Translated by: MICHAEL FAVALA GOLDMAN
When Britta was depressed, nervous, and restless like this, so not even a complete reorganization of all the furniture in the house, or the preparation of a complicated dinner, could help her, there were only two things that could alleviate her suffering: a visit to either the beauty parlor or the doctor. Sometimes both. The beauty parlor first, of course.
It was Monday, and she was the only customer. When she walked into the pretty shop, where everything, even the hairdryers, was painted in delicate pastel colors, and the aroma of perfume and expensive soap met her like a gentle narcotic, it occurred to her that this kind of salon probably meant the same to women as bars meant to men. Just the fact that they always had artificial lighting, she thought, already feeling better, even this early in the afternoon.
No one came to help her with her overcoat, and, slightly uneasy in the silence, she hung it on one of the pink hangers in the closet herself. Then a blue figure came rushing from the back, and Britta smiled in relief when she saw that it was little Mrs Mikkelsen, who usually did her hair. But the woman didn’t smile back. She seemed pale and – Britta had to fight the urge to run back out the door – her eyes were all red, as if she had been crying.
This makes no sense, thought Britta, I’m the one with the problems. I’m the one who has been crying, not her; I’m the one with bad nerves who doesn’t know a soul who understands – She closed her eyes while her hair was washed, and she almost forgot the little hairdresser’s altered demeanor under the soft, massaging fingertips caressing her scalp.
It was the most soothing feeling she had ever known. She was falling asleep as she remembered one summer at the beach, the summer of her great love, long before Werner, when a young man lay next to her, playing with her hair while her fingers sifted through the warm sand, and she felt her body opening, receiving, and she was carried far away on a tide of happiness – but then suddenly the sky grew cloudy and all the beachgoers disappeared. She was all alone, and ice-cold rain started pelting her hair. She woke with a little screech: ‘Aah! The water’s cold! What are you doing?’
Horrified, she peered up into a face that looked just as upset as she herself felt, and she realized that there was something wrong, something incredible and terrible, which she, Britta, who had come here to calm her nerves, would now be unavoidably involved with for the next couple of hours. Her poor heart started pounding disconcertingly fast. She would have to mention this to the doctor – her hypersensitivity to the suffering of others. It was like a sickness. She shook her head weakly from side to side in response to the stammering apology the hairdresser mumbled, and then she shut her eyes again in resignation, as the fingers on her head pressed into a second round of shampoo lather.
Ow, unfamiliar fingers were pressing too hard, and were not evoking any more delicate, dreamy thoughts.
When she sat in front of the mirror, which reflected her face in the most flattering lighting imaginable, for some reason it made the much younger woman’s face behind her look even paler, and her curiosity won out over all her other feelings.
‘What’s wrong, Mrs Mikkelsen?’ she asked sympathetically. ‘It’s not like you to be so quiet. Aren’t you feeling well?’
The thin pastel blue figure turned away from her, and Britta noticed with distaste that the back of the woman’s hair was matted and dull.
‘My husband left me yesterday – do you want me to leave it long in front of your ears, as usual?’
There was hardly a pause between the two statements, but – as Britta later explained to people when she recounted the episode – her heart nearly stopped beating at the sight of the two teardrops sliding down the young woman’s cheeks.
It was too much, unfair really, that this should happen on this particular day, when she had woken in her darkest mood next to the still warm depression in the bed where Werner had slept.
She wanted to laugh hysterically, because she had come here – no rushed here – to forget, to be soothed by vacuous but familiar and sweet chatter, to be surrounded by wonderful smells, and to be treated by caring, almost loving hands, and then – ‘I feel so bad for you,’ she said, and she could hear that her tone of voice, despite her efforts, was better suited to a sentence like: What does that have to do with me? Then, giving in to an irrepressible urge to be mean, she leaned in toward the mirror and added, ‘Sure, just leave it as usual. My husband loves this look, I must say.’
With a nearly unnoticeable emphasis on the words: my husband. She regretted it immediately, but at the sight of the hairdresser’s slowly blushing face, she thought about Werner’s recent icy remark to her, as they were on the way out the door to drive to the theater: ‘My dear, I don’t mean to insult you, but couldn’t you do your hair in a way that better matches your age?’ My God, the whole evening was ruined, even though he immediately tried to make it up to her and blamed his exhaustion and his work that – she didn’t understand why – had been taking up all his time. And the following days, how did she make it through? Their kids were getting so big and self-centered, they wouldn’t understand. Irene, the eldest, laughed to her friends: ‘Please excuse my mother. She’s going through a change of life, just like us!’ It was supposed to be so incredibly funny. And what was that? Her heart! So loud she could hear it.
