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A short story from Dave's past:
Dave ran his hands through Emily's hair. It slid through his fingers like silk, the light picking up slight differences in shade from one strand to the next. Em sighed softly as he massaged her scalp, tugging on handfuls of hair as he worked around her head.
He remembered when he first found the courage to wrap her hair in his hands. Emily was regal and aloof when they met. He had been smitten by her, the golden princess in his fairy tale. He made a fool of himself those first few weeks, timing his work so he walked back and forth past her as she practiced her cello.
Em had kept regular hours of practice at the orchestra's office. Dave scheduled his work--a restoration of the Depression-era stage--around her practice times. After a week, he got in enough chit-chat to feel comfortable asking her out. The money he paid for lunch at the 5-star restaurant was the best day's pay he ever spent. One date led to another; soon he felt welcome when he called her for no reason. He had studied her hair back then, when they sat together outside the orchestra entrance. Looking at her sunny locks gave him something to do besides stare into her blue eyes like a bewitched schoolboy.
Still, she held him at arm's length until one of their walks through the art museum she loved. She had seemed distracted all day. She finally told him it was her birthday. He congratulated her, and she began to cry. He remembered the panic he'd felt at those tears, so strange in such a composed woman. After a few sobs, she willed herself calm again. She explained she was adopted, and didn't know her own real birthday. Some years it bothered her more than others, and this year was hard because she could not afford the trip to see her adoptive parents.
It took two week's pay, but they boarded a plane that evening. The fresh tears the gift provoked were like a reward, a wall conquered. She laid her head on his shoulder as the plane took off. He slipped his fingers through her hair for the first time, then abandoned caution. He wrapped the thin smooth strands in one hand, and cupped her chin in the other. He still remembered the exhilaration when she let him kiss her as if she had waited for the moment as long as he. When they reached her parents' house, he was introduced as her boyfriend. They were married a few months later.
Now, he leaned into the familiar head of hair. He smelled the perfume she dabbed on her hair and neck each morning. It was light and floral, and suited her. He picked up her brush and ran it across his hand. The brush was surprisingly heavy, and covered in mother-of-pearl. That was his Em. Even mundane objects were beautiful in her world. Making furniture for her had been his joy for the first two years they were married. He stood behind her and watched her eyes in the mirror. He could see the doves he had carved along the mirror's edge from the corner of his vision. Em loved detail in her furniture and simplicity in her clothing, which like everything she said or did or thought, he found to be perfect.
They say you never appreciate someone until you could lose them. That wasn't true. He had known what a treasure she was the moment he saw her. He still felt the same rush of gratitude each day that he had for the past six years. She made the rest of his life valuable.
"Thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two. . ." he counted off the brush strokes.
She smiled at him in the mirror. "Are you going to count all the way to one hundred?"
He smiled back. "Only if you want me to." She shook her head, and he went silent. The only sound was the soft whoosh of the brush against her hair. "How long has it been since I told you that you're lovely, amazing, and beautiful?"
"At least an hour." She reached behind her to touch his cheek with her hand. "I probably need to wash it now."
"I want to help."
She met his eyes in the mirror and smiled. "Come on, then." She turned to face him, and he undressed her, studying her body carefully as he did every time he got the chance. She stood quietly in front of him, and when his eyes met hers she tousled his hair as if he were a small child.
He began to unbutton his shirt. "That's right, lady, I'm getting cleaned up, too." She smiled again, her lips tight together, but said nothing. He finished undressing, and walked behind her into their shower.
He stood under the shower head and directed the spray of water towards her. He washed her with the soft cloth--face, breasts, belly, arms, legs--and rubbed his hands along the soapy lines to rinse her off. She turned her back to him and leaned her head back. He washed her hair slowly, squishing the mass of suds through his fingers, then rinsing it all away.
"There's no need to use so much shampoo, really."
"Let me enjoy this. We have plenty of time." She touched his hands in her hair and leaned against him for a minute. "Like the bottle says, 'lather-rinse-repeat.' It's important to follow instructions." When he was sure her hair was rinsed squeaky clean, she tried to turn towards him, but he held her shoulders so she couldn't move.
"We still need conditioner." The bottle of conditioner was in front of her, and he enjoyed the chance to brush against her to reach it. He took as long as he could to work the satiny cream into her long hair from top to bottom, and kissed her neck playfully a few times. She pressed his face against her ear. He laid his hand on her belly for a moment, thinking of the baby they had hoped would grow there. Then he quietly rinsed her hair.
He wrapped himself in his towel, then held out hers as if to a young child, embracing her with it. She sat on the edge of the tub, and he took another towel and dried her hair slightly. He took a deep breath.
"Are you ready?" She nodded, and looked down. He tried to make his voice upbeat. "We don't have to do this now. . .we have a week before you go in, and even then you can wait."
"I'm ready." Her voice had an edge to it, and she shook her head. "I'm sorry. I know you're trying to be kind. Will you still think I'm pretty?"
"You are, and always will be, the most beautiful woman on earth." He felt tears forming. "We'll get through this, Em. I will be here, no matter what." He held her shoulders. Her skin was chilly, and he wrapped his arms around her to warm her. She shrugged him off. "You could go to a salon? Have a nice day out."
"I couldn't bear that. Going in normal, and all those people watching, telling me I'm brave, and leaving some bald freak." She touched his lips to still his disagreement. "That's how I would feel. Let's get this over with. I'm afraid my scalp will get sore if I wait until the treatments start to shave it. Maybe my skin can toughen enough and I can try a wig. I need something I control. There's precious little about my body I control now." He heard the strain in her voice from holding back the tears and the anger at the surprise life had thrown them.
His own anger surged. They had done everything right. They had taken care of their health, skipping the desserts she loved and getting up at dawn to run even on chilly mornings. He had loved her with all he had, careful not to take her for granted. How could the doctor with the dull eyes stare at his desk and rattle off words like ninety percent mortality--then hurry off to his golf game?
Dave's shoulder slumped. He laid his hands on her head for a long moment as if in blessing, then turned to the sink. He had laid out scissor and clippers, and a razor. He had never shaved anyone's head before. He gathered up her golden hair into a ponytail, trying not to remember how her hair had been pulled up at their wedding, or how it looked fanned around her in bed. He wrapped a hair band around them. The scissors felt ridiculously heavy as he cut the ponytail and held it, limp and dead and already sliding apart in his hands.