The summer I was twelve, my parents took my brother and me to Maui. It was the first time we’d been on a plane as a family and the first time my brother and I had been off the continent or traveled to a different time zone (which led to the first time I was allowed to have coffee, which would begin my lifelong love affair with the blessed beverage, but that’s another story). We stayed in a ridiculous hotel right on the ocean. It had stores on the first floor, including an ice cream shop that offered new flavors (cinnamon!) every day. It had three swimming pools, two of which were connected to each other by a giant water slide, and our room had a bathtub big enough, I thought, to qualify as a fourth pool.
We swam our brains out. My brother and I built elaborate sand castles and marveled at being neck-deep in the ocean while still being able to see our feet. We went to the top of a volcano, where I got to pee in an outhouse that was also a home for wasps. My dad tried to take me snorkeling, and I freaked out when I spit on my mask to clear it and saw blood instead of spit, became convinced I would be eaten by a shark, and frantically flippered myself back to dry land. We went to a luau where the performers juggled with fire, and my mom let me gorge myself on virgin piña coladas. And finally, I discovered mankind’s greatest gift to the perpetually pale: Maui Babe Browning Lotion. I also discovered that slathering oneself in said lotion attracts bugs.
But of all these experiences, the one that sticks in my mind is perhaps the least exciting: the family portrait. I don’t know if this service was offered as part of the room fee at the swanky hotel, or perhaps it was my mother’s persistent need to capture any and all family occurrences on film. I don’t remember the photo shoot itself, how long it took, or why the picture my parents selected features my brother looking about as excited as a kid shopping for school uniforms. But what I do remember is getting ready for the photo shoot. I remember my uncooperative hair.
Twelve is a cruel age. You think you’re so much cooler than you are, not yet aware of how stupid all those trends are that you insist on following (glitter, sweater sets, bell bottoms, more glitter–I could go on, but I’ll spare myself). If your tween years were like mine, you were also plagued with acne, as well as acne prescriptions that made your face flare to the hue of an heirloom tomato, and you had already reached your full height, which would turn out to be good as an adult, but at twelve, made you awkward and too big for everything, especially when you insisted on enhancing it with platform shoes. And then, of course, there was the hair.
At twelve, my hair was still long-ish, as I had yet to embark on my years of pixie cuts, gobs of gel, and other ill-conceived coiffure faux paus. But I had discovered hair glitter (yes, more glitter), decorative bobby pins, butterfly clips, and those little flower things that attach to a few strands of hair so as to appear suspended all over your head, making you look like a mermaid, or so you like to believe. Also, I was forever chasing after the dichotomy that is the perfect messy bun. On this particular vacation, the messy bun was my hairstyle du jour. The tresses had to be wet, but not too wet, slicked back into a ponytail, and then wrangled into a curly bun-like concoction. I remember this taking a lot longer than it should’ve. Nevertheless, it was the style I clung to and had more or less perfected, but on the morning of the family portrait, it wasn’t happening.
Maybe I’d tried, and as hair does, the whimsical beast refused to cooperate on such an important day. Or maybe I wanted to do something different, knowing that when one wears one’s hair pulled back in a picture, one risks looking bald or putting too much emphasis on one’s tomato face. I don’t know. All I remember is standing beside my mom at the giant mirror, combing and brushing and grunting in frustration, flinging hair ties and bobby pins and glittery goodies back into the travel bag because nothing was working. And meanwhile, look at the time. Meanwhile, my dad and brother were already in their matching gecko shirts, and what the heck was taking me so long? I stood in the bathroom, my head a damp and hairsprayed mess, felt the tears welling up in my silver-eyeshadowed eyes, and said to my mom, “I wish I could go forward in time, see the picture, and know what I ended up doing with my hair.”
Now, I’ll admit that using time travel to see what hairstyle one settled on for a family portrait is not the most admirable use of such an advance in technology. But in that moment, faced with being shoved out the door in mere seconds and having my undone hair put on film for all eternity, this was my most pressing need. Flash forward to the present day, when I come back to my desk and attempt to work on the novel after a two-week hiatus (and let’s be honest, it wasn’t exactly pouring from my fingers even before that), and yet again, I find myself at a loss. I start thinking about my twelve-year-old self and that portrait and my deep pre-adolescent desire to know how the picture would turn out. I feel that way now about my novel.
I’m tempted to do a lot of things these days: give up, write something else, tell Kandy, once this novel is done, to smack me upside the head with the biggest object she can find if I ever suggest writing another research-based book. But the problem is none of that gets me through the present. None of that will write this novel, no more than throwing a hissy fit, climbing a palm tree, or swimming out into the ocean and letting myself be eaten by sharks was going to fix my hair and get me in that family portrait. And I was going to be in that portrait. There are many things a kid in my family can get out of doing (like eating vegetables), but refusing to be in a picture is not one of them. Trust me. I’ve done the legwork. And just as I was going to be in that portrait, I know I’m going to write this novel. There’s no way around it. It is the camera pointed right at me, hairdo or hair don’t. But what I don’t know is how I’m going to write it.
That picture is in my parents’ house, and probably the houses of several relatives as well, and I am in it, smiling, with neatly brushed hair pinned back at the bangs and flipped out at the ends. How did I arrive at this style? I have no idea. Was I happy with it at the time? I don’t think so. I seem to remember a pall of resignation following me out of the hotel room and into the garden. But my hair was done. I have photographic proof. And here I am, thirteen years later, that future self I imagined now looking back and knowing how the hair saga ended. Perhaps in another thirteen years, I’ll write a blog post remembering this moment in my life, faced with a novel I couldn’t not write but with no idea how to write it. And I will hold that finished book in my hands and not remember how I ended up getting it done, but knowing that I did. Because here it is. I have ink and paper proof.
Not that this does me any good right now, but it’s nice to think about, isn’t it? Incidentally, if anyone has access to a time machine, I’d like to borrow it. I promise not to use it for anything related to hair–unless, for some bizarre reason, my hair is the key that unlocks writer’s block, then all bets are off.