NOTE: Stephanie Rosenfeld is a very humble person. She thinks, actually, that she’s written the definitive story on the experience of having head lice. Grasp Special Comb was originally published in The Missouri Review, which put her on its list of “Ten Writers to Watch.”
PEDICULOSIS: IDENTIFICATION AND TREATMENT
Pediculus humanis capitus, the common
– Return library books
– UC Science lib: Pediculosis, pediculicides, pyrethrin, permethrin
– Call Mom
PEDICULOSIS AND YOUR CHILD
Abigail L. Randall
– Buy bagels
– Check to V. Sch. of Ballet
PEDICULUS HUMANIS CAPITUS:
ONE WILY MOTHER.F—– (ha.)
– Katrin: New leotard
– Call Mom
YOUR CHILD AND HEAD LICE
Abby Hillman (Katrin Hillman, Group 2B)
Head Lice is a common childhood ____________ that can be present in any segment of the population at any given time.
– Disease, illness, malady, condition. Affliction.
– Afflict: to humble, overthrow, try, torment, torture, rack.
– Personal nuisance problem (Hamp. Cty DPH)
– Rack (!) – Racked with lice
If your child comes home from school with head lice, don’t be alarmed
– Pharmacy: Nix (big size)
Egg dissolver stuff
Metal comb (check w/ Gary – did he take mine?)
More of those plastic clampy things
If your child comes home from school with head lice, try not to be alarmed
– Do laundry (check w/ Ed re: why no hot H2O?)
– Borrow vacuum (check w/ Gary – why does he get vacuum; split cost of new one?)
– Katrin: Cancel play date w/ Chiara
“ “ “ “/ Ariana
Wash and comb
– Comb Leon?
-Call Leon: Does he have magnifying glass at work?
If your child comes home with head lice, try not to panic
– Call Mom
– Grocery store: More laundry det.
Garbage bags (big)
Treat for Katrin
– Video/book-on-tape for K. (unabridged)
If your child comes home with head lice–
THE TRUTH ABOUT HEAD LICE
Head lice is a scourge from hell that will temporarily ruin your life and possibly damage it permanently.
-Kind of strong. Stick to facts.
Head lice, pediculus humanis capitus, are tiny black, gray or brown
– tiny insects, very difficult to see, which
– insects so small it’s difficult to see them at all, let alone tell what color they are
– tiny, moving, transparent, black-hearted specks and their eggs, malevolent grains of next-to-nothing-ness that attach themselves to the hair shaft at the scalp’s surface and have the capacity to rob you of every crumb of hope, peace of mind, optimism or spiritual ease you might at one time have possessed, not to mention sanity, sleep and every free moment from the present to some far-off point in the increasingly unimaginable nit-free future.
There are a number of over-the-counter remedies available, all of which are extraordinarily expensive and none of which work. Their packages are printed with blatant lies, which a perky member of your HMO’s Advice Staff (“This is Donna in A.S.”) will read to you over the phone, until you realize the words sound familiar. You ask if anyone there’s ever actually had lice. You ask if anyone there’s ever seen your child’s head of hair, when Miss A.S. says people do survive this, all you have to do is comb every strand of your child’s hair two times each day, wash all the bedding in hot water every day, vacuum the entire house and the car, every day. “Steam-cleaning works best,” she reads, “or you can simply close off the entire area: playroom, TV room – anywhere the kids spend a lot of time – for fourteen days.”
When she tells you, as if this is the way stupid people get lice in the first place, not to let children share brushes, clothing, or head-gear, and says, “There is a prescription available, but we don’t like to use it except as a last resort,” as if she wants you to beg her for a substance that will give your child permanent nerve damage, you say, “Head-gear, Miss Verbatim?”; you tell her you’re guessing she doesn’t have any children, ask her how many rooms in her mansion. You ask what A.S. stands for again, Attitude Spewing?, then you thank her for the “advice,” and hang up.
This is day two of lice; this is before you understand that lice can be used to measure many things: the shortness of a day; the ferocity of your instinct to kill things that attack your child; the natural amounts of pessimism and optimism you possess; the number of days remaining in your life.
– What happened to facts?
– Check w/Gary re: health coverage after divorce
– Call Mom
– Lice range from 2mm – 4mm in size. Life cycle from nit to adult is 16 to 21 days. Adult lice live about 30 days. They will die of starvation if kept off their host’s body for more than 10 days. Cannot survive temperatures above 128.3F for more than 5 minutes.
