3

Surviving




After Leslie was killed, I walked the streets of Gaborone until the Botswana Bandanna caught my eye. Having nothing better to do, I went in to have my hair ‘tonged, frozen, wrapped, pineappled, ponied, braided or cockscrewed’ as the sign outside advertised. I asked the proprietress, a large woman wrapped in three prints, if that meant ‘corkscrewed.’ She blew puffs on each of her speckled orange acrylics and said she’d really no idea.

The proprietress waved me over to a swivel chair, called for an operator and sailed away. A blurry white woman with yesterday’s hair stared back from the mirror at me. I blinked hard, and my image came into focus. The women behind me passed pastel plates of custard squares and swirled the sweets around their tongues. They lounged in various stages of makeover: cream-slathered hands, tightly braided hair, and black, white and tawny faces beneath purple masks. I hated dealing with my hair. Leslie hated it too, only her hair flowed like a chestnut mane and she never had to comb it.

Leslie died three days ago, while Carl and I were traveling north after attending the International AIDS Conference in South Africa. Tom’s email arrived this morning. She had been walking among the brightly painted umbrellas of an Indian Ocean beach outside Durban at dusk. A gang of youths demanded money, and she’d held onto her purse. That was like her. Leslie wasn’t stubborn; she just would have thought there was time to discuss it, time to change the outcome. Very beautiful people were like that. She’d written to me often about justice for South Africa, and when it had come, Leslie ignored any possibility of payback, even on the innocent. She just hadn’t wanted to see. Tom’s email today told us not to come back to South Africa. There was nothing we could do.

Congolese rhumba music filled the background. I’d first heard its beat at the AIDS conference. I jumped as the proprietress appeared behind me. “And what does Madame wish?” Her eyes harbored a squeamish look, perhaps reserved for the unpleasantness of foreigners. A mousy young woman trailed behind her. I asked for a wash and a trim, nothing fancy, just warm, soapy water and an edgy massage. Fussiness wasn’t my style. The young woman asked if I would mind coming with her to the sink. As we twisted our way along a corridor of legs, I noticed that she repeatedly creased and smoothed the towel she carried. Her hands reminded me of Leslie’s: delicate with long, tapered nails that looked manicured even without polish.

“What’s your name?” I said and sat. Gingerly, she tipped me back but dropped my head at the last second so it banged on the basin. “Oh,” she breathed. I pegged her as a trainee. The young woman tested the water, and I cringed as heat poured out inches from my head.

“Sara? Did you say Sara?” I said ready to bolt.

“That name is fine.” She talked so softly, I almost couldn’t hear her.

“No, tell me.” I knew a few women who would settle for being called the wrong name rather than insist on the correct one. I wanted to shake them and yell, ‘You doormat!’

She said, ‘Serara,’ or I think that was it. “Would Madame like less hot water?”

“Yes, yes please.” The volcanic heat cooled, and the shower head caressed my scalp. Serara, I think, poured on a soap that smelled of ginger and began to massage it in. The water she settled upon was warm and soothing.

She had a surprisingly firm touch. “You have good hands,” I said and began to relax.

“It is well to do something with the hair!” The proprietress swept by, and my young operator flinched. She splashed water into my eye.

“May I arrange your hair, please?” Serara murmured as she dug the towel into my middle ear and turned to look at the retreating back of her boss as if the proprietress might whirl around and spray styling mousse in our direction. At least I assumed she turned, given the little I could see. To answer her question I nodded around the crick in my neck. I didn’t go to beauty parlors, and this particular position gave my principles flesh.

“You have been traveling, Madame?” my operator said.

“Yes, the AIDS conference, in South Africa.”

Her hands stopped.

I bit my tongue. Outside medical circles, HIV wasn’t acceptable African conversation, especially here, now. Total idiots knew that; apparently I didn’t. My trainee massaged again more vigorously, the pace of her fingers like a humming bird, one with a little weight on it.

At first, Serara’s ministrations felt good, then a bit alarming. The strength and speed of her fingers increased. Would she suddenly screech to a stop and slip on protective gloves? It was a conference, for goodness sake. I wasn’t exactly oozing from lesions or burning with fever.

I’d liked to think I knew something about the disease from my husband’s work with patients in Seattle. I too was disgusted with Mbeki’s recent comments; who wasn’t? He’d condemned the sick for being sick and seemed to want them to die to make room for those who were lucky. Leslie had agreed with me, of course, and we’d stayed up late one night with cold tapioca pudding and warm wine discussing it.

My operator massaged even harder. The pain in my neck surged; I jerked forward in the seat and almost whacked my head into her breasts. Serara’s nails grazed my scalp.

“Oh, Madame!” She trembled as she fit the towel around my head and helped me up. I determined to wait another ten years for my next salon visit.

