The Circuit

But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her;

 for hair is given to her for a covering.

                                                            1 Corinthians 11:14


“You curled your hair.”

The crescendo of internal vitality Laura had cultivated on the drive over with the right succession of Pat Benatar songs and glances at her eyeliner in the rear view mirror evaporated.

She stopped. Nick put out his hand in front of her as if she’d tripped and might keep going forward on the asphalt. Laura considered momentarily if a face plant could technically be construed as hiding or at least a temporary solution.

“Are you okay?”

She’d given some affirmative gesture though she had no idea what it had been because they kept walking. For two weeks she had psyched herself up to be fully present on this date, but his observation disembodied her instantly. Laura stepped over the concrete headers, listening to his humorous work story as they wove their way through the parking lot. An automaton reading verbal cues she nodded and smirked at punch lines she did not hear. Nick ushered her in through the double glass doors, rosemary and Parmesan snapped at her nose, and their waitress dotted the small white plate with oil and vinegar. She thanked him when he closed the shade so the afternoon sun didn’t turn her blind as well as dumb. Details, the little connectors like round copper points, kept her grounded to the present until he excused himself and went to the bathroom.

She replayed his greeting in her mind, trying to tease his expression out of her memory and realised she’d looked away immediately and so had no data to recall. Laura itched to tuck it all back behind her ears, to pull it away from where it tickled at her branded cheeks. But she put her hands on the table and regressed two hours instead.

Sitting on the toilet seat lid, she stared down the curling iron, wondering who would blink first.

It was the third one. The only one she had not returned. Even after all the You-Tube tutorials, and her decision to use it initiated by its extraction from the plastic, its presence seemed utterly unfeasible.

She plugged it in.

The red light began to blink as she turned the dial to five. The curling iron lounged on the counter, level with her shoulders, waiting. She held her hand over it.

Getting warmer. Warmer. Hot.

After about ten minutes, she got up and gently rubbed her moisturiser in. Foundation.  The red light blinked in her peripheral vision. This time she let herself think it. Her therapist had left her no back doors. To break the pattern she had to do what she had not done even at her own past solicitations and let herself think it.

Laura pictured the hallways between the classrooms and stood in the long hall. February. She walked under the corrugated tin as the rain pounded all around on either side of her. Moisture pervaded the air and her red sweater, making her hair curl even more. The tightness of the blue silk bow over the rubber band at the back of her head pulled at her scalp, but the tinge of discomfort reminded her of the coming good. Every step in her red rubber boots brought her closer to 4 B, where the yellow light would be on in the morning darkness, just as it illuminated the square windows of the classrooms she passed.

In the jean skirt, polka-dotted blouse, and white knit tights she felt the stride of a celebrity. Laura basked in the sequence of events that had transpired and drew into herself the satiating glamour of her curled hair. It bounced and trembled. It fell in rivulets down behind her ears and over her shoulders, the final touch of her coming destiny.

Not one day of the year before today had she desired to attend school. For two weeks in October, she had actually spent every lunch period in the nurse’s office complaining of a stomach cramp. Reaching up under her shirt and her sweater, she took as much of her belly that she could manage with one hand and pinched the flesh hard, so her claim wouldn’t be a lie. Laura held that for about five minutes in the girl’s bathroom before she walked up to the office and asked to see the nurse. Then she sat in the sanctity of the little side room for twenty minutes until the bell rang. The secretaries had stopped even questioning her or getting off their phones when she entered.

One Thursday the cramp had worn off, so she reached up under her shirt to renew it when the nurse walked in and caught her at it. Laura pulled her shirt down hard at the bottom to make it look as if she had just been adjusting it, and laid back on the plastic padded cot, trying to look as pale and melancholy as the sickly Colin she’d been studying in The Secret Garden.

“What grade are you in?” The nurse asked. Only she wasn’t the regular nurse because Nurse Peggy knew what grade she was. A substitute nurse from one of the other schools, only there for half the day, with a sharp tone and sharper eyebrows forming a deep v.

“Fourth grade,” Laura kept her tone pathetically quiet and widened her eyes a bit. She figured that her fainting act wasn’t good enough to try out yet. The dropping dead down like a stone she had, it was the eye fluttering that still looked too fake to pass mustard. Laura had never been tempted to do it for Peggy because she figured she’d feel too guilty over worrying her to commit and pull it off. Nurse Peggy always smiled at her, used her name, and then blessedly ignored her until the bell rang. This nurse went without a nametag and frowned openly.

“And how often do you come in here?”

“I get sick at lunchtime. My stomach cramps.” Keep it simple.

