It is the mid-70's.
My mom, conserving water and energy, in a state where natural gas and water is cheap, believes in once a week baths. She governs the thermostat, with hard, fast rules. She controls when it goes on and off. Compassion for tells me it was because of her time in Europe as a refugee and the eldest of seven children.
But today I think of my own journey, and how I tried to be a normal American teenager, managing a scalp that produces olive oil.
I have to find a way to cope. So I decide one morning that I must wash my hair by stealth. 5:00 am in the winter. It is very dark when I rise.
I creep down the stairs to the first floor half bathroom, bringing a bottle of shampoo with me. Beneath the tap in the tiny sink I lower my head and turn the tap on hot until the water is warm enough. Even this is testing the boundary. I am not supposed to use hot water except for washing dishes. I try to wash and rinse my hair out as thoroughly as possible, but it is long. I am not sure if I have all the soap rinsed out, and the towel I find in the bathroom is not clean. Realizing I have forgotten a comb, I run my fingers through my shoulder length snarls.
I don’t want to have her body odor either, but that will have to wait until tonight. When I wash up with cold water.
Now to dry my hair. There is no hair drier because my mom doesn’t need to wash her hair, she wears wigs. I turn on the heat, just enough so that it will cycle on for a few minutes. Also verboten. As the heat kicks on, I draw in my breath and I pray that it won’t wake my still-sleeping parents.
I wave my head back and forth, and flip my hair over the floor heating duct as the furnace breaths and I know it is a race against time now. But the air feels good in this cold house, and maybe it is not that loud, after all. I go into a bit of trance and relax as I realize that my hair is going to be dry enough, soon.
Suddenly there is an acceleration of footsteps. Who arrives first and what they say exactly I cannot recall. I just remember being caught in the midst of crouching head down with my hair hanging low, over the heater. To my mom it looks like time to break my spirit of this insubordination! She orders my father to get the belt.
He comes down in the dark. Is it because he does not want us to really see each other’s faces? My back remains turned towards him, but then I am told by my mom to face them and face the consequences.
The consequences of what? Wanting hygiene that will make me acceptable to my peers? Of spending their good money to appear attractive to anyone?
Does my dad really believe this? I want to yell at them and say, what kind of idiot house is this? How the hell do I get out of here?
What date is this and how many more months until I can be free and leave legally?
This time I don’t think to myself that my dad didn’t have a choice. He did have a choice and he did not make the one that was sane, in my defense. And at an ungodly hour, before he even rises to go to work.
My next commitment to clean hair, has me keeping shampoo, comb and a towel in my locker at school. My mom, bless her heart, got me an exemption from P.E., so I don’t know anything about how to access school showers. I don’t ask anyone either. I take up shop an hour before school starts every other day, to wash my hair and dry it (again by shaking, but in the air, not over a heater). I feel slightly brain shocked after shaking my head so long. And the bathroom often hosts secret smokers. But at least my hair looks clean and I fit in.
I am not going to look like a World War II refugee, and I am not letting the brutal boundaries of my mom stop me from enjoying clean hair.
But what I face for at least a year is my mom questioning me from her bed, each morning as I leave, before she gets up. She puts on her glasses long enough to see and approve of what I am wearing, and she says in a phlegmy voice, “Why are you leaving so early? You’re not going into the bushes with any boys are you?”