I told my mother that I wanted her to make an appointment for me with Don for Saturday morning, November 20th. I only had one day in Springfield, and I planned to do two things: see my Mom’s show, and get my hair done. So the appointment was made, and on Saturday morning, I strolled into La Jolie Femme, distributed the hugs and kisses, donned the polyester smock, and waited for Don.
Don was prepared. He had a bottle of color all mixed before I had a chance to tell him what was really going on with me. It was bright, cherry red. “Uh, Don… did my Mom tell you what I wanted to do?” I asked. Don looked confused. “Don’t you want to stay red?” He asked. I hemmed and hawed a bit, chewing my fingertips. “I think we need to talk about this,” I said. “You want to go dark, don’t you,” he said. “Sort of,” I said.
I’ve been dying my hair for 15 years. That’s half my lifetime. I’ve only ever seen my real hair color when my roots get neglected, and for the last 3 to 4 years, they have been coming in a rather upsetting dark brownish color, which I suspect may actually be salted with grey. The few glimpses I’ve had sent me running back to Peter, credit card in hand. “Just fix this!” I’d say. A glass of wine, 3 or 4 hours, and $150 later, I’m safe again.
I must say though, I've become somewhat suspicious of Peter lately. He’s opened up his own salon now, and has resumed his authentic Columbian name. He also stopped bleaching his own hair and lets his raven curls run wild atop his wiry frame. I’ve followed him from two salons, and bought him a beer at the local pub when his dream of opening his own salon became a reality. We’ve bitched about our lovers and jobs and bosses for several years together, and I have to wonder… does he sense the change in me?
The time for hair coloring may be over for me. $150 a salon visit is more than a bit steep for me, and now that my salary has been shredded, I have even less resources to squander on glorious red blow-outs. But the money's really not the issue. Something deeper is going on.
In late 2001, my marriage was severely tested. In the middle of a nervous breakdown, Peter gave me the magic short light hairdo, and although the action was born of anxiety and a need to escape, it led me to actually see myself, and appreciate myself. At the time, it was a breakthrough. I reveled in my newfound comfort with myself, and gradually, my hair grew back. My husband and I decided to give our marriage another try. We moved into a brownstone, bought new furniture, took a vacation or two, and…
Things only got worse. At times, we seemed to be communicating better. But most of the time, the fighting was more intense than ever. Words were harsher. I stopped crying, but I started screaming. My husband became more stubborn than ever, I became more withdrawn. With my new-found self acceptance came the realization that I wanted certain things, and I felt entitled to the pursuit of happiness. It became more clear than ever that we simply wanted entirely different things out of a marriage. I wanted a lot of things - not material goods, but a way of life, a healthier diet, a different vacation spot, a cat, children. Things that my husband didn’t want.
For a while, I tried to convince myself that I could learn to want what he wanted. During the course of my marriage, I gained almost 30 pounds, figuring all this out, trying to be someone different, trying to talk myself out of the person I was but didn’t want to be, trying to be… more like him.
The end was inevitable. Finally one night, we said things we couldn’t take back… and it was over.
On February 15th, 2002, I moved into a two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side with a lovely Irish gal who taught me about organic food and holistic medicine. It was 10 degrees below zero. I took very little from the marital residence - just things I’d owned since I was single, and enough silverware and bedding to eat and sleep. I took some decorative items people had given us for our wedding, after making sure David didn’t want them. When I moved into my new place, I had my cat, my bed that my Dad had bought me, and boxes full of loved things.
That night, just as I was returning the U-Haul, one of the worst blizzards in the history of New York blanketed the city in thick white cold. Many businesses closed the next day. My cat and I huddled indoors, feeling very lucky, as though we had narrowly escaped something.
I cooked a lot. I went to church. I spent hours on the phone with family and friends. I began to heal.
I also began to throw things out. I donated easily two-thirds of my wardrobe to the Salvation army - and being a former actress, I could have clothed a third world country, albeit impractically. Glittery tops. Too-tight pants. What-was-I-thinking dresses and sweaters. High heels that killed your feet after 2 hours. Out, out, out. I also donated a bunch of cheap jewelry, shoes, CD’s, books, and dumped stacks of catalogs and old magazines into the recycler. I threw an entire grocery bag’s worth of makeup in the trash. I gave some nicer clothes away to girlfriends, and sent a box full of cherished stuffed animals home to my parents, who will house them much more comfortably in my old bedroom. I cleaned out my closets, my bookshelves, my cabinets. My life.
