The Fragility of Relationships

Vinegar Head

Monika Stewart

My mother is very crazy and very, very Irish. I would never compare her stubbornness to that of a mule, out of respect for the poor creatures. They have nothing on her. She doesn’t mince words. She’ll just mince your hand into a meat pie if you say or do something out of line. Her way is the only way and if you piss her off, oh man. I’ve developed such a natural reflex to hearing my full name that I can weave through my house, run out the back door and vault over the railing of the deck into our rose bushes in a matter of seconds. Running from angry Irish mothers could be an Olympic sport.

She has the ability to see the things you’re really, deeply insecure about and use them against you. When I was younger, our fights would sometimes end with punches, or her throwing me down the stairs. Now, she’ll just pluck one of my insecurities from my core like a loose thread and say “this right here is why no one will ever love you. You’re a disgrace.”

It’s like a sucker punch to the throat; almost as hard-hitting as her physical violence. It leaves me utterly speechless and unable to defend myself. The insecurities she pulls are always the crucial ones that stitch me together, the ones to make me completely unravel. This act of hers was probably number one on the list of reasons why I have severe trust issues and deeply-rooted emotional trauma. Well, at least at the time, it was. Among everything my mother did, there was one incident that stuck with me longer than the rest. A physical retaliation to my misbehaving that hit as hard as the emotional bombs she drops on me now. I repressed it along with a version of myself, the one who always wore a smile and wasn’t afraid to show the world what kind of a person she wanted to be.

Like any punky, depressed 13-year-old, I was aching to dye my hair. I knew that wasn’t allowed under my mother’s roof, with unnamed threats looming over my head. I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I needed the world to know that purple was my favourite colour by transforming my head into a giant grape. I couldn’t wait. No one else in my school had coloured hair, and I was so sick of the sunshine on my head that fooled everyone into thinking it radiated from within me. I wanted my exterior to match my bruised and weary mind so I could stop explaining my pain to my peers, or carefully painting on smiles that never reached my tired eyes.

I purchased a generic Splat! kit (the only option available for rebels like me in my small, conservative hometown) and walked home with my prize in my arms like a proud mother. This hair dye was a new beginning for me, a chance to know myself better. It was also a hell of a rush. There is something about angering or disappointing my mother that has always thrilled me, even knowing the trouble I’d be causing for myself. I didn’t want to be the person she wanted me to be or thought that I was already. She didn’t know me at all. That was partly my fault. I knew she wouldn’t like what she saw so I shut her out instead.

I took the trail through the woods home, another “fuck you” to my parents. They hated that trail, somehow convinced I’d get murdered walking out there all alone in broad daylight. I found this hilarious. Thirteen gives you a sense of invincibility. Death is only in dreams at thirteen. Nothing but my own thoughts could hurt me. That’s what I always told myself, anyway. It was easier to bury everything deep in denial and walk away.

I arrived home, relieved to see that the only person around was my dog, who cheerfully stepped on my toes in a rush to greet me as I squeezed through the front door. I had opened it only a crack, to be stealthy just in case my family was home. I had decided to do the deed while my mother was out. That way, she would get home and the damage would be done, she couldn’t protest or do anything about my hair. I felt confident that my plan was foolproof, and began to lazily scan the instruction leaflet provided in the cardboard box. Mix one part bleach, two parts developer. Leave on for 45 – blah blah blah. I decided to wing it. I had never dyed my hair before but I figured it couldn’t be that hard. My hair was already a light honey blonde, so I had an advantage. Besides, I was on a tight schedule.

I tore the box open, spilling the contents across my bathroom floor. I found the flimsy mixing bowl, the thin gloves, and what seemed to be the two bleach components and began to mix the concoction. The smell hit me like a nosebleed. Or maybe my nose was bleeding, from the stench of ammonia that assailed my nostrils and made my eyes water. That shit is strong. Blinking away tears, I scooped the slimy mixture into my cupped hands, and slapped it onto my scalp, unaware that the directions advised beginning from the ends of the hair first.

As soon as I started running it through the stringy strands of my hair, I felt a pang of regret. This hurt. I wondered if it was worth it.

Don’t be silly, I told myself. Beauty is pain, and this is going to look badass. I started breathing through my mouth to give my poor nose a break. I swear I could just about taste the bleach in the air, and began to think about the ethical responsibilities of hair product companies. How many toxic chemicals could they use in their products before it became homicidal? It felt like I was being poisoned and burned at the same time. I was glad to be able to rinse my hair when the 45 minutes of skull-numbing pain had passed. I was annoyed when there seemed to be very little change. Yes, my hair was already blonde, but this was supposed to make it platinum so that the colour would be more vibrant. Ironically, though my hair was not quite as pale as I had hoped it would be, my face had turned white as a sheet from the pain of the bleach on my scalp.

Oh well, I thought, pinching my cheeks to bring some colour back to them. There’s no way in hell I’m doing that again. I decided that my hair was light enough to move on to the colour instead. The joy that the toxic bleach had sterilized was reborn, and the pain it caused was soon forgotten. I didn’t know how hair dye worked, so I screwed on the nozzle and began to squirt the dye directly onto my head, occasionally rubbing it into the strands of my hair. The dye was only marginally better than the bleach. It didn’t burn, but it smelled very strongly of old paint with undertones of vomit. Once all the dye was used up, I methodically scanned my head and made sure not a single inch of blonde was visible. I grinned at my ridiculous reflection in the mirror, styling my purple hair into a giant spike that defied gravity. I had purple smears all over my face. The one thing the box doesn’t tell you is that soap and water aren’t enough to get dye off your skin. I didn’t care though: I was too happy. Hell yeah, I can’t believe I really did it. Elated, I sat back and waited for the dye to absorb.

