Sarah Laing has written novels, short stories, poetry and comics. Her most recent book is Mansfield and Me: a graphic memoir.
The Spotify daily mix playing in the salon was eerily similar to her own, and Carmen wondered if their system was probing her phone with invisible tentacles, or if, in fact, the music she’d carefully curated did not reflect her individuality or impeccable taste, but was demographic, the kind of music that people born in the 1970s and shaped by record shops and student radio settled into. She felt annoyed that although an entire universe of music was available to her – everything digitised and streaming – it still narrowed itself down to these alternative Billboard hits.
She liked her hairdresser. Carmen had finally succumbed to a regimen of cuts every eight weeks and suspected she should be getting it coloured but was stuck in ideological limbo – wouldn’t dyeing it be a concession to sexist beauty ideals, the notion that once women hit perimenopause they were spent seed pods, their power dispersed? She looked in the mirror and tried to accept this faded version of auburn – it was more silvery now, and the silver made her look wise. Or no, it made her look low energy, battery 19%. Behind her, Sam ran her hands through it, and Carmen cringed at the greasy roots (no point washing it before the pro shampoo), the wayward curls (had she even brushed it? No, she’d crammed a helmet on top and zoomed down the hill). She felt shame at how little she looked after herself, how she was always in a rush and relied on lipstick but hadn’t applied it this morning – besides, had she done that, her lip surface was a network of dried skin strands, and it would look like a badly-prepped paint job, the kind lazy landlords rollered over black mould. All she had to do was to rub a flannel on her lips. That and apply moisturiser. She never applied moisturiser.
Sam was luminous – at least 5 years younger, that helped – and her hair was a tumble of russet curls, waved with tongs, undulating across her shoulders. Her skin was white, so very white, and you could tell she spent time at the mirror, applying concealer and base, doing a top coat of powder, drawing on a Cleopatra swoosh of eyeliner that Carmen’s hand had never been steady enough to do, and now her eyelids were too creased to get a clean line. Were those false eyelashes? Probably, but they were so expertly glued that the seam wasn’t visible. Sam’s face was round, perhaps a little steamed-bun–like, the chin veering towards a double, but it was beautiful for now – skin taut, elastined. Carmen looked like a bad photocopy in her wake. She enjoyed their conversations and their unapologetic banality – despite Sam’s dramatic gothy garb, they talked of gibbing the lounge and polishing the floors, of disliking sports at school and planting hydrangeas, of how alkaline your soil needed to be to turn them blue. Sam didn’t seem like she was in a hurry to have children, unlike Carmen, who’d felt all the pressure of the world, and Carmen knew this was something she was not allowed to ask about. Did Sam want even want any? Was she perhaps trying, and her round cheeks the product of fertility drugs? These days young women were deciding they didn’t need to breed at all, that it was environmentally damaging and the result of oppressive gender norms. Carmen hadn’t questioned her urge to have babies, and whether she’d just been trying to please her mother and produce caregivers for her dotage, to fulfil the social contract of married-with-children.
A long time ago Carmen had another gothy red-headed hairdresser, Tracey, who knew nothing about hydrangeas as far as she knew, but neither did she back then. Tracey had once been very fat but now was thin. She shared the same white skin and her curls were copious, permed, dyed so magenta that she often had burn marks on her scalp. Tracey was a fag hag, a mini-me to the drag queens who dressed up on Saturday night for the nightclubs, a friend of a friend back when Carmen went to nightclubs and bothered to put proper makeup on. She was hyper feminine and tiny – probably anorexic, definitely on diet pills – and giggled in a high, light voice at everything Carmen said. Carmen had been vacillating between two different worlds: the queer alternative world, and the sophisticated, educated world of her ex-husband, who she hadn’t started dating yet. She’d invited Tracey along to a party where all the guests were academics and lawyers (she’d been an admin assistant in the law faculty), drinking Deutz out of proper champagne flutes. Tracey had brought a bladder of wine that she’d stuffed down her black ballerina skirt, tiny baby dolls sewn like sequins into the tulle, so she could sneak it into the night club they were going to later. Warm, sweet white wine. Piss. She’d complained about her bloating and joked about UTIs and although Carmen humoured her, she was ashamed of her friend-of-a-friend, who was so obviously an interloper in this social circle when Carmen could almost pass – almost, because she had just signed up for a BA herself, embarrassingly at least five years older than the rest of the first years, but at least now the university would pay some of her fees. She wondered what had happened to Tracey. The friend that had brought them together had died of AIDS. There had been something fragile about her, and something extreme about her transformation – like there was another self, rippling above the original self, that eventually the original self would surface and Tracey would sink into the grey-and-pink streaked couch, her flesh spreading, her hair fallen out in chunks and growing back in, mouse brown. She remembered sitting, four stories up on a fire escape behind the club that made Wellington seem for a moment like New York City, smoking marijuana, and as it hit, Carmen’s sense of vertigo rising, rising, and then she was panicking, sure she would never get down, Tracey laughing her high light giggle at Carmen’s distress.