– Lice need the blood of human beings to survive and will die naturally within 24 hours if they cannot find human blood.
– Which is it – 10 days or 24 hrs?
– Female head louse glues eggs to the base of hairs. Will deposit between 50-150 eggs in her lifetime. Eggs hatch in 5-10 days. Human hair grows about 1/2 inch per month. Therefore, any nits found on a hair ¼ inch from scalp would be approximately 16 days old and probably will not hatch.
– Cancel hair appt.
– Anyone can get lice regardless of his/her degree of personal hygiene
– Caucasian children are most likely to get lice
– Lice can affect you mentally (Explain)
Lice might make you remember strange, unrelated things. Cooties, cootie spray, being a kid; sitting in the woods in Memory Grove with Maddy Jacobs and Jimmy Colon talking about the ghost you’re supposed to be able to see there at night, walking across the road. Either she was a jilted bride or got hit by a car or both. Maddy saying, Let’s play Flip Your Top, telling you how: you pull your shirt up, just for a second, so Jimmy can see underneath. You remember being confused about a few things, like the way you felt when she said, “You have to.” You believed the words were true, and it gave you kind of a sick ache, almost as if your life was over. It’s the same thing you’ll feel when you get lice, when it’s six-thirty and dinner’s not even started and you realize you still have to wash all the bedding – all the sheets and pillowcases and the towels, at the laundromat, no less, since Gary got to keep the appliances – before anyone can go to bed tonight. You have to. Why didn’t Jimmy have to do anything? Why did he get to sit there, his face impassive, and watch you expose your lumpy, embarrassing chest?
– Too personal (?) Get back on track.
Even though the memories it brings up aren’t that great, lice might make you wish you were a kid again. The year of the great fruit-and-nut wars – crab apple, plum, horse chestnut fights on the way home from school. Any ripe, rotting, eye-sized projectile you could get your hands on. Always, boys against girls. You might suddenly, intensely miss the manic abandon of that time, that state of grace, the intense, single-minded will to do damage to the enemy, without thought of consequence.
– Cancel Jessica for Saturday night/ Can she baby-sit sometime late Nov.?
– Cancel Katrin dentist
– Call Mom
Or trying on bathing suits at the mall with your friend, Denise, complaining about your moms – you might suddenly remember that.
Combing Katrin’s hair in the graying afternoon light, remembering trying on red bathing suits with Denise, the year of the Farrah Fawcett poster, in adjacent dressing rooms at Nobby in the Fashion Place Mall, talking to each other over the walls of the stalls: “Judy turned my white cords pink in the wash and she won’t even give me money to buy another pair,” “I swear to God Barb’s going through the change,” you might get an unexpected pang, something wandering off in a wrong direction; you might suddenly wish for someone to take care of you – even the person whose goal in life, you knew, was to make you think you were insane – your mother.
-What is the prob.?!! Get back to facts.
-Difference betw. head lice & body lice.
Or it might make you remember college: it might make you think about your best friend, then, Randi. Denise was long gone by this time, engaged to a Mormon, friends with her mother. Randi took notes in Modern American Literature once on a box of Nilla Wafers she ate on the way to class.
“We’re going to be late,” you complained, as you stood in line at the Sunshine Farm at eight in the morning, waiting for her to buy the cookies.
“So go,” she said. But there was something about Randi – you couldn’t leave her, bleary-eyed in her huge sweatshirt and boxer shorts, at the checkout.
“What’s white and crawls up your leg?” Randi said. Something on the shelf behind you had caught her eye. “Uncle Ben’s Perverted Rice,” she answered herself.
That’s the kind of thing you might remember, sitting in front of Pippi in the South Seas, combing strand by strand: you might start thinking about how romance, marriage, whatever it is you are attempting to do with your boyfriend, that you attempted to do with boys back then, obscures most other kinds of love. And how Randi cracking her joke, not even looking at you but smiling into the corner, your presence required but not acknowledged, was a kind of love, though you didn’t know it at the time: offered sideways, received quietly, an underlying condition and not a daily negotiation, and what does that have to do with lice? What does that have to do with you, as you sit in the darkening living room, combing Katrin’s hair? She is trying to be good, but tears leak out of the corners of her eyes. The health center literature suggests you “keep squirmy kids in place with a Popsicle”; what kid wouldn’t see this as a bogus non sequitur? You start to laugh.
