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Hair and Ego Part Three: Happy Client Equals Happy Me?

The perm fiasco of sixth grade may have been earth shattering to my ego, but it did nothing to quell my desire for curly hair -- I wanted those lustrous waves more than ever.
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The perm fiasco of sixth grade may have been earth shattering to my ego, but it did nothing to quell my desire for curly hair -- I wanted those lustrous waves more than ever.

Over the millennia it took to grow it out, I interrogated anyone and everyone with relevant expertise: what was their experience with permanent waves? How was curler size determined? If they were to perm my hair, how would they avoid frizz?

Years of sporadic but judicious self-study flew by. Finally, my hair, my mind and certainly my ego was ready to make another go of it.

I convinced my Dad to drop me off at the hair salon. I pointed out that the movie theater was in the same mall -- he could watch a movie while I got a perm! More conned than convinced, he obliged me and left me with Cary, my stylist. I watched him leave, both envious he was going to a movie and nervous I was perming my hair.

Cary served me hot tea, sat me down in her chair and, gently touching my hair, asked me what I wanted.

What I wanted? I took a sip of tea, wondering if I should start with the boy I liked in history class or the unfair treatment on the Pom Pon squad or my unfinished art project or...

"You have great hair," Cary said.

Oh, right! I wanted curly hair.

I confided everything to Cary: my past perm, my subsequent social humiliation and the years of regret mixed with longing. I let it all go, encouraged by her rapt attention and her soft cooing sounds, hardly believing an adult was giving my teen angst their full attention. And my hair, too: she regarded it like an artist scrutinizing their model.

When I finished my tale of woe, Cary spun me around and looked me directly in the eye: "It's going to be beautiful," she promised.

Cary quickly got to work. She only used the largest rollers, and she wasn't shy about how much hair she put into them -- small curls were frizzy curls! Her confidence was infectious and her repetitive, practiced movements, combined with the rhythm of her voice, were soothing: any remaining fears vanished for this part of the process.

Later, Cary transferred me to the washing-out area and applied the chemicals. They didn't smell too badly and the cool liquid felt good on my scalp. She brought me some more tea and a magazine, and then left me and my hair to change.

It was then, just prior to my long-awaited transformation, that I grew uncertain. In a moment my future would arrive, and I hadn't thought about its consequences -- I had never considered myself post-perm. What now?

As Cary removed the curlers and then rinsed my hair, my heartbeat picked up its pace. In the back of my mind I wondered if I would walk out with curly hair or untamed frizz. But it didn't really matter: the reality was that that today's result, successful or not, couldn't portend anything meaningful.

In the years since my sixth grade debacle, I had never really considered how I would feel with a successful perm. I had been far more concerned with the getting than with the having. My anticipation of the perm had become my security blanket, and I was scared to be without it.

I thought about my dad watching the movie, waiting for me. I wished that I was with him, and that after we would get some ice cream and discuss the movie. Even argue! I knew what that was about, that was familiar. Not obsessing over my hair? New territory.

It was so much easier to obsess over my hair than it was to think about friends, boys, grades, unfinished art projects and a multitude of other teenage problems that overwhelmed me. I thought that with fixed hair, everything else I my life would correct itself, too.

Cary, the salon, and even my hair faded from my thoughts as I contemplated my new self. "It's looking really good," Cary gushed.

I really didn't care.

Cary swiveled the chair to show me the final result: large, smooth, undulating curls cascading over my shoulders.

Well, at least I had perfect hair.