A Hair

She got a bad haircut. When she went to fix that, she got talked into a perm. Then she made the fatal error of saying she liked the hairdresser’s hair. But she did. It was medium length with big soft curls that began at the height of her eyes and ended with its curled tips pointing gently to her breasts. She forgot she didn’t have the hairdresser’s young face, her big brown eyes, her closed pores.

The fact that it had been twenty years since she’d last had a perm said everything about how the last had looked. Apparently, she had the type of hair that was “difficult” to change so the chemicals took in some places and not in others. Straight parts next to curled parts. As if she’d done her hair in the dark or when drunk or had just given up caring.

She could endure it. She was rational and knew hair grew out eventually. It was also a convenient excuse, explaining away the reasons why she did not get noticed, did not turn heads at work or in the clubs where she went, miserable and proud, every weekend with her friends.

After the bad perm she let her hair grow and grow, only going a couple of times a year to trim off the dead ends. The perm died and her hair went back to being tough and straight. There were advantages: emergency floss, for one.

She met a guy at a party when they bumped into each other trying to fit themselves into a corner next to a tall ficus. He was a veterinarian who invited her to a dog park upon learning she’d never had a pet. They dated six months. She fell madly in love with him, but grew jealous of how much time he spent with his business partner, a woman ten years his senior. He denied it all. She thought she was freaking out because he was her first love and everything was extreme with first loves. Finally, she was so driven with suspicion that she broke into his apartment and waited for him to come home. She would never forget those hours of what felt like insanity to her, the huge range of emotions she cycled through, from rage to shame to guilt to self-pity and finally to self-doubt. But then they came home carrying groceries, talking about the dinner they were about to make and she realized they were a couple.

The next day, she walked into the first salon she saw and rid herself of most of her hair. Afterward she watched an old woman sweep her heaped hair into a clear plastic bag. When she mentioned this to a friend, her friend said they were probably going to sell it to someone who would make a wig of it. She thought of her hair on someone else’s head and laughed her first genuine laugh since the veterinarian.

Just after that she met a man who had shoulder length hair. He did not put it in a ponytail or topknot and she never saw him get a haircut. It was just miraculously the same length the whole two years she was with him as if it had stopped growing long ago. Unfortunately, so had he.

Then, for two years while she vacillated between short hair and letting it grow out, she did not date anybody. She went back to school to become a speech therapist for children and she did not think about men. It was freeing. She went out to group dinners and danced with whoever she wanted but what she enjoyed most about this time was being by herself. For the first time she lived by herself and did not mind that she could see the entire apartment from her bed. What more did she need? She ate when she wanted and slept when she felt like it and traveled when she got bored. She read books and watched a lot of movies and learned everything about what she liked and didn’t like. For the first time in her life she didn’t wonder if she was confident enough.

The only male she regularly talked to during this time was her weed dealer, a serious looking but funny skinny guy with homemade tattoos going up and down his arms. He weighed less than her but had been in the Marines and the stories he told her of how terrified he’d been every day made her clutch her stomach with laughter, roll around on his dirty, hardwood floor. But then they went on a date and they were both unfunny and it was all wrong.

Was it a coincidence that she met her husband just after she got a good haircut? A short bob that showed off her slender neck and concentrated the eye on her lips which she had taken to keeping blood red. She had entered her thirties knowing her worth. She was good at her job and loved working with children, because there was no artifice to them. Plenty of strong emotions, many tears, but all genuine and called for.

Her husband had good hair he wouldn’t lose as he got older. She liked how he experimented with it — sometimes he grew it out, sometimes he dyed it — this is a man I can marry, she thought, because he doesn’t fear change.

After marriage, her hair was dictated by the kids — short when they were at the grabbing stage, ponytailed and swept out of the way when they got older. She ignored her hair for her daughters’, their long, soft hair that she braided or pinned with barrettes in the shapes of animals and hearts.

