“Let’s try another one, Cleo. True or false: I once bumped into Dwayne Johnson in a diner,” I said, trying to keep my expression inscrutable.
“Who’s Dwayne Johnson?” Cleo asked, craning her neck toward me, shifting beneath the full-coverage cloak the hairdresser had ceremoniously held out for her, easing her in one arm at a time.
I sighed heavily from my seat in the reception area, watching tufts of my friend’s thick blonde hair drift to the ground as the stylist maneuvered her head back into position and resumed her measured clipping. It seemed a pointless ritual, though I’d never say as much to Cleo. What she did with her hair was irrelevant; she would stop men – and women – in their tracks regardless. I would have killed for hair like hers; mine was nothing but mousy brown wisps that I’d long given up on. Unlike her, even if I did make an effort I remained invisible – always the bridesmaid never the bride. Today I’d made a half-hearted attempt to be presentable and gathered up my drab locks in what I thought could pass as a fashionable messy ponytail. Before we’d left our apartment, Cleo had given me a quick once over and praised me for a “good try.”
“Seriously, Cleo? Don’t you remember me saying how I accidentally bumped into him, and a posse of bodyguards suddenly materialized, as if I, of all people, would dare jump ‘The Rock’…” I did those irritating quote mark things with my first and second fingers. “It was the closest I ever came to brushing shoulders with a Hollywood star – literally…”
“Oh yeah, The Rock...” Cleo said distractedly as the hairdresser motioned for her to tilt her chin down.
“Stay still,” she warned, placing one hand atop Cleo’s head, steadying it, then added, “It would be a shame to lose it all.”
Gaze fixed on the floor, Cleo continued, “Too bad you didn’t manage to seduce The Rock with your charm. If you’d snagged him, then maybe you wouldn’t be obsessed with winning this cheesy TV show.” The stylist released her grip; freed, Cleo looked up and smirked, her green eyes flashing beneath the fluorescent lighting. Its metallic glare made me look pale and washed out, but she seemed even more radiant than usual, if that were possible.
“Cleo,” I groaned. “This is for both of us. Wouldn’t you like to win $50,000 and do all that traveling you’ve been talking about? Paris, Tokyo, the Maldives… Know Thy Partner is nowhere near as bad as all that Bachelorette trash that you watch. You’ve heard the saying ‘Know thyself’? It’s Platonic.”
I glanced down at my carefully compiled list of questions – all based on what I’d thought were well-established facts about me; nothing too obscure or tricky. Clearly I’d been mistaken. The odds of convincing an audience of thousands that we were the most worthy couple – not just friends, but soulmates who knew each other inside and out – were not in our favor. So far, out of ten, we’d scored a whopping zero.
“So, that was actually ‘True’, though you’re right in saying I didn’t in fact ‘score’ with The Rock. He’s not my type anyway,” I muttered. “Next question” — I took a deep breath — “What’s my favorite song?” I closed my eyes, mentally replaying “Crash” by The Dave Matthews Band, losing myself in it for a moment. The line “I’m bare boned and crazy for you…” got me every time. I’d first heard it as a teenager, full of raw, unadulterated lust – for Cleo, always for her, and forever unrequited. “Come on, you know this,” I urged, raising my voice above the whirr of blow dryers and hum of salon small talk. When my pleading met with yet another vacant stare, I prodded, “… and I had it on repeat for a full 24 hours that night you came over after Helen of Troy broke up with you…”
“It was Helen Onasis,” she cut in. She smiled, keeping her gaze trained on the generous-sized mirror in front of her. “So, I actually do know the answer to this one,” she said with a wink. “It’s the song that’s all about boys and their wet dreams – ‘You crash into me and I come into you’ – right?” she added pointedly.
At that the middle-aged hairdresser paused mid-snip and glared at Cleo in the mirror, scissors suspended, lips pursed. My friend seemed oblivious to the reprimand, and to the power the woman wielded. It wasn't her usual stylist. As far as I could tell, this was a new one, or at least she’d never done Cleo’s hair any of the times that I’d accompanied her. She had a sinuous way of moving that made me more than a little uncomfortable – and, admittedly, envious. I’d watched as she’d ushered Cleo to the sink, draped a towel around Cleo’s delicate collarbone; at how she kneaded the shampoo into her scalp, my friend willingly surrendering to her touch. Already this stranger had something over me: I’d never managed to get that close to Cleo – she’d told me from the start I wasn’t anything like her type.
An awkward silence ensued, and I felt my cheeks flush in embarrassment. I buried my face in one of the well-thumbed New You! magazines littering the table, idly flipping through page after page of overly made-up, pouty-faced models with ornately sculpted hair. A sudden disquiet gnawed at me: at the imposter I was in this inner sanctum of beauty with my no-name jeans, scuffed shoes, colorless hair. The moment passed, the hairdresser back to her rhythmic snipping, putting the finishing touches on Cleo’s new look.
