Sheila cut her hair. All of the chemically-treated, bright blonde locks fell to the floor of the perfect and clean bathroom (her handiwork, the cleanliness), straw-dry and scattering everywhere. She must have looked at the floor with a certain mourning, some kind of abstracted and wholly inappropriate feeling that someone would have to clean that up eventually, all of the sticks of tired and limp hair flying in total chaos on the nice stone tile.
The haircut was not a good one: there were large swaths of hair missing from awkward places, and it gave her a disheveled appearance. Had any of us seen it, we might have laughed—this woman, who always took pains to be perfect and feminine and just somehow arranged had taken up a pair of scissors—not even barber’s shears—and started snipping. But she must have been satisfied with the result, and I imagine she nodded silently to herself, here, because she stepped away from the big three-panel mirror, grabbed the cloudy orange bottle from its place on the nightstand and drove. That was Christmas Eve’s Eve.
(We are the children of a failed marriage, and because Christmas is a big holiday, neither parent ever tried to claim us absolutely for it. Dad always works on Christmas and so Christmas Eve, the 24th of December, is our Christmas morning with him—later in that day we go to Mom’s house and celebrate the holiday with the rest of the world there.)
We were supposed to be having a party, shortly thereafter, with one of her six siblings and his wife driving down from Washington state to our house in California. But honestly, by the time Sheila cut her hair—and we didn’t even know she’d cut her hair until later—we were doubting that it would happen at all. It was really partially my fault somehow, because I’d decided to sleep in, in the way a sixteen-year-old sometimes does on a holiday. Ken—Ken is my brother, eighteen months older than I am—called her that morning, since it had already been agreed that we’d help Sheila set up for the party. He wanted to know when we should be coming over.
Sheila probably replied in an overly cheery voice she liked to use to affect collectedness when she was actually feeling a little bit hectic: “You two can come over now. We need to cook and clean some things and Don and Sherrie will be over in a few hours.”
And Ken, in the curt manner of an awkward 17-year-old: “Okay, but if she isn’t ready in fifteen minutes I’m coming over and I won’t go back to get her. It would be a waste of gas and time.” (“She,” here, is me.)
Sheila, snapping: “Why would you say that?”
Ken (taken aback): “Well, it isn’t my fault she insists on sleeping in until noon when we’re supposed to be helping.”
Sheila (clearly agitated): “Fine then! Neither of you has to come at all! I don’t really care and I don’t need your help!” She slammed the phone down.
Because this was an inappropriate and even disturbing response to normal sibling banter, Ken called our father (that is, Sheila’s husband) and asked him what to do. He laughed, said don’t worry about it; she’ll be fine. Just go over there and see if she needs anything. Don called and said he might not be coming after all, so Sheila’s probably just upset about that.
And so Ken took his beat up green Saturn and drove it the fifteen minutes (via country roads—(for whatever reason, Ken and I never drove through the main streets) to Dad’s house.
Driving from Mom’s house to Dad’s house (or vise versa) is kind of like slowly changing the skin of the world. I wouldn’t say it’s like peeling a layer back and seeing something new. Not at all, though there is that strange sense of emergence in the act: you drive over highway 99, past the sparse grouping of businesses that somehow popped up next to the freeway (and they swap hands every few months, too, because Salida is a small town and we are mostly low-income, so businesses go stale once the novelty wears off), into a bunch of orchards that stretch for miles and miles, all the way until the newness of the foothills that flank the Sierra Nevadas. Somewhere in the tangle of almond trees that bloom lacy pink in the spring, there’s a street called Carver, and it too stretches off to the left, into orchards and orchards and orchards and suddenly it dead ends into grazing fields for cattle and sheep and horses and—well.
If you turn right, you end up on a curvy stretch of road that eventually bears the deep gash of an alfalfa field to you, just a bright yellow line in the midst of all of those endless trees and, here and there, the pulsating vein of a canal (really low and dry in the winter, overflowing and green and dangerous in the summer). Then you get a housing development, gated and so odd, though the city lined the sidewalks in front of that big tan wall with trees.
More fields. Then another dot of a housing development until finally, before you notice, all that’s left of the fields are some of the scrubby weeds that tend to like the tough roots of trees and a single lonely canal, running through soil gone so long without being turned, by root or by plow, that it’s dry, packed, and colorless. It’s a moment that reminds you that we’re living in a lush, irrigated desert, and it’s so kindly put beside those tall walls that dwarf it and are really the same pale color. That is, it becomes insignificant, because look at how nice these houses are, and don’t these walls make you feel secure?
