R. Michael Torrey


"Are the needles in here?"

I pull open the drawer of your desk, while you go by me, taking off your coat. The drawer is full of papers, letters, photos, business cards. I push some stuff around. Find one knitting needle, then the other.

"Do you want to have dinner, first?" you say. You put the videotapes on the kitchen table. I put the needles next to them. "What time is it?" I say. Look at the clock. "It's only 4:30. But I'm hungry, are you hungry?"

"Yeah," you say. "We might as well, before we get started."

So we make dinner. Those ears of corn I bought this morning at the farmer's market. A big salad with the tomatoes and the cucumbers and the sweet green peppers I got there. While the corn is cooking in the big pot, I go to check out the TV situation. Nothing really on; just Bugs Bunny cartoons. I rewind the tape of The X-Files that the VCR recorded last night. Bring out the big salad bowl. Tablecloth and napkins and forks and knives and a little bowl of the last of the French bread. I'm watching Sylvester trying to figure out how to get the Tweety Bird out of the yard full of dogs when you bring out the plates with the corn.

We sit down and eat, and watch the rest of the cartoon. Pepe Le Pieu shows up in the end.

"Anything else on?" you say.

"X-Files tape," I say. Pick up the remote and start the playback.

Halfway through X-Files, we're done eating.

"Good dinner," I say. "Thanks.

I stop the tape and we collect the dishes, take all that back to the kitchen.

I pick up the videos we rented. And the needles. Those skinny knitting needles I got in that yard sale years ago. You grab a paper bag. You bring one of the big Moroccan leather pillows out of the bedroom.

"Scissors?" you say.

"Right here," I say. Pull the scissors out of the jar and hand them to you. Then I go get the other pair from my office, because I know we're going to need them both. We take all that back into the living room. It's almost 6.

"Help me move the coffee table." I say.

We each take an end, move the table out of the way. I put the big leather pillow on the floor against the couch; up on it's side so you can lean against it.

We've done this before. A lot of times. We're getting pretty good at it.

"Maybe I should sit on the other one," you say, "Might be more comfortable, no?"

"Yeah," I say, "That's probably a good idea."

You go get the other pillow. Set it on the floor in front of the first pillow.

"Ready?" you say.

"I think so," I say.

I make sure the remote is close by. You put your glass of water within reach. I have a beer. We each take a knitting needle and a pair of scissors. The paper bag on the floor to our right.

I sit behind you, knees straddling the Moroccan pillow. You lean back and your braids are stuck between you and the pillow. I lift them out, lay them across the leather. You lean forward and then back and there they are again; stuck. I pull them out, spread them across the leather.

You had them done long, last time. Past your shoulders. Just tiny little finger braids, that's the way you like them. Nothing really fancy; you're not a fancy type. Just long straight individual braids you can tie up or pull back or just leave loose if you feel like it. It's been three months since you last had them done. I pick up the scissors. You're already cutting the front ones.

"Don't cut too short," you say, "My hair's been growing."

"I know," I say, "I won't."

I know where to cut. Just at your shoulders. I cut the braids straight across, cutting off the melted ends and maybe an inch or an inch and a half more. This is being conservative. Your real hair won't be down this far in the braids. I cut them all off, all the ones across the back. It's easier to do them all at once. Drop the cut-offs in the paper bag.

"X-files?" you say.

I point the remote. Push the button. Drop the remote. Pick up the knitting needle.

Scully and Muldar are trying to catch a serial killer.

"I like it," you say, "when it's an episode I haven't seen before."

"Uh-huh." I say. Knitting needle in my right hand. Pick up a braid in my left, tiny little braid less than half the size of my pinkie, shiny dark brown synthetic hair. Start with a braid from the middle back of your head. Where it's hardest for you to reach. You're working on the front ones. We've done this before. I know to start with the ones from the top of your head. Start right in the center and work to either side, and down. Poke the tip of the needle into the braid, just a couple of twists up from the end. Pull the needle down through the braid. The twists separate easy here, at the ends. Poke and pull, poke and pull. I unbraid it about halfway, and a twist of your real hair pops out to the side. It's kinkier, just a touch lighter brown.

