Dreaming of Beauty

Originally appeared in Allure

When people ask me how it feels to write a novel, I tell them it’s like serial dreaming. Our dreams feel inevitable, no matter their content. We may be moved, aroused, frightened, inspired by our dreams, but the pictures in which dreams play out are spun from one another and hold together. We can’t argue with them, unless, of course, the argument is part of the dream. Those layered distortions of recent or long-ago realities can be startling or nearly magical; still, something stays true. A memory may be almost completely transformed, but the seed of its very appearance lies in its inalienable, essential nature, and the nature or truth of a memory turns up in prose as surely as details turn up in dreams.

Beginning a novel, the writer dreams in daylight, arguing with herself with a kind of gentle, persistent persuasion. The writer takes on the persona of the lonely orphan, the (grown) child alone with potentially dangerous images. Somehow, she must persuade herself to speak, and this requires courage — the courage to let the words inhabit a purely white field, to submit what is only partially understood to intense scrutiny. And there is no scrutiny more intense than that of emptiness, space that goes on for years. The writer, almost by definition, has carried these images around half a lifetime, forgetting them to protect them, until it is time to write the book. The writer begins to dream. It could even be said that the writer struggling to complete a novel never quite wakes up until the book is finished. Women who write live the Sleeping Beauty story again and again, but we assume all the roles in the fairy tale, circling, scaling walls. Making our way on foot through the dense, thorny forest that surrounds a barely visible castle. We seem to remember that we ourselves may have tended this garden when it was only rosebushes and hemlocks, supervising its impenetrable growth for just this chance — to see it from the inside when it has grown vast and assumed shapes we could never have planned or imagined. There is a castle at the center, something hidden, but it may be a year or more before we’re really that interested in catching sight of it. The writer gets addicted to any glimpse of the miraculous, and the real miracle is in the process itself. Is this what we mean by beauty: no maps, no guidelines, no guarantees? Loving something fearsome, even terrifying, out of instinctual belief in what lies beneath the surface? Forget Beauty, the good, perfect one in the diaphanous gown. We could call our story “The Buddhist and the Beast.” In writing there is no surface, or there shouldn’t be. The minute we begin to describe it, we sink into it.

Writing is like seeing in the dark, but more sensual. There’s a partial blindness amidst murky, indefinite shapes, a delicious taste in the mouth, and a beckoning foreboding. There’s a sense of recovery. We do recover what was lost — by making it up. Fictional territory can’t be considered real, and is certainly not history, yet certain places or geographical features are etched in light Place, within a novel as in real life, is far more than what can be described or astutely observed: it is atmosphere itself, absorbed by (spiritual) osmosis and somehow rendered whole. We write about place, enter it, translate it through the screen of the material. We understand who we were, and where we might have been. Like the traveler in T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets,” we come to the place where we started, and know it for the first time.

Consider the contemplation of beauty. Who first told us what it was? In writing a recent novel, I found myself revisiting small-town beauty parlors, shops that pre-dated use of the word ‘salon,’ shops in which there were definitely no male hairdressers. Beauty parlors of that era were woman-owned and operated sanctums in which there were no males of any stripe, unless they were babies, or the loutish teenage sons of the female owners, who walked through purely to rifle the cash register.

Girls need sanctums. It’s probably no accident that two of the characters in the aforementioned novel are about the same age I was when my mother began taking me along to her weekly hair appointments. Here are two eleven-year-old girls, Alma Swenson and Delia Campbell, baby-sitting Delia’s baby brother in a West Virginia beauty parlor, circa 1963.

Delia’s Aunt Bird was a beauty operator . . . Delia’s mother, Mina, was gone in the afternoons, taking courses at the college; it fell to Delia and Alma to take care of Johnny while Bird worked beside them over this or that customer. There were three other beauticians, young girls just graduated from the Academy in Bellington, but Bird ran the show and the talk. Everyone was safe in this commotion. Gossip and the whir of space heaters blinked on and off under the white noise of the big hair dryers, which were like spaceship versions of barber’s chairs. Women sat motionless, reading Photoplay or Reader’s Digest, while the bulbous metallic globes of the dryers were lowered into place over their heads. Delia would abandon John-john to sweep up the feathery hair that littered the linoleum floor, working the big push broom in dreamy, circular motions. Alma was left to entertain Johnny, who was almost two and sat playing with curlers.