I waited an hour before rinsing out the dye, just to be sure. As I stuck my head under the water, I noticed the bottle of dye sitting on a shelf in my tub. I quickly removed it, only to find a semicircle of purple left behind. I wound my half-rinsed hair into a towel and scrubbed at the stain frantically, but it wouldn’t lift. Oh shit, I gulped. As if the hair wasn’t enough, mum is definitely going to have my head for this. Realizing there was nothing I could do, I unraveled my hair from the now-ruined towel (yikes, that’ll be an arse kicking) and continued to wash out the dye. Just as I turned on the faucet, I heard the front door open. My mom was home early. Godfuckingdamnit, shit. Shit shit fuck shit. What do I do now?

I plunged my head under the water for a moment, hoping the dye was all out by now. I could hear my mum and older sister’s voices below, slowly growing louder as they made their way towards the stairs. I was frozen. She wasn’t supposed to be home yet. All I could do was stand there and try and think of some hasty defence to save my life, or at least reduce my sentence. I felt tears forming, stinging my eyes in anticipation of her wrath. What would she do to me?

I heard footsteps march up the stairs. Deep breaths, I tried to reassure myself. There’s nothing you can do now. I wondered if I should just lock myself in the bathroom and pretend I wasn’t home. Probably too late for that. Maybe I could try and finally execute a successful attempt at running away. How am I going to do that? Jump out the window? The voice in my head sounded much more fearless and confident than I felt. I closed my eyes and waited, the sound of her feet drawn out for an eternity. And then I heard it.

“MONIKA MARIA CHRISTINA STEWART, WHAT IN GOD’S NAME IS ON YOUR HEAD?” I flinched instinctively, knowing her anger cornered me. My mother’s face was twisted with anger, as though she had just bit into a lemon. My older sister peered over her shoulder, stifling giggles. She was all too gleeful not to be the source of our mother’s rage, for once. Shockingly, I was usually the better-behaved daughter. My acts of rebellion until this point had been few and far between, but they always packed a heavy punch. I liked to go big or go home.

Everything my mum said after that is hazy. She was in such a fit of rage; she could barely string together complete sentences. None of her family has an Irish accent until they’re drunk or angry, and she was pissed. All I remember is her storming down the stairs, and returning with a 2-litre jug of vinegar. She spoke quietly to my sister and left abruptly and violently, muttering something about going for a drive, and slamming the door behind her to make damn sure I knew how angry she was with me. My sister moved towards me with the jug of vinegar in hand.

“What are you doing with that?” I asked nervously. “What did she say to you?”

My sister shook her head, still smirking. “You shouldn’t have dyed your hair, dumbass,” she said, tousling my hair affectionately. “Man, it feels crispy. Are you sure you did it right?”

“How would I know? I don’t exactly do this often. Do I look like a hairdresser?” I cried defensively. “I did what the instructions said… if I screwed up then I don’t know what I did wrong.” I was still eyeing the vinegar suspiciously. My sister followed my gaze and explained that we had to try and rinse the dye out.

“With vinegar?” I had been under the impression that the dye was just on there from now on, despite the box stating it was only semi-permanent. Still, I figured it had to be somewhat difficult to get out, especially since the semicircle of purple on my tub stubbornly held its ground.

“I guess so,” she shrugged. “Not sure if it’ll work, but we’ve got plenty of it to find out. Alright, hold your head over the side of the tub and I’ll pour it.” I slowly made my way back to the grey bathtub, my heart sinking. I didn’t want to get rid of it. It looked cool as hell, and I liked it far better than my natural hair. My natural hair reminded me of the parents who didn’t want me, a life I would never know. I wanted to escape those unanswerable questions that had plagued my life, and I wanted to present a strength I wasn’t even sure if I possessed.

“Ow. Fucking OW, damn it!” I yelped as my sister began the vinegar rinse. “Jesus Christ, Ellen, that hurts,” I protested as if it were somehow her fault that vinegar is highly acidic. This was worse than the bleach.

“Sorry,” she muttered, but kept the stream of pungent acid flowing. She was just as scared of our mother as I was. She feared what punishment awaited her if she disobeyed mum’s orders and allowed me to carry out my act of defiance.

Shockingly, the vinegar worked for the most part. My hair ended up with a pink tinge, but some purple patches had survived. My hair was left in that state, as a reminder of my impudence, and because we were out of vinegar. The acid had burned my scalp badly, leaving it raw and bleeding, and highly scabbed. I didn’t dare dye my hair again until several years later. Though the scars on my head healed and faded, I carried the weight of my mum’s anger with me for nearly a decade. Eventually, I gained the courage to try dyeing my hair again, but only after I had been out of my parents’ home for a couple of years. I had been scared into obedience through aggressive tactics. My mother never wanted to hear our side of things, and she wasn’t interested in talking about it: she just wanted results. Particularly results that suited her taste.

When she came home, she looked at me and said quietly,

“You know, it did look kind of cool.”


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Quod Erat Demonstrandum Copyright © 2019 by Monika Stewart is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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