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Excerpts from Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain


Chapter 17

On my way I got a haircut by mistake. I was passing by a new high-tech salon on the Boulevard named Chez Délilah and decided to enter, partly out of curiosity but mostly because I envisioned them making me handsomer for Milena. I said I wanted an appointment "sometime in the near future" and they said they had room for me in the immediate present. Everyone was bubblingly polite and wearing cellophane name badges. I was relieved of my coat and served a cappuccino. After my first sip I was led to a small room and instructed to take off my shirt and put on a flowered red frock. This I did, with a certain loss of dignity. I next found myself on a padded reclining bench, between two recumbent women whose heads were resting in black enamel sinks. There were two shampooers: I got "Jean-Marc," who washed my hair with probing fingers in circular slow motion. It was more a massage than a shampoo and it left me in a narcoleptic state. "I'll be back tomorrow," I said, slurring my words, as Jean-Marc woke me up.

Weak-kneed, I followed him to my cutter. "Yvan," whose name was pinned to his spandexed thigh, had alternately long and short hair, half black and half yellow, and at least four chained earrings running up the helix of each ear. He wore a vest with nothing on underneath and a pair of tights that made him look like a trapeze artist. I said that I wanted just a little trim, half an inch off all around, and he replied that he was from Saint-Tite. He studied me in the mirror before starting, scissors poised over my head.

"OK? À l'attaque?" he asked. I nodded.

Whenever I get a massage, a shoeshine (once in New York from a cool dude around eighty), a fitting for clothes, a haircut, I get into this floating nirvanic state. There's something about a stranger servicing you. I closed my eyes and drifted off. When Yvan said something (not to me), I opened my eyes and looked at his leotards in the mirror. I reclosed my eyes and drifted into a movie I saw at the old Tower Cinema in York, when I was around eight. It starred Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis as trapeze artists. It was about how they depended on each other, how Tony was trying to do a difficult stunt, a triple I think. After seeing this picture I had a recurring dream of flying through the air without a safety net, trusting my partner to catch me. But I always woke up as I saw the outstretched hands. It wasn't that I was afraid I wouldn't be caught: I knew I wouldn't be caught, because it wasn't just a difficult stunt I was attempting, it was an impossible one. It was one of those Sisyphean dreams where you struggle to make the impossible possible. I get them all the time.

I opened my eyes. Yvan was puffing on a four-paper joint. I closed my eyes then quickly reopened them. The person next to him in the mirror had a haircut similar to his. No, couldn't be. I suddenly felt hot. Beads of sweat welled up from my hairline. Yvan offered me a toke on his dynojoint.

"Ça va?" he asked.

"Well, no, not really... This is not exactly what we agreed on, this is not what I ordered-"

"You can handle it. You got the features. You can swing it, man, believe me-not many could, but you can. With your features, you can handle it no problem. I understand hair, I understand your hair."

"But I thought I said half an inch. Didn't I say a half an inch, un demi-pouce?" I slid my arm out of the frock and showed him, with thumb and forefinger, how little this actually was.

"Excuse-moi."

I looked into the mirror again. There must be some mistake. That can't be me, surely. It's somebody on the other side. I wiped away the sweat from my hairline. No, that's me all right. With a cruel variation on the crew-cut, a vicious denunciation of sideburns, and a cartoonish tuft of hair on top like a woodpecker. A practical joke perhaps. Is there a camera behind the mirror? Come on out, Alan Funt. "Cut, that's a wrap"-somebody please say it. And then call makeup and remove this. Or play the scene backwards. Oh shit. Oh no. I want my hair back. I want it back, right now, do you hear me? Yvan, put it back. Please. I'm a teacher. Write on the blackboard one hundred times: I will never disobey instructions I will never disobey instructions...

I looked down at the floor, at my former hair, and almost asked for a doggie bag. I walked robotically to the change room and sat on a bench in semi-darkness, stunned. When I finally emerged, someone pointed out that I was still wearing the flowered frock. I removed it and someone held a bowl of candy under my face. "No thank you," I whispered. At the spaceship cash-bar I saw my face in the mirror, the white stick of a lollipop hanging out of my mouth.

"And two makes fifty," said the cashier, placing my change on the counter. "Enjoy your hair."

[...]




Chapter 23

Given my truant education and the diligence with which I would avoid classes and libraries, it is ironic that I should now be giving classes and practically living in libraries. The mountains of books, the millions of words, were my refuge whenever I felt unmoored, adrift in a Milenian sea. When I wasn't staring at the walls of books, I was doing research on the Dark Lady, trying to determine whether or not she was gay. After one blind alley after another I phoned Women's Studies, who gave me enough leads to keep me in libraries for years.

Like many a jilted lover, I also went on a series of archaeological digs, gathering relics from another time. When the libraries closed I retraced our steps, looking in the same store windows, pausing at the same restaurants, thinking of what I should have said or should not have said, trying to re-architect the past, change what was unchangeable, relive what was dead. I rode the conveyor belt, I interrogated and re-interrogated her friends after plying them with drink. I was the newest, and most generous, member of the Boulevard club of runners-on-the-spot, turnstilers and rutting animals in ruts. I know what you're thinking, because I was thinking the same thing-it's time for a check-up.

Like her grim-visaged father, I stared up at her window. Her building-it too-was giving off waves, rays. But her lights were now off, curtains cruelly drawn. Was she staying somewhere else? With someone else? One evening, at dusk, I saw a black cloth hanging from her fire-escape, flapping in the wind. It was like a black flag, the ensign of pirates: "No mercy to be looked for here," it said, "no quarter to be given."

I was helpless, in thralldom, her dumb thrall. Over and over, from every angle, I tried to conjure up our days together. What happened? Nothing and everything. There were no walks by mountain streams, no moonlit exchange of vows, no passionate, bed-rattling sex. We slept, talked, read, hung out. We followed a banal routine that never once seemed banal or routine. Time moved differently then-the clock's hands were more relaxed, supple, like a child's made of plasticene. The days were unentangled, uncalendered, uncluttered by anticipation or nostalgia. It was the happiness of my Yorkshire youth, when days slipped by like hours and weeks like days.

But that was then. Now the clock's hands were rigid again, stiffly jerking forward, loud reminders that more time was grinding on without her. "We are all clocks, ticking away towards death," I thought, again. "We are all clocks ticking away towards death!" I screamed. "Where the hell is my uncle?"

[...]