"Oh, sure, now you tell me." I looked in the mirror, my head of hair rapidly disappearing into rolls of purple secured by elastic. "I'm nervous as it is. My hair is virginal, and I was skittish doing anything, and now you tell me you hate doing them."
She laughed, deep and throaty. "Yeah, well, it's just that I'm so good at them. Besides, I talked you into it, so I can't exactly say much, can I?" She popped the rod closed and reached for another.
What I was doing to myself this morning was something I haven't tried since I was roughly eight years old. A perm. The very notion of which sends me into a mild anxiety attack. Because when I think perm I think of my father's mother, with her tight, tight, tight white curls in a smallish 'fro around her head. I think of little old ladies and beauty parlors and Aquanet and women who wrap their entire head in toilet paper at night to keep their hairdos in place. So when I told my beautician, jokingly, that I was considering a perm, she said, in all seriousness, "You should do it. It would be great for you." And she went on to describe how it would be wash and wear and so much easier than my sort-of-straight, sort-of-curly current hair. She'd use big rollers, she said, to make it look like the natural curl in my hair, just all over instead of the sporadic curls I have now. I agreed.
So that's what I did today. Because, for my trip, it would be no-fuss hair. She painstakingly rolled my hair up, lined my head with cotton and dumped the most foul-smelling chemical I've ever encountered in my life all over said rollers, then covered it with a plastic bag and told me I'd have to sit like that for 20 minutes. I felt geriatric. All I needed was a walker.
It was not pleasant. Not only because it was humiliating, but because that horrible chemical was not contained by the cotton. And it rolled in toxic droplets down onto my face where it stung and burned until I blotted it with the wet towel she provided. "I guess there's no turning back now," I said to her via the mirror, my head wrapped up like last night's leftovers.
Her smoker's laugh echoed in the salon. "Nope there isn't. But stop worrying so much. Your hair is so strong."
"Thanks. I've been working out."
She giggled and clipped the plastic baggie closed at the tippy-top of my forehead. "It's going to look great."
"I hope you're right," I said, smoothing my cape over my lap. "Because if I had to sit here in this degrading headdress, drowning in chemicals, in danger of asphyxiating for nothing, I'm totally not tipping you."
She laughed. And invited me to join her for a cigarette. Despite the fact that I was pretty sure I was highly flammable, I accepted. Because I, sir, have an addiction.
Twenty minutes later, she peeled the cotton from my moist head and rinsed the rollers of the offensive product. But this was not the end of my journey. She blotted my head with a paper towel ("This just gets more humiliating at every turn," I said, my head covered with three sheets of Bounty.) and directed me back to her chair.
She followed me over with a tube of Hydrocortisone cream, for the red patch blossoming on my forehead. "This'll help with that irritation."
I surveyed the splotch in the mirror. It started at my temple and crept its way up to the middle of my forehead. Red and angry, it scolded me: This is what you get when you just can't appreciate the hair you have. You know your skin is sensitive. What? Did you think a chemical that permanently curls your hair wasn't going to irritate you? What were you thinking?
"Hey, Jill?" I said, fingering the mark, surveying it for premature peeling and/or bubbling, "Do I have to pay extra for the mild chemical burn, or is it included in the price?"
She spun me away from the mirror. "We throw that in for free. Consider it a gift from me to you." She then mummified my hairline once more with cotton and applied the "neutralizer." "This only has to stay on for five minutes," she told me as she squirted each roller individually. "So your added-bonus-chemical-burn should be pretty much contained."
As promised, five minutes later, she stripped my head of the cotton and began to unroll all of her careful work. She washed my hair and began to give me instructions for the care of my new do. No washing it for 48 hours. "You can wet it," she said, "just don't use shampoo." Gross. Not only because I am an avid hair-washer (once, sometimes twice, a day), but also because my head smells like shit from all those chemicals. I'm so sure Billy will love it when he gets home, cuddles up to me, and notices that my head smells like a toxic dump. For forty-eight hours.
She sent me from the hair-washing chair to her chair and let me look at my new curly hair.
Drowned-rat came to mind.
But a drowned rat with some pretty curly fur.
I'd been moist about the head area for almost two hours. My hair was pretty limp. It was tired from all that rolling and burning and general activity.
She put some "curling creme" in my hair and told me my blow-dryer days were over. "Blow drying tends to make perms frizzy." She worked the product through my hair, scrunching handfuls of it in her hands. It was so relaxing. I wanted to fall asleep. "If you do what you used to do to make your hair curly, you'll have an afro." Which, by the way, to me, is awesome. The bigger the hair, the better. "And you can blow-dry it straight whenever you want to. It's pretty easy. When you're on vacation, just put some gel in it and let it air-dry." She picked up her blow dryer. "But I'm gonna diffuse your hair now, to get some of the dampness out."
"Thank god," I said. "I'm sick of being wet." Also, I was hoping that I'd like it better dry. Because I wasn't really feeling the limp look. Plus, it wasn't exactly the natural wave she'd promised. It was pretty...Permed.
Sensing my dissatisfaction, she spoke: "Now, remember, it's the tightest it will ever be right now. In a few days it'll be loose and natural."
I examined the results in the mirror. Okay. Still wet, so just okay. I hoped that, once it dried I'd like it better.
And, as it turns out, I do. It looks almost exactly how I wanted it to: Like my natural curl, only no longer intermittent; more consistent. And not as crunchy from a gallon of gel/ mousse/ hairspray/ hairdryer/ hairspray. (Yes, I know "hairspray" is in there twice. I use a lot.)
But I'm still looking forward to a few days from now, though, when it's a little more "natural wave" and a little less "HEY, I JUST GOT A PERM!!"
Me, five minutes ago, in all my permed glory.
Sorry for the ghetto "Camera Phone Self Portrait Through the Looking Glass;" I know you can't really tell what my perm looks like here...But its the fastest way for me to get a photo taken and uploaded. I have pictures on my actual camera from Christmas that have yet to be seen on anything but that tiny little screen on the camera. Whoops.
*The title is an allusion/direct quote from one of my favorite '80s movies: Troop Beverly Hills. I had to give a shout-out to Mrs. Nefler's horror story about Christophe's Salon. "He said, 'I'll streak your hair, and I'll give you a body wave.'... And when he turned me around to face the mirror, I saw it, HE PERMED ME!!!!! [screams from Mrs. Nefler AND the troop]" Oh, how that made me laugh. And I thought about it today.