“I’m going to start washing your hair for you. Every Sunday,” my step-mother said.
She hated my hair. For a while she’d insist I pin my bangs back with combs. Because I would shake the combs out of my hair when I got to school (“I didn’t touch them! They fell out!”), she resorted to Dippity-Do. I was the only girl in school with her fine, blonde hair slicked back.
But before the Dippity-Do era, she claimed neither my step-sister nor I could wash our own hair adequately. I never asked N. what the weekly hair-washing experience was like for her, and she never asked me.
My step-mother believed in hot water.
“It’s too hot,” I said.
“That means it cleaning,” she said. My friends later joked that if she really wanted something clean, she’d set it on fire.
My step-mother folded a towel over the edge of the counter, bent me over, and put my head under the faucet. I was in the 5th grade.
She’d lather up the shampoo and scrub my scalp. Steam filled the sink and water ran into my nose, but I wasn’t allowed to lift my head. Do not panic, I thought. I can’t drown in the kitchen sink. I tried not to but kicked a leg anyway.
“Stop your fussing,” she shouted. She was hard to hear because of the water rushing over my ears. She yanked out one of those sink hoses she’d asked my dad to install and she started to rinse my hair. One hand held the hose, the other gripped my shoulder. “Quit squirming.”
I swallowed water. I kicked again. My dad won’t let her drown me. I jerked my head and hit it on the faucet, but she didn’t let go. I gagged.
And she was done. She pulled my head up and handed me a towel. “Don’t drip all over the floor,” she said. “Now, that’s how you get clean.”
I looked over at N. who was sitting at the table with a towel around her head. She yawned.
Later I told dad, “She washes my hair too hard.”
He made a face. “She’s doing the best she can to make things nice for us,” he said. “You’re a good girl. Be more cooperative.” He always said this.
Maybe she thought she was being nice. It’s not like I told her how I felt.
At 10, I couldn’t decide if she meant me harm, or if–like so many adults told me–I was just jealous of her relationship with my father. I was imagining things.
In fiction (mine anyway), characters are often not sure if they are imagining things. Is this feeling real? Does this other character mean this or that? It keeps the story going when they aren’t sure or they guess wrong. This seems dangerous but surely I am imagining things. The reader may know they aren’t imagining things. The reader might shout at the page–don’t do that!–but the characters uncertainty must be believable.
Some characters are more credulous than others. Or rather, their doubts are in different things. This character may believe what any man tells her. Another character might call a man out before he could finish his line–but her parents she’ll believe in an instant.
I can’t get that perspective in my own life, but I love finding it in fiction.