As many others can attest, my husband is a pretty terrific guy, thoughtful and kind in just about every circumstance. But his tongue occasionally runs out ahead of his judgment, most frequently in pursuit of a laugh.
The morning of our wedding (way back in 1999!), I went to a salon to get my hair done for the second time in my life. The first was at my Granddad's instigation - he'd decided when I was seven and Megan six that our mom would love nothing better for her birthday than framed studio photos of her tomboyish daughters decked out in new dresses and Shirley Temple curls. It didn't turn out so well. Meg's adorableness was pretty much indestructible, but I got immortalized on our living room wall as a freckled monkey in a fright wig. Thus was born my enduring mistrust of the dark arts of hair dressing.
So I really would have liked to do my wedding do myself. I didn't mean for it to need much doing. At that time, my version of "dressy" involved a simple French twist that I secured with a couple of foreshortened chopsticks. The only problem was one of durability - I couldn't count on my handiwork to hold together for the length of the festivities, so I reluctantly sought some professional help.
If I'd been a less lackadaisical bride, I would have done my research and made an early trial run of my chosen "look." Instead, two days before the wedding, I'd picked a salon out of the yellow pages and made a last-minute appointment with the only available stylist. If I could do my do, I figured anyone could do it.
I'd selfishly failed to consider how my lack of planning might affect the stylist, who visibly gulped when he understood the height of the stakes he suddenly faced. Whatever my pretensions to casualness, however strong my distaste for fuss, I wanted what just about any bride wants, to look smashingly good and smashingly myself. As well as I could, I wanted to justify Pete's ludicrous choice to spend his life with me, to begin at "for better" or even at "for best"; I depended on the stylist to help quell any doubts my sweet fellow might entertain and to stave off panic until our vows were safely exchanged. Brave man, he did not flinch but set to work with teasing comb and hair spray.
A total naif to the ways of the do, I watched in horror as he made of my hair a towering thicket, big and impenetrable enough to hide a family of badgers. "Don't worry!" he said. "This is just so it will stay put. I promise." What could I do but helplessly hope that he wasn't avenging his last bad tip? I held off despair, then began to breathe again as he switched out the comb for a brush. Moving methodically from one temple to the other, he swept the tangled mass into submission, and what was matted soon became sleek. Thank goodness, he had understood what I was after: elegant simplicity and the freedom to shake a tail feather without coming undone. I smiled in relief.
"There," he said. "Beautiful. I know I had you worried there for a minute, but it looks even better from the back." He handed me a mirror and slowly spun my chair, the better to let me absorb the full effect.
I still count it a great feat of self-control that no one heard me scream. All the sticky-sugared volume he'd whipped into my tresses now extended behind me, like a great dorsal fin spun out of hair. I sat for a long moment speechless and paralyzed, afraid to stand lest I topple onto my back and bury my frosted hatchet head into the floor. But I did stand, and thanked and paid and generously tipped the stylist, who was not in any way to blame.
What did Pete say when he saw me, two hours before the wedding, when nothing could be done? What magic words did he use to dispel my sense of mortification and let me know that all would be well?
"Ah, my Martian queen!"
He lived, and somehow the wedding went forward. For the nearly fifteen years since, I have managed to avoid further disasters on the hair front by clinging resolutely to the same safely boring cut I had when we met. But that recently stopped being an option. As promised, the morning before my second chemo treatment, my hair began to slip from my head without protest: no tug, no tangle, just a weirdly full comb.
I'd thought I was mentally prepared for this - I'd even planned that day to get a pre-emptive shave - but it shocked and depressed me. I think there's something more than vanity involved in such a dramatic and involuntary transformation of one's appearance. Words make only a small part of our dialogue with the world, and I knew my bare head would be shouting things to strangers on the street. "I've got cancer!" for starters. But I was also just deeply reluctant to expose my big, lumpy cranium to the open air and to throw my stark features into stronger relief. I hadn't realized how much I depended on my hair to soften what often seems to me too harsh, too avid, or simply too much in the self I offer to others. Where would I hide?
The big reveal turned out to be more traumatic in the anticipation than in the event. Last Sunday, after the final meeting of an excellent and most fortifying writing class taught by Karen Karbo, I walked six blocks to Rudy's Barbershop, where Pete was already getting his hairs cut by a lovely and compassionate androgyne named Nick. Too few minutes later, it was my turn.
I couldn't have chosen anyone better to shear me - Nick had done the same for his mom when she'd been under treatment for lung cancer. "Ready? Here we go." He took it in stages: first the ponytail felled with one crunchy swipe of the scissors, then a brief stop at Rosemary's Baby-era Mia Farrow before he finally brought in the clippers to peel my hard-boiled noggin. As big as the shock of my appearance was the discovery of how damned cold it is without hair! How do you bald guys ever manage without hats?? I was thankful for the egg cozy I'd brought along: a Timbers watchcap sent to me by an unusually gracious engineering supply rep I've never met. (Thank you, David!)
Pete took me out afterward for pizza and a movie, and we drew looks but no stares. In truth, there are probably few places better than Portland to be a Martian (or Venusian). I may soon learn to fly my alien flag proudly, but in the meantime I'm blessed with an embarrassment of hats!