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Radiant Red Violet

It is the last week of summer, a wicked August afternoon that makes your skin drip just from standing still. Megan and I spend the morning as we do most summer mornings. We walk mindlessly through town and mark our names on the walls of buildings with fat black pens. We sneak through the back lots of shopping centers, take turns pushing one another in wobbly carts and ultimately crash into curbs. We stop into an old-fashioned ice cream shop and drink strawberry malts until we think our brains might freeze. By lunchtime, our t-shirts are wet with perspiration, and our vision blackened with spots of sunshine, so we decide to stop off at the closest place we can find to briefly find refuge from the heat.

The aisles of the beauty supply shop overflow with candy-colored beauty products packaged in plastic and in glass. Rainbows of petite polish bottles line pre-made display racks, rows of color that spread from indigo to burgundy to brown. Megan and I brush our fingertips over the labels of mane & tail shampoo, gallons of mango and cocoa body lotion and jars of lemon cuticle crème. We glide across the floor, as though possessed by the acetone smell that seeps from every crevice of the shop.

Megan pulls off her knit beret and shakes her head. Several thin, red braids fall and frame her face. She strokes one of them between her fingers and lets out a short puff of a sigh.

“I’m ready for a change,” she says and rolls up her eyes to examine the strawberry blonde strands.

We peruse the shelves slowly, icy air blowing across our damp necks, and take our time to shake and sample bottles of glittery polish, dabbing beads of sweat from our faces before we swipe the color across our toes. A twenty-something salesgirl sits at the front counter and eyes us from behind the cover of a glossy magazine. She snaps her gum loudly and twirls a piece of her over-processed hair around her fingertip.

“You girls looking for something?” she says and breathes heavily, exhausted by her efforts.

Megan squeezes a glob of ice blue serum into her palm and runs it through the hair at the nape of her neck. I pose momentarily beside a yellowed mannequin, her fake, plastic head trapped beneath a giant bubble-shaped dryer.

“Nope,” Megan says. “We’ve got everything covered over here.”

She mists coconut body spray into the air and dances beneath the fragrant cloud, as though it is rain.

I follow Megan as she breezes towards a back aisle, waving my hands in front of me to help the fresh polish dry. As I do this, I study Megan’s movements: The way her bag slaps her side each time she takes a step; The way she pouts her lips and tilts her head with wonder while she browses through acrylic nail kits; The way she rests her hand on her hip and pulls a braid across her lips. But mostly, I think about how alone I will feel without her. Next week, high school will begin and, for the first time in our lives, we will be separated. Town lines have marked our fate. She will move to the left and I will move to the right. We will sharpen our pencils each day on opposite ends of town.

I wonder what it will be like to wander through foreign hallways amongst unfamiliar faces. Will anyone notice me without her there? Will people find me interesting when she is not standing beside me? I think about how I’d like a change, too. I’d like to become someone that people notice. Someone that people recognize for more than just her offbeat fashion. I want boys to think I am pretty and ask me to school dances. I want teachers to smile as they describe the success they are certain I will find. But I want these things for her, too. I crave a sense of normalcy for us both.

Megan pauses beside a shelf lined with countertop mirrors, various sized ovals situated across it like a funhouse wall. As she moves forward, her face spreads from mirror to mirror. She narrows her eyes, observes her many reflections and combs her fingers through her hair. My stomach aches as I wonder what it will be like to wander the halls of some new building without her. I swipe my greasy palms down the fronts of my denim cutoffs, leaving behind a faint lotion stain. As I step closer to Megan, she moves away, preoccupied by a display of tortoise shell combs. Now, my reflection multiplies across the shelf. I pause, smile a half smile at myself and slide a tube of ruby red lipstick across my lips.

“Down here,” Megan whispers from the end of the aisle.

Amid paddle brushes and economy-sized cans of aerosol hair spray is row upon row of synthetic hair – coarse, one-inch strips, organized according to color, from silver to platinum to auburn to brown. Megan and I rub the samples between the pads of our fingertips, squat down and press them against our foreheads. We imagine how much more interesting life would be for us as blondes.

Megan crouches and begins to fumble through tubs stacked on the bottom shelves. Unlike the other coloring kits, these tubs do not have colorfully displayed pieces of rough hair, but rather, are concealed in generic, white containers, like some dirty secret the storeowners are ashamed to admit. She unscrews the cap and reveals a thick paste the color of a Caribbean sea. Her eyes widen and she laughs a malicious belly laugh, the sort reserved for occasions like this, when she knows she is about to be up to no good. I lean down beside her and stick my finger into the dye.

“This,” Megan says, “is just the kind of change I’m looking for.”

We swipe the dye across our palms and envision our faces beside wild hair colored in magenta, fuchsia, or lime. One by one, we uncap new jugs, bright hues of electric purple and blue and green that surround us like a piece of pop art. Megan’s eyes glitter with anticipation.

“>“Help me pick out one you like,” she says.

“My mother will murder me if I dye my hair with any of these,” I say.

Megan skims her finger across the backside of one of the tubs.

“No she won’t,” she says. “Not if I do it with you.”

