In early 1989, at pirate camp, I let a bossy, chain-smoking, fourteen-year-old liar from Atlanta cut my hair during a tornado. This seemed like a good idea at the time.
She was kind of mean and definitely full of shit, but she was the only one of the cool older girls in my cabin that didn’t talk to me like I was a child. She’d been hassling me for days about my look, and I, a noted soft-target for any promise of makeover was finally, like, Fine, then. Do something about it. After all, we were stuck inside during a storm. What else did we have to do.
We’d been evacuated off the sound about fifteen minutes before, just after our visibly stoned junior counselor maybe named after a liberal arts college, executed a perfect swan dive off the swimming platform between two blue-white crackles of lightning. She surfaced moments late and climbed up the barnacled ladder, flashing the awestruck onlookers a woozy peace sign.
“Tubular,” said one of the boys I had a crush on.
I thought it was a little reckless, but I was still young enough that I couldn’t apply the lessons of myth to real life. So hubris often looked like superpowers, especially when strutting past back to dry land with one boob almost completely liberated from a string bikini top, like an Amazon on spring break. The older camp staff were screaming at us to come in panicked from the shoreline, but Liberal Arts College simply had to gesture and we all followed.
In the nick of time too, because the wind kicked up when we came ashore, tossing around loose towels and surf boards. I narrowly avoided a tumbling catamaran in my path. I climbed the stairs of the weather-beaten two-story cabin I occupied with some thirty other girls. The counselors shut the storm shutters over the screens while we shrugged out of wet bathing suits and vied for showers. The wind had knocked out the power, but water was as warm and almost as salty as the body of water we’d just left. My skin stuck to my clothes–cutoffs stiff with salt, and an R.E.M t-shirt worn to near translucence, neither of which technically mine, but borrowed or bartered—and I remember the whole cabin listing and creaking with the wind, almost as if it were a ship itself.
“You know, if this thing gets intense, we’ll probably die in this cabin,” said Liberal Arts College. “Sorry if you’re still virgins.”
She fired up the boombox, which contained a mixtape her boyfriend (who was named after a city in Alabama) made for her. She played it obsessively, so I primed for the opening bars of “Dear God,” and tried to imagine what it would be like if we were about to die. I followed Atlanta to the rail-less enclosed stairs at the back of the cabin and she propped a flashlight between her knees.
“I think we should start by cutting the rest of this perm out,” said Atlanta. “Perms are over.”
I might have blanched at the first length of still-sopping hair that dropped down the landing at her first hack, but I settled into the rhythm of it, as the storm shuddered and Andy Partridge wrestled with faith from the speakers. An epic roll of thunder opened for track two, Cult of Personality. I mouthed the lyrics, like Mussolini or Kennedy, while Atlanta talked about her act for the forthcoming talent show. She claimed she was a celebrated freestyle dancer which was like a breakdancer, but with more serious moves and, like, cheer skills. One could only learn freestyle dancing on the streets, and she’d grown up hard on the mean streets of Buckhead.
I hadn’t spent much time in Atlanta, but I knew Buckhead was my Nana’s favorite neighborhood on account of the fancy malls. Seems like a weird place for dancing street gangs, but Atlanta was currently wielding sharp things pointing at my head, so I didn’t say anything.
She stopped to ask if I was into New Wave, which I figured was maybe because we’d moved onto track, Blue Monday, but she meant my hair. “It might be kind of New Wave, when I’m done,” she said. “But that’s going to be way cooler this fall than a grown-out spiral perm.
“Fine,” I said, and listened to the cool girls in my cabin sing along. If she’d promised there was hair of a chance that it might have made me interesting to them, I would have let Atlanta shave my head.
“I let someone cut my hair,” I told my mother, on the phone that night on the phone, in the camp office, overseen by the small cadre of actual camp adults. I didn’t mention the tornado, because my mother was afraid of them and would have freaked out
Mom didn’t seem worked up about the haircut. She asked me how it looked. I hadn’t exactly reached a solid conclusion yet. I gave it another looksee in the reflective panel on the pay phone, and told her it was kind of cute and close to a bob, without going into details, because the details were that I’d let a gossipy, fourteen year old fabulist from the mean streets of Buckhead pretty much do whatever she wanted and it looked like it.
One of the other adult staffmembers, the one that forced me to call my mother when she saw my hair, took the phone from me and performed a thirty second tone poem of uh-huhs. When she hung up, she shrugged and released me to dinner. It was shrimp night. Shrimp night was always the best night at pirate camp.
After dinner, I wandered out past the knuckle ball tables where a saucer-eyed older camper with Jami Gertz hair shot fireballs at boys she thought were cute with a Bic and a can of Aqua Net. She laughed at me when I flinched. I sidestepped a group of boys by the water cooler, and headed to the water so I could feel what the breezy afterside of the storm felt like when it ruffled my hair.
I took the storm damaged pier a launch halfway down and planted myself two staira closer to the water with my feet in the warm briny Sound and my finger marking the pages in Stephen King’s It, which I’d borrowed from Atlanta. I tended to spend most camp nights on the halfway launch, back to the younger campers, digging up clams in the reedy patch behind me. Sometimes Irish Name, my oldest friend from home, came with me, and we faced the end of the pier together, watching spectral boats and barges float up the channel past, the top of the island and into the sea. Increasingly she didn’t, which was okay, because increasingly we had nothing in common to talk about except our increasingly unlikely friendship
Tonight, the pier end was occupied by a few counselors and older campers half-assedly trying to aright the fleet of small sailboats—mostly Sunfish and Flying Scots—that had capsized during the storm. Just beyond them, on the outer edge of the boathouse, the typical evening crowd of underage smokers had gathered for a post-dinner puff. The counselors ignored them, probably because they’d soon join them, as soon as they’d drained the fleet of kayaks. It seemed preposterous that I had gotten in trouble for a haircut, a camp activity so benign that it had been figured into “The Parent Trap,” while no one was making the smoking section call home. I watched them enviously, wishing I’d been invited to join, terrified I might be, because I had no idea if I wanted to do whatever they’d expect me to. I suspected I’d be met with the smirks of boys, the haughty bitch-faced pity of girls, or worse, they’d just ignore me, pretend that I wasn’t there.
The sky darkened, gold to pink to violet. Sunsets are usually spectacular after a storm.
I could hear the muffled bass of the music from the barn, where the camp hosted a “dance” every night nights they didn’t show old James Bond films or host Atlanta’s beloved Talent Show. They were playing Stairway to Heaven, which was a terrible song to dance to, but a popular favorite among white kids named after cities in Alabama or liberal arts colleges (and track seven on my counselor’s mixtape). Most of the camp only went to the dances as an excuse to hang out in the dark and try not to attract too much attention while they messed around with each other’s shorts and bra straps. Stand By Me would play later–—the camp dance playlist was as predictable as Liberal Arts College’s mixtape. I loved that song. It sounded like floating under the stars on navy blue sea. It sounded, I thought, like what it must feel like to be loved back. Eventually they’d play Violent Femmes or Beastie Boys and I’d skitter back over the splintery planks to shore so I could pogo around the for a song and half and hope people would be so disarmed by my new hair that they’d suddenly start talking to me, that they’d realize I was so much more than what I’d seemed, that I was the kind of girl who’d let a bossy liar cut her hair during a tornado.
Because, why not?