“Why are you laughing, Mom?” Katrin says, crying, then laughing a little, too.
“I had this friend once in college.” You have never told Katrin about Randi.
“What was she like?”
You try to remember what, about Randi, would be appropriate to tell a child. Once, drunk and high on coke, the two of you shot a tube of toothpaste in a fraternity bathroom with a bow and arrow. Once, at a party, Randi walked past a boy who had dumped her and said, in a conversational tone just loud enough for everyone to hear, “Dave Cooney? Premature ejaculator.”
“Does Randi have kids?” asks Katrin.
“A little girl, Jane, I think.”
Katrin thinks about this for a minute, then says, “Maybe Jane has lice, too.”
-Product info. instead?
Nix – permethrin; low toxicity, kills lice and eggs in one ten-minute treatment
Rid – pyrethrin-based, not as effective at killing nits
Kwell – lindane, prescription only, also not as good at killing nits. (Yet is more toxic. What is deal?)
Malathion lotion – must stay on head for 8-12 hours.
– Problems re: putting a product called Malathion lotion on your child’s head for 8-12 hours.
– Nix is 95% effective (according to Nix). Its lice-killing effects continue to work for up to 14 days. May be used again after 7-10 days. (Not necessary, but recommended.) (?)
– Lice can be eliminated from unwashable items by sealing in a plastic bag for a minimum of 14 days. However, 35 days is better to eliminate risk from any dormant egg.
– Dormant egg?
If your child comes home from school with head lice, try not to panic. There are several over-the-counter products, called pediculicides, which claim
They all claim to kill lice and their eggs, but it’s a crock! There is always one left alive. Every mother you talk to will look at you with round eyes, twitching head, and say, “They lie. The packages lie. I put a whole bottle of (X) on (Olivia/Elspeth/Ariel’s) head, and the next day a LIVE BUG walked across her scalp.”
There are several over-the counter products, which, combined with careful, (thorough, vigilant, scrupulous, maniacal)
A special, fine-toothed comb must be used to remove nits. Divide hair into 1-inch squares. Grasp special comb at an angle, with smooth side slanted backward
You can throw around the expressions “nit-picking” and “go through with a fine-toothed comb,” but until your child actually comes home with lice, you can’t really appreciate the meaning of the words; you will feel foolish, sheepish, for ever having used them lightly, you will feel annoyed, enraged, murderous toward people who commit this offence around you.
“Have you really?” you might say to your boss, when he says he’s been going over the payroll with a fine-toothed comb and uncovered a little problem in your department.
“A fine-toothed comb,” you say. Lice makes you talk in italics; it makes you impatient with the people you loathe. It wipes out the pleasantries, zooms you right to the heart of things. “Interesting you should put it that way.”
“These are baked goods we’re talking about, right?” you might say, when he says he wasn’t going to mention it, but now that you’ve taken everything to such a negative level, yesterday’s cookies were too big. “It’s not like I put the baboon heart in the wrong patient, though, is it?” you might say. You might actually yell that. “It’s not like anyone died, right? It’s not like anyone got lice.”
When your boss tells you he’s putting you on notice, you jump up from the table. “You’re putting me on notice. That’s rich.” Lice makes you sound like Fred Flintstone.
You put all the men in your life on notice.
“Oh, when I’m nit-picking, Leon, you’ll know it,” you blurt to your up-till-now-perfectly-good boyfriend, when he chooses the unfortunate phrase to tell you that you remind him of his mother.
“What do you know about nit-picking?” you imagine yourself challenging the next boyfriend, the one in the unimaginable future. Even men from the past – all the old boyfriends who left for one reason or another – suddenly fall into one of two new categories: those who could have weathered an infestation with you, and the rest.
-(Lice as evolutionary tool in boyfriend selection)
Lice might cause you to dissociate more than usual; you might find yourself thinking about the desert, where you once lived; you can picture the lice dying of dehydration, staggering backwards off your head like bad-guys in a movie. You can feel your scalp baking in the cleansing heat, hear the trickle of water, like a new beginning, in a dry wash.
