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The Slim Lady

by Karen Langley

Please, please, I prayed silently. Don’t let her find the comb.

The comb rested under a thick layer of tiny black hairs covering the beauty shop counter. The hair resembled an ant army capable of lifting the comb and marching it to battle atop my head. All the hairs were inky black, but that didn’t mean they came from the same scalp. Everyone in China has black hair. Everyone except my companions and me. Mine’s blonde. Rusty’s is … rusty. And Joe’s is black, but not smooth, shiny black like Chinese hair. It’s kinky, and his skin is black, too. We made an odd trio sitting in the beauty shop near Beijing Foreign Studies University, where we were spending a semester.

The shop was tucked between a row of stores that lined the block between the university and our favorite restaurant. The garish pink sign hanging over the door stared down at us every day. Blue calligraphy proclaimed the shop’s name: The Slim Lady. The model on the sign had blue eyes and fluffy brown hair. She looked odd, perched up there next to the restaurant’s red sign with bold black Chinese characters. Odd, like us. One evening after dinner, we decided to pay The Slim Lady a visit.

Our entrance grabbed the full attention of the staff. We greeted them in Chinese, which pretty much exhausted our Mandarin vocab skills. So we used hand gestures to indicate we didn’t want our hair cut—just washed. None of us felt that brave yet. A young woman took our coats, and three other women led us across the hair-speckled floor into a small room with sinks. The only male employee, apparently the boss, leaned back in his chair, propped his feet on the counter and lit a cigarette. He wore bright purple snakeskin pants and cat-eye glasses, and his hair was spiked in every direction. I wondered if my friends and I would leave with similar hairstyles.

One of the women washed my hair with a whitish goop I assumed was some special Chinese shampoo. After a thorough rinse she wound a thin towel, the color of aged copper, around my head and led me to a chair in the main room. Except for a middle-aged Chinese lady quietly reading while her hair soaked in pinkish foam, the three of us green-turbaned Americans were the only customers. She glanced at us, poked her hair, and went back to her book.

Next came two lessons in Chinese cosmetology I will never forget. One, a hair wash appointment at The Slim Lady comes as a package deal, complete with a full upper body massage. Two, those petite Chinese hands possess a lot of power. The woman dug fiercely into my shoulders and neck. She rubbed vigorously down and up both arms all the way to the fingertips, leaving my arms tingling and deadweight. Aaaahhh. I closed my eyes and relaxed. Coming to this place was an excellent idea. Suddenly the woman whipped off my turban and plunged her fingers into my scalp. The massage techniques that soothed my neck and shoulders didn’t feel quite so great on my head—the enthusiastic thumping, for example.

When the thumping continued in the same spot for several minutes I thought maybe the woman was angry with me for rejecting a haircut. But on the rebound of one particularly hearty thump, my head jerked upward. I caught a glimpse of her in the smudged mirror and saw she was engrossed in what appeared to be a Chinese soap opera playing on the fuzzy TV mounted on the ceiling. I shifted and coughed, hoping to stop potential bruising and the rat’s nest growing in my hair. She snapped out of her daze and finished the massage with a few more lively pats to my head. I sat up, relieved it was over. My neck and shoulders were loose and relaxed, but my cranium felt like it had gone through the spin cycle in a washing machine. I glanced to my right and saw that Rusty and Joe were receiving vigorous head massages, too. Then I spotted the comb.

The color of coffee-stained teeth, it lay on the counter beneath a shroud of little black hairs. As the woman behind me flipped and tossed my damp hair around my shoulders, I had a terrible realization. She’s going to comb my hair! Then began my silent plea. To whom or what, I wasn’t sure. To the comb—to bury itself under the blanket of hair; to my masseuse-turned-stylist—to be satisfied with a brief finger-combing job; to the wind—to send a gust strong enough to blow open the door and knock the comb on the floor and out of sight (and snuff out Boss’ cigarette, which had begun to turn the air in the tiny room bitter and hazy). But whomever or whatever didn’t hear my pleas, or chose to ignore them, for I watched in horror as a slender arm reached from behind me and picked up the comb.

The woman wiped off the comb with a small towel that had also been lying on the hair-ridden counter. And then she began a battle with the tangled mess attached to my scalp. I closed my eyes and prayed for her to surrender. Those knots were impossible. Impenetrable. They were same kind of knots I had when I was six and embedded a wad of strawberry bubble gum in my pigtail. Then my mom used peanut butter to get the gum out. I doubted peanut butter would have done much good this time—unless I could’ve thrown the jar at Boss and knocked the cigarette out of his fingers. But this hairstylist wasn’t about to let an American’s hair get the best of her. She combed and pulled and tugged and ripped. The guys’ massages ended, and I caught Rusty’s eye in the mirror. He winced. She kept combing. Finally, it was over. I breathed for the first time since the Head Wars had begun.

But then Boss stubbed out his cigarette and exchanged it for a blow dryer. Apparently he’d allowed the women to do all the work until now in order to conserve his energy for this final step in the production. He flipped and twisted my hair dramatically as he dried it. When he finally finished, he gave my hair a few more run-throughs with the dreaded comb and fluffed it with a flourish.

We each paid our 10 yuan ($1.25) and stepped outside. The Slim Lady sign cast a pink glow on our faces. I took a deep breath and let the crisp November air clean the secondhand smoke from my lungs. I put my head down and shook out my hair. As we walked back to our school we discussed our first Slim Lady experience. We agreed the massages were well worth the price. (The only way I afford a quality massage in the States is with a gift certificate.) As for the grooming … I said I’d pay quadruple to skip it next time. I headed straight for the shower when we arrived at our dorm and scrubbed until I felt sure every single hair that didn’t grow on my own head had been sent swirling down the drain.

During my semester in Beijing I returned to The Slim Lady several times. But each visit, after the green turban came off, I’d say “bu yao” (“I don’t want it”), smile sweetly, and slip out of my chair before the combing could begin. I never got brave enough for an actual haircut, and I always re-washed my hair after each visit. But something about The Slim Lady drew me back. Maybe it was the pink sign. Maybe it was Boss’s snakeskin pants (which he faithfully wore every time I went). Maybe it was the excellent massage. One thing I know it wasn’t. It wasn’t the comb.