Carmen now forced herself to go to the hairdresser. Every time the reminder text came through she had to stop herself from cancelling, to quell the panic about all the other things she was meant to be doing, her antipathy towards the intimacy of the cut. Part of it was having to confront her own face. Her face didn’t look like it did in the mirror at home. There was something she managed to do – some flesh-altering trick – that somehow gave her more structure, more beauty, than what she could summon in this mirror that didn’t belong to her. At home she believed that she might meet someone new; she wasn’t necessarily going to die alone. Here, her face was more of a slab, a lump of playdough on a kindergarten table, her button eyes thumbed in, her acne scars more obvious.
There was another reason she never wanted to go – Daniel. He was the first proper hairdresser she’d gone to at the age of 14, upstairs in a nineteenth century brick salon in Palmerston North. That too was New Yorkish, in a town where everything was single story, brutalist, constructed in the 60s and 70s. He worked up there with his sister, who looked like Annie Lennox, and his hair was a blond Frostie Boy lick across his forehead. The first time was exciting and he feathered her fringe with a razor. The second time he told her he’d seen a movie, and the girl in it looked just like her, the same colour hair, and she’d worn lime green. You should wear lime green, he said. It’d suit you. He told her about the sand dunes he’d ridden his trail bike across, the spinifex, promised he’d take her trail bike riding. Carmen was nauseated and aroused. Did he mean that? Did he know she was 14? She didn’t make another appointment for a long time after that. Then, when she did, 8 months later, he knew who she was before she told him her name over the phone. He recognised her. She went again and that was the last time. Not the last time she saw him, of course. He’d be outside the building when she came down from orchestra practice on Friday nights, the handle of her viola case cutting into her fingers. He had a girlfriend whose hand he’d be holding, but he would look at Carmen intently. He never talked to her though. His girlfriend pretended she didn’t see her, like it was perfectly normal to be hanging out here with the orchestra parents and their idling engines, boots popping for instruments to be slung into.
The haircut didn’t help, of course. The girls at school still hated her. It was not that she was ugly or dressed funny – obviously Daniel had seen something in her, and besides, they were all in school uniform– but that they could see something vulnerable about Carmen, something a little strange, her mind furrowing in odd directions.
After Daniel, she’d had trouble committing to a hairdresser. There was the man at Jam who said her hair was the colour of tobacco, and the dreadlocked woman in Mt Cook. The woman upstairs in the James Smith Markets had cut off all her hair and bleached it copper, and it had looked terrible for months afterwards, yellowing into dried straw, the dark roots growing longer. Then there was Sean, gloomy Sean, who couldn’t find love, and had trained to be a hairdresser after not finding a job with his art history degree. She’d dressed up in bondage gear to go dancing at Cheap Sex parties with Sean in the 90s. He was single then and he was single 20 years later, flatting with a flight attendant and a Persian cat, coveting a pair of gold Gucci limited edition high tops on Instagram that cost $1000, narrowly escaping death when he got an abscess in his heart. She felt socially obligated to go to Sean, but she always left feeling flattened, sad about life. He’d tell her about their mutual friend, their other Cheap Sex companion, and how he’d tried to kill himself on pills, and how too much coke had made him mean. She kept her hair long while she went to him, and left it for too many months between cuts, so she’d always have to have at least ten centimetres cut off to remove the damage. Even with ten centimetres gone, her husband didn’t notice the difference. He’d started dating his postdoc by then.
