Here we are, my husband, daughter and I, sitting in beauty parlor chairs, our heads slathered in fluffy blobs of hair conditioner mixed with baking soda while a stalwart woman unflinchingly scrapes our scalps with tiny combs. After eight hours of this, we’re getting hungry, and begin looking through a stack of delivery menus. We’re thinking Mexican or Thai.
We call this the Lice Place, and we have come here because a gang of the tiny insects was found on the head of a child in my daughter’s second-grade class. A respectable head disinfecting establishment, the Lice Place is nonetheless understandably hidden behind a storefront cheerfully disguised with a flowery-decal-laden door. Lice are notoriously hard to spot and even harder to remove, so we are here, rather than home, for an expert examination — and really because I am insect phobic. It’s true that a fear of something most people find disgusting invites very little sympathy or understanding — unlike say a fear of the color yellow, bookcases or cheese — but I understand the severity of my own issue perfectly. So I outsourced the solution.
Our diagnosis: mother and child both had those little critters in their hair. Apparently they had been merrily mating and giving birth on our heads as we bobbed around town focused on our thoughts and not the community taking shape above them.
All this makes me think of Jane Goodall. She was a heroine of every schoolgirl I know from my generation — a passionate scientist who followed her heart to study primates in the jungle, and the star of several grainy science films of my youth. I remember my friends and I watching these films, our mouths open, smug teenagers begrudgingly awed, as she hid behind a tree or a rock, whispered provocatively off-camera, and in turn watched her beloved chimpanzees picking at each other’s fur, looking for tiny insects and then eating them. These were beautiful scenes of calm companionship, the image of communal living at its best.
So why didn’t this feel as lovely?
Another family comes into the Lice Place. The father looks at us, looks away, then looks at us again with an expression of embarrassed, grossed-out friendship. We strike up a conversation. We learn that his daughters go to a fancy girls’ prep school and I can’t help feeling pretty great about this. Clearly this is not a scourge of low lives. In fact, it is a point oft-mentioned, lice are especially drawn to clean hair. We cling to this fact as stickily as those lousy eggs cling to our locks. We talk about soccer and how to suffocate a nit, while his girls read Shakespeare.
As I sit in my beauty chair, I consider an article I read recently in The Times. The headline asked: Should Americans Fear Their Furniture? What followed was an interview with documentarians who had just finished a film on all the toxic chemicals contained in pretty much every piece of upholstered furniture made since 1975.
I suppose this should not be shocking to me. All the old familiar comforts of American life have been found to be deadly. Apples bathed in pesticides. Chickens fed a steady diet of chemicals. Wheaties and Cheerios laden with G.M.O.s. A mother and daughter leaning their heads together over “Charlotte’s Web” may have always imparted a faint stirring of agita. But now that copy of “Charlotte’s Web”? The one from the library? It could totally have bedbugs.
My daughter suffers the indignities of head lice removal with a stoic silence. My husband and I suffer the indignities of the bill a little less bravely. It turns out that the cost of eight hours of vigilant attention to every strand on an entire family’s collective head could get you a studio apartment in Williamsburg for about two weeks.
We ditch the delivery menus and decide to go out to dinner instead, maybe get a little air. The Lice Place had not covered us in the cloaks that are a staple at a normal hair salon (I think we were all too chastened to ask), so we walk stiffly down the street, covered in the blotches and splotches left by those soft clouds of hair cream and baking soda that flew around us like we were in some really unappealing snow globe.
We knew it was a short break because there was much more work to do. The bagging of pillows. The dry cleaning of duvet covers. More time and money to spend on getting back to normal. Not to mention the moral duty to tell your child’s close friends’ mothers that they are at risk.
And ah, the dilemma — with whom can I laugh about this? The friends who get to find out are in the small, precious category of close enough to get it, nice enough not to judge, sturdy enough not to feel threatened. Those to whom I don’t need to mention that lice are especially drawn to clean hair.
We sit quietly at the restaurant, reminded that no matter how well ordered our lives, havoc can break loose. No matter how much we think we are embracing the natural world (munching on organic kale, suffering under unflattering environmentally friendly light bulbs), that world can turn against us. No matter how good the school, how well read the parents, things can get primal. And no matter how sweet the tendril of hair gently curled on your daughter’s neck on a warm spring day, the fact remains — that tendril can turn quickly icky.
It is only lice. So blessedly minor. But it all highlights nonetheless the randomness of misfortune, the fragility of life, how nature can still turn overly intellectualizing and technologically shielded humans into vulnerable, helpless creatures. It reminds me of death.
It reminds me to feel joyous while I can.