The line at CVS winds around the self-tanning section (where I’ve successfully bronzed my forearms) past the Revlon display, straight through to the candy section. It’s Sunday morning and Miami’s God-fearing people should be at church; but instead, I’m surrounded by the miserable and the dishevelled, a sad comment on waning faith in America. I only want them out of my way.
Halfway through a mini makeover at Revlon, I abandon my spot in line and head to the cashier near the back by the pharmacist. I stop to rifle through the discount wrapping paper and bows, but by the time I need more poinsettia paper, I’ll have forgotten I have it. Christmas has already gobbled up what’s left of our savings, so I tell myself, “Jennifer, keep walking.” If I wanted to spend money, I’d be at Belleza Spa, trashy magazine in hand. The box of Miss Clairol in the bottom of my little red basket speaks to my reality.
I hover for a moment in the contraceptive section, drawn to a young, tanned woman who flicks through boxes of condoms as if she’s choosing dental floss. She eventually settles on an assortment of twelve — the pleasure pack — and brushes past me with a sideways glance that says, “The Metamucil’s in the next aisle, honey.” I feel my eyebrows knot. I could be buying condoms — it’s New Year’s Eve. She doesn’t know I’m married with two kids, and I haven’t sunk my teeth into a condom wrapper in over a decade. She doesn’t know anything about me. If I wanted to buy condoms, I could. Maybe I should. After all, Clara’s invited me out to the Blue Martini tonight. Who knows what could happen?
I grab a value pack of Magnum XLs and rush to the register. This condom whore will regret her flippant dismissal once she notices my one-size-up purchase. I slap the condoms on the counter, but before the full effect of my bold action registers, the woman grabs her purchases and struts out of the store without so much as a glance in my direction — my teachable moment rendered pointless. The cashier tosses the condoms into the bag like a package of Skittles, and suddenly I want to say they’re not for me. They’re for my friend Clara — my neighbour Jill, but no words form. It’s too late to put them back, so I pay the cashier and dash towards the front of the store.
When I arrive home, my son Brendan says, “Where’ve you been?”
“Shopping.” I forge a pathway to the kitchen.
“Sure. There’s some good stuff there.” I push the condoms to the bottom of the bag and pull out the box of Miss Clairol. Tawny blond it is. I open the box and line the little bottles on the counter between the open jars of strawberry jam and chunky peanut butter.
“What’s that?” Brendan picks up one of the bottles and turns it into a light sabre.
“Stuff.” I grab the bottle out of his hand and unfold the directions.
He picks up the box and looks at the picture. “Looks like Barbie.”
“Barbie does all right for herself.”
“Just doesn’t look like a mother, that’s all.”
“What’s a mother supposed to look like?” I snatch the box out of his little hands.
Brendan shrugs his shoulders, turns on one heel and goes back toPokémon. I find solace in his lack of response. Clearly, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
Vicky plods downstairs, opens the fridge, and offers little more than a glance in my direction.
“Where’s Dad?” She pours herself a tall glass of milk.
I state the most logical location. “Bed.”
She grabs a Weight Watchers muffin from my secret hiding place and heads into the family room. “Next time get the double chocolate.”
Ron lumbers into the kitchen next, wearing his Florida Panthers T-shirt backwards and inside out, the latex panther plastered against his hairy back like hot wax on an overgrown bikini line. He pours himself a cup of coffee. “Christ, Jen,” he says, looking down at his mug. “When did you make this? Last week?’
“You snooze, you lose.” I take a sip of the triple grande white mocha latte (light) I picked up at Starbucks on the way home.
He adds more milk, grabs the Miami Heraldand positions himself on one of the counter stools. “So, what about tonight?” He turns the pages until he reaches the sports section. “What’re we doing?”
“New Year’s Eve — tonight.” He puts his coffee down, looks up and then over at Barbie on the box. “Are you dyeing your hair?”
“Maybe.” I pour the liquid from the blue bottle into the white bottle like a crazed chemist.
“Are we going somewhere fancy?” He runs his fingers through his hair. “You know I hate that shit.”
“We’renot going anywhere.”
“So, what’s with the hair?”
“I told you. I’m going out with Clara tonight. Fort Lauderdale. Remember?”
“Lauderdale? Jesus, Jenny. What about me? The kids?”
“It’s not like you ever make it to midnight.” I lean my head over the kitchen sink. “Order pizza with Brendan — watch a movie. Vicky has her own plans.”
Ron stands and studies the instructions. “Do you know what you’re doing?”
“Yes,” I say, though that’s not entirely true.
Ron wipes a water spot on the counter with the front of his shirt. “Watch it. That stuff will eat straight through the finish.”
I close my eyes and massage the cold liquid through my hair.
“Your hair looks fine the way it is.”
“I’m looking for something one step up from fine.” I check my reflection in the toaster and wrap the plastic bag around my hair.
Ron shakes his head and goes back to his paper.
I set the timer on the oven. The box says to leave this goo on for twenty-five minutes or longer for stubborn greys. Are my greys stubborn? How’s one to know?