Carmen was contemplating growing it long again. If she grew it long she wouldn’t have to go so often. She could let it slide for three or even six months. She’d let Sam cut it short and asymmetrical and she wasn’t sure if this was a concession to middle age or a rebellion against it. Sam was complaining about the bus. The bus service was changing and now, rather than having a 5 minute service that took her to a spot five minutes’ walk from her home, she would have to take two buses, and those two buses would take 30 minutes. Why did they have to change the bus service? Why did bus services sometimes just disappear? Why were the fares so expensive? And they weren’t even paying the bus drivers fairly – the bus drivers had been screwed over. Carmen agreed. Her son would now have to walk ten minutes to school rather than have a door-to-door service, and he refused to wear a raincoat because he didn’t like the way it felt. He was going to sit in the classroom in his wet clothes, because that was preferable to the shush-sound of nylon arm brushing nylon chest, its clamminess against his wrists. He would probably get pneumonia, and his father and his new wife had moved to Newcastle in Australia and only took the kids in the holidays, leaving her to deal with everyday catastrophes. Sam began massaging product into Carmen’s hair, and got out her dryer, still complaining over the blast.
The doorbell tinkled and another client walked in. Alice. From school. They were Facebook friends but hadn’t seen each other IRL for 17 years. Actually, that was not true. Carmen had seen her in the supermarket the year before but pretended she hadn’t, studying the nutritional content of the Icelandic yogurt instead. But there she was in the mirror, flicking through a magazine. It was funny. Carmen and Sam had chatted about how they hadn’t much liked Intermediate, third form, because there had been bullies, mean girls. And here was one of them. It was like she had manifested her. New Zealand was small but it was hard not to feel psychic sometimes. Her heart was a bird that had flown inside the house and was now launching itself at the window. She tried to take it in her hands, stroking its feathers, breathing in through her nose, out through her mouth.
“Hi, Alice,” she said.
Alice looked up at her in the mirror. “Oh, Carmen. Hi.”
She’d met Alice when she’d appeared in her standard three classroom, relocated from Tauranga. There was a space next to her – there was always a space next to her, she was so shy and useless at making friends – and the teacher had made Alice sit there. While the teacher was speaking, Alice had shown Carmen how you could move a wave along the length of a piece of lined refill and Carmen had run her two fingertips along its crest like a circus performer on a barrel. She’d cut out a little face and drawn a curling moustache on it, and stuck it to her hand with spit. Voilà, the acrobat! But the next week she’d come to school and the desk next to her was empty – Alice had moved across the room and was now sitting next to Emma, a tall netball girl who made friends easily and could draw and write the kind of stories the teacher would read in front of the class. Carmen had been crushed – alone again – and she’d pined for Alice, concocting an imaginary friendship in her head. Then, one day, after another girl’s party who’d invited Carmen at behest of her mother, Carmen and Alice acted as if the betrayal had never happened, and Alice agreed to come over to play. They lay together under the trampoline and talked about things they had in common – how they both wanted to be famous, and were both auditioning for the school play – and Carmen had felt seen, seen for who she was and liked.
This didn’t translate back to the classroom. Alice got the main part and Carmen was designated to the fairy section, flying towards the middle of the stage in a nylon nightie and lemon yellow net wings that smelt of stale cigarette smoke. Alice returned to ignoring Carmen, walking past her as if she was invisible, and Carmen wondered if she’d dreamed that under trampoline encounter. There was something strange about that space. When you looked up through the black mat, it was as if you could see the milky way, the gaps where the weave intersected the pinprick stars. The air underneath was warmer than the outside air, the blackness gathering heat. The grass grew softer – a different, more pliable kind of grass, more likely to submit, to lushly cushion around the ears. There was a pressure that bore down on her under there, a warm palm, the world contained, not unfathomably infinite. Perhaps they had never spent time together. Perhaps Carmen had followed the string theory out of the maze into a parallel universe where they had remained friends.
Alice was in a different form room from Carmen in Intermediate, and in the first year of high school. They weren’t together again until fourth form, and that was when Carmen realised that indifference had turned into animosity. Alice had a new friend now, a carrot-top called Kirsty, and Kirsty took a particular dislike to Carmen. They would talk quietly and disdainfully together, and when Carmen passed their desks they would side-eye her, and say “dick” or “egg” or “dork”. Mostly they would say “dick”. The k was a knife that stabbed her in the belly. She felt naked, like they could see the real, pathetic, vulnerable Carmen, who wasn’t sure if she was good at anything, who had pimples under her fringe feathered by Daniel, and didn’t own any lime green. Their uniforms were blue. Alice and Kirsty called her “dick” and so did Emily and so did Kiri, who pushed her around a little and threatened to rearrange Carmen’s face after school, which made Carmen think of Picasso and loosened her bowels. What killed her the most was the look. As if she’d had diarrhoea through the polyester checked print of her summer uniform. The look reached into her stabbed belly and pulled out her intestines.
