Tori was an acquaintance of a few years, my favorite stylist at Saw Palmetto Salon, and, somehow, a Facebook friend of mine. Her posts were a thrill ride and provided a depth to the kind of conversations we had when she had me in her chair—kids, husbands, celebrity divorces, the weather, my hair journey—and frankly, I liked her. She was discovering feminism late, in the deep end of her twenties, though I know not every woman, like me, had the chance to take Gender Studies at a woodsy liberal arts college and stop shaving her armpits for a few years. No, Tori discovered women’s liberation in the wake of a divorce and a custody battle that meant she drove her child four hours one-way every other week to the Georgia mountain town where her ex lived. The divorce turned her off the institution of marriage, left her wondering why women strolled into the raw deal of it and gave up their bodies and their bank account numbers. At our last appointment, she said to me: “You know, there are women who come in here with pictures that their husbands printed off the computer, saying, ‘this is what he wants.’ And I’m like, ‘Lady, what do you want?’”
Tori refused to do bridal party hair gigs because the ritual seemed sad to her now, and she felt she was bringing the girls’ party down with her attitude. It wasn’t fair to them. This decision hurt her financially, and it seemed a tad of an overcorrection to me, as a married woman who enjoys a true egalitarian relationship, even if I do the lion’s share of the housework, but I recognize the hard stance of the newly initiated to the struggle for gender equality. Also, she was in the grip of a myopic hatred of her ex-husband for how he’d gotten what he wanted which was to work for a logging company because he had some ideas about the nobility of it, and he’d kept her in Georgia because of their custody arrangement. His family had made her look bad in court, had called her a wild child, and yes, she had been wild once, but those days were long over with. His family knew the damage that it would do to her when they said this in court, but they were thinking only of seeing their grandson. Yes, she had been found high and naked in her in-laws’ backyard, but she was just twenty-four then, and this was not unusual behavior for someone who’d taken mushrooms. It was just an unfortunate thing that it had happened where it did.
“They didn’t want me to take my son away,” she said. “They would have said anything.”
I said that if I had to account for the things that I have done in my life in front of a judge, I would certainly have been labeled a miscreant too, and it was just luck that it hadn’t happened. “Everything’s luck,” I said, which seemed to me a sorry consolation, and I felt silly for it.
“You know, it kills me,” she said. She pulled pieces of my hair up over my head to cut them, so it looked like she was cutting willy-nilly. “I was really nice to those people. Damien didn’t care much about his family, but I used to make them birthday cakes and drive them to doctors’ appointments when the car wasn’t working. They weren’t easy people to like. They’d get in fights and then ask you to take sides. They weren’t mature people, but I was nice to them.”
Then she changed the subject to the mushroom powder she was taking now. I knew from her Facebook that she was into multi-level marketing schemes, had sold essential oil diffusers and diet smoothies, and now mushroom powder as a cognitive enhancer. She’d never tried to sell me anything during an appointment before, and I felt more than a little uneasy about it, but I bought a box of them. They worked, but only as a laxative.
Before the pandemic, I ran into Tori at the new brewery of our small town. I hardly knew what to say to her when she didn’t have her hands on my head. At the salon, she kissed my cheek when we parted. We acted as genuine friends, but in the courtyard of the new brewery, it was clear we were less certain of our relation to one another. Tori pointed to the back of her child on the jungle gym. The child had gorgeous, curly black hair that reached the middle of his back, and I said, “Look at the locks on her!”
And she gently said, “him.”
I should have remembered she had a son.
“If I could have children,” I said, “I’d never cut their hair. I love long hair on a boy!” and I meant it, though I could tell she didn’t believe me, and I then changed the subject by pointing to my husband at the outdoor bar who was paying for our beers. Frank turned and walked towards us, looking as he usually does, affable and amused by the world, though that sometimes makes people think he’s simple. Beer spilled over the pint rims and wet his shoes as he walked. He had to flick beer off himself before he could take Tori’s hand.
Frank knew Tori anecdotally, though when he said, “Amy says you’re some kind of magician,” Tori looked as though she suspected she was being patronized.
“It’s true!” I said. “You are so good it’s like magic. I should make you a business card that says Magician-Stylist.”
“Thanks,” she said. “That’s nice, but if I could do it all over again, I would. I’d go to college. I’d move to the city.”
Frank always wants to be helpful. “You could still go to college. You could still move to a city.”
