When I was a teenager, I was a wild thing. My parents didn't know what to do with me. They tried grounding, therapy, sending me to visit their old friends who happened to be therapists, and boarding school. These attempts were futile against my wildness, which did not wish to be doused with sanity.
The thinking was there was something wrong with my youthful brain. “She wasn’t always like this,” my mother would say. “She was such a happy child.”
“Look here,” the mental health technician would say, pointing at my wonky amygdala and my quirky cerebral cortex. “Have you considered pills or electronic pulses?” No, she did not. She must have known my mental state would not be interrupted by feeble psycho-medical attempts to dull my crazy.
One attempt to fix me stands out because it was entirely external. My parents sent me to visit family in a small conservative town. I had an auntie there with one and a half well-behaved children.
You might be wondering how someone can have one and a half well-behaved children. You might be thinking one of them was short or young, but that was not the case.
She had two entire children. Both were good students, but, one was a naughty free thinker who possessed the superpower of not giving a shit. A clear favorite of mine, recognizing a fellow crazy.
This naughty one only got half-a-well-behaved child staus. His grades were good, but he did not follow the rules. Hence, my aunt had one and a half well-behaved children, so she was a model of good parenting. She would teach me how to behave.
I stood out in this town. My clothes were too tight and intentionally ripped. My hair was unkempt and multi-hued. I wore Doc Martens instead of Danskin ballet flats. I carried a backpack instead of a purse. When something ripped, I used duct tape instead of needles and threads.
While touring the town with my aunt, I noticed the town women wore a lot of pink and rocked 1950's hairdos. Where I was from, those kinds of hairdos were called hairdon’ts.
Auntie suggested, “Let’s take you to the beauty parlor.”
Beauty parlor? The only beauty parlors I’d seen were in the movies. Here, in this Republican conservative town, I was being allowed the opportunity to see a beauty parlor in its natural habitat. Yes, auntie, please.
When I walked into the beauty parlor, I was not disappointed. Heads were heating inside of domes. Toes were being painted in those feeble flip-flops. Women were chatting while flipping through People and Us magazines. Goodbye Earth 1. Hello, Earth 2. I was intrigued.
Once the women unhinged their eyeballs from the mess of me, they turned their eyes back on my auntie. She was popular, pretty, smiley, friendly, and didn’t ruffle feathers. The beauticians took another look at me and begged my auntie to give me a makeover.
She looked over at me and raised her brows.
“Sounds a little drastic,” I said, remembering that this was not my home planet. Once I returned to Earth 1, on the South Side of Chicago, I could be promptly beaten up, tossed in a cab, and sent back to the suburbs. Maybe not exactly, but metaphorically.
“It’ll be fun,” she said. I was pretty sure her fun was not my fun. Mine involved hanging out in an alley, smoking pot, and cutting class. Hers sounded well-behaved and would make people approve of me. I considered it. I didn’t often get the rubber stamp of acceptance.
“A full makeover!” the woman told my Auntie, salivating at my potential to appear normal. “Hair, clothes, makeup.” I wondered if they could shake the Chicago accent out of my nasal passage.
I don’t love makeover shows, as a rule. People pretending they’re taking a friend out for dinner, and then the friend finds out they're getting a makeover. It’s like someone says, “I was going to buy you a steak and a drink, but your hair sucks and your clothes are stupid. I’ll buy you dinner but let me clean you up first.”
The word makeover sounded a lot like do-ever to me. Like shove that tomboy back into the birth canal and send me back a lady. If it didn’t work the first time, I wanted to say, but then I wondered.
What would a makeover do to my life?
My imperfect life. Could I be externally fixed and my fixedness would leak into my insides? Could I be fixed outside in?
“Fine,” I said. What did I have to lose?
The beauticians asked me how I wanted to be groomed. Groomed? It was worse than I thought. To them, I looked like a fixer-upper.
They didn’t ask me how short do you want your hair? Or do you want highlights? I was more of a shave through her knots and put a handkerchief around her neck kind of project. Don’t forget to check for ticks and fleas.
I did like the sound of being groomed, actually. It sounded groomy. “Make me look like I moved out of the South Side of Chicago into a cul-de-sac conservative suburb,” I said.
Now I was two for two. I was no lady, and they didn’t think I was funny either. Hopefully, they wouldn't hold it against me and chop off my ears.
Then, they called in the troops. They sent in the waxers, the tinters, the dyers, the dressers. They were gonna make me pretty like a real girl. Pinocchio, I feel you. I was excited.
I should come with a warning. I can pull off any look except girlie girl. Girlie girl makes me look crazy. When I am girlie girled, children with impulse control point and say, “Meemaw, what’s wrong with that lady?”
I come from the Era of Pet Shop Boys, David Bowie, Duran Duran. I come from the time of “Is that a woman or a man?” I come from the media world with the SNL character “Pat,” who never revealed their gender. Ultrafeminine was not my muse. I don’t do girlie girl. I do Tom Boy, hipster, and grunge.
The head beauty consultant touched my black shirt and advised me that black was not on my color wheel. The hundreds of black items in my closet, back home, felt a chill run through their hangers.
This was the kind of salon that sold clothes. They picked out a big pink dress that looked somewhere between a Gunne sax, a nightgown, and a can improve your sex life maid’s uniform.
I have a problem. I like everything that’s put in front of me. And at 16, I couldn’t have picked myself in a lineup. I didn't have a clue who I was. And here I was, being transformed, accepting every pluck, scissoring, wardrobe re-function, and makeup tones that belonged to understated girls.
After my new bob with highlights and my pink Barbie cupcake house dress, I was ready to go. I liked it, but I liked everything until I didn’t.
I returned to sweet home Chicago in my Amish Stepford daughter drag. My best friend didn’t recognize me running down the street towards her. She held up her arms in defense from this giant pink thing running towards her.
“Jesus Christ!” she said as I wrapped my arms around her. “What the fuck did they do to you? You smell good, but everything else is a mess.”
I didn’t toss out the dress. I secretly loved it. But, I pulled my hair back in a tight ponytail, raided my closet of blackness, reapplied my dark eyeliner, and joined her in the alley for a smoke.
I’m not saying I miss that girl, but someone in a small town with noble intensions found her inside of me. I think about her now and then, sitting in that chair, like a chameleon slut, ready to let any clone-making beautician do a number on her.
I wonder who she would have married, how she’d do in school, if it would have taken her less time to finish college. Would she have gotten fired from as many jobs? She probably wouldn’t have dated her film professor. She was a good girl.
Part of me thinks she went on living somewhere else without me. She took that pink dress out of my closet, packed it in her reasonably sized luggage, and married her high school sweetheart.
The other part of me thinks she ditched that dress too, joined a band, found a different daddy for every kid, and became a stunt woman in Hollywood. She had potential. I’d like to think she did something with it.