“It’s fine, just fine,” I said. “Don’t worry about it.”

I felt a little dizzy as we made our way through the parlor among steaming hair wraps and the biting scent of polish remover. I felt for the arm of the slightly worn swivel chair, sat down on the edge, and jammed the sole of my sandal onto the footrest to avoid falling off. Serara rubbed the towel into my hair and cranked me up within earshot. After glancing around like a fugitive, she whispered her desire to do something ‘special’ with my hair.

“Oh, I don’t kn...”

“Legs uncrossed for the cutting angles!” The proprietress bore down on us. I complied immediately and Serara jumped. The wet towel plopped onto my lap.

“Tea -- hot,” commanded the owner over her shoulder as her inspection tour continued. Serara served Four Roses tea in lovely china. Before I could take a sip, though, the proprietress was back with hot milk, which she dumped in as if it were understood that everybody wanted some. It nearly curdled in the cup.

“Now, I will do something special for Madame,” trembled my operator. It occurred to me that I was going to be Exhibit A in this trainee’s gallery of ‘before and after’ portraits.

“Uh, it’s Rosella, really, just Rosella. Not Madame, just...” Reflected in the mirror, my eyes were puffy half-moons above dark valleys. I swiped at my eyes. The chemicals of nail polish and hair dyes in the shop were overwhelming.

A jar with shocking-pink grease in it appeared. Serara kneaded the sugary stuff into my damp hair until each strand could stand by itself. She twisted a thumbnail of hair on the top of my head and secured it with a tiny rubber band. The process continued from one section to the other. Serara’s fingers worked like darning needles among the skimpy strands. She really did have good hands.

“Which colors do you prefer, Madame?” What, more grease? “For the ribbons.” Serara began to look happy. It was amazing to me that anyone would want to take that much time and care with the dead cells of another’s head, but I picked some colors, closed my eyes, and savored the moment. Serara hummed softly as she worked. I was glad she wasn’t a talker.

My husband was checking out the clinics here in Botswana, and I was trying to discover an advertising industry. Carl had heard that the hospitals in the North had equipment but nobody to run it; he was intrigued. It was his dream work in Africa, and I was finding myself increasingly excited about it. I loved the advertising game. Emerging from wizard’s dust to conjure miracles for unsuspecting clients was my strength. I had an appointment with the diamond industry execs tomorrow, and I knew I’d do well. At least they would be able to point me in the right direction. Carl and I would stop at a few medical clinics on the way to our safari, and I would ferret out Botswana’s publicity needs. We had planned this trip to the minute; our real jobs were waiting back home.

Home: Leslie and I laughing at our rollered reflections in Trudy’s mirror at Beautiful You, one of two times I went to a salon in high school. What Trudy called ‘product’ was so thick in our drying hair we seemed to be wearing caps of steel. Leslie had been chosen for Prom court, and after much agonizing, I actually had a date. He was from another school; I looked pretty good in my dress. After that night, he dated Leslie for the summer, though, and I wasn’t jealous. My life expanded beyond the artificiality of parties and dances. Besides, Leslie dumped him before college, and he’d spent an evening crying with me. Leslie’s Prom dress was peach, and she’d been one of three girls with the nerve to wear a miniskirt.

The color of blackened-red spread upon her strapless top as Leslie flung up her arms for protection. A startled breath forced my eyes open.

Bright green and blue plastic ribbons wended among the tiny braids in my hair. The ribbons looked like the tightly knotted strands of colorful fabric we used to make friendship bracelets with at recess. I leaned forward to see better. Now this was different. Serara had carefully attached each small braid flat to my head with tiny fasteners of transparent plastic -- barrettes with flower patterns on them -- so that row upon row of the pretty strands interconnected. I pointed to the braids that hung down in waterfalls from most of the women’s heads. “Just one,” I said. Serara said they were extensions. There weren’t any mousy brown ones, so I settled for deep gold, very thin and as long as my arm. Serara unwound a piece of my hair about the size of a string of spit and wove the extension into it. She nearly yanked out the shaft of my hair, and I gritted my teeth through the procedure. But when it was done and she laid the braid carefully on my left shoulder, it looked great. When I moved, the braid swung to the rise of my breast and back. Serara and I smiled at one another in the mirror, artist to subject.

As big as plums, the eyes of the proprietress loomed behind us in dreadful silence. Then, “No, oh no, no, no-o!” Her finger tapped the back of my chair like a riding whip.

She turned on my poor trainee, placed a hand under Serara’s arm and steered her to the sinks. I couldn’t understand the language, but the tone of voice was clear. The owner must have thought her hiss a murmur. Elegant women nearby stared at their make-up magazines with embarrassment. I think I saw a few wrinkle masks crack in opposing lines of ‘Oh’ and ‘my!’