Tori seemed intent on taking Frank’s comment in the least charitable way, as a taunt, which was interesting to watch because Frank is so quickly deemed likeable by most people. Tori had one of those fashion mullets that you might only see in a magazine if you lived in coastal Georgia, so she turned heads. She needn’t tell anybody that she wanted to leave. Her whole demeanor announced this to the world—the way she held her body, arms folded, a little hunched, like a jaded child star.
Just then her son ran over, brandishing a stick, with his t-shirt sleeves cut off, and he looked to me like one of those children you see on documentaries about pro surfers. But he was shy, diving his face into his mother’s thigh when I knelt down to say hello. I wondered if Tori hadn’t wanted to be a mother.
“This place leaves a little to be desired culturally,” I said, pushing myself up. I still bemoaned this myself but had made a fraught peace with it. We were there for Frank’s work. “At least we have a brewery now.”
Frank nodded. Frank and I are maybe a decade older than Tori, and I wondered if she looked down on us for that. Frank said, “It’s probably a great place to grow up if you’re a kid.”
This topic was dangerous waters for us, too, and I wished he hadn’t said so because it would haunt the rest of our date night after Tori walked away. After she left, Frank said, “Maybe I remind her of someone who was bad to her.”
I hadn’t thought of Tori in months, and suddenly, we were in the midst of a pandemic and the whole country was sheltering at home. We lived in a small town with relatively few infections, so the virus, and the suffering it wracked around the world, existed for us mostly as imagery on our computers. We were worried, but the pandemic hadn’t touched us personally yet. I worked from home, anyway, as a copywriter for a tech company in San Francisco, which left me a lot of free time to make art and to putter around the house making plans. Though my company was taking hits, I knew that if I was laid off, I would eventually find other work, and Frank’s salary could sustain us. Frank is an electrical engineer who’d bought our light-filled house that butts up to a pond with an alligator living in it whom Frank calls Toby. Frank pops into my studio at some point every afternoon to inform me of Toby’s whereabouts. He loves sheltering at home. He’s building a canoe. “I thought you’d like to know that Toby is sunning himself on the south bank today. I’m starting to think Toby has a nest and is actually female.”
It is difficult for me to care about ad copy for chat bot software, so I am sometimes annoyed to have my concentration interrupted. “Why did you assume it was male?”
“That’s just what I was thinking!” he said.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“Fine,” he said. “Last two days’ work was a dead end, but I see an opening now.”
“That’s good,” I said. He has to talk in the vaguest terms about his work because I don’t understand what he does.
“Want a sandwich?”
Frank is an outdoors enthusiast and bird watcher and is unflappably good-humored, but also, he’s gotten everything he wanted, except children, so what would he have to be ill-tempered about? We live an hour from his parents. We’d had loftier designs for ourselves once, or I had, but we live our life with greater eccentricity and pluck than I thought to expect from life as someone who’d wanted to be a ceramicist. We aspire to be the kind of people now who know about local elections and predatory developers and grassroots movements to stop the chicken corporation that owns the next town over from dumping shit into the waterways, and we have succeeded in this and in owning a house.
During the pandemic, we fretted over our parents’ pre-existing health conditions and our friends in New York, but on the whole, we were more secure than most. It seemed like everyone in our neck of the woods was drinking just to see their mind do something else or else people were popping pills they’d squirreled away for hard times. Nothing to do but look at ourselves or else look at the television. It became plain to me, even as an introverted person, how much of my well-being comes from chance encounters at the store and attending civic group meetings and generally being a body amongst other bodies. My eyebrows got thick as caterpillars and my sex drive tanked, which is tragic because I know sex to be a great use for an idle afternoon and all my afternoons were suddenly idle.
Tori was posting on Facebook that she couldn’t make rent anymore because of the pandemic. Her landlord was trying to evict her even if that wasn’t exactly legal. She wrote she wished it was safe to come to people’s homes and cut hair, and because I felt charitable, I sent her a private message saying that I’d feel comfortable having her over to cut my hair. I didn’t expect my hundred dollars would change her life, but it could help. I also thought that if I got a haircut, I might be able to think of my person again as a receptacle for desire, and as a product of this culture, I have long nurtured a disgust with my body; it is more familiar to me than the faces of my loved ones.