By 6th form, Alice had decided she’d had enough of a girl’s school and she swapped to the co-ed one a bit further north. They could wear mufti, and girls and boys hung out together and were much more cool than the Girls’ High girls. Carmen felt hugely relieved, even though the girls had stopped blatantly insulting each other by the end of fifth form. Alice’s friend Kirsty moved too, and Emily had left for Australia, so there was only Kiri and her mates to sneer at her, but they had cigarettes to smoke behind the caretaker’s shed now. Carmen finally had legitimate friends, and went to sleepovers and tried to pour a bottle of rum into the punch at a youth group party but they caught her, suggesting that Satan was making her do it and would she like to come to the next camp to have her demons cast out? Still, she wasn’t very good at holding onto friends, the few days that her and Alice’s friendship lasted now stretching into a year, maybe two, before the friendship imploded. What was it about her? Now that she was an adult, middle-aged in fact, she could boast having friends for two decades or longer, but most of them lived in other cities and she only saw them once or twice a year. Not that she ever felt secure in friendship. She was always convinced that her friends liked other people better than they liked her, that she was somehow interim and replaceable. Her ex-husband proved that.
She was surprised when Alice had friended her on Facebook. Carmen had a policy to not make friends, rather to accept friendship requests. She felt embarrassed and tentative about asking people to be her friend even though she’d accepted friendship requests from people she’d never met. She accepted Alice’s request. She’d kept tabs on her over the years, noting how Alice had gone to drama school and got pregnant to a fellow drama student at 20. Carmen had tried but failed to get in and wondered if this might’ve been her fate if she’d succeeded. A few years later she saw ads for Alice’s drama productions taped onto lamp posts. Carmen had taught herself touch typing on an ex-boyfriend’s computer and was temping by then, and moonlighting at comedy clubs, trying to make people laugh by being self-deprecating to the point of annihilation. What was funny was how similar they’d turned out to be, both on stage, both trying to get others to laugh. She’d found herself in Alice’s ashtanga yoga class when she was trying to lose weight for her wedding. For two months she’d gone three times a week, jumping and sweating through sun salutations, Alice at the front with the experts. Carmen had remained at the back and hadn’t returned after she’d said her vows. She’d studiously avoided saying hello, even though Alice’d burned up the front there, and Carmen had spent the class wondering how old her baby was, and who was looking after it right now since the father had left her.
She couldn’t ignore Alice this time. On her Facebook profile picture Alice held an infant in her arms and her older boy – he looked at least 20 in the picture – looked over her shoulder. “How old is your baby now?” Carmen asked.
“He started school this year.”
“Wow. I was imagining you elbow deep in nappies.”
“A lot of people think that – I really need to update my Facebook photo.”
“And your other kid? The one who’s grown up?”
“He’s just graduated with a Masters in Architecture.”
“Shit. Amazing. A proper grown-up. What are you up to these days?”
“Working as a technical writer. At a certain point I decided that I was sick of only being able to afford one bra and never going on holiday, so I got a real job. It turns out I like it. What about you?”
“I work in comms. Also, I still do comedy.”
“I know – I’ve been keeping track. I came to one of your shows – you were killing it. I almost wet my pants. Of course it doesn’t take much these days.”
