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Mermaids


ISSUE:  Winter 1987

The morning Christine Darden got her hair done it rained—thunder, lightning, the whole works. Driving to Nicki’s, she thought that probably a lot of people would cancel their appointments. Why have your perfectly done hair swirled around by the wind and rain?

She had had all weekend to change her mind, and she still wanted it all cut off. Women who changed from long hair to short always thought of all. All different. All cut off.

At a stoplight, Christine looked out the side window—or tried to. The way the water waved across the glass reminded her of what Saran wrap looked like when you didn’t stretch it tight enough as you pulled it off the roll and it rippled and stuck to itself. She touched the glass. It was cold. It was April in Washington, but spring was late and for what seemed like weeks it had been raining or gray skies had threatened rain. The disc jockey on the radio station had a good sense of humor. For a few seconds Christine hummed along as Willie Nelson sang, “Blue skies, smilin’ at me . . . .” The light changed, and she drove through the intersection. There was static on the radio, and when the station came back, a woman was saying, “People think that leeks are interchangeable with onions, but they aren’t.” Christine pushed a button and watched the little green needle roll quickly until it stopped. An old Beatles song. She let it play.

Two weekends ago her daughter, Maureen, and her ex-lover’s daughter, Lee Anne, had taken the Metroliner to New York and stayed with a friend’s brother in Morristown and gone dancing at the Palladium. If she let herself, she could worry about whether the friend’s brother really lived in Morristown, how he was willing to put up with giggly teen-agers—whether they had stayed with him at all. She was sure, though, that Maury had gone to the Palladium. Her enthusiastic description of it—and, by implication, her insistence on how dreary the rest of the world was—was roughly analagous to comparing Xanadu with a federally subsidized housing project.

Last September, Christine had gone back to college to study literature. The previous June, her lover had told her that he was transferring to Brookline, Massachusetts. She knew before she asked that he did not want her to go with him. They had been sitting on the beach, late in the afternoon, when he started discussing it, and she had looked at the waves rolling in and thought about the Boston skyline: the Prudential building; the John Hancock. Big vertical towers of glass. The ocean stretched in front of her, long and horizontal. Jas’s daughter was going to stay in Washington, with neighbors, to finish her last year of high school. Maury would still have Lee Anne. By the time Jas left, Christine would have had her 38th birthday (in fact, it was four days before her birthday that he told her he was leaving), and in one year she would have lost Alors, the big black poodle, her sister (in a ghastly freeway accident), and the man she had loved for a year. A year was really not that long to have loved someone, she kept telling herself. If you figure that it takes yon double the time to recover that it takes you to go through the experience, in two years she would be fine. By then she would be starting her junior year in college. Forty years old, and a junior in college.

She carried her umbrella closed, not caring if she got wet. She was going to change into a robe, anyway. And it certainly didn’t matter what her hair looked like. Opening the door to the shop, she reached behind her and crushed the long curls in one hand. Her hair was soft—she had never dyed it—and slightly damp. Sometimes, lying in bed with Jas curled against her, he had nuzzled the back of her neck like a seahorse, all nose.

“Don’t yon think it’s too pretty to cut?” the girl behind the counter said. She was young, pretty herself, with shoulder-length black hair, blunt cut. Her eye make-up increased the Oriental effect, but the smile was all-American. She was even thinner than the other time Christine had seen her. Christine wondered about anorexia.

She would also like to know, from Maury, whether Maury took drugs, if she was still a virgin, how much she hated Christine for walking out of the marriage, what she thought about the end of Christine’s love affair—what she thought about anything. According to Maury, everything was always fine. Cremating the dog was fine. Burying the dog was fine. “Look,” Maury had said, “I’m trying to be reasonable. Al had a good life, and we knew that he was getting lame. He wouldn’t have wanted to drag around. It’s better it ended the way it did.” Since Maury had been holding up well, Christine had not thought it was a good idea to cross her. Maury had let Christine go alone to the pet cemetery. Maury cared, but she was at the age when she didn’t want to show it.

