By Carol Westreich Solomon
Second Place, Bethesda Magazine Short Story Contest
Students often waited in long lines to speak with registrar Louise Krauss. In the fall, stress etched on their faces, procrastinating seniors pleaded for her to rush their school records to meet college application deadlines. And at the end of the admission season, students left out in the cold by their favored colleges sought comfort from the registrar, her round face and sunny smile inviting them to open up. Her talent for repairing their lives traveled beyond the students to their parents, including to Mr. Daniel Lefcowitz, father of Abe Lefcowitz, the most brilliant member of the STEM Magnet at the highest ranked high school in all of Montgomery County. At least, that’s what Mr. Lefcowitz asserted about his son when he charged into Louise’s office and demanded to know what had happened and how she was going to fix it.
Normally the Guidance Office would be the first stop for frantic parents when their students were locked out of the most competitive colleges. But on this particular Monday, all the counselors were in an emergency meeting regarding their administration of the upcoming Advanced Placement exams and the loss of a nearby church as a testing site because an oak tree had smashed its roof during a wind event yesterday. So it was that Mr. Lefcowitz burst into Louise Krauss’s tiny closet of an office, waving a fistful of rejection letters and reciting his son’s resume: “4.0 unweighted GPA, 1520 on the SAT, countywide finalist for the National Science Talent Competition, state finalist for National History Day, county tennis champion for two consecutive years. . . .”
Louise spun her chair so that she could face Mr. Lefcowitz directly and nodded in rhythm to his recitation. She made sure that her eyes engaged his and that her expression suggested genuine concern. She watched Mr. Lefcowitz’s face redden and the red soften to pink as he completed the recitation and sank into the armchair next to her desk, burying his face in his hands.
“Mrs. Krauss, I don’t know what to do. A brilliant boy and no place to go to college. I knew Harvard was a long-shot, and so were Yale and Princeton, but Tufts? For goodness sakes, Tufts and Penn and Colgate? At least one of them should have accepted Abe. What am I to do?”
If Louise had become callous after ten years as registrar, she would have heard only the “I” in his question and labeled him a helicopter parent. But she had lost sleep herself over her own daughters’ up’s and down’s and the strains they still felt because of their parents’ divorce, amicable though it was. Thus, when Louise thought of the involvement of Mr. Lefcowitz, the word that came to mind was empathy—a natural outgrowth of a parent’s love. As he lifted his head and looked at her with misty eyes, Louise passed him a box of tissues, waited for him to blow his nose, then said, “It’s horrible, Mr. Lefcowitz. But we can do something.”
He sat up straight, regaining the dignity that matched his suit and crisp dress shirt. “We can? Of course, we can.” Then he paused and added, “But what?”
“We’ll work three paths and see which yields the best result. Is Abe waitlisted at any of his schools?”
Mr. Lefcowitz nodded. “Tufts, Penn, Colgate.”
“Good. Then I’ll begin by calling the admissions office of one of these schools and offering official testimony on his behalf. Abe will have to pick one because the school will want assurance that Abe will accept if they pluck him from the waitlist. Path two involves my calling other less competitive schools and seeing if they have vacancies. When they hear of Abe’s sterling credentials, they may jump at the chance to capture such a great student. Path three entails Abe finding an interesting internship or travel opportunity for the first semester and calling the waitlist schools to request a second semester admission. Illness and personal issues often send students home mid-year, and some schools like to fill those vacancies. Now none of these is an ideal way to begin college, but we’re past ideal at this point. So go talk with Abe. Tell him to let me know by tomorrow morning what he’d like to do.”
His soul resuscitated by Louise’s detailed plan, Mr. Lefcowitz flung his arms around her, squeezing her as if their relationship had deep roots. “Mrs. Krauss, you are an absolute angel. I thought it had all been for nothing—those sleepless nights, his weekends researching in the lab when other kids were playing, the nonstop sacrifices of my boy’s life. And for what? Now you are making it happen.” He leaned forward to squeeze her again until she pulled back, her pursed lips and flushed face reminding him that she was, after all, an MCPS employee.
“No promises, Mr. Lefcowitz, only untested possibilities. One way or another, this year or next, Abe will go to college and do just fine.”
“That’s all I wanted, Mrs. Krauss. Hope.”