Ron folds the paper and looks up. “Maybe I’ll take Brendan up to Dania Beach and get some fireworks. The real stuff.”
“What?” I turn and stare. “Aren’t those things expensive?”
Ron flicks his wrist as if money’s no concern, which makes me want to break his hand off.
“We could call Jeff and Jill and get them to come over — Julio and Isa too.”
“I’m going out — remember? I told you this months ago.”
“You can do what you want.” Ron gets up and heads into the family room. “Brendan, buddy. Wanna go for a ride?”
“Ron,” I call after him, but it’s too late.
“What do you say we go get ourselves some fireworks for tonight? The big ones — like they have at the Biltmore on the Fourth,” Ron says, his voice booming like a game-show host.
Brendan runs into the kitchen. “Cool,” he says, and hikes his pyjama bottoms under his armpits. He looks over at me for a response, but my face must only register disbelief.
“Go get dressed,” Ron says, smiling.
Brendan bolts upstairs, and Ron reaches over and pats my behind. “Stay home. We’ll get a bottle of champagne — the good stuff you like.”
“You only say that so I won’t go out.”
“I thought you wanted to do something different?” Ron shakes his head. “I can’t win. Nothing’s ever good enough.”
“What are you talking about? What’s not good enough? When do I ever complain?”
“It’s what you don’t say.”
I stare. If he knew what I didn’t say, thenwe’d be in serious trouble.
Vicky walks back into the kitchen. She looks at my head and then at the box and says, “Cool.” She grabs the bottle and tries to squeeze the last few dribbles along her scalp.
“Give me that.” I snatch the bottle out of her hands. “You’re going to burn your eyes out.”
“As hard as it may be to believe, I’m a grown-up.”
“Is that why you two are fighting? Dad doesn’t want you to dye your hair?”
“He doesn’t want me to go out with Clara tonight.”
“Exactly.” Finally, I have someone supportive in my camp.
“I mean, why would Clara want to go out with you? She’s like — wayyounger.” Vicky reaches out for the CVS bag. “Buy any magazines?”
I lunge across the kitchen and rip the bag out of her hands. Miss Clairol I can explain; my box of Magnum XLs is a different story.
“What’s up with you?” Vicky says.
“I tell you what’s up with me: nothing. That’s what,” I say, even though Vicky has already begun her retreat. I grab my CVS bag, check the timer and head upstairs.
In the bathroom, I turn on my makeup mirror and grab my tweezers. Pluck.Fireworks — it’ll probably turn into a street party. Pluck.Drinks. Potluck. Pluck.Brendan would have been happy with pizza and a movie. Pluck.Ron could have had a beer fest and fallen asleep on the sofa. Pluck, pluck, pluck.
I smooth on a cool cucumber mask and peer through the bathroom window. Outside, Ron and Jeff, our long-time neighbour, stand scheming, hands on hips, spines straight, heads nodding as if they’ve done this every year since the invention of gunpowder.
I grab the CVS bag and open the condom box. I hold one of the little plastic packages to the light and watch the perfect circles slide back and forth. What was I thinking, bringing these things home? Imagine if Ron had found them. I would have had to invent an elaborate sexual fantasy that would have cost me a good night’s sleep. Then again, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. Ron’s always up for sex, but it’s the usual hop-on-and-pump-me-up-like-an-old-Dodge-on-a-rusty-jack.
The telephone rings, so I squeeze the condom into the back pocket of my jeans and run to the phone.
“Hello?” I hold the telephone slightly away from the goo on my head.
“How’s the hair?” Clara says.
“You should stay at my place tonight. That way you won’t have to worry about driving back.”
I hesitate. “I’ve got a little complication. Ron’s getting fireworks.”
“I feel bad leaving Brendan.”
“The kid’s got fireworks. Why does he need you too?”
“I suppose.” Clara’s childless state doesn’t lend itself to an appreciation of motherhood guilt.
“Brendan will have a great time with Ron. You deserve a night out. Call me when you’re on your way.”
Clara hangs up, and I stare into the receiver. She has a point. When was the last time I went anywhere on my own? I picture myself poised on a bar stool, legs crossed, pores tightened, zingy cosmopolitan in hand. Men hover about in a flirtatious way. I laugh and toss my tawny blond hair off my bare shoulders. They want to know where I’ve been for the last eighteen years. I say, “Freelancing — Europe, mostly.” I leave out the part about spraying perfume at Macy’s, and my all-important position as coordinator of the school spring fair. That kind of sexy talk I’ll save for the morning after.
I put the receiver down as Ron walks into the bedroom. He lets out a little-boy scream. “I think that stuff on your head is turning your face green.” He laughs and turns on the shower.
“Funny.” I hear the faint sound of the oven timer, so I dash downstairs, grab the box and check the instructions again. For ultra light blond shades and stubborn greys, it may be necessary to leave colour on for up to 45 minutes.I check a piece of hair in the reflection of the toaster. My greys have taken a stand. The goo stays. The cucumber, however, must come off, as I can no longer move the muscles in my face.