You might picture these things while your boyfriend is screaming, “I didn’t bring lice into this house!” It is the day after the first treatment and combing. He has reached his limit already. You have slipped and said that your one set of clean sheets is at home. In your dryer, in your ex-husband’s house. Technically still your house, too. “In the dryer,” you say. “Gary’s dryer. My dryer. For God’s sake. Whatever.” It gets confusing. Technically, also, Gary is not yet your ex. You will get around to getting divorced one day soon. After the refinance goes through and you’ve gotten rid of lice.
“I don’t really like the doing-your-laundry-at-Gary’s-thing,” he’s said, again. He’s mentioned it a few times. It makes him uncomfortable to think there’s some kind of an unspoken connection lingering between you and Gary and he would prefer it if you lugged your laundry, and Katrin’s, to the laundromat.
You warned this man, when he was pursuing you, “It’s not going to be the way you think it’s going to be.”
“Let’s go to Baja,” he said. Morocco, Indonesia, the Golden Triangle. Hot, sultry nights; the two of you in a little shack on the beach or in the jungle, lying in a bed canopied by mosquito netting, reading books by candlelight, listening to short-wave radio.
“I’ve never been in a long-term, monogamous relationship before,” he said. “I’d really like to try it with you.” He was surprised by your response, angry.
“Is that supposed to sound like a qualification to me?” you asked.
You don’t say to him now that if he doesn’t like the idea of the doing-your-laundry-at-Gary’s-thing, then he really wouldn’t like the idea of the other thing, which you haven’t told him: how a certain cold reality overtook you when you found the nits in your own hair, how when you called him at work to find out what time he’d be home to help you with them and he said, “I don’t know; I was planning to stay a little late and look up some airfares on the Internet,” you hung up and drove directly to the pharmacy and then to Gary’s, where you shed your clothes in his bathroom, got in the tub, and summoned him in to do the washing.
“Massage into hair, saturating every strand,” you said to Gary, not even bothering to try to strike the note of gentleness his shrinking soul always required and never got from you. “Really, Gary. Don’t dick around. Just get them out.”
You hated the way Gary’s hands felt in your hair – tentative and ineffectual, as always – which was reassuring. You both know you’ve made the right decision, though sometimes other people try to tell you you haven’t. You must still have feelings for each other, they say. You seem to like each other.
Lice has an odd power, you are starting to discover, to show you things about your life.
For example, right there in the tub, you had a realization, suddenly, after all these years of separating from Gary: that you will be able to go forward, to life without Gary, but you will never be able to go back. You can’t get rid of the facts: that Gary watched you give birth to Katrin – propel a child out of your body, vomit, piss on the floor, bellow like an elephant; walk around afterward naked and moaning, your breasts, rock hard and blue with engorgement, bigger than his head.
You think about the lingering, romantic, newly-in-love feelings that up until now still graced the atmosphere of your home with the boyfriend; you think about their sudden loss of substantiality, their lack of fortitude. You picture them as dropouts of a boot-camp run by lice.
Another of the powers of lice is that it is placing unfamiliar words in your brain. “I can do this,” you hear yourself thinking. You’ve come a long way from the days of driving around, crying, with baby Katrin strapped in the back seat. It is not a comforting thought, just new information for your life: whatever impossible, unimaginable task you are called upon to do, you can do.
– Call Tinka Potter re: PTO “Oktoberfest” Committee – get off my back
You might start to notice something: if there is a problem in your life, lice will reveal it as surely as
Say your mother’s in town, too. Say she’s come to stay for two months, or as your boyfriend says, “TWO MONTHS!”, which sounded, somehow, in February, over the telephone, not like the terrible idea it actually is.
Add to this the fact that you are a baker by “trade,” a word your mother likes to employ to distinguish your job from other kinds of jobs, say like hers: Professional Poet; then factor in a lice infestation. Katrin has just been sent home from school with a second round of lice – three weeks, three poisonous shampooings, thirty-six loads of laundry and forty-two combings into the ordeal – even though you’ve instructed her not to take off her cap, not to undo her braided bun, not to hug, touch or brush up against another human being until this is all over. It will seem then, in some strange way, exactly perfect – the final, brilliant brushstroke on some perverse dream masterpiece – that when you arrive home from work (“You must be tired,” your mother says, meaning, after your long day of low-paying toil) she has made, there in your kitchen, a blueberry pie. Caved-in, pallid, just like the pies of your childhood – the childhood she has come to hold against you all: you, your brother, your dead father. “Back when I was a cookie-pusher in Salt Lake,” is the way she refers to that time now.
“Guess what makes my crust so flaky?” she warbles. You can see that your dish drainer’s been emptied, your sink cleaned, your newspapers neatly stacked.
“Lard, Mother?” you whisper savagely, not in the mood to hear the familiar rendering (ha) of the amazing properties of lard, first part in a set piece, the second part of which features your mother as innocent shiksa newlywed, feeding lard crust to her unsuspecting Jewish mother-in-law, which makes you think of your dead father, whose hair – thick, black, curly, oily – was always a fascination to you.
“Yuck, Abby,” he’d say, when you picked up his special silver-plated, soft-bristled hairbrush. You loved to smooth its bristles across your own head. “Don’t touch that.” Which made no sense at all: it was the same hair that tickled your face when you hugged him, that you put your hands in when you rode on his shoulders. It was your mother, you knew, who had done it – you remember the face she made when he scratched his head, as if she were watching to see if anything would fall out. Your mother had the power to turn a man against his own hair.
“Someone named Missy Bindle called,” she says. “She sounded nice. Is she a friend of yours?” The question is ridiculous. Maybe there will be time for friends again, sometime in the future.
Missy Bindle is the mother of the child on whose scalp the problem originally arrived at school, and she’s an expert on lice now. She can often be seen holding impromptu informational sessions – outside the school at pick-up time, at the swimming pool in the afternoons, on the street downtown. Lice is never far from her mind, though Elspeth’s been clean at least two months. Missy Bindle is starting to seem like one of those old guys who never got over the war.
“There’s anecdotal evidence that shampooing prophylactically with Head and Shoulders twice a week is an effective deterrent,” she says at the swimming pool, where the mothers have gathered, as if to an oracle.
“You have to buy a metal comb, those plastic ones are no good.”
“Vinegar loosens the nits from the hair shaft, but it also interferes with the killing effects of the products.”
“Clean hair repels them.”
“I heard the opposite,” one of the other mothers says. “That slightly dirty hair keeps them away.”
You didn’t have the heart to tell Missy Bindle what you’d read about the neutralizing effect of chlorine on Nix. All the little girls were swimming happily. “Why don’t they just drown?” Katrin asked you. “Why can’t I just hold my head underwater for five or six hours?” she asked one night when you started crying as you combed.
Did you ever think of this? If your mother gets lice, you are the one who’s going to have to go through her hair.
She uses up all your shampoo, disregards the package instructions, shampoos several times in a row. You pray for them to obediently die. When she comes out with her head in a towel, you look at her blankly. If you asked, anyone would tell you: you have to do it. The fact of your undutifulness has never been thrown at you quite so baldly before; you have definitely begun to feel something like awe at the power of these tiny bugs to bring the ugly heart of a thing to light.
You have to hand it to her, though. After she’s combed, she takes the laundry over to Gary’s and does it all – yours, Katrin’s, Gary’s, even the boyfriend’s. She offers to comb Katrin the next night, but then gets too drunk to do it. But every day till the end of her stay, she does the laundry; she vaccuums. She gives up asking careful, veiled questions, the meaning of which is, “How could this have happened?” She only says, “You kids never had lice” once; seeing your dangerous look, she changes her nuance in midstream: “Hmm, I wonder why.”
She also can’t wait to get out of there. She’s got a side-trip to the city planned. The day before she goes, she offers to comb your hair, but when you let her, she just ruffles her fingers around your scalp randomly, asking, “Is this one? Is this one, honey? Is this one?”
“Never mind,” you tell her. Tomorrow you will call the health center, get an answer to the question you forgot to ask: “Who combs the parents’ hair?”
WHO WILL COMB YOUR HAIR?
Like your own death, this is something you should plan for before it happens. So that you don’t have to find yourself sitting on the floor at eleven o’clock on a work night, feeling like a despairing princess in a fairy tale. Many have tried and failed. As a last resort, you’ve asked your boyfriend, but he fails, too.
“Your hair’s so overwhelming,” he says, from where he kneels behind you. He keeps stopping his random, half-hearted combing to argue with you.
“Can’t you at least fight and comb at the same time?” you say. Your butt’s numb, your eyes ache, from two hours of work on Katrin’s head and another hour on his.
