Register Sunday | September 23 | 2018

How to be Friends with a Redhead

"Dear my Cancer, I know you are trying to put a damper on my wonderful life, but it's not going to work. You might as well quit now." It didn't.

With each whir and snap of the scissors, I hold my breath. On the chair next to Joana I’ve laid out a series of navy blue ribbons. My job is to collect her rich red hair as it drops from her scalp, divide it by length and tie it into bundles. The growing piles of cuttings shimmer against the chair’s vinyl covering, long and short, gingered and mulled.

What am I doing? Why am I letting this happen? I’m supposed to be the helper, the friend. Please tell me—good God, no—this haircut wasn’t my idea.

We’re twenty-two. I’m fresh out of journalism school at Ryerson University, working as a reporter on a monthly Toronto newsmagazine in Cabbagetown and Regent Park. It’s a rough place to work and I like that: I’m cultivating my own anti-establishment streak, growing less and less polished by the day, or so I fancy. Joana, meanwhile, has taken a leave after her second year in the Ryerson School of Radio and Television Arts program, and is working part-time at Eaton’s in Vancouver, developing what seems to me—“Miss Anti-Makeup,” if there ever was one—an alarming expertise in cosmetics. She’s cultivating beauty; has a knack for it.

Well, she was cultivating beauty. She hasn’t taken a shift at Eaton’s in weeks. Now she’s on leave from that as well.

Four years ago, during our final year of high school, a lump was surgically removed from the tiny hollow under Joana’s lightly freckled arm. It contained two iffy cells. No biggie, her doctor said: it was out. But a year later she found another, further down her arm. We celebrated her twentieth birthday, August 27, 1991, in the Toronto General Hospital. A bunch of old friends drove in from nearby Burlington. We took over one of the colourless lounges and Joana’s dad, who’d carted in a cooler of pop, ordered pizza. We should have been in a bar; we should have been dancing. Malignant melanoma, they’d said this time. They’d used the “c” word. Not the one she and I had decided as fourteen-year-olds was the vilest piece of language on the planet, but this new one, equally ugly, worse.

Joana, who looked and felt no more diseased than the rest of us, made us all laugh about the foul-smelling patient with whom she was stuck sharing a room—some unpleasant gastrointestinal problem—though neither her plight nor her roommate’s was really very funny. Then she got defiant. Dear my Cancer, she wrote in her journal a few weeks later—she was lump-free once more, thanks again to surgery—You are not going to get me!! I’m sorry; I know you are trying to put a damper on my wonderful life, but it’s not going to work. You might as well quit now.

It didn’t. What began as that supposedly harmless, easily extracted tumour when we were eighteen had since spread to her thighs, spine, head, ribs and midriff. After I don’t know how many surgeries followed by round after round of varying chemotherapies—plus a side tour of naturopathic remedies such as injections of mistletoe extract (a fine source of lame-o jokes, for a while)—her breasts have shrunk down to the nipple and morphine is part of her everyday, meaning so is pain. She is now on a last-ditch, super-strength chemo treatment. And this new drug, unlike its predecessors, is claiming her hair.

We’re saving it on the off chance that it grows back a different colour. We’ve heard stories about this happening. It’s one thing to be born with, say, brown hair. You learn to take comfort in its soft, mulchy blahness. It’s another to have brownness thrust upon you after a lifetime of red—the red of fall-fired leaves, sharp candied cinnamon.

She didn’t need to explain this when she handed me the ribbons in her seventeenth-floor Vancouver bedroom yesterday, before we left for the ferry. We fell into efficiency mode—get the job done—like we did when we fought the school board in grade thirteen or threw parties while my parents were away, or planned her seduction of Rob (now her boyfriend) in our first year at Ryerson.

I threw out a question: “All of it?”

“As much as you can.”

“No problem.”

The hairdresser pauses between each snip, dangling the scissors like a pair of crossed swords. She’s older than us, thirtyish, her own hairdo long and black, down to the chest. She parts Joana’s hair in places and peers down, doctorlike, to survey the resident obstructions: four or five wide lumps—some of them split and rimmed with puss—that protrude as high as an inch or more from her scalp.

When we warned her about these, she waved a hand in the air and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll be careful.” She seemed so sure, it would have been insulting to insist. Now, with the lumps in her sights, she betrays nothing. Neither shock nor disgust. Not even dismay. She passes me a fresh cutting—she is thoughtful enough to try to catch the longer strands before they fall to the floor.

I want to grip her by the shoulder. This doesn’t faze you at all? You think this is normal?

