From a work in progress called Halfway There – My Lesbian Life at Middle Age. I’d love your feedback on the story.
“A Little Snow Above and Below”
I like my bathroom time. In my bathroom, I can read, think, relax, and basically close out the world with the simple words “I’m going to the bathroom.” To pretty much everyone I know, except for my sister, these words mean keep out. I like it that way. It’s important to have, as Virginia Woolf once wrote, a room of one’s own. Although, I’m sure she didn’t have the bathroom in mind. That doesn’t matter. It’s my space, and I’m keeping it.
One morning while I was enjoying my private bathroom time, getting older stopped being a foreign concept, something that was happening to other people. It came home. It became real. It came in the form of a gray pubic hair which stood out proudly from among the normal black ones I was so used to seeing when I looked down there.
“Oh my god.” I couldn’t think. I couldn’t react. I could only stare at it. What was it doing there? Should I pluck it out? Would seven grow back in its place? Could I dye it? What would it look like when all of them were white? Maybe it would go bald like my grandmother’s? “Oh my god.”
“Hey, what are you doing in there? I’ve got a flight to make. What’s taking so long?” Ellen knocked at the door.
“Honey, I’ve got a gray hair.” My voice was even and flat.
“So?” she paused, “Wait, where to you have it?”
“I wasn’t looking in the mirror when I found it.”
I could hear the snicker from the other side of the door. “Can I see it?”
“No, no you can’t see it. In fact, next time we screw around there won’t even be candlelight.”
“When was the last time we screwed around to candle light?”
“I don’t know, but I’m just saying that I’m not letting anyone see it especially you.”
Ellen peeked in through the door. “Is it safe in here?”
“Yes, except for the giant, scary, white hair between my legs.” I wiped quickly and pulled up my pants. The hair was still there, but it would have to wait until I figured out what to do about it.
“Hey, I wanted to see it.”
“Nope, and you may never see it.”
“Good God, honey, it’s just a gray hair. I’ve got them all over the place.”
“I haven’t seen any anywhere else other than your head.”
“Well, this is a little more personal.”
“Don’t you have to get ready for work or something?”
“Yeah, as soon as you stop admiring yourself, I might be able to actually get ready for work.”
I went downstairs to make some coffee and figure out what I was going to do with my day. I just couldn’t think about the unwelcome addition to my body just yet. I actually needed to think about getting a job. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds. I was forty. I had a history of job-hopping. I hated regular hours. I had a low tolerance for stupidity. And, above all, I had a giant gray pubic hair. No one was going to hire me. They would know just from looking at me I wouldn’t be right for the job. They would be able to sense it on me. They would be able to see age and discontent oozing out of every pore. Who in the hell would want to be around that? Confidence at this point was not going to be my strong suit.
In the few minutes it took for me to shatter my own sense of self worth, the coffee had finished brewing. I poured myself a cup and sat down at the kitchen table. I stared down at the green tile and stained grout that was our tabletop. I liked the blankness of it. Certainly thinking about nothing was better than most of the somethings that actually needed to be thought about. Thoughts, however unwanted, still crept through the depression of my morning haze.
How did things get this way? Why didn’t I end up where I had planned? That’s an easy one. You didn’t plan. You just partied and screwed around through your twenties with no idea of what you wanted. Wait, that’s not true. I finished college. Not at any really reputable school. What about the Master’s? Who really wants someone with an advanced degree in English, especially from some city university?
God, inner voices suck. There ought to be a pill you can take for them. There is, stupid. You’re schizophrenic, and there are many drugs for people who hear voices. I’m not schizophrenic. Then where do these voices come from?
“What are you doing?”
“I’m fighting with my inner demons. How about you?”
I was more than just glad Ellen had interrupted my thoughts. They were getting dangerously out of control. Damn them. Then for some reason, just for an instant, it seemed like Ellen was responsible for all of it. She was responsible for the lost jobs, the bad schools, the voices of reproach in my head. Hell, she was even the reason I was forty. It was just that easy to lay it all at her feet. Then just as quickly, it was gone. I closed my eyes.
“What in the world are they telling you now? Do you know how many people would want your life? You’ve got a house, pets, a car, me.”
“Was that list in order of importance?” I opened my eyes and tried to bury my thoughts beneath a languid or at least impassive expression.
“Unfortunately, I think it might be in the order you’d put them.”
“You’re not funny. I’m very glad to have a car.” I laughed. It was a weak joke, but the best I could do under the circumstances.