I’m not an aggressive woman, but the sight of my little inventor being quietly ground into face powder angered me. After all, it was quite an occasion for me to have another human manipulate my looks. Having given myself to the moment, it was not to be taken lightly. I walked over to the proprietress and declared that I liked my hair just fine. I felt it was creative, and my operator had courage to try this particular style on a stranger. I was a satisfied customer.

Even the rhumba music seemed to stop; maybe it was just the silence between tracks. Swaying in the cloud of the proprietress’s heavy perfume, I imagined her blowing smoke from the raised barrel of a hair dryer after roasting me on medium high. I did think I heard the squeaky hinges of a barroom door. But the proprietress did not deign to look at me. She lifted her shoulders, nodded, and swept away leaving scents of singed lilac and indignation in her wake. My little trainee came out of the woodwork and stood staring at the floor; she looked as if she were drowning.

“Come on. I like it, I really do,” I said.

I led the way to the checkout counter, Serara in tow, and took out the credit card that had carried me over the ocean and through the AIDS conference. I remembered Leslie’s nagging me to use the card in a pottery shop for a ceramic bowl I was sure would shatter on the way home. She had always been able to talk me into anything. Leslie said she would mail the bowl to me in the States, and now for an unbidden moment, I found myself wondering if I would see it again.

Serara’s hands were shaking. I felt bad for her until she wrenched the old-fashioned arm of the credit card machine over my card at an angle for which it was not intended. I caught the card, checked to see that the black strip hadn’t popped off, and fit it carefully into the ancient machine’s pocket so the imprint could be made.

“It’s okay; don’t worry,” I said and added a tip I knew was ridiculous according to the guidebooks. I tried again to perk her up. It looks great; you have such good hands. I’m all thumbs.”

A confiding look crossed Serara’s face, and she gazed around to see that we were alone. She looked at her beautiful, unblemished hands and then at me. I leaned in.

“I washed his sores, and I took care of him. She looked at the palms of her hands as if she could read them. “Not many knew of it.”

A sinking feeling accompanied the throb of my scalp. “Who?”

“My nephew.” Serara looked relieved as if we were in confessional and I was the monsignor. “He was my nephew.” She smiled sadly at her hands. “You understand.”

My head, which had been rubbed, grazed, and braided beyond reason, started to ache in earnest. How hard had she massaged my scalp? Had she broken the skin, could pink gunk cause sores and death? Had she slipped on gloves at the sink, or was that just a fevered wish.

“Restroom,” I said.

“Excuse me? Oh, in the back.”

I made my way among the women to the bathroom door and stumbled in. I sat heavily on the commode then jumped up. Was it wet?

Don't be silly, I thought. My head felt bruised. I scrabbled toilet paper from the holder. It was stuck, and I clawed bits and pieces free until I had enough to partially cover the toilet seat. I sat back down, ready to leap up. Sweat broke out all over my torso and neck, and I doubled over as I loosed my bowels. My throat constricted, and I wanted to cry. What’s the matter with me? You can’t get it from a hair wash. I felt dizzy and I chastised myself for being a crazy lady. Leslie had called me that once, something about a dare in gym class, somebody’s supersized bra, and a spotlight in the bleachers.

Sitting on the commode, I shook off my right sandal, which had pinched my big toe all morning and lightly swung my legs as the toilet flushed and the pain in my colon subsided. That girl had followed all the precautions with her poor sick nephew. Get over it.

I’d had enough of the half-life of the salon. Time to leave. I rose and swung around to the mirror, searching for my sandal and nearly screamed as the ball of my foot rammed into a straight pin hidden in the carpet’s deep pile. I reached down, pulled the pin’s tip out and flung it toward the trashcan. Why had I let my bare foot touch the carpet? Even at home, the terror of athlete’s foot in a public place would have stopped me. Clumsily with both hands, I hoisted my foot onto the rim of the sink and kneaded soap into the wound. Dammit, I’d take a scythe to this looney bin. I’d send sixty emails and ruin them on the Internet. I’d sue. My throat felt raw. I put my sandal on over my damp foot and stalked out, looking at no one.

I stepped into the bright sun and stumbled back as a nest of cell phones on the ears of pinstriped and daishiki-ed men buzzed by. Amid the cacophony of Gaborone’s new age building craze, I started down the street. My foot throbbed. The roar of bulldozers and cranes competed with the pain of my scalp, courtesy of Serara’s attentions. Leslie would have been given wine, soft towels, the top operator in the shop. Not me.