Now the braid is tighter; harder to push the knitting needle in. And the needle won't pull through as easy any more. I'm always thinking I'll pull too hard and hurt you, but you hardly ever say ouch. Still, I try to be careful. The last knot is the toughest part. Right where they tied the fake hair onto your own hair. Three months ago, when they tied it on, that was right up against your scalp. They pulled your own hair so tight there, I could see where it was pulling your scalp into a little pucker, back when you first came home with it. A couple of hundred little puckers on your head. Must have hurt like hell.

Now, there's about a half inch of your hair grown out. A half inch between the knot and your head. I stick the knitting needle into that knot three times, pulling a little, loosening. One more poke and it comes loose; the tangle of fake hair sliding off your real hair like a fuzzy sweater off a woolen shirt. Faint crackling, almost like static electricity. That piece of your own hair sticking out of your head, like a fountain of hair, like a hair spout, with one spot where it all bunches together, a little blurred ring of tan holding it together. I never know what that is, exactly; that little ring of tan. Don't know if I want to know.

That first braid takes a couple of minutes. I start on the next one. Fox and Dana chase down their strange quarry. By the time X-Files is over, I've got a line of those little hair spouts coming down the back of your head. You've got a bunch of them in front. You twist them together and make a little bun, somehow. I've tried, but I can't seem to do that. I just push the spouts off to one side.

The phone rings. You get up and answer it with your hair sticking out like that. Mostly braids on your head, but a bunch of fuzzy hair sticking out in front, and a line sticking out in back.

It's the braiders, calling to confirm your appointment tomorrow.

"As a matter of fact," you say, "we're taking the old ones out right now!"

We put in one of the videotapes we rented. An HBO movie called Daybreak. With Cuba Gooding, Jr.

"He was so great in Jerry McGuire," you say.

"Yeah," I say, "Show me the money."

We poke and pull and try to follow the movie. Poke and pull, poke and pull.

"Ouch," you say.

"Sorry," I say.

"Your hair's really grown out," I say.

"Yeah," you say. You pick up that big toothed comb you bought over at the CVS. Drag it through the bunch of hair you've unbraided in front. Sounds to me like it's ripping.

"Not too tangly," you say.

"Good," I say.

Poke and pull, poke and pull. My right shoulder starting to get stiff, I sit up a little straighter, swing my shoulders side to side.

"It's supposed to be nice tomorrow," you say.

"Yeah?" I say, "Too bad you'll be inside all day."

"Maybe they'll put me outside on the sidewalk." you say.

"Maybe." I say.

These are new people. New braiders.

The last time you had it done, down in Providence, you weren't real happy with the results. You came home and looked in the mirror.

"All these loose ends sticking out of the braids," you said then. We got the scissors, and trimmed them off.

These new people are all the way up in Lowell. 45 minutes drive.

"But they're African," you said, when you made the appointment. We had watched them working on a woman's hair, out on the sidewalk in front of their shop, when we went to Lowell that time for the Folk Festival.

"Looked like they knew what they were doing," I said. Two of them working either side of the woman's head. The woman smiling and talking to you, even though it must have hurt to have her hair pulled like that.

"Still going to take all day," you say now, watching Cuba Gooding, Jr. in this not-so-good movie.

"Yeah," I say, "But it probably won't break the record."

"That was a long one," you say.

"Fourteen hours," I say, "And three aftershocks."

That was back in 1989, you were in Santa Cruz getting your first finger braids. Halloween weekend. Right after the quake. I dropped you off at 7 PM, remember? And came back in the morning, about 6 and you were still going. Had been up all night, snoozing a little in your chair. Watching Halloween movies and getting your hair braided. I sat on the couch and waited. Stretched out and slept a little. The aftershocks kept waking us up. We had known each other a year then. Every weekend, me driving up to San Francisco to spend two days with you, or you taking the train down to San Jose where I'd pick you up and bring you back to Santa Cruz. Every weekend, since the day we met.

"Hey," I say. Poke and pull, poke and pull, "We've got an anniversary coming up."

"Yeah?" you say. "How long's it been, now?"

"Nine years," I say.

"Wow," you say. "No, really?"

"Yep," I say, "We've been together nine years."

"Oh," you say, "You count different than I do."