I imagine Ken drove through this, as usual not paying mind to much of it—he just doesn’t really think like that, like trees can be poetry and canals can run thick with symbolism. He was probably playing loud music, rapping his knuckles hard on the cold black plastic steering wheel to the beat and feeling completely bored. That’s how he is. So he arrived at Dad’s house without real incident, without having made his mind really move or feel, which is unfortunate because that means that he approached it just like any other approach to Dad’s house.
The door was locked, but he had a key. He unlocked it and the house was silent.
—I think I woke up around this time.
Anyways, Ken walked around for a while, probably said “hi” to the dog that we both hate (but it isn’t in Ken’s nature to deny a yapping, excited creature a pat on the head), and found that the first floor was absolutely empty. So he made his way up the stairs, finding the flimsy but ostentatious double-doors to the master bedroom shut (unusual) and locked (even more so). He knocked, unsure of what to make of this—hesitant person, my brother—and there was only silence from the other side. After sitting in the hallway for about five, maybe ten minutes, running god knows what hypotheses through his head, he called our father, wanting to know what to do, and Dad just told him to go home, go home, Sheila’s probably just moody. Come back in a little bit, when maybe she’d cooled off.
Okay, Dad. And Ken drove home. I was in the front room with Mom, who’d filled me in on the events so far. (What she left out was that Sheila had cut her hair by then, but how could Mom have known that?) Ken walked in the front door, his keys in his hands making their sound and told us, a half-smile on his face lingering a beat too long, what had happened. I expressed concern and continued to get ready for the day, asking Ken whether I could take a shower before going over. He nodded, added the requisite “make it quick” of an older sibling, and off I bounded down the hallway.
Ken has always been sweet, if a bit odd, so I wasn’t particularly surprised that he’d gotten nervous about this whole situation and gone back to Dad’s to try to apologize to Sheila by the time I was out of the shower. Mom and I waited nervously. We hadn’t been in the house, but we seemed to know that something had wrapped itself around it, a dense curtain of anxiety. Maybe Ken had walked in it and tracked it into Mom’s house, too, but whatever the reason we were worried over a woman neither of us had known or really liked.
Sheila was a bit of a break in my father’s modus operandi. Mom was the first, fresh out of college, and they worked at it for fourteen years, having Ken and I along the way, before it fell apart completely. After that, in relatively quick succession, were Jamie and Julie, his live-in fiancees with whom he had very long engagements and which ultimately ended in dysfunction for all of us. Then, suddenly, Sheila, who was brought up in an incredibly traditional Catholic household and would have none of that cohabitation before marriage nonsense. It just wouldn’t be right, in the eyes of God, and Dad was sorry, truly sorry that he’d ever done so before, if she could be so graceful as to forgive him.
She was, and he even got his marriage to our mother formally annulled so that, on December 10th, a day when the air in California was just starting to turn brisk for the winter, they could get married in a small Catholic church in our city. It was on the day of my eighth grade formal. Out of thrift or convenience or apathy, I wore the same long golden dress to both occasions. Apathy must be close to the truth: for reasons of youth that I admittedly can’t remember for the life of me, I despised this woman. She had all the world’s kindness in her heart and I thought it was strange.
Whatever the reason, I attended the wedding and congratulated a couple that didn’t move me at all because of some retained sense of daughterly duty towards my father. I’d fallen out of step with him, at this point, and wanted nothing to do with his relationships any more. Sheila was no exception. I had, however, gone with her to get a beautiful new dress, which Dad bought for her after she begged for it—her old wedding dress was the remnant of an ultimately painful relationship, after all, and she wanted to start fresh. I went with her because even in my youth I understood that sentiment. Or at least I liked it. I remember the way her light blonde curls fell perfectly, unpretentiously, around the white shoulders of a dignified and unfashionable wedding gown that she’d loved immediately.
In any case, Ken was back from Dad’s for a second time, now, and Mom and I perked up as he came in, hungry for news of Sheila’s bizarre behavior. The frown on his face brought more of that anxiety into the house, and it stuck at the corners of our eyes awkwardly as a phantom. “She—well. Sheila locked the door again.”