I run back upstairs and crash into Ron, who’s standing naked in a puddle of water in the bedroom.
“Can’t you stay on the bath mat?” I detour to the sink.
“Jeff’s up for the fireworks. It’s going to be some kind of show.” Ron rubs the towel back and forth along the crack of his ass.
“I want to go out,” I say between splashes of water. “I told you that.”
Ron pulls on his Rolling Stones T-shirt and searches for his jeans. “Am I supposed to cancel the whole thing and go out with you to some club?”
“I didn’t invite you.” That scenario would definitely be pointless. I’d be better off at home with a straw and a bottle of cheap champagne.
“Tell Clara to come here. I’ll fix her up with what’s-his-name over on Eighty-second Street. Then everyone’s happy.” He grabs the keys off the dresser and heads downstairs. “Brenny — buddy, let’s go.”
I start to apply a few coats of Lady Godiva to my toenails when Vicky comes into my room and looks at my head. “If I were you, I would have gone to the hairdresser. You never know what colour you’re going to get.”
“How bad can it be?”
“Pretty bad. I like the nail polish, though. Wanna do mine?” She holds out her stubby nails and bats her eyes. “Please?”
I grab her hands and start to apply the dark chocolate polish when the phone rings again.
“Jen?” Jill’s voice is shrill. “We haven’t had fireworks in years. If you make lasagna, I’ll make salads. Everyone else can bring desserts.”
I sit up straight and put the tiny brush back into the bottle. “I’m not sure.”
Jill rambles on while Vicky mouths, Get off the phone,pointing to her nails and an imaginary watch on her bare, skinny wrist.
“Actually,” I say, taking a deep breath, “I might go out tonight.”
The silence that follows makes me wish I’d come up with something more creative, like the sudden onset of shingles in its most painful form. “I mean — I can make the lasagna, I suppose, before I go.”
“Only if you have time.” Jill emphasizes the word timeas if it’s a precious commodity.
Then I remember my hair. “I’ll call you later. Something’s burning.” I hang up and rush into the bathroom.
“What about my nails?” Vicky says.
“Wait.” I shut the door and turn on the shower.
Vicky hollers through the door. “If you’re going to make lasagna, I’ll tell my friends to come here tonight instead. Dad said the fireworks are going to be great. Can you get one of those ice cream cakes? Is ten people too many? We’ll bring our own music.”
I drop my clothes and step into the shower. Hot water pounds my back, muffling the party growing outside the door. If tawny’s become Tweety, I’ll cut my hair short — Annie Lennox style, or better yet, go bald like Sinéad. Shampoo swirls at the drain and my two painted toenails looked up at me. They tell me to get out and finish the job, look in the mirror and see the new me. They remind me the old me wasn’t actually all that bad; in need of a tune-up, but still functioning — like an old Bentley rather than a Dodge. I thank them for their kind words, but warn them that the new me buys condoms and contemplates ditching her family on New Year’s Eve. She lets the neighbours down and considers buying frozen lasagna. The old me might not like the new me.
They tell me to take a chance.
I turn off the water and pull back the curtain.
“How’s it look?” Vicky knocks on the bathroom door.
I flick on the bathroom vent to muffle her intrusion. Towel tucked minidress style, I shuffle over to the mirror, but I see nothing but steam. I’m granted a reprieve. I set the blow-dryer on high and prepare myself for the moment of truth. The steam retreats. Vicky pounds harder, but I don’t answer. I am transfixed. Stubborn grey has given way to tawny blond. I grab my lipstick and colour between the lines.
I drop the towel and pose in front of the full-length mirror hidden behind an old robe. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen myself naked, neck to painted toes, and it’s not nearly as disturbing as I’d imagined. There are definitely a few dents, but the classic curves are still there, and the new paint has certainly helped to freshen things up.
“Mom, come out,” Vicky calls again.
I put on the robe and pull open the door. “Ta-da!”
“Wow.” Vicky’s mouth drops.
“I mean — it’s pretty blond.”
“It’s fucking fantastic.”
Vicky presses her hand against her chest. “Did you just say the F-word?”
“Everyone says the F-word.” I go back to the mirror to scrunch and fluff.
Vicky comes in and sits on the edge of the tub. “Are you having some kind of mid-life crisis or something?”
“Because I said the F-word?”
“You’re acting weird.”
“I’m fine — actually, I’m great.”
“Are you really going out with Clara tonight?”
Vicky pauses and then stands. “Do you want me to do your nails? That colour will look great with your hair.”
“Let me get dressed.” I usher her out and shut the bathroom door. As I reach for my clothes, the tip of the condom package peeks from the pocket of my jeans. I bend over and pick it up. Maybe I’ll blow some up and pop them at midnight just as Ron’s launching his first big rocket. I could buy a case and give them out as party favours — scatter them around like After Eights. Or maybe I’ll keep a few in my pocket like lucky pennies and go out with Clara. The choice is mine. It’s my night. I glance one more time in the mirror, pull on my clothes and head out for my final polish.