Maggie kneels next to the tub and takes her daughter’s wet curls in her hands, lathering them with soap, gently massaging the fine hairs between her fingers. Her little girl hums to herself, playing with the rising bubbles, allowing her mother to move her head gently this way and that without resistance or irritation.
She must have let her head sink into her mother’s hands like that at some time, in the small vinyl tub in the brown tile bathroom in the single floor ranch house in the subdivision outside the city. She tries to recall any such memory, of her mother’s hands moving gently against her scalp. But the truth is, she never saw her mother’s hands do anything that slowly. With three kids before she turned 25, her mother had hands that were always rough — in texture and in contact.
But there is something, rising up, hazy in the heat of the bathroom…She is 16, sitting in a kitchen chair. Her head is leaning back over the cold edge of the kitchen sink, towel wrapped around her neck. The smell of bleach burns in her nostrils, and her head is spinning. Blinking her eyes to steady herself, she looks down, taking in the small pyramids of her breasts, the cotton triangle of her bra under her polyester t-shirt, jean bellbottoms with sailor buttons up the side.
Her mother stands next to her, wearing an apron over her bank suit uniform. She’s still wearing her name pin, but her heels are off. Maggie looks at the angry red bunions and gnarled painted toes, and thinks of the pride her mother takes in putting on her heels, like spurs, every morning.
Looking back up, she sees the wiry strands of her mother’s blonde hair, once a warm auburn she had so loved. After getting the job at the bank, her mother started going every Sunday to the beauty parlor, carefully maintaining her stiff updo with a sleeping scarf and a hideous shower cap that hung from the hook on the bathroom door. Maggie watches the muscle in her mother’s jaw clench in the too-familiar way, her brown eyes squinting through cat-eye frames. The hair bleach stands open & fumigating on the side of the sink, and her mother pulls on rubber gloves with a SNAP!
SLAP! Her little girl brings her palms crashing down against the top of the water, cackling as mounds of bubbles fly into the air. She is soft but fierce, this little one, with pillowy cheeks but a laugh like an old smoker. Maggie loves that laugh — it is her mother’s. Dirty, raunchy, impolite. Full of sly things unsaid. When her mother let it out, truly let it roar— something she only did with her girlfriends around the bridge table, and sometimes while watching late night TV — it exposed her, a self the world gave her no room to live out loud.
In the haze of the bathroom, Maggie closes her eyes and says a silent prayer that her daughter laugh like this in public, all the time, whenever she wants. That she feel free to grow into the woman behind that laugh.
Her mother’s rubber gloved hand comes down onto her forehead and pushes her mousy brown hair under the faucet water. “You’re going to look so pretty,” her mother says, and Maggie doesn’t need to ask “Aren’t I pretty now?” She knows. She is too big, too tall, too athletic. She feels the bleach drip its way down her scalp, and now the fumes are so strong she can hardly breathe. “You’ll look just like Farrah Fawcett.” Maggie says nothing, breathing slowly in and out of her mouth, and wondering if bleach chemicals seep through your scalp and cause brain tumors. She hasn’t eaten a real thing since Monday. If she can’t make her hips smaller, she can at least make her belly flatter. And now her hip bones have started to poke through her skin, making lovely concavities on either side of her pelvis.
“All the Pom girls are blonde,” her mother continues. Maggie grips the towel around her shoulders and sucks her belly in, feeling her skin pull away from her t-shirt and create a satisfying space. “Now let it sit,” her mother says, leaning against the sink and lighting a cigarette, still wearing her rubber gloves.
After some time, her mother checks her hair and pronounces it “cooked.” The cool water from the faucet hits her scalp and the gloved hands move vigorously across it, then pull the towel up around her head. “Go to the bathroom now and blow it out.”
Maggie’s daughter lets her body slip down into the water, her belly poking out from the bubbles like a nude balloon. Maggie leans down, presses her mouth into the warm wet skin and blows hard, making the balloon ripple and gurgle, and the little girl scream with delight. She gently cradles her baby’s head down into the water, just to the edge of her hairline, coaxing the soap out of her curls. Her little girl locks eyes with hers and lets out her guttural laugh.
Maggie walks down the carpeted hallway to the brown tile bathroom, closes the door, and faces the mirror. She slowly undoes the towel and lets her hair fall to her shoulders. She takes a strand in her hand and rubs it between her fingers. Brittle, but not broken. Gently, she runs a comb through it, then a brush, then the blow dryer, and walks out into the kitchen. Her mother, still leaning against the counter smoking, looks up. Maggie feels her eyes scan down her too tall, too big, now blonde form. To her surprise, her mother’s face cracks into an almost-kind half smile.