Carmen felt herself flush with pleasure, doing a reflexive Kegel. Alice had come to her show? And Carmen hadn’t registered it? There were some dark corners in the club and the lights were so bright, often Carmen could only see the front row. She felt so ambivalent about comedy these days, so over the self-deprecating business when she didn’t have anyone to come home to appreciate her. Her disastrous marriage became excellent material. She’d turned herself inside out, made a show of her self-hatred and failure, and she was still not famous. Sure, she could sell out three nights in a comedy venue during the festival, but she hadn’t landed a Netflix series or written a movie script like some of her fellow comedians had. Taika Waititi was the same age as her. She blamed it on single parenthood, on the sapping and disbursement of her energy, and now she blamed it on age – but it was her regret, and sometimes she regretted having children in the first place. She suspected that she got up on stage to show those mean girls. There, under the lights, in front of the microphone, she had all the comebacks, all the smart alec remarks that she’d been unable to summon in school. They laughed with her, not at her. Sticks and stones my arse. Words could permanently damage you. Carmen asked her kids if they had been bullied and they said no, never, in fact the principal was always going on about bullying at assembly and it was boring because nobody ever got bullied anymore. Carmen didn’t believe this; knew, in fact, that there would be some kid in some corner, shoulders pressed into the hooks that held the bags and coats, a lunchbox digging into their kidneys, someone’s face too close calling them gay or weird or autistic. She knew, but was relieved that her children had been spared. She knew that Sam was familiar with this experience too, and she wondered, if at the next haircut she could tell her. You know the woman who came after me? She bullied me as a child. But then she wasn’t sure if she could do that, if Sam would think badly of her. Sam might like Alice more. Their conversation might be easier, more effortless. They might gossip about her in the next hour, talking about how strange Carmen was, how awkward. Sam could probably sense the fakeness of Carmen, of how she tried too hard to be bright and chatty, to connect, to connect, to connect. She wasn’t relaxed at all. She was never relaxed. Accept friendship request. Carmen could’ve blocked Alice’s friendship request. Why hadn’t she?
Sam was brushing the hair shards off her shoulders now. She held the mirror up to the back of her head and Carmen could see how much grey was showing through, but also how sculpted it looked, and how this was the only moment it could look so good before she slept on it and made it back into her hair. She would take a selfie and then delete it because she looked too posed, too duck face, but she was unsure of how to look natural and to like the way she looked. Sometimes she posted spontaneous, ugly photos of herself to test if that was a true representation, but she never got many likes. Sam unbuttoned the cape and ushered her over the counter where they compared calendar dates for eight weeks’ time. “That will be $75, please.”
“You know, I was envious of you after I saw your show, how you held onto the dream,” said Alice. “I used to write plays. I’d make sure I produced a couple each year, and for a while I used to get interviewed by the papers. They said I was one to look out for.”
“Really? That’s cool,” said Carmen. She’d read those articles but she’d never gone to any of Alice’s plays. She was too scared of running into her after the show.
“But now… I guess I got too used to the good life. Too used to having a selection of nice bras. And I didn’t like the reviews, hearing what other people thought of me.” Carmen had read those occasional bad reviews and wallowed in them, and had also read the good ones which outnumbered the bad.
“You could come along to open mike night at the Comedy Club. It’s not too late.’
“Ha. I think I’ve lost my nerve. But you. You were so fucking bold.”
I wasn’t bold when I should’ve been, thought Carmen. “Thanks.” She inserted her card, plugging in her PIN. She felt a twinge at this point, when Sam and Carmen acknowledged that this was a commercial transaction and not a real friendship. Press enter. Then again, she always felt betrayed. She unhooked her jacket and bike helmet from behind the door.
“Please don’t tell me you’re jamming that on your head after I’ve styled you.”
“I won’t,” said Carmen. Not yet anyway.
The day was damp outside, although it was not raining. The cold permeated her. Did Alice even remember bullying Carmen? If so, why didn’t she apologise? They had been Facebook friends for seven years. Carmen had received a message from Tracey some years back, at behest of her 12-step programme, apologising for stealing $20 out of her wallet one night at the bar. Carmen didn’t even remember noticing the $20 gone, and had in fact felt grateful to her for a while – it was she who kept filling up Carmen’s champagne flute, it was she who pushed her into her ex-husband and embarrassingly, excruciatingly told him “Carmen fancies you.” She’d messaged Tracey back, absolving her and asking about what she was up to, but Tracey didn’t reply. She didn’t really want to connect; she just wanted to complete a step of her redemption. Alice could’ve messaged Carmen. Sorry for being so mean. Sorry for calling you a dick. Why had Alice friended her? Why had she gone to the show? Did she not think of how it made Carmen feel, to call her names, to side-eye her, to mark her out as an untouchable? Perhaps she’d forgotten. Or perhaps she hoped that Carmen had forgotten. Perhaps she imagined Carmen to be tough, to have not felt it. Perhaps she didn’t even view herself as the perpetrator, rather the friend of the perpetrator. She did not see how she’d punctured Carmen, how she’d yanked her guts out around her. Even when she’d waved those guts on stage, novelty balloons twisted into poodles and swans for their delight. Instead Alice had held onto that warmth beneath the trampoline, where they lay together, believing themselves to be friends all along.