When I was about eleven, Jerry came home with a box of product and asked if I would help him bleach his hair. It was the first time he had dyed his hair, and after laying out the contents of the box he was a little hesitant once he recognized my unfamiliarity with the process. Immediately, he began to change his mind and started to gather the goods, deciding that he would go to a girlfriend’s house for help instead. I saw my window of opportunity closing and realized I needed to close this deal, as the idea of learning how to bleach hair suddenly sounded really fun.
“This is easy,” I insisted. “Stay.”
Halting for a second, Jerry searched for reassurance. “I don’t know, have you ever done this before?”
Now, I’m not sure what he was thinking in asking the question. As if there is a pool of knowledge privy to me solely due to the fact that I possess a vagina, like Judy Blume’s rendition of girl’s swapping stories of getting their first periods, we too must have access to the collective intelligence of hair design. I was eleven– of course I had no experience.
“Yeah, plenty of times,” I persuaded, gently freeing the box from his hands. “I just need to read the directions again.” Good, Kelli, close the deal.
It was these negotiating skills that I would rely upon heavily throughout my life. I recognize my rationalization in specifically choosing the word “negotiating” rather than “lying,” the distinction being that if I knew it wasn’t the truth, I was certain that it was about to become the truth. To convince the manager of the Egg Roll King that I had a worker’s permit, so that I could start my child labor years off in style, reeking of MSG by the end of the shift. To assure my mother that seven was the acceptable age to babysit a large brood of her friends’ kids so that they could go bar hopping deep into the wee hours of the morning. To fend off the imminent danger of a male twice my size whose eyes were filled with dire intent, I created a reality that Jerry’s arrival was certain, just minutes behind me.
Jerry agreed and I proceeded to work my magic. He draped an old towel across his shoulders as I mixed the concoction of developing creme and bleach per the directions on the box. Promoting the idea that I knew what I was doing, I added, “Now you’re not supposed to leave this on for more than sixty minutes,” as if the information had been drawn upon from my own reserves rather than just read from the outside of the box.
Making sure not to bungle the project, at sixty minutes I instructed Jerry to “rinse with warm water.” He was wary that perhaps the color wasn’t quite right and we needed to leave it on longer. I used the instructions on the box to support my own wealth of knowledge in the bleaching of hair and so Jerry agreed. As the water began to run clear, I was hopeful that the bright hue was due to the wetness of his hair and that of course it would lighten as it dried. Jerry wrapped his head in a towel and began to absorb the excess water. I began to pray.
As Jerry dropped the towel, I still recall the stillness in the room, like someone describing their last moments when their life flashes before them. In my mind he had been staring at his reflection for hours when I turned to run, but because of the time warp, my feet were stuck. Words of succor formed in my mind but had somehow warped into a long “aaggghhhhhh” by the time they left my lips. I couldn’t tell from his reflection if he was angry or in shock. I’ve since seen the color on Loreal boxes and have in fact dyed my own the same, ‘Copper Penny,’ but it was clear that this was not what Jerry had had in mind.
He turned to the left. He turned to the right. He looked at me. I shrank into the smallest size I could and trying to save myself, whispered, “It looks really good.”
“Yeah, not bad,” Jerry replied and thanked me for my efforts.