I mopped the floor under my bed and went to sleep in a clean, sweet-smelling room with a purring cat.
After a couple of months, I went to work on the cabinets. I brought all the cookies and candies to work and set them discreetly in a bowl in the kitchen. I stopped buying junk. I switched to organic sugar, produce and dairy. The roommate ate nothing but organics, and we cooked for each other from time to time, so I decided to go with the flow. She was a great influence on me in this area. She basically re-taught me how to eat healthily, not for weight loss, but as a way of respecting my body, the House of my Self.
We virtually never watched TV. We’d play soft music, burn sweet-smelling incense, and eat comforting food. Sometimes we’d talk, sometimes we’d keep to our own space, reading or interneting, or napping. I bought a tape and did yoga in the living room. I sang in the apartment almost every day, before roomie got home. The neighbors heard. Instead of complaints, I got compliments.
I began to feel more and more real. More natural. More authentic, less painted. More honest, less panicked.
In the winter of 2003, I went on Weight Watchers and lost 16 pounds. Last July, I vacationed someplace I had never been.
After a while I slacked on my hair color. The roots showed more and more. It became a pain to keep up with it, but I’d been maintaining for so long, I was clinging to the polish. My last remaining vestiges of… someone I thought I wanted to be.
Finally, in the middle of winter, on a really crappy day at the office, I caught my reflection in the mirror, and the tacky inch-wide band of root color just embarrassed me to no end. It was time.
I practically sprinted to Peter’s. “Look at this!” I pulled at my hair, exposing the jungle of brownishness that was pushing its way through the copper. “I’m a brunette!”
Peter frowned. “Joor not really that dark, eets just contrast with the rrrred,” He mused. “Here, let’s try sometheeng new.”
I left the salon that day darker - but not brunette. It was almost purple! Some kind of very dark red. I felt exotic... but faker than ever. I didn’t know what to say. It was the only time I hadn’t utterly loved what Peter had done. I wondered if I wasn’t just being self-conscious.
When I went back the following month, we chose a muted auburn. I thought it was a browner red... but it still wasn’t real. The roots came back.
Months went by of trying new shades. For a while I gave up and settled into a very subtle lightener which didn’t show such awful roots. But it rankled me. Was Peter sensing something? Was he afraid of losing me? Or maybe - just maybe - we had been coloring my hair so much for so long, that he didn’t really know how to bring me back?
I thought about all Peter had done for me. I hated to cheat on him with my ex… but I knew what I had to do. Only Don and Jack knew me this well. Only they knew my original color. Even I didn’t know it.. but it was desperately trying to assert itself. After all I’d been through, I felt something very deep inside me pushing to get out. Trying to get out from under something, from under a thick red smothering layer of something...
I wanted to know who I was. I wanted to know what I looked like.
That Saturday morning in Don’s chair, I confessed. “I want to stop dying my hair.” He looked at me. “Oh,” he said. I didn’t know what to say. I just looked back at him, nervous, hoping he’d understand. He scrutinized me for a few minutes, then placed a hand on my shoulder. “I think we’d better consult with Jack,” he said.
Jack, the senior Chromatologist. Jack, who attends Redken master classes on Fifth Avenue only to get up and start teaching. Jack, with over 25 years of experience in the science of hair color. I felt like an old beat-up car, going in to be re-vamped for a new buyer. Kick my tires, boys, I thought. Let’s see if there’s anything worth salvaging underneath all this tint.
“We’re gonna need another 432,” Jack said, or some such numerical code. I had no idea what he was talking about. Don and Jack mixed up some kind of magic potion and talked frankly to me. “It’s still gonna fade, you know,” Jack said.
“That’s ok,” I said, “As long as it’s not too obvious.”
“You’re still gonna be somewhat red, you know,” said Don.
“I don’t care if it’s green or purple, as long as it’s real,” I said.