“You finally got one right!” I exclaimed a little too enthusiastically. “We’ve only been friends for, what, over a decade, and you actually know one piece of trivia about me? Amazing,” I said, dripping sarcasm, yet still entertaining the fantasy that maybe she did harbor some deeper understanding of me after so many years. That maybe we could make a convincing couple – if only just for show.
“I’m tired of this,” Cleo said wearily, as the hairdresser smoothed out her freshly washed and cut hair, deftly drying it with a brush in one hand, blow dryer in the other. “Do you really think anyone is going to care about the three dead people you’d most like to invite to dinner or your most precious childhood memory? I’m sure we can just fake our way through it—”
“No!” I blurted. “I mean, we don’t need to fake it, do we?” I grabbed my list of questions. “We haven’t even done half of these… You know me better than this. Let’s keep practicing—”
“Nah, I’m done, hon. Hey, what do you think of my hair?” she said, flicking it over her shoulder and striking a coy pose. Before I could answer she stood up abruptly and untied her cloak, letting it spill onto the floor as the hairdresser watched, her gaze unflinching. I thought of the countless times I’d picked up after Cleo in the apartment we shared: the dirty clothing carelessly strewn on the floor, the half-filled coffee cups left to stew, the tabloid magazines splayed across the kitchen table… It was always me who cleaned up.
I heaved myself up from my seat and plucked the discarded cape from the floor, then passed it to the hairdresser, who stood, stoical, waiting for me. “Sorry about that; it’s just how she is…” I mumbled as Cleo unabashedly sashayed across the salon, admiring herself from every angle, drawing looks from the everyday, bland clientele. No one could ever hold a candle to golden-haired Cleo.
The stylist gripped my wrist suddenly, pulling me so close that I could feel the warmth of her breath on my face. Then, she reached into her pocket and placed something in my palm. It was an appointment card for the salon: “METAMORPHOSIS” it said on the front in bold typeface, the name “THEA” printed beneath it. I turned it over to find a barely legible handwritten message. I brought it closer to my face, trying to decipher the script, the hairdresser eyeing me intently. It said, simply: “You must lose to win.”
“Sorry…” I muttered, turning the card over in my hand. “What am I supposed to do with this?” She released my wrist and draped the lifeless smock over my arm, flecks of Cleo’s wet hair still clinging to the fabric. Without a word, the stylist nodded, grabbed a broom, and started a methodical sweep of the mess of trimmings that had accumulated throughout the day – a cocktail of black, brown, blonde and gray shades heaped in an unsavory pile, like an offering to some despised god. I watched her brush the debris into a dustpan and shake the offcuts into the waste bin, just as Cleo sidled up next to me, her catwalk complete.
“You ready to pay?” she crowed, jolting me from my reverie.
Not so much a question as a statement. It was the usual run of events: we went out, she got what she wanted, I paid, we left. And so the wheel turned.
Cleo left me by the cash register while she disappeared to retrieve her coat. The cape I carried on my arm seemed heavier now. Deadweight. Still puzzling over the card in my hand, I looked around the salon, at the women gathered like supplicants in hopes of transformation. But what did they seek? To feel better about themselves, turn back time, feed their vanity, please their partners, or maybe, just to escape. To be somewhere – or someone – else. The question burned: what was I doing here?
I couldn’t find Thea among the gaggle of stylists busily primping and trimming and dyeing. My arm ached; I needed to get rid of this thing and find out what I was supposed to do.
“Excuse me,” I said to the lady at the cash register, gripped by a sudden sense of urgency. I had to do this before Cleo reappeared. “I need to pay for my friend’s haircut; it was Thea who did it – can you get her for me?”
“Do you mean Tina?” she asked, her voice tinged with annoyance. “She’s just over there finishing off those highlights.” She pointed to a red-haired girl who couldn’t have been older than seventeen.
“No, I’m sure it was Thea,” I said, stealing a glance at the card in my hand, but all I got in return was a hollow stare. “Anyway, it was a wash and cut…”
“That’ll be $50 then,” she said blankly, just as the phone rang. “Good afternoon, Metamorphosis,” she answered. “How can I help you…?”
Cleo emerged. She lumbered toward me, an affected smile on her face, her vintage coat hanging limply on her frame, her blonde hair sagging over her shoulders, its luster gone. Maybe hair is just hair after all, I thought. My arm felt leaden. Lose to win, a voice entreated.
Before Cleo could reach me, I shed her cloak. It pooled and spread on the floor among the stray clumps of dead ends.
“How will you be paying?” the lady called, but I had already taken flight.