The cancer drugs stole my hair. Plucked me naked. What’s grown back is like a message spelled out millimetre by millimetre: I’m not who I thought I was. A redhead. Whimsical. Someone whose nickname could be Pumpkin. The new crop, near-black and coarse, is all business. Each follicle mocks me, says, “Red, schmed!” then pushes out its dark strand.
I hate it even more than I hated being bald.
“I just love it,” says my hairdresser, Li, who is always ready to lie in the name of hair. I return to her hydraulic chair after an eternity of illness without the hurrah I imagined would follow me in like a whirlwind, little bells above the door heralding Crystal Gayle, Rapunzel, Goldilocks. Reality is more subtle: piped-in Muzak, an enviable scatter of tufts on the floor, stubborn mirrors conspiring to show me a thin, pallid version of my true self with two inches of the dreaded dark hair.
“I’m thinking highlights,” says Li. She uses a voice like many acquaintances do now, intended not to further disrupt my brittle bones. I feel I am being spoken to from very far away. Li opens her fingers into a splay and runs them abruptly through the rough mass several times, alternating hands, like her palms are planes taking off from the crown of my head.
“Or more sophisticated,” she says, reassessing, reading something in the tussle. “Back to red, maybe.”
“No. Not red,” I say. I’m thinking about my husband, the first time he ever loosened the red bun I used to like to wear low on the nape like a tomato. The image gets blurred by self-pity, so I shake it away.
“Blond,” I say. “White-blond, like snow.”
Li’s hands come out of my hair, pause palms down. My head could be a drum she will play. Her shocked pause goes on a long time and I feel, oddly, ashamed to be undergoing yet another evaluation.
“Blond’s always big,” she finally agrees, with gumption. “It’ll refresh you.”
During one stay in the overcrowded ward, I shared a room with an old woman—lungs, Stage 3—who overcame not inconsiderable obstacles to sit upright and knit. The woman was Estonian, and she made mostly mittens for her ungrateful, terrified-looking grandchildren, who were ushered in most afternoons to visit. She wheezed as her needles went “click-click, click-click,” day and night, contentedly stitching away her life. A goddamned swan song in patterned double-knits. I would turn the volume up high on my Walkman and look away, feeling rage, like boiling water, pouring through my insides. I wished I could take those knitting needles and stab the old woman’s heart. Stab my nurses. Stab the I.V. bag so that jets of clear fluid exploded from its sides. One night, when I was out of batteries and feeling utterly suffocated by her busywork, I finally snapped. “For God sakes!” I yelled. “Will you please can it!”
In the hall, a passing nurse who’d never liked me anyway poked her nose through our swinging door and put a finger to her lips in a shushing gesture. Without thinking, I flipped her the bird and began, unexpectedly, to laugh. Then I turned to look at the old woman. She was facing resolutely away from me. Her forearms had fallen against her sides. The needles and wool webbing were plopped on her belly in a defeated, red and green heap. She sniffled awhile, her shoulders heaving, then began to snore. I watched her irregular breathing and didn’t sleep all night for the satisfaction it gave me—or shame, I couldn’t decide which. Mind you, I wasn’t sleeping a whole lot at that point anyway. But still.
“You won’t want me to stay just because of all that’s happened. I know that much.” He said this not long after I was finally home for good. I guess my husband was so used to speaking to people on my behalf, he’d begun to confuse his will with my own. We were sitting at the kitchen table, where I once pictured myself sitting for life. He’d brought home takeout Thai.
“You never liked this neighbourhood anyway,” he said, trying to be lighthearted.
“I like the recycling program,” I said.
“Hmm,” he said disapprovingly. “Look, we’ll wait till you’ve found your feet, but you won’t want this to drag on forever.”
“I want this to drag on forever.”
He put his face in his hands and started to cry while I went on eating. The food was delicious. I liked the sweet and the spicy together. I loved the lime. The surface of things did matter, I thought. Taste. Touch. Appearances. The semblance of normal life was my ticket back to the world of the living. This new woman, newly “clean” of cancer, newly released from the prison of hospital and chemo, needed a husband. At any cost.