I swirl my pinky through a jar of mutant green and think about the fact that she is right. Each time we pull stunts like this together – purposefully tearing our clothes, or coloring our eyelids ebony, or sneaking off to dingy places to have metal jewelry stabbed through our skin – they seem, to our families, like silly teenage things rather than, what we will later learn, is the deeper, more complex rebellion of my friend.

“I think it’s about time we were devirginized, anyway,” Megan says.

She remains quiet as she waves the open jar beneath my chin.

“So,” she says. “You in?”

I nod. Sure, I think. I’m in.

Megan spins one of her braids like a tiny lasso.

“It’s about time to say goodbye to strawberry blonde,” she says.

We drop two plastic tubs of hot pink dye onto the counter and wait while the saleswoman finishes reading about orgasms and pant hems. She lays the open magazine down with a sigh, examines our purchases and places them into a plastic bag.

“You girls know you need brushes for these, right?” she says and pops her wad of bubblegum with a loud snap.

Megan and I shrug and toss our crumpled singles and coins onto the counter.

“They’re in the back,” the woman says and sighs again. She leans across the counter and points towards the far end of the shop. “They look just like mini paint brushes.”

She looks down at the cover of her magazine, anxious to return to her reading.

“Look. Just go grab one and I’ll pretend I didn’t see anything,” she says and shuts her register drawer. She picks up the magazine and flips to a new page, returning to the glossy world she dreams of.

Megan’s parents are at work for the afternoon so we set up shop in their laundry room, converting the sink into a rinsing station, the dryer lid into a miniature beauty display. I lean my head into the sink and allow Megan to splash my hair, warm water trickling down my jaw line and across my cheeks. My heart races as I think about my mother, and the furious reaction I am certain she will have. But more so, I think about the camaraderie this moment brings to Megan and me. That each time I receive a judgmental stare from a new classmate, I will know that someone, somewhere, is experiencing the same thing.

“My mom’s going to murder me,” I say again.

But Megan pretends not to hear me over the rushing sound of water. Instead, she looks at me with a smirk and massages her fingers into my scalp. When my whole head is damp, she tugs the hair at the nape of my neck and lifts my dripping head from the sink.

Megan scoots herself onto the washing machine and sips warm beer from a can. I stand beside her, waiting like a child on Christmas morning, anxious for her to unscrew the tub and reveal our selection. She uncaps it slowly, full of suspense, and exposes the goopy, pinkish shade. Radiant-Red Violet.

I sit on a folding chair in the center of the room, the floor and my shoulders lined with bath towels. Megan begins to paint small sections of my hair neon pink, while the room fills with a stinging ammonia scent. Once my hair is saturated with chemical color, we switch places. Now, Megan sits in the middle of the room and taps her foot in anticipation.

“You know,” I say. “It’s something like only one in a hundred people who have natural red hair like yours.”

“So what’s your point?” she says and lights a cigarette.

“Are you sure you want to say goodbye to it for good?” I say.

“It’ll grow back,” she says.

“Yeah, but, it will never be exactly the same,” I say. “It’s like when you lose your virginity. You can go a while without having sex, but you’ll never be a virgin again.”

Trust me. I’m ready,” she says. “I want to be a new version of myself. I don’t want to look like me anymore.”

She tosses her lit cigarette into the damp sink.

“I don’t care what the statistics say,” she says. “I’m ready to become someone new.”

I dip the brush into the dye and smear a thick line of pink down her center part.

“Goodbye strawberry blonde,” I whisper to her head and spread the color across her crown.

When the egg timer buzzes, we both rush to the sink, and furiously rub our fingers through our hair, a puddle of red-tinted water swirling near the drain. Megan presses a towel against her head. Her curls fall delicately and frame her face. Even through the dampness, I can see that her natural hair color has been transformed to a rich shade of sultry pink, a candy-colored version of Hollywood red. Instantly, she embraces her new character and seductively shakes her hair the way women do in movies, just before they make love.

“You look like a star,” I say and slip my fingers through her wet strands.

Outside, Megan and I sit like starlets. We dangle our feet over the edge of the pool, half-moon shaped ice jangling in our cocktail tumblers, our eyes covered behind black, oval sunglasses. I swirl my feet through the water, sip my drink, and turn toward Megan. When I do, I catch glimpse of my reflection in her lenses.

I know the moment I walk through my door, my mother will scream and my father will look at me with an expression of disappointment. I know that in just a few days, I will move through the halls of some strange, new building, void of familiar faces, and receive many unwelcome stares. But right now, during this singular moment, as I shift my eyes between my reflection and Megan’s head to observe the similarity in our appearances, I pretend that we are one. Our strengths and our weaknesses combined to create one perfect person. And with this thought, nothing else seems to matter.

I reach out my arm and touch one of Megan’s curls.
“We’ve never looked the same before,” I say and withdraw my hand.

Megan lights two cigarettes and places one between my lips. She fingers a strand of my hair. For what feels like hours, we blow thin streams of smoke toward each other’s faces. And here, beneath the humid August sunlight, we study the striking new resemblance that we share.

– Angela M. Graziano holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey, where she teaches writing. To date, her writing has appeared in Apple Valley Review, Ariel, Dislocate, Lost Magazine, Portal Del Sol and Miranda Literary Magazine, among others. “Radiant Red Violet” is excerpted from her recently completed first memoir.