This time she is sitting on the couch in the living room, the one with a Navajo print that is so awkwardly placed in the middle of the walkway towards the den. Her back is to me as I walk past her. She is reading a romance novel — the fat paperback kind that they sell in the grocery store near the gum. She doesn’t move a muscle when she asks. “Please? Just for a minute,” she says, attempting to graze my hand by bending her arm behind her, not losing sight of her page. Lately I don’t even try to hide my contempt for the job. “Mommmm,” I say. “I have homework to do.” I don’t.
“Just for a minute,” she says. And with one look at me with her big brown eyes, I can’t say no.
In the car ride home from swim practice, she tells me she envies my hair. “It’s so thick,” she says, running her fingers through my half-soaked strands as I wriggle my way away from her. “Don’t you think so?”
“I dunno,” I say, as I watch suburban autumn pass by my window. “I guess.” I hadn’t thought much about it; these days I’m a lot more concerned about hair that was beginning to patch up on other parts of my body. Do I bring this up to her now or wait? She begins talking about dinner that evening. Fried chicken with homemade fries, but we needed to stop by the grocery store for breadcrumbs first.
I decide to wait.
** We’re in the basement of a home on the South Side of Chicago, and I’m propping myself up on a booster seat to feel higher in an adult chair. I don’t know what awaits on the other side of these walls — all I know is that it’s something that adults do. And something Mom thinks I’m ready for.
“OK, here we goooooo,” croons Louise as she walks towards me and helps sturdy my head back into the dip of the basin. She’s a Polish hairdresser in her mid-fifties whom my grandma began visiting weekly.
It began to feel like we went weekly, too, though in reality it was monthly —when my dad and brothers would be in dire need of haircuts and when Mom would talk to Louise about “changing things up.” They would peruse a cocktail of highly produced hairstyles in the look books the hairdresser kept — the pros and cons of each. Each one was worthy of its own conversation. “These bangs are perfect for big eyes like yours, and look at the angles here that frame the face,” Louise would say, pointing to the laminated sheet and searching Mom’s face for a reaction.
She nods in agreement and flips the page. My hair is still wet. I’m waiting my turn on one of two couches that takes up space next to Louise’s station. There’s a TV between them, but it’s never on — I wonder today, and every time, if it works. I turn to my bag of White Castle and squeeze the ketchup container until the sauce rises high enough for me to dip my last deep fried chicken ring into it. Daniel, my older, autistic brother, is shoveling onion rings into his mouth. “Slow down, buddy,” Mom chimes, looking up as best she can while sitting still for Louise. “No one is going to take it away from you.”
Every few minutes I look back over to Mom, who now has nowhere to look but into the mirror of herself and our host. I wait until Louise spins her chair around in my direction so we can exchange a smile. She asks for a fry. They talk about Mom’s work, my grandma, and Louise’s daughter, who is also named Nicole. They bond over this.
Footsteps. I force myself to swallow another mouthful of fries and wipe off my face. If I’m already eating, I fear I’ll be skipped over. I need to look ready and able.
It’s Staś, Louise’s husband. He only makes one entrance to the basement during each of our visits, and when he does, he brings a satchel of candies he buys in bulk from the Polish grocery store around the corner. I hug his ribcage, ask how he is, and wait for him to open up the plastic bag to reveal a rainbow of foil — some wrapped once on top, some wrapped on both ends. I toss those politely to the side as I sleuth for the most modestly packaged item of the bunch, and all that matters in that moment: caramels that are covered in white paper that is inked with a cow drawing. Mom got me hooked on them. She loves cows.
I grab the five I can spot and hope he thinks I’ve taken three. One hour and three caramels later, and my curlers are ready to come out. I change seats with Mom and stare at myself and Louise in the mirror. We talk about science class, my upcoming birthday, and why dolphins are my favorite animal. “Oh my goodness,” she says as she slowly unravels the first one. My eyes widen as I see the transformation from straight to wavy; from passable to noticeable; from young to not so young. Once they’re out, Mom comes and runs her fingers through the new waves.
“Wow, Cole. Look at how grown up you look,” she says, eyes smiling through a layer of richly hued brown bangs, freshly trimmed. I return my gaze to myself, trying to see what she sees.