“How are you?” Richard said, putting a bill for one of his clients on the front desk. The woman who stood at his side was taller than Richard, with wide-set eyes that were made up to enhance their strangeness. The eye shadow graduated from lavender to smoky rose. It looked peculiar in the daylight. Her hair was short, with a glittery clip holding back the bangs. The woman took out her credit card. “It looks great,” Richard said, patting the woman’s hand. The receptionist took the gold American Express card and ran it through the machine. “I’m making the big decision to get it all cut off, Richard,” Christine said. “Good,” he said, turning to leave. He wasn’t listening to what she was saying. “You know where the changing room is, don’t you?” the receptionist said, and Christine realized that she had been standing and staring for a while. “Oh, of course,” she said, and started down the aisle.

Hardly any of the operators looked familiar. Nicki had a terrible temper, she had heard, and the turnover was even greater than it was most places. Richard was obviously a special friend of Nicki’s or even Nicki’s lover. Once she had run into Nicki, Richard, and another young man at a seafood store. They had all seemed giggly and happy, and when she walked in they stopped laughing and kidding around and acted as if a cop had come to the door of a party. They had been buying scallops. Everyone spoke about how fresh the fish always was. Back in her car, Christine had felt embarrassed. About what? Their silly discussion? Because her hair needed to be washed?

The half-moon cut out of the door to the changing room reminded Christine of an outhouse. Not that she had ever seen a real outhouse. She had just seen them in the comics. On the inside of the door, someone had squirted gold sparkle glue around the cut-out. These days, everything seemed to sparkle: the transparent wheels of Maury’s roller skates, the nail polish the girls wore, the cheap rings Maury and Lee Anne loved from the 25¢ machine at the supermarket: soft plastic bands in green and pink and blue, with silver flecks imbedded. Capsules containing plastic worms came out of the same machine. Maury wasted quarter after quarter, trying for the rings.

As she opened the door to come out, the pink cotton robe so thin and soft it felt slippery, Christine heard Mama Cass’s voice, almost a whisper, singing a song she couldn’t remember the title of: “Say nighty night and kiss me. . . .” The music came from one of the booths where hair coloring was done. The door was shut.

“Now what’s this about cutting this pretty hair?” Richard said, walking up to her. He looked more focused. Friendlier. He pulled the sides forward and looked at the hair that fell several inches below her collarbone. “You can get away with this, you know,” he said.

She smiled. He was saying that in spite of her age, long hair looked good on her. Then he turned abruptly and said, “Helen will shampoo you.” He had on paisley socks and Reeboks. The pointed tips of pink combs stuck out of his backpocket. His shirt was pale pink, and looked as if it had been shrunk on his body. Something about the way he walked off attracted Helen’s attention, too, and she stared after him.

At the back of the shop, Christine slipped low in the plastic chair and tensed her body when the spray of hot water hit her head. Helen’s fingers might as well have been caressing rocks as hair—her touch registered nothing personal. She was talking to the other shampoo girl. In her peripheral vision, Christine could see that the girl wore a huge silver charm bracelet. Soapsuds flooded over the charms. Helen was squirting a stream of icy shampoo in concentric circles through Christine’s hair. Christine closed her eyes. As Helen massaged her scalp, Christine thought suddenly of diving into the waves at Ocean City, and coming up with seaweed in her hair. She had been startled. She had tried to flick it off, as if it were alive.

The week before, Christine’s Modern Poetry professor had begun to talk about T.S. Eliot. “What do you think?” he had asked the class. “Would you like Eliot to come for cocktails, or do you think he might put a damper on things?” The professor was in his late twenties, and he masked his depression with cynical, witty remarks. Sometimes he seemed interested in what he was talking about, but most of the time he was not. It seemed that, unexpectedly, he could bore himself—not that it had anything to do with the work he was discussing. Still, of the courses she was taking, he was her favorite professor. On her first paper (he had given her an A), he had put an exclamation point in the margin. After class, she asked him what she had written that was surprising. He squinted at the piece of paper, then took it from her, put it on the lectern, and frowned harder. “Maybe I was just doodling,” he said, handing it back. A week or so later, as she was crossing the street, he was pulling out of the faculty parking lot. She smiled and held up her hand. He rolled down his window. “What’s up?” he said. The car behind her swerved. She walked awkwardly toward his car, unable to think of anything clever to say. “I’m going home to doodle,” he said. “See you later.” Christine wondered, when she realized that she was still standing in the street staring after his car, whether he was looking at her in the rear-view mirror.

