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I was a beautiful child.

The pictures my mother keeps around the house show a little girl with long blond curls cascading down her back in two pigtails tied with ribbons. My hair was thick and fine, the color of sunshine in all its infinite variations. By the time I was 12, the pigtails had been replaced by braids, which swung well below my hips. My hair made me feel like a princess, a conceit that was bolstered by all the compliments strangers heaped upon me when I was out with my family.

I had never been able to take care of it alone. Because my hair was so thick, my mother had always helped me wash and dry it. She seemed to have a well of infinite patience – or so I thought – because she never complained about the arduous task of combing my hair out as it dried and weaving it back into the three-foot plaits that kept it manageable during the days.

“Christina, doesn’t all this hair give you a headache?” my mother said in exasperation one Saturday after redoing my braids so that I could go play soccer. I’d just finished seventh grade and had a whole summer of sports and swimming unfolding before me.

“Nope,” I said, anxious to be out the door and on the field. “It doesn’t bother me at all.”

I didn’t think any more about my mother’s question until after my soccer game. Mom always came to cheer me on, and I as I walked over to her by the bleachers, I heard her tell the woman next to her: “We’ll be right over.”

“Where are we going Mom?” I asked curiously.

“I’ll tell you after we pack up,” Mom said, shaking her head as she took in my sweaty self. “Get your gear in the car.”

After I buckled in, Mom started the car but left it in park. She turned to me and took a deep breath.

“Chris, I know you aren’t going to like this, but it’s going to happen, so I don’t want any whining,” she warned. “We’re going over to Nancy’s Beauty Shop. She’s going to cut your hair.”

“WHAT?”

“You heard me,” Mom snapped, throwing the car into reverse and backing out of the parking space. “I don’t have time for it anymore. You’re little brother is starting school in August. I’m going to be dealing with all the stuff on his schedule as well as yours then. I just can’t do it all anymore.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I thought Mom loved my hair. I knew Dad did. He was always telling me how nice I looked.

“I can try taking care of it myself Mom,” I begged. “I really will.”

“Honey, I know you’d try,” Mom said gently. “You’ve tried before and made a mess. The problem is that you have more hair on your head than any person ought too. Besides, you’re going to be 13 soon. You’re growing up and teenagers don’t run around in braids tied with ribbons.”

What she said left me speechless. I felt grief and anxiety building up inside me as I stared fixedly out the window, seeing nothing. When the car stopped, we were parked in front of house that had “Nancy’s Beauty Shop” lettered on a sign swinging over the doorway.

Mom took me gently by the arm before we stepped inside.

“Chris, I don’t want you making a scene,” she warned. “I don’t think you will because it will only make it harder on all of us. Nancy’s good at what she does, so give her a chance. I promise, it won’t be so bad.”

I shook my head numbly and followed her inside. I’d never been in any salon before, and the chemical sweet scent of this one coupled with the warmth that lingered around the massive hair dryers made me recoil. What had once been the front room of a largish home was now a pink eruption of beauty solutions for the women who lived in our small community. We were the only customers present, and Nancy hurried in from the back to greet us.

“Hey Diana,” she smiled and hugged my mom.

“And you’re Christina,” she said, turning to me with a grin. “My Jason goes to school with you, a grade ahead.”

I tried to give a polite response, but only managed a nod. I cringed when I realized I was leaning into my mother like a child half my age and quickly stepped away.

Nancy pretended not to notice and offered to take my mother’s sweater. After she hung it on a rack by the door, she turned to me again.

“Why don’t you hop up here Christina and we’ll talk about what kind of hair style you and your mother would like you to have.”

The few steps to the single padded salon chair were like passing through a long dark tunnel. I think I sat down just before collapsing in a faint. The rustle of a pink plastic cape snapping around my neck saved me from passing out, and I winced as Nancy pulled my braids free of the collar.

“Sorry, honey,” she said absently. “Now, what were you thinking about here?”

“Not too short,” was the only sentence I could manage to speak. My mom was more detailed, but I had trouble listening to what she said as I stared into the giant frameless mirror affixed to the wall above the shampoo basin. I’d never seen a pink sink before.

Reality hit me hard when I heard the sound of scissors slicing through my right braid. I tried to stay calm, but as I saw Nancy pull it away from my head and hand it to my mother, a sob bubbled up from my chest.

“I know, sweetie,” Nancy said sympathetically as she caught up my other braid and sawed it free. “Change is hard. But trust me. You are going to look great.”