Gray and white strands seemed to appear all at once. Like foreigners, they stood out and were stubbornly different. They were coarser, not straight but not curly either. She liked to think they looked like streaks of lightning and gave her newfound power. But actually, they made her black hair look oily and unkempt so she spent a lot of money to have it dyed to her original color. It bled onto her pillow and bleached white spots onto her towels. When it faded in a couple of months, she did not dye it again. She wished her hair would turn gray all at once but everything she had learned in life told her she had to be patient. Very few things happened all at once; rarely was it good if it did.

Like, for example, her husband leaving her after twenty years of marriage. But even though she felt like it happened all at once, later when she looked back she saw it was a long time coming. There was no one to blame except time and change. And she still believed change was a good thing. So when she looked in the mirror and saw that her hair was neither this nor that, that it had no particular shape, nothing to say, she decided to get it cut. It was a disaster. Bangs that did not hide her tired eyes, uneven layers that contrasted sharply with the accelerating rounding of her face and body — her shoulders, her soft belly, her blooming thighs.

In a moment of self-doubt she agreed to another perm. It was different now; she got something called a digital perm. After the curlers were marched in rows up and down her head, they were plugged into a tablet that controlled the heat. Afterward, they doused her head with foul-smelling chemicals that recalled instantly that earlier, terrible perm and she sat under a helmet-like dryer, sweating under a plastic cap, wiping the tickling drips that slid down her forehead, into the wells of her ears.

The smile on the hairdresser’s face was tight like the curls. Not a good sign. She looked like a poodle with white and black hair. The hairdresser said it would “relax” and she laughed thinking about her hair needing a vacation. Tears came to her eyes but she refused to cry about her hair. She could endure it because it was only hair and hair always grew out.

She knew by her friends’ non-reactions that her hair was as terrible as she feared. Her ex-husband tried to be kind and say he liked it. His new girlfriend had hair like the hairdresser’s though she was a bit older. Her girls screamed and laughed and taught her to style it so it wouldn’t look so bad. Their hair color was a mixture of hers and her husband’s — darker than his, lighter than hers — just like their skin color. One girl kept hers long all the time; the other was full of experimentation.

She retired. By this time her hair was all gray. It wasn’t straight and it wasn’t curly, it was an in between that framed her face wonderfully. She was trying new things again — salsa dancing, knitting for beginners, pickle ball, writing for seniors — when she met a man at movie night in her retirement community. They were the only two who remained through the whole of Brazil, which before walking out the handful of others found grotesque, unnerving, disturbing, and weird, but they laughed and laughed. He had no hair but a wonderful shape to his head like an undiscovered continent with dips and heights that could only be known by touch.

They did not marry — what need did they have for social conveniences? — but lived together sharing the parts of themselves that they had kept secret their whole lives. He wrote awful, sentimental poetry that brought tears to her eyes, she sang songs off key but with abandon. To outsiders they looked like they were withering on the vine as they walked from their condo to the grocery store and back again. But they knew they were glowing.

And then one day he sputtered at the breakfast table, pulled at his shirt, and died. Afterward, she permed her hair one more time. By then, it was all white and thin and when she sat in the backyard among the hummingbirds that came to drink the sugar water her man had taught her to leave for them, yellow sun radiated through her hair until she looked like a woman with her head on fire.

Caroline Kim

Caroline Kim

Caroline Kim was born in Busan, South Korea, but moved to America at a young age. Her collection of short stories, The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories won the 2020 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was long listed for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collections and The Story Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Bare Life Review, Carve, Lit Hub, Electric Lit, TriQuarterly, The Rumpus, The Santa Monica Review, Porter House Review, and elsewhere. Find her at carolinekim.net and @carolinewriting.
Caroline Kim

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Author: Caroline Kim

Caroline Kim was born in Busan, South Korea, but moved to America at a young age. Her collection of short stories, The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories won the 2020 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was long listed for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collections and The Story Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Bare Life Review, Carve, Lit Hub, Electric Lit, TriQuarterly, The Rumpus, The Santa Monica Review, Porter House Review, and elsewhere. Find her at carolinekim.net and @carolinewriting.