Frank did not love the idea that we’d break quarantine this way. I could tell from his expression when I’d bounded into his office to tell him, but I had been moody and maybe a little more snappy than normal, and I suspect he didn’t want to dampen my cheer.
Tori is more reserved than other stylists I’ve had. We talk during my appointments, but also, we lapse into silence, which is more than fine, because with a stranger’s hands on my head and my hands immobilized underneath a smock, I am able to think for a change, not of the things I plan to do, but to take stock of my life and assess how things are going. Prior to one haircut, one shadeless afternoon when my life felt smaller than I’d hoped, I nearly left my husband. By the time I re-entered the home that Frank and I had made together, it smacked me what a fool I might have been. Frank was in the kitchen, immersed in an afternoon-long cooking explosion and listening to music he loved as a teenager, and I was weepy with regret.
This is someone who I can count on to be interested in hearing my interpretation of my dreams. Who consoled me when my pottery studio failed and I went into copywriting. He said, “At least we get this (meaning us). We’re doing something special here. Most people don’t get this much happiness.” And I knew he was right, having gone from the rung of one minorly disapproving man to the next though my twenties like a woman swinging her way along the monkey bars.
The day of my appointment, I was feeling more and more foolish for being so cavalier about my and Frank’s health. If we got sick, I’d never forgive myself. God forbid if we got his parents sick. But then Tori showed up with a rolling suitcase full of supplies in one hand and a tumbler of chilled wine in the other, which was a surprise because she’d driven to our house, and she looked so wonderful in her sack dress. Tori is a small person, not much taller than five feet, radiating youth and good health. She kissed me on the cheek without hesitation, and I knew that all of the quarantine rules were off, and I might as well treat this as a little party.
I got myself a bottle of wine from the cooler, too, though it was only one o’clock, and we put on a record, and Tori was strangely talkative. She charged around the house calling the painting over the mantle “fabulous” and the mod dining room chairs “dope” and plopping into the velvet reading chair, feeling the fabric with her hands. She said, “I’m not leaving without this chair.”
I felt a little embarrassed by the praise, considering her situation, and she was talking at such a clip that I feared she might be high in addition to a little tipsy. But when she got down to business, she acted the perfect professional. We laid a blanket down on the screened-in porch overlooking the pond, and she’d brought a smock, and she sipped wine as she worked. Even if Tori would have done her whole life differently, she was an artist. She made my hair do things I had never dared dream it could do. I told her this as she cut my hair, and I felt my mood restored in the company of someone besides Frank.
Tori told me she’d met someone new, an ex-marine who sold boats outside of Savannah, and she was just smitten. She’d never been on a speed boat in her life before she met him. Her son was with his father that week, and she’d forgotten how fun dating could be. She’d never had the chance to date, really, since she met her ex in high school. I began to realize that perhaps she wasn’t high, only infatuated, and feeling a novel sense of possibility.
“He said if I get evicted, I can just move in with him for a while,” Tori said.
“Well, how long’s it been?” I said.
“Three months,” she said.
I felt motherly all of a sudden. “That’s not very long.”
“When you know, you know,” she said. “His kids are nearly out of the house now. He’s separated from his wife.”
“How old is he?”
That’s twenty years older than Tori. I didn’t like it but had no business saying so. As I see it, older men are always preying on the economic insecurity or general insecurity of the young. But perhaps all was above board, and I didn’t know the man, and it wasn’t as though I was about to pay Tori’s rent. “He’s good to you?”
“I didn’t know it was possible to be treated so good.”
Then my Frank walked onto the porch, and I wanted him to come back later when I was looking revived, but Frank was hungry for interaction too, and I wouldn’t deny him. He said, by way of including himself, “Want me to flip the record?”
He then lay on the couch like a therapy patient and had a discussion with Tori about cutting techniques and what her vision was for this cut. “I just don’t understand how you can see what you’re doing. It’s like you’re an architect. You’re cutting from the bottom to the top, but if you make a mistake at the bottom, it’s like getting the foundation for a house wrong.”
“It is like that,” Tori said. “Only, I’ve been doing this so long, baby, I don’t make mistakes.”
