Maria Hummel is the Draper Lecturer in Nonfiction at Stanford University. Her poetry and essays have recently appeared/are forthcoming in Third Coast, Literary Mama, and Creative Nonfiction.
Now that I'm four months pregnant with my first child, it's time to tally up my disappointing genes: my size 11W feet, cavity-prone teeth, eyesight that deteriorated in my twenties. Worst of all, I was born without curls. I remained resolutely bald until my first birthday. My scalp sprouted a few boyish wisps that my mother pinched with pink barrettes to signal that, after three sons, she and my father had finally produced a girl.
A girl! cheered their friends. A blonde, even. But my hair turned out to have the same fine texture as my New England mother's, the same stick straightness she'd spent decades perming and pressing into curls. My inheritance confirmed her conviction that we would strive for everything in life. Riches, education, power, and beauty-none of these would come easily to our family. Ease was for other people. Work was for us.
When one of my mom's friends visited with her hair-superior daughter, I saw my mother zero in on Sheila's red corkscrews. For a moment, she gazed at them, a cloud of admiration crossing her face. Then her hand stole up and touched her own fake waves, and the admiration changed to scorn.
“Look at Sheila,” she said to me. “She's got curls. We didn't get those.”
For holidays and family gatherings, my mother deployed endless strategies to disguise this deficiency. I submitted to them with gratitude. Pink rollers padded my skull at night. Braids bound the straightness back into respectable captivity. We even practiced the ancient art of pin curls, coils of hair fastened close to the scalp that vaguely resembled the onset of ringworm.
Yet in the morning, I felt what it was like to be surrounded by spirals and ringlets, a collection of temporary friends who responded to everything I said. My face radiated in the mirror-not me exactly, but a portrait of me, one that had finally been given the right frame.
In seventh grade I wanted to have curls all the time. I cut out a photograph from Seventeen magazine that showed a young blonde sitting in a black dress at the edge of a European square. Her hair was chin-length and curly, her shins stretched out before her, as if she had nothing to do all day but sun herself in this vacant, glamorous place. Whenever I gazed at the picture, I felt something shift inside me, the way I did when my French teacher addressed me by my chosen French name. Dominique, it was as silky as a black skirt against warm, bare knees. Dominique, its syllables rippled and waved.
I couldn't change my daily winter uniform: long underwear, jeans, wool socks, boots, a turtleneck, a sweater, a parka, a hat, mittens, and a scarf. I couldn't change Vermont's bleak white horizons or the jammed, steamy hallways of my school. I couldn't be older or freer or far away. But I could go to my mother and ask for curls, this time the permanent kind.
She was only too happy to administer her private alchemy: a Toni kit, a relic of her childhood. Her mother Margie had begun chemically altering her daughters' hair when they were nine, around the time six sets of “Toni twins” traveled to 70 cities around the country in Lincoln Continentals with pink-and-white luggage trailers that resembled the Toni box. It was the first media blitz in advertising history.
As my mother showed me how to snag a damp lock with an end paper, how to roll it tightly, and wet each rod with solution, a sense of family ritual overcame me. The chemicals' foul incense pervaded the room, and I felt a rush of hope that “permanent” might really mean what it said, that beauty that would come to me and stay.
Everyone's hair is composed of keratin and other proteins. In wavy hair, the sulfur atoms on these proteins actually bond with one another. They pair up a lot, especially at a distance along the shaft, and this makes the hair bend. In straight hair, they stay detached.
A perm makes the shy atoms connect. It was first introduced on a London stage in 1906 by a German shoemaker's son named Karl Ludwig Nessler. He was a handsome man who burned his wife's hair off perfecting his machine, a chandelier of wires that poured electricity down into a spiky crown of brass cylinders. His procedure took ten hours. First, Nessler's assistants applied a reeking mixture of cow urine and water to his volunteer's hair to break its chemical bonds. Then the assistants connected her to the machine, wrapping the soaked sections of her hair around the two-pound cylinders. As the coils heated, Nessler doused her with a second round of chemicals, and they all waited, six more hours, for the toxic bath to refix the bonds to the shape of the rollers. A rational person could not understand why anyone would sit through this, but I do. Nessler promised the lady the ultimate transformation. She could finally do more than bend her hair. She could change its entire chemistry.