As the father turned and left, his aftershave lingered in the room—crisp, bursting with energy—like Mr. Lefcowitz himself.
Tuesday Louise arrived at school with a sleep-deprivation hangover following late night fretting about her oldest daughter Samantha’s low history grade and what Sammi saw as its potential impact on her GPA and as a result, on her entire future. The pile of updated-transcript requests on Louise’s desk had exploded over the past week, and her email was clogged with urgent messages from the Head of Guidance about Louise’s responsibilities as a result of the revised Advanced Placement testing plans. As her head throbbed, Louise could tell that most of today would be devoted to drudgery.
It was a relief when mid-morning, the main office called her to pick up a delivery. She entered the office, expecting a box of forms from Advanced Placement, only to discover the main office staff encircling a huge spray of hydrangeas, calla lilies, and hot pink roses. “For you,” the business manager, Ricki, announced.
It wasn’t her birthday, and her ex hadn’t done anything that required a lavish apology. Besides, Mike had never thought in terms of floral tributes, not even on Valentine’s Day when they were first married.
“Open the card,” Ricki insisted. “We all want to know who sent such lovely flowers.”
Louise hesitated, then slipped a slender card from its envelope and read: “Many thanks, Dan Lefcowitz.”
“Who is this Dan Lefcowitz? Where did you meet him?” demanded Ricki, who as her best friend knew there had been no man in Louise’s life since Mike.
“Stop imagining things. Just a grateful parent.”
As she walked down the crowded hallways enjoying the admiring glances of teachers and students, the flowers felt like a validation of her ability to make things right. In her office, she perched the flowers on the metal filing cabinet where no careless student could knock them over. She wondered what sort of man sent such an opulent display to a school employee, someone he scarcely knew. Nevertheless, the generosity of his spirit hovered over the office, lifted her headache, and made her transcript work less onerous. She thought of the living being behind each transcript request, the hopes and dreams of each student, the nervousness as the student crossed the graduation stage in June, unfettered from school rules and parental control, pretending to know what to do next. With each thud of the school seal, she stamped her best wishes on the transcript.
During lunch, the line of students moved slowly through her office, each crisis deserving its telling before Louise could document the required action and administer a dose of compassion. But when the bell rang for fifth period, Louise realized she had not seen one important face, the face that should have been at the front of the line, the face behind the bouquet, the face of star student Abe Lefcowitz.
At 2:00 p.m., near the end of the school day, Mr. Lefcowitz called to ask what Abe had decided to do and how he could help.
“No sign of him,” Louise said. “Not even a note on my front door when I went to the Main Office to pick up a lovely bouquet, which by the way is deeply appreciated, Mr. Lefcowitz. I was a bit surprised myself. Both by the beautiful flowers you sent and by Abe’s no-show.”
“And you didn’t call him down?” Mr. Lefcowitz demanded.
“I was giving him a chance to come on his own.”
“I’m going to text him immediately to see what happened.”
“If you don’t mind a suggestion, Mr. Lefcowitz, maybe face to face would be better.” The pause on the other end of the line suggested that she had overstepped her bounds. “But you’re the father. You know your son far better than I do.”
Dan cleared his throat, then softly added, “I thought I did, Mrs. Krauss.”
She wanted to reach across the phone line and pat his hand or nod with understanding—anything to erase the hushed fear in his voice. She yearned to tell him, “They’re all inscrutable—all the kids. Especially when they’re in high school. Like my daughter.” But she had said more than enough.
Even after the conversation ended, Dan and his sadness lingered. She imagined him at a large wooden desk in a richly paneled office, his face drooping atop his stiff collar and his Windsor-knot tie. He had everything. And yet. . . . Who ever really knew what was going on in a child’s mind? She could see Dan in a meeting with his assistant, likely the person who had actually ordered the bouquet, as he doodled the names of Tufts, Penn, and Colgate on his legal pad. Later he would drive home thinking of Abe and how to start the conversation at dinner, served in the dining room by Mrs. Lefcowitz–though Louise couldn’t recall Dan ever mentioning Abe’s mother.
