Having a dream

Kareen De Martin Pinter
Having a dream
Every summer, as soon as I finished school, my mother would fill a suitcase with some clothes, woolen socks and a pair of heavy sweaters then carefully prepare a bag filled with the tools of her trade: scissors, hair curlers, dying products, barrettes, and a stack of magazines; together, laden, we’d walk towards the bus station. She’d begin her summer job, a job she’d already had for years that took us up to the mountain for three months to a nice hotel, where my mother had a hairdressing salon, as was written outside of the glass door.

The summer salon was different from the one we had in the house, crammed into the room at the end of the hallway. The salon at the hotel occupied a small room just off the reception area, next to a little shop where they sold everything from bathing suits to cookies. In the morning, after breakfast, I’d struggle to hold back my desire to run to my mother. I’d know that she’d be angry if I did, though, that she’d want me to walk in the woods, to benefit from the mountain air. So I’d get dressed, go out, walk around the lawn breathing deeply, and come home with rosy cheeks, just as she liked.

Luckily I always managed to arrive in time for the part I liked most: that moment just before you start cutting. My mother would be intently searching for a photo in a magazine, standing behind the customer, who’d be looking at herself in the mirror. She’d say that when she saw that actress, she’d thought of her. The hotel guests were more or less always the same and my mother collected clippings for each of them. I knew that this was an important moment. In fact, my mother often told me that her clients had, more than hair, a dream in their heads, and that it was her job to take care of that dream.

The customer would look at the photo. My mother would hold the woman’s hair with the tips of her fingers, explain, glance at the photo, go back to the woman’s face, pull on the hair, arrange it, put her hands just at the sides of the face as if to frame it. All conversation would cease; all eyes would be on my mother’s fingers. Then, when the customer signaled “yes” with her head and the first snip of the scissors cut the tension, everything could resume as before: beauty gave way to gossip and the salon drew breath again, emitting its own perfume, cigarette ash flying around crossed legs, hands waving in order to dry the nail enamel. Meanwhile, above the laughter, my mother would mix products that smelled of ammonia, paint the mixture onto locks, cut, lower the hoods of the dryers and set the timer above each of the encapsulated heads with the precision of a bomb defusion expert.

When a lady’s cape would be removed, it was I who would offer her the round mirror so that she could see the back of the hairstyle, and my mother would set a smile free in my direction.

What we didn’t have at the hotel, though, was the accounting ritual that took place weekly at our big kitchen table after it was cleared it off. My mother would take out the box where she kept the money and have me write the various expenses that we had on envelopes: rent, electricity, gas, maintenance fee, a busted pipe, telephone, shampoo, supermarket, school books, shoes for Tina, which was me back then, the diminutive of Martina. She’d have me do it so that she could check my writing progress: she’d dictate to me, and if I’d make a spelling mistake, or forget a double letter or even if I’d just write badly, she’d make me start over again. I had to study, she’d tell me, and only if I did, could I do great things in life. I’d tell her that I wanted to be a hairdresser like her when I grow up.

Then she’d take my chin between her thumb and index finger and she’d stare at me, silent. Her hands smelled of hairspray, shampoo and smoke, the whole salon down the hall nestled between those creases. She’d give me a kiss on the lips, and tell me that at most I could cut her hair when she was old and had arthritis.

But I liked that profession; it was happy. Getting a haircut was the only moment of rest for women, and some came once a week just to get a wash and comb. Our salon kept the prices low so there was always someone to keep us company, and I could breathe in the metallic, comforting smell of the hairdryer while I did my homework.

Then my mother would have me count the money, and the table would be covered with towers of coins and waves of paper. Finally, she’d have me divide it up, and the amount earmarked for bills and expenses would end up sealed in envelopes, inside the cupboard and under a newspaper in order to hide the content at first glance.

When I’d ask if we had enough money to pay for everything, she’d stroke my head and whisper that sure, we have money, we can buy whatever we want, I am the best hairdresser in the city.

Really? I would ask, radiant.

Yes, she replied, hugging me, it’s just that we don’t need anything.

In the hotel room that was reserved for us we’d sleep next to each other. Every now and then I’d climb to the surface of half-sleep to make sure that she was still there. One night I tossed and turned, awakened by a few guests who were talking outside the door, and didn’t find her, neither in bed nor in the room. I took the key and went out of the room with my heart in my throat. The lights cast shadows everywhere. I wandered down to the pool. Everything was motionless, silent. My legs carried me in the direction of the living room, a safe haven in the midst of all that nothingness. Maybe, I thought, she’d forgotten something. There was a small light on. I went over and then I saw her, right in front of the mirror, fully coiffed, her fluffy hair dyed a darker color. I heard the dry puff of hairspray. She was looking at herself, first from one profile and then another, moving her neck to one side like a bird. She’s beautiful, I thought, just as her reflected eyes intercepted mine. Her image in the mirror rippled like the water surface being hit by a stone. She sent me straight to bed, rebuking me for leaving the room – and barefoot to boot.

Mama, I asked her from under the covers, why don’t you do your hair like that every day? Because my customers would be jealous, she said tickling me: they are the ones who need to feel beautiful. Now go to sleep. Sleep? I had no interest in going to sleep right away: before giving in to sleep I had to secure that image of my mother. I wanted to keep it close to me so that it wouldn’t vanish. To build a little nest where it could rest forever.

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