I still don't know why my mother and I ever thought it was a good idea for me to see a "perm specialist." I know that mom was worried about giving me a home perm. My hair was just wavy enough to cause all kinds of problems. It was also unusually thick and puffy, like a brown frizzy cloud hovering over my round, full-moon face. In the early 1980s, we did not own a straightening iron; and I refused to lay my head on the ironing board so mom could try to smooth out the errant wrinkles. Straight and silky was not an option; so I guess we reasoned that curly was the way to go...but a controlled kind of curly, the kind that only a perm specialist could provide.
My mother set up the appointment in the nearest city two hours away. We decided to make a day of it, shopping at the mall there, eating at a nice restaurant...all the while showing off my new, controlled curly permed hair. I would look like Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, or Elisabeth Shue in Karate Kid. My wild hair would finally be tamed. That was the plan. I would have an actual hair style when I started high school the following week.
We arrived at the salon a few minutes early, and I had some time to flip through the hairstyle magazines. My confidence was growing. I could almost imagine my own smiling face staring back at me from the glossy pages, head tilted slightly to show off my new perm.
The perm specialist greeted me, but she did not make eye contact. She was staring at my hair as if psyching herself up for a real challenge. She led me into a room literally surrounded with mirrors and strapped a cape around my neck. It took a long time for her to roll all my bushy hair onto the tiny perm rods. Once each wayward strand was secured, she squirted my head with perm solution and covered the whole mess with a plastic cap. The strong chemical smell was overwhelming. She left me to process and went to work on another client in an adjoining room.
Fifteen minutes passed. I remember wishing I had brought a book to read. Twenty minutes...was it normal for my scalp to feel hot and itchy? Half an hour ticked by before the perm specialist returned. She sniffed the air, forced a smile, and lifted the edge of the plastic cap, unwinding one of the perm rods. She looked a little startled; and I began to think that something had gone horribly wrong. She peeled the plastic cap off with one swish of her hand and quickly began unrolling the rods, tossing them in a little bucket on the tray table beside the chair. Unfortunately, I was staring in the mirror as each springy coil unwound. I did not look like Molly Ringwald. I did not even remotely resemble Elisabeth Shue. Although no scissors had come in contact with my hair since this whole process began, my hair was several inches shorter than when I had arrived. It smelled burned and it sprang from my head as if it were trying to get away. I couldn't think. I couldn't speak. I just began to cry. As my tears splattered on the cape, the stylist became more and more agitated. By now, she was down to the last few rods, and it was clear that my hair was ruined. It looked like rusted bedsprings. Some strands had already begun to stiffen into question marks while others just stood straight out, punctuating the air like an exclamation.
"I can't imagine what went wrong," the perm specialist said. "This has never happened before." Although the things she said seemed apologetic, she did not sound sorry at all. She sounded angry...as if I were to blame for this whole disaster.
My crying had picked up in intensity, my nose was running, and I was afraid I was going to start hiccupping sobs any second. The perm specialist ripped the cape off and stalked out to the reception area with me following behind her.
My mom stood up when we entered the room. She could not disguise her horror.
Needless to say, we did not go to the mall or have a nice lunch. We went straight back home. I cried the entire way, leaning my forehead against the passenger window lest I catch a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror.
I ended up getting a home perm after all. Our neighbor, Pat, who sold mobile homes, was also an amateur stylist. When mom, my hair, and I arrived on her doorstep, she didn't even ask. She just ushered us into her guest bathroom and pulled a perm kit from the medicine cabinet. Pat explained that we would apply the solution, but not use the rods. She would "comb it through" to relax the curl. It definitely needed relaxing. It looked as if it were in the throes of a full-blown nervous breakdown. After combing the solution through my hair and rinsing it in the sink, Pat decided we'd still need to cut off the burned and damaged pieces. I watched in silence as locks of scorched hair fell to the floor. I was all cried out.
About an hour later, she turned me around to face the bathroom mirror. My hair was shorter than I'd ever worn it. It would take some getting used to; but the perm specialist's damage had been undone. Not only had Pat confidently and efficiently corrected the perm problem, she had single-handedly vanquished the frizzy cloud that had followed me for the past few years. My face finally had a chance to shine. I learned that day that sometimes the most special "specialists" are those closest to home.