Out of curiosity, Louise pulled up Abe’s student records. No siblings. No emergency number except Dan’s. There would be just two at the table—Dan and Abe–and likely some carryout food on paper plates. No one else to help monitor and steer the conversation. She checked Abe’s schedule, noted that he was in computer programming class, and jotted down the room number. It was time to play backup.
Louise didn’t remember what Abe looked like–it had been months since he had submitted his application packets—but she was expecting a tall boy, like his father, dressed in preppy clothes that signaled where he had come from and where he was headed. The short, slim boy with an explosion of freckles over a pale face caught her off guard, as did his athletic pants and rumpled t-shirt.
“You sent for me?” he said with coiled stillness.
“That’s who they say I am.”
“Hi, Abe. Come on in. Have a seat. I’m Mrs. Krauss.”
“So your name plate tells me.” He sat in the same chair Dan had sat in, but unlike his father whose body had folded over in grief, Abe pitched his body forward and claimed her desk with his elbows. He stared at Louise, as she in turn studied the boy and his whole affect before deciding how to say what needed to be said.
“Do you know why I’ve called you down?”
“I can guess.”
Abe pointed at the bouquet. “Mr. Daniel Lefcowitz,” he said. “He loves to send flowers to people he thinks can help me.”
“Did he tell you about our conversation yesterday?”
“At least ten times.”
“And how are you feeling about that?”
“What’s done is done. The colleges have made up their minds. I’m not the right fit for them. I’m done playing the college game. At least for now.” He slipped out his vibrating cell phone, which should have been turned off if he followed school rules, and read a text. “Ah, it’s him. Go see Mrs. Krauss. Now.” Abe returned the phone to his pocket and began tapping the desk with his thumbs as if he were texting, maybe what he wanted to say to his father, maybe what he was thinking.
“I want to help you, Abe, but only if you want my help.”
“I don’t need help, Mrs. Krauss. I’m managing just fine.” His thumb movement continued rhythmically on the edge of Louise’s desk.
“Your father cares very much about you.”
“You’ve worked very hard to get to this moment, and you’ve had spectacular success along the way.”
“Spectacular is a bit overstated, don’t you think?”
“Then let’s call it significant success.”
“Call it what you like. The college season’s over. The results are in. Look, Mrs. Krauss, the buses will be coming soon. If you’ve got a point to make, maybe now’s the time to make it.”
His arrogance and nonstop tapping suggested swirling currents beneath the studied indifference of his clothes. Louise could tell he was a master at controlling the situation not unlike his father, though they appeared to be steering in different directions. He was rushing the pace of the conversation, hoping to throw her off balance, pushing for a quick escape from an uncomfortable reality.
“Have a chocolate.” She tossed a Hershey’s kiss in his direction, then watched him reflexively remove the foil and pop the candy into his mouth. She tossed another, then smiled.
The thumb tapping stopped as his body partly uncoiled into the chair. Now, now is the time to speak, she thought.
“You still have choices to make, Abe, and good colleges that will find a place for you, and a good future around the corner. I’ll be glad to work with you to help make that happen this year, but I need your permission.”
“Hey, Mrs. Krauss, I can see you’re a nice lady, a caring lady, but I fixed it this way.”
“You fixed what?”
“The admissions. I fixed it so I wouldn’t be accepted. I wrote a college essay that I knew would doom me.”
She said nothing, letting the sound of his confession echo in the office, rebound off the metal file cabinet with the floral offering, making it so that he heard his own words–and only those words–in the context of his father’s love.
“You wouldn’t understand,” he said in response to her unasked question.
“He wanted me to go so badly, but his business is struggling. I saw the unpaid bills on his nightstand—for the nursing home where my mom is, for the mortgage, for the electricity, for the car, for the credit card bills filled with charges for clothing and food and. . . flowers. If I got into one of those schools, he’d do whatever he had to do to send me—lose the house, his business. Now’s not the time for me to go to college, but I knew he wouldn’t listen. So I sabotaged the applications. I made the decision irrevocable. And now you’re trying to undo it.”
Ah, Louise thought, Abe was just a child, who despite his brilliance and his efforts at control, had self-destructed in order to be his father’s savior. Now his rash actions had made the task of righting his life so much harder. What ugly things had he written in the essays to seal his fate? Most likely the insolence of this conversation multiplied ten-fold. There would be so many more hoops to jump through to reopen the doors to college—not just for now, but for next year or the year after that, explanations he would have to address in future essays, additional letters from counselors, teachers, herself, Dan. Dan who was waiting to hear Abe’s decision, eager to get started, still married to a dream that Abe had deliberately shredded.