“Love you too, honey. When you are coming home?” I reached up and straightened out her tie. She had to wear one as part of the flight uniform. I hated women in ties, but this one with its Peanuts theme was pretty cute.
“I’ve got two overnights, so I should be back by Friday.”
“Wow, you’re getting a lot of weekends off.”
“Seniority has its advantages.”
I frowned. “Yeah, it sure does.”
Why did it bother me that my lover’s career was going well? She was doing what she loved, and it was working out for her. It’s not like we were in competition or something, and, honestly, if she wasn’t working as a pilot, we wouldn’t have the house, the car, hell even the pets. I should be grateful. I wasn’t.
The problem was, I didn’t know what I wanted. I wanted more. I wanted freedom. I wanted out. Out of what though?
“Wow, where did you go?” Ellen’s voice was soft, but worried.
“Oh, uh, I was just thinking about how much I hate looking for work.”
“Then don’t do it. We don’t need the money right now. Just enjoy the freedom. Take the week off. We’ll do something when I get back. Honey, there’s no rush to do anything.”
Easy for you to say, I thought. I tilted my head towards hers. We exchanged a light “see you soon, I’ve known you forever” kiss, and she was out the door.
I sat at the kitchen table for a long time. As I pondered my life, I realized I was in a hurry. There were things I wanted to do, places I wanted to go, things I wanted to accomplish. All that really seemed to be happening was stagnation. A deep narrow ditch of my own device from which there was no escape. No matter where I went or what I did, it all ended up looking the same, feeling the same. That’s where the analogy broke down. It wasn’t a ditch, but a giant hole…a grave. Whoof, that’s a bit dramatic, don’t you think?
Time didn’t care that I wasn’t where I wanted to be. Time didn’t care things weren’t going my way. The more I thought about it, time was precisely the problem. I was running out of it. I looked down at my crotch. Time wasn’t going to let me forget that it was a limited and valuable commodity that I was just pissing away.
I stood up and went upstairs to the bathroom to have a good hard look at myself. This was going to be a “coming to Jesus” moment. I was determined to not hold back. I was determined to be honest with myself. I was determined to find some answer. I wasn’t really sure what I thought I was going to find out, but damn it, I was going to have a long talk with myself and get this shit straightened out. Surely, I could face the truth. Couldn’t I?
The mirror never lies, even when you want it to. I turned my face with determined effort towards the glass. For several seconds I stared into my own brownish eyes seeking confidence and then slowly looked up. I started with my hair. Of course the first thing, or should I say things, standing out…way out…were curly white hairs. There weren’t many, but there weren’t few either. More than you could just comfortably count at one sitting. They were scattered around at the top of my head, a few along the sides. I went to pluck one, but stopped. There didn’t seem to be any point. I looked at my forehead. There were a few lines here and there but nothing remarkable. Thankfully, I couldn’t find any silver in my eyebrows. Below my eyes there were a few wind wrinkles as my grandmother called hers. My cheeks were ruddy and the pores seemed large and deep, the result of too much drink and too little sun. Below that, my jaw line sagged and my neck seemed to have grown grooves. What happened to the twenty something? The teenager? The little girl with such big hopes? “She got old,” replied my sardonic inner voice. “Fuck you,” was my only response.
I sat down on the toilet to consider my options. I could get severely depressed and stay in my bed for a couple of weeks. This had some merit. I could even muster up a convincing suicide attempt, but that seemed a bit too dramatic. Besides, Ellen would come home and she was getting on my nerves. What I really wanted to do was pamper myself. I wanted a long bath, a massage, a facial. I wanted to be taken care of for an afternoon.
This all sounded really good in theory, but I had no idea where to even get any of these services. I stood back up and looked again. Maybe I could just dye my hair. That could work. It would be so simple, so easy. In just a few simple steps, I could have new, young hair, all shiny and brown again. The whole idea was invigorating. If I could just get rid of the shit that was making look old, I’d feel young again. I nearly ran out of the bathroom.
It was a quick trip to the grocery store. I wanted to do it myself. I wanted the control. If I was going to be young again, I was going to do it with my own two hands. I confidently strode past the personal hygiene products, then the products for incontinence, glancing for just a moment to wonder why Ensure was next to the Depends, then onto the hair care aisle. What an incredible array of products. I began to feel a nervous ache in my stomach. This wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought.
