A million years ago, when I lived in New Jersey, the person who used to tend to all of my hair-related beauty needs was an exotic looking blond woman with impossibly high cheekbones and flawless skin. Her name was Raluca and for the eight years that I lived in a quiet suburb, her capable hands would cut, style and wax to my liking. My friends, all young, harried moms like me, went to Raluca too.
In the blur of raising four little kids it was not uncommon for six months to pass by before I’d realize I needed a haircut. Messy eyebrows, however, were not an option- no one wants to look like a Wookie- and I’d find myself on Raluca’s waxing bed every few weeks for a quick clean-up and a cathartic chat.
Before my prophylactic double mastectomy in late 2008, I went to Raluca for a haircut and a wax, knowing that I’d be out of commission for 6-8 weeks. “Next time you see me I’ll have perky, high boobs just like you!” I said to her. She didn’t have any kids and it showed. I was a 34-year-old who’d given birth four times in six years and that showed, too.
True to my word, the next time I saw her in February 2009, my breasts, fashioned out of my own stomach fat and muscle, sat high and firm beneath my black turtleneck. But my appointment was not for the usual “one inch off the bottom” haircut or waxing of any kind. I wouldn’t have any body hair to wax until well into the following year.
My preventative surgery had unexpectedly unmasked early but aggressive cancer in one breast and by the time I made my way back to the salon, I was more than two weeks into a gruelling chemo regimen. I’d vowed to cut all of my hair off at the first sign of loss so here I was, offering myself some semblance of control.
“Cut it short, Raluca”, I said, my wobbly voice barely disguising my terror. “Boy short. Victoria Beckham circa 2007 short”.
Before she draped the black nylon smock over me, I asked my friend Tamar, there for moral support, to take a photo of us using the digital camera I always kept handy. It is the very last photo of me with my “before” hair all curly and brushed out and healthy looking. Raluca and I are both smiling, our arms draped around each other. The self-assured look on my face belies the thunderous heartbeat I felt in my ears.
As I climbed into her chair, I asked Raluca not to discard my chopped off ponytail, to hand it to me fresh off my head, still bound in its red elastic hair tie… And she did just that, without any fanfare, without being sappy or pitying, without making it weird. I sat there staring down at my disembodied hair, in shock but also grateful that Raluca let me just sit in my grief.
I didn’t look in the mirror until she was finished and when I did, I thought “Wow, I actually look pretty cool in short hair” and then immediately burst into tears.
I cried because this wasn’t my choice.
I cried because I knew I wouldn’t be able to suffer my cancer treatment in dignified privacy.
I cried because I’d gone to extreme preventative measures only to end up here.
And I cried because I knew that my pixie look was on loan, that I’d be back within days to have Raluca shave off what was left.
Wiping my eyes and drippy nose, I asked Tamar to take a few more photos of my new look. I posed exaggeratedly, hamming it up for the camera in a neon yellow wool miniskirt, grey knee socks and boots (Cancer, but make it fashion!) and huge black sunglasses which further accentuated my dramatic cut. I could have been any satisfied salon customer were it not for my red, puffy nose and cheeks.
I anchored my new custom-made wig to my head with a hat and went home looking like my old self, a self who was too immersed in the work of raising four little kids to allow herself any further crying.
Five days later I was back in Raluca’s chair to have the pathetic remains of my coif, by then less “Victoria Beckham” and more “rabid racoon fresh from a street fight”, shaved off entirely. I sat with my back to the mirror, refusing to look while she passed her clippers over my scalp. My wig and hat securely back on my head, we hugged and said goodbye. I wouldn’t be needing her services again before moving to London six months later, but I promised to keep in touch.
I’ve managed to visit Raluca a few times in the eleven years since I moved away and last year when I flew to New Jersey for a family bar mitzva I made sure to schedule a blow dry with her. She was as blond, svelte and luminescent as ever and as I sat in her chair, we caught up over the roar of the hair dryer.
When she was finished, our eyes met in the mirror and I said, “Perfect, I love it. So much better than the time you shaved my head. Remember?”
She walked around the chair to face me head on, her brow furrowed, and quietly said, “My god, I’d completely forgotten about that. I think I must have blocked it out of my mind!”
I’d been so consumed by my own misery all those years ago that I’d never considered how difficult it must have been for her to bear witness to my pain. And I said as much to her.
Before we hugged goodbye, we took a selfie, a nod to that photo that Tamar (who is still a client of Raluca’s) took so many years earlier. The main difference is that in this photo, my smile is genuine. And so is Raluca’s.