I’m still recovering from the moment I spotted Joana in Vancouver’s crowded airport two days ago when I arrived with Ross, my boyfriend. She was standing behind a railing in frayed jeans. She wore her hair in a bob, as she had when I’d last seen her back in January when she came to Toronto for a visit. But it was now more airy than sleek, and it was a milder red, as if someone had turned up the orange. And though her eyes were still that fresh, bottomless blue, her face was misshapen and swollen. It was like looking through a mask to see her own much smaller face, way down far beneath. I wove through a throng of people, leaving Ross behind, and tapped her on the shoulder.

“Hey,” I said. She smiled and the real Joana flashed through. I stepped forward to hug her. She stiffened.    

“Careful.”

I lightly circled my arms around her shoulders, trying not to notice whether my hands brushed over any tumours. I moved back and she looked at me.

“Anita, your hair!” 

“I know,” I said. “I got it cut off.”

“Wow. You look so sophisticated.”

“It was liberating,” I said, showing off my neck.

I wonder how she felt seeing me march effortlessly through the airport, my health and strength intact. Sophisticated, she said. That’s how I looked. But I was tired and rumpled from the flight, and, upon seeing her, even more rattled than when she’d told me a few weeks earlier that she had literally stopped breathing: two tumours in her neck were growing toward each other, cutting off her airway. She’d had emergency radiation, which seemed to have helped, but her breaths were still shallow and rasping. I would never have grouped myself among those who rush off to the salon after every fight with a boyfriend, every disappointment at work. Yet, there I was, in the face of Joana’s latest disaster, freshly transformed.

Years from now, I will come across a book with the in-triguing title Big Hair: A Journey into the Transformation of Self, by social anthropologist Grant McCracken. In it, I’ll read that one of the weapons a woman puts to use in the face of upheaval is a new hairstyle. It is, according to McCracken, “one of the ways they negotiate the endless succession of changes that make up even the most tranquil of contemporary lives: the career shifts, marriages, births, divorces, retirements.” No mention of watching close friends have it out with a persistent, escalating cancer.

Before I left Toronto, Joana told me that scar tissue from the radiation on her throat might eventually cause as much of a problem as the lumps themselves. Someday soon—“soon” being an indeterminate time frame—she might simply stop breathing. The air will have no way in. The kicker is, now that it has almost happened she isn’t afraid to die.  “It wasn’t scary,” she said on the phone. “It was really peaceful.”

I’m glad she isn’t scared, truly. But as she sits here so serenely in the salon chair, exuding her new willingness to “go” gracefully, I panic. Hurrah for grace. Fuck grace. I have to stop myself from abandoning my tidy arrangement of clippings and leaping up to shield her sore-addled head from the woman with the scissors: No, no! She isn’t willing. She is afraid. You’ve got it all wrong.

Joana pulls the hair from the brush and lays both side by side on the sun-yellow comforter. They wait there between us, the brush next to my leg, the hair next to hers. The apartment is quiet. Ross has gone with Rob to Safeway to buy Joana some Popsicles to soothe her throat: the tricolour kind that look like rocket ships.

I start pushing the hair around on the yellow fabric, smoothing it out, holding it to the light. The sun seems to give it life, the redness brightening strand by strand. I once heard that people used to create jewellery from the hair of the dead and wear it as a symbol of mourning. Our hair will outlive us, simply by the fact that it is already dead. How depressing is that?

“Imagine finding this in your brush every day for a        month,” I say.

“It won’t last a month. It’ll be long gone.”

 My eyes on hers answer, “This sucks.” Hers reply, “You have no idea.”

She looks into her lap. So do I, though I’ve been trying not to. Her legs are bare: she’s been working up the energy to finish getting changed. We’re going to Stepho’s for dinner, her and Rob’s favourite Greek restaurant, and Joana wants to wear jeans. Her thighs are milky, dappled with orange. But these are no longer her legs. They’re broom handles with skin.

I turn my eyes back to the hair in my hand. It just falls away. Lets go. When she lifts her head from the pillow in the morning, a tangled layer stays behind. It collects on her shoulders throughout the day. You don’t feel it losing hold, she tells me, and then you look down at the brush and the bristles are full, or you absent-mindedly run a hand through your hair and discover a patch of baby-smooth scalp.

The year before we met, Joana won the regional speech competition with a presentation entitled “Being a Redhead,” an honour that meant giving the speech in front of the board of trustees. In a photo from the event, wearing a lemon-yellow patterned dress that lent her a look of innocence as well as an air of maturity, she is gesturing, mid-sentence, to a particular member of the audience—a dour man in a suit who would have frightened me into shyness purely by his age and attire. But Joana’s expression is almost sly, her posture playful and her presence palpable, even in that battered, old print. She seems as classy and captivating as Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Stick her on a mountaintop. Give her a song.

