I’ve been an unnatural blonde for a little over a year now. This requires a lot of upkeep, some of which I do religiously, most of which I do not at all, because – I’ll admit it – I’m lazy. My hair’s basically been chemically fried into an unwanted crisp of duckling fluff.
So I went to the salon to have my hairdresser, Amy, dye my hair back to something darker and less damaging. I put on my smock and sat in Amy’s chair. Amy painted carcinogens into my scalp and tried to make smalltalk.
“So, got any big plans for today?” she asked, folding a rectangle of foil into my hair.
“Nope,” I said, which was true. To puncture the silence that followed, I added, “This is pretty much it.” Nailed it.
“That’s nice,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said.
As is the routine with Amy and me, we fell into uncomfortable silence. The same nervous thoughts I always have came rushing into my head. From the harried, Quick! Say something – anything! to the superlative self-deprecation, I’m probably her least favorite client, it was business as usual for me at the salon. I pulled my book out of my bag, which I had brought in the event that such a silence might descend upon us.
I tried to relinquish my anxieties. I took in the sensations as Amy worked: the cool touch of metal as she sectioned off a strand of my hair, the heaviness of brush that painted it, the crinkling of aluminum foil as she tucked the thickly dyed strand into its silver envelope. I read and reread the same sentence without any luck understanding the words and closed the book in my lap.
Around the salon there were a dozen women sitting in chairs, chatting easily while stylists flitted around them, brushing and snipping and tousling and painting. The air was filled with the echoes of conversations about kids back to school, diets that didn’t work, and husbands that worked even less. They made elegant conversation seem effortless, even while discussing inelegant topics. Amy continued folding the foil into my hair.
I wondered then, not for the first time, if Amy hated me. Why couldn’t I be more like Barb at the chair next to me who knew exactly which questions were appropriate to ask her stylist about her bunions? For that matter, why didn’t I just ask Amy a damn question?
I realized an uncomfortable truth then. I didn’t ask Amy a damn question because I just didn’t care. Sure, I liked Amy, but I didn’t care enough to ask about her kids, if she had them, or any other detail about her life because it simply didn’t matter to me. To use the reality TV contestant cliché, I didn’t come here to make friends. I came to get my hair done.
There was a lot of guilt that came from this realization, which I deftly buried with rationalizations. I had paid for this service, I reasoned. I didn’t owe anyone a conversation. When I got home I’d face a barrage of well-intended questions from my family, so why couldn’t I just have my hair done in peace?
I tried again to lose myself in the words of my book, but when I failed once more to read it, a new thought occurred to me. A shift of perspective. I began reading the room instead of the page. I read the woman with the thick black dye on her eyebrows like fat leeches, telling another leech-browed woman next to her about her son’s drug problem, because who the hell was she to judge? I saw Bunion Barb, grossly excited to acquire new knowledge about human dermatological conditions. I saw the women gabbing in the corner who were so hungry to be heard that they devoured the conversation whole. Nobody seemed to listen to them at home.
And I saw me, too anxious, far too tired for idle conversation. It was all imaginary, of course. But I read a version of Amy who was relieved to have a moment alone with her thoughts, and it comforted me.