I never told you about the time that I bleached my hair in Italy, did I? No. I haven’t told you about how my scalp burned red for days afterwards, how we used an old toothbrush to get at my roots, how the fumes fried my nostrils for hours. It was years ago now. God, how old was I? We wrapped an old towel around my shoulders with a safety pin and I had to hunch my whole body over the short sink, these portraits of the Virgin Mary and Saint Sebastian above the toilet raising their eyebrows at me in all their haloed glories. (Our host family had somewhere to be that night—I think the wife’s 104-year-old great aunt died, or something equally tragic—and we’d turned our phones off as soon as they left. We’d also spent at least an hour plundering every drawer and closet in the house looking for evidence of long-held family secrets before I confessed that I didn’t like my hair because it felt relevant to mention in the conversation.) Jodie said, “It has to be done in layers,” so she tied my hair into twenty-three buns, some smaller than the bud of a Q-tip and some the size of a baby’s fist. (You remember Jodie, right? I know you’ve met her. She was the one who wouldn’t stop dancing at Marsha’s wedding last spring, which was probably a good thing. Shotgun weddings are never fun, especially for the guests.) I think we both knew that we should be using tinfoil to separate each of the painted layers, but neither of us wanted to go to the drugstore on the corner owned by this old fat Italian man who thought he could speak English, much in the same way that we thought that we could speak Italian. We would have to go down there the next day anyway to get a new, unbleached toothbrush—and some burn ointment. It was better to go after the fact, after my hair was the color of dirty ice like the box promised, so that I wouldn’t back out at the last second like I knew I would. (Stop looking at me like that!) It took Jodie nearly two hours to coat all of my hair (remember, this is before I cut it) and then we sat and drank red wine outside on the terrace that was no bigger than the one you built for that production of Romeo & Juliet that you wanted nothing to do with. I stayed quiet about the science classroom smell that hung around my head and sipped from my glass the way that the woman with the straw hat and leather purse collection living below us did in the early afternoon. I had to tell myself that the crackling I heard behind my ears was the sound of the twelve-year-old boy next door eating Rice Crispy Treats or the man on the dock below us that Jodie had tried to flirt with that morning playing his un-tuned guitar and not my sizzling forehead and neck. The hardest part was not scratching the burn. (She was only 5’2” in heels, but she would have thrown me over the railing if I’d started to regret it then.) I bounced my right foot on the rust-colored tiles and tapped my fingers on the metal arm of my chair like a shitty xylophone while Jodie and I practiced the language: “Sai dov'è il bagno?” “Il cappello costa dieci euro.” The whole time, I couldn’t help but think about how dropping a pebble into the canal below us would be the same thing as rolling a soccer ball into the middle of the street and I wondered how parents were supposed to scold their children when they did this. When the sky finally turned apricot and the bottle was less than half-empty, I laid with my legs stretched out as far I could in the cubicle-sized bathroom with my neck resting on the edge of the porcelain claw foot tub, my nose pointing to the ceiling, which I saw had cartoonish spider web-cracks in the corners with a few spots of gray damp. The water from the faucet only reached lukewarm on the best days, but Jodie washed all the bleach out before I could complain about the slight chill. (I know you keep telling me that hot showers will dry out my skin or whatever, but I just can’t make myself stand around in cold water for twenty minutes. I just don’t feel clean otherwise.) She wouldn’t let me see how much of my hair fell out and silently rinsed it down the drain. She really should have worn gloves though. But when we walked down the streets of Venice—staggering dangerously in our heels as green water reached for our ankles—with my flaking scalp and her blistered hands, we felt more than just American and exactly our age. We were fresh from the cleaners: washed, pressed, and ready to dry on the swaying docks with the rest of the laundry. (I don’t know why she didn’t want me to bleach her hair too, but I was too entranced by my own reflection to even think to ask.)
Sai dov'è il bagno?—Where is the bathroom?
Il cappello costa dieci euro—The hat costs ten euros.
MADISON LAZENBY is a senior at Millbrook High School. There she is the founder of the creative writing club and the Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper, The BlueXpress. She is also a graduate of the UVA Young Writers Workshop and has been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and the Apple Valley Creative Writing Contest. She will be attending her dream school, Hamilton College, next fall. Her goal in life is to receive a Harrison Hug.