The woman whose husband I’d had sex with the week before pushed my head back under the water. Clouds of melon-scented steam curled around my face. Across the aisle, a row of hairdryers craned their necks, as though eavesdropping on the conversation at the sinks. Above the dryers, on a 20-inch TV set, Kenneth Starr barked “no comment” as reporters swarmed him, demanding a preview of the document that might unseat the 42nd President of the United States.
“Too hot,” I said to Tina, thinking she had every right to want to scald me, even if she didn’t know it.
“Sorry.” Tina’s penciled eyebrows drew together as she adjusted the tap. “Better?”
I nodded. She scrubbed at my scalp with her neatly trimmed fingernails. Beneath my neck, the rim of the sink was hard and unyielding and I bunched my shoulder muscles against the discomfort.
“Relax,” she said.
I stared up at the ceiling. If I turned my head to the left, I would see the cash register, and a wrought-iron rack displaying Paul Mitchell products in white plastic containers with plain black type, Crew for Men in bronze glass with beige lettering. My favorites were the brightly colored bottles that smelled of tangerine, mango, pomegranate and grape. Sometimes, when I stood at the register, crossing my fingers that my credit card wouldn’t get rejected, I’d catch a whiff of their exotic aromas and dream of escaping to a tropical island. Then, on the way home, I’d stop at Kroger’s and pick up the house brand of Head and Shoulders.
Above me, Tina turned to glare at the TV. “Look at her,” she said, and I watched as a dark-haired girl diving through a mob of paparazzi.
“Is that Monica Lewinsky?” I said. She was heavier than I’d expected.
“This is what I think,” Tina said. “She’s a slut, and he’s an idiot.”
“Still too hot?”
“No,” I said. “It’s fine.”
In the next stall, Shannon’s head bobbed to some internal beat only she could hear as she placed a square of foil against her customer’s crown. Shannon’s own hair was a dozen shades of red, ranging from mauve to black raspberry. It should have looked terrible, but the shadings were so expert that it was hard to remember that mauve is not a real hair color. She draped a layer of hair over the foil and, with what looked like a pastry brush, painted on some goop.
“He’s our President,” she said as she studied the result.
“I know he’s the President,” Tina said, swaddling my head in a towel. She hauled the back of my chair upright. “What difference does that make?”
Shannon peeled another square of foil from the plastic container in front of her and layered it on top of the previous one.
“I believe in standing behind our president,” she said.
Tina’s slim eyebrows flew up. She stopped massaging the water from my hair. “No matter what?”
Shannon nodded. Her multi-colored hair shifted, catching the light. “No matter what.”
Tina rolled her eyes and looked down at me. “What do you think?”
I shrugged. I think I should never have come back here, I thought, though I didn’t honestly see that I’d had much choice. I’d discovered Tina right after she graduated from beauty school, and followed her from shop to shop until she opened her own place. Switching stylists now would be like posting my betrayal on a billboard.
She turned and rummaged through the row of drawers that flanked the sink, fishing out a pair of scissors straight out of a horror movie. She glared at me, and for a moment I was certain she knew, that she had somehow seen straight into my black heart.
“Tina, calm down,” Shannon said. “You’re scaring Melissa.”
Tina laughed and patted my shoulder.
“Sorry, hon,” she said, gesturing toward the TV, where the newscasters were recounting the day’s events. “Watching those doings all day, I just see red.” She tossed the towel into a plastic trash can, setting the lid swinging.
Shannon’s customer, Katherine, was one of those women whose cheekbones are so high they’re immune to middle age. With seventeen layers of foil pasted to her head she should have looked like an extra from a sci-fi flick. Instead, she looked elegant. Her slender feet were encased in a pair of Ferragamo pumps I’d been drooling over a few months earlier. In the waves of depression after Eric left, I’d almost splurged on them, but before I could drop three hundred dollars on shoes I’d probably never wear, common sense had kicked in. I had myself and Caitlin to take care of, and not a whiff of child support yet.
When Katherine walked into the shop, I’d had to stop myself from staring. Her left hand sported a diamond the size of a charcoal briquette and her pantsuit molded her figure like it had been hand-tailored, which it probably had. What was a woman like her doing at a salon like Tangles?
Then Shannon appeared from the back of the shop. Katherine looked at Shannon’s hair thoughtfully, her smile slowly widening until minute crows feet appeared at the corner of her eyes. “Consuela tells me you’re the best colorist in Mason City.”
Beneath multi-hued bangs, Shannon grinned. “I’m going to have to start paying that woman a kickback. Give me five minutes to clean up back here, and we’ll get started.”
Now, looking at those gorgeous shoes, I could guess Katherine’s opinion of Monica Lewinsky. Some man had bought Katherine those shoes, given her that ring. And even though beauty endowed her with a self-confidence that permeated her very bones, there was no doubt in my mind what she would think about the seduction of a married man by a younger woman. She didn’t say anything, though, just studied Tina, then Shannon, then me with oval-lidded eyes that saw everything but hid her own thoughts.