I nodded my head and pressed my lips together as I was spun around and lowered to the shampoo basin. It felt strange to do it this way. I was usually leaning face first in the kitchen sink when I had my hair washed. This was much better though, and I found myself relaxing as Nancy worked conditioner through my hair and rinsed it out.
“Okay Christina, we’re not doing anything drastic here, ” Nancy said, combing through wet locks that now stopped just above my shoulders. “I’m going to give you a nice bob that’s going to look great out on the soccer field. Now you just sit tight and we’ll be done in a flash.”

Nancy pinned up my hair and combed down a section before circling my head at neck level with rapidly scrunching scissors. I couldn’t see through the section of hair combed over my eyes, but it felt as if she was cutting it shorter in the back than in the front. I got my vision back when she slid the scissors across my face at nose level, giving me bangs that could be worn brushed back or slightly over my eyes.

“Hmm,” Nancy said, catching up a spray bottle and spritzing my drying hair. “Diana, Is Christina’s hair naturally wavy or curly?”

“It was always curly when she was little,” said my mom, who’d been flipping through magazines. “We used to call her Shirley Temple. Why do you ask?”

“Well, that might make this hairstyle a bit difficult to manage,” Nancy said, as she schnikked in some layers around my face. “Nothing to bad though. I’ll just send you home with a round brush and some product.”

When Nancy finished, I actually liked what I saw in the mirror. She had blow-dried my hair, showing me in the mirror how to roll it with a brush to curve it around my face. I thought I looked Hollywood and smiled for the first time since the ordeal began. I gave Nancy a hug and she laughed and told me to come back in six weeks.

I was back in four.

“I don’t understand,” my mom said, as Diana tried to work a comb through my fried hair. “She uses conditioner. She uses a gentle shampoo. But nothing seems to help. It’s like she’s sprouted a haystack.

Mom wasn’t kidding. The last time my hair looked good was the day I’d left Nancy’s. After that, I had morphed into what could only be described as a dandelion puff. The shine was gone, a frizz had taken over and my bob had fluffed out into an afro. My mom had managed to blow it straight on occasion, but even that would only last for a short time before nature took over.
“Well, the only thing I can tell you is that it must be her natural state,” Diana said, shaking her head. “Sometimes children with curly hair go all frizzy when they hit puberty. I’ve just never seen such fine hair with this much of a kink in it. The weight of her h
air when it was long must have pulled it out.”

“Can’t we do something?” I asked on the verge of tearing up. “School’s just five weeks away and I can’t go like this!”

“Of course we can do something,” Nancy reassured. “I’d usually recommend a straightening perm, but with your hair so fine and damaged, I’m not sure how it will turn out.”

“Will it look like before?” Mom asked.

“That’s the idea,” Nancy said.

“Okay,” I sniffed. “That’s what we do.”

It was the most unpleasant afternoon I’d ever had. I had never been one for sitting still, but that’s what I did for three hours as Nancy set to work. First, she glopped a foul smelling paste on my head and let it soak in while I fretted over an old copy of Good Housekeeping. It itched, then it burned, and when Nancy finally rinsed it out and set my hair on super-sized rollers, I thought some miniature farmer had ravaged my scalp with a many-bladed piece of harvesting equipment.

The dryer roared in my ears for an eternity. When Nancy put me back in the chair and started combing me out, I couldn’t help but notice all the bits and pieces of hair scattering over the pink cape.

“Oh, dear,” Nancy said. “I was afraid this might happen.”

“What?” I asked, wondering what else could possibly go wrong.

“Honey, you have to understand, your hair started out a bit damaged. The perm took the frizz out, but it’s also dried your hair out even more.”

I studied my head in the mirror but didn’t see a reason to panic. It was a lot better than when I’d arrived, even though it still seemed a bit poofed.

“Diana, use this hot oil conditioning treatment on her when she washes her hair again,” Nancy said, handing mom a box. “And if that doesn’t help, give me call.”

Mom called Nancy two days later. I was shedding more than the family dog. When I finished washing my hair that morning, it looked like a bird’s nest was sitting on the bath tub drain.

“Nancy, it’s just getting worse. Her hair is coming out in handfuls.”

Mom nodded her head at whatever Nancy was saying and she sighed.

“Those are the only two options?”

I froze, eavesdropping. This couldn’t be good.

“All right,” Mom said. “Could you call ahead for us and explain the circumstances? I’d rather not deal with an audience.”

Mom ignored my pleas to tell her what Diana had said. She just told me to get in the car. When we stopped, we were in front of Lenny’s Barbershop, a glass-fronted establishment in the corner of the downtown mall.

