I nodded. Hair. We would start there. Dianne made the arrangements—some fancy salon, the type I'd never of my own volition set foot inside.

The appointment was for 10 o'clock, smack in the middle of my daily despair, so when the day rolled around I could barely drag my carcass from my sleep-warmed sheets. I heard my doorbell ring and then "Yoo-hoo? Yoo-hooo?" accompanied by the clickety-clack of Dianne's stilettos as she came to haul me out of bed and into the stylist's chair.

The salon was all spiral staircases and dizzying racks of dozens of different shampoos, conditioners, curl creams, mousses, gels, sprays—the air scented, water falling from a bank of rocks into a pool lined with luminous stones so smooth and pearly I wanted to touch one, to hold it against my heart, as if I might somehow palm my own pain, and in doing so shape it or erase it.

I was ushered toward a changing room, told to take off my top and replace it with a crinkling black gown that snapped shut and, for good measure, tied at the waist. The gowns were made for slender women; my bulk strained the snaps so the fabric pulled at my chest and left visible gaps I wanted to hide with my hands. But "Yoo-hooo," Dianne called, tapping on the door of the dressing room, so out I stepped, into the misty, sweet-smelling, humid air.

My stylist was Andrew. He looked about 60 years old. "He's the best here," Dianne whispered. Andrew stood behind my seat and looked at me in the mirror. He then walked around to face me, knelt, and almost reverentially took my cheeks between his hands, moving my head left, now right, studying me. I felt embarrassed, as if he could see past my skin to the dull nothing inside. As though to confirm that this in fact were true, Andrew nodded crisply, sprang to his feet, and without asking what kind of cut I wanted, picked up a pair of scissors that looked preternaturally huge, like something out of a storybook, clack-clacking as he aimed them at my hair.

"Wait a minute," I said. "Wait, wait"—and so Andrew stopped in midmotion, the huge silver scissors frozen and glittering. I said, "Aren't you going to ask me what I want?"

"You don't know what you want," Andrew said. He was correct. I had no idea what sort of style would suit me. "Let me take care of this," he said. "I've been cutting hair for 30 years." And then he went to work. He dove into me, lifting me up in layers, splicing me sideways, long wet hanks falling onto the floor as I eyed them with rising fear: Would anything be left by the end? Snap, snap, said the scissors again and again, dark and dripping hanks continuing to fall as Andrew muttered thickly a remark about my head or my hair, I wasn't sure which. He circled, spun me around in my seat, pumped me up, then down, and then, suddenly, with no slowing, he stopped. My hair, which had before fallen past my shoulders, now came in close to my neck, which for the first time in years was bare to the air and touched by the breezes of many people moving past, the mist in the air landing lightly on me, so dewy even my arms were moist. Andrew circled me slowly, with great ceremony, moving me around until at last I fully faced the mirror, my hair still damp but drying now, released from the weight of its long length, all cowlicks and curves, my bangs gone, my face in a frame of waves. "You like?" he asked, and then, without waiting for a reply, he stood in back of me, leaning in and down so our faces were side-by-side in the mirror.

"Listen to me, Lauren," he said.

"I'm listening," I said. He was so close I could smell his cologne, a tang of pine and winter.

"Lauren," he said again. "You have heavy hair."

I nodded. Dianne, standing a little way off, nodded, too.

"All that weight," Andrew said.

I suddenly wanted to weep. It was as if he knew about the stone inside me, as if he were speaking not to me but to it.

"I've released you," he said, "from all that weight, and now"—he bobbed back up like a jack-in-the-box—"and now, look what we have here," and he cupped the back of my head while tweaking a curl, pulling it past its kink and then letting it loose so it fell back into perfect position. "I'll bet you never knew how stunning you were, under all that weight."

"She is stunning, isn't she," said Dianne, smiling, her arms folded across her chest.

"Stunning?" I said. That was impossible. But improved—that could certainly be. Weight weight weight, that word weight kept going through my head. And then it was as if everyone disappeared. I lost the sounds of the salon, the hot hair dryers and women whispering. Now there was just me and my mirror, which I leaned into, the curls so curly, the anemic yellow chopped off, my hair ash-brown and veined with glossy whites, the look light and alive, my face indeed framed, the pink seam of a new side part making my nose and my mouth and my eyes seem somehow softer, with sparkle. I blinked. Still there. Cautiously, I touched my hair. Then I pressed my hand down, hard, to see if I could squelch the sudden spirals; they bounced back. They would not be banished. I gave Andrew a $20 tip.

Next: The damp early darkness of winter giving way to a warm spring


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