The week my hair finally did begin to grow back, forming a sudden shadow on my head like a map for a strange continent, my husband was in Montreal on business. I was avoiding former friends and had not seen a soul for days. One evening, I was standing in my underwear in front of the bedroom mirror, trying to believe I’d gained some weight, when I found myself wandering over to the closet. I stood facing my hanging clothes, most of which I hadn’t worn in so long they didn’t smell like me anymore but like the house, and like my husband. Everything bore his stamp now—he’d taped his hockey pool to our bedroom mirror; the bathroom cupboard was full of musky men’s soap. I reached in and fondled the material of a dress, then tore it from its hanger and put it on. I crouched down and tossed shoes out of the closet until I found a pair I liked. Then I dug out an ancient sequined purse, drew on lipstick—twice, in thick strokes—and called a cab.
On the way downtown, I rolled down the window and stuck my head out into the bitter night air. It nipped my nostrils like metal. The cabbie eyed me through his rear-view.
“Just watch the road!” I said, but half the words were sucked from my mouth by the wind. I saw him shaking his head. “Stop here,” I said, when we finally reached a cluster of popular bars outside which young people were smoking and looking jaded. I paid and went into the one called Millennial Men.
Inside, it was very dark except for long purple lights outlining the performance area. Frenetic electronic music. Big groups of women everywhere. A whiff of violence as I breathed in their clashing perfumes. Everyone was applauding a dancer named Risky Business, who was making his exit wearing an unbuttoned white shirt and nothing else, two long white tube socks stuffed with money slung over his shoulder. I squeezed through the crowd and took a seat away from the rest but close to the stage. A waiter, whose fake tan was the colour of peanut butter, came by to take my order.
My first drink. It had fruit dangling from it. I toasted. “To melon balls!”
There was a pause before the next dancer. The lights came up. I saw how ugly the place was. All the matte-black paint on the stage and floor was scratched and covered in dust. I sipped my drink. The energy at a table nearby shifted, and I heard whispers directed my way. I thought of my ugly noggin reflecting the mean-spirited ceiling lights. I shot the women a kill-kill look, sucked harder on my straw, and raised my hand for another.
My husband and I met at a martini bar where I felt I didn’t fit in but used to go anyway. He laughed at a dirty joke he overheard me make to a friend. We danced sweatily, then went home together.
“What do you think of this? ” he said one day, a few months later, when we were out for lunch near his office. He was holding out a pamphlet for a resort in Belize.
“Are we going on the lam? ”
“I think we should—I mean, I think we should get married there, Pumpkin.” I agreed, and we went. I didn’t think much about it. We got along and neither of us had ever been given a reason to say no to new possibilities. Two years after Belize, I got pregnant. My husband was ecstatic. He’d put his cheek to my belly all the time. “Productivity up this quarter,” he’d say, refusing to bow to trimestrial accounting. When I miscarried, he was more disappointed than I was. “We’ll build another factory,” I told him. But we never did. I got sick the first time just a year after that.
From the start, I saw by the way my husband supported me in my illness—coming with me to appointments, picking me up after treatments, relating optimistic medical reports he’d seen on TV—that he was compensating for something. He was, after all, unreservedly strapping. After my diagnosis, easy health and prosperity felt like overly fancy clothes. A heavy source of shame. Embarrassing. The more he tried to hide his, the more he eclipsed me—and resented me. I couldn’t really blame him. Not yet.
A purple spotlight dangling on a pivot above me swung excitedly into an arc as the announcer prepared us for the arrival of the Jamaican Jiggler. A man appeared on stage to an accelerated reggae beat, not more than twenty-five, black, oiled, narrow in the hips, and, to my mind, painfully effeminate. The women went wild. The Jiggler lived up to his name and shook his half-erect penis with gumption, crouching low and barefoot. One unsteady, dishevelled bride-to-be with helium balloons tied to her big ponytail was thrust at him. She put her hands up to her eyes as if to shield herself from the purple lights that framed her with the dancer, but she was giggling like crazy. The Jiggler shimmied around her. Up and down. Circled her in faux-tribal fashion. She squealed and released a twenty-dollar bill into his clenched jaws.