“You owe it to your father to tell him.”
“It’s better for him to think crazy things just happened during the admissions process. He would be upset that I worried about his money. I can just tell him I need some time off to work, to clear my head about the rejections before trying again.”
Louise wondered if Dan had truly been oblivious to Abe’s ambivalence about the applications to these elite colleges or if he had ignored the signs, afraid to press for answers in case his questions pushed his son away or revealed something he didn’t want to know about his son’s life. Like she hadn’t pressed Sammi about the razor when it slid from her backpack with her failing history test.
“Gotta go,” Abe announced as the bell rang. “And don’t forget to keep quiet about this. I’ll tell the story in my own way.” Before Louise could prod him to reconsider, he was racing down the hall with the frenetic throngs. She knew the phone would soon ring, and it would be Dan, the urgency in his voice intensified by his son’s inaction. He would demand to know what Abe had said, what Louise and Abe had concluded, what would happen today and tomorrow and the day after that, how certain she was that the situation could be fixed, confirmation that life would go on as planned. She could encourage them to talk—set up an appointment with the counselor or an outside professional, but she couldn’t tell Abe’s story. Abe was right–it was his story to tell. What would Dan do in the face of his son’s refusal to follow path B? And Abe, who thought he was being so clever by gaming the system, how would he feel when he realized he had actually made his father’s life worse?
But Louise couldn’t forget the image of the coiled boy who had entered her office and drummed incessantly on her desk. Something in that image suggested that the lie Abe had prepared for Dan’s consumption was actually the truth, that Abe’s self-sabotage had not been to protect Dan, that Abe had been tightly wound for so long that he was unraveling and needed time to breathe. So he had lied to himself and to Louise about his motivation for self-sabotage. What a complicated mess, Louise thought.
Her head began to throb again, a vise squeezing her forehead until the pain radiated to the back of her head, pinching the base of her neck. She no longer saw Abe. Instead, she saw Sammi pulling her history test from her backpack and her eyes filling with fear as a sliver of metal fell to the floor. Sammi retrieving the razor and announcing, “For an art project.” Sammi tucking it into the backpack and pulling down the left sleeve of her hoodie. Sammi crying, “I failed my history exam. It will destroy my GPA forever.” Louise wrapping her arms around Sammi, telling her no one’s future was destroyed by one test. Sammi retreating to her bedroom with her backpack. Louise knocking on the door before bedtime and asking Sammi if everything was okay. Sammi insisting, “It’s fine, Mom.” Louise tossing and turning in bed, then rising for work, assuming that Sammi would be just fine, that the bumps of the past few months were just bumps, that she would surely know if Sammi were floundering.
She hadn’t asked about the razor or confiscated it. She hadn’t insisted that Sammi roll up her sleeves.
The phone rang. It was Mr. Lefcowitz, pleading in desperation, “I don’t understand what’s happening. What am I to do?”—a question she could no longer answer with assurance. She flipped the school phone to speaker and took out her cell phone. “Coming home early,” she texted Sammi. “Let’s talk.”
Mr. Lefcowitz’s voice filled the room, “Mrs. Krauss, are you there?” But she was somewhere else.
She imagined herself dashing into her house, calling, “Sammi, I’m home,” hurrying upstairs to the purple room with the lavender duvet and the picture of Katy Perry. She was hugging Sammi, and then casually pushing up the sleeves of her daughter’s hoodie and massaging her wrists, probing for scars—puffy or thin, solo or clustered, old or fresh. All the while praying and waiting for when Sammi wasn’t looking and she could drop her eyes to Sammi’s wrists and see what had to be the truth. The dewy skin of her daughter, unblemished but for a dark freckle on the inside of her left wrist.
DRIVING AUNT DELLIE
By Carol Westreich Solomon
Second Place, Bethesda Urban Partnership Essay Contest, 2018
The road twists through Lancaster countryside, past farms and mid-century brick homes as Aunt Dellie rambles on about Yiddish class in Baltimore and how many containers of vegetable soup she has squeezed into her small freezer. We’re on our annual trip to Degel Israel Cemetery, where her husband rests beneath a double headstone with the right half empty, waiting for my aunt.
