Thursday, December 02, 2004

Chromatology and the Self, Part I

My Mom and I have been getting our hair done at La Jolie Femme Hair Salon for years. It’s one of those places that seem to have just always been there for as long as anyone can remember. Located in an old house near the middle of town, the salon is like a French parlour, with colorful floral-and-striped wallpapers, elaborate gilt sconces and lamps dripping with crystal, little naked golden cherubs adorning the bathroom, and porcelain candy dishes strewn about.

The owners, a delightful couple named Jack and Jonah, are an Institution themselves. Jonah speaks calm and cool, drives a Rolls Royce and wears a full-length fur coat. He nods knowingly at his customers, most of whom, like my Mom, have been regulars for years and wouldn’t dream of going anywhere else. His partner Jack is always dashing in tailored shirts and trousers, with sparkling eyes and a quick wit. His knowledge of hair seems endless. They’ve kept several generations of miniature black poodles, all named Tito, greeting the salon’s customers at the door, wagging an exquisitely pouffed tail. At La Jolie Femme, even the dogs are glam.

I have been identified as a redhead since I was about 19. Before that I was generally referred to as a blonde - a dirty blonde with rusty layers. During my adolescence I struggled with my hair, trying to lighten it to the more easily accepted Christie Brinkley Platinum Blonde, but my efforts with Sun-In and other crappy chemicals only turned it a defiant shade of orange... and I’d let it fade to dull again, only to try some other idiotic thing the following summer. In my junior year of High school, I was cast as Adelaide in our school’s production of Guys and Dolls, and the director asked me to “go red” for the part. That’s when I first met Don.

Don is the only employee at Jack and Jonah’s place. Throughout my lifetime in Illinois, I never went to anyone but Don. Don and Jack are the dynamic duo of haircolor. Between them, they have around 50 years experience in Chromatology - the science of hair color. (Yes, there’s a word for it.) Don shaves his head and maintains a plush handlebar mustache, and flits about the salon in dapper shirts and ties under his apron. His work is nothing short of perfect, and he always has a dirty joke for us. He and Jack tease each other as they work like snotty school-girls fighting over the foursquare court.

Don made Adelaide a glorious eye-popping cherry redhead for that show, and the next year, when I was cast as Anne in La Cage Aux Folles at our downtown theatre, he made me a blonde for that show. However, two years later, the magic really began.

When I got into college, I asked Don to make me identifiably red. I was sick of people looking at me for three or four minutes with crinkled eyes before asking me how I’d describe my hair color. I'd had all the unwanted scrutiny I could handle. I wanted people to just know and move on with their lives. ok, so Red. Off to school I went.

The following summer, I wanted something lighter, so he moved me to a sort of cherry vanilla. I loved it. Throughout college, I had Don adjust my reddishness from strawberry blonde to auburn brown to hellcat 4-alarm fire engine red, depending on my mood. A whole new way of expressing myself had emerged.

My personality started to bloom under this chameleonic activity, and I realized how I felt about myself was often reflected in the color I chose. I was a theatre major – I had no shortage of drama in my life. One semester, when I wasn’t cast in a role I had worked three years to get (I made the final cuts though!), I raced home and had Don turn me Lucretia Borgia black – a midnight brunette, dark and defiant and mysterious. I told no one I was going to do this – not even my mother. I shocked everyone. It was gorgeous. I attracted a whole new legion of men.

The color faded gradually over that semester, as did my feelings of rejection and disappointment, and the following semester I was back to a flaming don’t-fuck-with-me red again, barreling through classes and parties and relationships with the determination of one who knows the trials of formalized education are not all the World has to offer, if I can just get through it.

I survived college, and the World coughed up New York. I was invited to attend a performing arts academy with a partial scholarship. I ran like the wind.

When I moved, I decided to stay red, but settled on a medium bright, moderate but definite red. I was focused on the next phases of my life, and making a deliberate effort to leave Illinois far, far behind me. I felt very much as home in what has been called the City of Misfits. If my hair color was naturally non-descript, I as a person certainly was not, and I found a sort of external anchor in my hair. Throughout my efforts at trying different kinds of jobs, relationships, and apartments I did not radically change my hair color again for around five years.

I married in the year 1999, and I stopped working briefly. I was exhausted from the disappointments of trying to live every day life in New York City, and now that this nice young man had come along and rescued me from all that, I was taking a breather. It didn’t take me long to realize that I had no idea what to do with myself. I had long since given up the idea of being a professional actress – I hated the lifestyle, the starving, the low wages, the non-existent job security, the “business” – hated everything about it. I had not, however, found anything to replace it.

I had been working in hospitals for a few years, but knew my calling was not there. Being a physician’s administrative assistant was something I was good at and could earn money for… but I daydreamed a lot, and wrote poems and essays when the days got slow, and occasionally caught myself singing softly when I went to wash my hands or make copies or spent too much time in the file room. My heart just wasn’t in my work.

My marriage gave me the chance to stop working and think about what I wanted to do. Frustratingly, the only things that gave me pleasure were singing and writing, music and words, books and CDs and magazines and email and websites. I spent a couple months as a “housewife,” thinking I could indulge myself in creative endeavors, but I had too many emotional blocks on my creativity.

I started temping. I was lucky; I found a temp job where the people were fun, the work was challenging, and the environment was supportive, and virtually stress-free. I wondered if I wouldn’t find myself there. Months went by.