The Jiggler sprinted into the crowd. I followed his zigzag through the tables until I lost sight of him, then gave up, looked back at the stage, and waited. Suddenly, from behind, two hands took me by the armpits and lifted me to my feet. Nearby, women went, “Whoo-hoo!” Unsteady, I turned to look, but the Jiggler had already released me, and was around the front, looking me in the eyes. Slowly, he leaned in and brushed my lips with his own. They were coarse and warm. Then he slid his hands up onto my bald head, over the picky five o’clock shadow, while, below, he continued his unsettling, sexless jiggling. Above the neck I saw that he was fine-featured and soft-eyed, and I recognized things I’d assumed had been removed from my world. Generosity. Sensuousness. Without planning to, my own fingers came up to rest over several of the Jiggler’s thick, dry dreadlocks. But no sooner had I done so than he pulled away, taking my hand, extending my arm, and dramatically withdrawing, leaving my hand lifted, empty, and trembling, while he resumed the false, devil-may-care smile that made some women near the stage jump up and down like little girls, their own big, sprayed or gelled hair swinging around sloppily.
Later, in bed, when the call came that I knew was my husband, in Montreal, checking in as I’d pleaded with him to do, I let it ring through the empty house, then turned off my bedside lamp and fell immediately to sleep.
My eyes are closed for a long time. When I open them, Li is standing behind me.
“What do you think? ”
“I’m like Susan Powter without the muscle mass,” I say.
Li laughs nervously. I pay up and she follows me to the door, telling me she’ll be happy to do a touch-up in a couple weeks. Free. Just call her.
I walk outside to wait for the man who is still going through the motions of being my husband. On the street, a young girl and her mother have paused nearby, talking to an acquaintance. The girl has a short bob of hair, blond as mine and fresh as fleece. She carries a poodle that has been dyed pink. She has a bored, rich-brat demeanour and strokes the dog absently.
“Is he yours? ” I ask, then scan the street both ways. My husband is late.
“She—yes, she’s mine,” says the girl. The mother, who is gesturing excitedly to her friend about something, ignores us.
“Pets are a lot of work, aren’t they? ”
“We have doggie daycare Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays,” says the girl, shrugging her shoulders. Though she cannot be more than six years old, she checks her watch as if she has someplace better to be. Kids! For a long moment we stand there, pretending not to notice each other. Suddenly, a car horn blares nearby, making us both jump. My husband pulls quickly to the curb and waves sheepishly from the driver’s seat. He is still handsome in that way that makes some women grin like idiots around him.
“Is that your boyfriend? ” says the girl. I can’t tell whether she’s really asking or just making fun of me, and I suddenly feel very old and ungainly. A ghoulish Sharon Stone impersonator. Not a trace of Pumpkin.
“Used to be,” I say. At a loss, I bend over to pet her dog. I am surprised to find its fur is silky, incredibly soft. Then, that pathetic pink plaything rolls up its matched, milky eyes and gives me a look of such unrehearsed eagerness that, for the first time in months, and against my will, I begin to cry.
“You’ll get another boyfriend,” says the girl, though I can tell I’ve unnerved her. She reaches for her mother’s hand and begins to withdraw, but the pink poodle resists, its warm body wriggling every which way, straining. It sticks out a small, greyish tongue and manages to lick my entire face in several wet slaps, from my chin to my new near-white bangs. I straighten up, turn, and walk to the car, sniffling, holding my palm to where the animal’s saliva is drying on my cheek.
Inside, the air conditioning is blaring away and my husband is looking down at his lap with his hands on the wheel. Something about him makes me recall the moment I felt closest to dying, how I’d secretly yearned to get it over with. I take the hand closest to me, put it to my hair, say, “See? It feels totally new,” and then, turning to wave at the little girl, who is no longer paying attention, I let it go.