I park on the narrow road between modest bungalows and the cemetery, and Aunt Dellie pulls a large plastic bag of stones from the back seat and scoops some into my waiting hands. “Lots of people to visit,” she says, then dips beneath the loose metal chain protecting the dead from the living.
Though blind in one eye, Aunt Dellie nimbly navigates her way past strangers’ graves to the people she’s come to visit. From the shade, size, and tilt of the headstone, she knows who is buried where without even checking the names and dates carved onto the front. Here is Zelda Dunie, whose long red fingernails punctuate her conversation. We place stones on top as calling cards. Here are Aunt Dellie’s aunts—the one who snort-laughs while playing canasta at the kitchen table—and the one who deals the cards and keeps her eye on possible cheaters. There are Mommom and Poppop—her parents—who are loading relatives onto the back of my grandfather’s truck to shuttle them to a picnic at Long’s Park. Over there’s her sister Bernice, whose headstone omits the year of her birth out of posthumous vanity. Down the center row, tucked among gray, thinning headstones, Aunt Dellie locates the grave of her grandmother, whose Hebrew name I bear. Faint letters record the length of her years, but not her strength in raising five children after her husband wanders.
On her way to my uncle, Aunt Dellie stops abruptly before an alabaster headstone that stands straight and proud, not yet buffeted by decades of winter winds or chipped by stones churned by the mowers. “It’s cousin Linda. So young. See all the stones. They all came for Linda.” The ripping away of the newly dead causes her eyes to tear.
“Who will come for me?” she whispers as she strokes her husband’s headstone that has lingered half-filled for over twenty-five years, the ground beneath it uneven, the marker beginning to tip. Planes and schools and jobs have scattered us all to Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Texas, Canada, New Jersey, New York, California. In Baltimore, no headstones of neighbors and cousins face my parents’ headstones, no neighborhood or family gathering recreated in granite.
The reunion over, Aunt Dellie washes death from her hands with water, then dips beneath the metal chain separating us from our loved ones. Still, she invites them into my car, and they travel with us for the rest of the day.
SHEARA’S BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE
By Carol Westreich Solomon
HONORABLE MENTION, BETHESDA MAGAZINE SHORT STORY CONTEST, 2018
I’m standing in front of Gillian’s Hair Palace with my graying roots, and my heart’s pounding double time. My fiftieth high school reunion is tomorrow, and the salon is boarded up. “Gone to greener pastures. Was our pleasure to serve you for 25 years,” the sign reads. Does that mean Gillian is dead? If she isn’t dead, I could kill her myself. What would it have taken for her to cancel my hair appointment before today?
In desperation I scroll my smartphone and find Sheara’s Beautiful People, a name that suggests a place more interested in shearing away excess hair than in promoting hair growth in women who are losing it. But it’s the closest place I can find to take me today and do the full job—color, trim, blow dry, scalp spray—before I head to Baltimore in the morning. No one expects me to match my yearbook picture, but I want to at least resemble my Facebook picture, taken five years ago, before my hair thinned and receded.
When I finally get to Sheara’s, I’m sweating from the unusual May heatwave as Eduardo, a kid about twenty or so with flashing black eyes and a pompadour, waves a hair color sample in my face. “Mrs. Levy, I’ll match your old color with these strands and it will be bello, absolutely bello!”
“Eduardo, you can’t match the color with the strands in my hair now,” I insist. “This is the faded version of my color after six weeks. The blonde has become almost platinum. No, no, we must get the deeper honey blonde that doesn’t wash out my skin.”
“Wash out your skin, Mrs. Levy? Nothing could wash out your lovely skin, the rose glow that sets off your eyes.”
Now I know he’s full of what we used to call b.s., because my skin is worked over every three months by my dermatologist to remove little growths or scaly red patches that could grow into something disastrous. Crepe skin under my chin, the patchwork of lines around my eyes and mouth, and brown blotches the doctor tactfully calls age spots—believe me, what remains after the doctor’s handiwork does not make lovely skin. The glow Eduardo has detected is courtesy of my heat-flushed face, not its natural condition.