Frank loved displays of sass, especially in the form of pride. I had a mask of uncut bangs on my face, so I kept my eyes closed and listened to them talk. Tori had warmed to Frank since their last encounter, and it was nice to listen to them. Frank had poured himself a glass of wine, too, and an afternoon storm rolled over us, and the rain pinged on the tin roof of the porch, and with music playing, I realized I hadn’t had such a good time in months. The afternoon approached normalcy. Tori began to blow dry my hair, and I thought how nice it was to have my hair cut without having to watch its progress in the mirror. I said that this was a far preferable way to get your hair done and that she should always do it this way. She laughed. “Maybe,” she said. “But my car would get a lot of mileage that way, and some people, you’d rather not go into their house.”
Later, she said, “You two don’t want to have kids? You’d be fun parents.”
“We can’t,” Frank said.
“We tried,” I added. “I had a miscarriage a couple of years ago in the second trimester. It was so harrowing I just don’t know if I can do it again. I’m worried, too, about the future, about what climate change will mean for future generations.”
I felt badly bringing this up to someone who had children, and yet I’d said it anyway. Perhaps because of the wine. I was glad that I couldn’t see Tori’s face.
“I’m not worried about that,” Tori said.
“Most people aren’t,” I said. “I think that’s the problem.”
Frank said, “It’s possible we get on track, but it will require a huge mobilization on the part of governments around the world, and we just haven’t seen it so far. Corporate money is strangling political progress.”
“Is that really why?” she said.
For a moment, I thought she meant, ‘is that really why governments aren’t acting?’ But no, she was referring to our decision not to have children, and this was not entirely why. I was struggling existentially with the decision. I wondered if the point of life was merely to reproduce oneself and if, even that, wasn’t just a trick that biology played on you. Did the world need more children? It seemed to me what the world needed was a team of mothers—no, you cannot drill for oil in national parks. No, you cannot dump chicken shit into the waterways. I found my feelings on motherhood so inconsistent that I wasn’t sure it wasn’t irresponsible to have children. My miscarriage had truly been harrowing and left me more alienated from my body than I thought possible, but I also feared I was simply running out the clock until the matter was decided for me while Frank looked longingly at children in parks.
“We discussed adoption,” Frank said, and he pushed himself up off the couch and walked to the edge of the screened in porch overlooking the pond. The storm had passed over us, and the sun was out again, and the air thickened with humidity. He had his hands on his hips looking thoughtfully over the pond. He turned and looked at me the way he did after he’d had a few drinks, his eyes wide with a big feeling, and I feared, suddenly, what he might say next. Perhaps he would say he thought it was too late for us, anyway, which I knew worried him, though he rarely mentioned it because he did not want to pressure me. Or that he felt he needed to become a father and that he’d leave me. He said, “Toby’s out again.”
Tori was sculpting my dried hair with a product that smelled like roses. “She’s an alligator,” I told Tori. We couldn’t see the alligator from where we were. Our backyard slopes down to the pond below. “She lives in the pond.”
Frank looked down at the alligator. “There’s something more of this world about this alligator than me.”
“How do you mean?” Tori asked.
“She’s a prehistoric killing machine,” he said.
I don’t think he meant to make Tori laugh, but she thought that was hilarious. She fluffed my hair, and I could tell she’d made it a new consistency, as if it were made of new material. She said, “Can we take pictures? You look fabulous.”
I posed for the pictures and let her adjust my head tilt while Frank looked on, and I felt he was privately laughing at me and that I deserved it. Frank pointed out the alligator to Tori, and she announced that she was going down to the water’s edge to photograph it.
“I think Toby has a nest,” he said, “so keep a safe distance. Alligators can become territorial after they’ve bred.”
“Social distancing,” Tori said and winked. Then she clomped down the noisy steps towards the backyard, and watching her go, her walk betrayed the wine she’d had to drink, and I wondered if my haircut betrayed this too. We’d probably need to drive Tori home or to call her a cab. I didn’t look forward to that discussion.
After she went, Frank touched my hair and said it felt like silky cotton candy. I still had no idea what my hair looked like. I hadn’t been to the mirror yet, but I hadn’t wanted a new hairdo anyway, only to feel differently about myself. Frank was sitting on the back of the couch. He was offering up dinner ideas. That was what he had to look forward to: dinner, another glass of wine, some reading or a TV show. I asked Frank for a compliment.
“You won’t live it down with your friends,” he said. “Breaking quarantine this way.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that my friends would see the pictures. My mind had been fuzzy with wine. Of course, she would post them. That’s what the pictures were for. “I’ll have to ask her not to post those. I’m an idiot.”
He took my hand and pulled me in and held my back to his chest. He rested his chin on my shoulder. He said, “You look so good.”
It was what I’d wanted to hear. It had worked. I felt I could have sex again right there on the porch, which we did sometimes when we were feeling lively. There was only a small chance of being seen by a neighbor, and the air was soupy like sex itself. Frank knew what I was thinking without my saying so. I felt this just in the way his body relaxed. From the porch, I looked at the treetops that were a dozen shades of green and were alive, when I remembered to listen, with birdsong. It was so good, my life. I wanted to keep living it until I no longer could. This moment. This.
Tori screamed, but when we went to the screen, we saw her squatting down by the water’s edge, laughing. She was just ten feet from the alligator in the shallow water.
“It moved!” she yelled up to us. “It scared me.”
“She’s too close,” I said.
“Stand up slowly and back away,” Frank hollered.
“Tori, you’re too close,” I yelled. “It’s not safe.”
“Stand up slowly,” Frank said again.
She looked up at us with incredulity as if we were being unreasonable. She had her phone extended towards the alligator. I had a terrible feeling. “Frank, go get her. She’s not thinking.”
Frank left, cursing, and I watched him jogging down the steps to the backyard. Tori seemed not to budge now out of some defiance.
It was as if I could feel the alligator’s agitation, as if I could feel it poised to strike at Tori. Its body seemed to be tensing up in the water, and I was tensing up with it. Tori rose slowly from her squat. She screamed again and then laughed at herself, put her hand on her chest. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” she said, turning towards Frank who was charging down the lawn towards her. He’d dragged the hose down with him for some reason.
As a person with anxious tendencies, I see it all happen next. I see the alligator lunging out of the water with speed that Tori could not have counted on and then she is on the ground, grass in her hands. The alligator has her leg and is dragging her into the pond. There is no sound of it. Frank throws her the hose, and Frank is pulling her back, telling her not to let go. I can see his body strain against the pull of the alligator who weighs more than three men combined. And what Frank is pulling against is the animal’s grip into Tori’s calf. Then the alligator has her in deep water, and she rolls. Frank has told me this is called the death roll. She submerges Tori, and Frank is left on the shore holding the limp hose. The water is disturbed, but the alligator has gone down to the bottom with her. Frank steps into the water and then back out, looking around helplessly. He tells me to call an ambulance, but the alligator and Tori don’t emerge again until the paramedics have arrived. The alligator still clutches Tori’s leg, attached to her lifeless body. The police shoot the alligator and take Tori’s body from the water, and they say that this alligator has a taste for humans, and so cannot be allowed to live. The police wear masks, and we tell the story tearfully, over and over again: the haircut, the wine, the warning, the photographs. What of the nest? The alligator’s offspring never hatch. For some reason, Tori’s child comes into our custody. He is a very sad and lonely boy, whom Frank takes canoeing and teaches to fish. I homeschool him. We tell him stories about his mother, about the world before the quarantine. We love him into wholeness, and we emerge after the pandemic’s senseless loss of life, triumphant, leaner, and better adjusted. We offer the young man to the world as our legacy.
It happened in a matter of seconds, this overlay of violence in my mind, that took us into another life, and then it was gone. Perhaps what I wanted was to have my future thrust upon me. No, I thought, just another anxious fantasy. It was just the mind’s preparation on overdrive. It all might have happened differently. The alligator had every intention of biting her. Tori’s face flashed with anger momentarily before Frank tried to pull her away. I thought she might slap him, but this impulse diffused quickly and soon they were walking together up the hill. Frank looked up to me with exasperation and relief as he walked.
Tori did not want us to drive her home, but we insisted. I drove her car, and Frank followed in his. Tori was embarrassed, but I told her she needn’t be. We’d all had fun. We were glad to have her over. The haircut had made my week. As we approached her humble apartment block, she looked near to tears. On the other side of her buzz lay her worry over what would happen to her, and I searched my mind for words that would comfort. I didn’t want to say something untrue. I had no idea what would happen to her, if she would be evicted, if a man who sold boats would keep his promise, if she would go to school, if she would go bankrupt, if she would be happy. I didn’t need to tell her that misfortunate fell on decent people every day. Have I said her eyes were green? They were. It’s the first thing anyone noticed about her. “It’s a scary time,” I said. “It’s alright to be scared.” She kissed me when I gave her the keys.