Untangled (A Summer of Flash Fiction #10)

Abby’s boyfriend had just accepted a new job when Abby decided to grow dreads. She told herself that his new, fancy, telecommuting job had nothing to do with her decision, despite the fact that his old job was where they met and where Abby still worked. If he was leaving his job, she thought, who knew what else he would leave? She did not tell Brian that this did not influence her decision, because he did not ask. Instead, he’d simply told her that she was already a hippie, so it was nice she was making her external identity match her internal.

Though Brian lingered in the office, wrapping up the big projects he had begun himself and which necessitated his final approval, Abby remained at the front desk, warily answering phones and emails while their menopausal coworkers tornadoed from office to office in a flurry of papers and numbers and remembered night sweats. The company would surely fall apart without Brian, but no one seemed to know this as intimately as Abby, who, as the quiet, nervous receptionist, feared this little place, where she’d been able to put her foot in the door of the otherwise locked-up tight advertising industry, would soon be drowning in paperclips.

One week after Abby had stopped brushing her hair found her examining the miniscule tangles already forming in her naturally ratty mop while secretly worrying that her boss would deny her, in the absence of organized Brian’s words of wisdom, the right to display herself as she pleased. Even as the boss’s dog, who roamed the office, galumphing from door to door in search of dropped snacks, emitted an airy fart from his patient perch next to Abby’s desk, Abby still maintained that inkling of a notion that the boss could in fact successfully accommodate a new, unfamiliar Brian and would ridicule Abby into brushing her hair after Abby’s Brian left.

The accompanying waft of the dog’s sharp stench brought the boss to Abby’s office, dog treat in hand. “Come here, Ricky. Let’s go outside,” the boss proclaimed, snapping her fingers and flashing Abby an apologetic smile. Brian, too, appeared then in Abby’s doorway, clenching his nostrils and holding out a newly printed paper for her.

The boss chuckled, pointing to Brian’s feet. “Nice socks,” she chided, more mocking than an actual compliment, then led lazy Ricky away. Abby peered over the desk, the hot pink glare of Brian’s new socks gleaming up at her. With a roll of her eyes, she tsked him and returned to her work. But the boss, who’d always appeared so strict in Abby’s eyes, had not told Brian to change. She’d enjoyed the quirkiness of his unconventional footwear and exhibited no recognition of the week-old dreads. Abby was in the clear—so far.

* * * * *

Abby’s boyfriend had tied up all the loose ends at the advertising company when Abby decided to take her college search seriously. These events were likely flip-flopped in time, Brian seeking out a telecommuting job in preparation for Abby leaving the city, but this only crossed Abby’s mind once or twice. His new job allowed him to work at home rather than holed up in an office all day, and Abby found herself attempting to massage out the curious knot in her gut that begged her to ask if this truly meant he’d move with her if she enrolled somewhere far away.

A degree in graphic design or a degree in art theory awaited her on the other side of the college admissions barrier, but even in all her tormenting and self-interrogation, Abby could still not decide. Practicality and application or creativity and passion—these felt to her like the two factors yanking her back and forth, a fraying tug-of-war rope.

The dreads, too, now celebrating their one month birthday, were more a tangled sea of knots than the slim ropes for which she’d hoped. Crispy leaves falling from the undressing trees would grip velcro hairs and not let go. The incoming chill charmed Abby’s favorite wool scarf out of her cluttered closet, only to prove more a challenge than a comfort as the bird’s nest that was her hair attempted to weave the loosening fibers into its gathers. Every time a would-be dread got stuck on something—or something got stuck on it—Abby considered the possibility of going to a hairdresser and getting them done professionally. But no: that would be cheating; that would be succumbing to the system of materialism, of caring what you look like, of skipping to the end result without enduring and enjoying the process; that would be unnatural.

In the process of researching colleges online, Abby found herself in a similar dilemma: Some programs boasted a high post-grad hire rate, some a proclivity of their grads to win classy, artistic awards. Some required tons of business and marketing courses, ideas which interested her, and others an abundance of painting classes for which Abby yearned. All appealed to her, but none were unobjectionable. Maybe she should just not bother with school at all and attempt to find her artistic niche on her own. Or maybe she should let someone else decide for her.

Just as her fingers were about to go gangrenous and detach, her cellphone buzzed with the cajole of her spunky cousin. Picturing the image of young Ivy’s layers of tattoos and piercings, Abby lurched toward her phone with excitement.

“Ivy, just the person I wanted to talk to,” she lied, hoping only for reassurance rather than conversation. “How’s it going?”

“It’s alright. Just making sure you’re still coming over for Thanksgiving. Don’t want you chickening out because of the storm.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m still coming. I can handle a little snow,” Abby replied, though she wasn’t so sure. “But, what do you think everyone would think if I showed up with dreadlocks? I kind of stopped brushing my hair, so I’ll be looking scraggly in front of grandma.”