I don’t know what she wrote in that speech. Sitting here in her Vancouver bedroom, nine years into our friendship, four years into her life with cancer, I have yet to ask her what it’s really like: having red hair. All I know is she once used Flirt, that ’80s-era tinted mousse, and relished her few days of purple with an enthusiasm that shocked me. I had thought red was colour enough. There was also the time I sat down beside her in the cafeteria and asked what was wrong. She was quiet, deflated. She slid her yearbook toward me, flipped it open and showed me where some jerk had written, “Hey, Jo, is your hair red all over?”

“She was a redhead.” One day I’ll notice that’s the first thing I ever tell anyone about my friend Joana. In my mind, that lost speech will contain everything she never told me, all the subjects we never got around to. In my early twenties I’ll catch myself following a redheaded woman on Elgin Street in Ottawa: past the Courthouse, past the grey-black Bell Canada office building, past the formidable Lord Elgin Hotel, coming nearer and nearer to the National War Memorial that crowns the boulevard. Block after block, I’ll be terrified the woman will sense she’s being stalked; yet I’ll want her to turn around, needing to see Joana, real or not—hallucination, visitation, whatever—propelled by a gale of questions blowing in too late.

Without my primary source, I’ll be stuck combing books such as McCracken’s Big Hair for answers. In it, he writes that we see redheads differently because they make up just 2 percent of the population: “There are just enough of them that they cannot be classified as freaks; but so few of them that we never really get used to them. They are always exceptional.” He describes red hair as a “flag of warning” and a “potent symbol.” The colour of the hair, people tend to believe, is the “temperature of the soul.”

In the periodical databases, I’ll turn up a 1988 Seventeen magazine article called “The Redhead Revealed,” a lighthearted tour through the gruesome history of redheads, who were once routinely burned at the stake or buried alive and whose bodies were pillaged for their supposedly poisonous fat. “Red,” I’ll learn, was seen to equate with “loose.” Egyptians buried ruddy-haired men alive. 

All of which would have been news to Joana, too.

In my thirties, I’ll go online, thinking idly how this was something Joana never knew either—the Web—and scrounge around on Realm of RedHeads.com, reading comments such as Kaicen’s from 2004: “I can’t say that I was or am really so different … I have ten toes, eight fingers, two thumbs. [Red hair] gives me icebreakers for meeting new people and I feel sexy knowing I’m a rare species.” And Jill’s from 1999: “Please, do not say that I am attractive for a redhead, or that my white skin looks good on me ... Try, ‘Your hair’s what caught my attention, but I’m sure there [are] more wonderful things beneath the hair!’ ”

After hours of this, I’ll decide that “sweetgirl’s” cheeky 2004 posting comes nearest to what Joana felt: “I’m hot-tempered, stubborn, passionate, prone to fits of rage, self-centered, and [I] expect the world to revolve around me. Society has made me this way. If [people] had not made such a big deal about my hair colour and singled me out as ‘special’ because of it, I would be as well-adjusted and normal as any other human being in this world :) ”

But I won’t really know how Joana felt. I’ll just be pretending. I’ll have long before noticed in myself an ingrained preference for a certain fiery shade of red. And I’ll find vindication in such unlikely places as a Coronation Street episode in which a character obsessed with Rita Hayworth displays some locks of hair belonging to his ex-wives—also redheads—and declares, “Neither quite pulled it off. Auburn and strawberry blonde. Not proper flame red, like Rita.”

Here, in Joana’s apartment, I don’t know any of this yet. I’ve merely sat through enough John Hughes films—seen enough Molly Ringwald sticking it to the rich kids, defiantly creating her prom dress from scraps and mesmerizing bad boys, good guys, geeks, the lot, all while adorned with supercool, iron-red hair—to get another idea, an idea of redheads as beings less destructible than the rest of us. Less vulnerable to the hazards of life on earth.

“What are you going to do? About your hair, I mean.”

“I don’t know.”

“It’ll get worse. You’ll lose more all the time. Bigger clumps.”

“Great.”

“But if you get it cut off, it’s like ‘Fuck it. I don’t need it. Who cares?’ ”

There is a lineup outside Stepho’s when we arrive. I’m ready to say we should go somewhere else, but Joana just leans against the wall. I worry that her legs will give out. I can see them beneath her jeans, the denim billowing about their thinness like giant capes.