“I had this customer one time,” Shannon said, “I used to do her hair, and her husband’s, too. They always came in together, and then, all of a sudden, he starts making separate appointments. At first I figured it was his work schedule, but then he starts hitting on me. I let him know I wasn’t interested, but one day she comes storming in and, in front of a whole shop full of people, accuses me of trying to steal her husband.”
What would that be like, to have a man’s wife accuse you in the middle of a room full of people? Perhaps not so bad, if you knew you weren’t guilty. Tina’s brows and lips moved as she listened to this story, as though she was imagining what she would do and say. In Shannon’s role, or the wife’s? Acid roiled in my stomach.
“What did you say?” said Katherine.
Shannon put her hands on her hips, cocking her head so that her hair fell sideways, in stripes. “I said, ‘I don’t fuck other women’s husbands.’”
Katherine looked startled, and then she laughed, a beautiful laugh, like the ting of a sterling silver fork on a crystal wine glass. Tina joined her and so did I, making a bleating sound that wasn’t much more than a cough.
I don’t fuck other women’s husbands. Until last week, I had been able to say that. Until, in response to Tina’s nagging, I’d taken my car in for Kevin to check out the noise it had begun making. To this day I wasn’t sure what had happened. One minute he was standing behind me, showing me the hose he’d replaced, and then he moved closer, so I could feel the warmth radiating from his body. Embarrassed by the way my pulse thumped, I leaned over, pretending to get a better look. He moved closer still, till I could feel his thighs pressing against mine.
Now Tina parted off the front two-thirds of my hair with a rat-tailed comb and secured it with a metal clip shaped like a kiwi’s beak.
“Lean your head forward,” she said. I dropped my chin and heard the skim of the scissor blades. A snip of wet hair slid down the cape and dropped onto the tile.
After Caitlin was born, I’d put on thirty pounds, and in the rush of work and motherhood and keeping house, I’d never gotten around to taking it back off again. Over the next six years it had coalesced around my hips, so that my jeans looked like someone had stuffed bean bags down them. When Eric told me he was leaving, he said, “I can’t handle the way you’ve let yourself go.”
Inside the curtain of my hair, my eyes welled and I forced myself to breathe in and out, slowly, until the wave receded. Tina had put up with my weepiness too many times over the past year. A second snip of hair joined the first, and then a third. She parted the strands again, this time twisting just one-third into the clip. I looked at it and thought how easy it would be for her to gouge out my eye.
The memory of the day Eric left would be with me forever. If I had thought it would do any good, I would have gotten down on my knees and begged him to stay, but the revulsion on his face as his eyes rested on my hips and thighs left me mute.
“The person I feel bad for is Hillary,” Shannon said.
“Oh, please,” Tina said.
“Whenever she’s out in public with him, she looks like an ice statue. How she can stay with a man who humiliated her in front of the whole world?”
“Ambition,” said Tina.
“Why ambition?” Katherine twisted to look at Tina. Shannon gently tapped her shoulder, but she stayed where she was, waiting for an answer.
“Because she likes being married to the President,” Tina said. “Because she wants to be President someday herself, and she knows a divorce would count against her.”
“Maybe she loves him.”
“Oh, please. This isn’t the first time he’s done this.” Tina combed a segment of my hair straight up and trimmed off another millimeter.
I pictured myself caught in an all-out scandal, my face plastered across the local newspaper, snubbed by Caitlin’s teachers, asked to leave my church. Bringing my hand from beneath the cape, I tugged at it where it circled my neck.
Tina smacked at my hand. “Stop it,” she said. “You’ll get hair down your blouse.” I swallowed and tucked my hand away again.
The bells over the front door chimed and in walked Kevin. Oh, crap. In the six years I’d been coming to Tina, I’d only seen him here twice. What were the chances?
He was wearing his shop clothes – dark blue polyester pants and a matching shirt with a patch on the pocket with “Kevin” spelled out in scarlet thread. He walked straight to Tina’s station, swept her into his arms and gave her a big smooch. It was like he was clowning around, but at the same time, he wasn’t. Tina squealed.
“I have scissors in my hand, you idiot,” she said, batting at him with her other hand, but she was smiling. He swept her upright again, grinning. In the mirror, Katherine watched his antics with amusement, but Shannon’s expression was neutral.
A week ago this man had taken me on his workbench, metric wrenches rattling against the pegboard behind us. He smelled of soap, but motor-oil outlined the whorls of his fingertips.
Afterwards, my thighs were burning and my underpants damp with a different kind of lubricant as he handed me the paperwork for my repair. When I reached to take it, he pulled me toward him.
“You are a gorgeous woman,” he said, his hand tracing the ample curve of my hip. “You have classic lines.” I couldn’t tell if he was comparing me to a sculpture or a fender, but his praise warmed something inside me that had been frozen for a long time.
“What did you come in here for, anyway?” Tina said to him now.
“A man can’t drop in on his wife if he wants to?”
“A man can’t leave those monkeys you hired unsupervised,” she said.
“You left your cell on the kitchen counter,” he said, holding out a black flip phone.
Tina reached into the pocket of her smock, her skinny eyebrows flying up when her hand came out empty. “I was running late this morning,” she said. Surprise morphed into dismay. “And I forgot to let Poochini out.” Poochini was Tina’s puggle. Her arguments with Kevin over purchasing him had been the prime topic at Tangles six months earlier.