Once the curlers were all set, my mother hovered over the timer while I studied the directions. I could choose between “Body,” “Waves,” and “Curls,” each illustrated by a brunette with increasingly lush cascades. My hand strayed to “Curls.”
“You want waves,” countered my mother. There was the same note of warning in her voice as when I wanted to order the super-fudge peanut-butter sundae on the menu at Friendly's.
I sighed and she set the timer. The tiny ticking began.
While I dabbed the acid trickles from my forehead, my mother turned back to the dining room table, where she was cutting out a pattern for a shirt. On the refrigerator, she had taped the saying “Work is love made visible.” Beside it, hung a hand-drawn chart of chores for Saturday mornings. Most of the check-marks were hers. Inside the fridge sat a sour yeast mixture for homemade bread. She took it out and added flour, then went back to cutting the flannel.
I wondered if my hair was really changing. The chemicals felt prickly and warm. Across my mind drifted the blond in the black dress in the empty square. Her hair was like a separate entity from her face. It had its own drama. If you passed her in the hall at school, you'd see the hair first and then you'd see the girl.
The words tumbled out. “Do you think I'm pretty?” I asked.
My mother's hands halted in the cloth. A sense of alarm filled the room and I blushed. In the silence I could feel her approbation, that this was not the kind of question she wanted me to be asking about myself, that she had seen and noted my new proliferation of jewelry, my plastic stashes of lip gloss, the ad I clipped out for a free catalogue from Barbazon Modeling School (Want to be a model? it asked. Or just look like one!). She nodded and then shook her head, as if she understood my yearning but could not condone it, as a government could not condone its citizens quitting their jobs to go find themselves. Vanity did not belong at this table with the homemade bread, the hand-stitched buttons.
The dryer buzzed downstairs. She glanced at the timer. “Call me if it dings,” she said and headed for the steps.
I stared out the black window until I heard a chunk of ice fall from the eaves. The sound made me shiver. Winter could go on for months. Sometimes it lasted right through May and then you had no spring at all.
I picked up the perm's directions and read them for the umpteenth time. In each picture the brunette was smiling, but in the picture with curls she seemed a little bit happier. I grabbed the timer and twisted the knob back.
The timer rang just as my mother reappeared with a hamper of folded laundry. She set the hamper down immediately and guided me to the sink. The rods clacked into the stainless steel basin. My hair tumbled after them, short and wet and rank. She turned on the faucet and washed my head in warm water, her fingers combing out the new curls. I closed my eyes and gave myself over to the sensation: the heat, the quick tenderness of her hands, the putrid smell, the whiteness of the water foaming the drain. When I raised my head, everything about me felt tighter and loftier. I was someone else. I had to be.
Standing before my bedroom mirror the next morning, I examined my hair. Or rather, I fastidiously organized the earrings on my bureau and glanced up occasionally, afraid and mystified by what I saw. My head's shape was somewhere between a lampshade and a mushroom cloud. The curls felt like a softened beard. Their hue reminded me of stale cheese.
Suddenly I heard my mother's slippers whisking down the hall. A strange and stubborn resistance filled me. I shut my door and sat down on the bed.
“Dearie?” She rapped lightly.
“I'm naked!” I called. “I'll be out in a minute.”
There was a pause and the footsteps retreated.
A few more minutes passed. My eyes fell on the photograph from Seventeen. I grabbed it and tilted my head back like the blond girl, catching my eyes in the mirror. Better. I pouted and stretched out my legs. Better. I could feel light warming me from some distant place.
I squirted my head with both hairspray and perfume, hoping to mask the creeping reek. Better. I wouldn't spend my life doing chores at home. I dotted my mouth with candy-apple lip gloss. Better. I would go to foreign cafés and sip dark, bitter things. I finished off the presentation with two strokes of blush to my eyelids that, I had read, somewhere, would give me a sultry look.
Dominique was ready now. Dominique wouldn't seek her mother's opinion, wouldn't wait for her eyes to soften, for her to reach out and make practical suggestions. Dominique was impetuous, carefree. I grabbed my lunch and caught the bus while my mother was downstairs getting beef out of the freezer.