Just as I’m about to get out of the chair and demand an older, more experienced hair dresser, a girl with a purple snake tattoo slithering from her biceps up the right side of her neck plops down in the next chair and exclaims, “Dude, the hair’s gotta get fixed. My sister’s wedding.” She’s right about that. Magenta streaks decorate hair tufts no more than two inches long, standing up straight as if she just stuck her finger in an electrical outlet.
“What about that purple snake? Can you fix that?“ I ask before I can stop myself.
Eduardo leans over the snake girl, and she doesn’t say a thing to me, just a loud sniff, while he examines her magenta hair and fluffs the strands with an extra flourish. Then he drops to one knee like he’s ready to propose and rests his hand on her thigh that’s sticking out of a hole in her jeans. In a sultry voice he says, “Laila, you can’t be anything but beautiful. As soon as I’m done with Mrs. Levy, we’ll make the adjustments you want.” I remember a time when I was about forty and a deliciously handsome hairdresser dropped to one knee and pressed his hand on my thigh. Hairdressers don’t bother doing that to me anymore, as if there’s a limit to how far they will sink to get big tips from ladies of Medicare age.
When he goes off to mix my color, snake girl plays with her smartphone, her thumbs furiously texting messages, probably about the sizzling hairdresser. “Did it hurt?” I ask. When she doesn’t answer, I say it louder, “Did it hurt?”
“Hurt? What?” she asks.
“The tattoo. It’s so long and wide and touches areas on your neck that must be quite sensitive. Did it hurt?”
“What’s it to you?” She swivels her chair until her back faces me, and I notice an Elizabethan-styled tattoo “Eddie” at the nape of her neck. Could that be Eduardo? Whoever it commemorates, Eddie must have been really something. I imagine them lying on an unmade bed, and he’s doing things to her that they show on HBO today, but Hollywood once considered X-rated.
No one’s even kissed me on the lips in the five years since Harvey passed away and I started exploring Facebook, something I’d never done before he dropped dead in the 7-11 parking lot when I sent him for a gallon of ice cream. (Okay, maybe I used Facebook once or twice—just to check up on who’s who and where they are and how much weight they’ve gained since high school. A quick, anonymous way to stay in touch.) If the reunion turns out okay, maybe I’ll at least get a slow dance and an air kiss from one of the guys who signed my yearbook.
Eduardo has returned and uses a small black comb to make dark blonde strands among my platinum wisps. My empty stomach is gurgling (no time for breakfast this a.m.), so I suck it in to minimize the volume of the growls. Ah, the things we learn as we age. Like the importance of comfortable shoes, the regular removal of chin hairs, and the control of internal digestive sounds. Eduardo is too concerned about the little minx texting her heart out to notice my stomach growls. “Do you want me to remove the magenta for the wedding, Laila?” he asks.
She swivels back and shoots him a look that says Hell no. “Make it brighter and add a couple purple streaks for accents.”
Her mother will go crazy, but then that’s probably the point. Usually is when the hair’s this strange. I’ll bet the sister has long, shimmering blonde hair, with no tattoos for accessories, or at most, a discreet rose near her ankle. The ammonia of the hair color stings my eyes, and a few tears sneak down my cheek, which I quickly blot, but snake girl must catch me tearing up in our shared mirror.
“Don’t worry, lady,” she says with a tone calibrated between snide and sincere. “Eduardo’s doing his best to repair the damage.”
“As he will with you,” I reply, mimicking her tone.
Eduardo smartly ignores our exchange, probably thinking that saying anything will depress the tip from one or both of us. He combs the mixture furiously through the remainder of my hair, then quickly applies some to my graying brows. “Done!” he announces with relief. “Now we wait 35 minutes and you will see how beautiful you truly are, Mrs. Levy.”
Before I can contradict his patronizing comment and ask if the air conditioner is working, he vanishes, and I’m left to stare at my chemical hair spikes and beads of sweat in an unforgiving mirror. Snake girl snickers. “Your hair’s standing up like mine!” she says. “We’re twins.”