“I let him out,” Kevin said.
“And cleaned the dining room carpet.”
Tina kissed him again. “You’re so good to me.”
He rolled his eyes, shaking his head. Then he said, casually, “Whose Jag is that in the lot?”
Tina’s smile drained away. A second passed before she jerked her head in Katherine’s direction.
“Nice machine,” he said. He turned to look at Katherine. “Where do you get it worked on?”
“I don’t have the first idea.” Katherine said, her smile robbing her words of rudeness. “My husband takes care of those things.”
“I specialize in luxury models.” Kevin smiled, his eyes lingering on her sculptured cheekbones, then drifting down that all-concealing cape until they reached her slender ankles. He pulled a business card from his pocket and held it out, but Katherine’s hands remained hidden. After a beat he laid the card beside the sink. “If you need anything done,” he said, “keep me in mind.” He turned back toward Tina, and for the first time seemed to notice I was there.
“Hey, Melissa,” he said. “How’s the car doing?”
“Fine,” I said. “Thanks.” It was still making the noise, but I’d drive it into a wall before I’d take it back to him.
“Good,” he said. “Glad to hear it.”
Unexpectedly, Tina gave my nylon-shrouded shoulders a quick hug. “I told him you were one of my best customers,” she said, “and to take good care of you.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled.
Kevin kissed Tina goodbye, but she didn’t melt against him this time.
She finished trimming my hair and pulled a blow dryer from its holster and turned it on. I wiped my palms on my jeans, grateful the noise of the dryer prevented further conversation. While Shannon fitted a plastic cap over Katherine’s foiled hair, Tina shut off the blow dryer and placed it back in its holder. She parted off a section of my hair and drew a curling iron from the slot next to the dryer.
I’m not sure what happened next. Tina gave a little shriek as the curling iron landed in my lap. In an instant there was a hole in the cape and, through my jeans, I felt my thigh start to sear. I knocked the curling iron to the floor.
“Oh, my God!” Tina said. “Are you all right?” She reeled the curling iron in by its cord, taking care not to let it touch me again.
I probed the spot where it had alighted. At worst, I’d wind up with a welt. “I’m okay,” I said.
“Jiminy Christmas,” Shannon said. “Watch what you’re doing.”
“I can’t believe that happened,” Tina said. “I’ve never done that before.”
“I’m okay,” I said again.
Shannon pressed the foot pedal of Katherine’s chair. With a soft hiss, it descended. Katherine rose and Shannon walked over to the row of chair dryers that lined the wall and lifted the hood of one. Katherine turned back toward Tina.
“Something people forget about Monica Lewinsky,” she said, “is how young she was. Twenty-two. Here she was, at the rock bottom of the political food chain, and she’s approached by the most powerful man in the world. This is a man who can obliterate people with the push of a button, can send thousands of troops off to risk their lives. He appoints judges to serve on the Supreme Court, making decisions that will affect Americans for decades, possibly centuries, a man who decides how billions – billions – of dollars are spent. And he shows an interest in this child, in what she has to offer.”
Katherine shook her head. “Under the circumstances, I might have slept with him myself.”
“Then you’d be a slut, too.”
“Tina!” Shannon turned a shocked face toward her business partner and friend, but Katherine just laughed and took her seat under the dryer. After a moment Shannon set the timer and turned on the blower. She came back to her station and began cleaning up.
Tina’s eyes met mine in the mirror. “Sorry,” she muttered. I wondered who she was talking to since Katherine couldn’t hear her over the roar of the dryer. She unfastened my cape, drawing the ends of the neckband together so that the remaining shards of hair came to rest on the floor, and not on me. I bent over to retrieve my purse.
“Contracts of adhesion,” Shannon said suddenly.
“Excuse me?” I said, straightening.
“Contracts of adhesion. I learned about them when I was taking paralegal classes.”
“You dropped out,” Tina said.
Shannon made an impatient gesture. “Doesn’t matter. They’re contracts between parties with different levels of power – like an insurance company and a welfare mom. If there’s ever a disagreement over a contract of adhesion, and there’s a gray area, the court finds in favor of the weaker party,” Shannon said. “Because they figure the stronger party has the money for good lawyers to write an airtight contract, while the weaker party doesn’t.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Tina said.
“Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton – of course she came out looking bad. He has all the power, all the fancy lawyers.”
Tina just stared at her. Finally she said, “You’re a dork.”
I followed Tina to the cash register and stood there while she wrote up my receipt, breathing in the scent of citrus and coconut, thinking about palm trees and hammocks and turquoise water lapping against white sand.
Tina picked up a bottle of mango shampoo and a coconut conditioner.
“As long as you’ve been coming here,” she said, “you’ve been eyeing that stuff, but you never buy any. Here. They’re on me.”
Sunlight streamed in the window behind her, making the shampoo glow like carnelian, the conditioner like a pearl, but I set them back on the shelf.
“No, thanks,” I said, staring at her until her eyes dropped and she pretended to straighten a little pile of business cards. “Let’s just stick with the haircut.”