At school I stopped in the bathroom and took off my winter hat, tamping down the static with dribbles of water from the sink. By the time I emerged, only Angela Stockton was ahead of me, hurrying to class. If there was anyone whose opinion dominated my life more than my mother, it was Angela Stockton. Angela had a stable of boyfriends and blue jeans with bows at the ankle. She ruled a court of pretty, trendy girls whose jealousy of one another was only exceeded by their disgust at everyone else.
She heard my footsteps and turned. Her eyes roved over my hair, my brows. For a moment, I wondered hopefully if I had achieved the kind of era-ending fashion statement that Heidi LaPoule had made when she chopped off all her beautiful schoolgirl hair for a Duran Duran flop.
Then Angela's red mouth opened and she began to laugh. The lilting sound echoed through the empty hall. I slowed down, but she kept giggling.
Her little peeps stuck in my ears as I followed her into French class. I slid into my seat, opening my textbook and gazing at Paris, wishing I could disappear into the photographs of blue-striped awnings and the Arc de Triomphe.
“Bonjour, Dominique,” my teacher said twice before I heard her.
When I finally looked up, the awareness struck me. I was just Maria. I was Maria more than ever, in the white turtleneck stained at the armpits and the JC Penney jeans. I was Maria, daughter of Margaret, daughter of Margie, resident of a plain raised ranch on Poker Hill Road in a small town in the middle of nowhere. I swallowed.
“Bonjour, Madame.” My cheeks burned as I felt all my classmates notice my red eyelids, my grizzled head. But I didn't care so much about the bad hair now. I was realizing something far worse. What if nothing ever changed me? What if I'd always be Maria, no matter where I went or what I wore?
In my mind, I saw my mother on her knees, scrubbing the kitchen floor. Pink rollers studded her hair. Her hips wagged in homemade jeans as she rubbed the sponger harder and harder. I saw the blond in the black dress get up and stalk across the square until she vanished, her footsteps loud and hollow.
At thirteen, I looked in the mirror and saw my own face. At thirty-four and four months pregnant, I see my mother's: her high forehead, her wide mouth. When we smile, our teeth crowd forward like actors in an amateur play. I have the same crow's feet from spending years squinting into the same Vermont wind.
Though I renounced perms years ago, I can suddenly sense the onset of Curl Vigilance again. It's not that I yearn for this child or any of my future children to have ringlets. I want them to be happy, healthy, and all the vague good things you wish for your offspring. But I also want them to love me, and because I cannot help it, I want them to be like me. Even months before this birth, my eyes are sharpening, keen to see the characteristics that make a family a “we,” unique in the rest of the world.
I was recently with some friends at a restaurant, examining their baby son for the first time. When I arrived, he was sitting on his father's lap, his cheeks brimming, a shock of blond hair, gorgeous blue eyes. His mother looked tired and radiant.
“Are you ready for this?” she asked me, but just then the baby reached for her and she didn't wait to hear my answer.
We ordered waffles and we swapped pregnancy stories. I told them how I couldn't stop sleeping on my belly, that I kept waking at night and pushing myself back to my side. As I talked, mother and father switched roles back and forth: one ate breakfast, the other dandled the baby. He twisted and whined. The conversation drifted. I found myself fixating on his scalp. There, I detected one towhead wisp winging upward, another swirling against his temple.
I shouted with jealous glee, “He's got curls!”
His blond father glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed my outburst. “Maybe.” He shrugged. “I don't have curls.”
“But you do,” insisted to his mother, pointing at her thick, dark locks. “I mean, you have waves. He could have waves.”
She nodded, looking somewhat puzzled. “You might be right,” she said.
“I think he does,” I said with all the conviction envy can muster. “I think he's got some already.”
I reached out to touch the fuzz. It was softer than a breath. It wound ever so gently around my finger. The baby's eyes met mine, and his hand wagged. It was like watching someone wave good-bye from his airplane window. You don't know if he really sees you, or he's just signaling the launch of his journey to some faraway place that you realize, with a rush of regret and gladness, you will never have to go.