The two of us, a chorus in the drama, not directly in the events: “Yes? Yes? And what else did she do?”
Ken: “Well, I unlocked it, and there...there was a vacuum cleaner, in front of the door, and it was placed just so that I couldn’t turn the handle.”
The women: “What did you do?”
Ken: “I moved the handle around long enough and the door finally opened.”
The women: “And?”
Ken: “When I got inside everything was unplugged: the TVs, the game consoles, the computers. Everything. And the master bedroom was closed off, still, but not locked. I knocked and there was still no answer. The dog was still in the house, the master bedroom was empty. The lights were all off. The Benz was gone.”
(Sheila had a golden Mercedes-Benz.)
The chorus fell silent as Mom and I contemplated what this could mean. I hate to think it, but we may have chuckled a little, wondering about the sudden drama of this strange woman who was always a little bit too cheery and perfect.
But “perfect” is a dangerous description for a person: once, before, I’d heard her scream—heard her say “fuck” and had been totally shocked by it. She’d made a snide remark about my atheism, and I’d told her to please not do that. I was indignant (a rarity, I admit). As soon as I started telling her I was uncomfortable with being endlessly told that Jesus was my lord and savior and that He still loved me despite my heresy, it was all over for Sheila and me. She screamed that word at me, a fourteen-year-old girl then; “fuck you.” I think that maybe now she was saying it again, just screaming “fuck you” to everything, everything, to all of the TVs (including Dad’s prized new 42-inch flat screen in the living room, which she would have had to move by herself to unplug), to all of the computers (five in a household of three people plus me, one errant and occasional daughter; Dad called them “the work computer” or “the game computer” or “the hall computer”). And then she’d hopped into the Benz without her hair and without her pomeranian and without her perfection and driven away, somewhere, on our version of Christmas Eve.
Ken and I went over to Dad’s around 6:30, when he gets off work, and sat with the pomeranian in a house that only hours before was set to have been filled with the warm sounds of a small holiday gathering. There was something about the way we decided wordlessly not to plug anything back in, or turn any lights on, that seemed like preservation. It was about a half an hour before Dad came in, turned the lights on and plugged the 42-inch back in without concern. Ken and I flocked around him, hanging back with a softness in our steps, nervous to declare our inner thoughts to this man who had somehow given life to two sheep.
One of us—could’ve been either of us, really—eventually said, “Dad, where’s Sheila?”
Then: “Dad, what are we going to do?”
And: “Dad, we should look for her.”
With a finality that was made powerful only because of how disturbingly casual it was, our father replied, “She’ll be fine. She’s just blowing off steam. Maybe she went to find her brother and his wife. Maybe she’s with Carol. Let’s go get some dinner.”
Ken and I looked at each other, telepathically breaking the silence: “But what about Sheila?” We were worried; our father, her husband, was not. We ate our dinner in utter silence, broken only every now and then by an insincere inquiry about school. We got back around 9:00, and the garage was still deprived of the Benz, the house of Sheila’s gracefully affected smile. The concerned parties in the room glanced again at each other; Dad switched the TV on.
I admit, I was not as sensitive to Sheila’s general mood as was Ken. After one too many arguments over whether Jesus loved me despite the fact that I was a heathen (or a sinner, or the devil’s pawn), and one too many times of Dad nodding solemnly at her voiced fear for my immortal soul, I moved out. Ken stayed behind, the sole diplomatic link between the households that had once combined to create us. He saw, as a result, everything I saw, magnified by thousands, if you can imagine: Dad convincing Sheila to move her practice as a nutritionist to the home so that she could be a better housewife; Dad knowing the practice wasn’t going well but keeping her home anyways; Sheila telling me delicately that the practice wasn’t going well but that she enjoyed staying home to serve our father because that was God’s Plan for her, and she always said it like that, capitalized—“God’s Plan”; Sheila slowly not seeing any of her friends anymore because they’d mostly been through work anyways and she was lucky, so lucky to have our father; Sheila, the woman who’d run the Iron Man three times, three, in her life having back surgery that crippled her once and for all; Sheila being stuck inside, bedridden, unable to carry on any practice at all without severe pain; Sheila, no longer talking about God, no longer trying to convince me that Jesus would always love me; Dad coming home late from workaholic-length workdays and then immediately going to the garage, working on some project in his wood shop; Dad leaving this woman whose God-given duty it was to serve him alone, totally alone, and what could Ken and I do but feel uneasy whenever she smiled?
