I've had some hard times, worse than some, better than others. For starters, I have a severe form of chronic bowel disease. As a result of multiple surgeries I became addicted to painkillers and checked myself into a substance abuse facility. So instead of sipping cocktails at trendy seaside bars I sit in AA meetings, where I introduce myself as “Danny, an addict, sober by the grace of God.” Far worse than both of these things, however, is my bone-straight hair. I am not joking when I say I have never seen straighter hair on another living person. I have seen straighter hair on a tennis ball, one that has been smacked so many times that it is nothing but stray threads of fabric hanging on indifferently to a worn down nub of its former self, the word “Wilson” barely legible in faded pink print.
Growing up I wanted to be tough, so I hung out with some of the tougher kids in my hometown of Newton, Massachusetts. All the tough kids had flattop hairstyles with rat-tails dangling down the back. Some of them had three lines, or “cat scratches”, as we called them, shaved into the sides of their heads. When I employed this technique my head looked like a patch of backyard weeds after someone started gardening and then gave up after ten minutes.
The only time my hair looked good was after a shower, soaking wet. I would comb the sides back and let my bangs swoop down to my eyebrows, and pray that it would never dry. It always did, though, and by the time I got to school my hair would be the same hopeless, light, feathery pelt of baby alpaca that it always was, thousands of defiant strands of hair that refused to cooperate with the rest of my body.
On weekends I took day trips into Boston with my friend, Matt. We’d go to Stairway to Heaven, a rock n’ roll paraphernalia shop in Downtown Crossing, where you could buy things like an Ozzy Osbourne t-shirt or a Guns n’ Roses poster. On the way there we’d cut through the Boston Commons, passing homeless people asleep on park benches or sprawled out on the grass. We would get quiet as we walked by them, and I noticed that even they had great hair, thick, black manes with poetic waves sweeping through them. “Why?” I’d ask myself, “Why can’t I please have what they have?”
In seventh grade I discovered two things: the movie Top Gun, and Dep styling gel. I would go to CVS and, for $2.99, purchase a bottle of this crap, which came in three different colors: green, pink or yellow. Then I would go home and spend half an hour meticulously working it into my hair, molding a part on the left side, just like the one Tom Cruise had in the movie. It was like building a volcano for a science fair, slathering on paper mache while marveling at the exquisite mess before me. I would get close to something desirable but then eventually my hair would start popping back into its natural state, one hair at a time; an hour later my head looked like a steepled rooftop thatched with dried, brittle palm fronds.
My hair was like a clown punching bag, the ones that are weighted at the bottom. Every time you knock it down it just bounces back up, laughing at you.
In 10th grade I decided to take action. When I mentioned my dilemma to Tina, the girl who cut my hair, she suggested I get a perm. I think she may have been joking, but I perked up. “Really? Isn’t that for girls?” “Not at all,” she said, perking up as well at the thought of another customer. “I give perms to guys all the time, mostly when they want their rat-tail to curl up in the back.”
“I don’t want my hair to look curly,” I said. “I want my hair to look like this.” I held up a picture of Tom Cruise from the movie Cocktail.
“Mm-hmm, sure. For that we’ll do a body wave. It’s a perm but the curlers are bigger and looser, so it just makes your hair really wavy.”
This sounded like a miracle drug.
“We’ll need to wait a little while, though,” Tina said. "Your hair has to be long enough for the curlers, or else it could come out kinky.”
I made an appointment for the following month and started counting down the days.
The next day at school I met my friend, Jason, in the cafeteria and told him about my perm. He was intrigued. His hair was straight (not as straight as mine), longer and shaggier. “Do you think she could make my hair look like Tom Cruise’s in Days of Thunder?" he asked, his eyes gleaming with hope.
“Probably,” I said, raising my eyebrows and swallowing a bite of my cheeseburger. “You should go talk to her!”
Jason scheduled his perm for a Saturday, immediately following my appointment. We went to the hair salon together, each with $65 we had saved, the cost of the perm. We were like two Army privates getting tattooed. Only instead of an eagle with machine guns under its wings we were getting boy band hairdos. Jason got underway while I was in the final stages of mine. He passed me while I sat underneath the plastic bubble, curlers in my hair, and gave me a dubious look. I reassured him with a thumbs-up. He looked bewildered as Tina came out and gestured for him to follow her into the other room.
Afterward we sat in front of Star Market, waiting for our bus, staring at our reflections in the doorway. Jason still looked bewildered. We both looked like Little Richard, Jason’s hair even curlier than mine. “She said the curls will relax in a few days,” I told him. But he said nothing, just turned his head from side to side, his face growing more solemn with each rotation.
The bus came and we got on. It was full of strangers but they all stared at us. At first I thought they were in awe of our hair, but by the end of the ride I realized it was because we stank of hydrogen peroxide. A man sitting in front of us had to cover his mouth with his hand.
We both wore baseball hats for the first three days back at school. On Thursday we made a pledge to take them off, convinced that enough time had passed for the curls to loosen up and not be so noticeable. Our first class on Thursday morning was theater arts, which we were both in together, a class that was predominantly female. We felt it was a safe testing ground for our new perms.
We sat in the back row of the Little Theatre. The girls filed in. As soon as they saw us they started laughing. Vicki Saris, the tall, outspoken, alpha-female of the group, pointed at us. “Hey, curlicues, did you guys get your fucking hair permed?”
“No,” I said, defensively. Jason sank down in his seat.
When class started Mr. Schaeffer asked who would like to begin with some improv, as was our custom. Vicki blurted out, “Maybe Jason and Danny can do Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water for us.” The class broke out in laughter, along with Mr. Schaeffer.
Think what you will, but I was proud of my perm. When kids asked me if I got a perm I’d say, “It’s not a perm. It’s a body wave. Totally different thing.” And they’d nod dismissively. Every now and then I’d catch some shit but I’d shrug it off. Nothing would break the newly processed, reformed bonds of my wavy hair. Nothing.
A month later the curls had relaxed to a more natural, wavy state. Two months later they were almost entirely gone. All that remained was a lazy sweep at the bangs and a nice bend around my ears. The hair I had always dreamt about, what so many others take for granted, like a healthy bowel movement, or an evening glass of wine.
Ten weeks later and the perm was completely gone. But its ghost was there; I felt it late at night, or when I lied out in the sun. It whispered in my ear in my darkest hours and most trying moments.
“Nothing lasts forever, Danny. Not even permanents.”
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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