Then her eyes drop to her smartphone, signaling disengagement, as I watch her mirror-image scroll quickly through pictures, searching for something that’s obviously important, maybe a picture of her with Eddie. I imagine snake girl before the magenta and the tattoos. Arms sprinkled with freckles, brown hair—a bit on the mousy side, pale skin with a few acne pock marks. The kind of girl who fades into the crowd. Did Eddie meet her before the magenta? What drew him to her? Was it her eyes? I try to get a glimpse, but she’s still focused on the pictures, so I clear my throat like I’m ready to make a big announcement. She looks up. Ah, they’re molten brown, hinting at a story far more interesting than her hair, maybe about Eddie, who I’m beginning to suspect is no longer in her life. If he is, what accounts for the flatness in the rest of her expression? I know that look. I wore it for two years after Harvey died until finally, I decided to turn up the corners of my mouth as if I’d actually cleaned out his closet and moved on in ways beyond my fishing expeditions on Facebook.
The timer says 25 minutes remain, and snake girl is shielding her phone from my prying eyes, so I stroll over to the magazine rack filled with entertainment magazines and a news magazine with a glossy photo of president #45 and his family. A wave of nausea sweeps over me. First Harvey gone, and there’s no one touching my body as if I really matter. Now this—the world around me turning backward, inside out, upside down, ripped, sheared. Only the thought of my reunion is keeping me afloat—commiserating with my civil rights buddies about the country’s retreat, laughing with once-upon-a-time girls who know the real Bobbie Levy beneath the mottled skin, feeling part of me I thought was dead tingle at the touch of a guy I used to have a crush on. I grab an old Christmas issue of People as the room starts to tilt, shimmy, spin. Hair driers, mirrors, shampoo girls, ceiling tiles whirl around me, then darkness.
I feel snake girl patting my face and calling, “Mrs. Levy. Mrs. Levy. Are you dead?” I open my eyes and a dozen pairs of horrified eyes stare back at me, including Eduardo’s. How did I get here on the tile floor among pieces of hair and coffee stains? I start to lift my head, but the spinning starts again, and snake girl puts a towel under my head and a wet cloth on my forehead.
“They’ve called for an ambulance, Mrs. Levy,” she says. “Just rest until they come. Does anything hurt? Can we get you anything?”
“Harvey,” I say.
“What’s your number? We’ll call your husband.”
I laugh. “Good luck,” I say. Then I start to cry for real, like I did for three months after the funeral.
“Her hair,” Eduardo says. “We’ve got to rinse the color out now or the chemicals will fry what’s left of her hair. We can’t send her to the hospital like this!” Hands are lifting me onto a makeshift gurney of two swivel chairs and wheeling me over to the shampoo station.
“No hospital,” I say. “I’ve got to go to the reunion. And not with my roots showing and the color fading. Keep the color in. Just give me a minute to get my head straight.”
“The ambulance will be here in a minute. We’ve got to rinse now!” Eduardo shouts.
I’m pushing myself up on my elbows and Eduardo’s pushing me back down. “Stay flat. You can’t faint again. Just stay flat.” But someone’s holding up my back, and I’m sitting up straight and the spinning slows to a shimmy, the mirrors return to the walls, the ceiling tiles remain where they belong, and the wave of nausea subsides.
“She’s better,” snake girl says. “See, she’s holding her head up straight. Can’t you leave the color in?” “She could sue us if something happens,” Eduardo yells.
“I’m going to sue you if you rinse the color!” I tell him. “Just finish the job.”
A siren blares and two ladies shout, “The ambulance is here.”
Send them back,” I say. “I won’t go. Finish my damn hair.”
Eduardo and an older woman, probably Sheara, and a couple of women in black gowns armed with scissors are all talking at once.
Snake girl wheels me back to Eduardo’s station in one of the swivel chairs and calls, “Eduardo, your client’s ready.” She’s smoothing down my wrinkled black cape, her hands touching me more tenderly than anyone’s hands since Harvey. Not my children ensconced in homes far away on the West Coast where they remain vaguely aware of my existence on Facebook, not my friends occupied with husbands who still inhabit this world—no one has touched me with such humanity since Harvey cupped my face in his hands and kissed me for the last time.
“Why are you doing this?” I ask.
“Nothing’s more important than hair,” snake girl says with a half-smile as Eduardo races toward me, examines the damage to the back of the hair where I hit the ground, and begins massaging the hair color to compensate for what’s been lost to the floor.