“Well, that’s no wonder since you keep pinching your stomach like you just were.”  She frowned to new depths, crossed and stood by the door. “Maybe if you get sick every day at lunchtime you shouldn’t be coming to school.”

That’s the idea.

“Go out to lunch now, I have other students to take care of.” She stood taller and waited for Laura to slide off the cot, straighten her sweater, and walk through the open doorway. “If you feel ill again tomorrow, I will call your mother and we’ll talk about it.”

You don’t understand. She couldn’t worry her mother. Laura knew then that she couldn’t go back.  Banished from her last refuge. Even if the sub didn’t talk to Peggy, the risk would be too great.

You don’t know what they’re like. You don’t know what I’m like.

Tease without ceasing. Critique without thought. When words failed looks and avoidance served as substitutes until new words could be found. Nothing she could do was right. Nothing about her was cool or even normal. She discussed things with the teacher that nobody her age should know about. The archaic vocabulary of the Britons in which she delighted, made her an invader from Mars. Not pretty nor well dressed, nor musical, nor rich, nor popular. Weird. That was her adjective, her marker.

They never forget who I am.

She could have changed; it would have been easy. But then she would have been a lie.

I’m me. It made no logical sense to try to be anybody else. So even when she was crying in one of the bathroom stalls and the aid had to come and find her, even when the comments lead to laughter and a fresh round of nicknames, so that she wanted to double over inside, Laura didn’t change. This strange integrity of self may have been the source of pain indescribable but she could not, she would not relinquish it. She was herself, no matter the cost.

Then the newsman came.

A feature story about their science lab. “Students doing experiments!” and their class the one chosen for interviews. Many of them were filmed and nobody knew who would be picked, which clip would make the story at five o’clock that night. The newsman wore a grey wool suit and a sunshine yellow tie. He leant over the table with the microphone with an intent look of interest for the camera.

“We are making a circuit,” Laura told him. Tapping the battery, she continued, “This is the source of the electricity. The wires make the electricity travel because it always wants a place to go.  And when we fasten all the connectors together it travels in a circle, and the bulb lights up.”

Afterwards, he took out a notebook and a pen and asked her name. She told him.

“Do you know Thomas Philips?”

“Yes I know him, he’s my Dad.”

“I went to school with your Dad,” the newsman smiled. “He was going to do television like me once, only he was behind the camera. Please tell him Joe Mantegna says hello.”

She did.  At five o’clock there was the news. At five forty-three, her face, her voice coming from the screen. He chose me. It did not escape her that both her parents had kept checking her face all through the first half hour of the broadcast. Somehow they had suspected it all along from the newsman’s words.  But to her, it was a miracle.

At last recognition. She had been on television.

By the social rules she had long endured and by logic, there could be only one result of this: her immediate popularity and acceptance. Now, they would want to be her friend. Laura considered, even if such friendships were built on shallow grounds (they desired to be near her as a direct result of her TV. appearance and not her true self) it was a start. Countless past observations of similar instantaneous advancements implied that her popularity was not only possible but likely. The new integer in the equation, of course, was that she would be popular and herself. She knew through the investment of time spent in proximity to her they would see her true worth and then how they became friends in the first place would not matter.

I’m in. I made it.

One clip that lasted less than thirty seconds imbued her with an enduring hope. Now she looked forward to that day of revelation beyond popularity when they liked her for her. The promise of its coming shone clean and sure like a guiding star some day in her future.

In the shimmer of that ideal, she dressed for school as a popular girl would dress, keeping her own color choices for flare. In that budding excitement, she stilled herself, stayed seated for half an hour, a former impracticality, and consented to allowing her mother curl her hair.

Every curl was a confirmation, bobbing and brushing her face with each step towards 4B. Laura knew she would reach for the knob, and open the door to vindication. She opened the classroom door.

They looked at her and they looked away.

She hung up her sweater, sat down at her desk, and began unpacking her homework.

“Look at her, who does she think she is?”

“He only chose her because he knew he knew her Dad. It’s not fair.”

“Why is she all dressed up?”

“Who knows, she’s so weird.”

“She thinks she’s better than us now. Look how she’s pretending to ignore us.”

Class began, but class was over for her. School over. She took a book out to recess and never looked back. On Sunday, her mother offered to curl her hair for church.

“I hate curly hair. It’s stupid. I have stupid hair.”

“You have beautiful hair. But we don’t have to curl it again if you don’t want to.”

“Good.”  I’m me. Curled hair, what were you thinking? Not you, not ever.

In her third year of college came Angie’s wedding. As one of the bridesmaids, she would be expected to get her hair done. “You can choose any style you want, but I want big, lose curls if it’s down, and little tight curls if you wear it up.”