Abby heard Ivy’s snort derisively over the line. “Who cares what they think. People who care about what they look like are stupid. Good for you, I say,” Ivy growled. Her treatment of frivolity surpassed in sternness Abby’s dislike of all things inorganic. Plants poisoned for commercial gain, animals tortured to make sure shampoos were safe for humans, enormous vehicles chugging gas like an alcoholic chugs whisky: Abby and her cousin shared a distaste for things such as these, but Ivy’s hatred was extended to shaving, deodorant, shoes, religion, and even fluorescent lights. Ivy hated unnatural things. Ivy didn’t care if other people disliked her. Ivy didn’t want to go to college and didn’t have an office job, where things like dreadlocks mattered. Even going into an artistic career, and even being related to someone like Ivy, who had been accepted in the family though she bore a dozen tattoos, Abby felt that maybe she was different, that maybe she was less. That maybe dreads just weren’t for her.

* * * * *

Abby’s boyfriend had invited her to a see movie with some friends when Abby decided once and for all that she’d stick with the dreads. It’s what she’d said the last time, too, “once and for all,” but this time she knew she’d feel confident enough to answer with distinct affirmation when someone like her boss said, “I see you’ve started to let yourself go.”

Three months had passed since she’d brushed her hair, and a few yarn-like locks were becoming quite evident. Abby found herself putting her hair up more often than not, as she guessed the mess was just as unappealing to the public as it was to herself. In a few more weeks, she’d be reaching the point of no return—weeks filled with watching clumps of hair slowly morph into ropes, anxious heart-fluttering, dodging glances and pretending strangers weren’t judging her. The scraggles would even out—if she stuck to the plan and remained patient.

She couldn’t keep up with the patience side of things, though, in the horrid movie Brian had taken her to see. As a bland scenery unfolded and poor camera angles marred the story, Abby found her graphic design-oriented brain squirming with disgust. Even she could do better than that, and she hadn’t even studied film.

But as she was about to turn to Brian and express her hushed disdain in his ear, a gorgeous actress with whom Abby could never compete burst across the screen, her sweeping, angelic hair flowing out behind her and imbuing Abby with envy. The stream of light filtered through her mane was obviously meant to illustrate the love at first sight the main character felt upon her entrance, but to Abby, it was only a reminder of the people littered throughout her past who’d told her that her hair was beautiful and that they were jealous.

Sitting in that the scratchy cinema seat, the twinkling of a blissful piano tune filling the dark theater, Abby found herself missing her frizzy mop. Running and swimming would be floppy instead of flowy with dreads, and flying insects and stray bits of fuzz would always get trapped in her web. She’d carried a wasp into her apartment on her hair a few weeks before, and though it seemed hilarious at the time, now, admiring the actress’s lavishing blond hair, Abby was conscious of her disheveled, filthy, pathetic attempt at nonconformity.

When at last the credits began to ascend the movie screen, Abby was renewed with a cognizant understanding of her self. She, Brian, and their friends filed out of their row, inching between the too-small seats in the dim theater. As they burst through the doors, basking in the light of their post-film wonder, a light touch at the back of her head, as if someone were warily petting her like a new kitten, drew her attention.

“It sort of looks like you have dreads,” her friend Bree, who moved beside her, said.

“I sort of do, but I’m brushing them out this weekend. I thought it was a good idea, but I just can’t fully embrace them. They’re not really me.”

Bree’s accepting nod, Brian’s taking of her hand, and their swift goodbyes were affirming yet anticlimactic, leaving Abby perplexed at the affable accord. Shoving open the hefty theater doors and into the bitter February evening, she and Brian turned in the direction of Brian’s car with hardly half a twinkle of new insight between the two of them.

In a flash of gentle curiosity, Abby paused at the edge of the sidewalk, squeezing Brian’s hand. “You keep saying you don’t care,” she pried. “What do you really think of the dreads?”

“No matter how you wear your hair, I still think you’re beautiful,” Brain said.

Abby smiled unintentionally but avoided holding her gaze for too long, thinking him an undeserved gift. A tentative moment passed before she replied, “Thanks. I really needed to hear that,” though he certainly hadn’t helped in her decision-making process regarding her hair.

But as they shuffled together across the snow-dusted parking lot, Abby contemplated the consequences of her options. Dreads matched her political disposition, for sure, but admitting that she couldn’t fully embrace them left the residue of the notion that a malleable style was more suited to her personality. Couldn’t she be a hippie without dreadlocks? She’d untangle them that evening, Abby told herself, in spite of the sharp yanks of the hairbrush and the globs of old hair that would aggregate in the bathroom trash can, but the beauty of extinguishing three months of hard work was that she had the option of starting over again—when she was ready to commit to such a journey.