I failed at practical self-care details in the weeks following Tim’s death, so when I returned home to Indianapolis from Boston during my students’ spring break, I declared getting a haircut a priority.
“I’m going to that walk-in hair place in the mall,” I said.
Teresa said she’d go with me, that she needed one, too.
For the briefest minute, I wondered why my sister didn’t just make an appointment with her regular stylist. Was she intentionally avoiding people she knew peripherally, people who knew about Tim’s death but weren’t her closest friends—exactly as I had been doing? Maybe I should have asked her about it. Maybe we would have talked about it, even laughed at ourselves a little. Or at least taken comfort in knowing that we understood one another. But instead I shrugged, content in not knowing why she wanted to join me, content in not going alone.
“When do you want to go?” I asked instead.
My name had been called first, so I was already shampooed and sitting in a stylist’s chair by the time Teresa walked by and my stylist got a good look at her.
“You’re sisters, aren’t you?” the stylist said.
“Yep,” we answered in unison.
“How’d you know?” Teresa asked.
It was a rhetorical question. Teresa and I had been told how much we look alike and been confused with one another for most of our lives, even though I am five years younger than she is. But the stylist thought she was the first to ever notice.
I don’t think Teresa heard her answer. She was already in the shampoo chair with the water running.
“It looks like fun to have a sister. Are you close?”
I shrugged. People making small talk had always asked if my family was close. I had never actually understood what constituted “close,” but I’d also never asked anyone to define it. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“I’m an only child. I always wanted a sister to share clothes and stuff with.”
Teresa walked by us again and sat down across from me, on the other side of a big gaping aisle. “Teresa doesn’t share well,” I said.
“I heard that,” she called over her shoulder.
“I meant for you to.”
The stylist spun my chair around, so I was unable to look at my sister directly. I could only see her reflection in the mirror. She had her back to me, but the wall of mirrors cast multiple reflections of us in front of each other. Teresa stuck her tongue out at me. I returned the gesture.
“You’re funny,” said the stylist. “Is it just the two of you?”
I looked her in the eye for the first time. She was probably five years younger than I was. Her blonde hair hung in perfect spirals. Her name tag said Kelly.
“What do you mean, just the two of us?” I asked.
“Do you have any other brothers and sisters, or is it just the two of you?”
The smell of perm solution rose from the next booth and burned the inside of my nose. “Our brother died two months ago” did not strike me as a particularly appropriate response to a stranger’s casual question. I turned and stared into the mirror, looking to my sister for help. The salon phone rang.
“I always wanted lots of brothers and sisters,” Kelly added in my silence.
I concentrated hard on Teresa’s reflection, trying to will her to look at me. She was smiling and talking. But not to me. I looked back at my own reflection. The salon phone was still ringing.
“Yeah, just the two of us.” Long loose hairs fell down my cape. I squeezed my fingers beneath the cover of it. “That’s it. Just me and her.”
“That’s nice,” Kelly said.
I looked back at Teresa in the mirror. I think she was looking at me, too. Had she heard? Was she mad that I dismissed our brother so quickly? Should I have said, “No, it’s not just us. We have a brother, too.” Or should I have said we had a brother? Do we still have a brother?
Do we? I begged her reflection.
Teresa didn’t answer. The unanswered salon phone stopped ringing, too.
Kelly turned the blow dryer on high speed and pointed it at the crown of my head, holding it there until the heat burned. I stared at myself in the mirror: the round face, blue eyes and small, slightly turned up nose—features that I shared not only with my sister but also with my dead brother.
Can I say there’s a ghost man on second, like we did when we played baseball as children?
Regret settled in like a bacterial infection in my chest. I was now embarrassed by my earlier rushed answer and wanted to take it back. But I still didn’t know what alternative to put in its place. My hair spun around Kelly’s brush like the revelations spinning through my mind. I’d been labeled “Tim and Teresa’s little sister” my entire life. If Tim was gone, who was I? What part of me went with him?
I looked again at Teresa in the mirror. “Don’t cry here. Don’t cry here,” I chanted in my mind, a trick I’d perfected in my 27 years.
But this time it failed. Kelly’s brush got tangled in my hair, and I blinked as she yanked it loose. A tear slipped down my face.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to pull that hard.”
“I’ll be okay,” I said, taking a deep breath and opening my eyes wide to suck a second tear back inside.
Kelly finished drying the last section of my hair and smothered me in hair spray. Then she spun the chair around and offered me a handheld mirror so I could see the back of my head.
“Thanks,” I said without looking. “It’s great.”
Teresa wasn’t finished yet, so I waited in the lobby. I looked at her reflection in the mirror again, seeing it from a different angle now. She didn’t look much different than she did at age sixteen, when she had sat next to me in the grandstands at the demolition derby at our county fair. I was eleven then, trying desperately to fit in with the cool kids who were nothing like me. When an unpopular boy from school walked by us and called me by name, I had pretended not to hear. Teresa had leaned close to my ear and said, “You’re mean.”
I wondered if she’d heard what I said to Kelly and felt that way now, too, because I’d just denied our brother’s existence.
Trying to distract myself, I passed time by silently, emphatically reading all the directions printed on a nearby shampoo bottle. Apply dime-sized amount to wet hair. Work into a rich lather. Rinse. It was hard to concentrate. Don’t cry here. Don’t cry here, I reminded myself. Repeat if necessary. Don’t cry here. Don’t cry here.
Teresa startled me from behind. “You ready?” she asked.
I turned and looked at her. The real her, not just a reflection. A tear escaped and ran down my cheek.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “You don’t like your haircut?”
I looked down at the black and white tile floor. “No. I hate it.”
About the Author
Julie Patterson is a writer specializing in memoir and essay, an adjunct college writing instructor, and a teaching artist in grades preK-12. Her work has appeared in Gravel, the Same, The Juggler, and on National Public Radio’s “This I Believe” segment on WFYI-FM. Julie has an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University and 150,000 honeybees in her backyard. Visit her at www.juliepatterson-writer.com or on Twitter @julie_patter.