I got a lesson in Biochemistry. “The molecules that make up artificial haircolor form weak bonds with your hair, which is why the color fades," Don said. "The bonds break.” I thought about this. Natural color fades in the sun, but more slowly. “So natural hair pigment is chemically bonded to your hair through very strong molecular bonds?” I asked. “Yes,” Don said. “We have never been able to duplicate the molecular composition of hair color in a laboratory.”
Don worked the potion through my hair. All those years of being a wild, angry, searching, defiant, broken-hearted and pieced-back-together-again redhead. Relationships. Friendships. Even my marriage. Weak bonds. Which had to be reinforced several times yearly, at a high cost. If they had been real, if they had been natural... Nature: often imitated, never duplicated. No matter how good Peter was, he could never make me anything that wouldn’t fade - and fade fast. The short hair grew. The light hair darkened. Artifice fades.
No matter how my husband and I had tried to satisfy each other, the marriage would have disintegrated, because I was untrue to myself. So many of my past relationships.. the same problem. Immaturity? Partially. Efforts to become someone without learning who we are. Artificial persons, doomed to fall apart as our inner selves burst forth from the confines of the cocoons we build for ourselves. To thine own self, one must ultimately be true, or perish.
I was reminded of the time in college when I had dallied with the idea of colored contacts, just for show. Aside from plastic in my eyeballs hurting like hell, my eyes were too dark for the colored circles to have the right effect. My true colors asserted themselves as strongly as ever.
My true colors, I thought. I looked hard at myself in the mirror. Almost 20 minutes had gone by. The un-colorant was unmistakably changing my appearance. My hair was darker by several shades. But what I noticed most was my eyes.
The practically burst forth from my head. Rich, dark, chocolate brown eyes, rimmed with short, black lashes, popping out of my very white winter skin. I stared at my eyes, which made my hair look more vibrant, which called attention back to my eyes, contrasting with my fair skin… My mother’s Irish skin. My Grandmother’s Italian eyes.
My family always said I had my grandmother’s eyes. Even into the last days of her life, I would look into her enormous brown eyes and see the sparkle of remembered laughter - a child’s laughter. My laughter as a baby, and my mother’s too. I was always so proud to have inherited her eyes. Now that she is gone, I am prouder still. And as I looked in the mirror at my new, more natural self, I saw her laughing back at me through my own rich brown eyes. Hi Grandma, I thought to myself. I’m so glad you like it. I’m glad to be me.
All this for less than $50. Welcome to the Midwest. My home, surrounded by farmland where everything is grown from the earth, and tomatoes from the market treated with Miracle-Gro just don’t taste as good as the ones out of your backyard. Where my Grandmother chose to live out her final days, with her only daughter. Where my parents have made their lives, and where I grew up, for better or for worse.
Briefly, in my mind, I saw myself at 10 years of age, golden reddish blonde hair and buck teeth, a sad look behind my brown eyes, but a pretty girl nonetheless. I remembered how my 5th grade teacher asked my mother if she would dye my hair to keep it that shade, and the look of horror on my Mom’s face. I remembered the first time Don made me a redhead, when I was 17 and eager to show how good I was at being someone else. I remembered the brunette episode from college. I saw a circle in my mind… two ends of a long line, curving to meet each other.
When I got home, my mother frowned. Again. She fingered the air-dry frizz hanging down my back. “Is it really healthy like that?” Don had offered to braid my hair all fancy, but I declined, so it had air-dried recklessly, and was now more than a little poodle-ish. Mom is used to seeing me with nicely organized, Botticelli curls.
I sighed. “Mom, La Jolie Femme is great with haircolor… but they don’t style.” Mom looked at me as though I were blaspheming. “It’s true Mom. They have a few styles, and they’re mostly for old ladies.”
Mom sighed. “They were always so good to Grandma.” Mom and I stood silently for a moment, remembering.
I knew I’d have to comb all my hair out, get in the shower, wash out whatever sticky styling product the guys had put in my tresses, condition it, and diffuse-dry it to get back to my normal, natural look.
I have no idea what color my hair is now, and I don’t mind. It’s real. It feels good.
I Feel Good.
That night, I went out in high-waisted jeans, a black turtleneck, cowboy boots with cushioned soles, and my clean, unkempt, unbound hair, streaming out behind me, into the cool, crisp autumn air of a cloudless, star-filled night.