I stopped, remembering a rule I’d read often enough in the trip magazines to call it fundamental. ‘Always carry a pair of soft terry slippers in one’s purse for tired, trip-worn feet.’ Ah, I leaned against a building and dragged them from the bottom of my bag. One by one, so that my feet wouldn’t have to touch the pavement, I pulled off my sandals and struggled the slippers on. The slippers were red with rubberized bottoms, and my sandals barely fit over them. Even with the right sandal’s clasp done on the last hole, I would limp from the pinched toe, but looking at my red and rubbered feet, satisfaction began to kindle my courage. I’d got a grip on things; I was coming around. Hairdos and pins couldn’t hurt me. I didn’t have AIDS, thank you, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to get it. This lady wears foot condoms. I was going insane, so be it.

Feeling better, I walked down the busy street with my ‘new-you’ hair. The mild stares of those who passed by encouraged me only to hold my head higher. Get used to it, folks. A new ad mogul’s coming to town, yes she is. A mouse no more. She’ll tear the top off this place. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Creativity is in every language. If I can make it there, I’ll make it...

Something flew out of my hair and hit the vest of a man crossing the street. He cringed and swatted at the missile. With dignity, I sailed past him and caught the next pedestrian in the eye with another dart. The exterior of the ‘Mr. Tumbo: Solicitor’s’ establishment took the blow of the third, while the fourth projectile landed a direct hit on the breast of a rather large lady balancing a basketful of oranges on her head. I sensed rather than saw that she righted her burden with great skill and kept going. Each time a barrette leapt from my head, a little braid sprang loose. I tried to move with unrushed pride, but since I was fast becoming a public nuisance, I quickened my pace. The safety of my fellow men and women was at stake.

After what could have been ten more pings, accompanied by ducking humans, scratched windows and marred trees, I found myself at the end of the street outside a picture window of a craft boutique. I looked at intricate baskets draped with woolen prints among sculptures of nurturing mothers and great chieftains. Then I saw my likeness in the window. Framing a chalky face, stumpy green and blue braids stuck out all over my head. One long drooping extension proved that gravity still existed.

Reflected behind me in the glass, I saw the Council Inn, a lovely place we’d eaten at last night, and my refuge. I would call Carl on the cell, and we’d have lunch. We would hold hands and talk of miracle medicines and seductive commercials. Maybe he would bring me a large straw hat and dark glasses. Crossing the street, I dodged an assortment of private taxis whose drivers yelled at me to ride. One driver did a double take, and another almost ran into a roundabout sign, but most, bless them, didn’t seem to care what a fare looked like. I climbed the winding staircase to the second story of a modern strip mall and entered the sudden quiet of the restaurant. It was intimate, with a sophisticated African and European clientele. Soft, rhythmic music played from hidden speakers. Diners leaned toward one another over miniature plates of vegetable garnish and seemed to enjoy the company. As I followed a gliding waitress to a corner table in the back, people were kind; most tried not to notice. Only the children pointed and got their hands covered and put under the table. I ordered a very expensive carafe of midday wine, Zimbabwean. Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Botswana. The words tasted exotic on my tongue. Whites in dark Africa; sounded like candy in a bonbon box.

The distorted silhouette of my hairdo bounced off the wine bottle’s surface. Nothing like a little reality. At least they would remember me, and my new ad agency would be high profile. ‘Mrs. Tumbo, do you and your husband remember that absurd woman who...? That ad agency woman, the one everyone goes to, well you should have seen her last year. You’d never forget it; you simply couldn’t!’

Maybe a publicity photo would be just the thing today.

I inhaled the deep musk of the wine. My friend would have giggled at how I looked; no, she would have laughed out loud until she got the hiccups. We would have sat on my bed in our pajamas in giant rollers and choked on double chocolate almond, a whole pint each. I would have gained three pounds; she would have lost two. That was life. My eyes started to tear up, so I ordered braised beef and spring vegetables and raised a glass to Leslie as high as my arm would go. With my red feet, I tapped a little foot dance under the table to whatever music they wanted to play. I was coming to Africa to stay, and I would handle it a damn sight better than she.

About the Author

Greta Holt

Greta Holt is the recipient of two Ohio Arts Council Individual Artist Fellowships in fiction. Her parents were educators in Botswana for nine years, and she has published stories about Botswana in literary magazines and anthologies, including the Southern Indiana Review, yoyomagazine.org, and What Mennonites are Thinking. Currently, she is working on a connected collection about a family in Cincinnati and a young adult novel about a Mennonite girl in the 1960s. Greta is an associate member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and she reviews books for Children’s Literature (childrenslit.com.) She attributes her continued interest in writing to the professionalism and camaraderie of her writing group and to the writing conferences she has attended, including Breadloaf, Sewanee, Ropewalk, Mennonite/s Writing, Southampton, and Antioch. Greta is a member of Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship, which sponsors the Mennonite Arts Weekend.