thought that the reading could not help but make an impression. But the thing was not as easy to do as I thought. My attention wandered; I read captions several times before I brought myself to read paragraphs; and I allowed myself to skip over hard essays on economics, and all the essays on urban renewal, and war. My eyes slid to advertisements. I began to feel discouraged. It dawned on me that I was (inescapably) a trivial and impenetrable person.
Naturally I blamed my parents for not raising me to be a deeper person. Other people did chores when young; were given encyclopedias, invited to open atlases, prodded with flash cards, quizzed at dinner, crammed with facts—whereas I was generally left alone with a Light a Brite and a collection of glass animals I called the Nine O’Clock Club because I pranced the animals across my belly until nine o’clock each night (looking back: an outlandish bedtime). It was quite a bad scene, and realizing how badly I had been raised, and how angry I was about it, I found it necessary to distance myself. I saw my brother from time to time. I didn’t hold him responsible because he was just as narrow-minded and shallow as I was, although he had learned to play “The Foggy Dew” on the clarinet which gave him a shimmer of culture that I lacked.
Upon seeing my mother pass proudly through the street in one of her capes, her prominent baldness gleaming in the afternoon sun, I remarked to myself, “There is a woman who will die not of breast cancer, but of skin cancer, at the age of sixty five, because she has failed to screen her head.”
I spoke too loudly.
“Did we used to be close?” she asked. “I remember when you would hug my knees. I remember when you would wet your bed to get my attention.”
“I wonder,” I said, “was that necessary?”
“That’s the trouble with you,” she said. “You’re always asking rhetorical questions. I used to hear you with your friends when you were in the seventh grade. You would say startling, unanswerable things. ”Must we stoop for violets in the hedge?“ If you ask sincere questions, you might get sincere answers.”
“What is sincerity?” I asked.
She moved on.
No doubt she was carrying a grudge because I didn’t visit her more often in the hospital. I went once, on the morning she was recovering from surgery. I had been asked to deliver her eyeglasses and stopped short in the doorway of the hospital room. She sat in the bed, surrounded by a gaudy wreath of flowers, unrecognizably small (except her head) and shrivelled in the bedclothes. She was trying to brush her teeth. There was a yellow basin, the unappealing color of hospital things, sitting on the bed tray before her.
I approached and gave her the glasses; she was tired and listless and didn’t seem interested. “It is I,” I said, profoundly; “your daughter.” For a while she said nothing. Then she commented that she was “tired as a horse,” a characteristic muddling of American idiom, and inexcusable, since my mother was bom and raised in New York. When I teased her she claimed the anesthetic made her foolish. I left rather quickly, disturbed to see her in disarray.
Don’t all people, between the ages of eighteen and twenty five, devote themselves to the process of discovering who they are? And often they find it necessary to strip themselves of the weaker members of their family.
It seems to me, said my friend, that you are always getting your hair cut.
In the ladies room an old woman was vomiting, stall door flung wide open; the other stall was locked. I approached the mirror. By this time I was feeling a bit anxious to have a look, to see if my hair had softened a bit, rearranged itself into a more organic coiffe, something windblown and less severe. Only I can never look in a mirror when someone else is around. I was afraid the woman vomiting in the stall might turn around and catch me in the private ritual, which includes a slow studied lean into the mirror in order to canvass the pores of my nose. I have a large nose and my pores are open, as they say, for business. Cold water does nothing, despite what the magazines say.
In the coffeehouse, I sat with a newly destroyed head of hair, smiling at anyone who accidentally looked my way. I smiled at the waiter so often I confused him.
“What will life be like for Lily without her breast?” my aunt asked, clutching my hands.
I never saw my mother’s breasts, except on occasions when we changed our swimsuits in the cabana.
When I arrived the man was helping himself to the cole slaw. I was going through a phase in which it was difficult to eat, that is to say I needed to eat but I did not like to feed myself because I was so disgusted with my personality at the time. So it was hard for me to look upon someone who fed himself so flagrantly. I really could not understand it or relate to his impulse at all.
The big feeder crushed a baseball hat onto his small head (visor frontwise). This is not beauty. How far from beauty it is, I cannot say.
“You,” I said, “are nothing but bad breath in a hat.” This formulation struck me as very funny. He wasn’t amused. He asked a question that seemed to allude to some unspoken but shared perception of the inferior style of my hair. It was not a direct comment, but seeing the depreciative look in his eye, my mind bucked forward, and I knew.