Before I can say anything else, Babs turns from me and starts to rinse off her yolky plate. She even reaches for Harriet's. Then she starts to laugh. I know this is not her good laugh but her laugh that means something bad is going to happen. If I ever try to laugh during this kind of laugh, my laugh does not mix in with hers but bounces back at me. Harriet is undeterred and just goes ahead and laughs too. Her laugh is higher and harder than Babs's, and I know she is making it work for something. Maybe this could be her lucky day; Babs just might turn to her and say, hey, why don't you be in my Christmas card? I know Harriet would willingly step on my face to make this happen.
"Geoff," I hear Babs on the phone when I return to the kitchen after being told to go find my fucking shoes. "We have a crisis. The kid has done a number on her hair playing home salon and we've got the card next week. There's not much to work with, can you give it your best?"
Harriet is standing right next to Babs, chewing on her nails. She nods and waits during the silence. Babs flexes her toes and I hear the bones crack.
"Of course. Whenever you can," Babs resumes. "I'll send her with the sitter and they will just wait until you have a break. Thank you dearest. Yes, I'll be in soon."
Babs hangs up and calls for Stacey on the intercom, even though her room is right off the kitchen. Saturday is Stacey's day off. For this reason, I was kind of hoping Babs would have to go with me. I have met Geoff when he has come to the house to do Babs and her friends for Babs's parties, but I am still kind of nervous. Babs says Geoff is the best hair guy in the city and kind of famous. Babs also told me he has sex with other men. I wanted more details on how this works but Babs just said its no big deal, and left it at that, like I was old enough to be let in on the secret. "Fags are the best," she explained. "Unlike other women, they actually want you to be beautiful."
Stacey drags into the kitchen, wearing purple terry cloth shorts and a purple t-shirt with bubble hearts on it. She is wearing Dr. Scholl's and carrying a hot pink can of Tab. She has long brown hair that feathers back off her face and big blue eyes, like a Disney character. Her nose is way too big so she is not pretty. Her last job was working at Dairy Queen.
"Yes, Mrs. Ballentyne," Stacey says, in a nice "can-I-help-you" voice she never uses with me.
"Zodiac" is on Oak Street next to the Esquire movie theater, and takes up two floors. The outside is all glass so you can see people getting their hair cut when you walk by. As we cross Michigan Avenue, Stacey walks very quickly and yanks at my arm. Once we have made it safely to the sidewalk, she turns back to me.
"You think your mother would have noticed my split ends," she says in a harsh voice. As we were leaving, Babs gave Stacey her American Express card and a wad of twenties for the tip. "Do you know my last hair cut cost eight dollars? And that was at "Sheer Genius!" where they shampoo your hair twice!"
Stacey always makes some kind of speech when Babs spends what Stacey considers big money on me. I think she really believes that she would be better than me at being Babs's daughter, and any perks I get out of my situation are really supposed to be hers. Babs does treat her differently than the rest of her staff. Babs doesn't make Stacey wear a uniform, she lets her charge cigarettes on the gas card and sometimes even gives her clothes she doesn't want anymore. Babs likes to rearrange Stacey's closet, stacking the clothes in neat little piles and lining up her cork wedges and clogs. Sometimes Babs spends a whole afternoon on Stacey's make-up: she dumps it all out on the floor and has a great time digging through it—the Sno-cone blue eye shadow and pink lipstick the color of cake frosting. Babs thinks Stacey is fun, like having a Barbie Doll.
Stacey does have her own family and they are really happy she got the job with Babs. Stacey's mother Janice works in a supermarket doing checkout and every time someone buys a Ballentyne bar or some "Ritzy Bitz" she tells people that her daughter is a nanny for the family that makes that chocolate. Stacey's mom then whips out our Christmas card and makes people look at it. I think they are probably more impressed that Stacey is a nanny since she barely finished high school and not that many people from Wisconsin do that kind of work. But maybe not. Maybe it does have to do with the chocolate money.
On the last few steps of sidewalk before the door to "Zodiac" Stacey scrunches up her hair with her fingers and pulls it down in front of her face. I know she thinks if she makes her hair look bad enough, maybe Geoff will insist on doing her too. I hope this will happen for her, because maybe she will let me watch TV in her room with her when we get home.
The salon has black walls and white leather chairs. In front of each chair is a big gold mirror. The ceilings are decorated with clusters of stars and low-hanging disco balls. The names of the twelve astrological signs are linked together in gold scripty writing and lasso the painted constellations.
When we arrive, Geoff is busy cutting a woman's hair and laughs as he cuts. The woman is older with white hair. She is talking but instead of looking at him, she is addressing his reflection in the mirror. Geoff is tall with broad shoulders and shaggy blond hair. He wears a tight white t-shirt, a gold rope chain with a lion's head on it, and green velvet shorts. His outfit looks like a costume.
His assistant comes over to us and directs us to a bench in the far corner. He tells us it will be a while. Stacey grabs a stack of magazines and lights up a cigarette. I know by the way she quickly sucks in the smoke she is excited to be there. She flips through the pages loudly and does not offer me any conversation.
