I could have cried.
There was a construction worker next to me with his hand wrapped in a bloody t-shirt. Behind me, an elderly man, weakened by the heat, leaned on his grandson. Against the wall, a brown-haired woman coughed productively, while her prison-tattooed boyfriend slumped, nonplussed, beside her.
It wasn't for any of them that I was swallowing sobs. Nor was it for me, and my reason for being in the ER waiting room (a kind-of emergency surgery to remove an infected breast implant). No, the tears I was blinking back as I sat under the buzzing lights were for something else altogether: my hair, and the salon appointment I was missing.
Allow me to explain.
Last summer, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I did chemo and lost my long, straight hair. My head remained smooth for several weeks after my last dose of Taxol, but in early February, tiny baby hairs began to emerge. Since then, my hair has been evolving.
For the previous 28 years, my hair had been a steady, reliable thing. It took in stride adolescent experiments with peroxide and homemade bangs. It refused to curl, crimp or doing much of anything besides lie flat, but in general, we got along. It was a dun workhorse: plodding, steadfast and mostly agreeable. I felt safe in the assurance that while it almost never looked great, it wasn't terrible either.
And then, of course, cancer. Cancer ignited a transformation, and took me from normal-looking woman to genderless cancer alien with a speed that was both cruel and merciful. My cancer tells were numerous, but none so arresting as the baldness. So, when my post-chemo hair was long enough to pass for a buzz cut, I ditched my head scarves and thought: Let the healing begin. But as my hair grew, it inched from a fierce buzz to a tragic pile of frizz, ending up somewhere between Estelle Getty and Eraserhead.
The problem, dubbed Chemo Curl, is a weird late side-effect of the drugs I was administered last fall. Chemo has the bizarre ability to change the texture and even the color of the recipient's hair. Taxol turned my pin straight hair curly and frizzy, like my grandma's after her biweekly perm.
Some women love the change to their hair post-treatment, but I find it remarkably distressing. It's as if, after a life of being called Emily, everyone started addressing me as Amelia instead. "But Amelia's such a pretty name," they might say. "Why don't you like it?" Because it's not mine.
So, I sat in the crowded E.R. waiting room, pushing aside concerns about the infection brewing in my recently reconstructed left breast and instead fretting about my hair. I had made the appointment for cut and color two weeks earlier, after many frustrating attempts with the blow dryer and myriad products. Finally, I'd said "enough." I needed a professional. Just add "hairstylist" to the pool of the dozens of experts I'd seen over the last year.
After my surgery, I called the salon to reschedule, but they were closed for the July 4th holiday, so it would be almost a week before I could even make another appointment. I hung up feeling defeated, and terribly alone.
It was a low point in a year that had already plumbed the depths pretty well. I remembered that sick animals often stop grooming themselves. Sometimes, it's the only sign that something is wrong.
A few days later, I forced a hard look in the mirror. There was a person there, but not me. I saw a girl hiding behind glasses, crazy hair, and a giant t-shirt meant to cover up lopsided boobs and surgical drains.
I ducked out of the bathroom, wrapped myself in a flowy cardigan, and spent the rest of the day clicking around on the Internet, eventually succumbing to Facebook. A friend from a support group had posted a selfie of her professionally done hair, made cute and un-cancery by her stylist. Next, she posted the tool the stylist had used -- the world's tiniest flat iron. My heart fluttered. It seemed made for my exact brand of puny curls.
The next day, I bought one and got to work. As the heated wand sizzled across my short plaits, and a vapor (that I hoped was steam) rose from my head, something happened. My hair, emerging from the torrid grasp of the iron, was changed. Made new, even. It wasn't perfect, but I could work with it. I threw on a head band. I put in my contacts and tried on some serious makeup. I stood in front of the mirror adjusting, straightening more, and applying different products. I shoved aside the gauze sponges and pills and prescription creams that littered the counter. I paid as much mind to my hair and face as I had to the wounds I had been dressing, performing rituals of grooming I had nearly forgotten. My heart swelled, and after a year of cellular and spiritual purging, I suddenly felt full.
Perhaps it was right that the surgery happened when it did and I had to cancel my much-anticipated hair makeover. I know it would have been great, but I wouldn't have felt this ownership: I can change my hair because it is mine. This new body, troubling as it can be, is mine. The cancer, too, is mine.
At one point during my bathroom beauty marathon, my husband knocked on the door and asked if I was OK. "Yee-eessss," I sang, with a bit of an eye roll. It was the way I used to say it when I was 14, having been interrupted while trying on different personae. Just like it was in those middle school days, I knew now that the success in front of the mirror was just a temporary fix, a stop gap for a crisis of identity and confidence.
But was I OK? The answer, in that moment, was yes.