Once upon a time, a princess lived trapped in a tower, where her hair grew very, very long. Only, not the stylish kind of long—the flowing, wavy mermaid tresses—but quadruple-split ends that crackled like dead flower stems when you touched them, because that’s really what happens when someone lives trapped in a tower without a haircut. The longer the princess stayed in the tower, the longer her hair grew. The distance between her good hair days also grew. It was either too frizzy or too oily, so that the princess started to feel more like a crone.
In case you can’t tell, that princess is me, and by the time a new spring dawned and the flowers began to bloom and cars returned to the freeways and the world basically woke up again, I just felt ugly. The hair dragged me down, a parasitic vine creeping over its host like kudzu drowning a tree in shade.
I kept it in a silver-streaked ponytail or braid just to hide it from myself, and to keep it from cascading down into the dish water, or the bath water, or into sticky plates of pancakes. It followed me around the house, a boa constrictor down my back.
Somehow, long brown strands still wove their way into my macaroni and cheese, into the roller brush of my vacuum cleaner and the dryer’s lint filter. It became the focal point of my appearance. “I can’t believe how long your hair has gotten!” people would comment from their little Zoom squares in the casual chatter leading into an office meeting.
My hair was strangling me.
It’s always possible that my hair was just a convenient scapegoat. Maybe it was the tower that was strangling me—my 1,700 square feet of finicky hardwood floors strewn with legos and LOL dolls, and trendy gray walls that sucked up sunshine. Maybe it was the extra ten pounds I’d gained from the aforementioned pancakes and macaroni and cheese. Maybe it was the air outside, poisoned with virus particles that wafted like microscopic pollen. Still, I blamed the hair for the tight feeling that sometimes took over my throat.
The day I got my vaccine, I texted my hair stylist: “Are you working? I need you!”
She had texted me last March, a mass message to clients, “See you when this is over…” That was back when we thought it would be over in two or three weeks, but somehow I took her at her word.
“Melanie!!!” came her quick reply. “I was just thinking of you. I must be reading your mind. I’ve been fully vaccinated since February. When would you like to come in?”
We were scheduled for Saturday. I was ready to leave the long braid and my days in the tower behind me. Now, with the office opening next month and the kids’ schools opening in a few weeks, I was going to see people again. It was time to look cute, to wear real pants, time to wake up, drink coffee, and put some fashionable sandals on the pavement. It was time to be a princess again.
Friday morning, as the sun peeked rosy through my tower window, I sipped my coffee and scrolled wistfully through pictures of layered, textured bobs, buoyant, balliaged, flirting with shoulders and kissing collar bones.
“Mommy! Mommy? Where are you?”
My thumb still swiped downward, drawing magic from the phone’s gently glowing screen as I answered the little voice plodding down the hall. “On the couch, Baby. Want to come cuddle?”
My youngest, Clara, climbed into my lap, where she began bouncing and playing with the tips of my still-loose hair. “What are you doing?” she asked, her voice warm and rosy like the sunrise.
“I’m planning my haircut,” I said, and held up my phone for her inspection. “How would you like it if I looked like this?”
That was my first mistake. Never ask a preschooler’s opinion on something she has no control over. But it was early, and I was still finishing my coffee. Mistakes happen.
“Uuuuh! No,” she groaned, wrinkling her nose. “Yuck.”
I swiped to the next image. “This one, then.”
“Bad,” she growled, a scowl pursing her lips.
Clara had been two the last time I got a haircut. She probably didn’t even remember it. I realized how much her world was about to change and wrapped my arms around her tiny waist.
“I’ll still have my same face,” I comforted her. “My own eyes, my own nose. I’ll still be Mommy. Just with different hair. And anyway, hair gets old,” I told her, stroking her long, dark brown curls. “It needs cuts to stay healthy. Like going to the doctor. Only, I waited so long, my hair needs surgery. I need to get rid of my witch hair.”
“But you have princess hair!” Clara flung her arms around my neck and tangled her fingers into my hair.
I did not feel like a princess, but I remembered all the times I’d let her brush my hair this year—twist and tangle it into “styles” decorated with sparkly headbands and barrettes—and the afternoon she picked dandelions from the back yard and laced them through the strands of my braid. “Like Rapunzel!” she’d exclaimed as she brought back more and more smiling yellow weed-flowers.
To her, I really was a princess. My kingdom was small, but my status was real.
I hugged her more tightly, this three-year-old princess used to quiet mornings, slow transitions, long expanses of time for tea parties and art projects, and Mommy always a call away, ready to solve problems with a royal decree. ”Ok, yes, princess hair. But even princesses need haircuts. Remember Rapunzel?”
“But then her hair wasn’t magical,” she said in a small voice, her chin resting on my shoulder.
“Don’t worry. We’ll figure out how to keep some of the magic,” I promised, thinking of dandelions and pancakes, and all of the other things I wasn’t ready to leave behind. Morning cuddles. Princess movies. I felt my throat tighten, and this time it wasn’t my hair.
The princess got her haircut.
I left the kids behind and went to a salon with a fountain and a courtyard, clay pots overflowing with red and pink geraniums.
“I’ve seen worse,” my stylist teased as she ran her fingers through the tangle of my ends, and the smile I gave in reply made my cheeks ache.
I listened to hip songs I didn’t know and sipped a mimosa and made polite banter while I watched big pieces of myself fall to the floor. Eight inches of hair—a year’s worth of growth and then some. I was shaped and textured and colored and dried and curled, a royal treatment.
I shook my head from side to side, felt my hair graze the tops of my shoulders. I felt so light, like I’d come unmoored. I could float away, a dandelion seed in the breeze.
Soon the winds of change would carry me into adult conversations, into quiet, clean office spaces designed for productive thought. But I didn’t want to drift too far away from where I’d been planted.
“Mommy!” Clara ran out into the driveway when she heard the car pull in. She sat in my lap and jiggled the steering wheel.
After a couple of minutes, she twisted around and timidly touched the sculpted edges of my hair. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a crumpled dandelion that she tucked behind my ear. “You’re still a princess,” she said.
I smiled through the tears that hung heavy in the back of my throat. “You bet.”
I want to say they all lived happily ever after: the princess drifted effortlessly between her office and the diplomatically-unrecognized kingdom of her tower. She is trying. She handles the transition with a graceful smile and a practiced wave, coiffed and polished. There are alarm clocks, traffic jams, tantrums, and growing pains, but the princess feels beautiful, and she can breathe.