“Mom, are we picking up Dad?” That had to be it, I thought desperately.

“No,” Mom said, resting her head on the steering wheel. “We’re here for you. The only thing to do with hair as damaged as yours is to cut it really short, and Diana said Lenny could do that better than her.”

I started to cry, shaking my head in denial. I’d rather look like a haystack and have some hair, even if it didn’t look good, I told her through my tears. And then, memory brought a ray hope to me.

“But Diana told you about two options,” I hiccupped to Mom. “I heard. What’s the other solution?”

Mom shook her head at me sadly.

“Diana said we could let your hair grow long again, but since it’s so damaged at this point, you probably wouldn’t get any real length going.”

“Can’t we try?” I sobbed as Mom opened my door and pulled me out.

“This is for the best, Chris,” Mom said. “Now get a grip and let’s go.”

She wiped my face with a tissue and gave me a hug. I held her hand on the way into the shop, dragging my feet as much as possible. Lenny was a family friend and had been my Sunday school teacher when I was my brother’s age. But only my dad and brother had ever seen him in a professional capacity.

Lenny was waiting for us at the door and locked it as we walked in. He turned the sign to closed as he greeted my mother and me.

“Diana told me about your hair,” Chris,” he said sympathetically. “I’m really sorry you’re going through all this.”

I just nodded and stared at the floor as Mom steered me to the chair and sat me down. Lenny fingered my hair and gave a low whistle as shreds of it fell into his hand.

“Chris, your hair is fried,” Lenny said, trying to work a comb through it. “We can’t leave it like this.”

“I know,” I whispered, dreading everything about being in the barbershop. Two short months ago, I’d had the longest hair of anyone in my class. I couldn’t believe I was sitting in front of Lenny, about to get a boy-short cut.

“Diana, you know we don’t have a lot of options here, right?” Lenny’s kind face glanced at my mom, who was sitting by the door, twisting the handle of her purse.

“Do what you think best, Lenny,” Mom said. “Diana said it was best to just start over.”

Lenny wrapped a strip of paper around my neck and pulled it tight before tossing a maroon cape around me. He patted my shoulder and told me that he would be quick.

When he pressed my head down onto my chest, I thought he was going to keep combing my hair. Instead, I heard a metallic hum begin and felt something cold press against my neck. The clippers rolled all the way up my head and I started sobbing loudly as a cloud of blond hair drifted into my lap.

Lenny paused to hand me a tissue and then went on clippering me in long lines up the back of my head. I shuddered as the clippers circled my ears and Lenny used his hand to brush the severed hair off my head. When he stepped to the side, I felt the clippers carve away almost everything left on top.

A few locks still hung in front of my face. Lenny stepped in front of me and leaned in close with a comb and the still buzzing clippers. I felt him shear the bangs away carefully as he moved the comb and clippers back to the crown. I thought it was over when the humming stopped, but Lenny’s hand on my shoulder kept me seated as he fired up a smaller set of clippers.

I let him move my head from side to side and down again as a bitter resignation set in. When Lenny finished shaving my hairline, he brushed me off and ran a bit of gel over the top of my head.

“I know it’s short Chris, but it’s about the only thing I could do without shaving it all off,” Lenny said, spinning me to the mirror.

I made a choking noise when I saw myself. The hair on the sides of my head was so short I couldn’t even grasp it with my fingers. Strips of hairless scalp wide enough to accommodate slot cars ran around my ears. It was almost as short at the top, except for a bumper-like stand of hair that ran from temple to temple at the top of my forehead.

I jumped as Mom came up behind me and rubbed the back of my head. It felt like she was touching skin.

“Will it grow out okay now, Lenny?” she said in a shaking voice.

“Well, that’s hard to say, Diana,” Lenny said, uncaping me and dumping my hair to the floor. “If you don’t do anything damaging to it, it’ll be fine. But growing out hair like hers is hard to do. It’d probably be best to keep it short.”

And that’s what ended up happening. My fine hair couldn’t take the damaging chemical treatments to straighten it, and the kink meant that instead of growing long, my hair grew out. Mom insisted I keep it short, which meant I saw Lenny regularly until I graduated from high school. During college, I discovered my hair was fantastic for dreadlocks, but when I tired of that, I stopped in to see Lenny, who was only too happy to shave it off. I’m used to being clipped now, but I can’t help feeling a little wistful when I see pictures of who I used to be, the girl with the long blonde hair.

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