My own incursions into the world of beauty were part of my mother’s campaign to get me to cut my long straggly hair, a prospect I continued to view with suspicion, but I grew fascinated with the beauty shop itself. I was invisible there, privy to conversations not usually conducted in my hearing. Lulled by the sounds of the machines, I feasted on trash magazines my mother would never have allowed me to peruse, even at newsstands or in grocery checkout lines. All around me, women were submitting, being serviced and done to. They engaged in truly mythic gossip, touching on their own deepest fears and desires, trotting out other people’s stories as parables and warnings. Later they “got washed.” Quiet now, they lay back in their chairs, heads swallowed up by the deep, slotted sinks. I noticed how their legs fell slightly apart. Their hands relaxed. Uniformed girls massaged their scalps with careless efficiency and the women closed their eyes. Their faces took on a somnolent wistfulness that almost scared me, and I looked away. I’d witnessed attitudes of such surrender only at the movies, in love scenes between men and women, and those, of course, weren’t real.

Everyone had someone or something . . . Mina Campbell had her course books and practiced dictation with earphones on. Aunt Bird had Mina; she called Mina ‘my baby sister,’ but it was hard to believe they were sisters. Bird was skinny and stooped, middle-aged, in her round tortoise-shell glasses and blond Jacqueline bouffant; she had named the hairstyle after Jackie Kennedy and she had a dark rinse to urge on brunettes who were going gray. Mina’s hair was perfectly dark, almost black, and her dark eyes were beautiful. But Delia and John-john had their father’s eyes, exactly, hazel eyes shot with warm gold lights. Their father was gone now, but the lights in Bird’s shop still seemed golden, warm and goldly pink, no matter the weather or time of day.

Women went to the beauty shop to be with other women, to engage in private rituals that supposedly had to do with men, yet the men were wholly absent. They were sometimes discussed, but never as objects of desire, not as the heroes or princes my friends and I expected to encounter, out there somewhere, far beyond the adolescent boys with whom we were actually forced to contend. Conversations between women here skipped all that and presupposed a middle passage I resisted contemplating. Nowhere in the talk could I detect the dark pulse of promise sex had already acquired for me, a pilgrim at the gates. First in my sixth grade class to menstruate, I’d been assured this was “no big deal,” “you just go right on.” People who pleaded headaches and nervousness were being silly or malingering. Having your period was just, well, a bother. You folded the sanitary napkins like this, then you wrapped them into tight little packages with toilet paper, this way, this way, this way, and this way. Nothing showed. I was read a booklet about reproduction: everything was explained in terms of flowers, pistils and stamens and pollen. Nothing showed but the waxy petals of the blossoms, and the strong, wayward stalks of the plants. It was all secret. Women at the beauty shop didn’t talk about sex, or refer to their own stories. They did talk about instances of seduction, other women who had strayed, but it was always wholly the woman’s story, as though the man and the smell and feel of him were incidental. There were stories of triumph: “she finally told him to hit the road,” “I looked him right in the eye and said, ‘There are laws to protect me from men like you.” Women who came weekly to this shop ranged in age into their eighties. My mother and her friends must have been in their late thirties, younger than I am now, but they’d been parents for fifteen years, and they were veterans of what seemed generations of marriage. They referred to their grandmothers and their mothers, who seemed to have known one another too. They knew the stories of those partnerships and misalliances, the childbirths and early deaths, the wayward siblings and how they grew, the musings about the few, few, few, who went away and didn’t come back: “they never heard from him again,” or “they say she went back to her people.” The stories presupposed years of friendships between women, nurtured in the shelter of church groups and odd clubs, each with their memberships and little gold pins, their small books of rules and their secrets. The society of the shop seemed to me a more egalitarian, less severe adult variation on the theme of girl’s secrets. What happened here seemed a grownup version of my first understanding of secrecy — those moments when a favored child of my early life crooked a finger in my direction, whispered, “I’ll tell you a secret,” and put her mouth to my ear. The words might be indistinguishable from breath itself, from the sweaty hand on my neck, but it didn’t matter. Those secrets bore the scent of our coltish bodies, of weeds and bushes, an earthy smell. In the beauty shop, words did matter, and the smell was chemical. Women didn’t speak in whispers anymore — they didn’t have to, not here. The story was nearly communal.

