Forty degrees out, a quarter to nine a.m., and I’m standing at the door of a wig shop, in three layers of clothes and a newsboy cap, waiting to be buzzed in. That’s how it works. If Mary doesn’t like the looks of you, she’s not letting you in. It’s like a chemo speak-easy. She squints at me from behind the glass, wearing a kind of ruffled, knit ascot and a captain’s hat, maybe eighty-something years old. A little younger than my grandmother, anyway. I’ve shaved my head since the last time I was here, though that’s mostly disguised under the cap, and maybe Mary’s squinting because she’d wanted to be the one to shave it or maybe she’s squinting because she has no idea who I am. I smile wide, wave big, even though it’s four days after my first chemo treatment and I’d rather roll myself into a blanket cocoon in my living room and listen to tropical ocean surf on a loop. I haven’t had it that rough, actually. But today the aftermath of chemo has turned the cold into a hell-freeze kind of cold and my headache into Chernobyl. And any second now I might cry just because the weed in the sidewalk crack has two shoots instead of three. This is where I am when Mary unlatches the door and stumbles backward just a little with her face in a confused twist.
“Hello! I’m early for my appointment!” I say, extending gameshow hands like brackets for my announcement.
“Oh!” she says. She has no idea. I can tell. “Yes. Well. Come in. Come in.”
“My appointment for my wig fitting.”
That’s what she’d called it last time, anyway, “wig fitting,” and it sounds very grand, as if there might be a cummerbund and confetti involved.
Now she’s nodding. Now it’s all coming back to her. Tall girl. Breast cancer. Needs hair.
“We’ll put you in the special room, right here.” She motions toward one of four partitioned areas.
It’s somewhat of an accidental steampunk salon with seats and machinery cobbled together from centuries past, assembled across overlapping oriental rugs. Crocheted finery drapes mismatched settees. Johnny Mercer croons through the static of an ancient clock radio struggling to flip its lit numbers. Betty Boop memorabilia sits propped on glass countertops and pedestal shelves. And then there’s Mary herself, wringing her hands as she tells me that she’s half asleep and her husband’s dying.
“And he packed me radish and celery for lunch,” she tells me, her eyes wide with condemnation.
I sit in the special room and slip my hat off. A sixties-era Frigidaire hums in the corner, covered in Betty Boop magnets. Maybe it’s what makes the special room special. Maybe the radish and celery are inside, wrapped tightly, all by themselves on the old wire shelves.
“Should have been carrots,” she explains. And then, “You shaved your own head?”
“Sure. How’d he do?”
“All right,” she says, running a hand over the stubble. It makes a sound like scraped-together construction paper. She cleans her clippers, shaves it again, unpacks the wig we ordered, shimmies it over my bald head, and that’s the wig fitting. Done. This is the wig we chose:
I’ve spent three days looking like Aliens-era Ripley, so the jarring contrast takes my breath away. And then Mary’s captain’s hat murmurs a horrible suggestion — I look like Toni Tennille — of the seventies duo Captain and Tennille.
Mary, though, loves it. Loves it. She closes her eyes, holds the tangle of her loose fists to her chest. “I love it,” she whispers. And then she tells me she has another patron who just bought this same exact wig and that maybe we’ll come across each other.
I can’t help but think of this other me out there somewhere, trying to shake bowl-cut strands out of Tennille shape, pulling jeans over leggings over tights, phoning her regular stylist to say that since she saw her three weeks ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer and has no hair and needs a wig trim instead of the cut and color they have on the schedule, watching for her daughter’s bus and deciding at the very last second to pull the wig off and put a newsboy cap back on.
*** Update: My regular stylist, Mindy, at K Charles in San Antonio, Texas deserves a mention here and a big thank you for customizing my wig with an excellent trim … for free. Blew me away. So, thanks to Mindy, on Day 23 I’m a little less Tennille and a little more me: