The Real Legend of the Fall

A Hair-Raising, Coming-of-Age Story

Everybody agrees there's never an easy time for anyone to be fifteen, but for me, turning fifteen in 1969 seemed an especially unfortunate pile of rotten luck, occurring as it did right when I looked my absolute worst. I was awkward and gangly, with horsetail-straight hair, a mouthful of braces, gnawed-to-the-quick fingernails, crusty heels, and Golda Meir's eyebrows (that, believe me, looked much lovelier on Golda than they did on me.)

So anyway, one weekend my friend Stephanie and I were spending the weekend with our other friend Teresa, and on Friday afternoon her mom informed us that Teresa's brother Ted and his two college friends, would be joining us for dinner that night at the local Mexican food restaurant.

Teresa responded to the news with a ho-hum attitude befitting any girl faced with the prospect of spending an evening with her annoying older brother. But not Stephanie. No sooner were the words issued than she had disappeared into the bathroom to begin the afternoon-long ritual of "getting ready.” She bathed, she shaved, she shampooed, she conditioned, she lotioned, she plucked, she filed and polished her nails, and she set her fall in hot rollers. For those of you who are unfamiliar with that term, a fall was a fake hairpiece. These days you would probably call it a "hair extension” but back then, for some reason it was known as a "fall”, presumably because it really did "fall” luxuriously around the shoulders of the wearer, or at least that was the claim on the top of the cellophane package it came in.

As Teresa and I passed the afternoon hours happily playing Slap Jack, the Styrofoam head in its luxurious fall-in-hot-rollers looked on, and I never gave Stephanie or the dinner plans another thought. That is, until twenty-three minutes before time to leave – when she emerged from the bathroom looking like Cheryl Teiggs ready for her close up.

I would have been okay, of course, had I not made the unfortunate mistake of glancing in the mirror at myself. My heightened state of panic at the dismal sight of my own reflection must have been obvious, for in an instant Stephanie and Teresa flew into action with the precision and focused determination of a well-rehearsed bank heist. Teresa handed me a razor and shoved me into a hot shower while Stephanie hastily pulled together a suitable outfit from the twenty-seven she had brought with her for the weekend. They applied my makeup and got me dressed faster than a Radio City Rockette backstage during a scene change. And then we stood there, the three of us, facing the mirror, sizing up the result. I showed marked improvement, yes, but something…just…wasn't…quite…right. My hair. That aggravatingly straight, chin-length hair and those gosh-awful Edith Head bangs. Why me? Why now?

Stephanie sensed something in my demeanor, perhaps it was the heavy sigh and my slumped shoulders, or maybe it was the way my lower lip was beginning to quiver, that told her drastic measures were called for. Without hesitating another second, she reached up and sacrificially unpinned the fall from the top of her own head and securely fastened it to the top of mine! Her own hair was hastily swept into a sleek, annoyingly elegant chignon. Then she clipped a yarn bow to the top of my bangs to hide the "seam” and deftly hid stubborn wisps of my light brown tresses out of sight behind my ears with bobby pins. I turned and faced the mirror again, and was breathless at the sight.

Yes my shiny straight bangs were a full three shades lighter than the long luxurious strands of dark wavy hair that now framed my own familiar little face, but there was no time to worry about an insignificant little detail like that. A horn honked. Teresa's parents were ready to leave. We grabbed our purses and dashed out the door. On my way out I practiced one of those beguiling head tosses that girls have used on men for centuries, and the effect on my being was profound. Tonight there was magic in the air. I could just feel it!

All the way to the restaurant I reveled in the feel of long hair sweeping my bare shoulders, and by the time we reached our table I had even begun to envision some of the modeling contracts sure to await me, now that I was so stunningly gorgeous. The boys arrived ahead of us (and you wouldn't believe how gorgeous they were!) They had already polished off a couple of baskets of chips with hot sauce, but were polite enough to stand as we took our places opposite them.

One of the boys in particular, it seemed, was being especially attentive to me and I responded by tossing my head with as much "beguile” as I could manage, and demurely twirling the end of a curl around my finger the way Scarlett might do as she flirted with Ashley Wilkes out on a veranda. As the meal progressed I became more at ease with my new tresses, to the point where each time by one of the boys made a witty remark I would throw my head back with what I hoped would later be described as "a wonderful, rich throaty laugh”.

Somewhere about midway between the guacamole and the enchiladas, during one such "wonderful, rich throaty laugh” it seemed to me that the rigid comb securing the fall to the top of my head was riding a little further back than where it started. I didn't think much of it until the next witty remark. This time, rather than throwing my head back, I sort of tilted it to the side as I exclaimed, "Oh Rick! You really spent the whole summer on the Appalachian Trail? I can't believe it!”

When I straightened my head again he was looking at me rather queerly. At first I thought he was just studying my face, you know, the way men do in novels just before they sweep a girl into their arms and tell her they've never met anyone quite like her before. But in one awful instant I realized it was not the dawning of intense romantic fascination that caused him to stare. It was the inescapable fact that the fall was slowly sliding backward and down the right side of my head. I reached up casually, as if to sort of scratch a dainty little itch, and sure enough, the yarn bow sat naked and alone, miles from the nearest hairpiece. Said hairpiece, meanwhile, had come to rest just above my right ear, its comb clinging precariously to the tip of a bobby pin, leaving the entire top and left side of my head adorned only by my own hair which, if you'll recall, was about three shades lighter and approximately nine inches shorter than the fake hair.

I looked around frantically, hoping nobody but me and poor unfortunate Rick were aware of this bizarre change in my appearance, only to find the eyes of everyone at the table, the restaurant, the state of Texas, and the entire northern hemisphere fixated on the top of my noggin. Without further hesitation or explanation (oh sure, I could have announced rather coolly and calmly, "If you'll excuse me I have to go powder my nose and correct the alignment of my scalp” but who would buy it?) I arose from the table and beat a hasty retreat toward the restroom door marked "Senioritas.”

One glance in the mirror confirmed my absolute worst nightmare. It looked like a Rhesus monkey was rappelling down the side of my head. There was no point in trying to put things back the way they were. For one thing, I didn't have the slightest clue how to go about it. Besides, the damage had already been done. Rick would never look at me the same way again (or at all, if he could help it.) So I dislodged the errant fall from the side of my head, rolled it up neatly, smoothed out my own flat, sweaty hair as best I could with my shaking clammy fingers, and returned to the table carrying what, to a casual observer might appear to be an enormous fur-covered burrito tucked under my arm.

I spent the remainder of that painful meal with the fall under a napkin on my lap. Abandoning all illusions of hope that the boys might not notice the abrupt and drastic change in my appearance – and not, might I add, for the better – I chose, in the words of Martha Stewart, "to concentrate on my salad instead”.

I did not end up marrying Rick. Come to think of it, he and I never even made eye contact again. As far as I was concerned, the evening (not to mention my entire life) was hopelessly ruined. Oh sure, the moment Teresa, Stephanie and I were safely back home, the walls of her bedroom reverberated with our hysterical laughter, and I tried to take comfort in the fact that I'd probably never see any of those boys again. Still, the incident was horribly humiliating, and I haven't quite gotten over the painful ordeal yet.

In fact, I can't believe I even told you this story.

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