Helen didn't like to make waves. When the supermarket cashier forgot to scan her carefully collected coupons she said nothing. When her children were young and an uppity room mother assigned her to make four dozen cupcakes from scratch on a day's notice, she did it without flinching. When her and Bob's friends wanted to go to Dollywood instead of San Francisco for their annual joint vacation, she packed a cowboy hat and a smile. She always let some louder, bolder person pick the restaurant, the concert, the movie. All her life, people had cut in front of her, left her stranded, and forgotten to invite her to things. But Helen had remained silent. It wasn't that she didn't have a mind of her own, or that she didn't get angry. It was just so much easier to pretend that everything was fine. Life was simpler that way, and everyone was happier. Well, everyone except for Helen. But the sacrifice was worth the peace. That was what she told herself each time some fresh upset threatened to disturb her still waters.
Take today. Helen didn't want to be driving to Lady Godiva's House of Hair all the way on the other side of town. Never a beauty, she didn't devote much time or thought to her appearance. But her sister Rachel had insisted, calling her brunette bob a disgrace in that know-it-all way of hers, her eyes caught somewhere between kind and patronizing. Ever powerless in the face of such pressures, Helen resigned herself to an hour of awkward chitchat with Rachel's hairdresser. Now Helen pulled up to the salon, which was a squat honky-tonk of a place despite its pretentious name. She sighed, assumed the perky persona she reserved for such occasions, and thought, let's get this over with.
Inside Lady Godiva's, a woman with a bleached blond bouffant took her name and invited her to sit down. Helen obeyed by perching on one of the floral chintz chairs and reached for a magazine. She flipped past the recipes and makeovers but stopped for the quiz. Helen loved magazine quizzes with all the fervor of a thirteen-year-old. This one was called "Mapping Your Mad-o-Meter" and posed questions such as, "You're cut off in traffic. You : A) Scream bloody murder and drop F-bombs onto the other drivers, B) Shoot the driver a cold but classy stare, or C) Do nothing, but snap at your nine-year-old for no reason when you get home." Helen chose C, then answered the rest of the questions and tallied her score. It was in the lowest range, setting her squarely in the "white volcano" camp, the description of which read: "Like a slow-simmering pot that suddenly bubbles over, you bottle your anger until it has nowhere to go but out, and then it's watch out, there she blows!" Well, that's a load, thought Helen, joining the long line of seemingly self-aware quiz takers who claimed that those stupid magazines didn't know them.
A girl in a black smock appeared, interrupting Helen's thoughts. She introduced herself as Marcy and led Helen to a knickknack-choked station. Then she smiled and informed Helen that Rachel had given her instructions to "do something special." Helen didn't like the sound of the word "special." It conjured up images of allegedly fancy things that always turned out to be anything but. Yet her need for smooth sailing prevailed and she acquiesced, convincing herself that whatever this Marcy came up with couldn't be that bad. Marcy framed Helen's face with her hands a few times and made deep-in-thought squinty faces before leading her to a sink. A Top 40 radio station hummed as Marcy doused Helen's head, mingling with the shampoo suds into Helen's ears like so much static. Helen tried to block out Marcy's questions about where she worked and if she had kids and what movies she had last seen even as she answered them, her rote replies creating the perfect cover for her inner monologue, the gist of which could be boiled down to a single thought: I wish I were in my hammock. I want to drink lemonade and watch the birds. By now Marcy was prattling on about plums, cautioning Helen not to buy them from Farmer Fred's because his had given her friend Cassie the runs. Her acrylic nails raked Helen's wet scalp as she yapped, causing Helen to wince and resent Rachel all over again. Just who did she think she was, sending her on this fool's errand, plotting her hairstyle as if she were a marionette instead of a grown woman? The more Helen thought about it, the angrier she got. Lady Godiva's became a gilded prison, its air strangled by the cloying synthetic scents of a dozen products. Helen hated being there, hated that she'd allowed herself to be steamrolled. It was as if all the hurts and injustices and disappointments and humiliations of the past forty-five years were rising up to the surface and out of her carefully contained control.
"I don't want to get my hair done." Quiet but unrelenting, her words punctured the breezy beat of the boy band ballad bleating from the speakers.
Marcy, who had been launching into a blind date story, eked out an inelegent "huh?"
"I don't want to get my hair done," Helen repeated, her voice louder and holding more of a challenge.
Marcy muttered that Rachel wouldn't like that, seeing as she'd already paid.
"Forget Rachel!" Helen was nearly shouting now, and the other women in the salon were beginning to stare. "It's my hair." She was a little spooked by her own words, she who never contradicted anyone, but it was as if an unstoppable force had exploded, lava-like, to unleash her innermost thoughts. Marcy uttered something unintelligible and backed away. Helen felt a stab of remorse. The girl was just trying to do her job; it wasn't her fault that she'd gotten caught up in the wake of Helen's white volcano fury.
"I'm sorry," Helen said. "I'm sure you do lovely work." She dug into her wallet, produced a twenty dollar bill, and pressed it into Marcy's hand. Then she made her way past the curious, upturned faces of the other customers to the door.
Outside, the sun felt wonderful on her wet, still-mousy hair, the smell of heliotrope wafting sweet from a neighboring hedge. Helen smiled as she slid into the driver's seat, overcome by a sense of well-being and calm. It was a perfect day for a snooze in her hammock.