“There you go,” Helen said, putting a piece of terry cloth that was more like a pad than a towel on top of Christine’s head and scrunching it up. Water rolled down the hack of Christine’s neck.

“He’s still combing out,” Helen said, ducking her head around the corner. She handed Christine Architectural Digest. There was a vase of flowers on the cover: tulips and pussywillows, not particularly pretty. “Lawrence of Arabia’s Clouds Hill,” Christine read. She did not open the magazine. T.E. Lawrence, she thought; T.S. Eliot. Why was she thinking about either man?

She conjured up Maury, saying to Lee Anne, with mock dismay, “Mom’s spaced.” She smiled to herself, then wondered, seriously, if it was all right to let on to Maury that she found it amusing when she made fun of her. There was always a gentle quality about it, though. “I’m gonna roast you, all right?” Maury would say. And then she would say or do something very funny. Once, when Maury had imitated the way Christine spit through her front teeth as she checked herself in the hall mirror before going out, Lee Anne had sucked in her breath, in disbelief. “My mom would kill me,” Lee Anne said. “My father would really kill me.” Lee Anne’s mother was in a private hospital in New York State. Lee Anne rarely mentioned her mother, but looking at Maury in astonishment, that was the first thing she had blurted out. “Your father’s got a good sense of humor,” Christine had said, conscious, as she spoke, that there was real tension in the air. “Yeah, well—maybe if you crack a joke it’s okay, but if he thinks I’m even looking at him funny . . . .” Lee Anne had said. Then, dropping her head, she had mumbled, “You know, he thinks that kids should be respectful.” When Lee Anne looked up, her big front teeth were clamped over her bottom lip, and her eyes let Christine know that what she said was not what she meant at all. Not wanting to pursue it—not wanting to even think that there was a possibility that the person whose hands had stroked her so many times had hit a child—Christine had changed the subject.

Christine had said once, to Jas, “There’s too much unhappiness. Just too much unhappiness.” They had been at a summer party, where everyone had had too much to drink, and the host had suddenly announced that his wife had trapped him into marriage and then had stalked into the house. Christine had been sitting on the end of a chaise longue. Jas was sitting behind her, his feet planted on the ground, his knees at each side of her hips. He had moved forward and, chest to her back, touched his forehead to the top of her shoulder. “Well, there’s two lovebirds to remind us that in some quarters, all is well,” another of the drunken guests had said. With her eyes squeezed shut, ignoring the drunk, Christine had whispered, “There’s just too much unhappiness.” Had he even heard her? Though his fingertips touched her shoulders lovingly, his forehead had seemed unnaturally light, as if he were not really resting his head at all.

That summer—the summer they met—there had been many drunken parties. She could remember being surprised that he knew so many people, and that friends from one party rarely showed up at anyone else’s party, but what many of them had in common was that they drank. On occasion Jas drank until he got red-eyed and sleepy, and at first she wondered whether he might not be drinking as much as his friends in order to impress her, although that did not seem to be the case, finally. He had said once, bitterly, that a team of psychiatrists who were treating his wife—by then, his ex-wife—had ganged up on him and urged him to be a Puritan. They had wanted him to do the impossible: walk the straight and narrow, never get angry, become a teetotaler, give up even cigarettes. And for what? Because they did not want to admit that they had no idea how to treat schizophrenia. A year later, the same doctors were saying that it was a metabolic disease. A year later, his wife was far worse, and he was divorced. A non-smoker—that had stuck.

Richard beckoned, and she got up, still holding the small towel to her head, and walked to his chair. He threw the towel into a hamper. His blue eyes met hers in the mirror. He stared into them, pulling her wet hair lightly away from her ears.

“Cut it?” he said.

Their eyes met again. He raised his eyebrows, lifting her hair an inch or so higher off her shoulders. He cocked his head. She was the first to break eye contact.

“Just trim it,” she said quietly. “An inch or so.”