Louise gives us a bag of grapes for our car ride home. She grows them in her backyard, she tells us. Concord. On our way out, I peer into her kitchen but only quickly — even though Louise has never said anything to support this belief, I have the impression that it, along with the entire first floor, is forbidden territory. Before I see a thing, she covers my face in her bosom, all while watching the hair. “Careful for the seeds,” she says, opening the door and kissing us on the way out. Our car is just 20 paces away in their driveway, but we’re always rushed. “Walk quickly,” my dad says. I hear fireworks that must be going off just blocks away, but I don’t know why. it’s only mid-March.
She never liked her hair. It was always so thin, she’d complain — ever since she was young. In between laps at swim practice I look up to the stands to make sure she’s there. In the sea of other swimmers’ moms with bob cuts and pixies, there she is, always: lean, attentive, and eyes alive underneath a curtain of blunt brown bangs and a head of long, chocolate strands that fall to her shoulders. “Nice work today, honey,” she says. We’re driving home from practice, but first, a stop for taco supplies. “Why don’t you cut your hair like all of the other moms?” I ask. She pauses and smiles. “Well if I did that, how on earth could you brush my hair like you do now?”
** She picks me up for lunch and asks me what’s wrong. “I don’t know if I like it,” I say. “it’s just so…big.”
“I think you look beautiful,” she says, taking a long sip of her McDonald’s iced tea before slinging it back into the cup holder and changing lanes. “Plus — it’s only temporary.” But isn’t it called a permanent? This gets a pursed lip smile, and a wink. “Jamie might like it.” He doesn’t, I tell her. In fact, I think he’s noticing me even less than before. “Sometimes these things take time,” she says. “Especially when you look this grown up.” We have the same conversation every week, until one day, the perm is gone. Just like she said it would be.
She asks me to paint her toenails. I nearly forget that I’d packed a collection of colors to give her a pedicure today. “Which one?” I ask. “I like the one you’re wearing,” she says. It’s a mint green that I copied off a popular girl in class who I’d exchanged three words with that year. Boys talk to her. She would soon start wearing Tiffany & Co. while I continued adding charms to my bracelet from Claire’s. She has iron straight hair.
Mom is supine but tilted up to observe my handiwork. It’s my first pedicure, but I try my best. “Do you want two coats?” I ask. She looks at my chipped fingernails for a moment. “Is that what you have on?” I nod. “Then yes, of course.” I’m fairly certain this is her first pedicure, too.
A nurse enters the room. “Ladies, ladies — oh my, it’s a beauty parlor in here!” she exclaims, checking multiple bags of hanging fluid only after she scans the polish color. “That’s a daring hue, Sue.”
“Isn’t she talented?” Mom says, attempting a tired smile. “Cole, tell her about your birthday party.”
It’s in two weeks, I say. It’s cosmic bowling and will be in the theme of Romeo and Juliet because Mom and I just saw it in theaters. Well, the theme isn’t so much Romeo and Juliet as it is Leonardo DiCaprio. In between my explanation, mint green ends up on the skin of her big toe. I run to the bathroom to wet a tissue and wipe it off.
“My mom will be there too,” I say confidently, closing up the polish and standing up to sit by her waist. The nurse looks at me and smiles, but it’s one I can’t discern. Mom grabs my hand to bring me closer to her to kiss my forehead. I kiss hers back, expecting a curtain of blunt brown bangs like the ones I recently got from Louise, to copy her. Instead, my lips meet the coolness of a silk scarf, purple with a floral pattern throughout. The nurse exits, saying she’ll be back in time for the manicure.
“Cole, can you please rub my shins? They’re so pent-up right now.” Before I can respond, she speaks again, quieter. “Just for a minute or two.”
I return to the foot of the bed and brush the bangs away from my eyes so they can meet hers. Big. Brown. Devoted. And I get to work.
-- Nicole Schnitzler is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in outlets such as USA Today, Hemispheres, and The Chicago Tribune. She is earning her MFA in creative nonfiction at Northwestern University and is currently working on a collection of essays. She is also the founder of Doors Open Dishes, an organization that partners with chefs to help keep the doors open to group homes and workshops for those with developmental disabilities.