Having seen this (and Ken having seen it a thousandfold), and given the uneasiness of the evening of the 23rd, I was completely unsurprised that Dad came to our door on Christmas morning (the actual morning, on the 25th), early enough that the three of us hadn’t started opening the small spread of presents under the tree even yet. He came inside to tell us what we’d already intuited, knelt down awkwardly by the couch on which I sat because the rest was cluttered with blankets, and started to speak, collected. Once he’d told us, calmly, that they’d found her in the house she’d lived in before Dad had ruined her life (of course he didn’t put it that way), bottle of pills empty or getting there beside her, dead in the bed she’d lain in alone (alone but at least alive) so many times before, he burst out crying. I don’t even remember what he cried about, what he said, but for effect (and I say this cynically, I know) he huddled himself, all six feet four inches of himself, up to my awkward leg.
It’s important to note I’d never seen my father being emotional before, in the crying direction or otherwise. Because I was sixteen, on that peculiar cusp of life where everything might be perfect still, all of the screaming matches I’d ever had with my father evaporated, magically as had Sheila’s presence. It didn’t matter. He was crying, damn, my father was crying on my leg, on my shaking and unaccustomed leg, and I thought maybe this would be the point when he’d realize that he could hurt other people, too. He hurt Sheila, pretty, perfect Sheila who’d done nothing but want to be his wife and make him happy and go on loving God forever and ever till death do us part, right? Sheila and her pretty blonde hair, all cut up on the floor and everywhere, mostly in fragments because she’d cut it dry but every now and then, a perfect golden curl of hair, mixed up with the expensive makeup she’d pushed all over the stone tiles in unimaginable frenzy and desperation—Sheila was gone, gone, her hair shorn in one last forbidden and powerful cry of “fuck,” but fuck what? Well, fuck you, because you took everything but my goddamn literal-as-can-be life, my blood pounding in my veins air in my lungs tongue lapping up water and nourishment but not tasting hair growing nails growing feet barely walking but oh, oh you have everything else because I gave it to you. And you took it from me and you never gave it back but told me maybe maybe maybe and held it from me and I jumped after it and I jumped for you and I am always yours and always always yours and Jesus is my lord and savior and he will love me forever but not if I take the life he gave me, take it and hold it so that you can’t fucking have it and take it for my own, take my own life because it’s mine and it’s the last thing you can never have, so here’s some fucking hair.
In keeping with some tradition or other, there was a viewing shortly thereafter. I recall this distinctly as one of the most surreal experiences of my life—a bunch of friends and family, and then Dad and Ken and me, sitting in a room that was just long enough to hint at awkwardness (say, doesn’t this room feel off somehow?). There were nice couches, floral patterns, and generic oil paintings of flowers on the walls. Snacks on the table, a low little coffee table, and of course there was actual coffee to go on it if you wanted. This was all bunched up at one end of the room. Polarized, Sheila. Her body, in a long casket, opened up so that we could see her, hands folded over her still chest and eyes closed. She looked like she’d just taken a nap, like she couldn’t bear the room and had to lie down for a while. The most stunning thing was the ability of every single goddamned person in the room, myself included, to totally and completely ignore the fact that she was there, even as we swapped stories about her life, how she’d touched all of us. Dad cried again, and that’s when I noticed that the room, for its normal appearance, was remarkably well-stocked with tissue boxes.
We all left the badly-sized room, after a while, and all of us went and lined up outside while we went in one-by-one to speak with her corpse in private. Strange practice, terrifying practice. Everyone in front of me was given a monologue, in my mind, some last words they might share with unhearing ears; possibly, this was out of nervousness but I think that maybe I didn’t know what to say to a dead woman, especially one I’d never been close to when she was actually able to hear me out. I gave them all a confession, all a story to tell, until suddenly there was only one recipient left for my distractions before it was my turn. And after all, what would I say? I went into the room in the dress shirt she always complimented, the black one. It took me a long, long time, breathing in aching pulls, to turn around so that I could actually see the body. When I did, I noticed several things, each exceedingly disorienting: the splotchy way the makeup was applied to a woman who’d taught me to use mascara; that the makeup was applied TO her, TO her corpse, rather than by her hands; that her hands were—oh, god, oh god—just resting there folded, and what if they succumbed to gravity while I was there and moved and then her head fell to the side and her eyes opened and I had to hunch over, then, hunch over and fight off tears and nausea simultaneously because oh God oh Jesus oh God she still had perfect, beautiful, golden curls of hair that fell around her shoulders.
