Thursday, August 23, 2007

Hair Polish

Zofia, a bleached-blond, Polish hair stylist, worked alone. I remember her low-lit shop, her tight polyester pants, her pale blouse tied loosely at her waist. She wore open-toed shoes--a fashion I hadn't noticed till then--her glossy, dark pink toes erupting from the front ends at odd angles.

I'm guessing Zofia was in her late fifties, around the same age as my mom at the time. With her heavily powdered face and her yellow hair piled high on her head, though, I could only guess how old she was. I also wasn't able to guess whether or not Zofia was beautiful--her approach to femininity departed from any point of reference I'd ever known. There hadn't been older women in my life who'd divulged much information about what made a woman beautiful, especially not my mom.

Growing up, I'd watched my Mom's beauty ritual, eager to learn, believing it to be the practice of all women. I'd to stand nearby whenever she got ready to go out for special occasions. First, Mom would stare blankly at herself in the mirror, then grab face powder and slap it all over--forehead, nose and chin--followed by a smear of lipstick. I'm not sure she even owned perfume--the only bottle I ever saw was a no-name one that said "eau de toilette."

Together, Mom and I would then stare skeptically at her reflection, me instantly missing her incredibly soft cheeks, her uncoated lips that cracked so easily into a smile, that so readily showered me with kisses. In the end, she'd run a man's comb through her black, short-cropped hair, redon her never-properly-adjusted glasses, and voila! Mom, it turns out, knew more about the beauty that lies within.

So when I first encountered Zofia, she put me off my stride, perched as she was on the exact opposite end of the glamour continuum. Zofia had been recommended to me one lunch hour at work as I'd jawed on about how much I needed a hair cut. Her shop wasn't the kind of place you'd pick out on your own, the storefront wedged into the middle of the block, its pale blue sign faded to white, "Zofia's" almost weathered away. I'd hardly even noticed it was there.

Zofia welcomed me in, her heavily-accented voice singsong as she washed my hair and answered my questions about where she was from, how long she'd lived in the U.S. The warm water and her voice were relaxing. As soon as she began the cut, I felt talkative. Things had been tense at work and were tense at home, besides. Consequently, I volunteered a monologue about my recent house projects, the stress of trying to work and keep the house clean during a major remodel, my sense of accomplishment at having single-handedly painted the kitchen shelves. Then I launched into a diatribe about how long it takes to set up and clean up, let alone paint. But Zofia had heard enough.

"Now, stop!" In her distress, she'd actually yanked on my hair. I blinked at us both in the gilt-edged mirror. "Why you do all work? Is not right. You not careful, you lose man!"


"Why you not have man do? Or pay money for painter? Man, husband, no like woman work. Is not sexy. My friend, she at home cooking, cleaning, washing. All day. What happen? Husband leave, find pretty girl who no work. Man no respect woman who cook and clean, walk over her, treat bad."

I tilted my head, absorbing this news, hoping she'd say more. I couldn't help but think it sounded wrong, though, like cake-and-eat-it-too. Zofia righted my head in the mirror and gestured with the scissors, eyeing me sternly.

"Never let husband see you no make up. My husband fly plane, he pilot, sometimes he get up five in morning. I put on alarm, get up 4. He never see me no make up. Always, always I beautiful. Is woman's job--only job."

Since I didn't know what to say, our conversation screeched to a halt. In the ensuing silence, I mulled over this new angle on relationships. Was I about to lose my man? Was I not sexy? According to Zofia, women like me lacked sex appeal. Could I change my ways, wear a constant coat of foundation and gloss, let the housework go, lounge around in lace teddies and puffy bedroom slippers? Skeptically, I stared at myself in the mirror. Meanwhile, Zofia was transforming me into the woman she spoke of, curling my hair with a hot iron, blow-drying it into sweeping waves, spraying it firmly for hold.

As I left, I looked nothing like the woman who'd walked in her door. Breathing in a gulp of street air, I thought about how exotic, mysterious, even intimate my time with Zofia had been. Finally, I'd encountered what I used to long for as a girl. A woman who focussed her life on beauty, a woman who took control, who insisted there was a right and a wrong way to be beautiful. She had done her best to rein me in.

All at once, I couldn't wait to get home, to wash my hair, to shake the fresh-cut ends free of drips and let them air dry. As for me, I'd be just fine, my spirit busily stirring within.

Thanks, Mom. Claire

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