“She’s fine. Just a little dizzy,” snake girl is telling the EMT’s and the manager.
“Have the lady sign a release,” an EMT says.
“She can’t drive,” the owner says. “Eduardo, can you take her home when you’re done?” Someone is pushing a pen and a form into my hands.
“It’ll mess up my schedule for the morning. I’ve got two more colors and three cuts before noon.” He’s touching my hair like he wants to get done with this and me as soon as possible, as if dizziness and aging are contagious fatal diseases.
I scribble my name on the form, then catch my pasty face in the mirror. “I’ll drive myself,” I lie, knowing that my legs are still rubber and my brain fogged over.
“I’ll drive her home,” snake girl insists.
“But Laila, your hair? My schedule?” Eduardo says.
“Adjust your f**ing schedule,” she says.
From the passenger seat of my fading Corolla, the neighborhood feels different. The empty storefronts, the houses with peeling paint, the sidewalks that tree roots are upending—all the decay that usually unsettles me seems fixable with someone else in the driver’s seat. As Laila follows Waze’s directions for the ten-minute ride and watches for stop signs, cross walks, and unexpected cyclists, my jaw unclenches and the vise-like feeling holding my body together for five years finally releases. I’m free to notice the azalea buds starting to pop and the fertilizer making the grass green up.
As Laila turns into my development, the sharp right pushes me toward her. She smells different, this Laila, not a fragrance my friends would use—something fruity but tangy, probably not even a cologne, more likely a special soap or shampoo. Odd, it comforts almost as much as Harvey’s aftershave.
“So Mrs. Levy, when did you lose your husband?” she’s asking me as we near my home, the question resonating like it’s been percolating inside her since the salon.
“Five years ago. Sometimes it feels like forever. Today it feels like yesterday.” I’m answering a question no one but me usually cares about anymore
“Time’s strange. You’d think a minute is a minute and a year is a year. But it isn’t,” she says.
“I’ve lived a lifetime—fifty years since I went to school with these people I’ll see tomorrow. But I can remember the sound of my best friend’s horse laugh and the words my prom date said when he slipped his arm around me in the car and tried to kiss me but missed my mouth. Why do I remember those things but forget the names of people I met yesterday? And my husband, I remember when we went someplace new, he’d whisper that I was the prettiest girl in the room.”
“That’s like with my dad,” she says. “I can remember every word he said the day he died, even though it was a year ago. But when I saw you on the floor, it felt like this morning, and it was him lying there on the floor.”
I wonder if my children ever think of Harvey that way, or if he—and I—are just relics fading into the past while they get on with their lives. Maybe loss wears off faster for the young. Maybe a couple years from now Laila will have forgotten most of those memories of her father.
“You’re so young to lose your father,” I say. Her smile evaporates, and she’s turning stone-faced like she was at Sheara’s. “I don’t want to make you hurt. I’m sorry.”
“Remembering hurts, but not remembering feels like crap. Besides, I don’t feel so young, not after he died.”
We’re in front of my house, and I long to stroke the snake on her arm like I used to stroke my daughter when she’d had a fight with a friend. “Laila,” I want to say, “your father was a lucky man to have you for a daughter,” but the words feel presumptuous. So instead I say, “I can tell you loved him very much.”
“He was the only one who got me. He saw how I can’t breathe with fake people around me. He loved my snake. And my hair—the brighter, the better. So I keep him with me. For always.” She points to the back of her neck to the Elizabethan-style “Eddie.”
So Eddie isn’t Eduardo or some guy twisting in her bedroom sheets. Eddie is her father, so important that he’s tattooed in purple onto her skin, like Harvey’s tattooed onto my heart. I reach out to touch her “Eddie” as if touching it will help me know him and understand their emotional connection, then stop before I embarrass us both.
“That’s okay,” she says. “Go ahead. I want you to touch it.”
Her skin feels smooth, pliant, full of possibilities. I start to cry.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Levy. Your hair turned out great. You’ll be a hit at your reunion.”
She opens the car door, hands me my keys, supports my elbow as I—still a bit unsteady—wobble up the cracked walk to my front door. Then she’s gone. And for a minute, I miss her almost as much as I miss Harvey.