In the year 2000, with 5 years experience as a new New Yorker under my belt, I still hadn’t really “found myself,” but I felt a bit more comfortable. I found a new hairdresser in Manhattan, a wonderfully flamboyant Columbian who preferred to be called Peter. He loved my hair, and we hit it off instantly. I’d go to see him, He'd hand me a glass of wine, he’d punch up my red hair color, and damn, he's good. He introduced me to the sleek professional look of the straight blown-dry hair that shined like a sheet of silk, rippling three feet down my back, making the sidewalk crowds turn and look as I walked by. I felt like a movie star, walking out of his place. He and I spent a lot of Saturday mornings together.

Eventually, my husband got a three-month job in Pennsylvania, and I was on my own for three months. Everything fell apart. Without his companionship, someone to talk to, without company really of any kind, I spiraled downward into myself and got completely lost. I was not an actress. I was not a singer. I was not a poet. I was not a very good housewife, or so I thought. I was not really even a wife at all, since I was now going to sleep in and waking up to an empty house. I was not… anything at all. I was nothing.

I went to see Peter. “Chop it off,” I said. “Cut it short.” “Are joo keeding?” He said, eyebrows arching into his hairline. “I want it barely to my shoulders,” I said. “And blonde. I want short, straight, and blonde.” I want to be someone else. I want to be anyone other than me. I am, after all, nothing and no one at all. Turn me into someone. I looked at the photos of models in magazines, who always looked as though they had nothing to worry about, nothing to do… and didn’t mind. Make me like that. Happy to be nothing.

Peter talked me out of the Cameron Diaz ‘do, helping me to choose a beautiful strawberry golden blonde instead. But he obeyed my command with the scissors. Two feet of curly red locks fell to the floor that day, and I guzzled chardonnay and flipped through magazines, trying not to think or feel or see or hear anything. The pulling and yanking against my head when he gave me the straight, blown-out style almost brought the tears… but I kept still, like a good girl.

I emerged from the salon that day looking so different, even my husband didn’t recognize me on the street. It was a beautiful color – light, bright, easy-going. It was how I wanted to feel, who I wanted to be.

I had at lot to do that week, and I never had the chance to really look into the mirror. An entire week went by of work and social engagements, and I virtually never looked at myself. I did, however, receive plenty of compliments on my new do. I looked sheik, I looked stylish, I looked younger, I simply looked beautiful. I beamed. I relaxed.

However, that Saturday, when I crawled out of bed, I had nothing to do. I showered long, scrubbing my head, musing on which rooms in the house could use scrubbing. I let my hair just hang, and being so short, it dried quickly as I breakfasted, curling and twirling like it always does when left to its own devices. I paid no heed. I donned something comfortable and went to make the bed, and there in front of me was the full-length mirror in our wardrobe. I stopped and stared. It reflected me from head to toe. I looked at myself.

My hair was pale. Really pale. Nearly blonde, but glowing with an unmistakably red fire. My ringlets bounced about 2 millimeters above my shoulders. My dark brown eyes looked like two shiny black holes in my skull. My skin was pink. My shoulders were white. I took off my top and shorts and looked at myself in my underwear. I wasn’t fat. I wasn’t skinny. I was round where I was supposed to be, I supposed. My legs weren’t long, but they weren’t short. My feet were just simply clean, white, freshly-showered feet. I always had hang-ups about my feet, since they were calloused after years of dancing, but they looked fine. I looked back at my hair. I looked at the rest of me. Me.

For the first time in my life, I wasn’t hiding behind my hair. I didn’t have enough hair to hide behind anymore. More importantly, I wasn’t defined by my hair. I wasn’t simply the packaging that my hair came with. I wasn’t nothing without my hair. I was a whole person, not tall, not stunning, but real. I was real. And my hair sat on top of my person like a cherry on a sundae – perky, sweet, but not stealing the show.

I tried on six or seven different outfits, looking at my body, filling my clothes… looking at my Self. Wondering why I had never seen it before – really seen Me before. Knowing that I had always been there. Wishing I had had the courage to do this years ago. Starting to figure out why I hadn’t. Ruminating on all the extravagant gifts I would lavish on Peter that Christmas.

I went home to visit my parents shortly thereafter, just for a weekend. My mother was amazed. “Your hair’s never been that short in your life!” She said, petting the top of my head. She stared. She touched my back, between my shoulder blades, exposed to the world. I practically felt her running her fingers through the memory of my waist-length locks. It was hard, standing there like that. I sensed a sadness, and I couldn’t tell if it was coming from Mom or me. Something more than my hair was gone, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. But I knew very well what had taken its place.

She looked into my eyes. I shrank back. “Do you like it?” she asked.

I thought about that morning in front of the mirror. I felt my feet in my sneakers, comfortable, without the pressure of being displayed in high heeled sandals. I felt my stomach sitting inside my trunk, my Self sitting inside my body. Everything felt just right. I ran my fingers through my curls. “I love it,” I said.

To be continued...


Jonathan said...

And why you haven't been published as of yet is beyond me. You write beautifully.

And I also remember your hair from both of those productions. :) I also remember you giving me a slight bruise on my cheek when we were learning the jitterbug. Your voluminous hair was tied back into a braided tail and as you spun in front of me, it whacked me solid on the cheek. Man, that really hurt.

But considering how much of a shit I was back then, I deserved it. ;)

Brian said...

Oh my goodness Ouiser! That was such a great read! Thanks for sharing.