The salon was busy when I walked in. There was the chatter of stylists gossiping with clients, the whirl of hair dryers and the receptionist laughing into her cellphone. She paused the conversation to ask if she could help me.
Before I could respond, the stylist I’d come to see noticed me and waved me toward the washing station. I sat at the first chair and waited until she had put the client before me under the dryer. My hair, long, almost waist-length, was twisted into a haphazard low bun, a gray baseball cap, low on my face, hiding the messy, unkempt roots. It had been months since I’d visited a stylist, and I couldn’t tell you the last time I’d washed it.
It was embarrassing, but the shame of walking around with smelly, sweaty hair overpowered the shame of being seen in the beauty salon. My hair was a sign. It was usually what I neglected first when the persistent threat of depression visited me. I would make excuses to avoid the salon, citing money or lack of desire or time to spend hours sitting in a chair when I could have been doing something useful like writing or lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, willing my heart to stop on its own.
I used my hair as a shield. It kept me from the rest of the world. Where people couldn’t accept “I can’t get out of bed” without a Bible verse or platitude, they accepted “I can’t go! My hair is a mess!” with knowing. My hair was an acceptable excuse for missing gatherings and “I’m in town for a few days” messages.
Vanity is a common denominator.
I’m not sure what brought me into the salon that day. Why, after weeks of nothing, I finally felt the need to join the world. To feel clean and human again. I’ve learned not to question good days. I’ve learned that as easily as they come, they can slip away without warning. So that morning, when my eyes opened without a wave of disappointment soon following, I reached for my phone and left a message for the salon. I needed an opening that day, not tomorrow or next week; I didn’t know where or what my brain would be like then. I needed something today. Preferably within the next few hours.
My regular stylist, Camille, was always booked, so there were no walk-ins. I’d seen her for years, and she and I often traded stories about the similar ways in which our brains needed to be mended. She was part stylist, part therapist and full friend.
When I removed my hat, I knew she wouldn’t recoil or flinch; I knew I wasn’t the first mess on her hands. She understood when I came to her bedraggled and disheveled. She knew that what she did to my head would force a smile on my face. She knew how important it was. How vanity was a form of self-care. Camille was always booked, so immediate appointments were out of the question.
This lady was relatively new. I’d seen her a handful of times over the last year. Last time was November, days before the election.
We had spoken about our fears and hopes; she was not a voter, believed in Yoruba tradition and not the white man’s law. I was political and vocal. Today I had no conversation for her but tried my best to stay polite and present, punctuating her sentences with the appropriate, “Mmm-hmm ... right ... I know, girl ... ” She didn’t know about me or my brain, and I preferred that. Let her think I was just too busy and careless to be concerned with vanity.
When she asked me to lean back, the water was warm and felt like hope when it hit my scalp. I could no longer hear her, and used that to my advantage, giving myself permission to fall into a necessary silence. I concentrated instead on her fingers rubbing and massaging and scrubbing the dirt and smell from me. If my hair was as shameful and disgusting as I felt it was, she didn’t let on. She just kept talking and massaging. I closed my eyes and fell into a peace I’d been missing.
“Let’s just let this set while I check on my other client,” she said.
She left me there, my scalp tingling and smelling of peppermints. I thought of all the events I’d scheduled and canceled; the get-togethers I’d turned down, the easy way people had accepted my hair as a reason.
Sometimes it takes more than just willpower, pills and doctors. Sometimes, sitting in a chair while someone tenderly twists and pins your hair into beauty is exactly what you need. Here, sitting in the styling chair as she wrapped and pinned my locks away from my face—removing the veil of protection that kept me far from the world around me.
I remembered Camille and reminded myself of how it isn’t just about vanity; it’s also about sanity. About eliminating one more barrier between me and the rest of the world. Getting rid of one more excuse to reject the invitation or cancel the plans. And the truth is, there may be a need to conjure up yet another excuse or reason, but this was a step closer toward healing.
The stylist returned with a conversation already full on her lips. She beckoned me to follow her without pausing for a breath. I found a smile and slid easily into her chair; she began the conversation exactly where she had left it. I closed my eyes, added my verbal punctuation and allowed myself a necessary exhale.