She couldn’t stand the way it surprised her, not unlike suddenly being shut in with this stranger who knew everything about her. Everything! To whom she had revealed things she wouldn’t even have told her best friend. And who had misunderstood her, misused her trust so completely, that she thought she could proceed to trot out her own private life! As if a person went to the salon to be entertained by the things in life they were trying to escape from for just a little while.
‘Would you please–’ she put her hand to her heart, avoiding the other woman’s eyes – ‘I don’t feel all that well. Would you open a window? The air is so heavy –’ She really should visit her doctor right away. Her heart was actually hurting.
She had to bear down and not give in to her sensitivity. She had to do that much at least for herself. Imagine if she had told me everything, thought Britta, irritated. Why do otherwise perfectly stable people always have a tendency to be so dramatic about it when something bad happens to them? ‘My husband left me yesterday!’ Unconsciously, she had never connected the little ‘Mrs’ in front of the woman’s name with the thought of a husband.
I’d like to know, she thought, while the silent person behind her obediently opened the window and then continued pinning her curls, what Werner would think if his barber suddenly confided in him that his wife had run off! Besides, she was pretty sure that Werner never made anything but small talk with his barber. There were certain situations that only happened to her. She was too naive, too trusting.
While she sat under the dryer, and the pastel blue figure disappeared somewhere in the back, it felt like suddenly someone gave her heart a hard squeeze. She groaned loudly and shut her eyes to escape whatever horrible thing was coming, sneaking, slithering, like a crafty animal that had long been waiting, ready to ambush her. She didn’t know what it was. Her thoughts jumped, terrified, away from it, but it caught up to her, condensed into one short sentence, which in a whimpering, inaudible gasp glided across her lips: I’m losing him!
But, as if some unknown being was just trying to test her stamina (there was no other way she could explain these severe mood swings), or tease her like a child with a kitten, she felt lighter as soon as she said it, or had she only thought it? Instantly she felt happier, more or less the way her friends saw her: warm, impulsive, full of interesting ideas, and always eager to drop whatever she was doing and come speeding like an ambulance as soon as anyone she knew had a problem.
She breathed deeply and smiled at her reflection. Oh, she was really going to be a beacon of good cheer as soon as she was out of here. Buy gifts for the children, for the housekeeper, prepare a nice dinner with the red wine Werner loved. Do herself up, especially her hair. Regardless of what Werner might say, just to tease her, her hair was still captivating, shiny and vibrant, blonde as sheaves of wheat, despite her forty-five years. It simply refused to grow old. And she decided, as if she had only just thought about it for the first time, to ask him flat out who that female voice was, calling on the phone last week. As soon as she heard he wasn’t home, she hung up. Of course there had to be some completely natural explanation for it. She actually didn’t know a single married woman who wasn’t mystified by something like that once in a while. She would be insane to think – no, it was laughable.
Light in her heart, she started paging through one of the magazines that lay on the shelf under the mirror and her thoughts returned to the little hairdresser: poor girl, so young and pretty – there are plenty of men for her in the world.
She looked at her watch. She wouldn’t make it to the doctor today. Why would she have gone anyway? It was probably a good thing her heart could still beat irregularly, like it did when she was a young woman.
When Mrs Mikkelsen – still silent and red-eyed, the poor thing – removed the pins and brushed out her hair, Britta smiled amiably at her in the mirror, and said in an upbeat tone: ‘Don’t look so unhappy, my dear. Look on the bright side. You don’t have any children. If something like that happened to an old woman like me, it would be a different matter!’ She initiated a good-natured laugh which was not reciprocated.
Then she got up, relieved at being able to slip away – she would never be caught dead in here again – grabbed her purse from the counter and left a nice tip as she clasped the girl’s hand around the money in a motherly fashion. Her hand was ice cold despite the heat in the shop, and Britta let go again quickly, as if she had burned herself.
‘Thanks,’ said the hairdresser, bowing her head slightly and following her client to the door.
‘Bye, ma’am,’ she said.
And, hidden behind the curtain, she watched the lady with the foolish teenage haircut leave, while unconsciously gripping the money and balling up the ten-kroner bill.
She would have liked to have had time for a good cry, but she was alone in the salon today, and the next customer was already coming in the door.
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