I looked over the options. There were too many to count, so I just focused on the variations of brown. This seemed logical until I realized just how many “browns” there actually were in the world. There was dark brown, dark auburn, medium brown, light brown, ash brown, light auburn. It was too much. Maybe I could just change the color altogether. No, that wouldn’t work because then there would be more options. I just stood there for the longest time. Then out of nowhere my hand reached out and grabbed a box. Dark brown. I looked down. There it was. This was the answer. I took my selection to the check out counter and made my way home as excited as a kid at Christmas.
It wasn’t long before I was back in the bathroom again thinking how much more fun I was going to have dieing my hair instead of job hunting. I ripped open the box and took out its contents. They seemed innocuous enough, a couple of bottles, gloves, and instructions. I glanced at the instructions. They were pretty straightforward and easy to adapt. I stripped off my shirt and put on the gloves. With steady hands, I shook up the mix. It was a really nice color. I started squeezing it on my head and rubbing it into my scalp. I wanted to make sure the color stayed with me as long as possible. I pulled it through my hair. I washed my hair in the color. It felt cool and made my scalp tingle. I looked up at the clock. The instructions said something about how long to leave the stuff on my head, but if half an hour was good, an hour would be better. I ran my fingers through my hair one more time and dropped my pants. It was time to color the lower parts as well. Once that was done, I settled down in front of the television to wait.
It was all a pretty slow process. There was some itching, and then my head felt hot. It was uncomfortable, but not bad. After a few minutes on the couch, I went back to the bathroom to see how the color was taking. I looked at my reflection in the mirror. Did my eyes seem a bit swollen? I scratched my head again. It was starting to burn. I rubbed my hand across my forehead. This didn’t seem right. I pulled the instructions out of the trash. At the very top was a warning about allergic reactions. I looked back in the mirror. My eyes were swollen. There were some red blotches forming on my face. My thighs felt hot. I shimmied out of my pants. What I saw was enough to get me to strip and jump into the shower. I wanted this stuff off of my head and certainly off of my crotch.
I turned on the shower and hopped in. The cool water felt good on my burning scalp. I closed my eyes when I opened them again I realized that I hadn’t washed the stuff out so much as spread it all over the place. I was now streaked dark brown with rosy spots of red mixed in for good measure. To make matter worse, things were getting a bit blurry. I grabbed a towel and went to the phone.
“Beth?” I tried to keep my voice calm, but if there was ever a time I was glad to have close neighbors, this was it.
“What? You sound awful? What’s wrong?”
“I’m dyeing my hair?”
“Well, what does it look like? It can’t be as bad as you’re making it sound.”
“Is my face supposed to swell up?”
“What? Don’t answer. I’ll be over in a minute. Mom’s here so she can watch the baby.”
I didn’t feel very well. I went to lie back down on the couch. I closed my eyes.
“Oh, my god! We’ve got to get you to the emergency room. Come on, get up.”
“How did you get in?”
That’s the last thing I remember with any clarity until I woke up in the hospital.
“What are you doing here?”
“I think the stranger question is what the hell are you doing here.” Ellen smiled down at me.
“It appears my sweet, that you weren’t made to color your hair. You had the worse reaction to hair dye the doctor has ever seen.”
“You know I always want to over achieve.” I sat up.
“How did it come out?” I lift my hand up towards my head.
“Let’s just say, uh, it looks fine.”
“I want a mirror.”
“No you don’t. You’d rather hear about what happened.”
“Not really. Give me a damn mirror.” Ellen shuffled, head down towards the vanity table. She looked at me once more, then dragged the table over and lifted the top. I looked at my reflection. My face was still swollen and brown and my hair was brown, black, and red. I lifted the sheets and pulled up my hospital gown.
“Yeah, the doc got a real kick out of that. They had to give you a shave to, ahh, well, anyway. The swelling’s down.”
I dropped the sheet and pushed the table away. I started to laugh. I couldn’t help myself.
Ellen sat down and started to laugh with me.
“Something like this could only happen to you. It’s kinda funny.” She smiled.
“No, it is all pretty horrible, but what the hell am I going to do about it now? I guess being shaved is one way to feel young again.”
“You should have seen it with the ice pack.” Ellen touched my hair. “I’m just glad they didn’t have to shave your head.”
“That might have been an improvement.” I cringed. “When can I go home?”
“You’re out of here tomorrow.” She paused and looked directly at me. “I just want you to know that it worked.”
“I don’t see one gray hair on your head or,” she lifted the sheet “or anywhere else for that matter, and it’s a lot better than the perm you had when we first met.”
“I’ve known you too long.”
“Love you too, honey.”