After an agitating fifteen-minute wait, we’re led to our table. Joana pulls me aside and whispers a request. I walk to the washroom, enter a stall and hover above the toilet seat. Is it low, medium or high? I sit and stand, sit and stand, trying to imagine doing so with pipe cleaners for legs. Would I make it back up? I plan for the day when we’ll laugh about the night Joana turned me into her bathroom scout. I plan for it hard.

When I return to the table, they’re all talking about how, tomorrow, we’ll take the ferry to Victoria and spend the night. “And while we’re there,” I say, “we’ll find someone to chop off your hair.” I grin to indicate I’m joking. Half-joking.

“You’re right,” she says, without enthusiasm. But then Rob and Ross get involved and the four of us start to trash-talk her cancer the way we like to. Before the tzatziki and pita arrive, the haircut has become a ceremony, a battlefront; we’ll all be there, weapons and jokes at the ready. By the time we get on to how tough she’ll look, how skater-boy, and the effect she’ll achieve with her blue paisley bandana and supershort, red-hot crop, everyone is convinced. It makes sense. It’s the only way.

“Is it made of actual hair?” I ask Joana.

We’re sitting in a narrow cubbyhole of a shop on East Pender Street in Chinatown. The walls are lined with faceless Styrofoam heads, some bald, others adorned with blue, brown, black, red and yellow wigs. Some curled, some straight. Spiked, piled, beehived. Long and shiny and far too real. A woman has marched into the back to fetch the one Joana ordered a couple of weeks back.

With all the talk of haircuts, I forgot she was buying a wig. We face a mirror. I look at my hair, which falls heavy and straight around my ears. It never occurred to me before: what do they use to make wigs? Where does the hair come from?

“I think it’s a mix,” says Joana. “Part synthetic.”

“Really? Like what, polyester or something?”

“I don’t know. The real ones are a lot more expensive. They last longer but—” She shrugs. I’m glad she doesn’t finish the sentence.

“I’m having a weird thought.”

“What else is new?”

“Seriously, they could have used your own hair.”

Joana looks at me as if to say, “You’re kidding.” But I can’t stop.

“Then it would be the exact right colour. What kind of red are they giving you?”

“Well they saw me. I told them I wanted it the same.”

“Hmm.”

“They said they’d do their best. I gave them a picture, too.”            

Now we’re both worried. Way to go, Anita. Excellent work. The wig’s arrival does nothing to lift our moods. It’s meant to be put on from back to front, pulling the mesh cap snugly over the skull. Joana struggles with it. She’s sore, and tired, and aware that the wig will fit more easily once her own hair is gone.

“It takes practice,” the saleswoman says. “Don’t worry.”

The wig is a solid, dark red, slightly more metallic colour than Joana’s. It’s a perfect bob with perfectly even bangs. I like it and hate it at the same time. I focus on the like side of the equation, going so far as to call it “perfect,” asking myself why I suddenly think Joana is too fragile for the truth.

Seven years later, I’ll find myself researching an article about Canada’s foremost wigmaker, Donna Gliddon. She’ll tell me, about hair, what the fictional version of Vermeer in Tracy Chevalier’s novel Girl With a Pearl Earring tells his maid about the typical cloud: it appears white but contains greens and pinks and blues, purples, greys and yellows. Behold the secret to a fine wig. My hair qualifies as plain brown—“blech,” says Gliddon—but even this is merely an illusion. It is in fact teeming with hues, some nutty, some woodsy. There is even, according to Gliddon, a “rich undertone of red.”

This startling information will come my way too late to bring it to Joana. It’s one of those things that, once drawn to your attention, you can’t imagine not having known before. Hair is many colours. It’s so disgustingly obvious.

What would we have seen had we spread out a handful of Joana’s hair? We’d have teased out all the softer reds, the pinks and unripe berries. There’d have been the browns—not so different from mine, just fewer and lighter. We might even have discovered—you never know—that her particular shade of red was laid over a dirty blonde base that lurked inside like a delicate secret.

The atmosphere in the shop is almost festive. Snip, snip. I watch each finger-full fall away.

Joana sits quietly and straight-backed in a blue plastic smock while Rob chats with the hairdresser about their favourite local restaurants. Meanwhile, Ross is squeezing in between chairs and fixtures to get a better angle with his camera, taking photographs as though we’re on a weekend holiday: two young couples on the lookout for adventure.

Joana widens her eyes, flattens her palms against her oversized cheeks and shapes her lips into a shocked O. She is hamming it up. Ross focuses and clicks. Focuses and clicks.

Is this really so easy?

The stylist lifts her fingers through the partly chopped hair, causing it to muss. Sassy. Playful. A little gel and it’d graduate to chic.

“It’ll look good on you,” she says. “Trust me.”