You count from the time we bought the house. I count from the day we met.

"Still," I say.

"Amazing." you say.

The Daybreak movie ends. It's 8:30. We both get up. You go to the bathroom. I take out the Daybreak tape, put in the Michael Collins tape. Go to get another beer. Work my shoulder around in circles, trying to get the stiffness out. Coming back from the kitchen, I pass that picture. That photograph of you and me. The black and white one Joe took with his big wooden 8 by 10 camera that day we went to visit him at his studio. You don't have braids in that picture; you had your hair straightened into that stiff style, the style you had to mess with every morning to get it right. Little curl of bangs across the front, kind of a bun in back. You'd put that oil in your hair, spend time with a brush and a blow dryer. Never seemed to be really happy with the results. You're not smiling in that photograph. Neither of us are. Just looking at the camera straight. My hair was short, then. Kind of like Muldar's, when he's been up all night. Maybe I should get it cut like that again.

My shoulder's really hurting when we sit down again. I try switching hands. Holding the needle in my left hand, resting my right arm on my leg, so I won't have to move it. Slower that way, but it doesn't hurt as much. Poke and pull, poke and pull. The movie is slow-paced, but not dull. This is good. You start on the other side of your face. To me, it looks like there are still hundreds of braids to go. Don't even want to think about how many braids there are left to go. Poke and pull, poke and pull. I switch hands again. The movie plays.

"Ouch!" you say.

"Sorry," I say. One of the braids is being stubborn, and I pull too hard. My shoulders are stiff, the small of my back. I'm running out of different positions to sit.

"Want some wine?" I say. I push the pause on the remote. Get up, swinging my leg over your head.

"Yes, please." You say. I stretch my arm over my head, walking to the kitchen.

Coming back, with your wine, I see you sitting there, head tilted forward and to the side, eyes looking out from under your eyebrows at me, both arms up, fingers working on a braid. These buns of hair sticking out around your face. Puffs of hair on the carpet around you, stuck to your sweatshirt. Stuck to your sweatpants. You smile at me, your eyes straight on into mine. I just want to sit down in your lap and put my arms around you. Hold you close. Feel your heartbeat, your breath on my neck. Your hair on my cheek. Smell your smell. That's what I want to do right now. Something must show in my eyes.

"What." you say.

"Nothing," I say, feel my face moving into a smile. Hand you the wine.

"Don't get mushy," you say.

I sit back down behind you. Start the movie. Pick up the needle. Poke and pull, poke and pull. This is when I always have to convince myself to stick with it. Tell myself if I don't; it'll take twice as long for you to do it all by yourself. It's a long movie. By the time it's over, we're getting closer to finishing. We've got over three quarters of your braids undone. Eleven o'clock. Time for the news. Flood. Fire. Famine. Princess Di. I'm not really paying attention. David Letterman. I'm having trouble following what he's saying. Poke and pull.

Just three braids left. Two for you and one for me. Can't hardly believe it.

"Almost done," I say. Pick up the last braid. My arms don't want to move. Feel like they're going to fall off. Poke and pull. Poke and pull. Out pops the real hair. Poke and pull. Snag and I have to poke smaller, pull harder. Pull and the last tangled bunch of fake hair slides off your real hair. I drop it into the bag. Put my hand on your hair, sticking out like a hedge, clipped by a blind man. Feels like a sponge. Feels like nothing else really but a black woman's hair that needs washing.

"What's left?" you say. You start on the last one.

"That's the last one." I say. Sit back. My shoulders and back are thanking me for stopping.

"Really?" you say. "Not bad. What time is it?"

I look at the clock. 12:17. Six hours.

"We going to wash it?" I say. That's my favorite part.

We'll get in the shower together. I'll pour a ton of detangling shampoo on your hair and try to work it through to the roots. I'll turn you to face me while we rinse it out. Your face, eyes closed, will look up to mine with soap running across your forehead. I will kiss you then, on the nose.

"No playing," you will say, when I do that.

"Yep," you say, now. "Let's get it done."

We get up. Walk to the bathroom. You look in the mirror. Me standing behind you looking at you looking in the mirror. You reach up and pat your hair.

"Wild hair," you say.