“That’s it,” he says, and he wings the comb across the room. It hits the wall and its little plastic magnifying glass flies off. You begin to cry. You cry for one minute, then you get the phone book and the phone. This is the order of the people you can ask for help: almost-ex-husband, mother, boyfriend, almost-ex-husband’s recently-jilted girlfriend.
– strongly recommend trying to avoid getting in situation of having almost-ex-husband’s recently-jilted girlfriend be last-resort comber
Even if she asks repeatedly; even if she calls before anyone else even knows you have them and says, “I’ve been there, it’s awful. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” Her daughter and Katrin are in the same class, and Elinor’s case of lice seems to be indomitable. Every night, according to Lynette, the girlfriend, Elinor’s short, scraggly hair is combed till “there’s not one speck of anything in it,” and every day she is sent home by the school nurse. “They must be jumping on her head from the other children,” Lynette says. She starts calling every day. “I know how hard it can be to get someone to comb you out,” she says. “Why don’t we just set up a time?”
What if you can’t avoid it? What if the momentum of lice is giving your life a shape you can only watch transmogrify grotesquely, while your real aspirations – sitting down to a well-prepared meal without a stomach-ache, having fifteen minutes left at the end of the day to take a bath or fold laundry – seem to have evaporated with a cold, hard finality?
Under such circumstances, you might find yourself, on a Saturday night, sitting in the bright, over-decorated living room of your almost-ex-husband’s recently-jilted girlfriend, having a conversation with him in your head. Cute like her, you say, about the room. You are focusing on the enormous cabbage roses on the girlfriend’s living room rug, on the two sweating, warming beers you brought, which are sitting, small in the distance, on the kitchen counter beyond the wide double door.
You know before her finger even touches the stereo’s Power button that you’ll be listening to Jonathon Richman or African dance music. Gary’s cassette player’s been broken for three years, about the same amount of time as your marriage has, so he brings his CDs over to your apartment for the boyfriend to record. You don’t tell Lynette that there are at least three other women with the exact micro-collection she’s now asking you to choose from. You also don’t tell her that the last time Gary went out with her, you asked him, “Did she wear her little headband?” and that Gary laughed, and answered, “I’m afraid so.”
And she hasn’t said to you, yet – woman to woman, friend to friend – the comb firmly set in your scalp, “I told Gary he wasn’t your father and he didn’t have to take care of you.” She hasn’t yet said, referring to your furniture, that you couldn’t stand to take because Katrin hates for anything to change: “Look at his house. Everything he has is junk. Look at the way he lives!” She also hasn’t said the thing that causes you to wrinkle your eyebrows at its incomprehensibility: “I really hope Katrin didn’t get lice from Elinor. She had them the day Katrin came over to play, but I didn’t tell Gary because I was so mad at him.”
She spreads a sheet on the floor to collect the vermin that will be raining from you; she has you sit at her feet and she puts her small, feathery hands in your hair.
“I think I’m going to write a guide,” she says. For other parents, about how to get rid of lice. “Straight talk,” Lynette says firmly. You wonder what other kind she thinks she’s capable of.
Missy Bindle’s writing a guide, too. Why does everyone else have the good ideas? Not that you could ever write a guide, but if you did, maybe it would be something besides straight talk. The more peripheral issues, like: what if lice is the anti-missing-puzzle-piece, the thing that sends all the little pieces of your life flying irretrievably in different directions? Or if it’s like secret-tarnish remover – if getting lice is the thing that rubs all the accumulated grime, the obscuring effect of everyday life, off the secrets that have been sitting there forever: you might never be able to forgive your mother, even if you try; you are a better mother than you ever thought you would be, and aren’t quite sure what to do with that knowledge; you might never be ready for this divorce, even though you know it’s a good idea; and another man is not the answer. What to do then. Maybe that would be a guide people could use – not like Missy’s or Lynette’s, but one for after they get rid of lice. Because – they can’t know until it happens, but you know, now – life will never be the same.
One of the ironies of lice is that Gary’s the only one who doesn’t get them. The hub of the infestation, and he remains untouched. Probably it’s because he’s balding fast, but you have a moment of thinking maybe it’s his attitude. He doesn’t let anyone close; maybe the lice respect that.