The funeral that followed was relatively unremarkable, except for the fact that I met my paternal grandfather for the first time (I’d been handing out the service guides, and gave one to him. He, a small, frail-looking native of the Açores, asked me with his accent, “Who are you, dear?” to which I replied, “I’m Joe’s daughter—Sheila’s stepdaughter.” One of the most shocking things that’s ever been said to me: “Oh! Hello. I’m Joe’s father”), and that I learned Sheila’s death had been declared an accidental overdose. She was Roman Catholic, so suicide is a mortal sin. I understand that. I understand that they were superficially fretting over how people might perceive the passage of her immortal soul. But then Dad talked about it, talked about how stressed she’d been, so of course she had accidentally taken too many; and he said it with a coolness in his voice that I’ve picked up from him for use in situations where I need to lie.
Two months after her death, February, my brother was at Dad’s house, waiting, unexpected, to talk with him when Dad walked in with a woman. He didn’t see Ken right away, and so he comfortably kissed her—deeply, on the mouth, the way that insists “we’ve done this a few times before”—and Ken just never recovered, my poor brother. He took Dad’s share of the hurt and pain at the death of this woman (whom he didn’t particularly like and Dad was supposed to love, love forever) and drove himself mad with the guilt of having been the last person to speak to her in her life. I can’t imagine that, that burden of being the last person to witness the last bit of a life taken from itself, the only thing she could steal back from our ungrateful father. And because that hair was never on the bathroom floor at all, because she hadn’t fluffed it in satisfaction of its crudeness and smiled at herself in the mirror and scuffed her heels on the floor through piles of gold before driving off to end her own life, Dad could seal it in forever. He took her life with that kiss, even though she’d taken such pains to steal it back from the world—he’d taken the memory of it, the symbolic gesture of it (think, a Roman Catholic woman who said things like “It’s God’s Plan that I serve your father, honey” and “You have wonderful child-bearing hips” in total stony seriousness, ending her own life), and neutered it, killed her all over again. Because yes, the woman who’d worked in medicine for two decades and then married a pharmacist accidentally overdosed on some pills for her useless back in the house she’d lived in before my monster of a father took all semblance of living away from her, curled up in sheets that were hers and hers alone and crying on Christmas Eve’s Eve, the (almost) birthday of Jesus her lord and savior, a day on which she’d been acting erratically anyhow, a fact which Dad had tellingly shrugged off, his last gesture of total indifference towards the woman he’d married. Yes. Absolutely. Of course.
Ken and I had a baby half-brother the following January, and that woman Dad had kissed in spite, it seemed to us, of Sheila’s memory had become our new stepmother in June (six months after Sheila’s failed, final scream). That Christmas, the new woman—spectacularly pregnant, as you might imagine, on the very day Sheila had decided to end her own life a year prior—uneasily asked our father if we might replace the absolutely beautiful tree skirt we’d had for years. The look in her eyes—what a naive, scared woman—said everything: this was Sheila’s, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it?
(We’d had that tree skirt since Jamie, who was Dad’s first fiancee after Mom, over ten years prior.)
But she must have realized, whether or not it was specifically a belonging of Sheila’s, that that (dead) woman’s hands had once lovingly coaxed the velvet from its hiding place, run over the sequined reindeer and maybe even fixed a misplaced bead once or twice. It might have been too much for her to bear, but my blood was thick with vengeance for Sheila, whom I’d never gotten along with, and her perfectly intact hair, so I asked the knowingly insolent question: “Why? It’s beautiful.”
She looked at me, daggers sharp in her eyes at first but then blunted with confusion and guilt—there it was! Guilt, rich and pure—and eventually just pleaded, “Oh, someday you’ll understand.” I dropped it. The next day, we had a new tree skirt, and the old one must have gone the way of the crucifixes and tiny angel sculptures and serenity prayer plaques that had demarcated Sheila’s two-year presence in our lives and I, the only person in the room who could admit to herself that Sheila had defied God, taken her very life because she couldn’t take anything else back from the man who was now affectionately petting this new (pregnant) woman’s shoulder, stayed silent and imagined long yellow hair falling to the floor.