Geoff finishes the haircut on the older woman and drapes a cape around someone else; a younger woman who looks like a prettier version of Stacey. Stacey keeps going with the mags but does not share commentary on the fashions with me the way she usually does. I get so bored that I finally look in the mirror to the side of the bench and check out my hair. I really don't know why I wait so long to do this. I guess my hair just doesn't seem to be the day's big problem, but Babs's reaction to it. At first look, I am surprised to see it is not such a disaster. I am just lopsided. The left side is long to my shoulders and in front, by my right ear, there is just a tuft of hair where the rest used to be. It is not really that ugly; it just looks kind of weird. I think maybe I could put a headband on and you wouldn't even notice. I start to worry less about the Christmas card and tell myself that a pro like Geoff can fix everything.
The light changes in the salon and I can feel the afternoon rolling itself up; hesitating on evening. We still wait. I have watched four haircuts and a blow-dry. There is a promising lull at Geoff's chair and then a woman I recognize from Babs's parties runs in with an armful of shopping bags. She throws her thin, tan arms around Geoff and settles in to his chair. Stacey leaves me at the salon and comes back twenty minutes later with a brown Walgreens bag. She pulls out two Tabs and a box of "Ritzy Bits." She rattles the box loudly trying to un-stick the chocolate caramels from the sides. I am embarrassed for her. Whenever Babs is asked to wait, which is almost never, she just says, "I'm a fucking chocolate heiress," and leaves.
Other stylists are now packing up their stations, putting combs away and twisting black cords around the end of blow-driers. A short woman with a white t-shirt displaying the twelve zodiac signs sweeps the hair that has attached itself to the silver bases of the chairs and sprays Windex over the mirrors, wiping everything clean of the day. The woman with the tan arms leaves. Her hair is now shiny and curled and looks like Lynda Carter's.
Finally, Geoff looks over at us. Stacey jumps up. Both Tab cans are empty but Stacey just leaves them sitting with the magazines as she walks over to his station and I follow. The short woman cleaning up stops and just looks at her. Geoff checks his fingernails while he waits for me to get up in the chair. I am worried I am supposed to say something to elicit the greetings all the other women have gotten, but I can't think of anything. He has always been nice to me at the apartment, but then I was getting drinks for people and bringing fresh towels.
I expect him to at least say "Hi, Bettina!" or something to acknowledge we have met before, but he says nothing. I can't believe it at first; I think maybe he just needs a minute to breathe after all those haircuts before focusing on me. But Geoff, who cut Babs's friend's hair with a big smile and listened with interest as she talked about her precocious daughter; the man I was stupid enough to think would swoop in and rescue me from Babs with his super haircutting powers, has no interest in me: a dumb kid with a tacky nanny who has been shoved into his day. The whole way Babs has handled the situation seems to imply that Geoff is also staff, which of course he is not. He has spent enough time with Babs to know that she won't care how my salon experience is, but even so, to salvage his own sense of propriety, he needs to make his point.
He throws the cape that Babs's friend just used over me and doesn't bother to clean off the hair. He ties it tightly at the back of my neck. He then sprays my head damp with a water bottle. The shampoo woman has gone home.
"Do you have any suggestions for my hair?" Stacey says, eagerly moving in towards him.
"Brush it," he says dryly, and then asks her to please take a seat in the next station over so he can see what he is doing.
Instead of taking a minute to bend down next to my face and think out a plan, he just goes right in and starts cutting. I am tired and Babs always tells me I am the vainest person she knows because I look in the mirror too much, so I shut my eyes as he works.
I could fall asleep I am so tired but the air conditioning is on full blast and Geoff yanks at my hair too hard for me to fully relax. The points of his scissors are sharp on my neck. He hums a song I don't know and I just wait for it to be over.
He finally stops and turns on the hairdryer, running it over my scalp in a careless sweeping pattern as if he were blowing leaves. I notice how hot the air feels, how it burns. I open my eyes.
When I see myself, I try to look happy and grateful like all the other women but I really, really want to cry. My hair is now all gone, cut short like a boy's. I see long strands of it on the floor, mixed in with other hair. I have the absurd idea that maybe if I can gather them up, I can take them home and reattach them somehow. I am not pretty enough for this kind of cut. My eyes are straight brown with no green and the rest of my face is ordinary: no Mariel-Hemingway-cheekbones or Brooke-Shields-lips. Stacey looks up from the next station where she has been busy ignoring Geoff and laughs at me. I want to hit myself in the face.
Babs calls Geoff at home that night to tell him how brilliant it is. "Very gamine," she says. She ruffles my hair and rubs her thumbs over my forehead. I want to enjoy this but I know I have her attention only because it interests her to see me so thoroughly maimed; it's as if I hacked out my own eye.
I do get to be in the Christmas card, but when I see it, the matching red sequined tops and black velvet pants don't register. It's just Babs smiling, looking glamorous with her blond head tossed back and waiving her diamond-bangled wrists in the air, and me to the side, sitting with my arms crossed, a plain girl with an ugly haircut.
Ashley Norton is a graduate of New York University's Creative Writing Program. She is at work on a novel about Babs and Bettina called The Chocolate Money.