Bird called the place Birdy’s, even though Bird was her married name; she was widowed or divorced, no one seemed to care which, in another town long ago, and had followed Mina to Gaither. She was always remarking, in the girls’ hearing, how Mina and the kids ought to sell that little house that leaked and move in here with her, why she positively rattled around in this big place by herself, with only the bottom floor given over to the shop. And it was a big house, a cupolaed Victorian just across from the post office, built long before the post office, before Main Street extended so far south to the unused railroad tracks. Maybe it wasn’t so quiet on the edge of downtown, Bird would say, but a business had to be centrally located. And besides, how was Mina going to finish her secretarial courses and work, with John-john only two years old? Bird could put a play-pen right here in the shop, or give some girl from the country board and room to take care of him. Maybe not forever, Bird would say mysteriously, Mina being a young, healthy woman — here she would glance at Delia, and Delia would glare at her — but there were times family had to pull together until conditions improved. All the women would nod sagely, and coal trucks rattled by on Main Street, shaking the big front window.

Beauty shops were a double-edged sanctuary. Here we were initiated into womankind as it existed in our town, but we were also made to understand what hard work it was to be beautiful, or even presentable. How it never came naturally. I remember finally sitting in the chair that pumped up and down with a foot pedal, staring at myself in the mirror. The proprietor of the shop (let’s call her Bird, for the sake of consistency) stood on my right and my mother stood on my left. They debated what to do with me. “Look how short her eyelashes are,” Bird said. “Yes,” mused my mother, “I’m afraid she’ll always be a plain Jane.” “How about a short cut? It’ll help her hair thicken.” “I know,” my mother said, “a Pixie — those are so cute.” So it was I emerged with a haircut named after Tinkerbell. Now I was not only the tallest girl in my school, with the gawkiest knees and elbows, I had the shortest hair, and it came to a point in the middle of my forehead.

I grew up hearing my hair was ‘straight as a stick.’ Hair, all hair, unless it was obliterated, had to be cut, styled, rolled and sprayed, permed ‘to hold a curl.’ I possess, to this day, a wavy-edged black and white snapshot, in which I sit, barely two years old, so small my feet fit in the bathroom sink, undergoing my first home perm. A Toni! Yes, my mother permed her baby! I’m smiling, proud of those rows of tiny, colorful rollers, and my mother is proud, too: she took the picture, presumably before she wielded that squeeze bottle of pungent lotion in my direction. After that, my expression surely changed, but perhaps not. Maybe I was eager, even then, to be a woman, no matter what it took.

Later on I was eager to be something else. At nineteen, having made the Dean’s List at college and lied about my actual whereabouts, I hitchhiked back and forth across the country with another woman. After eight weeks I made my way home, and my own mother didn’t recognize me until I got to the front door. I wore jeans and hiking boots and no make-up, and the silver bracelets I still own. What was to be done with me? I suggested a home perm. Innocently, my mother agreed. “A really curly one,” I said, and she looked hopeful. Anything was better than that long straight hair halfway down my back. She dug out her tiny, colorful rods — possibly they were the same ones she’d used so many years ago, when my wispy tresses were blond and baby-fine. Hours later, my hair, curly, even wildly curly, had at least tripled in volume. My mother realized what was up. “Aren’t you going to roll it?” she asked. “No,” I told her gently, “not a chance.” “It’s August,” she said. “At least pull it back. And do you have to wear that long denim skirt, and those hiking boots?”

Shoes. The women at Bird’s shop liked to take their shoes off and warm their feet in front of the little coal stove. The cast iron front was molded in the shapes of hearts and birds with banners in their beaks, painted white, like the walls of the shop, but the paint had turned pale pink in the heat, pink like the pink counters and chairs, the baseboards and window frames, Bird’s uniform. Alma thought of the glow in the belly of the squat stove as a kind of heartbeat, the fire racing up and shifting when Bird opened the little door. Up on the third floor of the house, where Bird wanted Mina and the children to live, there was a sleeping porch with a swing. Alma loved to sit there while Delia said how stupid and bossy Bird was. The girls dressed Johnny in his jacket and hood, let him have the swing, while they sat on the floor bundled up in their coats and watched traffic move the length of Main Street. Up high the trucks weren’t so loud, and the dirt of the coal didn’t seem to reach up . . .

Salons of my acquaintance today are mostly owned by men, or they are franchises named after the men who own the name and control the money, and the only tasks sure to be performed by women are leg-waxing and nail-sculpting. Other qualities abound, but the mythic quality I associate with beauty shops seems lost. Or perhaps that quality was lost on everyone but me, all along.