One day Gary feels dizzy and short of breath on the tennis court. He calls to tell you about it. “Get to the doctor,” you tell him, which, uncharacteristically, he does. The doctor says he’s fine. You have a combing scheduled with him for the next day. “Come at four o’clock,” he says. He’s found he prefers to comb in natural light, in the late afternoon, in a white plastic chair on the front porch. The comb-ee sits in a child-sized chair in front of him. “I’ve actually gotten sort of strangely into this,” he says.
“You know my little heart attack yesterday?” Gary says. His hands have gotten much better in your hair – quick, firm, and decisive.
“My preferred method,” he says, when you yelp – when he finds a hair shaft with a nit on it, he yanks it clean out of your head. You just let him. You think, maybe lice was the moment your marriage was always waiting for.
“Yeah?” you say. You were just in the middle of talking about the usual things: Katrin’s schedule, her activities sign-up deadlines, which lunchbox is at whose house.
“Well, I just thought I’d go through this real quick, in case anything happens to me,” he says, and he tells you the provisions of his life insurance policy and Katrin’s college fund, and what to do about the mortgages, and where all the papers are to be found.
“Gary!” You don’t need this in the middle of everything.
“Well,” he replies.
“Don’t die,” you tell him, and you don’t even mean, because then there won’t be anybody to comb my hair, or maybe you do.
Your mother is calling every couple of days, asking after everyone’s head, trying to hide the fact that she is so glad to be out of there.
“How’re you holding up, sweetie?” she asks, and you think about how you will probably die without knowing why words like that have the effect of making you feel like long fingers are raking the insides of you, trying to rearrange things in there, screw up the order things have finally fallen into.
“Fine,” you say. You don’t tell her that Katrin still has lice and Gary has gone to Tulsa to visit his new girlfriend, someone he met at a conference in some other, grown-up world where lice don’t circulate. The visit was arranged before the lice trouble; you thought of asking him to change his plans, but you didn’t. You were surprised by the knowledge that cornered you: you can’t afford – not just yet – to risk hearing Gary say the one thing he never says to you, the thing, like the last louse left on a ravaged scalp, after which, having been rooted out, everything will change and the rest of life will begin.
“Go,” you said to him. “Have a good time.” You felt utterly abandoned; of course you don’t tell your mother that, and you don’t tell her this: you’ve started to see her around.
All your adult life you’ve dreamed her: walking down the street, unaware that you’ve caught her, living in your town all along and never letting you know. But lately these apparitions have stepped out of your dreams and into real life. You keep seeing her driving around town. Why haven’t you ever noticed before how many sixty-year-old women there are in the world who look exactly like your mother, driving blue Accords? They never see you, and you turn away; you don’t want to be seen.
Anyway, if you write a guide, put this in it. The next time one of those women drives by, don’t be afraid if something happens. If one of those women in a blue Honda drives by, and you suddenly get a picture in your head, almost as if she’s bumped you with a fender and caused it to pop out, don’t be afraid to look at it.
You might actually consider using illustrations in your guide. Not just the usual, a magnified picture of a louse, with its actual dimensions and Latin name written underneath it, but maybe something more like this: a surprised woman who looks just like you, standing on the sidewalk watching another woman who’s not her mother drive by. You might need a series of illustrations to show this. Her problem has reached monumental proportions, though it’s still invisible to the outside world, and she is just about to decide to take desperate measures – beg for a prescription for the really poisonous stuff, send away for information about home-schooling, shave her head and her child’s head, set fire to all their possessions and move away to the desert – do what she has to do – when the problem suddenly, miraculously, eradicates itself. Not gradually, like it’s supposed to – the dead bugs falling out, the tiny eggs prised from the hair shafts over hours and days with the little comb, the methodical correcting of the problem over time, which, everyone will tell you, is the one and only way you will ever be able to crawl back into your life – but all in a single, stunning instant. Hundreds, thousands of the little things jump off of her head, like
-Medusa with detached snakes
-Sea monkey party
-Cartoon sweat beads
-A bunch of happy, olden-days kids (Missy Bindle says post-1970’s rise in lice due to DDT ban) jumping out of trees, yelling a thousand little “Geronimo”s
leaving her like she was before (nothing like she was before?): a little light-headed, a little uninhabited, a little able to feel, whenever anyone mentions it (-ask Leon: can he draw this?) the absent itch.