The worst part was, she'd been a real redhead once, without the aid of rubber gloves or sassy male stylists or rust-colored dye that stained her cheap tee-shirts to look like forensic evidence. As a kid and teenager, she'd had hair the exact color of cigarette embers right before they crumbled into ash, right before her father's index finger tapped them into a glass of dirty water, creating a hiss as they hit the shock of an opposing element. She'd loved that hiss -- trashy, really, but comforting somehow. It was the sound of resistance, of refusal to be extinguished.
Her color wasn't quite right anymore. She had handled swatch after swatch of unnervingly straight hair samples, perfect like the horsehair of paintbrushes, but the color never, ever, looked the same. Not on her own coarse, thick hair, neither straight nor curly, and never, ever sleek and shiny. On her hair, the color was either a sickly burgundy like a glass of merlot regurgitated after a hard night, or a laughable strawberry-blonde, the frothy color of a pre-teen’s lip gloss. Both she experienced with sad resignation, trying them out in different lights in hopes that they might by some alchemy combine to recreate that old truth. But hair products are not sentimental, and the chemicals did only what their particular molecules and polymers bade them when confronted with the fact of her hair. It was nothing personal: that was the good and the bad news.
She was a forty-year old woman. She was having an affair with a man so precisely wrong for her that it was almost a thing of beauty. His desire for her was escapist, similar to the desire to see a big-budget summer blockbuster flick that comes with a giant promotional plastic cup full of car-corroding soda. She was meaningful to him only to the extent that she was unlike his wife, who he didn't know, either. Truly, she was surprised that there was actually a guy who still clung to the Madonna/whore thing. It was hilarious, really. How relevant could such a distinction be when the woman currently known to the world as Madonna crawled around on the floor with traffic cones on her breasts? We’re all whores, Jim, she thought. Give it up.
And yet she could not give him up yet, was addicted to him for what he saw in her. For what Mark did not see in her. But although Mark failed to see this incandescence, this spark in her, he seemed to perceive that what he was looking at now – this split-ended fake redhead with newly calculated hemlines -- was its end result. In his pragmatic language, it would be called a midlife crisis.
Mark was starting to understand.
It had been only three years ago that she'd realized that the natural red hair of her youth had long since faded into a bled-out beige. Mark had been the one to break this news to her; he'd been as surprised as she had been. When you’re used to thinking of someone as a redhead, it seems, it’s hard to view that person otherwise.
She’d met Mark when they were only fifteen years old. When he’d first seen her, he hadn’t thought fiery or tempestuous. “Nothing so predictable,” he’d said. She’d been more like a slow, honeyed sunset to him, he said, her languid, daydreaming head towering above the other girls and half the boys.
Maybe if they’d had redheaded children, instead of none, she would have had a basis for comparison. She might have noticed the contrast between her child’s hair and her own. She wouldn’t have needed the remnants from her own youth to define who she was; she’d have a new life to focus on, a broader perspective. It wouldn’t have been so important at all.
Or: she might never have found out, if Mark hadn’t been running late to meet her for lunch at a local bar one afternoon. He’d called the place, and asked the bartender to relay this information to her.
“She’s a tall redhead,” he’d said to the kid. “Please let her know I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
She’d waited in the crowded bar for Mark for half an hour, staring at the buck’s head mounted on the wall, its fake eyes dusty. She felt similarly on display, similarly tired. Then she’d gone to feed the meter, flustered and impatient. This was his idea, she thought. How annoying. When she’d gotten back, there he was, chatting with the bartender, then studying her with an odd expression on his face. “It seems,” he’d said, looking at her, “that maybe to the outside world, your hair is not considered red.”
“I’m so sorry about the confusion, ma’am,” the bartender, with big black glasses that seemed to say look at me rather than I can see you. “It’s completely my fault. Don’t blame your husband; he did call. He just described you wrong.”
What was the weird feeling she’d had then? Wasn’t it silly to care about such a thing?
“See, to me, I would never call your hair red, not at all,” the bartender chirped on, oblivious, pouring them each a free drink. “To me, that’s light brown. No offense.”
And, in fact, he was right: her hair was a nondescript buff color, the color of summer skin under artificial lighting. It was the kind of color that happened to people, people who let it.
Two days after that, she’d found herself locked in the bathroom with rubber gloves, tugging on the fingertips, with the odd sensation that these were not her hands at all. She’d never approved of plastic surgery or any sort of altering of one’s looks, but that had been when she’d liked her looks. But she’d come to realize that people who did this sort of thing were not trying to become someone else, they were trying to become themselves. And, yet, it was an imprecise science. She’d emerged from the bathroom, not so much resembling a tranquil sunset as a puddle of match-lit gasoline.
And then there was that color, and there was Jim. How Jim loved that tacky, god-awful color: “Luscious Mango.” It sounded like a joke, and yet it was the only thing about her he took seriously. He’d known her only as this fake redhead, as this vessel that had tried to refill itself with self, and had not quite pulled it off. Yes, she was embarrassed by this affair. Yes, she was sorry.
And Mark: he was almost fully aware of it now.
“It’s funny, with this color, you are fiery and tempestuous,” Mark would sometimes say now, looking perplexed and tentative: scared, really. He could tell there was something different in the way she touched him, something alien that had seeped into her skin like the semi-permanent color. “I never thought I’d say that, but you are.”
She didn’t say: of course I'm fiery and tempestuous. She didn’t say: it’s easy to imitate the personality traits of a hair color you’ve chosen.
She looked at his eyes. They were beautiful, but it wasn't just because they were green.
"I’m thinking maybe I’ll grow it out," she said, "and see what comes in."
Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
Semi-Permanent Red by Jennifer Byrne