I asked several men I know if their mothers went to beauty shops, back in the old days. Those who did remember seemed pretty roundly contemptuous of the whole idea: “She went with all her friends and she came back with her hair stuck in place, like a helmet.” “They were all supposed to look better afterward but they looked worse.” “She used to come home with her hair wrapped in tissue, like a space alien.” “She went once a week and the whole day had to revolve around it.” Really? The whole day? One out of seven? Revolved around her? Horrors! What an idea! Talk about falling down on the job. I mean, they were housewives. Why should anything revolve around them?

My women friends, queried about their mothers, or about adolescent experiences in beauty shops, came up with, well, not much. “I only went at prom time, to get an up-do.” “My grandmother took me every summer to see her hairdresser, Sal — he always put me under a heat lamp to encourage the curl.” “Beauty shops? No way, my mother was a hippie.”

The upper rooms of Bird’s house were full of strange wallpapers that hung down in strips, and flaked, fuzzy spots on the ceilings that looked like forest lichen . . . Alma would hear her mother’s voice float behind Delia’s complaints . . . She knew her mother would never set foot in Bird’s shop. She said Bird’s was a continuous hen party for hens with below average I.Q.’s . . . Downstairs, the women would be talking about other women, or the change, or stories about teachers at the high school, or sick headaches. There was a warm convivial laughter and the smell of nail polish and hair dyes. Moments at a time, Alma wished her own mother could magically transform into one of Bird’s customers, be like the others. This is how women were.

The painful thing about adolescence is that everything seems absolute, and the painful thing about adulthood is that nothing does. My own mother was not like Alma’s mother; she belonged to the town in every way, she was comfortable in groups, she was a housewife who raised three kids while she was a professional, a first grade teacher who evolved into a reading specialist who evolved into an educational administrator, responsible for reading programs in every grade school in the county, for implementing thousands of dollars in federal funding annually in a place and time that cried out for such aid. She was divorced after her children were grown and she lived alone. Once, she went to Europe. Diagnosed with cancer at fifty-seven, she was sick for almost three years. The year after she died, the college in my hometown, her alma mater, presented me with an honorary Doctorate of Arts. I’m sure the award was instigated by my mother’s friends, in her memory, in recognition of my attempt to care for her. Her friends knew how she’d struggled, that she’d lived with me the last year while I had a baby and nursed him through infancy, that she’d had to die away from home. They all attended the commencement ceremonies, many of them the same women I had known from years before, when their children were growing up and they met at the beauty parlor. My mother was a bit of a pioneer then, raising kids, going to school, working full time. Some of the other women in her circle had worked outside the home too; others didn’t. Some were the wives of doctors or dentists or professors, women whose lives she perhaps considered easier than hers in some respects, yet she knew them all well enough to know their sorrows, and they were all girlhood friends who had struggled side-by-side through some of the calamities of their adult lives. That struggle and bond is surely the beauty of women, and every detail is remembered. All the rest is fascinating dross.

Can we forgive women for thinking about beauty? Can we forgive our mothers for hoping we’ll be beautiful? Can we forgive each other for fanning out the hand of cards dealt us by our families, our hometowns, by the culture in which we all exist? All the suppositions about ideals, about what looks good, about what we’re supposed to do, who we can be?

The summer I was twenty-six, during the painful break-up of a love affair, I went home, fled home, actually, to see my mother. Her only sister was visiting her at the time; my Aunt Peg was ill, and seeing her was part of my excuse for leaving the man in question. I’d been driving for ten hours; I was sweaty and tired, wearing a black leotard and (still) jeans. “Did I tell you? Someone’s going to publish her book,” my mother said to my aunt, perhaps to distract her from asking about my other activities. “No kidding,” my aunt mused. As I struggled in and out with suitcases and boxes, my aunt said to me, “Why is your stomach so flat?” “I don’t know,” I said. “I do,” said my mother, “You won’t be asking her that question when she’s had a few babies.” “Well,” my aunt answered, “she looks wonderful. They ought to put her on television right now — it’s all downhill from here.” “Thanks, Aunt Peg,” I said. “Mark my words,” she responded.

And so it was, and wasn’t. The beauty of a beginning is always easiest to appreciate: the start of emotion, the unlined face, the unsullied field. The middle passage, the deepening, the acknowledgment of age, change, banality, and heartbreak, is another matter. These are what combined to become the atmosphere I remember, the rituals I didn’t understand, those Saturday afternoons in the beauty shop. Silent observer, I watched the women who were trimmed and permed and crimped. Were they there to be beautiful? To fail in some dream of themselves? I think they were there to be together. One afternoon a week in their buffeted lives, someone took care of them.