He nodded immediately. “It’s got volume,” he said. “It can stand up to this length.” He started to comb her hair, working from the ends toward the scalp. When he spoke again, it was in a near-whisper. He bent forward, conspiratorially. “The ones who shouldn’t go short insist on it,” he said, “and what am I supposed to do? Tell them their features aren’t that good?” He combed through her hair, from scalp to tip. Eventually, a clump of hair about two inches wide was smooth. The comb ran through easily. He started on the next section. “Everybody wants to look like a butterfly,” he said. He stopped combing and, with his fingertips, quickly brushed her hair back from her cheeks. He smiled. “It’s trendy, so that’s what they want. But the pretty ones—why not go with being pretty? The long hair is good on you. You don’t need it, but when it’s long it’s all the nicer. A sort of romantic look, you know?”

The young black, who was sweeping behind Richard, had on a white cotton jumpsuit. Earphones were clamped to his ears, and a cord trailed down the front of his suit and disappeared into one deep pocket. He was keeping the beat to the music with his head, smacking his lips lightly as if he were lavishing kisses on the air. A woman in spike heels walked between the sweeper and Richard. She tucked folded money into the pocket of the man who stood cutting hair next to Richard. He affected great surprise.

“Perrier or tea or coffee?” Richard said to Christine. “Anything?”

“Maybe some black coffee,” she said.

“Can you get me one black coffee and a Perrier with lime, if there’s any back there?” Richard said to the sweeper. The man stopped pushing hair into a pile, bent his knees and spread his hands, as if he were about to tap dance. In unison, Richard and the man said, “Puh-leez and thank you.” Both smiled. The sweeper leaned his broom against the counter and walked away, head swaying.

“His brother’s a diver,” Richard said. “Down there in Key West, with that ship. They’ve had to hire divers to keep the thieves away.” Richard rubbed the side of his arm over his forehead. He was sweating. “I don’t think they know how to get half the stuff out of the ocean,” he said. He cocked his head again, surveying her neatly combed hair in the mirror. “But you know, you get one thing and lose another,” he said, shrugging. “The man’s son was a diver, and he lost his son and his daughter-in-law. I’m not a religious person, but it’s checks and balances, right?”

In the mirror, she nodded yes.

“I’m being morbid,” Richard said. He turned and took the cup of coffee, in its brown plastic container, from the sweeper. He handed it down to her, gingerly. The sweeper put the Perrier bottle, with a wedge of lime stuck in the top, on the counter. Richard put the lime on the counter and took a swig from the bottle. Then he squeezed the lime into the bottle and threw the rind into the trash basket. The sweeper had moved three chairs beyond them, a big pile of yellow and brown hair at his side.

“You have one child?” Richard said, beginning to cut again. He asked it as dispassionately as a shut-in, inquiring about the presence of clouds in the sky.

“One, and that’s it,” she said.

“Don’t ever be certain,” Richard said, squeezing her shoulder.

“I’m thirty-eight,” she said. “I wouldn’t have the energy to go through it again.”

“Don’t move your head,” he said.

“What?”

“Oh, stop,” Richard said, swatting her shoulder. “What I’m talking about is that I can’t give my great precision cut if you move your head.”

“It’s hard to not move your head when you’re talking,” she said.

“Then mum’s the word,” he said.

When he was silent, the snipping seemed louder. She wanted to drink the coffee, but steam still rose from the cup. Also, it would require moving her head. Next to Christine, the woman whose hair was being rolled onto big foam rollers was complaining about having to show up at the airport so early when you flew People’s Express.

“All that gold,” Richard said. “What a sight it must be if there really is someone up in Heaven looking down at a bunch of people in black rubber suits jumping into the sea for money.”

“Do you dive?” she said.

“I’ve snorkled,” he said. He took a step backward and continued to cut. “Not for years, though,” he said. “Next year I’m treating myself to two weeks in Key West. I didn’t get a proper vacation this year. Nicki’s always worried about the business.”

“The last time I went to the beach, it was Ocean City,” she said. “Not too exciting, is it?”

“Well, no,” he said. “There are such cheap flights everywhere now.”

“The man I used to see owned a share in a condominium down there.”