Laura slid her cell phone out of her bag and quickly left the room before her expression got the better of her. She got herself together, went back into the bridal shop and let them pin her dress to her.  The consummate actress, she even managed to compliment Angie on her color choice in a charming way.

Halfway home she pulled the car over to sob.

It wasn’t fair to Angie. The focus should be on the bride, not on her childhood nightmare. Why did she have to feel so deeply about something so trivial, at such an inconvenient time? You so lame. Just suck it up and let them curl your hair. You’re not nine years old anymore. You get it now. Changing her appearance, modifying her mannerisms, even screening her words before she spoke did not rob her of her identity, it was just normalising. Curling her hair would be no dishonesty, no betrayal.

She rebelled. The morning of the wedding Laura pulled it up into a very tight bun on the top of her head, like a spinster ballet instructor, and would only concede to letting them reshape it into a softer French twist.

“I’m sorry,” she kept saying. “I’m sorry but curls just don’t look good on me. I won’t feel like me.” Angie hugged her and said okay, and every other bridesmaid bloomed a bounty of curls.

All day, Laura smiled, socialised, and sank in her disappointed in herself.

For five years she avoided the hair-care aisle that had them.

Her sister-in-law gave her one as a Christmas present. It had a neon pink handle and a gift receipt.  She returned it and bought protein mix and a Little Women DVD on sale for $5.99.

On her birthday, her mother gave her one. It was a one and a half inch barrel, black, with an extra button for heat bursts to “lock in lasting curl.” No gift receipt and her mother and sister admonished her.

“You can only return it for another beauty product,” they insisted.

“Protein shakes help me to maintain a beautiful figure,” she offered as appeasement.

“No. That’s just it. Maintenance and adornment are not the same thing. I’m not saying you have to buy another hair product or even makeup,” Her mother drew a strand of Laura’s hair away from her face.   “Just promise me that you will buy something that makes you feel beautiful.”

Laura promised. She returned the iron and waited for a stronger day.

Thursday after Worship Night she ran in to get some makeup remover wipes and took a wrong turn. The aisle was loaded with accessories, with blue ribbons. And there at the very end of it was the curling iron with the red end and handle one-inch barrel. Laura put it in her cart and didn’t look at it.  Even when the cashier was ringing her up, she absorbed herself in organising the cards in her wallet.

The bag sat on her kitchen table for a week, then on the floor of the closet a week more. It went back into her car to be returned, but then her mother called. Her mother didn’t ask or mention her birthday at all, but she carried the bag back inside.

Three months later, she met Nick. A month later, he asked to take her on a proper dinner date.  Laura didn’t tell him when she said yes that she’d had a date outfit hung and waiting for a week and a half. The next time she’d talked to him, he said that his favourite art era was the Pre-Raphaelites and Laura googled them to see what he liked. She revised the date outfit:

The dress: soft blue jersey cotton, loose around the shoulders. Laura found some dangly earrings at cost plus from India and a creamy yellow scarf she could drape across it all or wear on her arms at the elbow. She pinned up her hair. No good.

“What is your favourite painting?” She texted and prayed for some back door in his answer.

Lady Lilith, by Dante Rosetti. She searched and studied it. Carefully she did her eye makeup and powder for an even tone. Hardly any blush, she was flushed. Laura drew on the red, red lips. She really started praying, not in words but in gestures. Every movement that her hands made asked what she could not say. She held her hand above the curling iron.

It was very hot.

Slowly she wrapped her hair around it and waited. Release. The shape appeared.

Again, she wrapped.

We are making a circuit.

Laura looked at the woman in the mirror.

This is the source of the electricity. She released another curl and wound again.

The wires make the electricity travel because it always wants a place to go.

Release. Wrap again. Hold.

When we fasten all the connectors together, it travels in a circle.

Again. Look yourself full in the face. One lonely strand left hanging in front, by the wet eyes.

Wrap. Hold. Release . . .

Nick leaned back in the booth with the masculine elegance of ease and regarded her. He smiled, filling out the whole booth across from her, the way the sun coming through a window can fill up the whole room.

“It looks good.”

“What does?” She knew, but she was afraid to know.

“Your hair. It is so beautiful like that. Not that it isn’t usually,” Nick added quickly, chagrined at himself. For the first time, it occurred to her that his face was tighter, and he was speaking more quickly than usual, like someone who is nervous.

“Thank you?” She could hardly hear herself. He shook his head at her timidity, sat up straighter and gave her his clear dark eyes.

“It may sound stupid, but what I mean is that you look relaxed tonight. Not just your hair, the scarf, everything—you look—like you.”

“I am me,” Laura said.


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