Richard seemed to be rubbing the ends of her hair between his fingers. He let go of it, pursed his lips, and examined the back of her head. “You don’t hear people saying “condominium” now,” he said. “They say “condo”, which is such an ugly word.” He snipped again. “And I suppose the other thing is that you can drive,” he said. “Since deregulation, the planes are a mess. It sounds easier than it is, right? They don’t mind keeping you on the runway for an hour, waiting to taxi into place for takeoff.”

The sweeper walked past again, ignoring the new hair that had fallen to the floor. Helen walked up to him as he got to the far end of the aisle and pulled him aside. She was arguing with him about something.

“They’re going to fire her if she doesn’t cut it out,” Richard muttered. “She’s acting like she owns the shop. Notice that she does it when the important people are at lunch and there’s just Elvira at the desk.”

From where they were, neither of them could see the desk. Only the wall that blocked it from view was visible, and a large fern. To one side of the fern was a table littered with magazines.

“Straight, straight, straight,” Richard said, cupping his hands over her temples. “This is going to be pretty, You’re going to be very happy with this.” He picked up a spray bottle and sprayed, streaking the bottle through the air. She thought of the professor, erasing the blackboard. He had written lines from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” on the blackboard and scanned them, to make a point. Then he had erased the lines and stood there quite a long time, the eraser in his hand seeming to weigh him down like an anchor.

She felt stiff from sitting so long. She sipped her coffee, and Richard waited for her to lower the cup. Then he took a final snip. He ran his hands through her hair, pushing it away from her face. He walked around to the front of her chair and looked at her. “I’m going to blow-dry it and put in some spritz to get the wave,” he said.

While he dried her hair, moving the drier quickly down the hair his brush had first caught and turned under, she remembered the heat of the sun on the beach. The sunburn. Jas’s sticky fingers, smoothing on Solarcaine. At night, the breeze coming off the ocean made her skin sting. Even her hands had gotten sunburned. “I’m a sand crab,” Jas had said, leaning against the metal railing on the boardwalk, looking down at the dark sand. In the distance, people giggled. They could see the sparkle of foam, wherever the moon shone on the water. “Jas skitters away,” he had said, cupping his hand and tapping his fingers down the railing until his arm was fully extended. Then he wrapped his hand around the railing and looked at her.

“You warned me from the first that in the end you’d leave,” she said. “Do you think it’s all right, because we’re at the beach, to be self-justified and make some appropriate little metaphor?”

“I’m leaving, no matter what you say,” he aid. “We should enjoy the rest of the vacation.”

“How should we do that? Go to a bar and have a drink, so you can avoid responsibility the way your friends do?”

“Things haven’t been going right for a long time,” he said. “You know that.”

“Oh, I know that you can see to it that things don’t go right. But maybe you ought to stop and think whether you’ll always be able to orchestrate everything. I can play the metaphor game, too: Leave enough people, and you might just end up alone on the beach.”

He sniffed. “That is really poor,” he said.

She whirled her head around. “See,” she said. And was surprised, herself, that one word could be uttered so bitterly.

While her heart was pounding and her eyes were closed, Richard had been talking to her. “Imagine it,” he said, turning off the hair drier. “Dragging safes up onto the sand and blowing them up, and all that money pouring out.”

“I doubt that they do it right in public,” the man cutting hair next to Richard said. “There must be some place out of sight that they blast them open.”

“I like my way better,” Richard said. “I like to think that all the tourists and hangers-on get a big thrill. That the crowds have to be kept back. You know, I saw a close-up of one of those coins in some magazine, and it was really a work of art. There’s no way you can think about those coins purely as money.”

He was finished cutting her hair. She shifted her weight to one hip as he lowered the chair, and as the chair sank Richard swiveled it around so that she faced away from the big mirror. Holding the oval hand-mirror that Richard gave her in front of her face, she looked at the even curve of her hair. Dry now, and sprayed, it sparkled golden-blonde, as shiny as lacquer. It wouldn’t last—the puffiness would deflate in the rain—but for the moment it was perfect: long, shiny, and buoyant. When her fingers lightly touched the back of her hair, they touched it out of habit.

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